By Srinidhi Raghavan
I stumbled upon my old baseball and glove during a night of take-control-of-my-life cleaning, a few weeks ago. The baseball was in bad shape. A few years ago, my long-time friend (and teammate) and I had played a little game of catch in our colony. We were out of touch and the ball fell. A lot. The tar roads were not good for its body image. But it was the only place we could relive some of our memories, so we did it anyway.
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I began playing in the summer of 2002. It was a strange story with even weirder beginnings. My dad in his younger days used to play softball for the Andhra Pradesh state team. I studied in a school where only girls could play softball. There was a complicated understanding of how baseball was for boys and softball was for girls. So, it was pretty ironic that my dad played softball and I played baseball. On some whim, I decided to try out for the state women’s baseball team in 2002.
Practice was at 6am at a ground close to my house. I was 12. I wasn’t a morning person. I’d sleep in tracks and t-shirt with my socks on just so I could wake up as late as possible. It became a ritual among my teammates to mock the girl who jumped out of bed, brushed her teeth, washed her face and headed out to play.
At my first practice, I learned it always started with a warm-up. Warm-ups meant lots of running around in a huge ground. I was not pleased. Though I played softball in school, baseball was different. The ball was smaller and the distance between the bases was more. We were given gloves and asked to learn how to catch and throw. Two people stood 10ft away from each other and threw the hard, tiny ball. The small distances were easy. As we began to take steps away from each other my throws barely managed to reach my partner. This continued for three hours till it was too hot to play. Then there was warm-down, which involved a lot of running. I was skeptical about what I had gotten myself into.
When I started playing, I was absolutely horrible. My stamina was miserable and I was terrified of the ball. Slowly, over the summer, things changed and I got better. They had try-outs for the team in a month’s time. I practised hard and focused on making it. I didn’t make it. Rejected, I moped around for days. The Andhra Pradesh Sub-Juniors team went off to Goa and won third place. I was a little happy but mostly jealous. Soon, practice for the Juniors team started. It was an older group and I was still not good enough. But I practised hard and scraped into the team. I didn’t make it to the playing nine. Over a period of time and with lots of practice, I got better. My stamina picked up and I could throw without worrying that my shoulder would fall out of its socket.
The Andhra Pradesh baseball team was not quite funded. We mostly paid for our own train tickets for tournaments and then possibly for food and other extra things like phone calls home. Back then, I didn’t see my caste and class mobility that allowed me to play. But it was only possible for me to play because a) parents were willing to let a 12-year-old travel and play, and b) willing to fund it. Nobody ever imagined I would want to do this full time or professionally. They just assumed it was a fun pastime and encouraged it.
The status of the teams across the country were similar, though many of them had private partnerships that enabled better equipment and funding. Perhaps this meant that their teams had more caste and class diversity than ours. Goa, Delhi, Haryana and Manipur were particularly good. We were told they trained very hard and had a lot of support from their states. They knew how to hit the ball hard and far. Their fielding was fantastic and I could never outrun their throws. We, on the other hand, struggled to make it to the quarter-finals in most tournaments. But we kept showing up every tournament to try again.
We did come in third once. They even had a photo session for us when we returned to Hyderabad. We, if I remember correctly, were each given Rs 500 for our victory from the state government.
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Starting to play was my first exposure to travelling without family. As the youngest child, my parents were protective of me. But travelling with the team and playing helped build their trust in my ability to stay alive away from them. It was my chance to taste mobility, freedom and the choice to not bathe for a few days. (Psst: the bathrooms weren’t always the cleanest.)
Most of our tournaments were held in the north, in places like Indore and Chandigarh and Delhi. So it meant long train journeys, singing, dancing, playing cards, listening to music. Since the Baseball Federation of India itself isn’t funded very well, they put us up in schools, small halls, stadiums or sometimes even in Gurudwaras. Fifteen girls plus one manager, crammed in one room fighting for the corner so you could sleep without two pairs of legs on you. We’d have to bathe sometimes at four in the morning because the bathrooms didn’t have roofs and well, we didn’t want everyone to see us naked.
