–S. Subramanian (Babu)
It must have been in late 1971 or early 1972, when my father returned home from work and began excitedly telling my mother about this prospective match for my sister Raji that had been referred to him. The name, apparently, was Sunder Rajan. He had, my father announced enthusiastically, a degree in Eng. Lit. ‘No doubt from some rotten obscure Southern University?’ I enquired sarcastically. (The three of us – Raji, Ambi and I [Babu], but mostly the boys I suppose – were, when I think back on it, an utterly unrestrained lot when it came to making free with our opinions on religion, rituals, language, relatives, moral conduct [not least my father’s], or anything else that may have seized our fancies: it is amazing, in retrospect, to recall my father’s habitually patient, good-humoured, careful, and serious responses to our many mettlesome and gratuitously proffered views on life). On this occasion, it would have been understandable if my father had invited me to shut up; instead, and as was his wont, he said only, with a dignity and forbearance that was as characteristic of him as it was effective in shutting me up, that it would be very difficult for us to make any progress in the matter with this sort of attitude. So that at least ensured that judgement would be suspended and summary vetoes deferred. (We boys were deeply protective of my sister, and in the brutal but affectionate way of brothers, we often took it upon ourselves to answer for her, without thinking it necessary to consult her.)
I was given a chance to check out on my prospective brother-in-law, who was working then in the audit service of the government of India in Port Blair. I wrote to him with, I suppose, all the subtlety of an 18-year old confident of his ability to successfully disguise his audit-inspired motives in writing. The reply arrived in due course. It was the first time I saw Sunder’s exquisite handwriting – it was, virtually, calligraphy. It was also full of insults. He had seen through my motives, and he took appropriate measures. I was delighted by the barbs. Anybody who could insult with such flair and good humour must, I determined, be a piece of All Right.
After that, and until Sunder’s death, I never worried about Raji.
In my early twenties, while working for the Planning Commission, I stayed with Sunder and Raji in their tiny Moti Bagh apartment in Delhi. It never occurred to me that I might be a nuisance. It wasn’t just that Sunder didn’t mind, it seemed he liked to have me around. Many of my friends became his friends. He would have a drink with us, and pull our legs. He insisted on calling my late friend Ashwi (Aswalayan) Ahwatraman, and my friend Sampath, Sampath Iyengar, countering poor Sampath’s desperate protestations that he was an Iyer (Sampath said he had explicitly checked this out with his father) with the retort that nobody called Sampath could possibly not be an Iyengar… If he bullied us, we also ganged up on him every now and then. My closest friend Brian (now retired from the World Bank) is the fifth of a family of nine siblings, a tough cookie, and extremely well-versed in the art and craft of being a pain in the neck. We spent one holiday, during our post-graduate study, in Delhi with Raji and Sunder at their Green Park residence. One morning, when it was too cold outside to be abroad, we found the time hanging heavily on our hands, and so decided to annoy Sunder. I’m not bad at it myself, but Brian was (and is) a genius in that department. Sunder was working on one of his audit reports, and he repeatedly warned us to Watch It, eventually advising us that he would put the ‘young pissers’ (us) to ‘ignomious’ flight (as he put it) if we didn’t button up. Brian wanted to know whether we were interfering with Sunder’s writing of his ‘volumious’ report, whether his ‘volumious’ report was being compromised by our interruptions, whether the quality of his ‘volumious’ report was being diluted by our unwelcome presence… whereupon Sunder gathered us by the scruffs of our necks and literally kicked us out of the house. It’s a great thing when you can have this sort of fun with a human being, when you don’t always have to be deadly serious, when there’s such ease and freedom in the conduct of human affairs…
That was also when Kaushik was growing up. We would play cricket in the tiny verandah of that tiny Moti Bagh apartment. It was a strange version of cricket. We couldn’t seem to get it into the child’s head than one plays in order to win. Instead, he would react to the underarm bowling by retreating to square-leg, watching the ball’s progress to the wicket, and breaking out into cheers when he was bowled. The one other unreasonable thing he did was to insist on time-reversal. This happened whenever somebody other than himself inadvertently opened the door to his father on his return from work. On every such occasion, Kaushik would incline his torso, at the waist, to an angle of 90 degrees to the horizontal, try his best to rend his shirt, and howl through tears of impassioned grief: ‘Mudalai aakkanum [Let it be “Before”]’. The eventual resolution resided in taking him to the shop down the street and getting him a roll of a noxious confection called ‘Polo’. It was a real trial to get Kaushik to sleep of nights. Sunder was incredibly patient with him, and had an elaborate ritual of putting him to sleep by rocking him on his lap to the accompaniment of a seriously un-musical jingle that went ‘Jo-Jo Papa, Jo-Jo; Jo-Jo Papa, Jo.’ On difficult nights, ‘Papa’ would have to make way for other humans, animals and inanimate objects. Years later, when we visited Delhi with our baby daughter Daya, Sunder thoroughly spoilt the child with his ‘Jo-Jo’ routine and its variants. On our return to Chennai, Daya would insist on the routine, and when we thought we had finally succeeded in getting her to fall asleep, she would open one eye and suggest various casual variants of ‘Papa’: ‘Jo-Jo, Supriya, Jo-Jo’; ‘Jo-Jo, Cycle, Jo-Jo’; … and even ‘Jo-Jo, Auto-Rickshaw, Jo-Jo’…
