Friday, October 30, 2015

All Game

Here’s another extract from my book Accha House & Umma House which deals with our sporty father, Auctioneer Wazir Ghany Hussein of 555 Auctions and his three sons, myself, my twin brother Asgar and our little brother Altaf

   We three merry fellows loved play. We had home for a playpen and one another for constant playmates. Classroom type formal study we looked upon with scorn as there was so much one could do than being cooped up in a room and being drilled on subjects one was not interested in.
   Our school environment little doubt contributed to the attitude, plucked out as we were from that fairy playground called Bishop’s in our tender years and unceremoniously dumped into Mahanama College, a conservative Sinhala Buddhist affair, to have our secondary education Almost everything about the school was drab and boring, from the daily assemblies in the mornings where the boys of all ages had to line up to chant Buddhist stanzas - during which Muslims like us kept silent - and listen to a principal who simply loved to hear his own voice. So utterly boring was the entire culture of the school that it even rubbed off on its extra-curricular activities. Even the Boy Scouts we joined for a few weeks was monotonous as ever with the lady teacher in charge more interested in getting the boys to line up and hold their hands out to see for herself if they had trimmed their nails than instructing them on how to pitch a tent or make a camp fire.
  Little wonder we looked upon our entry to Stafford College, an English medium school located in the plush Cinnamon Gardens Ward of Colombo, from the Eighth Grade, as a welcome change. We were schooled in this country manor like building with a lovely porch that led to a creaky old flight of wooden steps with the air of a haunted house such as one finds in the movies, so different from the imposing yet faceless building that stands in its stead today. Boys in white trousers and girls in blue pinafores added further colour to school life. And they all spoke our language.
  Here was a place where study and play went hand in glove, sometimes even beyond reasonable limits, such as in English literature class. That was when we were reading Wuthering Heights. A naughty classmate named Shane seated next to me drew a sketch he titled Adam’s Apple. It showed the father of man reaching out for the forbidden fruit tantalizingly hanging from a bough of a tree which oddly enough happened to be the testicle of a monkey sitting atop it. The teacher Ms.Fonseka was so aghast on discovering the sacrilegious scrap of paper that she almost lost her head. Cheeee… she started and yelled and screeched at the poor fellow like a banshee, a combined brew of anger and shame contorting her face in full view of the class, for she was a tall graceful woman. The culprit looked on sheepishly as she berated him mercilessly.
  We loved sport, but only those that gave us the greatest thrill. Cricket, father’s favourite sport, which he tried to foist on us, was a different ball game altogether. Indeed so infatuated was he with the game that he named us after cricketers, me being named after that dashing cricketer from the subcontinent Asif Iqbal. Though we liked playing softball cricket with our friends, we certainly did not share his keenness for the organized game with leather ball grown-ups used to play. Even today I fail to see why grown-up men should, in front of thousands of cheering spectators including women, go chasing after a ball if they already had a couple. It is understandable if Hitler loved it as he is said to have had only one. As a well known song sung by British Tommies to the tune of the Colonel Bogey March went:

                                Hitler has only got one ball
Goering has two but very small
Himmler’s is somewhat similar
But poor Goebbels has no balls at all

   Father thought otherwise. He dragged us to regular cricket classes in the hope that at least one of us would emerge a top gun. Needless to say, the grueling practices in the sultry afternoons, with the sun beating down on one like a cop’s baton was no fun. Batting and bowling practices came only once in a while since all had to do their turn, while on the field it was still worse when all that was expected of us was fielding like numbskulls under the blistering sun. We were far too hyperactive for this kind of thing and it told in our negative attitude towards the game.
   Father got us the finest coaches of the day. First it was Dooland Buultjens, a seasoned cricketer and top umpire at the Nomad’s Grounds opposite Victoria Park where the Nelum Pokuna Arts Centre now stands; then it was Muttiah Devaraj, father’s good friend and one-time cricket captain of Zahira College at the Oval Grounds, now more commonly known as P.Saravanamuttu Stadium; and thereafter it was Ranil Abeynaike, a first class Ceylon Cricketer, at the Sinhalese Sports Club.  So utterly boring were these practice sessions that I don’t remember much about them, but for a few interesting incidents that for some reason clung on to my memory. Our Nomads days stand out for two incidents I recall to this day. One was when our coach, an oft-swearing, balding, mustachioed Burgher gentleman named Buultjens. At our very first practice session, the man inquired whether we were wearing ball guards, those unmanly V-shaped plastic props fit only for pussies batsmen were supposed to wear to guard their balls. Despite our replying in the affirmative, he did not take our word for it and coming over pulled our shorts forward from the topmost elastic band to satisfy himself that we were indeed equipped with the gear. We sure were and he took our word from that day onwards.
   Another was when we lost our cricketing gear. Father was furious. This was too much for him to bear. While driving us home he stopped at a cane shop in Slave Island or thereabouts and having returned home he rushed in before any of us and stationed himself at the doorway. As we came in he gave us each a whack on our butts. It was the first occasion he ever caned us. It was also the last.
  Softball cricket we played in the evenings with bats and rubber balls that came in a variety of colours, usually red. Anushal, mother’s cousin who was almost our age and who lived next door joined the three of us, making a foursome and so there we were playing the game, either in his spacious front garden or in the lane behind our house that opened out to Turret Road, much to the annoyance of our neighbours like the fair but irritable Doctor Cader and Tissa, the tall, balding caretaker of the Carmen Gunasekera Montessori. The ball sometimes went over to their well-kept gardens and we would clamber over the parapet wall to retrieve it, often disturbing the foliage. Sometimes when the good doctor irked by our constant annoyance refused to toss the ball over, we would burst out loud:

