Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rajan Bala - Legendary Cricket Writer

Rajan Bala. The last word. A cricket writer of legendary status. Described variously as the "most perceptive of all the game's (cricket's) writers in the country"and as one with "a terrific understanding of the technical intricacies of the game, in fact the best you will" and so on, Rajan Bala represents the kind of people we don't see many of these days. Entire generations of cricket lovers in India grew up feeding hungrily on visuals of the action on the cricket field painted by masters like him. Uncanny intuition, razor sharp expression and a keen eye are only some of the qualities that this veteran journalist brought to the sports page for over forty years. I would not be far from the truth when I say that many newspapers were popular for their sports pages in the seventies and eighties - especially since television had not yet been born in India. Rajan Bala wrote and wrote - prose and poetry, critique and praise as he described match after match, player after player. Exquisite phrases, balanced critique, issues beyond the field, people and places, inside stories written with a sense of responsibility - it was never enough for the cricket lovers.

New phrases came into existence, most still being used by our popular cricket commentators of today. New media came in. The game gained an amazing following flying high on a surge of momentum built entirely on India's population and its favorite game. Today it's worth billions of dollars. There is so much money in the game that one cannot even conceive how it became so popular. It's time the game stopped and thought about it. And looked around to see where its original heroes are. The ones who took it from the stadiums to the millions across the country. The ones that helped it along when it was still an infant.

"I believe he never ever corrected a single draft," "He is known never to take notes - the scores are all in his mind," "He had a personal equation with several players, "Razor sharp in grasping the nuances, he was often sought by the lesser players for technical feedback and corrections" "A very erudite person (Anita Nair) - words flow out in open admiration for the grandmaster of sports journalism in India. Never one to hesitate while speaking his mind, never afraid of making enemies in the way of an honest opinion-Rajan Bala was and continues to be the enfant terrible of Indian cricket journalism. You can't help but wish that there were more like him - that acerbic wit, that vast reserve of knowledge, the enviable amount of cricket history he has personally witnessed, cricketers he knew personally, that clarity of thought and mostly that brash, bratty manner that always says "come on, put em up" - or simply ignores anyone or anything he thinks is not worth the time. Anyone who has spoken to him or met him will vouch for this - it is difficult to steal the last word from him. His weekly columns, aptly titled 'The Last Word" are eagerly awaited for their candour as for their wit, for their in depth analysis as for his weighty opinion.

Rajan Bala was then, the name I looked for to give me an opinion on my novel "The Men Within - A Cricketing Tale" which was launched in February 2007. It appeared that there was not much fiction written on the game and I gave it my best shot with a ideas of my own interwoven into the game. Having played first class cricket, having been a corporate manager, I could not sacrifice all sense and make a novel based on wild sweeps of imagination. I made a conscious effort for the story to make sense to the layman as well as the expert. I needed then, not just an expert who understood all aspects of the game - from captaincy to the coaching, from physical to psychological, from winning to merely hoping to win - I needed someone who could relate it to life. To the struggle we have of even daring to look at our dreams, to actually daring to dream, and then chasing dreams down.

Being a cricketer of limted success and almost zero credentials as a fiction writer, I had several doubts. Will my simplistic theories appeal to someone who has seen and dicussed strategies and plans with cricketing masters? Will the story work especially since I was treading a new ground that had not been, for some inexplicable reason, left untouched by so many writers and thinkers that the game has produced in India. Rajan Bala, Raju Bharatan, Ramachandra Guha, R. Mohan, Mukul Kesavan, Harsha Bhogle...and so many more who had both the knowledge of the game and the capability to write fiction had not attempted it. So who was I?

When Vidyut Jaisimha, my friend of all these years, proposed sending the book out to Rajan Bala I knew that it was he I was looking for. The book had to pass his critical eye. And so I sent it with great apprehension, writing and rewriting my note to him that accompanied the book. And then the wait. Not for long though. The next evening there was a call from Bangalore and a rich fruity voice addressed me with great familiarity and warmth. I don't remember the exact conversation we had but I remember thinking how easy it was to talk to him and laugh with him.
And how unassuming he was for a man of his stature.

