A Royal – Thomian Family
“A cricketing fiesta such as this is my idea of nirvana”
Into the passionate Soul of sub-continental cricket, Emma Levine
The setting: Big matches are as unique as they are similar. There is cricket of course, but no a big match is defined by the game itself. It is a far larger spectacle, a seething mass of humanity bursting with life threatening with every delivery to spill over the edges of the stadium, a heady, adrenalin driven and testosterone filled carnevale.
But I digress. I’m not writing about any big-match, but the veritable The Royal – Thomian, which at over 126 years old is a manic festival of cricket that is the second oldest uninterrupted test encounter in the world.
Imagine the heady intoxication of music, alcohol and greasy Chinese rolls. Imagine the coveted chilled beer, making its way from mouth to mouth, a sip of nectar. At first anyway – those at the end of the food chain got a mix of froth, a few dregs of malt, and a whole lot of saliva. Not that it mattered at the time. The empty bottle could always be thrown at the head of a particularly annoying opponent, or better still, a College Prefect attempting to bring order to what is perfect chaos. Imagine the colour, the sound, the sight, the smell all mixed into one hedonism that lay to waste the larger hurdles of term end exams, parental desires for prefectships and the favouritism of teachers. This was happy dust, the fanfare of the bands, stolen souvenirs to cackle at the caricatures of players in the field, ribald jests on the (alleged) secret (and not so secret) homosexual desires friends, players and teachers even, intoxicated brains conjuring up lyrical baila, waxing forth arguments in verse as to why to learn or to depart is quite a silly idea.
The cricket: Sadly, I can’t remember much of it. Apart from the players, the scoreboard and the Coach, it’s questionable whether anyone remembers in detail the details of the game, even those in the Mustangs tent. Of course, there were the not infrequent pitch invasions to volubly protest against a particularly damning decision against College. The umpiring in question that needed to be strongly denounced from the middle of the pitch was alerted by those several times removed from the actual protestors. These original informants often saw multiples of everything, under the influence of a motley array of alcohol, and were thus increasingly ignored as the match progressed. Pitch invasions were always accompanied by the strongest reprimands by the Prefects and stern warnings of dire consequences to one’s own balls if the act was ever attempted again. And though the pitch invasions continued history does not record whether the Prefects actually carried out their threats.
There was, to those genuinely interested, very good cricket. Some of the finest innings in cricket’s history are writ by the signature strokes of willow against leather over the past century at the Royal – Thomian. This was serious cricket and the firmament of so many dreams of making it to the national team and thereon to international fame. What one does remember slightly better are the boundaries – when the entire stadium would erupt is a riot that Tharoor would find hard to describe. Cheering, well jeering – loud, riotous and increasingly hoarse – were not really aimed to animate anything in the playing field, but at the far more noble enterprise of conscientiously challenging the “other” school’s faith, flag, virility and sexuality (or lack thereof). Getting drunk at the mere whiff of arrack was part of the foundation for lyrical arguments amplified by the ever present, alcohol fuelled and untiring papara bands.
The “boys”: The Royal – Thomian is primarily about boys (including those disguised as older and wiser men). The general melee of a Royal – Thomian in our day would guarantee two things. More booze. More chaos. More riotous dancing. And then more booze. So I lied, that’s more than two – but in those days, we never kept count of anything during the Big Match. With fists flying at no one and everyone, the pitch was not the only place to crack balls. There were fights over girlfriends. There were fights over the last dregs of coconut nectar. There were fights over lyrics, deemed heretical by those who sang no better and on no less heretical topics. There were, however, never fights over religion or ethnicity. These mattered little, and the only boundaries that matters were those that raised the score. And while there were fights over territory, these were not linked to traditional homelands. Anyone was a potential fucking-sperm-dog, arse(hole), mother-fucker, shit(e) or son of a harlot (or a heady combination of any of the above). Deeply confusing to an outsider, these seemingly derogatory terms were used with great affection amongst close friends and with bitter invective against those from the “other” College. Sure, there was caricature of ethnicity and religion, but never with mal-intent or militant animosity. Friendship crossed many boundaries that would in later years define who we were and were not. Arrack was a great leveller, and in our stupor, what was said in verse was replied to in verse (through vaada baila sessions that were sheer genius). That anyone could be insulted, and could insult in turn, created an atmosphere of strange equanimity, where everyone was united by that elixir of life and nectar of under-age alcoholism – Mendis Special.