Doctor Cader, the Proctor’s father
Doctor Cader, the Proctors father

  Tissa too found us to be a constant thorn, but only because he had the added burden of tossing the ball over to us. Though his garden was well kept, the ball often found its way to the dense clumps of yellow bamboos closer to the lane which, like his bald head, did not need much tending.
    Being of a bellicose spirit, we also took to more aggressive combat sport, from which father too got a kick. First it was karate. We were only about six or seven years when we enrolled in Grandmaster Bonnie Roberts classes conducted at the Girls Friendly Society where father also had his auctions. Our trainer, a whiskered, ruddy looking man from the eastern town of Kalmunai was a good martial artist in the best Japanese tradition and we would often hear the floorboards of the hall resonate with a thud as grown-ups were thrown about. We would have too had not our parents put a stop to it within a a couple of months, fearing perhaps that one black-belted brat in the brood might get too hot to handle.
    A couple of years later father caught the boxing bug and passed it on to us, especially to Asgar and me, who being of the same age, could, equipped with boxing gloves, afford to trade punches without any scruples. A favourite punch father loved was what he called the ‘upper cut’, a vertical rising punch to the opponent’s chin. We could not go on pummeling one another indefinitely and so father got us a great punching bag, which suspended from above, would swing to and fro, while we let go, punching it left, right and centre. Father was so besotted with the sport that it seemed at one time even to supersede his love for cricket. His favourite boxing hero was Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champion from Louisville, Kentucky who had become a Muslim and even given up his earlier name of Cassius Clay for a more Muslim sounding name. He often used to describe how Ali would tire his opponent by his fancy footwork before delivering the knockout for which he used the slogan fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Although father was no avid reader, I remember this compendious yellow-jacketed book, a pictorial history of boxing profusely illustrated sitting near the head of his bed. It traced the bloody beginnings of the sport from pugilism, its now obsolete predecessor where the contestants fought one another bare-knuckled without boxing gloves to cushion the impact.
   Father, the fitness freak he was, or perhaps because he missed out on the horse races he loved so much, also took us outdoors to run against one another, presenting the winner a trifling gift of money or sometimes a mere pat on the head. If in the mornings, this was at the Galle Face Green, which was then even less green than today. He would get the three of us into his car and drive us to the spot. We would take up our positions towards the northern end nearer the old English cannons, keeping close to the promenade, and upon father’s hand signal, would run as fast as we could southward toward him. These were not very long runs as we had to see father’s upraised hand quickly moving downwards before we could take off. Had he placed himself at the starting point and said get ready, set, go! he would not have been able to see the winner. He had to be physically present at the finishing line, which was where he was, he himself being the finishing line, so to say. If in the evenings it was at the sports ground at independence Square which unlike Galle Face had a circular track and meant longer runs. It was in the course of one such race that I was suddenly seized with a burst of energy somewhat midway, which came like a rush of wind. Within a matter of seconds it drove me to victory. Father was thrilled and when I told him how I felt like Six Million Dollar Man when I got that sudden boost he remarked that I had something called stamina, whatever that meant.
   Father could not content himself with our outracing one another. Competition was most welcome and it came in the form of mother’s cousin Chamira who visited during the holidays. A village lad who had grown up in Matara, he romped to victory, only to be handsomely rewarded with cash by father. He once brought home a tin of condensed milk, tin-kiri, with which mother treated us all to a delicious pudding of her own making like the old song goes:

You find the milk and I’ll find the flour
And we’ll have a pudding in half an hour

   We also devised a number of warlike outdoor games. During our Oval days when we were coached by father’s good friend and Schoolmate, Muttiah Devaraj, we would, at the end of the practice or during a break or two, go over to the surrounding area overrun with weeds. There we would pluck these stalks of wild fountain grass that terminated in a cluster of prickly little balls that stuck on to one’s clothing like a leech. Returning home with a considerable stockpile, we would tarry until evening when we would use them as darts in a game of hot pursuit around the neighbourhood, where hiding or lying in ambush in the dark, or simply facing off in a frontal attack, we would hurl the darts at one another, the victor being he who flung the first dart that stuck on to his opponent’s clothing. Another game we played was by forming our fingers into a catapault. That was by placing on the tips of thumb and forefinger a couple of rubber bands, one linked to the other by a knot. With it we would shoot little V-shaped projectiles made by folding square or rectangular pieces of cardboard and bending these into two. They went quite a distance and hurt when they hit.
  We also enjoyed playing board games with dice and counters whenever we had resident visitors at Accha House such as mother’s little cousins Chammi and Anushi. There was Snakes & Ladders, Ludo and a somewhat similar board game called Super Track which came with our Superman Giant Games Book, an old bumper issue containing a story about Superman thrashing a hobo and a few board games that probably dated back to the 1960s but had somehow fallen to our hands perhaps as a result of the auctions. The game called for four players representing Superman, his close friend Jimmy Olsen and his arch foes, the baldheads Luthor and Brainiac.
   At Umma House it was usually cards played with uncle Fazly and aunt Shanaz, the younger and more playful members of our paternal Ghany clan. The game they taught us was called War, which went down well with our bellicose spirit. It involved shuffling the pack of cards and distributing it around between two to four players, each of whom would reveal the topmost card in his stack, the player with the highest value taking it all and adding these to his lot. If at least two of the cards being the highest were of equal value, the players would go to ‘war’, each laying down four cards and the one with the highest aggregate taking the rest for himself, it being understood that besides the usual numbers of 1 to 10, Jack was 11, Queen 12, King 13 and Ace 14. The game was played till a player collected all the cards to win the war.