A friend remembers
Known as TGV's cricketing friend, RAMACHANDRA GUHA speaks of the man with whom he spent hours discussing the game.
T.G. Vaidyanathan at his home in Bangalore, in March, with American feminist Kate Millet.
T.G. VAIDYANATHAN played first-division cricket in Madras, taught film criticism at Pune, defended Hitler in the Deccan Herald and challenged Freud in the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. But his primary identification, if he would ever have allowed one, was that of a teacher, an English teacher. His degrees were from Madras University, although he never taught there. His first job was in Sibsagar in Assam, his second at Nizam's College, Hyderabad, his third at Central College, Bangalore. He taught at Central College for almost 20 years before moving to the newly created Bangalore University, from whose English Department he retired in 1991.
His students called him "Sir"; friends of his own generation, "TGV". Behind his back he was known, by both chela and colleague alike, as "Vadiyar" (teacher/mentor), this said with a unique mixture of appreciation and exasperation. For few among those who knew him had not, at one stage or another, quarrelled with him. He could be inspirational and caring, but also oppressive and indiscreet. But the quarrels were only about ideas, not about money or power, and he was always willing to make up anyway.
In writing a memoir of Arthur Koestler, the humorist George Mikes apologised in advance for being simply Koestler's "Hungarian friend". He knew nothing of socialism and science, Koestler's chosen subjects, while for his part the scholar had no time for wit or frivolity. But, in exile in London, these radically dissimilar writers met to speak their shared language and to exchange reminiscences of Hungarian food and Hungarian music. By the same token I was TGV's "cricketing friend". I had no interest in films or in psychoanalysis, and as regards my own fields of study Vaidyanathan thought the environment too trendy and Gandhi too dreary (by far). But we were brought together by a boyhood spent playing cricket, and by talking and reading about it as well.
In the early 1980s, I was returning to cricket after a brief, problematic encounter with Marxism. As for TGV, it had been years since he had spoken seriously about the game to anyone. In Bangalore, it seems, he had literary friends and film-loving friends, but no cricketing companions. Thus it was that our conversations generally began and ended with cricket. True, we also discussed other things: in-between the two ends of the sandwich the meat might be provided by politics or literature. But here too the idioms were often taken from cricket. Thus, commenting on a promising scholar who had since lost his way, TGV compared him to Vinod Kambli. As he put it, "Ipdi adchaan, apdi adchaan, apron out." A fine stroke here and a fine stroke there, then a slash to a wide ball resulting in a tame catch to the wicket-keeper.
TGV and I would not only discuss matches as they came to us on the box, but also cricketers of an older era: especially, his heroes Lala Amarnath, Vinoo Mankad, Mushtaq Ali and Vijay Hazare. He spoke with warmth of foreigners too: of Clyde Walcott's straight drive, and of the leg-breaks and antics of the Australian Serviceman Cecil Pepper. Sometimes he would pass on recollections of his own time in the field. He had kept wickets for his college and club, and batted doggedly down the middle order. He once told me of how, as a 16-year-old schoolboy, he had faced C. R. ("Kurmi") Rangachari, a fearsome fast bowler who, in his time as an Indian Test player, had clean bowled George Headley and troubled Don Bradman. The first ball of the over was a short ball that hit the boy on the chest. TGV said the pain went round and round: he felt as if there were bees buzzing inside him. "And the bugger did not even say sorry. I managed to keep out the other five balls, but the shock had unnerved me. The next over I tried to hit a slow left armer for six and was stumped".
There were other memories, as crystal-clear as this one. Alas, by this time TGV was too old to come with me to the Chinnaswamy Stadium. But he did once drag me to a cricket match, to provide proof of his theory that in Indian culture the aural held primacy over the visual. This match was played with tennis balls in the dry bed of a temple tank behind his house. The instruments were modest, and the boys only of the locality, yet their ambition was anything but small-scale. This was the final of the Cheetah Cup, no less, played under floodlights and with prize money collected from nearby shopkeepers. There was also running commentary on the match, in confirmation of my friend's thesis that real cricket has first to be heard, not seen. To his delight the boys had taken the names of big-time players; Imran Khan's eleven was playing Tony Greig's eleven. He was further tickled when the commentary switched from Kannada to English, to the language of metropolitan power whose use helped dignify this otherwise humdrum match.
