The fever has spread. Spain vs. Netherlands. Brazil vs. Mexico. Even though the Indian national team is apparently ranked 150 in the world and not even in the world cup, here at SPS Neemkedha Village people stay up to all hours of the morning to watch overtime games on the one television on the entire campus (when the reception is working enough to get a TV signal, which is rare). Watching the professionals does not seem to satisfy the world cup hunger, however, and evening soccer matches have become a regular aspect of life here on campus.
The field: a wide spot in the dirt road. Allows just enough room for a solid 5 vs. 5 match, and gets crowded very quickly. Covered with pebbles, ruts, bumps, small rocks, sticks, cow dung. Sandwiched between the sugar cane field and a rock wall that separates the road from a cotton field. Slopes towards the sugar cane. Common hazards include water runoff from cotton fields, drainage ditch for sugarcane, and rocks that fall off of the wall.
The goals: bricks. Stacked 2 high. Width is variable.
The players: Everyone. From Murtiram, the man who runs the campus, to Babu, 5 years old and plays barefoot, to SPS employees and staff, to local kids who come from a village a mile away just for the game. Range in skill from very good to totally in the way, including one persistent handball offender. Range in seriousness from mildly serious to spending more time looking at the birds than the ball. Footwear breakdown: 75% wearing sandals, 20% wearing sneakers or other closed-toe shoes, 5% barefoot.
(Babu getting his game face on)
The teams: poorly defined at best. Older players are divvied up clearly, the 10 or so younger players just kind of float. No one is ever sure which younger players are on which team, and it usually does not matter. Switching mid-game is common.
The play: Exactly what you would expect! A complete mess, sometimes dangerous, but always enjoyable. There is the required amount of arguing over goals and handballs, heckling, and big celebrations and cheering from both sides after each goal. At the end of the game, which only comes about when it has gotten too dark to see the ball (about 7:30), everyone trots off to the mess together for pani (water), then back home for a dhona (wash) before dinner at 8:00. I play terribly by conventional standards, end up smelling worse than I ever thought possible, covered in dirt and mud, and acquire a few battle scars in the process (the gravel road is treacherous).
The best part of this nightly football past time is that the whole thing is conducted in Hindi, and I understand very little of what is going on! My “go with the flow” skills are tested, I can’t get too serious about anything, and I am learning a TON of Hindi words. My teachers are the younger generation. They get a kick out of hearing me butcher their native language and great satisfaction when I can say a phrase like “let’s go have some fun” or “we are going to the mess to get water.” Those kids are for sure the harshest critics, and where adults will let me get away with slight errors in pronunciation, the kids are ruthless! Even the smallest inflections, intonations, or length of rolled R’s are not left imperfect. Where just a month ago I spent hours and hours repeating in my head the mechanism of action for bacteriostatic vs. bacteriocidal antibiotic drugs, or the DUMBBELLS acronym as it relates to toxicity and poisoning, now I spend my time repeating Hindi phrases. It is quite a refreshing change! So far I’ve got the colors and the animals down pat, a basic hello-how-are-you-I-am-doing-well sequence, some imperatives related to football, and the very important food-related phrases (“I am hungry,” “I am eating,” and “I am done eating”) along with some more random phrases and vocabulary. The most exciting Hindi realization so far though is that my name (pronounced Kerie, with a medium-length rolled R), means “unripe mango.”
Playing football in the evenings and interacting with these young kids has for sure become my favorite part of the day. I could wax poetic about the power a seemingly insignificant game can wield to bridge cultures and form deep, silent bonds beyond language in a beautiful, simple, and eternal woven fabric of athleticism (or, in the case of our game, lack thereof), but this unripe mango is totally beat and needs to rest up for the big game tomorrow!
Not the football field, but a newly plowed field close by.