Karthik was the biggest 13 year old I had ever seen. Humongous. Until his appearance, I was the only devil-may-care-for-unforced-errors wannabe big hitter in the tennis academy. Whenever the coach eyeballed me for hitting wild forehands on the line or a few inches away, I felt proud. Fuck yeah. Fetch that, imaginary opponent.
But Karthik was a different beast all together. His lack of grace and technique were compensated only by… well… nothing. He was a terrible tennis player. When you got past his size, the next thing you noticed was that he was very well off. But then this was Vizag. Everyone is very well off. Their lives are real life manifestations of AoE settlements, where they own the land, buildings and people in entire villages.
While I was still on my first Pro DSC racquet, which I reckon was made from scrap aluminium curtain rods, he had graduated to his second Yonex Isometric. The first one had been brutally driven into the ground when he missed a ball in an intra-club Sunday morning match. I managed to salvage it’s grip when he wasn’t looking.
On one such Sunday morning I was fortunate enough to play him. Walkthroughs are tougher, less fun certainly. Ramiah, a ball boy who worked at the courts, was the chair umpire with a fear of heights. He stood by the net for the entire duration. A new can of tennis balls was popped open, all participating parties were allowed to take in the aroma of fresh felt, and thus began our best-of-17-games match.
Early in our first game, the teenage Tyrannosaurus whacked a ball out of the academy enclosure. “Nee abba!” shouted Ramiah. As you might know, tennis balls were quite expensive 10 years ago. They still are.
Our coach, like all the other coaches I know, was a tall, scary man with a loud, peculiar way of breathing. Like Darth Vader breathing to the rhythm of a trance track stuck in his head. He was very particular about new tennis balls and had warned the ball boys that all losses would be compensated for by cuts in their wages. The balls boys were quite poor. Some of them did this in the mornings and ferried passengers in an auto at night.
Ramiah and Karthik ran towards to gate and I followed them. I had spotted the ball from over the wall but these two couldn’t find it anywhere. What they did catch was a glimpse of someone turning into an alley not too far away. Karthik shot after him, Ramiah and I were quite bewildered but decided to follow him since there wasn’t anything else to do. I obviously hadn’t watched enough Telugu movies then, in hindsight I think I would’ve felt like an NPC in a RPG remake of a Balayya movie.
We ran into the alley to see Karthik chasing a little kid. Wily, agile kid. But little, nonetheless. The chase went through a few more residential roads where malipoo and thotakura sellers on their morning rounds wondered what was happening. We finally caught up with the duo to see that Karthik had the little child pinned against a compound wall of a large house, with a fist that was about to swing straight into his face. The kid was clutching a tennis ball close to his chest.
This was when I stopped giggling. This was when it stopped being funny. Karthik’s fist was bigger than the child’s face. One swing and, I say this in all earnestness, he would’ve died. Suddenly it wasn’t about a lost tennis ball. It was about a little tramp who had dared to steal from the rich. It was about all the discrimination I saw as I grew up in AP. The child was too scared to cry. To frightened to let go of the tennis ball and end this chase mid way. Too scared to say sorry.
“Hey, are you crazy? Don’t hit him!”, shouted Ramiah
“No Ramiah, this is when they have to be taught, otherwise you don’t know what they will do…” said Karthik. He was 13 for fuck’s sake. Ramiah was at least 10 years older, probably in his mid 20s.
“Listen…”, he said to the kid, “if anna puts you down, will you start running away again?”
The kid stayed silent. This was the sorta question that made you go WTF? The kid had no clue what to say. He was as confused as I was.
“Karthik put him down ra”, I said. He glowered.
“Put man”, Ramiah said. He rarely spoke in English, and when he did, it was terribly funny.
Karthik finally put him down. Ramiah held his hand and we started to walk towards the courts. All four of us. Everyone except Ramiah was silent. Karthik snatched the tennis ball from him finally and strode ahead victoriously. I asked Ramiah to let the kid go, he just shook his head.
Karthik went back into the courts but Ramiah headed towards the store room entrance. We weren’t allowed in the store room, but there was no way I was letting this kid out of sight. Ramiah opened the door, turned the lights on and sat the kid on a table. I stood by the door way.
“Have you stolen from us before?”, he asked the kid.
The kid shook his head
“Don’t lie, ok? We are losing many balls these days”
The child finally spoke, “My friends see a ball on the road sometimes and take it.”
“And what do you do with it?” Ramiah asked.
“We play cricket.”
Duh. What a stupid question, I thought.
Ramiah dragged a cage full of balls towards him and flipped it open. I always wondered what the academy did with old tennis balls. Turns out they were dumped here. He took three bare, felt-less balls out and gave them to the kid.
“Listen, don’t steal. Just ask.”
The kid smiled. I smiled. For the first time in the last half an hour, I wasn’t confused.
Ten years since, I’ve lost my serve, my forehand is based completely on hope and my backhand has gone from cheap Sampras imitation to cheap Federer imitation. But there are other lessons which I doubt I will ever forget.