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PATRIOTS AND THE GAME

- Bhadraloks, nationalists, cricketers and their colonial masters

The century commencing in 1914 has finally come to a close. It could be an optical illusion since we are so proximate to it, or have been one particle of it. Even so, these hundred years, which got completed last month, appear to have been more crowded with events, phenomena and other developments than any other in human history: two World Wars, a number of wars of other dimensions, revolutions, revolutions which some chose to describe as counter-revolutions, movements for national liberations and the positive or negative, awe-inspiring advance in science and technology leading to nuclear fission, the Bomb and its sequels, transformations in industrial technology leading to undreamt-of innovations, the development of dazzlingly new manufactures, accompanied by a steep rise in productivity, the emergence of commodities that have changed beyond recognition the pattern and content of human lives, the arrival of the jet engine rendering obsolete all past modes of travel and converting into reality the reverie of breakfast in one continent, luncheon in a second and dinner in yet another. Outstripping every other transformation, there was the invention of the silicon chip and the consequent miracle of information technology, facilitating instant communication among territories geographically apart from one another by thousands of miles. Matching this development is the actual happening of a phenomenon that was a fairytale till the other day: the strides in space technology that have enabled the human being to land on the moon and, further, venture on to Mars. Not that any of these indicators of magical progress has prevented the persistence of hunger and diseases across the globe or the occurrence of horrendous famines in such widely dispersed locations as India and the sub-Sahara region of Africa.

I should not forget either the phenomenon of the making and unmaking of empires and quasi-empires in the course of the just-elapsed century. The British Empire, for example, was at the peak of its glory in 1914; it is a near-forgotten datum now. Three decades after World War I, which the British and their allies had formally won, were enough for the disintegration of the once-formidably-imposing Indian Empire. The tempo of the nationalist movement in India gradually rose to a crescendo during this period. Not one moment that was not tense, a crowded calendar of successive phases of non-cooperation, civil disobediences, individual satyagraha and, finally, the Quit India movement, those seemingly interminable debates over the dichotomy of dominion status and full independence, the situation getting complicated with Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s crafted, well-argued intransigence on behalf of the Muslim community and B.R. Ambedkar’s sudden thunderous crusade for — as they were referred to those days — “the depressed classes”.

Whether the aspiration was, as in the case of liberal gentlemen like Tej Bahadur Sapru and Hriday Nath Kunzru, for dominion status or, echoing the strident voice of the full-of-idealism Jawaharlal Nehru, for total independence, the Indian National Congress was by and large a cool-headed affair. Its adherents were engaged in a tussle with the foreign rulers, but, civilities were sought to be maintained. The Bengalis, always somewhat to the contrary, were different. The middle-class, overwhelmingly-Hindu Bengalis preferred to be more radical than the average, goody-goody Congressmen. Their young ones had read of the Italian rebel, Garibaldi; their hero was the Irish agitator, De Valera. The British could be scared out of the country, some of them were convinced, only by adoption of terror tactics, including the assassination of stray civil servants and police personnel. A large crop of young people springing from the Bengali glory — including the scion of immense beneficiaries from the Permanent Settlement — indulged in romantic notions of how they could attain martyrdom by surprising on a lonely road a British magistrate or police superintendent and kill him off. Many tried to fulfil the dream, were apprehended before they could be successful and spent long years in prison, becoming even more radicalized. Some other youngsters were picked up on suspicion of evil intent and made ‘security’ prisoners. It would be rare in the 1930s and ’40s to find a Bengali Hindu household that did not have at least one member locked up for an indefinite period by the alien rulers.

Yet, bizarre incidents happened. The middle-class Bengali hated the British masters from the bottom of their heart; they were, however, fascinated by the game of cricket. The contradiction never bothered them, they would plot the murder of an English civil servant while reading avidly in the newspapers the description of an on-going cricket encounter taking place in Leeds or Sydney between the England and Australia teams. Once the brief winter season arrived in Calcutta, the Maidan would present the near-unbelievable sight of scores of friendly cricket matches taking place between different para or neighbourhood clubs. There were such clubs as the Calcutta Cricket Club, the Ballygunge Club, the Rangers and the Dalhousie Athletic Club, the preserve of the expatriate community, the pucca sahibs in government service and with mercantile firms.

The Bengalis, though, would soon come up with their own cricket teams like the Sporting Union and the Aryans. Exclusivity was the rule for a while. The time was not, however, far off when the clubs that had a predominantly expatriate flavour began playing friendly matches with one another and, at the next round, were a part of a competition of the ‘mixed’ type with the ‘native’ clubs graciously permitted to participate. Following the establishment of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, there were experiments with such oddities as the pentangular tournament with knock-out fixtures between denominational teams put together by the BCCI itself: the Hindus, the Muslims, the Parsis, the Europeans and the rest. Then came the inter-provincial tournament, the one named after Prince Ranjit Singh. Bengal would be participating with a composite team, which, while dominated by the Europeans, still had a sprinkling of Bengalis in its fold. The Bengalis lapped it up. They hated the ruling class, but felt passionate about the alien game.

