Thursday, June 22, 2006

Falstaff Sportsman / My middle initials are P.E.

Last week's obligatory World Cup Post triggered a flood of memories from my days in primary school, so I figured I might as well foist them on you. (warning: long, rambling, self-indulgent post follows)

P.E. period was from 10:00 to 11:00 am on Thursdays. You were supposed to wear your white uniform for P.E. - forgetting to do so meant that you weren't allowed into assembly and lost out on your patriotic right to sing Vande Mataram and recite "Where the mind is without fear" at the top of your shrill, tone-deaf voice. The stated purpose of these white uniforms was to make you look more athletic, but personally I think it was just to ensure that the bulk of the students went back with sufficiently impressive amounts of real estate on their pants to convince even the most cynical parent that they were, in fact, getting a well-rounded education.

At any rate, P.E. was at 10 on Thursdays. Girls played handball, boys played football [1]. Now personally, I would rather have played handball too. Not because it fascinated me as a sport (or because I was interested in girls. yet). But mostly because our Sports Master loved football and had nothing but contempt for 'girlish' sports like handball, which meant that the girls got one solid hour every week when they could pretty much do their own thing, entirely unsupervised. To someone like me, who naturally considered P.E. a complete waste of time, this meant one uninterrupted hour that I could spend happily reading a book by the side of the handball court.

The girls themselves seemed to have no issue with this. The thing is, I was actually immensely popular with women back in Class III. I'd like to say this was because I was a cute little cherub with a heartbreaking smile and perfect manners, etc. But I suspect it had more to do with the fact that I was a Maths whiz and liked nothing better than helping people with their homework. Whatever the reason, once they'd figured out that I didn't intend anything as invasive as actually playing with them, the girls were perfectly happy to have me linger about the handball court.

This state of grace lasted for all of three weeks. That third week, the Sports Master finally took attendance, demanded to know where I was, and finding that I'd stayed behind with the girls accosted me at the end of class. The whole scene was like something out of Genesis, except that for a while there more than one of my ribs seemed at risk. Was I a girl, the Sports Master wanted to know. I had to reply, reluctantly, in the negative. Did I want to be a girl? he then asked, veins bulging in his forehead. Something in his voice told me that he wasn't looking for the kind of considered debate of the pros and cons involved that I thought the question warranted, so I stuck to saying no. "Well then, what were you doing playing handball?". I did, of course, have a pretty neat comeback to that one - I could have pointed out that I wasn't doing anything as silly as playing handball, I was reading my abridged Jules Verne instead. This would have made him look pretty darn silly, but something warned me that this was one of those times when discretion was the better part, etc. So I just stood there and mumbled. Behind the sports master the boys in my class sniggered. And just like that, my fate was sealed. I was cast out from paradise. I would have to play football.

[Isn't it incredible how much a generous dose of hormones can change perceptions, btw? It's hard to imagine that there was actually a time when spending time with a girl made you a loser. I remember, for instance, that we had a seating system that was alphabetical, except that it was supposed to be one boy with one girl (this was not because our teachers wanted greater interaction between the sexes; on the contrary, it was precisely to take advantage of the fact that boys and girls didn't talk to each other - thus making a one girl, one boy combination a psychologically astute [2] way of maintaining discipline in class). Except that we had some 15 girls and some 30 boys in class, so that any boy whose first name began with a letter after N got to sit with another boy. Can you believe that the boys whose names began with A - M actually complained about this? Ironic, when you consider that for most of them that six month period spent sharing a desk constitutes the most meaningful relationship with a member of the opposite sex they've ever had.]

As it turned out, though, this football thing wasn't bad, once you got into it. Because of the stupendous lack of talent I demonstrated right from the start, I was soon relegated to the harmless position of goalkeeper. I know, I know, football fanatics reading this are probably leaping out of their seats right about now and screaming that goalkeepers are really critical, as no doubt in genuinely competitive football they are. The trouble is, for all the Sports Master's long, boring lectures on tactics, rules, etc. these matches of ours usually consisted of a mass of overexcited nine year olds all gathered in one big mass around the ball (niceties like who was a defender, who a striker rapidly disappeared once the game began) kicking indiscriminately away in the hope that, somewhere between the bruised shins and the sprained ankles, one of them would, sooner or later, connect with the ball. Not surprisingly then, the ball on these occassions rarely moved more than 20 yards from the centre line, and the goalkeeper's days were a model of pastoral tranquility.

This was not to everyone's liking. The goalie on the other side, whoever he happened to be, usually wanted to be in on the game, and could therefore invariably be found not standing in front of his goal like a good watchman, but rather milling about in the fracas at the centre of the field. It was not unusual, therefore, if you actually managed to get the ball away, to have the player running next to you suddenly stoop down and pick the ball up in his hands - just when you were about to shout foul you realised he was the goalie from the other side. [3]

I, on the other hand, greatly relished the quality time I got to spend with myself alone in my goal. Since there was no actual danger of any action being required of me, and since the Sports Master, as it turned out, was too busy trying to keep track of the 1,304 ways in which the official rules were broken every minute that we played, my reading could continue unabated. If anything, the peaceful, open environs of the football field offered an ambience much more conducive to a good read.

Occasionally, of course, some freak chance would actually bring the ball skidding in my direction, hotly pursued by a small army of clutching, clawing boys. This was annoying, and most inconsiderate. I soon discovered, however, that no actual effort was required of me on these occasions. Whether or not I actually stopped the ball, it turned out, was irrelevant, it only mattered that I should try. So every time anyone tried to kick a ball into my goal, I would artistically fall to one side or the other, and pray that the ball didn't hit me. This worked amazingly well. If the striker missed, the credit for this 'save' invariably went to me, even if the ball had come nowhere near the goal itself. The theory was that my timely action had caused the striker to lose focus! If the ball did go in, I was easily consoled by my teammates, who assured me that no one could have stopped a kick like that and they were impressed by how hard I'd tried. Once or twice a few boys did cast aspersions on my abilities, but I pointed out that there were 14 of them (I know, I know, but we couldn't leave the rest of the boys out, could we?) and only one of me and the ball should never have got as far as the goal in the first place. This shut them up.

And then there was that one memorable day when my attempts to evade a swift, accurate kick aimed straight at me proved ineffective, and the ball, striking me a nasty blow on the knee (I had a bruise for a week afterward) careened back onto the field. It was my one and only taste of what it feels like to be a sports hero. My team (which eventually won by one goal) was so ecstatic about my inspired 'save' that they nearly carried me on their shoulders back to class (I say nearly, because five seconds after they tried it they realised how much I weighed and gave it up), and for the rest of the year my status as a legendary goalkeeper was assured.

The next year brought fresh challenges. Our Sports Master, always a fickle man, decided that this year we would play cricket. This caused some consternation among the masses, because while everyone got to participate more or less equally in football, it seemed natural that with cricket, only some people would get to bowl. The Golden Age of sharing and brotherhood was over.

I meanwhile, had discovered a new vocation. Having managed to convince my classmates that despite the lightning reflexes I had demonstrated as a goal keeper, I was not cut out to be a wicket keeper, I was then elevated, largely because of my continuing ineptitude, to the role of umpire. This may seem like a weighty responsibility - it is - but in my case it was ameliorated by two facts. First, I didn't know any of the rules of the game. So there really wasn't much point in my paying close attention to what was going on since I wouldn't know what to make of it anyway. And second, I had no second umpire to contend with, let alone a third one. I was the lord of all I surveyed. Or didn't. Even run-outs on the striker's end, for instance, were left to yours truly, though it was manifestly obvious that there was no way I could make a call on whether the batsman was in or out when the wicket was hit.

Given the long and illustrious heritage of my role, however, I always attempted to maintain the strictest impartiality in my dealings as an umpire. Never, not once, did I let my personal loyalties or friendships influence my decision. Rather, I listened carefully to the shouts and entreaties of both sides, and gave my decision in favour of whoever sounded more convincing. Take your average lbw appeal. Given that my knowledge of such technical terms as off-stump and leg-stump was sketchy at best (I had a strong suspicion that it had something to do with where the batsman was standing, but that was as far as my nine year old perspicacity would take me) and that I hadn't actually seen the ball being bowled anyway, because I was too busy speculating on what Mom would have packed in my tiffin that day, it seemed only fair to let myself be shouted at for a minute or so, and then declare the batsman out because the bowling side seemed so much more sincere in their assertions.

This umpiring bit didn't work as well as the goalkeeping though. As the term progressed, relations with my classmates (all of whom I'd manage to 'unfairly' dismiss at some point or the other) became rapidly strained, and the prospect of several intimate adventures with cricket stumps began to loom. I was finally rescued from the certainty of violence by my dance teacher, who decided to enlist me as part of the school's official dance team. Not that I could dance, of course - in keeping with my penchant for peripheral roles, I was the narrator. This meant that while the dance team itself was up on stage doing folk dances in outlandish costumes, I would be reading out a pre-prepared script explaining the subtler points of the dance to the audience. It only lasted some three weeks, but it was a great gig. For one thing it meant that I got to cut school and go around attending dance contests in other schools. More importantly, though, by the time I was free to go back to P.E. (having missed classes practising with the dance team), the Sports Master had given up on me in disgust, and I was free to bunk the class if I chose to. I did.