I guess he liked the book because he wrote its finest review yet in The Asian Age". One that I'll treasure forever. There was no doubt in my mind when I did a book promotional event in Bangalore the following month that he would be the chief guest. When I first met him at the Asian Age office, I was completely bowled over. There was chai and banter, cricket talk and razor sharp repartee. His staff (the youngest being 23, a lad called Chokappan), walked in periodically with all kinds of stuff - bajjis, jokes, questions on cricket, - never once giving the impression that they were unwanted in the Resident Editor's office. Through that week I met him a few more times, once for the book promotion function, and by the time I left Bangalore I was completely taken in. Apart from his wisdom and extensive knowledge on cricket and so many other issues, the one thing that struck me was that I never felt any barrier - intellectual, age-related or anything ever. It was great fun listening to his stories and his characteristic dismissal as "rubbish" of things he didn't much care for. He'd sum up things like "writing a book is a matter of organisation" and I knew when I heard it that it will always stay in my mind forever. He'd listen to you, never making you feel that you are lesser in any way, always willing to discuss anything cricketing under the sun, always giving well-thought out opinions, always bringing on a funny side to things in a stark, brutally honest way. Like I said to him, the one thing I'd love to witness is a conversation between him and Woody Allen. I also wish he wrote more humour because I think it'd be a riot.

He was extremely helpful to me, a complete stranger, in his own way. When I told him that I proposed to invite one of my favourite Indian novelists Ms. Anita Nair to the book release fucntion, he said not a word to me, but called her up on his own just to do his bit. Similarly he put in a quiet word for me with Sanjay Manjrekar who was Chief Guest for my Mumbai event, as he did with the incomparable C.P. Surendran, who graced my Pune launch. I guess that's the way he is - lives on his own terms without giving a damn for anyone. If he has an opinion about a person or anything, I think it it does not matter to him what the rest of the world says. And so he argues for the case of Azhar as batting coach despite knowing that it is not politically correct at all, bats steadfastly for Greg Chappell when he has not a single friend in a billion Indians (it would have been professional harakiri for most), ignores Dravid in his book "Glances of Perfection", frequently takes on the BCCI's biggest names when he thinks it necessary, or for that matter writes fearless edits on politics and such. To me its wonderful to see people like him because I don't meet many like him anymore. They had a good time - he enjoys his drink, his food (so what's for dinner tonight?), reads voraciously, tells wonderful stories, has razor sharp wit, sings even more wonderfully, understands the bigger picture, does not miss the details, lives on his terms, always expresses himself fully.

Today, he is sadly not in the best of health. He is seriously ill with both his kidneys "packing up" as he said. Enough to keep him on dialysis for ten hours a day! When Vidyut and I went to visit him at his Bangalore residence late January 2008, we were relieved to see that the spirit was very much there. He did appear dulled by the sudden turn of events - he was pretty fine until a month ago. He was his usual cheery self, full of humour and wit as we spoke to him and his wife Priya over the weekend. Since then he's only getting better - back to work and even writing a fine piece on Kumble, the statesman-captain.

We were looking at Australia and India drawing the test match. We were looking at the amounts of money that BCCI and the IPL was raking in. We were watching cricket in India being at its helathiest financially and I could not help but feel sadly that veteran journalists such as Rajan Bala were somehow left out of the party. I hope someone at the BCCI includes all the people who pushed this game forward in on their gratitude list. I do hope that they do something for people like Rajan Bala who gave us reason to wake up and read the paper like it was the tastiest dish we ever ate on match days. He also gave us six wonderful books, mostly on Indian cricket which, I feel, only he could have written.

I hope BCCI does it without making him ask for it. There is something about our culture - we always acknowledge our elderly masters. I am certain that Mr.Bala will get comfort, assurance, support and love from several sources across the world.

After all he deserves it. He has earned it as much as the players on the field have. He is as much a hero as any other Indian cricketing hero.

1 comment:

Vidyuth Jaisimha said...

Great stuff Hari, its about time the people who made the game come alive when tv was not around are remembered and honoured. Knowing Uncle Rajan well, I doubt he is going to ask even his employers to help him out. BCCI must be informed about his ill health and its KSCA's job to get him all the financial aid he requires.There are hardly any writers who know the game as well as Uncle Rajan. I hope all the cricketers that he has contacted and have promised him help do so quickly, as he needs all the help and support he can get right now.

Vidyuth Jaisimha