Pathways of memory

Hugely Popular: Tony Greig. The Hindu Photo Library.  


Early morning communion with the TV can trigger a chain of associations.

IN recent weeks I've been dragging myself out of bed at an ungodly hour. Outside it's still dark. I'm like a guilty child on Christmas morning, unable to sleep, sneaking out of the bedroom to peep at the presents spread under the tree. Only nowadays the waiting treasure, the alluring abundance, comes in a different kind of box. The London winter's been pushing back the boundaries of spring. It's cold and wet, and as I ensconce myself under a duvet in front of the TV to watch Test cricket from India, I feel like one of my British predecessors, in the days before central heating, hunkering down in front of a glowing hearth, a single source of heat and light.

Comfort zone

It doesn't matter that on some days Chandigarh looked as dank and drizzly as London. The live action from far away makes me feel snug. It's a comfort zone, a window, a link to a world both distant and familiar. Perhaps because I'm still half-asleep, the rhythm of the cricket, the drone of the commentary seem dream-like. The normal laws of time and space are suspended. Only the adverts intrude. The din of an Indian cricket crowd percolates into the room (this is my dawn chorus) and the past percolates into the present. Sometimes cricket acts on me the way the tea-cake called a "Madeleine" acted on Marcel Proust, triggering a hidden chain of association, an entryway to what the French novelist called "the vast structure of recollection". As the current India-England series has unfolded, I've been taken back to my first experience of following an overseas tour, my first brush with cricket in India. It was December 1976, I was living in a cottage in a small village in Devon, and the first Test of England's winter tour was being broadcast ball-by-ball (and blessedly free from adverts) on BBC radio. The commentators were preoccupied with food, toilets, turbans, paranoia about the wickets, the umpires and the raucous crowds. In their account, Bishen Bedi in his patka, all flight, loop and bumptious guile, was a rope-trick conjurer, embodying the age-old mysteries of the East. As for Chandrashekhar with his withered arm, he was the sort of improbable cricketer that only India could produce. As I sat in the dark in Devon, my mind filled with garish, enticing imagery.

An anomaly

I didn't know it at the time, but this tour was something of an anomaly. England dominated the five test series (winning 3, losing 1), its captain, Tony Greig, made himself hugely popular with the Indian crowds, in the whole series there was only a singe Indian century (Gavaskar, of course), and for once it was the Indians and not the English who did the whingeing (the "vaseline affair"). I also had no idea that this series would prove a harbinger of my own future. I'd never even thought of going to India, and my interest in cricket was still in its infancy (I was a ripe old twenty-three years of age but I'd spent the first 18 of them in the United States). But as it turned out, both cricket and India, and especially Indian cricket, were to have an unexpected influence on my life and how I've earned a living. The 1976-77 series moved from Delhi to Bombay, Bangalore, Madras and Calcutta. These places were unknown to me then, but in the following decades I was lucky enough to visit, watch cricket and make friends in all of them.

Another match in Hampi

But here in London I'm drifting mentally into a dusty afternoon in Hampi in 1979. It was my first trip to India. I had been sleeping with some other wandering Westerners in a ruined mandapa by the Tungabadra river and my passport had gone missing. I made my way to the local police station to report the matter, and ended up whiling away a pleasant afternoon drinking tea and listening to the radio coverage of the India-Pakistan match with the local constabulary. Back in the mandapa, my fellow Westerners - all German or Italian - couldn't understand what had kept me so long at the police station, and my attempts to explain the extraordinary rhythms of Test cricket fell on deaf ears. These early morning communions with the TV have also touched off memories that have nothing to do with cricket or India. Waking in November 1968 to follow the final stage of the election count that resulted in Richard Nixon squeaking into office and being filled with a queasy sense of foreboding (you didn't have to be a soothsayer to predict that Nixon's presidency would be a disgrace). Or a year later, meandering home through a grey excuse for a dawn after an epic night-long session with a coterie of friends, listening to music, talking about anything our teenage minds stumbled across. At that moment, with the suburbs asleep around me, I felt thoroughly content with myself and my world. The human memory is not an Internet search engine. Its criteria of association are more indirect, irregular, far-fetched, and at the same time guided by a deeper logic. Famously, Proust spent all day in bed accessing his inner data. For those of us without that kind of leisure, these break of day TV-prompted ruminations are a precious interval, though they do play havoc with one's daily routine. >