And that pretty much sums up my athletic career. The only other time I've actually participated in any sports was when R. dragged me onto a basketball court in Malaysia saying he was in the mood to shoot a few hoops. I pointed out to him that I'd never played basketball in my life, but he didn't seem to mind. He just wanted the company, he said. And if he got to beat me hollow at the same time, well, that was just gravy.

I started. In the course of the next three minutes I sank three perfect three-pointers. I never knew a human being's jaw could drop so low.

It goes without saying that I've never been able to sink a basket again in my life. Not even one of those cheap indoor plastic thingies. Talk about beginner's luck.

[1] Yes, it was a co-ed school. I've been in co-ed schools pretty much all my life, thank god. I spent all of two years in an all-boy's school and I HATED it. I hate having to use sexist stereotypes, but women really do have such a civilising influence.

[2] By my class teacher's standards, at least

[3] There was also, of course, the constant confusion about which side each player was actually on, a confusion made worse by the fact that both sides were wearing identical uniforms. This meant that the players themselves often forgot which side they were on, causing many fights of the nature of "Why didn't you pass the ball to me?" "Errr...because I'm not on your team". "Yes you are" "No I'm not" - you get the picture.


DoZ said...

Awesome post, Falstaff!

Reminds me of my own experiences as a PE misfit.

Old Spice said...

Sounds familiar. Do all hopeless sportspeople wind up bloggers? (My scary school experiences post is here, for what little it's worth.

And on your previous post: I caught the stuff Shravan wrote about MBAs, and your follow-up. While his economic assumptions may be wrong, I think it's quite natural to have doubts about your career choices and where you ought to be going.

His mistake was to tar all MBAs with the same brush, when he himself was just ranting about what life would hold for him or whether he'd do what he wanted to in life. Maybe he faces parental pressure to go down a certain path, maybe he has other things going on, who knows. I think that people who are able to justify what they're doing to themselves on moral or economic grounds are very lucky, because I find it very difficult.

From your old post: That MBAs do what they do is simply division of labour - would they rather that IIM graduates ran about trying to farm fields while a bunch of illiterate farmers ran India's top companies? What do you think our GDP would grow at then?

I'm not entirely sure what the implication is. I'll just say that I'd be mope worried about IIM graduates trying to farm fields than about illiterate farmers running companies. Anyone can have a strategy textbook explained to them. Getting cows to give good quality milk and fields to produce is real work, and I wish I could do that rather than expand in an office tower with air-conditioning. But I, too, am too weak to do so.

(Nothing on women in the army yet. Will read soon.)

Supremus said...


You remind me of myself and my PE hehehehe :D. Of course, I didnt have as illustrious a career as yours, but it had its moments of glory hehe!

"just when you were about to shout foul you realised he was the goalie from the other side"

-- that had me in splits for a while!

Great one here.


Falstaff said...

doz: Thanks. You too, huh?

the graduate: Yes, of course. You don't think I'd rather be doing this than playing, say, tennis, do you? If only I had the hand-eye coordination.

On Shravan: my key argument then was that there was no reason for him to be blaming an MBA for his own problems. Whatever the reason for his not being able to follow his dreams (even assuming he has some) it certainly isn't the MBA that's stopping him.

As for the division of labour bit, obviously that cuts both ways - farmers can't manage corporations any more than managers can run a farm. The point is that it's socially optimal for everyone to do what they're good at, so the best thing for India's development is if financial whiz kids from IIMs go work with I-banks on Wall Street.

suyog: Thanks

dazedandconfused said...

Hilarious! What, never tried a hand or leg at Kho-Kho, Kabaddi, Badminton, Tennis, Running, Swimming, Volleyball, Billiards, Snooker, Chess, Carrom?!

C'mon, definitely Table Tennis! Everybody has played TT!

Anonymous said...

Hilarious post. If this be long, rambling, self-indulgent, can we have more please?

scout said...

geez, I was the female equivalent of you. We weren't made to play handball, but something called kho-kho. I'm assuming you know what the game entails - well anyway, I'd be poised, crouching terribly close to the 'real estate', hoping the girl who was running wouldn't 'kho' me to take her place and of course, she would. And she'd do it with such vehemence that I'd first fall face front onto delhi's famous dry and pebbly mud and then gather myself and my white skirt and try to run in the right direction.
But my PT ma'am never let me get off, saying I needed to learn 'team-spirit'.
I didn't.

