Congrats ASK. Also featuring: Travails of a sporting also-ran
Our coaching camps had a strict caste system. The “seniors” practiced with the “seniors” and the “juniors” with “juniors” and both never mixed. Sharath however was an exception to the seniors. We were the same age and same school, and liked each other’s company. He did not let the “senior” tag stop him from hanging out a lowly mortal like me. He would diligently attend every match of mine to “give support”, a practice that meant shouting your voice hoarse for your friend and giving valuable tit-bits in between games. Sharath and me loved cricket. And would take every opportunity to play paper ball cricket, even if it was under the disapproving look of the coach. He was incredibly modest and simple for his achievements. But more on him later.
There’s a part of my life that not many of my friends know about. Not surprising, coz it ended in Standard 9.And a story that will reverberate from all sportsmen across the country who didn’t quite “make the grade”.
Between Std 6 and Std 10 in my life, there was only one purpose, one passion – Table Tennis.
The routine everyday was – Back from school at 4, open the door, have hurried “tiffin”, lock the house and take 2 buses for a 15 Km journey to start practice at half past 5. Half hour of warm up, followed by three hours of rigorous practice under the asbestos sheets in the unrelenting Chennai humidity, and followed by warm down. Two buses down the line (or a much needed lift from dad) back home at 10 to a very worried Mom. Homework and studying for exams needed a super human effort. Weekends meant extra practice and also some fun and games on the beach.
Then there was the circuit. 13 State ranking tournaments throughout the year, added to the zonals and nationals. 13 Fridays taken off from school and thirteen weekends of continuously reaching pre-quarter finals, quarter finals and the occasional semi-final. The same people, the same faces and the same results, day in and day out.
But this is the easy part. The difficult part, and especially so if you are from a middle class Tam Bram background with half your uncles from IIT and your cousins in USA, is the choice you have to make. In the beginning, and especially if you are bright (like I have said earlier, modesty is not my forte), you manage effortlessly. I maintained my “rank” in school (at a respectable Top 5) - that fundamental, non-negotiable, parameter of academic excellence that every self-respecting middle class household will lay down as the bare minimum essential to live in the house.
Then, if you are not brilliant (which yours truly isn’t, notice non-IIT-IIM (A, B, C) tag as much as I am proud of my Alma mater), your acads start catching up. In Std 9, the pressure becomes telling with all the emphasis on the “big exam” next year.
Then you have to make the choice – Is it going to be the hopelessly fruitless Table Tennis career that will give you that one-in-a-million chance to earn some sort of a livelihood, given you have all the “right connections” or is it going to be the Engineer-MBA-I banker-Wall Street routine so effortlessly practiced by all your cousins, all of whom are earning considerably more than Sharath Kamal can ever make, international sporting recognition notwithstanding.
From an economic and rational point of view, it was an easy choice. And I was too young for heroic decisions.
No, there is not a shred of regret in putting all this effort in vain. Maybe I never got to watch those weekend cartoons my classmates always used to talk about. Maybe all those episodes of “Wonder Years” and “Beverly Hills 90210” that were hotly discussed the next day never made sense to me. And yes, I never actually got to “play” gully cricket that all the kids use to rush to play after school. But I learnt to cram for exams in a single day with all nighters as early as Std 6.I learnt very early on in life, that life sucks, its not fair and you have to bloody well work your ass off to make something out of yourself. I learnt the power of magnificent obsessions, of victories and losses, and made some great friends, one of whom is now a national icon.
And then there were the perks. As much as I was the so-near-yet-so-far player in the state level, I was a celebrated and almost revered school and college champion. My cupboard overflows with all those cups and medals so effortlessly picked up at the schools, hostels, colleges and the University level, almost bullying everyone to defeat, with a small hint of guilt that this is not the “real thing”, after all. School champion for 5 years (coz ASK never condescended to play), and University champions twice, it seemed just reward for all those years of missing gully cricket.
Which is why it irks me when arm chair critics who have breezed through mediocre education in mediocre jobs with mediocre lives undermine sporting efforts of people who have, by all means achieved far more greatness in their own way, success or failure notwithstanding.
This post is a tribute to those thousands of sportsmen who have toiled their asses out in the hope of sporting glory for the country. God knows how tough it is.
But this is not the story of an ex-TT wannabe who went on to become the engineer-MBA norm that the country seems to produce effortlessly.
This is the story of a kid who was given a racket even before he could grow to the height of the TT table and was given a destiny to follow. This is the story of the hard life of a non-cricketing sportsman in India, and to succeed in spite of, rather than because of the country. This is the story of a worried mom cheering her son to become a table tennis star when kids all round him were taking the safe route becoming “respectable” software engineers in the Infy’s of the world.
Stories of Table Tennis Champions from India are far and few between. There was Chetan Babur. And now Sharath Kamal.
I can say with a glint of pride that both of them were from my school, and one of them is a good friend.Once again, Congrats ASK.