May 2, 2014

My Caribbean friend

How tales of West Indies cricket helped forge an enduring friendship between an Indian professor and a Jamaican security guard

The World T20 triumph in 2012 brought plenty of smiles to the Caribbean in an era highlighted by defeats © Getty Images

I belong to that unfortunate subset of academics who teach at the same universities where they earned their doctorates.

Thus, despite having graduated more than a dozen years ago, I cannot shake the feeling that some of my "colleagues" - who are former professors of mine - still think of me as a graduate student of sorts, one who has hung around just a tad too long. And then, of course, there are the folks in the library who send pitying looks my way, their expressions clearly suggesting they are worried whether I will ever graduate. (It doesn't help, I'm sure, that I still dress like I can't afford a tie, suit or dress shoes.)

There are some advantages to this state of affairs, of course: many old friendships continue to prosper and thrive in these old haunts of mine. Some of those friends - most notably those on the university's staff - have grown old too; their ageing over the years has provided me with many moments of melancholic reflection on the passage of time. Among these friendships is a cricketing one: with a Jamaican security guard, I shall call him H here, whom I first met in 1994.

H is now well into his 70s; his back has hunched, his shoulders droop, his voice has lowered and weakened, his hair is white. When I met him first, 20 years ago, he stood straighter and stronger, his lilting accent betraying its origins in the Caribbean. In those days I sought to talk about cricket with anyone who seemed to be from cricketing lands. So one day, after showing him my ID for entry to the university library, I struck up a conversation with him. A few minutes later, we were talking about cricket.

It turned out that H had seen many, many Test matches in his home town, Kingston, before he moved to New York City in the seventies. He spoke glowingly of India's tour of the West Indies in 1953, when Polly Umrigar and Vijay Manjrekar's batting had so impressed him; he still admired the wily bowling of Vinoo Mankad and Subhash Gupte, their unflagging adherence to line and length; he had been impressed by the swift fielding of the Indians; and he remembered the pride of the Indian population in the Caribbean in the Indian cricket team that was touring.

His memory of the tour and its cricketing feats was clear; his face lit up as he remembered them. We talked about many other cricketers and teams, of course - the great Australians of 1954-55, Lindwall and Miller particularly vivid in his memory. And then there were the three Ws: H found it hard to believe any of the modern greats had hit the ball as hard as Weekes and Walcott did. ("You saw it in the way they waited for the bowler that they were going to smash it!"). Despite this kind of claim, H was not your average fuddy-duddy living in the past: he admired the modern greats too and said that he thought limited-overs cricket was a damn good idea, just because it got more kids interested in the game.

Talking to H was a form of transport to the cricket of days gone by. He was a cricketing griot of sorts; I was talking to a man who had seen many greats in action, cricketers I had only read about and seen in black-and-white photographs. He was my means of accessing a history that seemed distant.

H had lost contact with cricket, of course. He received spotty updates from friends and family back home but that was about it. ESPNcricinfo was just starting up then, and I told him about it. I think he had a hard time understanding IRC and live scorecards and text commentary but he was enthusiastic in any case: all these new-fangled methods of keeping in touch with cricket scores? Bring it on! Or rather, since he would not learn new tricks now and go online, he welcomed dispatches from me, brought to him via the net.

Over the years I brought news to H about cricket elsewhere in the world. I informed him, sadly, of the Windies' loss to Australia in 1995, and unfortunately the news just got worse after that. Brian Lara's 153 and the epic win it produced brought him joy, of course, but silver linings like that were becoming increasingly hard to find and they have remained so. I delighted, though, in bringing him news of Chris Gayle's triple-century against Sri Lanka, West Indies' chase of 418, and their wins in the Champions Trophy and the T20 World Cup. His reactions were gratifying; sometimes I wish West Indies would do better just so I could bring him better news.

I don't know how much longer H will stick around; he seems increasingly frail, and I worry. Perhaps he will retire soon; perhaps his failing health might draw his life to a close. My conversations and encounters with him were a little oasis of cricket in my workplace desert; I will miss him when he is gone.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here