When I was 14, I was captain of the Junior team and we went to Bilaspur, Chattisgarh. They’d put us up in a small government school. The tables were pushed against the wall and mattresses were placed on the floor. This was a common practice and not surprising. The school had five common toilets that 11 women’s teams had to use. Eleven teams with a minimum of 15 players each. I am sure you can do the math. It was a nightmare. By the end of day two, the bathroom was clogged and no one wanted to use it. My team was complaining that they had no place to poo. Everyone we complained to told us we had made the mess so we better clean it. Especially since school was starting once we left. So with the help of two other teammates, we scrubbed the bathroom clean and put a lock on the door. We thought it would be a good way to keep it clean. But turns out other teams caught on to the idea and soon five teams had monopoly over the bathrooms. We all had to give up our locks finally. It was only fair.
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Here’s how my last tournament went. It was National School Games in 2006. First, there was an inter-district tournament from which the state team would be picked. This was a closely monitored tournament that the government actively encouraged. The National School Games was under the auspices of the School Games Federation of India. There were also handball, basketball and judo tournaments for under 14, 17 and 19 for both boys and girls. It was an occasion for selectors to watch young talent perform.
My friend and I represented Hyderabad district and got picked for the state team. Since I had the most experience back then, I was asked to captain the team. We practised for two weeks in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. It was hot and the team was not a team. Back then, my communication skills in Telugu were at a bare minimum. The entire team was comfortable only with Telugu; we couldn’t communicate with each other. My coach could barely communicate with me. So, it was an absurd choice to let me captain this team. We created codes for what plays we would need when; my friend, who was the pitcher, and I tried to coordinate the plays the best we could. The team headed off to Delhi for two weeks in the middle of the winter. The team was in for a surprise. Coming as we did from a mostly hot part of the country, we didn’t have enough layers to stay warm. Our trains kept getting delayed. We finally reached cold Delhi to find out that there’d be no hot water supply in our bathrooms. This resulted in several of us dragging hot water buckets up three flights of stairs and sharing them. A team-building exercise that nobody had asked for.
* * *
The freedom that came with playing baseball wasn’t just on the field: it was the first time I was out in the world unmonitored. It was an explosive feeling. I could mingle with boys and my parents wouldn’t know. I could eat meat and no one could tell them. I could move around without a close eye on my manners. Additionally, it was a rough game. I played a position (catcher) that required me to sit in an ‘unladylike’ posture with no shame attached to it. We screamed a lot and often at people. I learnt to whistle loudly. Most of the time, we didn’t have proper equipment to protect ourselves. Playing catcher means the batter lets go of the bat very close to you; so, I have had aluminium bats thrown at my chest. Part of the game meant tagging the person out with the glove before they reached the home base; I have been shoved down unconscious while being tagged. It was a good way to beat some of the learned gendered behaviour out of me.
I remember my team (except in the last tournament) was mostly from Hyderabad city. You could hardly call us a state team. But without proper access to training, equipment and money to play the sport, most girls and women from outside Hyderabad never made it to the selections. I am told that now things are a little different. Since the teams have been receiving financial support, there has been a lot of involvement from the districts and the last sub-junior team had no girls from Hyderabad.
Sports for me was a wonderful way to break the learned stereotypes and acquire a semblance of mobility and self-esteem. It meant a few hours everyday when my body and mind had to focus on coordination, tact and physical and emotional assertion. Something my introverted, reading self was not used to. The adrenaline was only half the joy. I learnt early how team effort works and the importance of it. We had to stand together and cheer each other on even when we failed. Criticism of failure had to be handled with kindness and compassion.
I haven’t played a team sport in seven years. I realise now that there is a void in me that I didn’t even know I had.
Srinidhi Raghavan has worked in the development sector on gender and human rights. She also teaches in schools and colleges. She tweets at @nidsitis.