Tiger Pataudi has always been loved and deeply respected but the depth of collective mourning was not anticipated.
On September 22, 2011, my flight from Delhi landed in Kolkata and I heard that Mansur Ali Khan, Nawab of Pataudi, had passed. It seemed fitting that I should be in Kolkata, where I grew up, learnt about cricket and hero-worshipped one of the game’s greatest exponents. As the news spread, hundreds expressed a sense of personal loss. The next morning, The Telegraph carried the banner headline ‘Prince of Players’ with almost the entire front page devoted to a heartfelt tribute by Ramachandra Guha. It seemed to mirror the enormous space the man had occupied in all our hearts.
Tiger Pataudi has always been loved and deeply respected but the depth of collective mourning was not anticipated. An unprecedented crowd showed up for his burial in Pataudi and for days the print, electronic and social media saw a virtual flood of tributes. What earned Tiger Pataudi so much affection? How did he live in public memory despite his reclusive nature? Except for the occasional public event or TV appearance, he was hardly ever seen. Yet, when he did choose to speak, he commanded attention. If Tiger Pataudi appeared on TV, it is because he had something to say, not because he had any desire to be seen.
By the time I came of age, Tiger’s golden years were past. The only time I watched him play was in the 1974-75 series against West Indies. He seemed out of form but it didn’t matter. We lived in the charismatic afterlife of Tiger’s cricketing exploits. He was the youngest captain to ever lead a Test team and had skippered not just India but Winchester, Sussex and Oxford. The mystique was heightened by his being a Nawab whose father, also called Pataudi, held the double distinction of leading both England and India. Since nothing fires the Bengali imagination more than a brush with tragedy, we never forgot that Tiger played with one functional eye, having lost the other in a car accident. When in 1968, he married Bengali actress Sharmila Tagore, we the inhabitants of Calcutta, felt we had scored over the rest of India and forged a special relationship with the man.
The Pataudi-Tagore marriage was more than just a star alliance. It broke religious barriers and public myths. It was inspiring for women that Tagore continued to work after her marriage as one of India’s leading actresses proving that marriage and a successful career could happily co-exist. Tiger has credited Tagore with teaching him the value of working – for financial independence, pleasure and developing a sense of self. Similarly, Tagore gives Tiger credit for keeping her grounded and helping her inhabit a world beyond the film industry.
In 1970, Tiger assumed editorship of Sportsworld, which carried a debate in the letters column on whether women should play cricket. I was disappointed when the editor ended the debate in favour of those who argued they shouldn’t. I discovered later that Tiger lived in Delhi, wrote only the editorial while the local team handled the rest. Whatever Tiger may have thought of women’s cricket, he is likely to have seen the game as one played primarily by men. But how the game should be played was for him the measure of a man. His memoirs Tiger’s Tale (1969) starts with the “black day” in 1962 when Charlie Griffith “chucked” the ball and broke Nari Contractor’s head. Contractor was severely injured and could never play Test cricket again. Like his father, who fell out with Douglas Jardine over the politics of bodyline bowling, Tiger strongly opposed unethical cricketing practices. “Cricket is a hard game to be played by hard men with a hard ball” he wrote, “But it is only a game, not war.”
In an interview with Tiger in 2000, Karan Thapar asked whether happiness was more important than ambition. Tiger replied that only if ambition made one happy should it be pursued, otherwise not. The pursuit of happiness was most important and each person had to decide how to achieve it. In an age driven by ambition, Tiger’s statement was a timely reminder that ‘achievements’ were no guarantee for happiness. When at the end, Thapar asked how he would like to be remembered, Tiger replied: “As a nice person... a decent guy.” In 2010, TV audiences witnessed his innate sense of decency when during the IPL controversy he spoke with disarming candour about the failings of the Governing Council, of which he was also a member.
His last weeks were spent battling an incurable lung disorder. Physical debilitation notwithstanding, he retained till the end his poise, impeccable manners and sense of humour. Perhaps the public mourning was as much for the man as his ideas. After all, had we not cherished those values, would we have grieved their passing?
(Shohini Ghosh is Sajjad Zaheer Professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org)