In the energetic football game that's on in front of me, the players are doing the old shirts and skins thing that I remember from the days when I played basketball energetically. (As opposed to now, when I don't play it at all). This is how I come to know that the most energetic and skilful player, in two teams' worth of swift footballers is a man whose belly resembles a beer keg. Gives me hope for when I next step on a playing field and lug my belly about.
He doesn't score, but he directs his team like a master, pointing here and there, placing pinpoint passes exactly where he points (though sometimes not, just to keep the shirts guessing). He also runs like crazy, often seeming to be all over the field. I don't stay long enough to know the final score, but under his direction, the skins score twice. Almost as if he were conducting an orchestra to a splendid finale.
Over on the other side of the field, some others play hockey that seems almost lackadaisical in comparison to the high-energy beer keg performance. And at one end of the field, there's a basketball game on. I watch one sequence where a guy grabs a rebound at his end, dribbles upcourt refusing to pass to any of his open teammates, finds his way right under the other basket with players all around, then makes a smart pass ... straight off the court into the bushes.
This is, I remind myself, the spot where cricket was first played in India. The low building on the edge of the football game indicates as much: Municipal Stadium. 200 years of Cricket Celebration. 31/3/2002. One of Thalassery's claims to fame. Though there's no cricket on today, there's a strip in the centre of the ground that's reverently enclosed in blue plastic mesh strung up on poles. The pitch, though it doesn't look any different from the somewhat rundown air of the rest of the field.
All around are groups of older men in spotless white shirts and veshtis, out for the evening, sitting and chatting. Some have newspapers. Few watch the games being played out before them. I remember my own trips as a boy, with my Thatha to Madras's Marina Beach. What pleasure did he find, I used to wonder, in going all that way to sit with those other old men? Took me a while to understand. This evening in Thalassery, I see that same pleasure, in the faces of these men and in their animated, yet relaxed, conversation.
Just outside, in a sadly overgrown and padlocked little patch of garden, is a magnificent black statue. Dr Hermann Gundert (1814-1898), hand placed on a lectern, looks sternly out and away from the ground that must have existed when he lived in this town. Maybe that's an indication that he had no time for frivolities like cricket. This is the man, after all, who put together the first Malayalam dictionary. There is a Gundert Foundation School in town, preserving his memory. (Gundert was also grandfather to the great German writer Herman Hesse). I'm not sure why, but there's something arresting about the black figure the Doctor cuts, silhoutted too against a sky going dark.
From behind him, I hear a shout of triumph. Someone's scored again.