Monday, August 31, 2009

Squash Suicide in Bangalore, India

Last year my company transferred me to Bangalore, India. I was very excited about this since I had always wanted to live in India. I had been to Chennai, India, with my good friend Vanamali Raghunathan. I took my son with me. We had a blast in Chennai, played squash at the Heritage Hotel, became friends with the attendant. We loved playing in the heat and the ball was fast and when we came off the court it was as if we had been playing in a sauna.

Originally I thought going to India would be the adventure of a lifetime. My son and I talked about it, he wasn't so keen, but I thought this could be such a rewarding experience for him. We assumed the squash would be great and we had plans on having him going periodically to Chennai to train with players out of the Cyrus Poncho's Indian Squash Institute. There was so little information on squash in Bangalore, but we assumed that we just had to go to the clubs. No one really responded to our inquiries. The most prominent club in our search was the prestigious Bangalore Club. I looked up membership information, and to be honest, it was so complicated to figure out. I tried emailing them. It was important to figure out the squash scene because there was no point in my son coming to India if he couldn't play.

My company was to put us up for 6 weeks and we found a hotel that also had squash. We were all set we could continue training and playing. We were in for a shock. The people handling the relocation took it upon themselves to change the agreed upon hotel and put us up in a 2 star or less hotel. For some reason the idea of squash to these people meant we thought ourselves privileged. I found this out later in the snied remarks about squash that was levied towards us by the people in my company. We are so far from that perception; we were just stereotyped and met with disdain as if we were reminders of a painful and humiliating past -- British Colonialism of course.

We spent days in between adjusting to India life trying to find a squash court to pay and play on. It was becoming increasingly futile when we realized the only places to play were very exclusive private clubs with long waiting lists for memberships. Our hearts sank. Most of these clubs offered temporary memberships but they wanted 5 year up front fees. The more frustrated I became the more futile it seemed. Anyone knows if you have a passion for something, you cannot be denied that passion. We would not be denied playing this game simply because of the perception that squash is for the privileged few and that to keep it that way you place so many restrictions and rules and regulations which keep 99% of the people out, the undeirables no doubt.

I contacted Cyrus Poncho in Chennai and he, bless him, put us in touch with a member out of the Bangalore Club. I don't remember his name we were passed on to another member of the club, Vinnie Singh. Vinnie was a godsend and I think was so happy to have someone of my son's caliber willing to play that he put us in touch with numerous players who had us play as their guests. We immediately took to Vinnie, he was soft spoken, played an old style but graceful squash that was thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately, I had torn my meniscus before leaving for India so I couldn't play without a great deal of pain. I could hit a bit with my son, but I knew I had a bad injury. But my son was able to play with Vinnie and others. The style of play was much like hardball, the ball fast, the courts very hot and the game and points very quick. We were coming from courts in Great Neck, NY that were less than half the speed. It was like going from softball to hardball. But my son adjusted slowly and began developing that soft volley drop which is so effective as well as an attacking boast. His footwork was slower to adjust because it was a challenge to keep distance off the ball when it comes at you from different angles and so fast. He had some great matches with Vinnie.

But it became apparent that my son couldn't play there because he wasn't the son of a member and wasn't 25 years old, the minimum age to be a temporary member. I was able to secure through Vinnie a temporary membership, but it didn't matter I couldn't really play because of my injury. And I could not add family to my temporary membership. We were back to square one sort of. That's when Vinnie had the great idea of getting my son in as a squash coach. My son had coached in the City and Long Island so he had the credentials. Vinnie's heart was in the right place, he saw all the old players at the club and wanted to see some new blood, to bring in the sons and daughters of the squash members and any other members to this game. He came up with the idea of coaching and in return a membership to the club. It took a while for Vinnie to put in the proposal and present it. Our fingers were crossed. Vinnie showed such patience, the kind of patience I could never have. He knew the system and always told me no matter how frustrated I became to never yell at the staff or officials of the club. This was probably more difficult to do than to rehabilitate my knee. My son would coach clinics at the club in exchange for playing. He was not a member and was only allowed to play certain times. We lived about 2 hours bus ride (because of the horrific Bangalore traffic) so he would just have to make due if he wanted to play.

