Manika Batra and the Smell of TT in the ’80s

Sports

Manika Batra and the Smell of TT in the ’80s

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

stumbled upon Manika Batra, in the middle of her backhand serve during the fifth set of the game in which she used the much-maligned pimpled rubber to deceive her rival – the three-time Olympian and fourth ranked player worldwide, Feng Tianwei of Singapore. Batra’s sleight of backhand broke conventional table tennis wisdom which suggests that fast, spinning strokes can only be played with inverted pimples on the forehand side. But in the fraction of a second before she hit the decisive backhand, she held herself tight, her body coiled in defense as she flicked her paddle around so that the flat, power-generating side hit the ball.

In that moment she was like a sprite young tigress attacking her prey from the blindside. The result was massacre.  

To me, Batra looked nothing like the ladies who played table tennis in the all-male gymkhana of the ’80s. For the rest of the world, the ’80s might have been the era of big hair, padded shoulders, camp, and disco. But for most of us in India, it was a period of frugality — where less was made to last for more. It was a decade when I truly believed TT would go on to be my world. There, in the gym circuits, I would see female players like Shalini, who struggled through the women’s circuit with two kids, a house in Virar, and train journeys that were arduous as hell. Shalini arrived in a saree and changed in the men’s dressing rooms to play a game of valour.

She knew she wouldn’t make it to the state level. She didn’t want to. These hours were her freedom. That’s all the ’80s could give her. But Manika was different – she played like she didn’t want to do anything else but win gold.

Table tennis is an odd sport. It lacks the glory of tennis or the spectacle of football. It is not glorious, by virtue of the fact that it doesn’t take place on large, lush greens where spectators sit in tony hats, with equally tony snacks. TT is played in small, smelly sports rooms that invariably share space with carrom boards surrounded by cantankerous carrom players. Our sports room at Dadar Colony had four carrom boards, one TT table, five bald racquets, four Milano balls, powder on tap, and a light bulb without a shade. You burned when you played. The more you won the more you burned.

That burning was hardly a matter of concern when you’d be getting news of shootouts every few days. Those were simpler times at the government telephone quarters in Dadar, Anant Patil Road, best known for the midnight chicken wadi stalls that competed with Sachin Restaurant’s Malwani fare. In one of the three underworld shootouts we experienced there, we lost one amiable gentleman who used to spoil us with Eclairs from his shop – we later learnt he was number two to a number two for the number one gangster of the time.

His end was rather memorable: Sunil, one of my closest and clumsiest pals, was on his way to meet me when he heard the gunshots. He ran toward the gunshots, by which time a clutch of people had gathered around our kind but dead friend. Sunil, gifted in his clumsiness, kept pushing people aside to make his way forward until finally someone pushed him back and he fell on the limp body. He came straight home, declaring with award-winning nonchalance to me and my mother that he had first been into the telephone exchange loo to wash up.

I’m probably exaggerating the excitement of the ’80s. The days in between could be deathly boring, and that is one of the reasons I got obsessed with TT at the age of 11. I would drag the dining table to the wall and force my father to hit with me when he came back from work. We would go on for hours, my banyan-clad father and I, until I got good enough for the gymkhana circuit.

Gymkhanas are an expensive affair when you’re the son of a government engineer. Shivaji Park had the Shivaji Park Nagrik Sangh (SPNS), which charged ₹5 for a guest member in the 4 pm-6 pm slot. In these dank rooms were tightly knit groups formed of older teenage boys like Rinku with a  splendid forehand loop, a vicious spin serve, and a whiplashing back jab, and Anil Sharma, known for his flat kills. For Rinku and Anil, TT was not just a game – it was a junoon, an all-consuming madness.

Every player with a game was worshipped, and every Yasaki bat with rubber was longed for with a desire that was far more acute than we had ever felt for any girl up to that point.

Rinku, Anil, and I were soon making waves. We had won the first five fixtures when we had to face the much-feared Parel team.

It was at SPNS that I realised just how goddamn good I was at my game. Within months, I had won my first championship at the sub-junior level and was fast-tracked to the senior batch, and very soon made it to the SNPG league team along with Rinku and Anil.

