| A decent country
In September 1994, I visited Denmark for the first and (to date) last time. I arrived on a Saturday; the meeting I had come to attend was due to begin only on the Monday. On the flight into Copenhagen I read the International Herald Tribune, whose sports pages informed me that a Davis Cup match was on in the city. Denmark were playing their neighbours, Sweden, and the scoreline after the first day read: Denmark 2, Sweden 0.
Sweden was, of course, a great power in the tennis world, while Denmark was, well, Denmark. That score-line was as unlikely as, say, Bangladesh having dismissed India for 80 in a test match and ending the first day on 75 for 1. The driver of the taxi which took me from the airport into Copenhagen told me that while I was in mid-air, Sweden had pulled one back, winning the doubles. The staff at the hotel where I was staying were equally helpful. The tennis match, they said, was being played at an indoor stadium outside the city. I was instructed on how to take a train to the nearest stop ' which had the lovely name of Haje Glostup ' and on how to buy a ticket for the match.
I rose early the next morning. The traffic into the train station was unusually heavy for a Sunday ' clearly, many Danes wished to join this Indian in watching history being made. I reached the venue an hour before play began, and was in my seat just before the first ball was served.
The reverse singles first pitted Denmark's Kent Carlson against Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman. Carlson was a stylish left-hander, who hit his forehands with a high back-lift; Bjorkman a regular chip of the old Swedish block, returning every ball with mechanical regularity, at the same place and trajectory off either flank. The Dane's dash and home-crowd support took him to the first two sets. Then the errors began to creep in. Bjorkman crawled back into the match, won the next two sets 6-4, 6-3, and the fifth, inevitably, to love.
The match was now tied at two rubbers apiece, with everything to play for. Sitting next to me were a newly-married couple; the man was Danish, his wife Swedish. I joked that among the three of us I was the only one who had come truly, impartially, to enjoy the tennis. (This was not entirely accurate; for the better part of me wanted the underdog to win.) Playing for Denmark in this do-or-die match was a little right-hander whose exact name escapes me at this distance in time. Something tells me that he was called Fettiline. But that sounds Italian. I am certain that his name did begin with F. And I remember his tennis very well. He hit low forehands and sneaking, spinning backhands. His style was anything but classical; he was, as it were, a player straight from the street.
The name of his Swedish opponent I have no difficulty in recalling. He was called Stefan Edberg, and although his best years were behind him, he could still serve with power and volley with precision. Those skills ' which had once seen him to three Wimbledon singles titles ' allowed him to romp home in the first two sets. But then Anno Domini began to show its hand. An hour-and-a-half of reaching down to his feet to get to Mr F's forehands had tired Edberg. The volleys began finding the bottom of the net. The wily Dane won the third set, then the fourth. The Swedish coach now called a ten- minute time-out. Edberg sat back in his chair, eyes completely closed. He was reaching deep down into the reserves of craft and experience that had made him one of the great players in the history of tennis. Physically refreshed, and emotionally renewed, he came out to wallop the Dane in the fifth set.
It had been as enthralling a day's sport as any I had witnessed. I bid good-bye to my grieving Danish friend and his exultant Swedish wife, and made my way, slowly, to the Haje Glostup train station. I bought a ticket back to Copenhagen and climbed up to the platform, playing back in my mind some of the terrific tennis I had seen. As I reached the top of the stairs, I saw a middle-aged man standing on the platform, clutching a cricket bat. Nostalgic for my youth ' when I had held that implement so often myself ' I walked up to him, picked up the bat from his hand and played a forward defensive stroke. Then the train pulled up into the platform, and the two of us, silently, got in.
It was only after we had both sat down that the first words were exchanged. The man with the bat was a Pakistani named Ali, who had come to Denmark in the Sixties to work in the mills. After ten years of moderately hard labour, he qualified for a handsome pension. Since then, he had lived off the welfare state, pursuing his passion, cricket. He ran a club for other Pakistani immigrants, which played its matches on a piece of turf at Haje Glostup. When he was not playing or coaching, Ali watched cricket on the box. There was not an Indian or Pakistani match of the last ten years that he had not seen. Often he recorded them, playing back videos of his favourite innings by Javed Miandad or Sunil Gavaskar.
Half-way through the journey, I asked Ali whether he had any regrets, any hard times in his long exile from his native land. His worst moment, he said, was when his house was burgled, and the thief took away his video collection. He had been compensated financially, for, as he told me, unlike back home where we came from, the insurance agencies here were honest: 'Ye log imandaar hain, hamare yahan jaise nahin ' humme pura paisa wapas mila.' However, even the upright Danes could not replace his cricket collection. And the thief had no use for those videos in any case. That remained his single, and singular, regret.
It is now more than a decade since I visited Copenhagen. In this time, I have thought often about that conversation. A Pakistani named Ali talking cricket with an Indian named Ram on a train to Copenhagen: the perfect parable for a harmoniously multicultural world. That is how I might wish to represent it ' a romantic portrayal that is so much at odds with what is happening with and around Denmark as I write. Where, I wonder, is my train companion now' Has he taken sides in this cartoon controversy, or is he more sensibly focusing on the cricket between India and Pakistan instead'
The critic, Lionel Trilling, once spoke of the 'bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet'. The crossroads where politics and faith meet are far bloodier still. I myself have no desire to take sides in the row over the cartoons. Let me only say this ' that the provocation of a foolish editor does not merit this collective anger against a country that is, by any standards, one of the most decent in the world. The Danes have no horrible history of colonial exploitation. They have always given more than their fair share of aid to poorer nations (including, notably, the Palestinians). And they have usually treated their own coloured citizens better than other Westerners. I think the case of my friend, Ali, is proof enough of this. Find me a Pakistani in France, or an Indian in the US, who has spent his life playing and watching cricket at the expense of the public exchequer.