In the second of her three-part series, Silloo Mehta recalls how the annual Quandrangular tournament brought the city to a standstill.
We entered a new world when we stepped into Stone House. A well maintained government bungalow with a large garden and ample grounds at the back. It was a corner house. Across the side road were the clay courts of the Western India Tennis Club. In front was Queen's Road, part of the main artery between north and south Bombay. Adjoining the road were the tracks of the new railway line connecting the suburbs to Bombay. It was scary watching young men hanging out of doorless compartments clutching a rail and enjoying the breeze sweeping through them. The stations were only minutes apart.
At last, mama could indulge herself and create her own home with limited means but boundless ingenuity. There was a drawing room but no dining room. She enclosed a side verandah with a wooden trellis painted green and planted creepers beneath. The back door led to the kitchen. In those days kitchens were always outside the house so that cooks could cope better with wood or coal stoves. Tankervilli's huge dining table was cut down to seat six, polished mahogany and glass covered for child proofing. The downstairs bedroom was for the parents. Grandpa and we four children had the rooms upstairs. Ayah slept with us. The best place in the house was the large open verandah over the porch. The view was magnificent and the western breeze a boon. Beyond the railway lines there was a sandy track for riders. Adjacent to it another part served morning walkers and cyclists. In the distance, the calm waters of Backbay embraced the vibrant beautiful gothic city of Bombay.
Our horizons opened. We went to Anglo-Indian schools, which provided the best education at the time. Discipline was strict. We learnt Scripture but there was no attempt at conversion. Grandpa's old box-like Overland (extinct American), took us to school and returned to drive him to office. We learnt to use the smart, red BEST buses and go out with friends. When the tennis tournaments of the WITC took place, we were in great demand. Friends demanded free seats on our verandah, which had a grand stand view of the courts.
Bombay was as crazy about cricket a century ago as it is today. Every November bamboo scaffolding would start going up on the Bombay Gymkhana maidan. We rejoiced. Quandrangular time! Stands were allotted to the different clubs – Hindu, Parsi, Islam. Of course, the Europeans watched the matches from the comfort of their own club house, amid fans, chota pegs, beer, ice and more ice. Our stands also had fans but ineffectively high up. We had closely packed chairs and benches. Samosa and soft drink vendors clattered up and down the isles of the wooden boards. For children they were a major attraction. Since these were all lengthy matches, there would be hours of stonewalling boredom, sometimes till we almost went to sleep. A sudden roar would announce the fall of a wicket.
The Quadrangular tournament had its origins in an annual match played between the European members of the Bombay Gymkhana and the Parsis of the Zoroastrian Cricket Club. The first such game was played in 1877, when the Bombay Gymkhana accepted a request for a two-day match from the Parsis. The game went off well. It was repeated the next year and was expected to become an annual event. Unfortunately, the Europeans did not maintain a level playing field (literally). They used the Bombay maidan, which was utilised by all communities as a cricket ground, for a polo field rendering much of it useless for cricket because of the large divots left by the horses. They excluded their own ‘Europeans Only' cricket ground. The Parsis and Hindus went to court. The dispute was settled in their favour.
The European and Parsi matches resumed in 1884. 1907 saw the first triangular tournament with teams from the Bombay, Parsi and Hindu Gymkhanas. In 1912 the Muslims were invited, making it a Quadrangular. This tournament became the highlight of the year and was continued right upto 1930. In that year Gandhiji's Salt Satyagraha and Civil Disobedience Movement caused such turmoil that the Quandrangular was cancelled but resumed in 1934. Later it became Pentangular, but never had the old lustre.
Gandhiji was critical of the Quadrangular not because he disliked cricket but he was opposed to having teams on the basis of religion. He saw in it one more diabolical trick of the British to divide the natives under the guise of sport. Hence his followers tried to disrupt the matches but did not succeed. They were more successful in 1921 during the Prince of Wales visit to Bombay. Gandhiji had called for a peaceful hartal, but that soon degenerated into riots, arrests, and police raids. The Quandrangular continued even amidst the mayhem. After the riots had ended, the Prince attended the first day of the Final accepting cheers from a pro European crowd, who eventually witnessed the Parsis prevail over the Bombay Gymkhana.
Unaware of its illustrious past, my memories of the Parsi Gymkhana were those of a comfortable, unpretentious place, much like its members. It was my father's second home. He often dropped in to watch the cricket, play bridge, or just be with friends. The Gymkhana had epic status in our family because papa once forgot my little sister there. His absent-mindedness was phenomenal. His friends, knowing him, looked after the child till he returned. I still remember my mother's look of horror when he came home without her. Only then did he realise the enormity of his offence.
The Bombay Quadrangular was so famous that cricket clubs sprang up all over the subcontinent. The Mecca of the best players was Bombay. If only the yesteryear cricketers had known that the game they loved and played almost for free would one day yield their successors fortunes, they would have turned in their graves in frustration.
The first part of this article was published in the Magazine on December 13, 2009.
The author (age 92) is a freelance writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org