Sunday, February 22, 2015


[This premature obituary of the Bombay I loved and its cricket I watched was published in Business Standard of 10 and 17 June 2003.]

Chronicle of a spreading cancer

I met Ram Guha four years ago in Wissenschaftskolleg, that elite college in Berlin where forty of the world’s brightest spend ten months wining, dining, talking, reading and writing in that order. Then he had told me that he was writing a book on the Quadrangular. I thought it was going to be a book on cricket, and looked forward to it because news of the Pentangular (as the Quadrangular became in 1937) was amongst my earliest memories; I must have read about the 1946 Pentangular – the last one – at the age of ten.
Apart from the well-known greats like C K Nayudu and Vijay Merchant, I had memories of Abdul Hafeez Kardar, who played in the 1944 Pentangular and, after Partition, went on to build the first Pakistan team. I had looked forward to seeing how Ram would handle the subject. I do not quite know what he is; I wonder if he does. Although he has a degree in economics, he will vehemently deny that he is an economist. I guess he feels the closest affinity to historians, but he does not stick to history. The closest one could get would be to call him a sociologist, but that would be a bit of an insult for such an intellect. I think one day he will be a great polymath or savant; for the moment, he is best called a card-carrying author. And his book – A Corner of A Foreign Field (Picador) – comes closest to being a political tract.
I had once written about Shapurjee Sorabjee Bengallee, that fascinating 19th-century Parsee gentleman who was sitting in the garden of a friend on the bank of Hooghlee when a thunderstorm struck and set a tree on fire. He ran, lighted a faggot from the tree, and used the fire to set up the Calcutta fire temple, since such temples must have fires that are not the handiwork of humans.
Earlier Shapurjee used to live in Bombay. In the evenings he used to go to the Esplanade with friends. There they would hire a mat and a lantern (sadri-fanas), sit down on the ground and gossip (Ram says the ground was used by dyers to spread out fabrics to dry). Shapurjee figures in Ram’s book as author of A Chronicle of Cricket. For Ram’s Bengallee is the chronicler of Parsee cricket, which began on the Esplanade – or on Kennedy Ground – the matter requires further scholarly research. For those uncivilized masses who have never lived in Bombay, Esplanade is now called Azad Maidan; initially it was used by the British troops to parade, and was called Brigade Parade. Kennedy Grounds are the triangular piece of ground between Victoria Terminus (the Shiv Sainiks would like it to be called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, but everyone finds it too much of a mouthful and calls it CST), Dhobi Talao and Church Gate station (it is only a matter of time before it becomes Shrimant Dattopant Dhondopant Dhekne Agnirath Apeksha Agaar – SDDDAAA for those in a hurry).
Soon after Bombay began its life as a British outpost in 1668, it divided itself, like all British Indian towns, into a white town and a black town. The white town grew up around the fort, which was just to the north of the present Gateway of India. The black town rose north of Dhobi Talao and Crawford market. The railway to Thana was built along the east coast, and ended in Victoria Terminus. Hornby Road started from Victoria Terminus and went south towards Flora Fountain; this was the main street of Bombay, with all the great banks, insurance companies and shops.
