On climbing the stairs to the first floor of 31, Beckbagan Row, on Wednesday evening, you meet nothing but complete silence. Ring the bell and after a few more minutes of uneasy quiet, an elderly lady answers.
Leander Paes’ grand-aunt, who has just arrived from Goa. Clearly shaken at the news of her grand-nephew’s illness and unwilling to talk, she even refuses to open the door. “They called me last night and asked me to come over. I have just arrived and don’t know any details about what has happened. All I know is his father’s going to the US tonight. And right now, there’s nobody else at home.”
Silence seems to have enveloped the entire building. The word is out that the favourite boy of Beckbagan is unwell.
Outside, the weekday evening bustle cannot drown the mood of melancholy at Bengal Saloon, just outside the Paes residence. Haji Sheikh Rezaur Rahman, owner of the saloon since 1958, learnt of Leander’s brain lesion from a TV crew.
“I have known him from when he was very small… It’s terrible and we’ll all pray very hard that the wonderful boy gets well soon,” says Rahman, staring proudly at a photograph of himself with Leander, taken two years ago. His eyes mist over.
“When he was leaving for the US two years ago, he had grown a beard. That is when this photo was taken. That boy has always been very good to the poor… and God shouldn’t make him suffer,” adds the 60-year-old man.
Even as doctors at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, in distant Orlando, ran a plethora of tests on Leander, hometown Calcutta hopes he can chip and charge his way out of trouble, just as he turns Davis Cup ties on their heads.
At the Paes En Sport office on Ho Chi Minh Sarani, elder sister Jackie strikes a brighter note. “I spoke to him early this morning. He sounded quite cheerful on the phone and typical of Leander, he even did some gymming (workout) at the hospital.”
Mother Jennifer, too, lays store by Leander’s resilience. “He has never given us any major health scare before, except for the bout of malignant malaria he had about four years ago. Of course, he had a slight murmur in his heart, which he inherited from me. But it never came in the way of his tennis.”
The former basketball international remembers her son as a fit and healthy boy, “who rarely missed school” through illness. “He was good in all sports, but football was his favourite,” she recounts fondly. Jennifer is not rushing to Orlando to be by her son’s side yet. “I will wait for Vece’s feedback before planning anything.”
Leander's first coach in the city, Anwar Ali, like the Paes clan, is confident his erstwhile charge will win this crucial tie.
“He has always been a fighter, and there’s no reason why he won’t emerge victorious this time. We are all praying for his swift recovery,” says Ali, who remembers taking young Leander to South Club and Outram Club for his early lessons in serve and volley, and to various age-group tournaments, before the budding star went off to join the Britannia Amritraj Tennis Academy. “He loved to train… He always had robust health and strong muscles.”
At South Club, of course, the talk was all Leander, all day. Officials, who met on Wednesday evening, decided to convene a special prayer congregation for all its members who want to pray for Leander on Saturday, 6 pm.
“Leander has been brought up on our lawns and is like a son to me,” says club secretary I.N. Chaturvedi. “Our best wishes go out to the family in this hour of crisis which we will overcome together,” adds club president Rajat Majumdar.
Some distance from the courts that Leander grew up on, prayers were being sent up at the Missionaries of Charity. “For Leander Paes — brain lesion” was the final entry on the blackboard in the prayer room, which the Olympian visits each time he is home.