Racquetball, a good workout..

I am not a bad Racquetball player. Going back to my glory days of gully Cricket in the mean streets of Hyderabad, any sport involving hitting a moving object with a stick came somewhat naturally to me, whether it was Gilli Danda or Table Tennis or Badminton. I even have a runner-up certificate from the only Racquetball competition I ever participated in at the International Olympiad during my graduate years here in the US educational system to prove for it, granted that International Olympiad was a glorified name for a competition among a collection of semi-sporty nerds within the international student community who needed to be cajoled and coerced into participation to make it look like an event. Yes, the competition wasn’t exactly elite, but I felt no shame in vying for the throne of that one eyed king in the land of the blind. While that runner-up certificate isn’t exactly hanging on my living room wall now, it is still there somewhere among the remains of my school memorabilia to establish the fact that I am not a complete stiff when it comes to Racquet ball.

Awhile back, I had just gone through a major surgery rehabilitation, and with my natural born aversion to treadmills, free weights, exercises and workouts, I decided to revisit my local YMCA for a few pick-up games of Racquetball to get back into some reasonable pre-surgery shape. I walked into an open court and started hitting a few balls against the wall on my own. A few minutes later I heard a knock on the door and opened it to find this old white guy with a grizzled white beard wearing knee braces and a head band around an almost bald head with a sprinkling of white hair over his Racquetball goggles. He might have been at least twice my age and and the wrinkles on his face couldn’t belie that.

Are you waiting for a partner?” he asked.

No, just hitting a few balls.” I replied.

Interesed in a game?” he inquired.

Feel free to join me.” I said. I had not built up any endurance and knew I’d be gassed in a few minutes, but the guy might have been at least twice my age and it showed on his face. I figured I’d be able to manage.
He was over 6 ft tall and I noticed that he carried an expensive E-Force racquet and walked in with a noticeable limp in spite of those protective knee braces he was wearing.

He could have been just as old as this "Up" guy.. didn't stop him from humiliating me in Racquetball

We hit a few balls to warm up and started a game. I had never played with anyone this old before and didn’t know what to expect and was completely unprepared for what was in store.  He started the game with the serve and it was 3-0 before I could touch it, 6-0 before I could make a valid return and 8-0 before I could break it. Once I got a hang of his serve, I had to deal with his long reach, a deadly low shot and a drop off the side wall that he could seemingly hit in his sleep. The game was over before it started, I lost 15-1. I notched it up to my sluggishness from the layoff. I wasn’t all that tired since I hardly moved from the bludgeoning I took from him. I felt I had something left in the tank for another game. So we played a second. I was able to extend the rallys a little bit, but I did all the running and he did all the hitting without moving at all on the court. I was out of breath 5 pts into the game and lost the game 15-4. The old fart was never once in the backcourt, always in the middle, and never out of position through out the game. Leaving out the gory details, I was annihilated by a limping old man on bad knees without having to break a sweat in a sport that relies on your agility as much as your wrist strength while I was on my knees grasping for air through out the game. As I pulled myself up on my feet from my knees and dragged myself out of the court, I asked him if he’d be available to play for the next few weeks.

I felt so humiliated that I needed to redeem myself. Plus, I had an in-built excuse of someone just coming out of a major surgery rehab.
“Besides, “ I said to myself, “I am being too nice. I should stop congratulating that old goose on every winner.  Good shot this..good shot that..enough with the false modesty.  I don’t hear him encouraging me even as he is steamrolling my ass. No more Mr.Nice Guy! I have to be ready with a gameplan next week.”

“I can be here same time next week, but you are not going to just give up like you did today, are you?” he asked with no hint of a joke in his tone.
Is he freaking serious? Give up!? Does he think I gave up? Is this fucker needling me now because he beat me badly? Condescending bastard!

“I didn’t give up. I am just coming out of a rehab and ran out of gas.” I said, defensively.
“OK, same time next week.” he said as we left the courts.

Next time we met I had a plan. Old man or not, bad knees or not, I realized my only chance was to make him move. So, sportsmanship be damned, I stopped congratulating him on his shots and tried to make him move and extend the rallies instead of going for broke with winners. He was in general more aggressive in establishing position and once he got in between you and the front wall, he could dictate play easily. I didn’t allow him to get to his spots as meekly as I did before, and as you can call obstruction in Racquetball if you feel the other player is blocking your path to the ball, I called them without hesitation every time he was remotely in my way. Normally, I leave it to the other player to concede this on his own. This guy was conceding nothing, and I was never as motivated to beat anyone more.

I felt worse than Adam Sandler being beaten up by Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore..

As if this humiliation was not enough, there were steady group of spectators watching these games as these courts are open to a view from a waiting area were parents and kids meet before they leave. True or false, I disliked the the desi stereotype – the one of a semi-gangly nerd who is good at math and sucks at sports and speaks like Apu in Simpsons. I didn’t want to be the one to perpetuate this myth further with continued annihilation at the hands of a broken down old man who looked like he might need a walking cane to move in his living room. Yet, whenever the game got close, he had another gear that he could shift to and cruise to the finish. It was as if I was playing Roger Federer, except he was older than Roger Federer’s grandfather. I felt worse than Adam Sandler when he was beaten up by Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore.

We played for 3 more weeks. We didn’t speak much after the games other than confirming dates and times for the subsequent meeting. I got a bit closer each game, and if I ingored the fact that he might be as old as my dead grandfather, I was enjoying the competition, and this was serving the actual purpose of regaining some of my fitness back. The last game we played, I finally managed to beat him 15-13, and I could have sworn that the guy actually perspired a little bit.  I felt as if I had won the Wimbledon and needed to retire right away on a high, I couldn’t go any higher. Take that old man!

After the game, as we sat on the bench outside the court and packed our bags, he asked
“Do you speak Hindu also?”

I once faked to be a Mexican to a stranger I had just met when she automatically assumed I was an Indian without bothering to verify with me.  There was also a time when I would have acted like a prick and said “No I don’t speak Hindu, just as you don’t speak Christian.”
I am a more patient man now-a-days and am also used to this type of an inquiry by now.  It is not uncommon for Americans not as exposed to desis to get religion and language mixed up.  The man was merely interested, so, instead of acting like a wise-ass I corrected him politely.
“The language you are refering to is Hindi.  I am a Hindu because Hinduism is my religion.”

“Your English seems alright.”

“I have to thank my Indian educational system for that.  You have a great game by the way.” About time I admitted this to his face.
“My knees are not holding up anymore, but I’ve been playing this game for the past 25 years and I love it.  I also play regularly with other players from my church.  Do you follow your religion?”
I felt queasy talking religion with strangers.  Matters of spirituality and one’s own perception of God are of very personal nature.  You can discuss with close friends you can trust, but I prefer to stay away from these topics with near strangers.
“I do.. to some degree.” I replied with an uncomfortable smile.
“Have you committed any sins in your life?” he asked.
Oh-oh.. a red flag went up inside.  He is breaking all established rules and protocols for conversations with strangers.  First religion, now morality, what next? politics and sex?
“I don’t know, it is difficult to define what a sin is.  Unless it is a blatant act against humanity, that definition can change from person to person.” I replied.
“You should read the bible to learn about your sins.  All of God’s commandments are in it and if you break them it is a sin.” He was simplifying for me.  There was belief in his voice.
It made me squirm a bit more.  I really didn’t want to continue this conversation.  I could tell it was not going to end well.
I remained silent, but he continued, “How do you know you will go to heaven after you die?”.

“I don’t.” I replied, not the least bit interested in getting into the notion of heaven and hell with him.
“If you don’t, what is the meaning of your life?  You don’t have one.” he said with conviction.
He was being annoying now.  I wanted to put an end to this conversation.
“You are assuming I believe in everything that you believe in.  I might not.  We both can believe in whatever we want to, but it really doesn’t matter as long as you are not hurting me and I am not hurting you.” I said, hoping that might end this weird conversation.
He was in no mood to stop.
“I know I am not perfect.  I have committed a few sins in the past and I will commit more in the future.  But God will pardon me because I go to church and ask for forgiveness.  I know I am going to heaven after I am done here.”
Good for you old man, can you please stop trying to show me the path.
He was in no mood to stop.
“There is also scientific proof about Jesus’s life.  You should really come to our church this weekend.  You will find your meaning for life.”
I knew I had to put an end to this.
“No offense, ” I said, “but I am neither interested in your church nor interested in discussing religion with you.  When it comes to God, what I believe in and how I provide meaning to my life is my personal matter, and I am not interested in discussing that with you either.  You are a very good racquetball player and I did enjoy playing with you.”

“Thats fine, “ he said with a trace of bitterness in his voice, ” I have nothing to lose, but you will go to hell without any salvation.”
I had had enough.  I just stood up and left.

ah.. that alluring ticket to that mythical heaven..

I get Jevoah’s Witnesses knocking on my door every now and then, but even they were never this annoying.  On my way back home, I wondered if converting people to his religion was part and parcel of his deal to catch that bus to his Pearly Gates.  If something preached by a religion, any religion, controls your activity beyond your personal realm and influences your fellow human, there is no getting around murder and violence in the world, because none of that mayhem appears as important to those that are brainwashed on that ultimate goal of reaching that gateway to heaven.

Needless to say, that was the last time I played with that old man.  We still run into each other every now and then at the YMCA, but pass each other by like total strangers.  I suspect he is still busy finding unsuspecting strangers to join his church to buy that ticket to heaven.