Sunder was also my (self-appointed) adviser in love. When he learnt of Prabha, and in particular that she is some three years older than I, he quickly and decisively came to the conclusion that this wasn’t any good for me as it strongly suggested that I was in the grip of what he called an ‘Odipus’ Complex. A self-proclaimed expert on affairs of the heart, he needed no further data to assure himself that his young brother-in-law was being taken for a ride by a scheming older woman. I must say I never credited him with such Machiavellian cunning as on the occasion on which he attempted to derail the course of true love with this piece of subversion. Prabha was coming to Delhi, and we were to meet at Lodi Gardens. (I remember Raji was then not in town.) Sunder ingratiatingly offered to provide me with sartorial guidance for my tryst with Prabha. I marvel, in looking back, at my own innocence of those days. He fished out an unused nylon shirt of his, of a ghastly flaring orange colour (of the exact shade you find on ice-cream sticks), lovingly ironed it for me, clothed me in it, and sent me off to Lodi Gardens with many pious good wishes of encouragement and success. Alas! The best laid plans…Prabha has since told me that she was horrified by the spectacle I presented, but that such complete hopelessness as I embodied was a case, surely, for pity, not censure…Thus did Sunder help me, all un-knowing, in the most serious venture of my life…
I may add that Sunder and Prabha became the greatest of friends. He would often seek her advice, without the slightest reservation, on this or that or the other thing. He would call from Bangalore, and if I picked up the phone, he would unceremoniously dump me and ask for Prabha. I believe he loved coming to our home. He was the most convivial of guests or hosts you could think of when it came to sharing a drink or two (or three). And he loved good food. A simple thing like a well-done omelette, or a properly roasted dosai, could send him off into raptures. He didn’t eat much, but he ate with every evidence of relish, and he was generous to the point of extravagance with his praise. He loved my mother’s cooking, and especially her sweets, and never failed to say so, or to seek and find his favourite food. He similarly loved having his head and legs massaged, and would make many appreciative noises of pleasure, frequently carrying it to clownish extremes that would raise a laugh all around, when he was given the treatment with Tiger Balm or Amrutanjan. Sunder also always had a ready stock of Tamil Filmi dialogue for every conceivable occasion. His affecting portrayal of M R Radha as the penitent sinner could send you into convulsions.
As my friend Brian said, when he heard of Sunder’s passing, it was difficult to credit him with being a person of such ‘seniority’ (as we say) as he indeed was. He retired as Deputy Comptroller and Auditor General of India. It is hard to resist the belief that he should have been CAG of India, if he hadn’t lost as many friends and uninfluenced as many people as he did with his honesty and professional integrity. I say this with simple satisfaction. I’m now past 60, and no doubt this is thoroughly old-fashioned and paternalistic: but in a time when ‘making it’ is all too often the only thing that seems to matter, I cannot but recall my brother-in-law’s professional competence, his brilliance, and his integrity, with anything but the deepest and most uncomplicated pride. We often speak slightingly of bureaucratic incompetence and venality, and with every justification; but the civil services also have among their cadres the most profoundly valuable officers, a matter that must serve as comfort and encouragement in a general atmosphere of bleakness. I wish Sunder had preserved the reports he wrote in manuscript. These were marvels of calligraphy, executed with care and scruple with felt pens of many colours, and containing the results of advanced cost-benefit analysis which he had taught himself (with an academic background in Eng Lit!), and which he deployed in the cause of calling bluffs and nailing lies.
I should be the first to concede that Sunder could be, and often was, a cuss of the first water. He would often retreat into uncivil silences, contributing nothing to a general discussion on, say, politics, while conveying the unspoken criticism that he was in the midst of a lot of hot air, uninformed pomposity, and general bs. At other times he would offer dogmatic pronouncements and not bother to defend them, despite repeated and frustrated demands for justification. At yet other times he could be a bit of a bully when it pleased him to goad a victim. It was all part of being a generally extremely clever guy amongst people who weren’t quite as smart. I’m glad to say he was no Pollyanna.
