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Last salute to Uncle Les

Leslie Claudius

Calcutta, Dec. 20: Leslie Walter Claudius, the legendary hockey player and triple Olympic gold medallist, passed away in Calcutta today after a prolonged illness.

He was 85 and was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver.

Claudius, the greatest Olympian in the country and the most accomplished sportsman from Bengal, is survived by his wife and three sons.

Barry ’Brien’s final salute to the legend:

Thanks, Uncle Les.

Many years ago, I had written an article for this newspaper on why Bengal, and specifically Calcutta, was the toast of hockey right up to the 1960s.

In the article, I quoted Trevor Vanderputt, a former Rangers captain and Bengal selector who went on to become the director of coaching in Australia, as saying: “Crowds of up to 10,000 were common at a top game. The ladies with their parasols, the men with their panama hats and solar topees, graced the occasion. A band played at half-time and good-natured barracking and much laughter could be heard. When Claudius took the ball from off his goal-line, they would comment, ‘Eh-ta Claudius’ or shout, ‘Hail Claudius’, as if saluting a Roman Senator.”

The time has come for one final salute to Calcutta’s favourite sporting son — Leslie Walter Claudius!

For me, and so many of my generation, he was, simply, Uncle Les! And since Uncle Les always kept things simple, here is a simple ‘Thank You’ note.

Thanks, Uncle Les, for touching so many lives! No, you were no motivational speaker or spiritual guru. You had no magic mantra or quotable quotes. You were simple and straight. Little did you know that your simplicity was your strength; it’s what gave you power.

The power to win friends; the power to influence people; and the ultimate power — to touch lives! Yours was a power that didn’t need to be aggressive or arrogant; it didn’t need to be persistent or persuasive; yours was a power that needed no post or position. Yours was a power so gentle; yet, so complete.

Thanks, Uncle Les, for sharing your upcountry sense of humour around the card table at the Rangers, and your winning Railway Colony smile at the Members’ Enclosure at the Race Course; thanks for spending endless hours at the Customs Tent mending broken hearts with your broken Hindi; thanks for being so proud of your Macleod Street friends and neighbours; thanks for telling people on your several visits Down Under that “home is where your heart is” — and that your home “was, is and will always be India”.

Thanks, Uncle Les, for being a customs officer who never served “confiscated Scotch” at a party, let alone buy a flat or a car.

Thanks, Uncle Les, for never saying “no” — not when a fellow player asked for the ball on the field; not when I requested you to be present at a press conference before I became an MLA; not when The All-India Anglo-Indian Association invited you to Delhi to receive an honour — though you weren’t keeping too well; and not when we invited you out of a sick bed for the inauguration of the Claudius-Gurbux Sports Zone at the DI, only a few months ago.

Thanks, Uncle Les, for being a great dad and turning up to watch Brandon play against me in inter-class matches at St Xavier’s; it gave me the honour of being watched by a fellow left/right half who played four Olympic Games more than I did, and was four times more humble than I will ever be!

Tragically losing a teenage son who hadn’t unpacked his suitcase after returning from his first World Cup — how does a dad live through that? Thanks, Uncle Les, for being so strong at Bobby’s funeral. You were a broken man, but you put up a brave front for Aunty, Bozo, Dicky and Brandon, as you watched them lower the coffin at Lower Circular Road Cemetery, where you will be laid to rest on Sunday.

Every time they pass your tombstone, some will say, Eh-ta Claudius’; some will say ‘Hail Claudius’; and some will simply say, ‘Thanks, Uncle Les!’