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The Gilbert Jessop Mystery is a tale of detection etched on a vast canvas. A cricket historian plays the role of an expert hired to solve an intriguing problem involving old scoring sheets, fast hundreds, modern-art masterpieces, antique wagon wheels and old Victorian letters.

 

As he puts together pieces of the puzzle, he gets entangled in a bizarre mystery which spans across a century in time encompassing subjects as varied as Victorian England, the last days of British Raj, Scientific influence on Art and the Internet.

 

This novella is available in the volume Bowled Over – Stories Between the Covers by Arunabha Sengupta.

 

 

I read it twice, slowly trying to unravel the minor abstractions of language and the forays into the unknown world of art.

 

“Yes, Professor?” Kumar was looking at me in a quizzical manner.

 

I answered slowly. “Let me see if I have understood this correctly. Hackensmith here is talking of a single painting in which he would give an accurate description of the innings of Jessop … all the statistical facts would be discernable … and the passage of time would be denoted by different shades of colour.”

 

Sylvie nodded.

 

“Yes, that’s what we derived too. The only difference being that Paul here does not use the term statistics since it was not such a familiar jargon in those days.”

 

“So, what do you see in your mind’s eye?” Kumar asked, an expectant look in his eyes.

 

I thought for a few moments.

 

“Some kind of a wagon wheel, probably,” I answered. “A wagon wheel with a sort of colour coding to denote the sequence of the strokes. Sylvie, are you familiar with wagon wheels?”

 

Sylvie tilted her head. “Scoring charts of batsmen? The ground shown as an oval and the scoring strokes of the batsmen drawn as lines in it?”

 

“Quite correct,” I said. “And from what I have read, this painting seems to be more than a normal wagon wheel in several respects. Firstly, capturing the sequence of strokes…it has seldom been done even to this day. And when Hackensmith talks about using colours to denote time as a fourth dimension, I think he has already thought of capturing three dimensions. So, along with the temporal accuracy, we’ll get to know the spatial accuracy of the event. That hints at the elevations, the trajectory and the distance of the shots…That too in 1912, of a match played in 1897 and by a genuine painter. Jessop’s Harrogate hundred at that.” I was hardly able to keep my voice down.

 

Kumar walked around to stand behind me and patted my back.

 

“When Sylvie graciously showed these letters to me for the first time, I was also excited. That too without anything approaching your detailed knowledge of the historic importance of the innings. Now, it is clear to me that with this, all those queries about the number of balls faced, the number of over the boundary sixes and all that may be solved once and for all.”

 

I was gripping the book with an almost juvenile excitement. If this painting did exist, then what sort of reaction would it create in the cricketing community? The Influence of Geometry on Art and its relation to cricket now started making sense.

 

“Tell me, Professor,” Kumar sat in the comfortable leather bound chair beside me, “If such a painting was discovered, what would be its value?”

 

“Priceless,” I blurted out as other things were nagging my curiosity. “Sylvie, could you please explain something to me? Were artists really influenced by the Theory of Relativity?”

 

“Definitely,” Sylvie explained. “Art usually reflects what is going on elsewhere in the times and culture. And something that was really going on in early twentieth century was scientific revolution. Non-Euclidean Geometry was developed by Bolyai, Lobachevski and Riemann and it had an effect on Art. In 1905, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity made waves, and new time concepts rose from that. At the same time, huge steps were being taken in the field of photography. All this abstraction in art partly rose from the uselessness that some artists experienced in the activity of sitting hours to produce something in paint which could be captured instantly by the click of a shutter. Artists tried to use new concepts of Science and culture to create something that did not exist before. Have you seen Duchamp’s Nude descending a Staircase?”

 

I shook my head. “No.”

 

“Well, there the nude is captured at several moments of time in the same picture. There were other experiments too, like looking at the same picture from different points of view  sort of both top view and side view in two dimensions as in Metzinger’s Tea Time.

 

Kumar cleared his throat. “Well, before we get diverted by an artistic discourse, Professor, could you tell me the value of such a painting of a wagon wheel in financial terms?”

 

I had not really expected the question.

 

“Well, Kumar, I can’t give an offhand answer, but it will be a collector’s item for cricket connoisseurs. In the correct circles, the value might be … well astronomical is the only thing that comes to my mind.”

 

“Can you give it to me in figures?”

 

“No, Kumar, I cannot. That’s not really my area of expertise. However, my guess would be in terms of some hundred thousand pounds.”

 

As Kumar sat digesting this piece of information, excitement bringing a glint to his eyes, there was a knock on the door. Our lunch had arrived.

 

***

 

Cello Kebab  of Peter Cat is a delicacy that I often indulged in whenever I was in the city of Tagore. My teaching duties often brought me to the metropolis. Apart from that, I also tried to make it to all the international matches played at the Eden Gardens.

 

I do not recall having mentioned my weakness for the dish to the ex-prince, but then, Kumar was uncanny in his hospitality.

 

However, none of us were eager to start with the food as Sylvie handed me the book opening the page that contained the next relevant letter.

 

“This is not really a major letter, but it is important nonetheless. Written some six months after the last one.”

 

I read.

