To write about a close friend is always difficult. More so if it is an obituary. That many such obituaries have already been published and more will continue to be printed in the coming days doesn’t make it any easier. For someone as distinguished and as controversial as Raj Singh Dungarpur, this is only natural. Despite these perils, this is a piece I had to write. My long association with Rajbhai, which even led him to fly to Kolkata for my wedding a day after his 70th birthday on 20 December 2005, will always hold a special place in my memory.
I got to know Rajbhai as a student of cricket history. It was then during a field trip to Mumbai in 1999-2000 that we really got talking cricket. On the first day, seeing me in jeans and a T-shirt he had barred me from entering the Cricket Club of India (CCI) library. I wasn’t a serious enough student of Indian cricket! The day after I was impeccably dressed and carried my Oxford and Rhodes credentials to impress him. It worked. Seeing the letters of introduction, the scorn of day one turned easily into affection, a feeling that continued till mid-2008 when memory finally deserted him.
While opening doors for me in almost all corners of the world, I especially remember Rajbhai taking me to Lord’s, to the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) library that is, to say I was working on a doctoral dissertation on Indian cricket and it was a matter of personal pride for him. Long interviews in room 212 at the CCI amid rounds of fried fish and tartar sauce, his home for many years, a seven-day camp at his Pune flat, home to many of Indian cricket’s treasures including a number of autographed Gunn & Moore bats by the 1983 world cup-winning team and long chats at his London flat proved invaluable in documenting the history of Indian cricket.
From a field trip to where Lala Amarnath would perch himself at the CCI (next to the Maharaja of Patiala’s statue) to how the Maharaja of Patiala went about the club’s creation in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Rajbhai was a treasure trove of tales. A cricket romantic unrivalled, he lived in history. Rather, he was and is history. Standing at the balcony of the Mumbai Gymkhana, he revelled in telling me how the Gymkhana played host to Douglas Jardine’s men in 1933-34. He was at his best, however, when talking of CK Nayudu. His favourite by far, it was at his initiative that Nayudu’s silver bat, presented to him by Arthur Gilligan after his famous 153 in Mumbai in 1926, is housed at the Polly Umrigar bar at the CCI. More valuable are CK’s personal scrapbooks from India’s first tour to England in 1932, gifts to Rajbhai from Chandra Nayudu, CK’s daughter. These are also in the Polly Umrigar bar, yet another Raj Singh creation.
He would take special pride in showing friends the clock tower in Mumbai, which had once been hit by a CK six, and laugh uncontrollably while showing a Jardine-Nayudu photograph on the walls of the CCI, saying Jardine, the real royal, appeared no more than CK’s butler in the photograph. In many ways, the buck stopped with Nayudu as far as Rajbhai was concerned. Among modern-day greats, he had a special place for Rahul Dravid. Calling him India’s best batsman overseas, Rajbhai would argue for hours why he rated Rahul as one of the best he had seen.
His cricketing achievements are many. From picking a 16-year-old Tendulkar to tour Pakistan in 1989 to famously asking Azhar, “Miyan, captain banoge?”, to spearheading the setting up of the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore, Rajbhai will always be a part of Indian cricket folklore. Little known, however, is the role he played in bringing the 1996 World Cup to India . It was Rajbhai who brokered a truce between Madhavrao Scindia and Jagmohan Dalmiya at 2 am to ensure the 1996 World Cup came to India. Dalmiya recounts, “Raj came to my room at 2 am and asked me to come with him. I asked where, to which he replied, ‘You trust me, don’t you?’ He took me to Scindia’s room and we got talking about how to win the rights to host the world cup. Without his initiative, things would never have moved.”
Rajbhai wanted to pen his memoirs. I even spent a week in his Pune home recording his memories on my dictaphone. (He discussed the same project with my friend Ayaz Memon as is evident from Ayaz’s recent piece in cricinfo.com). Our working title was ‘Years of the Raj’, and I’d even begun transcription when Alzheimer’s struck him badly. While the project never happened, I do cherish the Gold-Silver Cross Pen (a gift to him from Lata Mangeshkar) he presented me on the occasion of the launch of my Illustrated History of Indian Cricket at the CCI, saying, ‘You should author my book with this’. For a man living in history, the keyboard was inconsequential. For us, however, his memories are not. It is a loss we will continue to mourn for years to come.
The writer is a sports commentator and historian