Kashmir & Tennis: My Downtown Srinagar Memories of a Magical Realm

The sun hung over the breast shaped clouds of purple hued Zabarwan Mountains, shining brightly into our young eyes. Summers in Kashmir were always a reason for joy when we were kids: stretching out beyond the edges of our lives, the bright sun taunting us with endings, marked by long shadows thrown in the backyard by the end of it.

Long days and sunny weather meant lots of outdoor activities; the usual play kids in the 80s and the 90s would indulge in— an age much before the advent of smart phones and internet.

The cousin sleepovers were something no less than a celebration of good times. We would visit them and they would visit us in turns. Life was good, a long joyous vacation. We were the merry souls, playing accordion, a Joan Baez song on our supple lips- ‘I never dreamed this summer would end.’

Tennis Infatuation in the Times of Doordarshan

In addition to all the wonted stuff, summers brought with it the tennis infatuation. From late May to early July, two of the four Grand Slams played in the far off European cities of Paris and London: the French Open and the Wimbledon would catch us in the turf of its magic.

Over cold lemon ‘Squash’ (stored in Kelvinator refrigerator)–the Manmohan Singh economic liberty being still a few years away–the summer evenings brought our entire family together in the old part of the Srinagar city. This area was a crumbling collection of brown and grey houses, whose tattered rusty shingles of the rooftops rose behind each other, glittering in the summer evening sun. The only channel, Doordarshan, would telecast the semi-finals and finals.

The slipshod poor telecast by Doordarshan had little dampening effect on our spirits. I and any cousin, who was almost my age, were hooked to the game, picking our favorites for every tournament over 90s.

Our year was divided on lines of the four Grand Slams. We looked forward to the coverage on Sportstar Magazine every week.

Decking up our walls with posters and cuttings. I took part in one of the contests in the magazine. I won and was mailed a life size poster of Gabriela Sabatini, written in bold italics ‘from Madras.’ The joy was unbridled.

Women of Srinagar Cheering Their Favourite Women of Tennis

My earliest memory goes back to the 1988 Wimbledon final. The German prodigy Steffi Graf playing a legend in her own right–Martina Navratilova. It was a cracking final; the sighs and grunts of the players across thousands of miles reverberated in our living room. The love for the game and summers grew over years and was carried into the 90s. I notably remember the ’91 summer.

Gabriela Sabatini- the Argentinian sensation of the times was a craze amongst us all.

To put things in perspective, she was a Eugenie Bouchard on Columbian cartel coke. She played a great final match and probably had a championship point as well. However, the resilient German again got better of her opposition. I was crestfallen. To make matters worse, my favorite in men’s- Boris Becker lost the final to an unknown Michael Stich.

The womenfolk in my family- my sisters, cousins and aunts would be engaged with men, in these stiff battles fought over clay and grass. We all picked our favorites and supported them to tee. The gamesmanship was evident from both genders.

Contrary to the general belief, downtown Srinagar was a very liberal alcove to grow up in, where men were not necessarily misogynists.

It had perhaps something to do with how the city had shaped over years, its urban silhouette evident on the blurred freckles of its dwellers—an exiguous social circle of people who clinged together because they couldn’t stand to be alone. To imagine it now is unthinkable. It’s sad when a city loses its intrinsic spirit and culture to the bauble of times, and while its corners no longer smell of urban olfactory.

‘We Would Re-enact Entire Tournaments’

Sadly, we never got to play the real thing. The hostilities of war had gripped Srinagar under its hideous veil. There were people on both sides of Jhelum busy loading their guns.

The city had lost its only tennis court to war and uncertainty.

As a child, you remain isolated from the political developments. It matters little. While the city fell in perpetual grief of conflict, we did our little improvisation. My cousin and I played our version of tennis on a concrete yard that faced my ancestral home in downtown Srinagar. In a way, we had stepped into our make-belief magical realm. A copper wire acted as a net and our hands as racquets. We would leap in the air, serve with our palms. Drop shots, volleys, angle lobs, we had it all. We would re-enact entire tournaments, where he’d think of himself as Edberg and me as Becker.

Our rivalries were as tense if not more, as on real courts.

Some evenings back, the French Open caught me in a gale of nostalgia. I was left grappling with the meaning it holds for my generation, my city and my own awning memory. My city is an antique paper, but my memories are those that time couldn’t erase. Sometimes it is all you have from a city you so love. You roll back the clock and you extol all grief away which life brings with it. But I have a feeling that if I did that, the joy would be gone too. A fulfilled life, like a great tennis match, never finishes on a Deuce!

(Faheem is an IT engineer based in Dubai, with interest in travel, history and culture. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

. Read more on Blogs by The Quint.RSS & BJP’s Nehru-Netaji ‘Cosplay’: Irony Dies a Thousand DeathsDhoni’s Decision to Display Army Insignia Personal: Lt Gen Mathson . Read more on Blogs by The Quint.