What became apparent was the old attendant there who sometimes gave lessons and was not happy about this arrangement. Simply put, he made my son's life miserable. This is a trait I think I observed in India that you make someone miserable by making everything a chore even the simplest things. My son did these clinics on the worst court in the club, if he was hitting with a non-senior member of the club on the good court, and a senior member came along, he was kicked off. He could not have any guests and could not go 1 minute past his lesson time, which, even at times the old attendent would try and kick him off during a lesson if there was a member waiting to play. He wasn't allowed to reserve courts and if a player/student cancelled on him by calling the attendant the information wasn't passed on so there would be a rush to come in on that 2 hour bus ride for a canceled lesson.

He could not participate on the club ladder, for members only. Of all the people that he coached and paid his own bus fare to come in and coach for free none of them even tipped him. But I will say this Vinnie was very generous and "Bundy" was another really good friend that took to my son. All in all we have fond memories of the time there, but one of the parents of the best junior prospect in Bangalore, was told when he relocated from Bombay to Bangalore that it would be squash suicide.

To all those who make it so difficult to play this magnificent sport like not knowing how to sing and murdering the note, you simply murder this game. The PSA chairman I believe is out of India maybe he can promote and open the doors to the countless prospects in Bangalore who never did anything to anyone and who might simply want to play squash.

When the grinding commute to the Bangalore Club was a bit much, we'd go to the garage in our apartment building which was made of concrete. The ceiling was low, not unlike the old Harvard Business School American courts I played on with my Indian friend Supriya years ago, but we could at least hit the ball. And the sound of the ball coming off the concrete was the same as any ball coming off those old style courts, whether in Bangalore or Park Place Squash -- simply music.

My son eventually coached at Palm Meadows Country Club (suburban Miami in the heart of India) where he was paid and also they allowed me to play when I was healed. The sport manager, Mr Sagar Pawar, of Palm Meadows was like Vinnie, so gracious, a real gentleman, and really saw the benefit of my son playing and coaching out of his club.

I think many dislike an outdated system that discriminates so freely and easily against 99% of the population in the same manner that the old British system discriminated against the Indian population. Herman Hesse said something like be careful you don't become what you hate. In Bangalore, in the squash circles, I think there's some truth to that -- that old British Colonial system is still alive and well -- when they kicked the British out they should have kept all the good like squash and threw away all their foolish rules and regulations that were simply a disguise for their discrimination against the people whose home they occupied.

But maybe the real lesson here is that no matter what obstacles stand in your way there's always a way around them. My son and I since returned to New York where we play and coach squash and I never step onto the court in Great Neck taking this game or the ability to play it for granted. Before we left India, my son said to me, that his experience there was life changing. I'd like to think part of it was realizing what his life would be like if he wasn't allowed to play squash, not because of his ability or desire, but simply because many years ago a small group of people decided who should be allowed to play this game. I'd like to go back some day to Bangalore to hit around with Vinnie, perhaps build some outdoor courts, and invite any and all to hit a bit, run a bit, sweat a lot and experience the freedom of playing, within the confines of those four walls, the greatest game ever invented.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful! its a true insiders experience of walls that surrounds us all. With thought provoking realities of what a difficult circumstance could have been or would have been with a sharp contrast of make do with what you have!

Squash from Delphi said...

Thanks, Thejas. You are a great friend to KDG -- without you life for KDG would have been miserable in Bangalore.

Search Engine Test said...

I'm sorry that you and your son had to face such a hard time! As you said, the game in the country needs to be aggressively encouraged and adopted. Except for Cyrus, I hardly see anyone doing that. what a pity!

Unknown said...

Strange you were unable to locate Bangalore Squash League an amateur platform for squash buddies to get together and play.

But it is the same in the US. My son was visting my sister and could not get to play anywhere.

It was only after I requested my US friends for help was he allowed to visit some clubs and that too at specified times for training he could never get to play with the members.

I am not sure what WSF or PSA or even the local federations can do about this as unfortunately the infrastructure is at Clubs (be it India, or USA) and these guys have a Culture of not helping promote the game outside their own members.

Don't know if you get to travel to Delhi - because we can get you to experience what we have created here...
The Great Indian Squash League... check us out on facebook...

Cheers & Happy Squashing Always !!