Just to its west, the Europeans set up Bombay Gymkhana (Ram thinks the word comes from Gend Khana, where you ate balls, but I doubt it). In those days before electric fans, a broad veranda was the best antidote to heat and humidity (I wonder how they used to deal with mosquitos in the days before Odomos); a gymkhana was a pavilion with a veranda set on the edge of a large ground. The ground was used for cricket or polo; the Bombay Gymkhana was for cricket.
The hirers of sadri-fanas used to watch the British play cricket with wonder, curiosity and finally envy; the leisurely sport was just energetic enough for Bombay’s sultry climate. Finally some Parsees got hold of a bat, a ball and wickets and started playing cricket “in their strange accoutrements of Bandis and pyjamas”. In 1848 they formed the Orient Cricket Club; then, two years later, they converted it into the Young Zoroastrian Club, which still exists according to Ram. Soon there were over 30 Parsee cricket clubs with names like Jupiter, Mars, Gladstone and Ripon. Other communities followed; in the evenings, the Esplanade and the Kennedy ground were full of Indians running between wickets and shouting, “Howzzat?”
But these Indians could not set up Gymkhanas; they had to share the common grounds – amongst others with the army. And army officers used to play polo on the grounds. The horses dug up the grounds and covered them with a thick layer of dust. Cricket is not very demanding, but it does require 22 yards of fairly firm, level ground; the polo players did not let any pitch survive. The Indian subjects kept beseeching successive governors to take the polo players of the grounds, but it was decades before they finally succeeded. The story of their struggle is one of those that figure in Ram’s book.
One day in 1877, in a fit of insouciance, the Parsees challenged the British of Bombay Gymkhana to a match. The match was a draw. In a few years, Hindus wanted to join in, then Mohamedans, and finally the excluded ones formed the Rest. The resulting annual Pentangular treatment used to attract huge crowds. As national politics was besmirched with communal hues in the 1930s, the Pentangular also excited communal loyalties. A zonal cricket tournament was started to compete with the Pentangular, but could never compete with it in popularity. The Pentangular was abolished after independence.
But communal cricket was not really abolished; it was transformed into Indo-Pakistan cricket rivalry. The second half of Ram’s book is a history of this rivalry. And not just of the rivalry, but also of the decline in civility between the leaders of the two countries, of sportsmanship amongst the spectators, and of ever uglier manifestations of partisanship. Ram says that Bal Thackeray campaigns against cricket matches with Pakistan because he fears Pakistan would win. I think it is something worse than cowardliness. The disorderly behaviour of crowds, especially in Calcutta, is surely due to a conviction that it is better to win unfairly than lose fairly. It manifests itself in so many things like how parents bribe teachers to manipulate children’s marks, judges get chairmen of public service commissions to favour their children, and the determination of Indians to board a train, bus or plane first. The British thought that cricket moulded the character of a nation. Actually, the character of a nation moulds cricket, as it does so many other things.

