They too serve, who participate with vigour and then cheer on by the sidelines. A bastardisation of the original, but pretty much sums up my relationship with sport. Sport is an elixir to my soul – experiencing it, the adrenalin rush, the exertion of loss, the tumult of a win, reading about it, watching it. At the worst of times, it has given me cheer, hope, perspective and pause. It is the greatest gift that my boarding school has given me. It is bigger than the maths, science, history, geography, arts combined – those afternoons and evenings at the grounds doing nothing other than picking balls, shadow bowling a yorker in the corridors, hitting an imaginary ball for a six, taking an impossible corner. The flight of imagination that sport instils is a high unlike any other.

I was a street urchin before being let into the hallowed portals of Oak Grove. My pre-occupations before I got there were chasing kites, splashing in the paddy fields and cavorting through the lanes of our railway colony. Imagine my wide eyed wonder at seeing a fully stocked sports room under the stairs leading to the dormitory. There were bats, balls, racquets, all in perfect structural form, like I had seen them in the magazines. There were hockey sticks, wickets, yes actual ones, not sticks plucked from the berry tree.

Fast forward a few years to that decisive bend of the path leading down from the Junior school to behold my first live Cricket match in the valley. The green mat, the boys in whites, the near helicopter view from the hillock overlooking the pitch, the sound of the leather on the willow and the polite applause, I was hooked for life. Years later, I got to the middle of the pitch and did a middling job with it, but nothing beat that helicopter view into the glorious valley green. 

Sport is also about tradition, carried forward and dumped. To show for the mean young boxing gloved men staring out of sepia tinted frames in the corridor, there was just a quarter of rusted wrought iron rings hooked to the wall in the Covered Shed. That square on the concrete floor would have created legends once, inspired boys to be men and here they were, mere tokens from the past, gradually awaiting their ultimate obliteration.

Hockey was the veritable prince of sporting endeavours at Oak Grove. It made legends of stars. It is the sport that Oak Grove worked hardest on. Like football boots and running spikes, everyone received a hockey stick for the season. With the inter house matches done for, selection for the four teams (Sub-junior, Junior, Inter and Senior) completed, hockey sticks continued to be a dominant presence in classrooms and class cupboards. The students who made it to the various teams received better quality replenishments mid-season to prepare for the long haul of inter-school matches. For those of us who did not make it to the shortlist, the hockey sticks were used to continue honing our skills during lonely Sunday afternoons with a torn hockey ball, or for other creative pursuits. The first sight of the morning from the dormitory, showed our boys at work in the back pitch, every day 6-8 am. Match days were a celebration as the boys made their way to neighbouring schools to watch their team pull off one win after the other, year after year. Our throats would clam up with exertions by the sidelines. It just made that bun samosa at Barlowgunj such a pleasure to relish. If a final was won, the walk back to the school would be raucous, rambling and loud. Sometimes a poori day was thrown in as a reward, at other times a special assembly to laud the achievements of the team was called for. As the dust settled on the Hockey season, the sticks issued during the season made their way home to take the form of heirlooms. The goals were dismantled to form wider ones for the oncoming new term, that is, for football.

The English football season traditionally commences in August. The founders of our school were probably from those small English towns that participated in the FA cup. They probably had relatives who worked in mines and trudged down from a day of work to see their sons and nephews play in a local football match. Very much like in England, the grounds at Oak Grove are soggy, grey and somber during August. So, it might have been that the weather heralded the season of football. Playing in the rain, splashing in the mud, getting your knees bruised is just but a good English tradition. On some days the fog would hang so low on the back pitch that it was easy to miss the action on the far side. We would hear a long whistle, and see the scorer run out of the mist towards the near side to announce to the rest of us that he had scored. It took the preparations for sports day to muffle out the excitement of football. The nail on the studs would just about be pushing into the back of our toes when the football season was called off and the tracks were drawn on the back-pitch. As if by cue the gloom gave way to sunny days the crunch of spikes on firmer ground replaced those of the studs.

It was when the attention turned to Tennis that it dawned upon us that exams are near and that glorious summer of sport is well nigh over. The balls were so bright green that they could as well have been yellow, as the fear of our lack of preparation for exams mixed up with the sound of a crisp forehand across the net. If we were hosting, the opposition would always loom heavy on our minds. Their shorts, t-shirts, shoes, shots and mannerisms would be noted and talked about. An audible gasp emanated when our opponents hit a near impossible shot. “Surely, Wynberg would win”, we thought. As the tie wearied on, we got one back at them, then another and after a full 4 hours of Tennis, Oak Grove was victorious. The nets would be wrapped up a week before Founders, but the imprints of another glorious win was left lurking on the courts.

If Tennis heralded the end of the season and the eventual transition into the drudgery of the exams, Volleyball was the last hurrah of the sporting year at Oak Grove. “Fagging”, or the task of picking balls court-side paid dividends, in that, at the last ring of the bell, one could try out a serve or two, just as the main court dispersed. Each year, the serves went further until it not only crossed but won us a place in the first 6 within the court. Practicing for spikes or smashes followed. A few shots to the Dhobi’s down the hillock, we were on our way to inter- house and inter-school teams. Again, with Volley-ball, Oak Grove started off as underdogs, and pulled off amazing wins that were talked about but never seen as much by the rest of us.

For every story that is told, there are so many that aren’t. There is the Sports Day and the Olympics, together the single biggest celebration of life at Oak Grove. There was Badminton, Table Tennis, Squash, Yoga, Callisthenics, Debate, Drama, Declamations. Art Projects, Quiz, Geography Projects, NCC, Scouts. At a time when we are “professionals” and “focus” is about doing one thing very well and making a living out of it, it is easy to forget that at Oak Grove we were imbibed with the tradition of enthusiastic participation in a multitude of disciplines. Win heartily, lose heavily, have a laugh about it and come back harder at it the next time. It was not the classrooms of Oak Grove that made us, it were those playing fields.

– Manoj Panikkar (1991)


This piece was shared by Manoj Panikkar on  May 31, 2021 via email.

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1 Comment
  1. Kanishka Mallick 3 weeks ago

    Super piece, Panikkar! Loved – The balls were so bright green that they could as well have been yellow….. !!

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