On one of the first cool days of fall, I wandered into a sprawling city park in north central Queens to watch a team of recent Indian immigrants – many of them living in the U.S. without papers – play their regular Sunday cricket match in the park.
The United Cricket Club team was undefeated in their league, and their star player, Davinder, was a thing of legend. He was twenty-seven and uncommonly handsome, bearded with a square, athletic build, and that day he did not disappoint. During the match, he caught ball after ball as his team looked on in awe. When it was their turn to bat, he almost immediately hit a six, the cricket equivalent of a home run. “Beauty! Good batting!” shouted Pardeep, the captain, who has kind eyes and a twirly beard, and leapt out of his lawn chair when excited. And then Davinder hit a pull shot, swinging the bat around his body to knock the ball far down the pitch. The shot ended the game.
With Davinder at the front, the team’s eleven players ran jubilantly off the dusty pitch in their bright lime green uniforms with their nicknames printed on the back, many of them misspelled. They celebrated their victory with Corona beer in plastic cups and bright orange tandoori chicken piled high on a portable grill. Someone put on Punjabi music. Davinder was practically strutting. “Man of the match!” someone shouted.
But I hadn’t come to watch the match. Pardeep had invited me because he said the United Cricket Club was more like the lonely hearts club – that the players all had love stories I needed to hear. Love and cricket went hand-in-hand, he told me. “When you love this game, sometimes it’s more than love,” he said. “And when you love someone, nothing is more than important than this person.”
After the match, I pulled Davinder aside to ask him if there was anyone he missed back home. As I did, his cocky confidence fell away. Davinder had a girlfriend back in India, whose face he hadn’t seen in the three years he’d been in the U.S. “I don’t have a picture, she doesn’t have Facebook, we don’t Skype, and she just has a simple phone,” he told me. They talked every day for hours with the help of a calling card. “I tried dating other people but I can’t. I love her.”
Davinder came to the United States three years ago, following the same route many Indian immigrants take to get to here today: across the Mexican border, with the help of a human smuggler. His journey started in Reynosa, Mexico, and for thirty-six hours he walked with just a little tuna fish, bread and water. After that he hid out, terrified, in the smuggler’s house just near the border, and then crossed over in a small boat with about fifteen other people.
Many players on the United Cricket Club team came to the U.S. this way, landing in Texas and then eventually moving north to New York. By some combination of contacts and word-of-mouth, they eventually found Pardeep’s team, which plays in the Commonwealth League, the oldest recreational cricket league in New York. The league attracts immigrants from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Caribbean and wherever cricket is played around the world. Their team is made up entirely of Sikhs, followers of a monotheistic religion with origins in Punjab in North India.
At home, the players told me they won trophies for their villages – Davinder boasted of winning seventy. Back there, they were stars, and never had to fight baseball players for space. But here, they said, the ground was better, the umps were fair, and cricket was about a lot more than trophies.
Many of the players, including Davinder, arrived in the U.S. totally alone, leaving behind lovers, friends and family. And so the cricket team played surrogate for all three. Sunday cricket matches were about having fun, but it was also a place they could talk about their problems. They discussed jobs, housing and homesickness. And they discussed one thing most of all: girls.
While Davinder was thinking about his faraway girlfriend during the match, his best friend on the team, Jeetu, was preoccupied with his recent breakup. Jeetu is thinner than Davinder, with a higher voice, and though he had a green card – which he had paid a lawyer a hefty sum to secure – he didn’t have his best friend’s same confidence.
Jeetu had been dating a Sikh girl in Long Island who pursued him aggressively – until she didn’t. “Before she talk, like, so many things for me,” Jeetu said as he grabbed a bottle of Grey Goose from a cooler and began pouring it into his teammates’ plastic cups. “But then, over a year, slow, slow changing. When I called, she say: ‘I’m busy.’”
Jeetu told me he tried to prove his love to her in a way she wouldn’t forget – by cutting his arm open with a razor blade and sending her a picture. He showed me his scar; it runs down the length of his forearm. She broke up with him shortly after.
Jeetu said he now spent most of his time with Davinder instead. They talked on the phone every day, often for more hours than Davinder spent talking to his girlfriend in India.
“If your heart is clean you can attach to people easily,” said Jeetu.
“He’s my pappu,” joked Davinder, using the term of affection that sometimes means “my baby.”
For now, Jeetu decided, he wasn’t going to try to figure out American women, who seemed to follow vastly different rules than the girls he knew back home. He knew 21-year-old Bally, with spiked hair and startling green eyes, was successfully dating an American girl. But that girl was also Sikh, and Bally’s relationship with her hadn’t been easy.
During the match, she was all Bally could think about, because he had just sent her back to her parents’ house after they lived together surreptitiously for months. He sent her home because he wanted to date her “the right way,” with her parent’s permission.
“She cried when I told her to go back,” he said, looking down at his feet. “I told her, ‘Don’t worry, later we’re going to get married, and then you’ll come back to me.’”
But Bally worried she might never come back, because her parents didn’t think he loved her. They were convinced he was just trying to marry her for a green card. After the matches ended, Bally often sat on his own composing songs for her in Punjabi. “Everybody makes me cry but you make me happy,” he wrote. “For you I have a lot of place in my heart / if you tell me I can die for you.”
Bally, Jeetu and Davinder all got emotional about women, and it often worried Pardeep, who had been happily married for four years. Bally, with his forbidden romance. Jeetu, who had been badly broken up with. And Davinder, with his girlfriend halfway around the world. As captain of the team, Pardeep felt responsible for all of them.
Sometimes, Pardeep tried to understand their heartbreak in the context of cricket, where love can turn into obsession. But this only made him worry more.
That day at the match, they were as close as family. But just a few months later, Davinder would be off the team. It hurt the captain to kick his friend and best player out. But Davinder would give him no choice.
“Cricket is all about respect,” Pardeep said. “If you’re trying to play and do bullshit and cheat, then it’s not a fair game.”
Always friendly, Pardeep had been jolly — even ebullient — ever since he settled down with his wife. The other players noticed the difference. Punjabi culture encouraged them to date around, but Sikh tradition told them a carefully chosen wife was a key to a happy life, and Pardeep was evidence of this. On a Sunday night several weeks after the cricket match, Pardeep invited the team to his two-year-old son’s birthday party. This was no backyard party, with supermarket cake and pin the tail on the donkey. One hundred of Pardeep’s closest friends crowded into an opulent dining hall in Richmond Hill, Queens, decked out in colorful saris and suits to celebrate the toddler.
When the cricketers arrived, the liquor was already flowing. The married guests looked sideways at the pack of single men, but Pardeep grinned as he greeted them.
“You’re very late,” he said, “so go eat and then let’s party.”
The boys loaded up their plates with butter chicken and made their way over to the bar, where single men ordered a powerful mix of Hennessy and Hypnotiq, the fruity vodka-cognac. Bally, preoccupied with thoughts of his girlfriend, ordered nothing. The party reminded him of his girlfriend’s last birthday. “I took her to the beach,” he said. “I surprised her, bought a white tent and set it up with a mat, and ordered dinner and champagne.”
“Drink!” said Davinder, sipping on a Grey Goose screwdriver.
“Come on,” said Jeetu, coaxing Bally. “It’s like water, it’s not like drink.”
“You know the first present I got her?” said Bally, still fixated on his absent girlfriend. “It was a Louis Vuitton bag for $2,500, and she returned it because she didn’t want me to spend that much. That’s how I know she is good.”
Bally’s girlfriend had to work that night, and he didn’t expect her to come to the party. “But who knows?” he said. His birthday was the next day, and he wanted to celebrate with her at midnight. “Maybe she’ll surprise me.”
Davinder, his plate loaded high with chicken, said he knew his girlfriend was good because she was vegetarian, and didn’t drink alcohol. And because she was waiting patiently for him to earn enough from his under-the-table job at a Brooklyn chicken joint to bring her over to the states.
His previous cricket team had gotten the job for him because they didn’t want him to move elsewhere for work, costing them their best player. Now Davinder worked at the chicken joint six days a week, sometimes for sixteen hours at a time. He would often come home at three a.m., exhausted. But he was making decent money there, saving and sending much of it home to India.
And soon, if he kept working hard enough, he could bring his girlfriend to New York. Davinder longed for their teenage years, when they would skip school to go for long walks through the park, where they’d awkwardly hold hands or kiss. He couldn’t wait to do that with her here.
As the music picked up, Davinder, Jeetu and Bally got on the dance floor, where they put their arms around one another and sang. They brought out giant wads of cash. Each had brought almost $500 in ones, about a month’s worth of savings. They flung the dollar bills wildly into the air. “Good thing I am getting paid tomorrow, because I will have no money left!” Davinder told me, over the bass of the Punjabi song.
Jeetu threw money, too, and said, “When I get married, whenever God opens his heart, people will throw $1,000!” Since his breakup, Jeetu had started thinking more about having an arranged marriage. He had even gotten a tattoo over his forearm scar that read “Mom and Dad,” because he’d decided he wanted his mother to choose a girl for him. “I don’t believe no more” in love marriages, he said.
Bally got off the dance floor, too, and checked his watch. It was getting late. His girlfriend had not shown up. The hall emptied out, and the boys took last swigs of their drinks. Bally and Davinder climbed drunkenly into the back of Jeetu’s car. As Jeetu pulled out of the parking lot, midnight struck, and Bally’s phone lit up. His girlfriend. He spoke in hushed tones, and then hung up with a grin.
“She’s the first to wish me!” he said.
“Well,” said Davinder, clapping him on the back, “she really loves you, man.”
Cricket season was over when Davinder’s girlfriend called from India with news that he could not believe.
“I’m getting married,” she said, and hung up the phone. When Davinder called back, she just cried and cried.
The next Sunday, Davinder didn’t go to meet his team. Instead, he spent his day off drinking Grey Goose from the bottle and making long distance calls. His girlfriend’s phone was off. Her father would not answer. Finally, he reached her mother.
“She just could not wait,” she told him, according to Davinder.
Davinder and I met about a week after the call, in a Brooklyn bar not far from his chicken joint. It was just after two a.m., when his shift was over. He slugged back several vodka and orange juices before telling me what happened. The man she planned to marry was in the merchant navy, which he sadly conceded was “a good job.” The man was also chosen by her parents, which really hurt because they knew Davinder well. He and his girlfriend had spoken for hours on the phone every day for years. But Davinder now saw it wasn’t enough, and that his decision to come to the U.S. had forged their breakup.
“Talking over the phone is not good. It is good to meet,” he said, gesturing to the table where we were sitting. “You have to be together, not only on the phone. It is nice to meet for lunch or breakfast. It is nice to go outside. Otherwise it won’t work.”
Still, he didn’t fully understand her decision. “She has known me for so long,” he said. “She knows me.”
The news cast a pall over everything in Davinder’s life. And without Sunday cricket, it was just work and more work at the chicken joint, where everyone seemed to be as drunk as he wished he could be. The day before we met, he saw his manager drinking Svedka under the counter.
As we walked from the bar to the subway to go home, Davinder pulled up a music video he had been listening to nonstop since his girlfriend’s call. He handed me an ear bud. The song was “Ik Dil Nai Lagda Tere Bin,” meaning “My Heart Doesn’t Like Anything Without You,” by Sippy Gill. In the video, the man kills himself after his girlfriend marries someone else. Davinder’s eyes became wet listening to it. “It’s like me,” he said. “But I am not in India, so it wouldn’t do anything here.”
When Davinder told Jeetu about what happened with his girlfriend, his best friend just listened. Davinder didn’t tell Bally, whom he thought wouldn’t understand. Bally had been on a high ever since his birthday, when his girlfriend surprised him with a hotel room, balloons, flowers and the new iPhone 6.
And so Davinder mostly kept his emotions to himself. When the other players met for meals on Sundays now that cricket was over, he declined and spent the day sleeping in and drinking.
But Davinder did have one recurring, very hopeful thought. If he kept saving money at the rate he was saving, he could cut down his hours soon. He could live more sanely. “I could go outside and eat and drink and see a girlfriend, maybe,” he said. “Like an American life.”
But for a complete American life, he’d need one more thing. Something Pardeep and Jeetu already had, and something that if Bally married his girlfriend, he’d get too.
A green card.
