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Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Walk in the Stadium

A Walk in the Stadium Thursday, January 6, 2011

We need to walk more: We are getting a bit spoiled, living in this India society where most every-one who has a car has a driver to drive and take care of it, as well as drive them (us) places. Ours is a cream-colored, 'standard' Indian-made Ambassador, bought second hand last year. Our driver, Raghava, is a soft-spoken man with typically insightful Indian networking skills, besides generous portions of general helpfulness, quick thinking, and a penchant for vigorous stick-shifting, the latter probably accrued from previous employment as a city bus driver. This evening, Raghava drives us to a stadium in another neighborhood for an evening walk.
Night falls early and quickly this near to the equator; it is already dark at six thirty as our headlights join bright lights of traffic and shops along a bustling main road during the busiest, evening hours. Fruit stands lit with bare light bulbs, lights of open-sided refreshment cafe's and bakeries shine upon the road, silhouetting customers standing at their counters. One of the first of the best, "Baker's Fun" is a large, brightly lit pink box sporting an evening fast-food section opposite gleaming glass cabinets of cakes, cookies, and curry-, chocolate-, or cream filled pastries. Next door, strings of white lights outline the "Little Planet" gift shop, the exterior of which is highlighted in hues of ultra-violet. Clusters of Chaitanya students, incognito in deeper shadows under a tree and around the now-darkened entrance of their franchise high school and college steps, seize the opportunity to chat while waiting for friends' or relatives' vehicles, or the school's bus, to take them home.
Every kind of commerce is doing a brisk business; even more people are walking than there are vehicles, along this stretch of road. Raghava turns a corner at the uber-busy intersection of four different neighborhoods, slows past a couple dozen garage-size shops including pre-packaged snack store (where open carts prepared hot snacks to order, last year), a barber or two, tire repair-while-your-wait shop, and a 'dollar' jewelery shop. He drops us in front of a watchman who swings the tall iron-grating of the stadium gate open, just wide enough for us to enter. Raghava parks the car beyond a small sea of motorcycles outside the compound wall, and joins us for a short while, before we have even made our first round.
Inside the stadium, there is an orderly, purpose-driven bustle. Undeterred by a limp and a cane, we step right in to the flow of a couple hundred walkers already immersed in the medium to brisk strides of their evening constitutionals, making rounds on a track which would fit comfortably around a football field.. Wearing sandals or tennis shoes--incongruous but practical below flowing sarees and comfortable salwar-kameezes--, ignoring the occasional rock jutting up from the burnt orange, beaten earth perimeter path, single, pairs and groups of women, singles and pairs of men, some on cell phones, chat comfortably with their peers. Life's burdens are lifted, problems solved, advice shared in the coolness of January evening air and anonymity of this public place. Husbands and wives (the older and younger ones walking abreast of, middle-aged ones walking behind, their husbands ), young and old, singles, pairs, and groups of women and men are in constant fluid movement around a three story concrete building and two large play areas. They flow around us too, sometimes with a side-or backward glance, but never with annoyance, as we move at a slower, but comfortable, steady pace.
Inside one corner of the track a concrete surface, further divided into a roller rink and a basketball court surrounded by benches and a four tier concrete gallery, is well lit by multiple stadium lights, while a larger ground encompasses a second, single, straight track ranging along one side of the building at the center of the rectangular campus,and a still-larger maidan...
Lights high up on the light green,three story concrete building, which houses a gym and a variety of fitness and activity rooms, are muted by the time they near the ground, casting latticed shadows from trees and shrubbery along two sides of the larger track. The dimness and shadows are reflected in the muted voices and relaxed demeanor of the walkers. The maidan is dim, backlit by the brighter rink and court behind a small group of youth attempting to organize casual contests on the straight track, and families sitting and chatting, smaller children cavorting, on the maidan as though they were in a park.
The third side of the perimeter track backs a private high school, the fourth runs along the backside of shops on the main road, punctuated by a secondary gate toward which some of the walkers veer at the end of their walk. Nestled behind shops at the busy intersection we passed on our way here, is another, smaller exit. Nearer that part of the track, a low divider corrals bicycles and a few onlookers...mostly men...
Brighter, stadium lights blaze over eight or ten youth of varying ages, engaged in a session of pick-up basketball. Next to them, a dozen earnest, helmeted in-line skaters bend to practice their skill, speeding and slowing as they weave gracefully in and out of each others' paths, today's newspaper report of district youth skating competitions no doubt fueling their determination. The youngest appears to be about eight, the oldest and tallest, a shorts and t-shirt clad girl, perhaps fifteen or sixteen.
Older gentlemen sit and gab with each other on a series of concrete benches on two sides of the roller rink. Their heads and eyes turn casually toward us and back, a few of them with arms flung casually over the back of the bench and their neighbor, as we pass. They seem to be scanning for information, and perhaps for the possibility of new faces to join their accustomed evening coteries. Young mothers with children too young to allow free roaming, wives waiting for their husbands to finish walking, and grandmothers, some of them evidently babysitting, sit on the triple-tiered bench at the end of the rink, beside a column bearing details of the stadium's creation and namesake.
High in a velvet sky, a sliver of new moon graces the scene that bears ample witness to the wisdom of the stadium forebears. A young man, once gatekeeper at a small school near our home, materializes out of the crowd, toward the end of our walk. He now works security at the stadium compound, and is as obviously enthusiastic about this new assignment as he is to greet us after a year or so of our absence from town. We must definitely come again.

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