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A life lived to the full
A lot in the life of Leslie Walter Claudius happened quite by chance. For one, he wouldn't have achieved Olympian fame had he not been watching a game of hockey on a hot summer afternoon in 1945 at Kharagpur. And his life might not have been the same had he married the girl he fell first fell in love with 60 summers ago in Kolkata. But Claudius, who turned 85 in March this year, says he has lived life to the full;"absolutely no regrets, son", he adds in his clipped accent.
Born at Bilaspur (Madhya Pradesh) in 1927 to a middle class Anglo-Indian family, Claudius took an early interest in sport. "That was the culture in those times, especially among us Anglo-Indians because excelling in sports could land you good jobs, " he recalls. He started playing football and soon became an accomplished player, getting, as he expected, a job in the Bengal Nagpur Railways (BNR) security force at Kolkata at the young age of 18. "I played quite well as a left half in the BNR team at the IFA Shield Tournament, " he remembers. He was soon transferred to Kharagpur where, one afternoon, he sat watching a practice match between the BNR's 'A' and 'B' hockey teams preparing for the prestigious Beighton Cup tournament at Kolkata when one of the players sustained an injury. Fellow Anglo-Indian Dickie Carr, who was captaining one of the teams, asked Leslie if he wanted to play. "I was speechless, more so since it was a request from Dickie who was a hero (having won the hockey gold at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics) to me. I stammered 'Yessir, yessir' and found myself with a hockey stick for the first time in my life. But I apparently played well and Dickie liked my style and though my team finished second in the Beighton Cup, I was asked to stay back. I discovered hockey came naturally to me and my game kept on getting better and better, " he says.
Claudius left BNR and joined the Port Commissionerate in 1947, playing as a centre-half in the Commissioner's team. His performance at the Aga Khan Tournament at Mumbai in 1948 won him wide acclaim and the selectors for the national hockey team to the 1948 London Olympics immediately asked the 21-year-old to present himself for the trials. Even though he had a fractured thumb, Leslie sailed through the trials and landed at London later that year. "I can't even say that representing my country in the Olympics was like a dream come true for me because I never had that dream. I was content playing football and never dreamt of going abroad. But the Lord had other plans for me and another game (hockey) which I took up quite by accident took me all over the world and brought me so much fame and glory, " says Leslie, a bright twinkle in his eye. "And winning that gold in my first Olympics was beyond even the wildest of dreams. I could scarcely believe myself, " he says.
Leslie won two more Olympic golds - at Helsinki in 1952 and Melbourne in 1956 - and a silver at Rome in 1960. He gave up international hockey after the acute disappointment of losing to Pakistan in Rome under his own captaincy and continued to play for Bengal and the Customs (which he joined in 1949) for another five years at the national level.
Meanwhile, in the early 1950s, Leslie fell in love with a young girl from his community. "She was playing badminton in her locality (Mcleod Street, where Leslie stays now) and I saw her. It was love at first sight. I went up and spoke to her. We became friends, but before I could even propose to her, she introduced me to her fiancê. I was heartbroken. But I recovered, thanks to the attention her sister Vilia, a hairdresser then, started showering on me. And soon, we ended up getting married!" It has been a very happy marriage and the couple had four sons - one, Robert, who played hockey and represented India in the 1978 World Cup in Mexico, died in a road accident shortly after returning from Mexico - two of who live in Australia and his youngest, a widower, with him at his rented second floor flat in an old mansion in an area which was once largely populated by Anglo-Indians. "Robert was even better than me in hockey, " says Leslie, adding that his son's death left him a shattered man.
Claudius admits that though hockey has brought him fame, it hasn't fetched him much wealth. He doesn't have a flat or house of his own, never owned a car and has few worldly possessions. His Olympic medals were stolen by workers who were polishing some furniture at his three-bedroom flat in the mid-1960 s. As an officer in the Customs department, which he retired from in 1984, he was renowned for his honesty. Claudius acknowledges that some other sports, especially cricket, are far more lucrative. So would he have been a cricketer if he'd have to live his life all over again? "No way, I would have played hockey, no matter what. As I said, I have no regrets whatsoever, " he emphasises.
He, however, laments the decline of hockey in India and blames it on the neglect of the game by sports authorities. "Cricket came as an atom bomb and killed all other sports. Why should sports authorities promote hockey, which would draw only a handful of spectators, and not cricket which draws lakhs?" he asks. The lack of astroturf to play hockey on also contributed to the decline of Indian hockey, he says. Another disappointment for him is that Kolkata, which cradled Indian hockey, has lost its love for the game. "Bengalis very strangely have no love for hockey. They play only cricket and football. But Kolkata was where Indian hockey was born and flourished and most of the game's greats were from Kolkata, " he says.
Leslie used to lead an active social life till about two decades ago. "Kolkata was a fun place till then. There used to be so many parties and events. Life was a celebration then. The clubs were abuzz with activities and there were the races and so many other events. It's all gone now, " he sighs. These days, he spends most of his time in his apartment, reliving his eventful life and its many glorious moments. And watching sports and movies on television. But he does hail a taxi once in a while to go to the Customs Tent (clubhouse) at Kolkata's Maidan to chat, play some bridge and have a tipple with old friends and colleagues. "I used to do it every evening till some years ago, but moving around is painful now, " he says.
Had he been more agile, he would have also made it to London for the Olympics. To remember the thrilling moments in that city 64 summers ago. And also to take a ride in London's tube from Bushey station, which has been renamed after him for the duration of the Olympics, as have 360 other stations after various sports stars. But that won't be. Leslie Claudius will be content to watch the action in London from Kolkata, a city that has forgotten him.
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