On a Sunday morning in early winter, Pardeep called everyone together for dinner at a restaurant in Queens. Most of the players RSVPed yes, and Jeetu told me he’d pick me up from home and take me there. But just an hour before he was to arrive, Pardeep messaged to tell me the dinner was off. It wasn’t until later that Pardeep told me why.
Davinder “left our team,” he wrote in a Facebook message. “He stop talking to everyone.”
In the weeks after his breakup, Davinder had begun badmouthing Pardeep to the rest of the team. He complained that Pardeep had given captain duties to Bally instead of him, their best player. He also started to spread rumors about Jeetu’s love life.
At first, both Pardeep and Jeetu had been willing to cut their friend a break. They considered that Davinder had just had his heart broken, badly. And they thought about the stress that came from living in the U.S. without papers.
But then, hours before the team dinner, Davinder called Pardeep, furious. “I’m not sitting with you guys [anymore],” he said. He was finished — with the team, with the dinners, with the parties.
“Why?” asked Pardeep.
As it turned out, it was about me. After three months of speaking to me about love, immigration and cricket, Davinder had decided he didn’t want his teammates to see me any more — not for interviews, dinners or drinks.
As Pardeep and Jeetu told it to me, Davinder was looking for a way to impress me, so that he could eventually ask me to marry him — for papers. So that he could get a green card.
“Stay away,” he told Jeetu. “I’m the only one meeting her.”
This was too much for both of them to take. “I don’t need bullshit,” Jeetu said, and decided to stop talking to his best friend altogether. Pardeep canceled the dinner, and told Davinder he was off the team.
“We gave him all kinds of respect and love,” Pardeep said, his voice strained. “But he try to break [the] whole team.”
After Davinder’s girlfriend told him she was getting married, his friends says he decided that his life in the U.S. was all that mattered. He became obsessed with getting a green card. He didn’t care how much effort, how many thousands of dollars, or even how many friends it cost him.
When I called Davinder later to ask him about all of this, he was quiet. To almost every question, he gave a one-word answer, or said: “What?” as if he hadn’t heard me. When I asked about the green card, he said: “Oh, shit,” and then denied it. He’d just learned that his ex-girlfriend had gone through with the marriage. He was okay, he said, but he didn’t sound like it.
There was a silence. And then Davinder said that he didn’t want to quit the team, he wanted to stay, but that he had no choice. “Jeetu no talk to me, [Pardeep] no talk to me anymore. But it’s okay, it’s only a team. That’s it. No more friends. That’s it.”
It wasn’t only a team, and I knew that. I felt miserable. I realized that in spending so much time at their cricket matches and dinners and parties, I had changed the way the game was played. Without my reporting, it was entirely possible the team would still be intact. I wanted to try to fix things, to get Davinder back on the team, but worried I would make it worse.
During the off-season, I watched the team try to move on from Davinder, and not think so much about cricket. Pardeep dove into family life with his wife and son. Jeetu spoke often to his mother, who was actively searching for a girl to come join him in the U.S. “When I find a wife, my mind will be free,” Jeeetu said. And Bally worked hard to save up money to open his own business, so that he could show his girlfriend’s parents he loved her for more than a green card.
But Bally also worried about Davinder. He thought the whole thing was a big misunderstanding, and that the team should stay together. He thought they needed one another to navigate life here in New York. “I’m going to try to fix things,” he told me, and I hoped he would.
Meanwhile, Davinder held out hope for next season, that somehow he’d be allowed back on the team. New York was a lonely, scary place without friends who knew him, or a girlfriend to talk to, and especially without Sunday cricket.
When the next season began, Davinder wasn’t asked back. But after several warm-up matches, more than half of the players approached Pardeep to tell him they missed having Davinder. Bally was the most persistent. “It’s just a misunderstanding,” he told the captain. “Bring him back.”
And so Pardeep did, and the team began playing better than the year before. In the most recent match, Davinder hit two sixers, and though they lost the match, it was a close game against a very good team.
“We play very good now, and I don’t think about what happened,” said Davinder, his old confidence returning, though not as much. “And I don’t talk to anybody too much on the team, because I play and then go to work. I am still looking for a girl to marry. It’s expensive. But I need a green card. Then life will be good.”