We hopped into our school van at . the van would start at around after Mani checked if everyone had come. Srinivas was our driver and Mani our conductor. Even as the van was rattling past our school gates, we would have started playing ‘Current’. This was a game in which each of our hands was interlocked. There was a catcher. His work was to find out who is passing the current (a small pinch to the other hand) to whom. As so often used to happen in games where subtlety was paramount, I sucked in this game too. Hence I didn’t entirely love playing it.
Then there used to be this movie session, when some smart ass amongst us who had watched some movie would be narrating the story scene by scene to the rest of us. And we would be listening open mouthed. I recently overheard my niece telling one such movie story to her friend. I am very grateful that I didn’t have the brain to know how much of a directorial liberty we used to take in narrating the movie those days.
We used to reach home by . As soon as we came in, Meks and myself used to take turns in skipping up to 500, drink our satthu maavu kanji and proceed to the bus stand with a racquet in our hand – for from 5 to 6 we had our tennis class. If we were lucky, we could catch 47J (the present day’s 47D). That would drop us straight at the Valluvar Kottam stop from where it was a 5 min walk to our class. Else we could catch any bus, get down at Loyola and walk roughly 1.5-2 km to our class. As luck would have it, we mostly had to walk. MMC – Muthukrishnan Memorial Club it was. Enroute to our class there was this push cart guy selling ‘pepsi’. It is not the cola drink. It was sold for Re 1 or Re 2. It was flavoured frozen water packaged in a cheap plastic. My mouth used to water at their sights. Alas the money in our pockets could only afford us a bus ride back home (and fortunately so).
We started our class with 5 rounds around the courts. Our first racquets were wooden ones. The first week was fully spent in just tapping the ball continuously – downwards against the ground, upwards for 2 feet. Each time we failed to tap more than 10 times, we had to run one round. At 6 when the class got over, I was happy that the torture had come to an end. But wait, there was more. As a finishing warm up we had to run across the court touch the doubles line, come back, run back to touch the singles line, come back, run and touch the centre line, come back and do the same for the other singles line and doubles line. This had to be done 3 times, forward running, backward running and sidestepping. I was positively cursing my father for having brainwashed me into learning tennis rather than cricket.
But all this cursing went into thin air from second week onwards. Running became less of a chore and more of an ‘I am the fastest and fittest’ type of competition. And rather than tapping the balls, we were hitting them. That is the marker boys used to drop a ball at our feet and we had to hit it across the net. Since our starting ability was not too good. We weren’t trained in the full court. It was done in the mini court where our opponent was a big wall with three lines across it. One was the net line below which if we hit, we had to run a round. The top most was the ‘out’ line and the consequences were the same. In between we had the passing shot line which we were supposed to hit even with our eyes closed. The first 2 months, we were doing only this. And to ensure that we would be able to hit the balls on the mark, were asked to spend 10 minutes of our time every class swinging the racquets in air, till we got our swings right.
Then slowly we graduated to the bigger courts. Now we were thrown the ball from across the court rather than someone dropping it at our feet. But the elation of receiving a long hit ball was offset by the fact that the fitness requirement here was designed to break any further kindness we have harboured towards our instructors. Not as a punishment, but as a routine we had to make one round of the court before coming to hit the next ball. And if you are late to arrive at the ball the instructor wont throw one more to you. You have to run again. In a way this was good. We became sturdy very fast. The next level of graduation was to playing rallies with our coach. A maximum of three rallies before running 3 rounds. Length of the rally was dependent on our ability to sustain them.
A year into the training. Now we were given the honour of practising our serves. The first week was plain swinging in the air. The second was tossing the ball up catching it on the way down and then swinging our racquets in the air. And finally we got to do all of it together. A toss and a serve. Mid way into our training, we opted for the morning classes rather than the evening class. Some of the advantages were that the crowd was small in the morning. So we got more chance to play rather than run. Also in the morning we never had to catch the bus. Appa or gautanna always dropped us and picked us up.
The weekends were completely fitness based. This time our starting routine was not 5 rounds around the court, but a run from our class to Loyola college and back. This was followed with various types of walking and jumping across the courts. Duck walk. Duck jump. Side steps. Backward running. Hopping. And if time permits, we could play tennis too. The one thing I gained from MMC was definitely not tennis skills. I made for a pathetic player. My first service in a professional match hit the chair umpire right on his cheeks. My biggest gain was a fairly decent fitness. Even though I wasn’t the best in fitness nor the fastest in running. I could hold my own.
We had good coaches. Gopal Rao sir, Raju Sir, Abbas Ali Baig Sir, Kumar Sir, Mahendra Sir, Sekhar Sir and Karthik Sir.
Even though the quickest way to come home was to catch a bus from valluvar Kottam, we didn’t do that. We used to hate the crowded bus typical of Chennai at . we preferred walking upto Loyola to catch a bus. The route to Loyola that we took was thus. Turn right from MMC, then a left. Follow the walls of the corporation school for a right and another right. Then a left at the mini round tana. Ths would bring us to the road which had lots of LIG type of flats and pawn broker shops. This would lead us straight to the erstwhile 15C, 15A bus stand. If I was unlucky, we used to find Anukka as she was returning from her classes. She would take Mekala and I would have to come all alone to home. Of course, as used to happen so often with me, this was offset with an extra glass of milk when back home. That used to wipe out all my feelings of being given a raw deal. Looking back, I seriously feel it pays to be a bumpkin. We can avoid lots of heartaches.
This walk from the MMC to the bus stand used to pass off very quickly. Not because we used to walk fast. But because we used to entertain ourselves a lot. Our favourite pass time was to decide the castings for some of the books that we had read. Robin Hood was directed twice. Once with the castings as per the choice of Mekala. And once as per my choice. Same with
If we were lucky to have Gautanna come to pick us up in the evening, it was always a trip to Hot Chips (the one opposite to Apoorva Sangheeta) for a samosa and a coke. Those were the days of Ric Video Library, Hot Chips, Priya akka and weekend trips to
It was a good childhood we had. Given a choice, I will relive them the same way I did before. No changes. No regrets. Plain bliss.