Sports and the human spirit are inextricable. Moti Nandy taught us that and so much more.
When, last Sunday, a friend of mine called to say that Moti Nandy was no more, like anyone from my generation of Bengalis, and the next few, I was left with an enormous sense of loss. Overshadowed by more flamboyant contemporaries like Sunil Gangopadhyay and Shakti Chattopadhyay, Nandy’s name would not be known to many outside Bengal. One hopes that will get corrected this year when the English translations of his seminal novels, Striker and Stopper, are published. Quite simply put, Nandy is the best novelist on sports I have ever read.
Sports literature is not a very large field. There are the cricket stories of PG Wodehouse, which, I suspect, were written before the Master truly found his feet. A Google search reveals lots of mystery novels with cricket as the backdrop. Soccer: I haven’t read much except Peter Terson’s brilliant play Zigger Zagger about British football hooligans. Americans claim several baseball novels, but since most of us don’t know the rules of baseball, few Indians, I suppose, would have read them.
Into this breach stepped Moti Nandy. Written for boys, but marvellous enough to be enjoyed by any adult, the stories combine the joy of sports with heart-tugging plots that could bring tears to teenage eyes. Striker is the story of Prasun, a young talented footballer desperate to avenge the insult that officials and fans of the fictional club Juger Jatri bestowed on his father many years ago. In a crucial match, Prasun’s father, playing for Juger Jatri, had missed a crucial goal, and had been beaten up and disgraced as a corrupt match-fixer. Prasun’s implacable struggle ends with Juger Jatri hiring him. But then, he is the team’s striker in the most crucial league match against that same team, and as the end of the match nears, it is imperative that he score and redeem his father’s tragedy, with his father sitting in the stadium.
Striker was followed by Stopper, perhaps Nandy’s finest novel, where ageing stopper-back Kamal Guha, once Kolkata’s top player, but now reduced to playing for a team about to be relegated to the second division league, plays on to the derision of everyone, just to win a match against Juger Jatri, whose officials had politicked against him, and sent his career into the doldrums. Most Bengali soccer fans would most likely feel a shiver to recall Nandy’s description of the climactic match, where a ragtag army led by one man’s unreasonableness takes on Kolkata’s best team—spearheaded now by Prasun of Striker.
Nandy turned from soccer to swimming in Koni, about an irascible coach, discredited by petty officials, who decides to take on a mad mission to make a talented young girl, Koni, from an impoverished family a swimming champion. The officials try their best to keep Koni down, who doesn’t have even the means to eat the minimum required diet for swimmers, but talent prevails in a rousing finale. Koni was made into a commercially successful film with Soumitra Chatterjee as coach. The most difficult novel by Nandy is Aparajito Ananda (Ananda Unvanquished), again about an indomitable spirit inside a very ill teenage boy, with an ending that haunts one for life.
But Nandy’s contribution to us boys was much more than just his lovely fiction. As long-time Sports Editor of Ananda Bazar Patrika, he was a brilliant journalist, with prose the Bengali equivalent of Neville Cardus. I still remember two of his headlines. The second Test in the India-England 1972-73 series was in Calcutta: England were up 1-0. The morning of the first day of the match, the headline read: ‘Today, at Eden, begins the battle between the wounded tiger and the ascendant lion.’ In the mid-80s, India was staring at a drubbing in a Test. Nandy’s headline: ‘In the pigeons’ den, the black cat.’
Plus, his writings taught millions of boys to love cricket. The exploits of Jack Hobbs; JWHT (Johnny Won’t Hit Today) Douglas, the slowest batsman in history; the excitement of the West Indies-Australia tied Test; even Neville Cardus, whose biography Nandy wrote. In his own way, he taught me more about sports and the human spirit than any other man.
Sandipan Deb is an IIT-IIM graduate who wandered into journalism after reading a quote from filmmaker George Lucas — “Everyone cage door is open” — and has stayed there (in journalism, not a cage) for the past 19 years. He has written a book on the IITs.