Cricket actually became another outlet for patriotic fervour. When the local competitive games were on during the indolent Christmas season, the bhadralok class would be in the picnic mood and flock early in the morning to the Maidan to watch a cricket match between, for instance, the Calcutta Cricket Club and perhaps the Sporting Union. They cheered lustily every time a Calcutta Club wicket fell or a Sporting Union batsman thumped a boundary. Usually, the Sporting Union batsman lost to the Calcutta Club, but the bhadralok crowd would come home in the evening and speculate whether the result might not have been different had not the timid empire turned down the appeal for LBW against A.L. Hosie, the captain of the Calcutta Cricket Club.

And if, perchance, the Eden Gardens hosted a Test match between a visiting England team and the India eleven picked by the BCCI, excitement would reach fever pitch. For the cricket-mad Bengalis, it was one thing to sympathize with the Australia team harried by Douglas Jardine’s bodyline tactics in distant Melbourne or Sydney or Leeds, for the anti-colonial sentiment would identify with the humiliations the poor Aussies suffered; it was, however, quite another when the same wretched Jardine visited India with, again, an official England team to play three Tests against India. One of the venues was bound to be the Eden Gardens; while no longer the country’s capital, Calcutta was still the stronghold of the British mercantile set. The tickets for the Test match were a bit stiff for the middle-class Bengali household, but the patriotic call could not be denied. The money was gathered to buy a precious ticket for entry into the Eden Gardens and a sizeable Bengali crowd would occupy a corner of the modest gallery for all the five days to watch the India eleven perform valiantly against a much superior England team. The environment was conducive to the emergence of heroes.

The dreams and fantasies of Bengali cricket-lovers were woven around the tall, lithe, graceful, daredevil cricketer, C.K. Nayudu and his protégé, Syed Mushtaq Ali. Nayudu was a colonel in the private army maintained by the Holkars, the royal family who ruled Indore. The native princes were devoutly loyal to the Raj. That fact did not prevent the Bengalis from imagining C.K. Nayudu as the saviour and great emancipator, who would protect and advance the cause of Indian nationalism by worsting the English in their own game. Gloom would descend on Bengali households if, perhaps because of his advancing age, C.K. was dropped from the national team on any occasion from the Test match at Calcutta against England. I remember in 1937, a venerable gentleman from the neighbourhood I spent my childhood in, in sleepy old-world Dhaka, who had made the then-still-strenuous journey all the way to Calcutta to watch the Test match against a non-official England team put together and led by Lord Tennyson, son of the poet. What a tragedy, C.K. was not on the India team, but at least Mushtaq Ali was. The match was over, the gentleman returned to Dhaka with his heart filled with the thrill and excitement of watching the match. For the next three months, he would intercept every stray passerby to narrate the wondrous story of how he had accidentally met Mushtaq Ali at the entrance of the Eden Gardens, and could exchange a few words in broken English with the legendary opening batsman, and, further, how Mushtaq had agreed with him that it was most unfair that C.K was not on the India team.

The Bengalis could therefore co-exist with both terrorism and cricket. The hoary Dalhousie Square, around which stood buildings that reflected the awesome might of both governance and commerce of the former ruling foreigners, was re-named, after Independence, Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bag to salute the martyrdom of three revolutionary terrorists. Benoy Bose — leader of the trio, who used his Mauchard pistol to shoot and kill a senior police officer at Dhaka and created a bloody rampage soon after at the Writers’ Buildings, the very citadel of the British imperium, along with his comrades, Dinesh and Badal Gupta — used to play cricket for a para club and was a stylish opening batsman. One of his younger brothers, Bimal, had subsequently settled in Jamshedpur, was a Tata Steel employee and captained the Bihar provincial cricket team for over a decade.

These titbits of memory came back because of an earnest young man in his early thirties had called on me last week. He is absorbed in the theme of political ideology and holds extreme left-wing views. Obviously familiar with my writings, he, while polite, strongly disapproved of my occasional deviations from political issues to such frivolities as poetry and, much worse, sports, including that abominable colonial heritage, cricket. I harried, and engaged him in some small talk about his ancestors, who, I discovered, were from the same village as my mother’s, and I knew fairly well some members of his family.

When I inquired whether he remembers his grandfather, he said he did not, the grandpa had passed way before he was born. Did he have no details about his grandfather’s life? The young man was again laconic in respect. Nothing much except that the gentleman worked for a jute company and was a bit of a sports buff. I gently broke the news to him that, more than eight decades ago, his grandfather was a well-known figure in Calcutta sporting circles and was, in fact, one of the pioneers who took to cricket in Bengal and was the leading batsman in the Sporting Union team.

The young man was surprised, perhaps a shade scandalized. What he failed to grasp was that his grandfather was no less an ideologue than the grandson currently is. His ideology was patriotism: by mastering the game that was once the exclusive turf of the colonial masters, he wanted to score a victory over them.