Sunday, January 21, 2001
A RECENT issue of India Today had a cover story on the match- fixing scandal. The same issue noted the death of the footballer Ram Bahadur, an East Bengal stalwart who played in the 1960 Rome Olympics and was also a member of the greatest of all Indian soccer sides, which won the title at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta. The juxtaposition, one suspects, was not accidental: the footballer's memory was being honoured to shame the players of that other (and it is now being implied) morally inferior game.
The men at India Today would not know it, but actually Ram Bahadur's own favourite sport was cricket. His footballing career ran from 1957 to 1967: but he had played much cricket before those dates, and much cricket after them too.
Ram Bahadur was the son of a chaprassi, or peon, who worked in the Forest Research Institute in Dehra Dun. His closest friend, while growing up, was the son of a distinguished scientist at the same Institute. The patrician and plebeian together formed a club named Sporting Youngsters which was, for many years, the best cricket team in the valley. After practice, the boys would repair for tea and snacks to the stately home of the scientist, a six- room bungalow set in four acres of woodland which overlooked the practice field. I should immediately add a correction here. The other Sporting Youngsters had tea, but not Ram Bahadur. For he was a Chhetri, a hill man from the high valleys of Western Nepal, by genes and culture inclined towards the harder stuff. In these post-practice parties, he would discreetly pour himself a drop or two of Gordon's Dry Gin, and top up the bottle with water. While this was going on, the scientist was away at work, and his wife was in the kitchen. This is a charming story (it was told to me by the scientist's son), but one would love to know its ending. What was the look on the face of the visiting foreign dignitary to whom the drink was finally and officially offered?
The year before I was born Ram Bahadur joined East Bengal. The Calcutta club is chiefly known for its football, but it had decent cricket and hockey teams too. Ram Bahadur played all three games for the club. I never saw him play those other sports, but have some abiding recollections of him on the cricket field. For, as it happened, my father also worked in the Forest Research Institute. And, in December and January, Ram Bahadur would come home to Dehra Dun on holiday, to place his monsoon earnings at the feet of his mother, and to play cricket.
Ram Bahadur was a half-back at football, and a speedy outside left at hockey. At cricket, he would do everything: bat in the middle order, bowl a brisk medium pace, field in the covers or at slip. I remember very clearly a match played at the Indian Military Academy, between IMA cadets and a scratch civilian team. (Like all cricket fields once did, the IMA ground had its pavilion at wide midwicket: this was a red-brick building with a pillared verandah on which tea and sandwiches were served). It much have been 1965 or 1966, about the time of the second Indo- Pakistan war, but the sky this day was cloudless and the sport played was not bloody. I sat in the sun with my father, watching Ram Bahadur, the son of a peon, being toasted by the gentry. He got to 49 with a series of slashing cuts and pulls, each shot accompanied by murmurs of "well played, Sir". To get to 50 he played a ball short to point, set off for a single, was sent back by his over-cautious partner, and run out. He returned to the pavilion to applause and calls of "bad luck, Sir!". Later in the day he gave a spectacular exhibition of fielding, driving away at cover to stop fierce dives struck by beefy and eager cadets.
Ram Bahadur was, I guess, my first cricketing hero, his batting and fielding that day at the IMA my first coherent, consolidated cricketing memory. I was introduced to him over tea and sandwiches, to thus commence three decades of a close, if somewhat, interrupted friendship. After he left East Bengal in 1967, he joined the Oil and Natural Gas Commission. He was sent at first to Assam but, in about 1975, wangled a posting to the Commission's headquarters in Dehra Dun. I met him sometimes on the cricket field - we played for rival clubs - and sometimes off it. He still batted with a keen eye, but the accumulated inches around the waist meant he would no longer field at cover. But he had made himself into a decent wicket-keeper instead.
In 1984, my family finally left Dehra Dun. I went to Ram Bahadur's home to say goodbye. The old sportsman took me around the block, showing me the homes he had built for his sisters. Then he escorted me to his own room, closed the door, and picked up a bat lying in the corner: a brand new bat, smelling sweetly of its first coats of linseed oil. "Pick it up," he urged me, "see how nice the balance is." I did, and concurred with his judgment.
Then Ram Bahadur went to the door, made certain it was shut, and said, in a thrilling whisper: "I paid Rs. 300 for it. But don't tell my missus: I have bluffed her that it was a gift from the Commission." This fellow, fat and 45, was still cheating on his wife but, in this particular case, we may accept that the ends wholly justified the means.
Six months ago, I was in Dehra Dun on work. My meeting ended early, and I went in search of my friend. His home in Panditwari was locked. A neighbour told me that, after his wife's death, Ram Bahadur had moved to his daughter's, who lived "somewhere near Chor Pulia". I reached the bridge of thiefs, and a series of shopkeepers directed me to the Olympian's house. His daughter offered me tea: which I drunk, and (to my surprise) so did he. We spoke, of course, of old times. He told me of a day at the Sporting Youngsters nets, circa 1961, when he had his colleagues in splits with stories of the Village in Rome. The conversations carried over into fielding practice, where the footballer's stories had generated an epidemic, which was not catching. A frustrated captain - the scientist's son - asked the errant member to do a round of the field in punishment. Ram Bahadur did as he was told, but when he returned from his run, he saw that the captain had thrown away bat and ball, and was weeping. "You, you, you are an Olympian" he stammered, "and you still took that round."
"You are still my skipper," answered Ram Bahadur, "and I did disrupt practice, and deserved to be punished."
Without knowing it, Ram Bahadur once did me a huge favour. I was at Palam Airport, returning from a trip overseas, and being harassed by a custom officer who would not believe that the books that burdened my suitcase were to be read by me, and me alone.
The fellow would let me go, till he scanned my passport again, and noticed my place of birth. I am from Dehra Dun, too, he announced. Which part, I asked. Panditwari, he answered. That is the village Ram Bahadur comes from," I said. "Did the officer know him?"
Why not, said the customs man, he is, after all, an Olympian. (kyon nahin - akhir wo to Olympian hain)". I could now depart, for how would he take a bribe from a fellow devotee of our hometown God?
Ram Bahadur was a sporting youngster, and a sporting old man. The world and India Today may know of him only as a footballer - a great footballer - but I was privileged to know him as a cricketer, who taught me lessons in cricketing technique and cricketing morality. I salute him.