I won my first sub-junior championship at 12. Prior to that, clumsy Sunil had just had the fall of his life walking on the road and, in the confusion, I realised that I had to be at the Matunga Gymkhana for the event 30 minutes ago. A doctor who lived in Sunil’s sprawling chawl had a car and liked watching table tennis, so he offered to drop me. I made it right in time to win the first two rounds and then had to wait for the quarter finals.

Suddenly, I had a bigger problem to contend with. I realised I hadn’t informed my mother; so I borrowed money from the doctor, called home, got yelled at, told her that I was with a doctor friend of Sunil’s, and got yelled at some more.

I did, however, win the quarters. The following day, Times of India’s sports page had a small headline – S Balasubramanian upsets XYZ in a nail-biter. The only nail-biting part of the event was the shafting I was receiving at home.

Not always would I taste the sweet smell of success. I would sometimes be defeated by… puberty.  

On one such occasion, dressed in a borrowed oversized t-shirt from Rinku, reeking of sweat and cheap perfume, I won the first two games until the sub-junior girls championship started. That’s when I saw them – and her – for the first time. Not only had I never seen a girl in shorts until then, she moved like nothing I’d seen before or ever have. She had this way of looking at her teammates just before a serve, and looking back at them after she won a point. I joined that side only to congratulate her when she won, which she acknowledged with a smile.

Even now, I don’t know her name. All I know is, I was in love.

The rest of the championship passed in a blur. I vaguely remember Rinku yelling at me that my quarter-finals were with someone called Gurneet, who seeded either first or second in the state. I didn’t care, and the following day’s Times of India had another tiny headline in the sports section that read: Gurneet steamrolls S Balasubramanian.

Rinku, Anil, and I were soon making waves. We had won the first five fixtures when we had to face the much-feared Parel team – a bunch of poor, raggedy boys who rarely bathed but had a mean backhand.

That’s where I met Suhas Ahire, whose t-shirts always smelled because his mother would forget to wash them. Suhas was tenacious – he more than made up for his lack of skills by putting every inch of himself out there. You could tell that he wasn’t being coached properly, because he didn’t have the tricks. His serve was plain. His return on serve was always a set-up for a forehand attack, but he had raw talent and that night was his night. The Parel team vanquished us.

For dinner that night they served us hot kombdi vade from one of the shanties close by. The aromas of spice lifted our defeated spirits. We thought the loss had killed our appetites, but that night we ate for four hours. Three days later, Suhas Ahire ended his life by jumping into a well. Nobody knows why he did it.

From playing Parel we went on to play other clubs in the city but the ferocity of intent was dwindling. Life was coming in the way of TT. Women were being discovered as a species. Four news paper clippings later, I was done. My new life with college friends and pretty girls didn’t have room for sweaty gym circuits. This life was filled with shiny moments and better-smelling things.

Years later I would meet a man named Vikas Shah at the gymkhana circuit who would remind me briefly of what I was giving up. Vikas and I would play a smashing game together after which he urged me to go back to playing. He promised me a ride in his air-conditioned Fiat as we ate three vada pavs each after our game. I promised him I would consider it.

The following morning he died in the Mumbai blasts. And with him died my last connection to TT.  

We left the Dadar Government quarters and moved far away from the hallowed grounds of the SPNS. Life moved on from boxy, sweaty sports rooms to cinemas, addas, and drunken weekend trips to Malshej Ghat. The smell of the haldi popcorn, the perfume of the girl in the dark cinema hall, the red earth and fresh rain at Malshej.

When you play a sport, any sport, especially one as unglamorous as TT, it requires a different life. It requires a trade-off. You have to take your raw talent into a different world and keep it there until your reverse backhand goes from simply good technique into something far more ferocious and lasered – something that is immune to distraction. It has to go from being a sport, or a few hours of freedom, into your whole raison d’etre.

You have to trade smells and make peace with sweat. That’s where a phenomenon like Manika Batra is cast.

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