But what somebody in my position retains of him is predominantly the impression of a person who was a part of my life for more than two-thirds of its duration; who integrated himself so seamlessly into my family; who loved my parents as much as he did; who accepted and was so tolerant of a family as diversely crazy as mine is; who bestowed on me the great good fortune of being my sister’s husband and my nephew’s father; but who was only incidentally these things, being primarily and essentially what he was: Sundappa.
In the end, the most durable reason we have for loving anyone is the selfish reason that they love us. I would like to believe that Sunder loved me. Who else cared for the occasional doggerel I wrote with as much indulgence and affection as he did? Shortly after his passing, I wrote a piece of nonsense verse on cricket, a game he loved with a passion. I dedicated it to him. It was my way of coping with his loss. I reproduce it here for anyone that might be interested.
HERBERT FARJEON’S VILLAGE CRICKET MATCH IN VERSE*
Sharp practice in our national game is probably a good deal more common than most Englishmen would care to admit. Although it is true that the other side is seldom openly accused of cheating, there can be hardly a pavilion in the country which has not at some time in its existence creaked with dark whisperings against the impartiality of umpires from men who have been given out lbw, or against the honour of wicket-keepers from men who cannot bring themselves to believe that such a ball could possibly have hit the stumps. League cricket in particular produces complaints from batsmen who are convinced that they were not really so much bowled or caught or stumped as tricked out. Yet I question whether any match has ever been conducted in a more thoroughly unsportsmanlike manner than a certain officially ‘friendly’ match between the old-world villages of Herecombe and Therecombe. In the annals of the game it will, I imagine, stand for all time as the only match in which, although there was not a drop of rain, although play continued uninterrupted through the whole afternoon, and although both sides had a knock, only two balls were bowled. That, I feel sure, must be one of the most remarkable of all the records unchronicled in the pages of Wisden.
Herbert Farjeon: ‘Herecombe v Therecombe’
Cricket is so fearsome
When Therecombe play with Herecombe,
For cricket’s the field wherefrom
Herecombe battle Therecombe.
The game begins with ‘Toss’,
Which Herecombe win through guile:
For the Herecombe Eleven’s boss
Can do ballistics in style.
Herecombe elect to bat:
There’s nothing they’re better at,
For they’re all-rounders, all
As bad with bat as ball.
Herecombe’s captain, Blipper,
Is Herecombe’s Number One.
He takes guard, the Herecombe skipper,
Under a gently shining sun.
The first ball he receives
Strikes a flint and fizzes:
The batsman it deceives
As past his nose it whizzes.
To very nearly lose his beak
Is a monumental scare:
The skipper thus is moved to speak:
“Why! I do declare!”
Thereat the chief of the fielding side
Leads it off with a certain flair:
He says, with a smile he can barely hide:
“We distinctly heard him declare!”
There’s a breathless hush in the Close today
One to win and first man in:
Therecombe have till close of play
And all ten wickets to complete a win.
All is lost for the Herecombe side
Or so at least it would seem;
But we reck without their glory and pride
Herecombe’s Long-Distance Dream.
I speak now of Little Smith,
The hero of this piece.
He is the stuff of legend and myth
May his tribe increase!
Little Smith has never bowled
A ball in all his life,
But he is worth his weight in gold
When Herecombe’s under strife.
For though he cannot bowl at all,
Little Smith can run
And so is handed o’er the ball,
Under a gently shining sun.
For Little Smith is sound of limb,
And stout of heart is he:
Running fifteen miles, for him,
Is a lark of joy and glee.
Round he goes, and round and round,
Behind the bowler’s crease:
His flapping flannels the only sound
To disturb the ambient peace.
Therecombe’s opener waits and waits,
But Smith will not be done:
Therecombe’s reduced to desperate straits
Under a gently shining sun.
As the golden morning passes on
To noon, and summer’s eve,
Smith persists with his marathon
His post he will not leave.
Smith will not be bowling soon:
The clock strikes eleven, and twelve, and one,
And onward, thus, till a silvery moon
Obscures a gently shining sun.
The fielders, mostly, have gone to sleep,
But Smith, his legs won’t park:
He wheels and circles late and deep
Into a night of moon-lit dark.
In mid-of-ball a match can’t end,
For rain or storm or light;
The Rules of Cricket you cannot bend,
However late in the night.
At last upon the stroke of ten
Smith bowls a wide full toss,
Collected somehow by `keeper Ben,
And Thercombe’s none for no loss.
The umpires now can call off play,
Which they do with haste and speed:
At the end of a stirring twelve-hour day,
Another ball’s all they need.
Herecombenone for none declared,
Therecombenought for zero:
Cricket’s very soul is bared
By this Saga of Smith the Hero.