We moved to Ernakulam when I was all of six years, and three-and-a-half feet tall.
The move was without my approval. And so it was a screaming, shrieking, sulking six-year-old who left the clean streets of Bangalore to arrive in Ernakulam two days later.
The school there was not exactly what one would term pleasant and welcoming. I soon realised around 60 per cent of my classmates owned fathers in the armed forces, especially the Navy. I was unable to converse in Hindi, the lingua franca of the aforementioned species. So I ended up in the group of Malayalis, or rather the 'Malayalams' as we were wont to call ourselves -- as opposed to the north Indians, who called themselves the 'Hindis'!
When I was in Bangalore, there was not a single boy my age where I lived. My playmates were all females and the games they played, I discovered to my dismay, were not exactly the games my new friends liked to play. 'House-house', 'Hide-and-seek' and such namby-pamby games, thus, suddenly became unmentionable. I did not know cricket from Adam -- or Eve, for that matter.
So I was accepted merely as a fringe member. Our leader was a blighter named George. I did not like him, for the simple reason other members respected him and not me. But I wasn't exactly 'leadership material', due in no small measure to my negligible skills at cricket.
George's second-in-command was Harris, a chap who was only about as big as me but possessed a better grasp of the power politik we played in primary school. As for me, I was among the small fry, the minnows in the sea of II B.
The other minnows of the set were Elvis Gonzales, a shrimp who made me feel big, and Alwyn, a tall, gangling child who was slightly slow.
I soon found the key to the door that stopped me from becoming a valued and trusted member of the group -- my cricket bat.
Nobody in our class had a cricket bat. I was fortunate enough to have received one on my third birthday. Having seen none of its oh-so-obvious qualities at that time, it lay in a corner, neglected, for three years.
Until Ernakulam. That was where it found its true place in the sun.
The next day, after a wee bit of pestering and some tantrums, my parents permitted me to carry it to school.
The kids were delighted. George, that great soul, condescended to talk to me. He congratulated me on my acquisition. They were delighted to throw away the tree branch they called bat.
It was then I slipped in the million-dollar question.
"Hmmph?" replied George, with the imperiousness of a Julius Caesar.
"Can I play today?"
He made an indistinct noise, which I took as assent. I felt as happy as a lark.
At playtime, we trooped to the ground. As they formed teams, I realised my name was conspicuously not among those called.
I asked George. He looked at me like I was some insignificant insect trying to climb up his trouser legs.
"You don't know to play... go away."
"It's my bat, George!" I squealed, close to tears.
They had a council of war -- George, Harris, the star batsman Rottu, and Pradeep. They informed me I would be allowed to play in the next match.
But I was an arrogant brat who had been spoiled by the girls in Bangalore. They were a couple of years older than me, and they had pampered me rotten. The power of my tears could move them into accepting any suggestion of mine.
I burst into tears, as was my custom, snatched the bat from George (an unimaginable thing, which I am sure caused looks of surprise among his underlings), and gave him an ultimatum: you let me play or the bat goes.
George contemplated the situation at hand.
A mere underling, a minnow, an associate member, hell, he is Elvis ilk, for Christ's sake! And he's trying to lay down the rules! Those were probably the thoughts that ran through George's mind.
There was a hushed silence. Everybody was waiting for the monarch of II B to pronounce his judgement.
"Bye-bye, bat," George said.
He picked up the branch that was in vogue till then, and went in to bat. His team always batted first, and he and Harris were always the openers. And they were allowed five and three chances, respectively, whenever they batted.
I stood there forlorn, clutching the bat, as everybody -- including Alwyn, for God's sake -- set about ignoring me. I realised I was not in the league of seasoned politicians like George and Harris.
After about 10 minutes of sulking, I asked him if he would let me play, pleeease, if I gave him the bat?
Like all monarchs, George was generous when he felt like it. He pardoned me my blasphemy. He snatched the bat.
I was actually allowed to bat in the last position. Not that it mattered. I was bowled first ball. But what the heck, I was at least on the team.
I was in! I was part of the group!
George left my school the next year, leaving Harris in command. But Harris had none of the charisma that made George the monarch. A general mutiny of the ranks destroyed the hierarchy that had prevailed for so long.
I became a better cricket player -- at least, I think I did.
Soon it was time for my family to leave for Chennai. Again, it was a move that did not have my approval. And it was a screaming, shrieking, sulking nine-year-old who left the beautiful by-lanes of Ernakulam behind him forever.
But memories remain an alluring rose pressed between the pages of my life.
Of what became of Harris, Rottu, George and the rest, I know nothing. I sometimes wonder what they would be doing. Whether they too sometimes sit back and think of the things we shared during those wonderful years we played, laughed and cried together.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh