A basketball tournament in St Xavier’s College. The traditional season opener for the game in the city. All the best teams in Bombay would play. Among them, several from the Nagpada area, nursery of many greats of the game. For the Bombay Central YMCA, one of the players is a fair-skinned man. You look closer, and yes, it is that guy who seems to always play the white man in Hindi cinema. On court, he plays the hard, fast game that that corner of the city specialised in, asking, and giving, no quarter on account of actor status or age (he was a bit older than most of the other players, barring a few India team veterans). In the half-court messing about before the game you, with several other undergrad students who take shots at the basket while the teams are getting ready, have actually passed him the ball a few times, attempting not to be too star-struck and never being so gauche as to ask for an autograph.
One game stands out a little clearer than the others in that distant memory. The Xavier’s Sports Club, a team of the best players in the college and some ex-students who continued to play the game, had its strongest line-up in years. Among them, Joe, an American and Marco, a German. In front of a partisan audience, the home team played out of their skins. There were fouls galore, including one where a Bombay Central player rolled in agony clutching his dislocated shoulder, and when the ref paid no heed, got up and continued the game. The roughness of the game extended to the gamesmanship: the Nagpada lads were fluent cussers — one had heard that even the fair-skinned actor liked to catch opponents off-guard by letting fly in fluent Urdu — and the Xavier’s boys were no slouches either. At one point, Joe, one of those tall, burly corn-fed Americans, stood chest to chest with the actor. “You have a big mouth,” he said. The reply didn’t miss a beat: “Not as big as your stomach.”
(The sports club lost eventually.)
A recording studio. You are a rookie voice-over artist. Perhaps because of your name, you’ve been called in to read the voice of a British pilot. An accomplished actor who happens to be fair-skinned is doing an American pilot’s voice.
You struggle a bit, not knowing whether to aim for posh or street. You don’t do too well, and are miserable. In the loo, the actor, who has delivered all his lines on the first take, and then offered variations — you remember now that that was the only time, before or since, you’ve heard him speak American — offers a few comforting words, with no trace of an American accent. You stammer a thank you and try to do better. You manage, and you leave with an even warmer spot in your heart for the man.
A poetry reading in an art gallery. Several of the city’s best-known poets are reading. The host has kindly invited a few unknown poets in too; you are the least accomplished of them. Before the reading, you discover that that actor is here, and will be on stage too. Your heart sinks: how do you measure up to that guy? But then, you say to yourself, if you goof here, no one will remember with this star around.
You meet briefly before the performance. He is greying now, with some wrinkles around the eyes. He is adjusting his boots. He looks up, says something like “You have an unusual name.” You, not star-struck at all, no, no, manage to come up with the fantastically original “You too.” Strangely, the earth does not open and swallow you.
He is the only one not carrying paper. (This was before smartphones.) He recites several Urdu couplets, and a poem he wrote as a young man. Then he reads a poem you have encountered, by a Delhi poet. It is one word, one syllable: rain, repeated many times. You have dismissed this “poem” in your mind; you had put quotes around the word when dismissing it. You don’t remember now how many times that single word is repeated, but it’s a lot. The actor gives every repetition a different inflection, now booming like thunder overhead, now like the wet mist caressing a hillside cloud, now sharp and cold and piercing, now mad fury. You have never been so glad to be comprehensively outclassed.
One day, you tell yourself many times, you will talk to this man properly and try and learn a bit. One day, perhaps you will interview him. But that never comes to pass.
You wouldn’t have remembered these little cameos I made in your life, but thank you, and Godspeed, Tom Alter.[In The Hindu]