After the wild dogs have passed by, we get confirmation: India is losing the World Cup.
My uncle and brother has spent most of the drive so far poring over Hotstar—a panicked download a few hours earlier in the day when we realized the India vs. New Zealand Cricket World Cup semi-final was not a match we wanted to follow via unevenly updated online statistics. By stealing a password from a friend and data from nearby hotspots, the end result is that we have been tracking the India vs. New Zealand Cricket World Cup semifinal run by run over the last couple hours on smooth Keralan highway.
“A billion dreams are riding on this,” my brother keeps saying. “A billion dreams! History in the making!” My mother keeps telling him to shut up.
Then, thankfully, we entered the nature reserve and lost internet connectivity. The match hangs in a no-signal limbo. The iPad is tucked inside.
I open the window to the wind—thick and moist, edged with rain just over, or just to begin. We did this drive during the winter a few months ago, but now it’s monsoon and the skies are gray and there’s a sense of bursting things around. The forest luxuriates; there’s no other word for it – the leaves glistening with self-satisfaction, the vegetation swelling forth with unconfined glee. I feel like I could open my mouth and swallow whole this air whipping past, or it could swallow me, take me to pieces and make me fertile, make me vast.
As we drive past the boundary of Bandipur Tiger Reserve, two wild dogs, also known as dhole, dart across the road. We make out the brush of their black tipped tails and their long slender snout before they are gone. A rusted stain in memory. It’s been years since I’ve seen them. I exhale in delight as the village starts to creep back in around us.
My brother lets up a cry. “It’s back, the signal is back!”
Soon we wish it wasn’t. The renewed connectivity shows a scoreboard trending towards perhaps one of the most dramatic losses of the Cricket World Cup so far. As the backseat winces at yet another wicket, my mother lets out an exasperated sigh from the front. “It’s just a game!”
“It’s a billion dreams!” my brother repeats. “A billion dreams!”
“Let’s look at this logically,” my mother says. “Take India as a population of a billion. That billion includes young children and babies, people who are working, people who, perhaps, don’t even care about cricket. It’s not a billion dreams. It’s maybe a couple hundred million.”
“No, no.” My brother jabs his finger at the corner of the screen. “There are a million people watching on Hotstar alone. Imagine how many more on Tata Sky. And then the radio, other streaming sites…”
“It’s still not a billion dreams,” my mother says.
Outside the window, we’ve entered Wayanad. We wind up a precipitous slope to our house, where we’re spending the night. It’s wreathed in trees – an old coffee plantation regrown. Everything is cool and that kind of silvery damp just after rain. Birds are calling distantly and I squint, trying to parse the calls into identifications, but falter and let the sounds wash over me.
Somewhere far away, the cricket match creaks to its inevitable end on the still-running iPad. The screen has attracted a small crowd of the morbidly fascinated. On the last few balls, a sudden run streak spurs a flurry of hope, which then fades. Too little too late. And so India loses the World Cup.
The next morning dawns crystalline. We stumble outside with filter coffee and watch Jerdon’s Leafbirds visit the mistletoe one by one. Occasionally one will turn and catch the flash of gold at its breast, like a medallion. Later they’re replaced by a chorus of tiny Nilgiri Flowerpeckers, who dart nervously about and pick up the fruit with great delicacy. This is a former coffee plantation since overgrown. We can hear the road humming below and if we squint can see the flash of cars through the trees. But the golden flight of an oriole overhead distracts us.
When my brother wakes up, he’s shaking his head. “They lost. How could they have lost?”
“It’s not such a big deal, stop whining,” says my mother.
He begins, “A billion – ” but is silenced by a glare.
It’s worth clarifying here that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination and by any definition of the term, a “sports person”. I cannot sit through a full game of anything, cricket least of all; I find sports games both horrendously boring and unbearably suspenseful and so spend most of the time wishing that they would just tell us who won already. Personally, I managed six years of cross-country only by hating every single competitive moment of it.