II      The changing colour of prejudice

To continue my story of last week, the Parsees challenged Bombay Gymkhana to a match in 1877, and the British agreed; Ram Guha suggests uncharitably that a large donation to Bombay Gymkhana by Sir Cowasji Jehangir, the Parsee tycoon whom the Gymkhana would not admit, might have made it amenable. The outcome of the match was not worth reporting, so the Parsees must have lost. But near their tent, “the Parsees were packed as closely as herrings in a barrel, the front rank being composed of an interesting collection of small boys dressed in their best-coloured silk trousers, and the second and other ranks of the crowd in which the white head-dress of a Parsee priest was as conspicuous as a white man among a lot of black men.” Black and white was a very prominent distinction at that time – and for another 70 years. It is remarkable how little one thinks of skin colour India today, save perhaps for prospective mothers-in-law when they choose brides. Other obsessions have risen to the top now.
By this time, the polo players from the British army were running amuck over the esplanade, digging it up with the hooves of their horses and making it impossible for natives to play cricket. One humble petition to the Governor of Bombay followed another. Finally in 1887, the government of Bombay gave a piece of land on Kennedy Sea Face, now known as Marine Drive, to the Parsees to set up a Gymkhana. With the practice they got on the new ground, they defeated a visiting English team under G F Vernon in 1889. They were rewarded by being admitted into the army – not yet as soldiers, since they were not considered a martial race, but as volunteers.
There soon followed demands for land from Muslim Cricket Club, set up in 1883 with the financial help of the Tyabjis. It was given an identical piece of land, 425 feet square, next to the Parsee Gymkhana, in 1891. The day this news was published, the Hindu Cricket Club met in the evening and decided to ask for a piece of land. Thus did the three Gymkhanas, Parsee, Islam and Hindu, come to be set up cheek by jowl on Marine Drive. I always wondered what PJ in the name of Hindus Gymkhana stood for; now I know it stands for Parmanand Jeevandas.
But they would not play each other. For over a quarter century, the Parsees played Bombay Gymkhana almost every year. In 1905, the Hindus challenged the Parsees, who disdainfully refused. So in 1906 the Hindus challenged the Europeans, and defeated a team drawn from the entire Presidency. They repeated their feat next year. After that the Parsees could hardly turn up their noses at the Hindus. Thus started an annual Triangular tournament. In the 1912 tournament, the Mohammedans were allowed to play, thus making it Quadrangular.
In 1930, Gandhi marched with his 79 volunteers, who included my father, to Dandi and picked up a fistful of salt, and was arrested; 60,000 were jailed in the satyagraha that followed. PJ Hindu Gymkhana refused to play in the quadrangular that year, and the tournament was cancelled. Next year, the British government proposed separate seats in legislatures for the untouchables; Gandhi went to jail in protest. Amidst the red-hot emotions that politics generated, the Quadrangular was not held for four years from 1930 till 1933. Then in 1933, Cricket Club of India was set up in Delhi; in 1934 it started the Ranji Trophy tournament, for which teams were drawn from provinces and princely states, and mixed up religions and races. That spurred the Bombayites to resume the Quadrangular.
In 1933, Learie Constantine toured India at the invitation of various cricketing Maharajas. The Europeans were asked to include him in their team; but he was black, so they left him out. The fourfold classification was proving to be a straitjacket. So in 1937 a fifth team was added to cover Christians, Buddhists, Jews and others. It was called the Rest. The tournament became a Pentangular. And it was played in the brand new Brabourne Stadium, the home of Cricket Club of India at Church Gate, down the road from the three Gymkhanas on Marine Drive. Later in the 1960s, a Maharashtra minister did not get what he wanted from the CCI; so he built another stadium – Wankhede stadium – just a couple of furlongs away. Today the Cricket Club of India is just a club for food, drink and playing cards.
By that time, India was getting communalized, and secularists were opposing the Pentangular for its religious and racial overtones. They were joined by backwoodsmen who resented the primacy of Bombay. The Bombay teams generally whipped all others in the annual Ranji Trophy; so there was much jealousy of them and of the Pentangular under the surface. Its patrons and participants supported it saying that the tournament had never caused racial or religious tension. And because the Hindus had to choose the best to compete in the tournament, they put aside their caste prejudices. Thus the foremost Hindu bowler was Baloo Palwankar, a chamaar. He was probably one of two greatest Indian cricketers ever; only C K Nayudu, the sixer addict, could compare with him. His brother Vithal was a distinguished batsman. The Hindus even patted themselves on the back for having admitted Sikhs to their team.
In 1937, dyarchy was introduced and elected governments came to power in the provinces, including a Congress government in Bombay. The days of the Pentangular seemed numbered. But luckily for it, Congress governments resigned two years later when Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy, declared war on Germany without taking their consent. The Pentangular lasted through the War. But independence sounded its death knell; it ceased to be staged in 1947.
But, as Ram points out, the communalization of cricket has continued in the Indo-Pak cricket ties. The tetchy political relationship between the two countries keeps polluting the cricket matches just as it did in united India. The Quadrangular was not held for four years in the 1930s because the relations between the British and the Indians were rocky. For the past four years, the Indian government has not allowed Indians to play Pakistan in either country. Bal Thackeray, in his earlier occupation, published a brochure of cartoons of the Pakistani touring side in 1957. His description of Hanif Mohammad was “Little Master.” Today he does not allow cricket matches with Pakistan because he fears India would lose; today Pakistanis want to begin the détente with resumption of cricket ties because cricket, unlike war and diplomacy, is one field in which they have a fair chance of winning.
Cricket is a part of public life; politics impacts on it as on everything else. It is impossible to divorce cricket from communalism, hatred of Muslims, Muslim nostalgia for their glorious history, obsession with a long-dead past. The idea that cricket can improve relations and encourage virtue is chimerical. There is much in Ram’s book besides communal and racial contention; but as I share his sadness, this is the aspect that struck me most.