June 6, 2014

The generous lender of cricket magazines

Having a neighbour with a cornucopia of cricket literature can be a life-changing experience

Before television and the internet made access to cricket easier, magazines helped fans expand their horizons © PA Photos

During the many years that my family lived in New Delhi, my mother worked a variety of jobs: first as an English teacher, and then as a principal at one of the many vocational colleges that had started to appear in urban spaces in India as an increasing number of women made their way into the workplace. Her teaching and administrative duties brought her into contact with a considerable number of young women, many of whom visited our home and considerably enlivened my time thanks to the good-natured attention and affection they sent my way.

A couple of these young ladies even arranged for my mother to improve their written and spoken English via private lessons. (Among them was an Afghan refugee, who sadly never returned to India after making a desperate dash back home to check on the whereabouts of her family.) One such young woman, after her evening lesson, invited my mother and I back to her house nearby for a meal. We ate dinner in the company of our host family, which included my mother's student's brother. Apparently, he was a serious cricket fan.

Shortly after dinner, he asked me if I was interested in perusing his collection of cricket magazines. I agreed with alacrity, and on walking over to his bedroom, he pointed to a shelf on the wall: "That's all I have."

All I have indeed. His collection was an enormous stack of old cricket magazines, including many issues of Sportsweek and its World of Cricket, then acknowledged as the preeminent cricket omnibus in India. (It was published as a quarterly.) And that wasn't all. He had somehow managed to purchase - presumably at premium prices - books and magazines published in England. There were copies of Tony Greig's illustrated books, Cricket: The Men and the Game and Test Match Cricket: A Personal View and several issues of - I think - the Cricketer and perhaps even a Wisden Almanack or two. Outside of the British Council Library, it was the largest collection of cricket books I had seen. (An uncle of mine reportedly owned dozens of Wisdens, but we had not visited him since I had been informed of this fact by my father.)

As I stood there, gazing at this cornucopia of cricketing riches, my mother and her student walked in. My mother commented on how utterly unsurprising it was that I had sniffed out cricket in the household, but in any case, it was time to go. But before I left, my newfound friend threw out an expansive invitation: "Stop by any time you want to check these out. If you want something, go ahead and borrow it." Perhaps he was being kind; perhaps he was shoring up his sister's standing in my mother's eyes; perhaps he wanted to spread the joy.

Poor lad. I took him up on his perhaps overly generous invitation. Not only did I pick up a couple of World of Cricket issues, I made sure to return - again and again - to replenish my reading resources. And I understood "any time" literally; sometimes I would walk over to my friend's place in the morning, sometimes in the evening, and sometimes, most aggravatingly of all, now that I think of it, in the late afternoon, when his household was still partaking of their siesta. In the midst of this seemingly indiscriminate exploitation of his bookish wealth, I made sure to not cross some lines: I did not ask to borrow his "imported" books; I understood those were sacrosanct, only to be read in the safety of his home. I returned my borrowings promptly and punctually (though this was less a matter of morality than sheer impatience to move on to the next unread treasure); and lastly, most easily of all, I handled his magazines with care.

I had come of cricketing consciousness in 1976-77, when Tony Greig's team toured India. Most of my cricketing education had emanated from>the collections of New Delhi's British Council Library. The times before Greig's tour, in the Indian context, were only dimly sensed by me. These magazines provided an alternative cricketing education and filled out an often incomplete landscape.

I lost contact with my benefactor soon enough. His family moved to another part of New Delhi, and despite promises to stay in touch, we didn't. I was well aware that my book borrowing and my frequent trips to his home might have made me a bit of a pest, and that subconsciously I might have been exploiting my mother's exalted status in his household. Be that as it may, he never ceased to indulge me, and continued to shower me with magazine manna. Along with many other influences, he made me the cricket fan I am today.

This post is a very belated thank you. And an apology too, for disturbing that most precious of Indian experiences: the summer afternoon's nap.

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