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Malgudi's Sachin is 75
Some time between 1930 and 1932, a young Brahmin boy “held a tennis ball in his hand, took a few paces, and threw it over”. The batsman and captain of the team had chosen to open the innings by right — being the proud owner of the playing equipment, and the only one in the team who wore socks and shoes and spoke English like “a European”. The batsman swung his bat and missed the delivery. The ball kissed the wickets sketched in charcoal on a wall, fetching the bowler a victim off his first delivery. Teammates crowded around the bowler, patted him in appreciation and named him Tate.
The bowler was Swaminathan Srinivasan. His captain was Rajam and the team, of which this was the inaugural practice session, was the Malgudi Cricket Club or Victory Union Eleven.
On another evening when Swami told his closest friend at home, his granny, about his new name, she wondered what on earth Tate was.
Maurice Tate was “the greatest bowler on earth”, the boy told her. Almost as if it were a literary arrangement, the Englishman too had taken a wicket off his first delivery in Test cricket. In that match at Edgbaston, Birmingham, in June 1924, Tate (4 for 12) and Arthur Gilligan (6 for 7) had skittled out South Africa for a total of 30. The highest scorer for the South Africans was their skipper and — uncannily so, like Rajam — an opening batsman: Herbie Taylor with seven. The ravaging took 75 balls and lasted 48 minutes.
Swami is, of course, as keen followers of Indo-Anglian literature would have figured out, the charming little fellow of Swami and Friends, a masterly debut by R K Narayan. When Narayan was creating his wonderful boy-hero, Indian cricket had just gained Test status (1932), even though Independence was more than 15 years away. Elsewhere then, Douglas Jardine was
unleashing his new strategy. He called it Leg Theory; others called it Bodyline.
Around this time, Narayan showed the efforts of his creative labour to a friend and an English teacher, M N Parthasarathy, to check for its literary merit. The English teacher, known to friends and students as “Pachchu”, complimented the young author, but another person who relished the work was Pachchu’s teenage brother, M N Srinivas, known later to the world as a sociologist whose most celebrated work is My Remembered Village.
Srinivas recalled that incident years later writing for the daily, Star of Mysore, on its 20th anniversary. He said he noticed the manuscript lying on his brother's table and was consumed by the tale of a young boy’s adventures. Like Swami, young Srinivas had joined the rallies in the streets of Mysore singing patriotic songs. And like Narayan’s boy-hero too, had captained a junior cricket team called Bradman’s XI.
Swami was the earliest cricketing hero of Indian fiction in English. The game became an approximation of cross-cultural interaction and the boy’s control over it was not dissimilar to Narayan himself who had broken into the bastion of English literature, earning praise from literary eminents like Graham Greene.
Swami was very real. Out there on the streets of Mysore or Mumbai, the game was even then played with passion with the barest of paraphernalia and bereft of trappings. Sticks in the ground or markings on walls for wickets; wooden planks for bats; tennis or rubber balls, often more home-grown, rough-hewn spheres made out of squashed tamarind seeds — just anything for a few hours in the sun. Seventy-five years later, small neighbourhood teams studded with Swamis still populate our streets.
Narayan’s writing had a peculiar keenness for Indian sounds, voices, mannerisms and eccentricities. In many ways, he was so much a part of the Malgudi milieu but trained himself to view it from a distance as well. He was Swami and the Writer as well. Nothing could perhaps better illustrate his eagerness to participate in familial roles than the photograph shot in 1950 by fellow Mysorean T S Satyan, later published in the magazine The Illustrated Weekly of India.The celebrated picture (see above) shows Narayan playing cricket around his house with his nephews Thumbi and Nokki and niece Shanta. Clad in a lungi, he looks a bit tentative in his role as wicket-keeper. Years later, the photo graced the cover of Ramachandra Guha’s A Corner of a Foreign Field.
Narayan was often asked, “Where is Malgudi?”, and he replied it couldn’t be found on the map, but its characteristics were universal. Quite likely he’d have said that of Swami. More so, of Swami the neighbourhood cricketer.
One afternoon in 1982, a group of boys chose to play a game of cricket in a vacant field adjoining R K Narayan's house at Yadavgiri in Mysore. The game hadn't progressed much, and just as the hard leather ball hit the compound wall of the house with a thud and the boys cheered, Narayan stormed out of his door to rebuke them. "Can't you play cricket without making a noise?" he asked them. The team left the field and decided not to return to the pitch. That was Jameel Ahmed, now a political science teacher at the University of Mysore, recalling an anecdote from his childhood. He says they didn't realise they were disturbing the writer's afternoon siesta. A few days later when Jameel was walking past the bungalow, Narayan asked Jameel why they had stopped playing. The message was play, but without making a racket. — M B Maramkal
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