Later that year the Indian cricket team toured Sri Lanka. In one of the Tests, Sanath Jayasurya found himself 290 not out at close of play on the fourth day. The next morning my television went on the blink shortly after he had crossed 300, a landmark achieved by only a dozen batsmen before him. I asked TGV to keep me up-to-date. He would phone at the end of each over, speaking in that bastard-tongue, cricket-Tamil. "Cowper poche", was the first message, Bob Cowper's score of 307 has been surpassed. Then, as Jayasurya moved to 312, "Simpson Edrich rendon poche". An English and an Australian opening batsman had also slipped down one of the most select of sporting lists. The next two calls were routine, followed, however, by "Sandham poche". Ten minutes later it was "Gooch poche", and then, after Jayasurya went from 334 to 338 in one stroke, "Bradman, Hammond, Hanif moonon poche". An obscure Sri Lankan had shoved aside three of the greatest batsmen in cricket history, the wonder carried in the voice of an Indian just this side of 70. He was much distressed when Jayasurya got out for 340; he would not be consoled even when I told him that by getting out when he did, Jayasurya and Mahanama had fallen one run short of the all-time record for a partnership, which was held in part by his own great boyhood hero, Vijay Hazare.
In cricketing and other matters TGV was genuinely cosmopolitan. As he once wrote of Satyajit Ray, "he has taught us the most elementary and yet most difficult of truths that to be a true Indian it is first necessary to be a citizen of the world". His native Madras he professed to detest: it was, he claimed, too narrow-minded. Bangalore seemed to suit him better, with its catholicity of social life and its absence of puritan guardians of moral behaviour. Outside his own room the city had changed; fortunately, however, outside his notice. For Bangalore, to quote an artist friend of mine, has become "Duba-lore", its cityscape of glass and concrete mimicking Dubai and marking a fundamental change in the aspirations of its residents. In the past five years the city has lost three of its most esteemed intellectuals: the journalist P. K. Srinivasan, the literary scholar D. R. Nagaraj, and now Vaidyanathan. These men stood for the mobility (and nobility) of ideas: their epigones, for the mobility of money alone.
Vaidyanathan himself was quick to love the stroke play of Jayasurya or the films of Ray, for instance but also quick to fight. Among the people he had at some time offended was the distinguished playwright and actor Girish Karnad. When I first met Karnad, at his house, we argued about a critical review he had recently written of Vaidyanathan's book on film, Hours in the Dark. I felt the review was excessively sharp, and perhaps unnecessarily personal. At length Karnad admitted to an old grievance. Twenty years before this, he said, he had made a film in the north Kannada dialect, and Vaidyanathan had rubbished it in print without knowing a word of the language.
The publication of Hours in the Dark, then, allowed Karnad a chance to suitably hit back. Oddly enough, the next week D. R. Nagaraj had lunch with Karnad, and also complained about his review of TGV's book. Just a few days after this Nagaraj died. At short notice a memorial meeting was arranged in the Senate Hall of Central College. The night before Girish Karnad rang up to ask me to tell Vaidyanathan. "I can't abide the man,'' he said. "and won't speak to him myself, but D. R. greatly liked him, and he should be informed.'' It was a handsome gesture, and I duly passed on the message. "Karnad told you to tell me to come,'' said TGV, suspiciously. "Yes'', I said. "That's the first decent thing the fellow has done for me,'' was the grumpy comment. Still, the next day TGV and Karnad both sat in the front row while honouring the memory of their common friend.
I liked to claim that I was the only one of TGV's friends who had never fought with him. I had not been his student, and had no opinions of any worth on films. And having grown up (in an intellectual sense) in Calcutta, I had learnt how to give gurus and vadiyars a long rope. Patience had its reward, in ideas and judgments more provocative than those elsewhere on offer.
Cricketing conversation would not bring us to blows, but I was sometimes challenged by Vaidyanathan's outrageously provocative cultural theories. He insisted that my saying "poite varren'' (I will come back) to his wife as I departed his home was a manifestation of an unsuccessfully suppressed Brahminism. I replied that it was plain courtesy, and had no connotation of caste. And did he not know that I was an anti-Brahmanical Hindu who wore no thread and would not permit my son to wear one either? Wait, he would respond, wait a few years more. You will come back to where you belong, as I have. (I shall wait, but this is one argument that I hope to posthumously win.)
For me, part of TGV's charm was the wonderful austerity of his personal life. He did not care for money or indeed for social recognition beyond what a grateful circle had already bestowed upon him. He never possessed a car or scooter, and lived most of his life in a one room flat. Like no other Indian intellectual of my acquaintance he completely lived out his calling, dedicating his life to books and films, and to these alone.
One Sunday several years ago, the magazine section of this newspaper carried essays by TGV and me on the same page. Knowing that he sometimes read the papers only in the afternoon, I took my copy and drove over to his place. His wife said he had gone to his favourite eatery, two blocks away. I followed there, and found him focussed attentively on a dosa. I showed him the articles side by side, his on Kipling, mine on a radical journalist who had just died. I joked that, in view of our respectively political orientations and the subjects we had written about, The Hindu had wisely put my piece on the left of the page, and his on the right. He laughed, too, but it struck me later that what was perhaps more relevant was that the conservative intellectual had walked, whilst the leftist had come driving a very large car.
As I have said, TGV and I rarely talked about films. However, when the cricketing epic "Lagaan'' did not win the Oscar, we discussed the failure on the phone. Naturally he had a theory, that it was too heroic, cast in an archaic mould, whereas its rivals had explored more contemporary themes. It was our last conversation, for the next morning he was dead. He was cremated, as per his wishes, with a hockey stick and a cricket bat placed beside him. I saw that the bat had the legend: "POWER SHOT''. I would have preferred a more comfortingly classical label: Gunn and Moore perhaps, or Symonds, or even, at a pinch, Hans Raj Mahajan. What would TGV have said? I suspect he might not have protested, seeing it as emblematic of changes in a game he had so long and so evocatively loved.
To Sir with love
I will still, in my mind's quiet moments, visit you, call you on the phone, paint all those bookcovers, listen to you smile, share your love for everything you loved, hear you read to me, repair the purple book and tell you (I'm sad I never did) that you have all my love and respect.
Would this deep pain
spare all memory
the grief of a nearness lost
but which is now resting
In a light
In a night of a quiet kind
And that will always know it is loved from afar...
The writer was one of TGV's youngest students.
Broadman of the narrow streets
LIKE so many of us, I too had my share of ill luck in getting the right professor for the wrong subject and the wrong professor for the right subject. Professor TGV was the right one for the right. I met him way back in 1984 at a film festival. An old man and a child hold hands and cross the road before parting ways. Did the old man help the child cross the road or did the child do it on its own?
Professor TGV needed those "quarrelling students around him as much as they wanted his presence; a strange teacher who had students as his peer group. He very often would excitedly open a controversial debate with a strong thesis and even more excitedly invite its anti-thesis, only to allow the synthesis flower. In all my hundreds of arguments with him, only a handful did I agree with him and this only made the bond stronger. He would tell me that I speak endless sentences... and that my place was "acting,'' not so much as "writing". On seeing me perform as a TV host, he commented, "It is so nice to watch your performance in that breezy speed, though I do not understand a word of what you say."
Professor! I only wish I could follow every word of your advice; you were a Broadman helping us play on narrow streets.
The writer is a Chennai-based television anchor.
Send this article to Friends by