A Desert Playground / Saudha Kasim

On our playground, that lay at the foot of the Hajar mountains, we did tightly choreographed calisthenic displays. We did them as the sun set, our arms arcing and windmilling in the November air. A PT teacher stood in front of us and beat a steady count on the school’s large drum.  

Watching four hundred children raise arms and stick out legs in their white uniforms wasn’t visual pleasure for the audience. So they gave us things to hold or had us wear them. I imagine they discussed this at the beginning of the school year in the PT department, in hour long meetings where colours were finalised and budgets calculated.

One year we had wings made of card and crepe paper. Another year they gave us three feet lengths of shiny satin cloth and we raised them in pairs in the order we were taught. When I was fourteen we were given ribbons and we swung them through the air. That was the last year we did a choreographed Sports Day display — we aged out of such things and, besides, valuable study time was lost in practice under the hot Muscat sun that could have instead been spent brushing up on quadratic equations and Newton’s Laws.

That playground: a place of sporting myth and dark history. History that we made dark with stories of graves that had to be removed to make a place where we could run and triple- and long-jump and throw javelins and shot-puts. When the facilities staff marked the tracks and other arenas with their white chalk powder the macabre minded amongst us wondered aloud if they weren’t using the ground up bones of the dead to do their work. The dead were old sailors according to lore, men who’d fought Somali pirates and Portuguese naval forces in centuries past. Their service to Sultans and Indian Ocean empires done, their bones rested here till the physical fitness needs of white culotte clad girls and white trouser clad boys — who liked to indulge a bit too much in orange Tang and Nido milk and grown fat and soft  — demanded they be disturbed and awakened from their eternal rest.

And some class joker in the ‘80s, who’d seen too many Hollywood horror movies, decided that the bones had been kept in a vault within the school grounds and were ground up, batch by batch, to make the white powder to mark our places for PT classes and Sports Days.

That playground in the sudden, cold, early morning winter rains. Kheechad!, the teachers would yell at the students. The facilities staff who had to clean up after us as we tracked dark mud through the beige halls of the school would grumble and complain loudly. Threats would be made to send us to the Vice Principal’s office if we didn’t wipe our feet before coming in. Threats that were never carried out so the hallways continued muddy and brown through the whole winter.

Once, waiting for my father to pick me up at the end of the school day, I stood next to a track near the playground and split a small mound of mud with the toe of my black Bata Ballerina shoe. It broke apart, crumbled, dark brown and light brown and not a single living thing in it. No millipedes or centipedes or termites like there was in the mud back home in Kerala. 

Desert sand to desert mud in the January rains. 

There would be whirling eddies of sand across that playground in the summers. I’d see them dance across the empty space when we drove on the Hill Highway, passing the school in its bowl-shaped valley down below. I’d see the clouds of dust, brown and graceful, little tornadoes crossing and re-crossing the ground. The sun would be hot and dry and we’d be cool inside the air-conditioned car. On the other side of the highway was the sea. Its salt air would sometimes waft over to us in the school grounds: on the basketball court under the giant acacia tree, by the clubhouse with its jasmine bushes, up in the middle school laboratory on the first floor of the old wing. Through the glass in the door we could see the skeleton hung there, in its own shelf. Between classes, at the end of the shortened school day on Thursdays, in the evenings after sports practice, we’d pass by the lab door and look at the skeleton and it would shudder a bit, shaken by the draughts of air through windows and vents and our own feet pounding the stairways and corridors.

Someone said the skeleton had been one of the former residents of the playground, a more recent addition from the twentieth century who’d kept his head and all his bones. A perfect specimen that had been taken out and cleaned up and now dangled from a hook in the shelf. The science teachers would point out his bones and we’d think of the ships and boats he’d stood on, the sunsets he’d seen. In the Persian Gulf, by Djibouti, at Mombassa port. He’d have seen blue whales near Ceylon and fallen in love with a woman in the Maldives. Though the organs that had seen and felt and pulsed with blood had long become dust, we thought his bones held his stories. When we were twelve, Asha once put her ear to the frame of his shelf, challenged by a boy who’d decades later confess his love for her on a Facebook post. Her dark eyes had gleamed as she listened and Waleed, the boy who would say he’d loved her, had stood behind her and blown air on her neck and she’d screamed and run.

I asked Asha when we were both twenty and drinking Sharjah shakes at a small juice stall in Chinnakada in Kollam if she remembered that skeleton and how she’d listened for his voice. She shook her head. Do you remember the stories of the sailors’ graveyard where the school playground used to be? Maybe, she said. 

We’d only run into each other at the railway station the previous week and, startled and moved at this rare chance of our paths crossing, had agreed to meet and talk. But once we met and we drank and spoke of our families and our colleges and we said our goodbyes and made promises to stay in touch, we walked away from each other and never spoke again. 

When I looked up the school’s playground recently on its website and Facebook account I found that it had been upgraded. Artificial turf in place of sand. Permanent running tracks of synthetic rubber. So there wouldn’t be a man who’d mark things out with chalk every morning. There wouldn’t be muddy tracks in school corridors in winters or students with dusty white shirts in the summers.

There wouldn’t be stories of dead sailors and old bones. Who’d believe that the Olympic standard track ever had such things beneath it? The desert sand was buried under material with manufacturer warranties and annual maintenance contracts. There was no space for ghost stories to take root: our imagined tales and histories were as forgotten as those who’d sailed their ships from Muscat port, navigating with the aid of stars and ocean tides.

Saudha Kasim is a writer and communications professional. When she’s not reading, writing, or watching cat videos, she can be found on Instagram @saudha_k where she posts about reading, writing, and cats.

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