“I’d gone there in ’58 – to play cricket. It’s not a place to be scoffed at,” says Feluda very early on in Baadshahi Angti, Satyajit Ray’s first full-length story involving the iconic detective. The reference was to Lucknow, where the story is set. Feluda, we come to know, used to bowl ‘slow spin’ when he played cricket seriously in his college and university days, and had travelled to various parts of the country as part of the University of Calcutta team.
Later in the novel, Feluda spots Mahavir, a key character in the story, in a bookstore browsing for cricket books. Feluda, as if unaware of Mahavir’s presence, asks the shopkeeper for Neville Cardus’s Centuries. That kicks off a conversation between the two, and while Feluda tells Mahavir about his playing days, including in Lucknow, Mahavir tells him that he had turned out for Doon School as well.
[I searched high and low for this book by Cardus once upon a time, only to discover that it was never written. Fie, I say, Satyajit babu, fie!]
Before moving on to matters more crucial to the investigation, the two even have a little debate: Who’s Greater – Ranji or Bradman? We aren’t told who wins.
As a young reader, I stumbled across enough references and more to cricket in books by British authors, especially of a certain time. Off-hand, apart from Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays, I can think of PG Wodehouse, JM Barrie, AA Milne and Arthur Conan Doyle – all of whom were enthusiastic cricketers too. Conan Doyle, in fact, even played first-class cricket, bowling ‘right-arm slow’. I wonder if Feluda’s specialisation on the cricket field was not a doff of the hat to the man that Ray acknowledged as his inspiration when it came to detective stories.
British fiction then used cricket much like modern-day Indian films do, as an unremarkable day-to-day activity. Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, for example, where a game between All-Muggleton and Dingley Dell Cricket Club occupies a little scene. Then there are the books that qualify as ‘cricket literature’, in British as well as subcontinental fiction. Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman is a personal favourite among books young and old. Most recently, there is Aravind Adiga’s Selection Day, which I haven’t read yet but must.
But the literary appearances that truly captivate me are the ones that typify the role cricket plays in our own lives. To use EW Swanton’s words, “Cricket is one of the relaxations of a weary world”. In England then and in India now, it symbolises that – the mundane, the everyday, the calm before something of great import whether in cinema or in literature.
Unless we are talking about Douglas Adams and Life, the Universe and Everything, I guess, where Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect appear on a sofa in the “middle of the pitch at Lord’s Cricket Ground, St John’s Wood, London, towards the end of the last Test Match of the Australian Series in the year 198–, with England only needing twenty-eight runs to win.”
But to return to Ray, the other day, a cousin emailed me a photograph that shows Ray bowling. It could well be ‘slow spin’; Ray, a six-footer, wearing dark trousers and a white full-sleeved shirt (not rolled up, Mr Bedi) and sandals, is at the point of delivery with only a hint of a bent elbow. I started wondering about Ray and cricket, and all the summer afternoons in Calcutta (before it became Kolkata) devouring Feluda novels came rushing back.
It wasn’t just Baadshahi Angti, of course. There are strong references to cricket in some of his films too, including in Kanchenjunga (1958) and Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1970). In Kanchenjunga, in fact, the character of the family patriarch, played by the wonderful Bengali actor Chhabi Biswas, talks to a younger associate of the 96 he once scored in a school (or was it college/university?) match before being bowled by a British spinner called ‘Griggs’.
However, the one work – literature, not cinema – that truly establishes Ray as a cricket nut is Khelowaar Tarinikhuro.
Khelowaar = player. Tarinikhuro – Tarini uncle, a major Ray character who had a series of tales about, well, the tales he told a group of young boys over tea and beedis (only for him, not the boys).
This one, conclusively to my mind, confirms that Ray thought better of Ranji than Bradman. The tale is set in 1949 – the last bit of the princely states, which were abolished by India soon after its independence in 1947. Back then, it was the princely states with their Anglophile rulers that patronised the game.
Tarinikhuro tells the boys about the time he was in the employ of Virendrapratap Singh, the king of Martandapur in Madhya Pradesh. The Martandapur Cricket Club [‘MCC’] had a long-running rivalry with Planters Club, and at the time of our hero’s presence there, Martandapur had lost the annual game ten times in a row, chiefly because the Planters Club team had more than a few county cricketers, and it fell upon Tarinikhuro to win the latest game for his team.
While there is a beginning and an end and a narrative to the story, it reads almost like Ray’s recollections of cricket from his younger days, such detail and texture does he weave into the telling.
Sifting through the diaries of one of Virendrapratap’s ancestors, Rajendrapratap, who reached London in 1901 and put in a diary entry saying, “At last I can watch Ranji play”, Tarinikhuro comes across a pile of nuggets.
First-class cricket, Ranji, Duleep, the Nawab of Pataudi, MCC, the Maharaja of Patiala, bouncers and many other cricketing references find their way into the diary, but the climax of the story has to do with Tarinikhuro scoring an unbeaten 243 to win the match for his team. As it turns out, the bat Virendrapratap had given him was Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji’s. It’s made clear by another diary entry, where Rajendrapratap writes, “Today, Ranji gifted me one of his bats as a token of our friendship. This is the bat with which he had scored 202 for Sussex against Middlesex. Is there anyone as fortunate as me in the world?”
Ranji had indeed scored 202 for Sussex, the only county team he ever played for, against Middlesex back in 1900.
Tarinikhuro concludes the story by saying, “Today, 16 years after Ranji’s death, I could make out what he was like as a batsman through my own game.”
Now then, why Ray and cricket and all this nostalgia while there is a bona fide here-and-now Test match on at Eden Gardens?
Well, it’s Pujo, of course. Durga Pujo, the time of the year every NRB – Non-Resident Bengali – feels a little pang, a back-to-the-pavilion kind of thing in the back of the mind.
After his initial, sporadic experiments with Feluda, Ray wrote a new adventure featuring the detective almost every year, and these were published in Desh, a popular literary magazine, or Sandesh, a children’s magazine published by the Ray family in their Durga Pujo editions. As children, waiting for the next Feluda story was an annual thing. So now, away in Bangalore while the festivities are on in Kolkata, humour me for a little nostalgia. At least there’s more than a bit of cricket in the experience (and a little did-you-know about the legendary filmmaker too).