Byline for September 25, 2011
Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright
In the loneliness of the small town where I was born, and the shuttered years of boarding school, dream was a five-letter word called Tiger. Mansur Ali Khan’s magic transcended the supreme piffle that passed for cricket commentary when radio, with a glowing green eye in the right hand corner, was our primary passport to Test cricket. Secondary knowledge came from the grey photographs in black-and-white newspapers; but the red cherry seemed to blossom when it was smacked imperiously in an arc that began with the single eye of the master and traversed along the hooded nose that had been designed by God for aristocracy. The radio went into memory. The photograph was lovingly preserved in a scrapbook along with peers like Neil Harvey, Richie Benaud, Wes Hall, Garfield Sobers and Frank Worrell. I kept the unassuming Worrell in that illustrious company not because he could bat, but because he could lead.
Pataudi’s inherited title was a bit of a two-way sniff. We certainly sensed if not heard his occasional sniff at the plebs; but the fun was that he heard our periodic snort at yesterday’s elite as well. By the 1960s a Nawab had already become an effete caricature, a piteous descent from the glory days of the 18th century, first reduced to a whining fawn of the British and then to a vainglorious hanger-on of post-Independence politicians. Even Hindi cinema had begun to laugh at the “Chhote Nawab”, unless it tipped towards lachrymose self-pity as Nawab Sahab auctioned off his precious heirlooms in Mere Mehboob to protect some immensely idle honour.
Then came Indira Gandhi. In 1969 she made Nawabs and Rajahs illegal. Their fury was as silly as their impotence. They learnt how distant they had become from changing India when they tried to challenge Mrs Gandhi in the general elections of 1971. That election anointed a new order when it lifted Mrs Gandhi to power. The new Rani of India was Indira Gandhi, the Begum of Democracy.
Tiger was as upset as any of his brotherhood, but he disguised any personal trauma behind a finely chiselled sense of humour that combined the riot of practical jokes with the deadpan of a British mask. He was the perfect Indo-Anglian, as comfortable in stately sherwani as in a hunting jacket on Scottish moors. If he did not belong to any Drones club from the fiction of P.G. Wodehouse, it was only because he carried a bit of Drones along with him. The strategy for his impish pranks was often perfected across a convivial bar, and secrets were carefully protected till long after the victims had been duped — harmlessly of course. It was tragic that the last incident in his life was a snub from the MCC, which refused to hand out the traditional Pataudi trophy at the end of an India-England series this summer.
The Indian prince was bound to English cricket by a silken bond. At one level it kept him on friendship terms with the new ruling class, just as hunting had done in the Mughal days. It also became an appropriate theatre for the display of regal talent. It did not threaten the British, and it did not involve too subservient Indians. It would have been demeaning for a Nawab to become, for instance, a rampantly successful business executive: even a blue-chip private company was not blue enough for India’s blue-blooded. The Army was an honourable sanctuary but demanded too much discipline for too little reward. Politics was an option, but required rubbing shoulders with the serf.
Tiger had an equitable relationship with glamour. He was not a hypocrite, so he never disdained glamour. But he never fell in love with his mirror, either. Many reasons have been cited to explain the comparative paucity of runs: he scored just six centuries. The popular theory is the tragic loss of an eye in a car accident when still at Oxford. I tend to believe that he just could not be bothered. Cricket was a game, not a religion. He did not sacrifice joy at the altar of statistics.
Pataudi became an acknowledged Tiger because of his sleek style, his calm demeanour at the crease until the moment came for the instinctive pounce. He also wore the smile of the Tiger, a quiver that only once in a while bubbled across his face. This Tiger had class: Royal Bengal, an epithet that Calcutta happily adopted when he married a brilliant daughter of the great Tagore family, Sharmila.
I wonder how Tiger would have reacted to the cant that has surfaced after his death. A shrug, a nod, a half-weary smile. He hated clichés, so could we please abandon rubbish like “Cricket has become poorer” etc. Cricket has become infinitely richer in both cash and technique since Tiger last held a bat. But the world has certainly become poorer since his death.