It was 1960. Delhi was hosting the All India Central Revenue Sports Meet at what is now known as the Major Dhyan Chand stadium, where sportspersons of national and global repute were participating. A 12-year-old boy wandered around collecting autographs in the crowd. His father, the main organiser of the meet, pointed towards a short-statured White man and said: “There is Leslie Claudius. Get his signature, it’ll be a prized part of your collection.” When the boy seemed hesitant, his father took him to Claudius and said: “My son wants your autograph.” Claudius smiled, gave the autograph and asked the boy whether he plays any sports, before joining his other fans.
What happened after nine years was beyond the boy’s imagination. At 20, he joined Calcutta Customs as Preventive Officer in the department headed by Claudius. “I think we’ve met before”, said Claudius immediately after seeing the young officer. The officer, the writer of this piece, was left speechless.
Claudius was one of the top players in hockey at the time. He won three gold medals (1948, 1952, 1956) and one silver medal (1960) in four consecutive Olympics — an unparalleled feat till date for a player.
Claudius had, in fact, started off by playing for the Bengal Nagpur Railway (BNR) football team at a young age in the early 1940s, which also had a hockey team. Once, before a match of the Beighton Cup — the oldest field hockey tournament of the world — the regular half back of the team fell sick. BNR’s captain, Olympian Dicky Carr, who had seen Claudius play hockey occasionally in Kharagpur during the early 1940s, threw a stick to him. For the next 10 days, Claudius played so well that he could not be dropped from the team.
His football skills were less known. In the 1950s, East Bengal Club had the best forward line-up in India with Ahmed Khan, PB Saleh, Dhanraj, P Venkatesh and Appa Rao. Jyotish Guha, the secretary of the club at the time, once said he wanted to recruit Claudius in place of Saleh, the left winger. But Claudius had become a port commissioner by then, and did not want to leave his government job.
His hockey moment came during independent India’s first Olympic participation in 1948. Given the political atmosphere of the time, there was huge global excitement around the matches, and India eventually won gold — defeating England, our colonial masters. “It is useless to see a hockey match if Claudius is not playing”, London Times had written in an article then. Claudius went on to win consecutive Olympic golds in 1952 and 1956. He also captained the side in the 1960 Olympics, where India lost in the final against Pakistan. But he carried with him two big sorrows. One was the loss of a gold to Pakistan. The other was the death of his third son, Robert Claudius (Bobby), who died in a scooter accident in the 1980s.
Claudius was also fond of horse races — most jockeys of India knew Claudius and would even offer tips for the races to him. I remember an anecdote that Chandan Banerjee, the legendary footballer, shared with me. One Sunday morning, in the mid-1970s, Banerjee went to his house and found a renowned jockey leaving. Banerjee asked if the jockey had some tips to offer. Claudius said that the jockey named five horses which were potential winners and out of those five the jockey would ride three at their respective races. This meant betting on those five may help to win the jackpot. But Claudius added his own analyses and said that out of those five, three would win. Banerjee noted down the names of the five horses and betted on them.
Four horses won the race one after another. When the jockey was leaving the paddock for the fifth race he winked at Claudius and whispered: “The jackpot is in your pocket sir!” The horse won and Banerjee was overwhelmed with joy. He asked Claudius about how much money he won in the jackpot. A nonchalant Claudius brushed it off and said he simply wished to celebrate with a beer!
Once, a captain of a ship at the Calcutta Port, sometime in the mid-1970s again, came down to the gangway to receive Claudius, when Claudius happened to see the ship’s laundry man. Claudius shook hands with the captain but followed the laundry man to his cabin — which was humiliating for the captain, as the laundry man was amongst the lowest ranks aboard the ship.
Claudius entered the upset captain’s cabin half an hour later, smiled and said the laundry man is actually an ardent fan of Claudius. During a previous trip, the man had requested Claudius to have a beer with him, and Claudius had promised him that he would on his next trip. Claudius said that the joy he saw on the fan’s face was priceless.
In the 1960s, the Anglo Indian community started leaving Calcutta. Claudius never left. In the 1980s, he was offered the post of Australia’s hockey coach. He neither accepted nor refused the offer, maintaining a studied silence over his decision instead.
I found the courage to ask him about his decision once. I remember what he said: “If I want to be the coach of any country, I would want to be the coach of my own country. I will never be able to stay anywhere else other than my own country, and, my city, Calcutta.”
December was his favourite time of the year, the month of Christmas. And after a prolonged illness, on December 20, 2012, days before Christmas, Claudius passed away. I went to see him in the hospital one day before he died. He welcomed me with the same smile which he gave me when I met him first, in 1960. When I was about to leave, he said “Thanks for coming, Bhowmick!”