Before a cricket ground came up in the backyard of the St Xavier’s College in Thumba, once an unkempt grove of overgrown trees, two fears kept the trespassers away. The fear of snakes and ghosts. The story goes that while deforesting the six-acre woods to build the stadium, the local cricket association sought the expertise of several snake charmers and catchers (though not exorcists to weed out the ghosts), who according to the local hearsay, rescued nearly thousand snakes.
But the fear of ghosts, which owes to the graveyard across the St Dominic’s church that hugs the stadium, still persists. At least it spooks out Augustine Thomas, a guardsman at the stadium. He’s a war veteran, and like most of the ilk, he likes his drink and brags, but is so scared of ghosts that he avoids night shifts, just like, in his own words, how he had “dodged the bullets of enemy soldiers”. “I can beat enemies who’re humans, not these are invisible enemies,” he says. His colleagues though are braver, or as Augustine sneers, communists who are (supposedly) atheists.
Augustine tries to reason his fear. “In the early days of the tournament, whichever batsmen struck a six to the graveyard used to get out the next ball. Then the vicar came and sprinkled some holy water,” he narrates. A few, young padres of the church though laugh it off, before one of them banters: “Maybe, it could be those of old padres. It’s the usual fear of cemeteries, which has been here for nearly three centuries.” The church itself is four-centuries old, and is believed to house the bodily remains of Italian priest Dominic Savio. But the precincts, besides a few scattered single-storey houses, is quite deserted, making it spookier for the solo intruder at night. And most of the streetlights are dysfunctional, exaggerating the ghostly ambience.
You can imagine the eeriness when the dusk sinks in — the rumbling sea pounding on the slender beach-line, the sea-breeze scything the overgrown acacias and skinny palm-trees, darkness swivelling in the breeze. It feels straight out of a Ruskin Bond blood-curdler. Without the busy groundsmen, the ground and its neighbourhood can feel desolately chilling even in broad daylight.
It’s neither the ghosts nor the snakes that the groundsmen fear, but varieties of weeds that are common in coastal belts. The deadliest is the mandari, a local mite that causes the coconut root to wilt, which devastated the coconut industry in the state in the late 90s. “We have to continuously spray the pesticide. Otherwise, in less than a week’s time, the ground wouldn’t have a single shred of grass,” says Pramod, one of the ground-staff.
The local grass has less binding strength, which is closely correlated with bounce and pace — the greater the binding strength the greater the pace and the higher the bounce — since the underneath surface is sandy, they imported Bermuda Grass, which has strong underground stem and prevents cracks from opening out too wide. In nine first-class fixtures so far, the surface has seldom cracked, has a reputation of affording help for seamers in the morning, bounce throughout the day, before the pelting sun transforms the ground to a batting beauty. What’s more it’s considered a lucky ground for the state, who have won five of their six matches here, snatching first-innings lead in the other.
Another fear was rain — the stretch gets at least 250 days of rainfall — and the proximity to the Arabian Sea meant the risk of water clogging. But the ground was built in such a way that there is a 60cm slant from the grass-banks in the eastern side to the scoreboard in the west and the water, according to the groundsmen, will drain out in 15 minutes. It was Chepauk curator PR Viswanathan who suggested the slant, and resultantly despite intermittent showers, no match here had been adversely affected by the rain. “We’d done a lot of research before building the stadium, studied the structure of a lot of English stadiums,” says Pramod.
The English influence is perceptible, not only the imposing church-tower that overlooks it, or the bell that chimes when the wind gushes, but also the slanted roofs of the single-storey pavilion, an antique clock mounted on it, the sprawling grass-banks instead of concrete stands, and the throbbing greenery of the locale and the ground. “No other ground in the country has a church and sea in the background, I’m sure,” Pramod says. Or a graveyard.
Roughly two kilometres from the ground is the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, from where was launched the first rocket from the country, back in 1963. And no conversation with a villager of the idyllic fishing hamlet is complete without him sharing an anecdote related to the first rocket-launch or of a certain scientist who was part of it.
A soft-spoken man with hair like MS Dhoni’s (a queer comparison), that’s how they remember former president Adbul Kalam, who was part of the launch team alongside other luminaries like Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai. Everyone has a Kalam story to narrate, the slightly elderly ones would brag they’d shook hands with him, or cooked dinner for him, the middle-aged ones would claim Kalam had gifted them a pen or a book. Almost everyone vividly remembers the blazing tail of the rocket, bristling through the skies.
The churchyard from where from they propelled the first rocket is still intact, though inside the sprawling VSSC campus. Some say even the cycle they used to transport the rocket from is preserved as a memorabilia inside the centre. Some lament they no longer propel rockets from the centre. But more than the historic feat, they remember the onrush of tourists after the launch — backpackers on rumbling Yezdis seeking peace (and the now outlawed arrack) from the crowded Kovalam. The year after the launch came the St Xavier’s College, and fifty years later, a cricket ground on its backyards. “Thumba’s story is the story of backyards,” rattles out Augustine in a hoarse dialect of Malayalam peculiar to the southern coastal-line. The backyard of a church then, and the backyard of a college now.
It’s baffling how a 15-km stretch of a fishing village has a space centre, a 17th century church, a college, a beach and a first-class cricket ground. And of course, a scary graveyard.