The “girls”: Unmistakably and unashamedly, the Royal – Thomian is a male dominated affair. Females who attend are overwhelmingly the love interest du jour of male spectators, or their sisters, cousins and their friends. They presence is tolerated more than welcomed, though they indubitably added to the colour and gaiety of the event. They are huge fans of cricket and of each College, not infrequently as much as or even more so than their male lovers or brothers. Some are disdainful of the prods, pokes and pinches to boob and butt as they mingle their way through a throng of testosterone. Others accept the inevitability of such actions and move ever closer to the boundary, to callously divide attention of those behind between action on the pitch and their own lithe movements to the sounds of baila. Lyrical and ageless stories of cupping the insatiable Mary beside the flowing waters of the Mahaweli River and then encountering Mary’s mother and the ensuing drama, as well as Surangani’s travails with fish continue unabated, and were often given more colour by the subtle (and not so subtle) variations added in by females present. Braving catcalls, they walk around the boundary, waving College flags as staunchly as their male counterparts and often, with more aplomb and confidence – for history proves that not a single female has been entreated by an empty beer bottle to shut-up and get lost (as is the fate of many men who try the same feats) in over a century. In short, reluctant though they might be to admit it openly, they have fun.
Family: Surely, the Royal – Thomian deserves consideration as a venerable family that has not only endured two World Wars, but had for generations (re)kindled bonds of friendship and brought together far-flung members to celebrate a common interest in inebriation and cricket (not necessarily in that order).
Given the nature of other articles in this issue however, and from what the reader may gather from the bacchanalia described above, the Royal – Thomian may at first seem an impossible fit into a traditional definition of family, as a group consisting of parents and children living together in a household. But the lens of parenthood or progeny doesn’t necessarily define a family. Built on a common bond to the alma mater and loyal and strong allegiance to the College colours, it is not uncommon to find 3 generations of bucolic and irreverent old boys each enjoy the game in their own inimitable way. They come from afar to be together, to share memories of their time in College – De Saram, Buck, Stone, Wood and Copplestone exchanging ribald stories from when they too heard the belfry toll. For who have left College, there is a sense of nostalgia at a Big Match, a yearning for simpler times of misspent youth, when larger conflict could be forgotten in the afterglow of a day at the Big Match. Family, however defined, brings a security, a certainty, comfort and solace. It is a safe space, a place to escape, to retreat, to truly be oneself sans the heavy adornment of social responsibility, political office or officialdom, to be silly, to laugh, to cry, to love and be loved. Though not all these will be articulated verbally, look through the boisterous ruckus and you’ll find it in abundance. For here, flagrant paternalism and chauvinism exist cheek-in-jowl with a deep respect for the presence of females, to the extent that their honour, if in question, would give rise to all manner of aerobatic and acrobatic feats from which the “knight” would often be rescued by the “maiden in distress”. Men rescued by women, women fighting women, brothers fighting for their sisters, sisters fighting for their brothers, fathers, sons, mothers, lovers, grandfathers and more, all engaged in a ritualistic dance to the strains of a kaffringa, the Royal-Thomian brings with it a sense of strange togetherness – that the chaos has its own logic, the cricket its own pace, the spectators their own music, the females their signature cadence, the males their own rhythm. It is an equal music, a concert of diversity, which for 3 days in the ides of March makes the rest of the world fade away. The Royal – Thomian isn’t many things and never, hopefully, will be. It isn’t politically correct. It isn’t gender sensitive. It doesn’t respect privacy and social boundaries or norms, and has little patience with introverts. It doesn’t welcome outsiders, but should they find themselves thrust in the middle of the ruckus, it embraces them openly and warmly. It is thus a contradiction with its internal logic and modes of operation that cannot be easily explained; only loved. Hard to define it may be, but for the thousands who throng each year to worship an indefinable, indefatigable, destructively exuberant Kali we love and are part of, the Royal – Thomian is family – and ironically, sometimes much more than the dysfunctional social groups we grew up in.
And the strains of Mary’s mother resound once again in the echo chambers of heart and memory…
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