“Nooo… not again!” We’d stare at the carrom board in despair. From across the board, our uncle (my mom’s younger brother) having pocketed all his discs and the Queen, would grin at us mischievously, even wolfishly and raise his eyebrows, cock his head and challenge us to another game. He’d wallop us yet again but there was this: it never made us stomp off in a sulky huff, but spurred us on to take up the challenge.
I think we knew one thing: he was not going to “allow” us to win as most patronising adults might have. If we did (once in a blue moon), it had to be fair and square and he would be as thrilled as we would be (and promptly challenge us to a return match!). This was way back in the mid-1960s and ’70s when my sisters and I were in school and he would visit Bombay on one-or-two-day business trips and stay at home with us.
I was never into tennis – not being allowed to play – though I did play a bit of cricket (fielding at long on didn’t involve running around too much!). But I listened avidly to the many hilarious anecdotes he related to me on the phone over the years. He was a raconteur par excellence. Setting off to the courts to practice early in the morning in Calcutta, he would hitch an illicit ride on a tonga that passed by his house, crouching down at the back with his racket. This didn’t go down well with the tongawallah who began to express his irritation by flicking his whip at his non-paying passenger. Well, you could use your racket to smash a tennis ball but you could also use it to protect your head, so the illicit rides went on. The tongawallah ultimately accepted this state of affairs with good grace.
He’d tell me about the numerous matches he played against far more powerful players. His tactic was simple: get inside their heads and needle the heck out of them, until they did something silly out of sheer frustration; doggedly chase down and return every ball till your opponent hit it out. It was one thing to lose, but surrender? Never! The appalling training and coaching facilities in India and the often, slimy politics in sports administration distressed him no end, and he went all the way trying to redress the balance when he began coaching the Indian Davis Cup team. I think his mantra was simple: if there’s a player with a modicum of promise – give him or her the best facilities possible to set them off. Nothing was too little. Focus on the game – and winning it – and nothing else. Talent was one thing, but it had to be backed up by temperament, an equal part of the package. Which is why, the tantrums and off-the-field antics of many modern sportspersons bothered him so deeply.
When back in 1975, I had my first article published in The Statesman, he called up. “I believe all the postmen in Bombay are complaining about the weight of the bags they have to lug up the hill to your flat!”
— “What?” I muttered.
— “Yes! They’re full of your fan mail, but congratulations, well done!”
Some years ago, when I landed up in hospital for a pacemaker change, he had someone from his office posted round-the-clock in the lobby to do any running-around that might have been necessary – even though my sisters were with me at the time. That kind gentleman kept tabs on me even after I had returned home.
On my last visit to Kolkata – in 2019 – I stayed at their place in Middleton Mansions. Every morning, he would walk slowly into my room, look around keenly and ask me if everything was all right. “Are you sure?” he would ask doubtfully, “if there’s anything you need…” He wanted the best – out of everything – and for everyone. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, we would glide around Calcutta in his gorgeous vintage black and white Rolls-Bentley – a car I think that has been retained till today.
Always hugely concerned about my state of health, he would insist I see the very best doctors and get the very best of treatment (I think I have scored a perfect 10 here!). I spoke with him regularly once or twice a week till a fortnight before his death, conversations usually laced with humour and warmth and spiced up with wicked tales – really the perfect antidote to the day’s usually grim news bulletins.
I don’t remember ever watching him play on court. Knowing him off-court was privilege enough.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher