Few have depicted pre-globalisation Bombay — for Mumbai it used to be in those days — like Rohinton Mistry in his award-winning Tales from Firozsha Baag. The collection consists of eleven delightful stories based in a Parsee-dominated colony (called Firozsha Baag, as you may have figured out). The stories are intertwined in the sense that the same set of people appear in almost all stories, but every story centres around one character or family.
There is, in fact, one titled Of White Hairs and Cricket, but this is not about that one. Our story goes by the name Squatter. It features Nariman Hansotia, who drove a 1932 Mercedes-Benz, sported a Clark Gable moustache, and told intriguing stories (that sometimes bordered on the lines of extreme creativity) to the children and adolescents of the colony.
Squatter features two stories by Nariman Hansotia. This is the shorter one.
Nariman Hansotia was not impressed by the fact that they were impressed by “Contractor [whose first name was also Nariman], Polly Umrigar, and recently, the young chap, Farokh Engineer.” He insisted that there was one Savukshaw, “the greatest of them all”.
The story tells the tale of an Indian tour of England. India were led by Contractor. This was obviously not possible, since Contractor had never led India on a tour of England. But then, though the characters (or most of them) are real in Nariman Hansotia’s world, there is no claim that the events are.
Unfortunately, Nadkarni (Bapu?), India’s star batsman, was down with influenza. MCC scored 497. India, after being bowled out for 109 (Nadkarni’s replacement had to retire hurt after being hit by a bumper), were asked to bat again. When India were 38 for 5, still 350 runs away from making MCC bat again, Savukshaw walked out to bat.
He left the first ball outside off (“but with what style! what panache!”). He did the same with the next with “boredom written all over him”. Then came the third ball, a straight, quick delivery, aimed at the stumps.
Savukshaw flicked the ball at tremendous pace. The fielder there was six feet seven inches tall, weighed 250 lbs, and nothing had gone past him in the match. But Savukshaw had intentionally hit it towards the fielder, whose gargantuan palm came down to pouch the ball…
But that was it. The fielder erupted in “a howl that rang through the entire stadium, that soared like the cry of a banshee right up to the cheapest seats in the furthest, highest corners … into the pavilion, into the kitchen.” The cook inside the kitchen was injured after spilling boiled water on himself.
As for the fielder, he was bleeding as profusely as any seen in the history, “like a fountain in an Italian piazza, like a burst water-main from the Vihar-Powai reservoir.” There was tremendous blood loss, soaking the fielder’s flannels and the grass.
But what about the ball? It lay peacefully just beyond the boundary line. ’It’ is probably not the best possible objective, for it had split neatly into halves. The stitches had come off, and most of its innards had spilled out.
That was it. As the match continued, Savukshaw hit the ball with at least as much power. The fielders had no intention to stop the shots. One replacement ball after every stroke, which meant MCC’s “annual ball budget was thrown badly out of balance.”
India saved the innings defeat. In fact, if there was time they might have won it.
But how did the bat survive the onslaught? Obviously because it was no ordinary bat. Savukshaw used a special oil, the formula of which he had acquired from a cricket-talent-scouting sadhu. Despite the bat, however, Savukshaw insisted that the real secret to his success was hard work and hours of practice.
Unfortunately, Savukshaw quit cricket soon afterwards to become a cyclist, to nobody’s surprise the fastest in the world. After a short stint with pole-vault he switched to become a hunter. He could shave the whisker of a cat in the backyard of C Block (of Firozsha Baag, of course) from the third floor of A Block. He would later move on from that as well to another profession, one where he would earn the moniker of Parsi Picasso…
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