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

my worst memory of P.E class was the warming up part. We had a set of exercises we all had to do, ten times each etc etc. The worst thing was, every class one student had to stand in the front and lead the others. Bad enough to stand in front of 30 pre-teen kids in your shorts but even worse when you forgot the drill and was yelled at by the teacher. :( Also flying footballs always seemed to be on some pre-decided track where the final destination was my head. What's a ten year old to do but duck? RUN!

very funny post!

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

also i HATED being 'it'

HP said...

aah..Lovely Post..

btw, were u present when we played football during our PT(we used to call it PT) period :-)
Couldnt have described the scene better..



The Black Mamba said...

be glad you did not have a mandatory "inspection" of your attire before the said P.E./P.T. class began. Our P.T. Ma'am would check the whiteness of our shoes - and if it did not meet her standards - we would have to run two extra rounds (around the whole playground) before we would get the privilege to join in on the supervised Volleyball game.... uggh..

Oh, the "inspection" also included checks on the length of your hair(for boys) and nails (for girls) - for any self-respecting highschooler would know, that nice girls had long hair and short nails, while nice boys had short hair and long nails - please! And the lady would go on to give any guy who did not bother to get a haircut (in months) a nice cut, that will probly take years at the therapist to recover from.

And, you had the pleasure of just having to deal with the games themselves. I am officially jealous ;)

confused said...

Lovely! Even though I don't personally identify with the post, being an avid sportsman all my life, but made for some fine afternoon reading.

Return to form so as to say.

One thing I noticed was that even in class 3, you were obsessed with books. :)

Generally speaking, I think most of your humor posts seem to work best when you talk about yourself:I still go back and read the haircut post. Your Uncleji and Aunty ji one seemed a little forced.

No offense is meant of course.

And please, stop trying to be concise. :)

Falstaff said...

dazedandc.: Nope, never played TT. Played kabbadi a few times with kids from my neighbourhood, and had a very brief badminton phase. And used to swim for a while. Played pool once - on one very drunken occassion during a conference in Goa. Left the game halfway to go throw some poor victim into the swimming pool. Have never been much on chess, but that's a whole other post.

anon: thanks

scout: ah, yes, the old 'team-spirit' gag. The trouble with the team-spirit argument is that it assumes that you are capable of making a positive contribution. In my case, this was manifestly untrue. Everyone, including my team, would have been better off if I'd just stuck to my books. Really. So what I was really learning on that football field is that if you keep a low profile and smile a lot and generally do no one any harm, you can get along perfectly well as part of a team even though you're entirely incompetent / do no actual work. That's an extremely useful life-lesson, of course, but I don't think it's quite the team-spirit the school had in mind. More like 'How to be a Free Rider'

shoe-fiend: As I remember it, warm-ups for us consisted mostly of running around the field a few times. And I usually avoided this by finding some excuse to arrive fashionably late. (I was class monitor and all sorts of other self-important things, so this wasn't hard). But yes, being it / being picked out in front of the class is scary. The thing I hated most was in an earlier class where we used to play dodgeball and I'd often end up being one of the last kids left dodging. There's something eerily Kafka-esque (not that I'd read Kafka at the age of 7) about standing in the middle of a circle of your classmates all trying to hit you with a ball. I suspect much of my paranoia as an adult dates back to those dodgeball games.

hp: thanks. And I suspect all primary school football games are the same

BM: That sounds horrible. We did actually have inspection, but it was during assembly, and was fairly cursory. Though I do remember this bit about long hair for boys being absolutely taboo. I don't think anyone was a given a cut though. As I remember it, the punishment consisted of being made to wear a flowery pink hairclip all day, to the accompaniment of sniggers from the whole school. I don't know what is more scarring.

confused: Thanks. One will try. Oh, and the thing that I find striking, looking back, is not that even in class 3 I was crazy about books, but that even in class 3 I enjoyed giving fundae to people (witness Maths homework). That's scary.

Patrix said...

I loved this post to bits and must have laughed hard after a long time. I could relate to many parts especially wriggling out of forced PE periods (we had ridiculous exercises) but was into many kinds of sports so never really sat out.

Probably, I should write about my school days as well. Thanks for a lovely read.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed a lot! » »

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