But back in Sri Lanka, at the behest of my host family, I went for five minutes of a Sri Lanka-England test match. We watched Stuart Broad bowl to a hapless Sri Lankan batsman. The England super-fans chanted unintelligible drunken rhymes, repeating every time the ball blurred past. From the edge of the pitch, we could hear the whistle of air that marked its passage, but could barely make out the ball itself. Unimaginable speeds: this could kill you, I realized, this was a bullet of rubber, or whatever cricket balls were made out of, and would knock you at the very least unconscious if you didn’t defend yourself.
I had thought of cricket, played out slowly on the TV screen, as a sedate Sunday-afternoon type thing before this. But no, this was violent, this was visceral—this was war.
There is beauty (of course) to sports as well—the artistry of a well-placed throw, the singing thwack of a clean hit, the exuberance of victory, or the sweet consciousness of effort in fullness. But there is beauty to battles, too. Just ask any medieval painter.
It’s just another way my brother and I are different. I am the nature girl and run after animals, he is the sports boy and runs after balls. He has associated statistics for most major players on instant recall; I rattle off bird names. We are diametrical opposites in nearly every other way: team player, not; extroverted, introverted; verbal communicator, written communicator; tall, short; und so weiter. My mother has spent years now trying to convince us the last word does not win an argument, that arguments do not always have to be won. It’s a slow lesson. Conflict only breeds conflict.
Of course, there’s a lot I don’t understand. Like I said, I’m not a sports person.
“It’s just a game,” my mother keeps telling my brother as we cross the Kabini River. A kingfisher darts down from the drowned skeleton of a long-dead tree.
“They played badly, they played badly. It’s what happens. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.”
My brother looks dejected at the horizon.
I track two smooth-coated otters with my binoculars, sleek apostrophes ducking in and out of the water. I don’t quite agree with my mother, though I’m not going to say anything; everyone will just shut me up. But it’s not quite just a game, not when it’s cricket, not when it’s India. What do a billion people dream of? Money, social advance, education. A good rain and harvest. A promotion. A better life for their children. Children. Marriage. Their parents off their back. A smartphone, a laptop, an internet connection. A cheap flat. A stable income. A sustainable food source. Peace, which is to say, the absence of fighting, which is to say, a battle they can say they have triumphed, unequivocally, irrevocably. A trophy they can hold high.
A cricket game is a story you can tell, a story you can share, a story you could win. So, for that matter, is a human encountering nature. Both present easy binaries: victory and defeat, the urbanized and the wild. One promises to come out over the other. But what of a cricket team playing over years? What of a human relationship with nature? Where will the ultimate triumph be declared?
In the evening our jeep’s tire pulls a flat and we have to break at a forest department lodge while it gets fixed. We huddle under a pavilion. Outside it starts raining cats, dogs, and somebody’s whiskers and in hushed voice we talk under the falling water. Our naturalist, Sarath Champati, tells us about the last time he stayed in this lodge. A sloth bear came late at night to their window and he waited with bated breath, listening to it shuffle and grunt outside. So loud it could have been next to them. After all, what did that flimsy wood wall mean to its huge paws? How can any boundary ever be that simple?
Binary stories are just that: stories. In the end the sloth bear left in silence with only a pile of droppings as a calling card.
The next day as we drive past the border areas of Kabini, we scan the sugar cane fields and road edges, hoping a leopard will run past in a few heart-stopping moments. There are still deaths here almost every year, human and big cat, or else painful relocations of both.
Tranquilization of an animal or relocation of a village writes an easy narrative: antagonist and protagonist wrapped up in an ending that promises finality. There rarely is in reality—tribes marooned far from their home soil, tigers wandering lost in foreign territories. In the long term there’s only living with it, managing, sustaining, compromising, over and over.
These battles cannot end, but can perhaps soften. There will be no outright anything, whether victory or defeat, only moments of beauty and moments of horror, and each will pass in turn. We pull off the rural roads and onto the highway. No leopards this time, so instead my mother and I scan the telephone wires for white-throated kingfishers. When they fly down their wings are a gorgeous blue, bright and beautiful and all too temporary, a cerulean dream.