 

Blackheath Towers,

 

29th July, 1914

 

Dear Liz,

 

Today marks the seventeenth anniversary of that prodigious innings by Gilbert Jessop that had been the inspiration behind my dominant creative forces for the past half year. It is past seventeen years too, I think, since the day your growing charms first ensnared me into eternal entombment under your ephemeral, elusive, ethereal embraces.

 

Glory be to the Muses of Art and Science, I have put the last finishing touch to the painting today. It surpasses all the other dabbles into the merging of art and science that I had attempted earlier. I am still at a loss as regards what to call it? ‘Harrogate Hundred’ seems too mundane for a work of art, while the ‘Murder of Yorkshire’ seems too sinister. ‘The Croucher at Cricket’ does not really catch the full essence of the work though the alliteration is beckoning.

 

-Affectionately,

 

Paul.

 

“So he was successful in painting the century,” I remarked after pausing to breathe.

 

“This note tells us precisely that,” Sylvie agreed. She turned the pages. “And here is the last note that speaks of the painting. And brace yourself before reading this – it might come as a shock.”

 

By this time, I had exhausted all the patience required to brace myself. Nothing could tear my eyes away from the letter.

 

I read…

 

Jaipur,

 

13th January, 1946

 

“Jaipur !!” I exclaimed.

 

“Read on,” said Kumar. “There are more surprises on the way.”

 

I struggled to keep my eyes focussed on the page.

 

Dear Liz,

 

I hope you have recovered from the touch of gout. What have you young people been doing to yourselves?

 

Today, Ajaysingh’s hospitality reached new heights. No word whose origins have lacked the influence of the orient can describe with exactitude the lavishness of festivities that seemed to be held in our honour. It seems incredible – such evidence of elaborate, extravagant expenditure, most of it unnecessary in the extreme, just five months after mankind’s most bitter conflict … whose embers still glow in the aftermath… has left us battered, bloody and bankrupt. As we rode the bejewelled camels – you have to stretch your imagination to believe anything that still goes on in this part of the world – to the stadium where the Royal Rajput Cricket Club took on the visiting Servicemen, I reflected on Keynes’ proclamation of ours being a poor nation when our colonies throw about their gold with such merry abandon. There is Atlee, the modest man with much to be modest about, who leads our land with all economic restraint whereas a small ruler of a tiny sub-state  in a nation still under the rule of the empire goes about in silk-robes, rides gold braided elephants, enjoys mulligatawny soups and small pegs of whiskey in his luxurious palace. But, then again, poverty here has to be seen to be believed and the most important man of this strange nation still goes about in glorified hand woven under garments.

 

However, I agree with C.B. Fry, who once observed that the Indians would make the classiest of batsmen. The game, as is played inIndia, reflects the culture of the maharajas. Class, style and criminal profligacy characterised Indian batsmanship as I saw the Royal Rajputs play today. Most play their first ball of the innings as if hurrying for a declaration at 560 for two. A cavalier young batsman by the name of Dharamveer did throw caution to the winds, but managed to score a valuable 134 for the home side. The hosts managed to gain a close and commendable victory over the Servicemen courtesy some excellent medium pace bowling by a very young bowler by the name of Vipul Sareen. I have watched the brilliance of Alec Bedser and somehow this young man reminded me of that able English bowler. Chasing 123 for victory in the last innings, the Servicemen fell for 107 with Sareen accounting for seven of them, much to the delight of Kumar Ajaysingh and his young son, Mangal sitting next to me. A no mean display of high class bowling as the Servicemen had six first class cricketers in their ranks.

 

In the evening we had dinner at the Royal Rajput Cricket Clubhouse. It was a feast resembling banquets of the Roman Empire at its sinful peak. Ajaysingh was in excellent form, and displayed his extraordinary collection of valuable cricketing treasures. He is a connoisseur of cricketing paraphernalia, although I must say his prowess on the field is somewhat debatable. He did have a hit in the nets, and made merry off some loose longhops bowled to him, I dare say as tribute to the king. However, the royal highness seemed in distinct discomfort whenever the ball pitched on the good length spot, or spun or swerved a little. Bowling at half his normal pace, Sareen uprooted his stumps twice.

 

However, as I witnessed our host’s taste for cricketing treasures, I presented him my most precious creation –”

 

I was rushing through the letter now. Kumar was looking over my shoulder as I read.  As I turned the page, he placed a hand on my back, “Read carefully now.”

 

I read on with bated breath, eyes sweeping over the words.

 

” – as a token of appreciation for the most luxurious three days of my life. And more so, because, at three score and fifteen and not in the finest of constitutions, I had for long been looking for someone who could appreciate the merit of my ‘Jessop’s Jubilee – Illumination Thirty Seven Days Later’. Judging by Ajaysingh’s expression when I had explained the meaning of the work, the most deserving man is in possession of my greatest work.

 

He handled the canvas with utmost care and placed it in his treasure trove beneath that creation of old Jones – so curiously Indian in its own right. His treasure collection incidentally also has a re-creation of Dadd’s sketch of the Croucher playing that immortal innings at the Oval in 1902.

 

I will leave tomorrow with my companions for Calcutta where we will spend an evening with Wavell. I will be back in England, close to my lifelong passion early next month.

 

-Affectionately,

 

Paul”

 

This novella is available at John McKenzie Cricket Bookshop

 

(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but cleanses the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two. His author site is at http://www.senantix.com and his cricket blogs at http:/senantixtwentytwoyards.blogspot.com)

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