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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Breathless no more: Kabaddi turns pro

The rules of the game may have changed but the fighting spirit lives on

An old friend who died too young, Nayana, always did it best. It helped that she was already a short, stocky figure. She would drop in and we would invariably greet her with a chorus: “Do it for us, Nayana! Come on, just this once!" Needless to say, “just this once" applied to her every visit.

And after rolling her eyes and a show of good-natured muttering, she would get to it. Whether clad in a sari or salwar kameez, she would bend her knees, settle into a semi-squat and assume a fierce look. Then she would lift her right thigh, slap the inside of it resoundingly with her right palm, lift her left fist high and bellow a loud but unintelligible phrase. And we would collapse in laughter.

Film star Salman Khan has been doing much the same of late, on various screens. Admittedly, he is rather more muscle-bound than Nayana ever was, but—call me biased—she looked more of a natural at it than he ever does. And last Saturday, I saw several powerful men doing it at the NSCI stadium in Mumbai. Sorry guys, but Nayana takes the comparison with you too. Hands down.

It’s kabaddi time, of course, that very Indian sport that I played as a kid, that I always associated with sweaty mud-splattered bare-torsoed men. It went glitzy last year: the first season of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL). Sadly, I couldn’t make it to any of the games then. So, I have been holding my breath—well, it is a kabaddi league—for a new season to come around. Which it did, last Saturday. I watched the inaugural game with a gang of expatriates, one of whom harangued me non-stop to explain the rules.

Though in the PKL, the first rule has vanished. Seems mildly blasphemous to me, because the whole point of kabaddi, as I played it in a distant youth, was that you held your breath. You rushed into enemy territory trying to tag one or more of them out, muttering “kabaddi, kabaddi" all the while to show you were not taking a second breath. And if you did take a second breath, you were liable to be tagged out yourself. That was the essence of kabaddi. In fact, my uncle grew up in rural Tamil Nadu playing a version in which, instead of “kabaddi, kabaddi", you told a little story as you roamed enemy territory. What a game!

I mean, the name of the sport itself refers to the requirement that you hold your breath. And yet that’s been removed. Instead, the PKL proceeds in 30-second slices. That’s how much time a raider has available to wander among his opponents—with no need to stop breathing, no muttering “kabaddi".

That change apart, the game was recognizably the one we played and loved in school, if now drenched in Bollywood-style razzmatazz.

The players filed in and lined up, jumping and stretching at either end of the arena. Amitabh Bachchan sang the national anthem in a sonorous baritone. The cameras fed us a steady diet of other names in the audience: Jaya Bachchan, Devendra Fadnavis, Rishi Kapoor, Aishwarya Rai, Abhishek Bachchan, Kapil Dev, Aamir Khan... in case you are wondering, I was in the last row and the cameras didn’t find me.

Some device shot plumes of smoke into the air. Beams of light swept over the audience. Most of us kept ourselves busy waving cylindrical orange Star Sports balloons, or whacking others’ balloons. One of my expat companions used his like a xylophone on the three heads in front of him, humming Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik as he went. Two excited announcers yammered on, apparently persuaded that their frothy excitement would rub off onto us. (It did).

And the game began: Mumbai’s U Mumba vs Jaipur’s Pink Panthers.

And the testosterone levels rose. This owed something to the ads that were foisted on us. Like Nise Gel, which promised to be “tough on pain", but that was just the first of many. There was VIP Frenchie men’s underwear. Shakti something or the other, “pumping life". Manforce something else or the other. Macho, also underwear of some kind. The Department of Atomic Energy, its “Atoms in the Service of the Nation" slogan putting in mind a vivid image of a battalion of stern atoms standing to attention.

Sure there were other ads, too: jewellery, WiFi, shawarmas and more. Still, the masculine motifs to complement a sport like this? It just figured.

But the testosterone levels really hit the roof because of the players and how they played. One of the first to be brought down was a Mumbai raider, caught by his foot and dragged back as he clawed desperately for the line. The Jaipur players slapped raised thighs in celebration. The raider’s Mumbai teammates slapped their thighs too, but in anger, trying to suggest he had actually touched the line. For the first time that evening—but not the last—Nayana came to mind.

A little later, the Jaipur dudes trapped another Mumbai raider, jumping on him to keep him down. A Jaipur man leaped from the pile to flex his biceps, roar and pump his fists. Then he turned to wave the raider off with a dismissive, yet oddly gentle wave of his fingers. This is a game for us men, he might have been saying. A wimp like you? Better slink off to the pen where you belong. Though only minutes later, the biceps-flexer was himself slinking off, his own raid snuffed out by three Mumbai men, triumphant in their turn.

And even so, often enough, we would see players patting opponents on the back, appreciating the other’s efforts. It’s a tough, rough sport, kabaddi. But that’s probably also why there’s a place for a certain spirit.

Style, too. The most frequent Mumbai raider was like a panther on the prowl—quiet, measured and watchful, menace in every deliberate move. His Jaipur counterpart, if no less menacing, was a buzzsaw: zipping along, lashing out with hands and feet, turning on a 25-paise coin to go the other way and scatter the Mumbai defenders. Another Jaipur player pranced elegantly about, one thigh often raised for the slap. He was rarely successful in his raids, but he did remind us of the way a deer moves: “Springbok!" shouted one of my expatriate companions, possibly because he had in mind his upcoming flight to South Africa, only hours after the game ended.

It ended with Mumbai winning, 29-28. Two rows in front of us, two young women turned to each other, high-fived and hugged, screaming their joy. Nayana, you should have been there.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

Twitter: @DeathEndsFun

Death Ends Fun: http://dcubed.blogspot.com

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