I was just eighteen months into this planet when Mr. Polio decided to befriend me. The vaccine was still two years away, so I battled the paralytic attack on my right leg with basic medicines and a lot of loving care.
My father left no stone unturned and with two surgeries, physiotherapy, and other exercises, I slowly began regaining movement and strength on the leg.
Then came school time. I joined St. Joseph’s near my house and moved about using special shoes and iron calipher support for the right leg.
My father was a self man who joined Bombay Telephones (under the British) at a junior level and worked his way up to finally retire as Director of Telegraphs. A born optimist and sports enthusiast, he saw an opportunity in every situation.
My father would make me get up at 5.30 every morning and trudge to the swimming pool, for my regular leg exercises, taking a local bus. Returning home we would hurriedly grab our breakfast and rush off- he to his office and I to school. This was the routine come summer, rain, or winter.
I grew up with a craze for cricket and cars.
By the time I was five, I could name every car on the street- Vaxhaul, Hillman, Studebaker, Morris: and every field placement – slip, gully, cover point, long on, long-off. I amazed my classmates with my cricket knowledge. But when it came to inter-class matches, I often wondered why I was the twelfth man or the umpire. I complained about this to my sisters and my father.
One day my father called me aside and told me something which was etched in my mind for the rest of my life. He said “you must endeavour to be the best in whatever you do. In sports or any field, people only remember the winner, very rarely the second and almost never- the third. Take a sport which you excel in and show the world you are the best- chess or carrom for example. With your handicap, you can never excel in cricket’.
It was a blow to my childhood dreams but it also woke me up to reality. However, sitting on a chair and gazing at a board was not my idea of sports.
One Saturday afternoon, my father took me to watch a Table Tennis Nationals final with prestigious front row seats as he was responsible for all the telephone connections at the venue. After the scintillating fast-paced match, my mind was made up.
I would be an attacking table tennis player!
I joined the gymkhana about one km. away and began playing table tennis. Within a year I realized that I was getting nowhere. The evening crowd was too much. I also observed that the senior players would come late after work and play till 9 pm.
Seeing my interest, two of them relented to play with me for some time. I was thrilled.
And thus began a different routine: I would come home from school and straight away complete my homework and studies while other kids played. A quick snack or dinner and off I went to the gymkhana. My father would come to take me back by 9 pm. A glass of milk and a bite of something and I would crash to bed while my father worked on his files which a peon brought home.
Soon my game improved in leaps not just because of the high caliber of the opponents but also due to their unconditional “coaching”. I developed a style of my own. The strategy was simple: stay close to the table, block, or push every ball and smash the loose one. Later on, the blocking turned to jab at a fastball, so that it went back with twice the speed- just as a batsman would come forward and jab a fastball sending it racing to the boundary.
There were many ranking tournaments in Bombay ( now Mumbai) and I began participating and representing the Gymkhana in team events. Slowly, championships and trophies began coming my way and I became a seeded player in the Juniors segment. In my final year of school, I created a flutter by participating in the inter-school Table Tennis competition without the permission of the Principal who had no interest in sports. We not only won the team championship but I also picked up the individual singles title.
Press releases, the next day, chastised the school for not encouraging sports talent. The Principal, Fr. Fernandes had to acknowledge and display the trophy, let alone taking disciplinary action. Overnight, I became a school celebrity.
Fast forward, I got admission for Chemical engineering at BITS Pilani. My mother and uncles were very much opposed to my travel to this distant unknown place and rightly so. I had never ventured out of the city except with the family on vacation. Again it was my father who stood by me and convinced others that being away would instill confidence and teach me the ways of the world. This, despite the fact that there would be financial strains with impending education and marriage expenses for my sisters.
The initial months at Pilani were extremely tough on me. The extreme climate, the unfriendly diet ( potatoes seven days a week, fried bread and potato pakodas for breakfast, curds only once a week… was more than what my poor stomach could handle. Add to this the choicest vocabulary which the burly Jats churned out- and you have a perfect recipe for complete breakdown!
The silver lining, I soon discovered, was the importance given to Table Tennis along with hockey and badminton. Cricket had no place here. Every hostel had a TT table and so did the Sports Center. To divert my attention, I started playing and soon got noticed.
Selection for the University team began. Fresh as I was from Bombay triumphs, I could easily beat all the senior players and got selected, though there were protests and murmurs within. No fresher had ever got into the team in the first year.
But my problems were far from over. I was just a team member- nothing more. We left for BHU, Benares, the venue for the inter- University matches that year. I was well taken care of- their little “Bachhu”, but never given a chance to play in a match. The turning point came when it was announced that only teams reaching the quarter-finals would be allowed to stay on till the end. Others would have to pack up or stay at their own cost. Having lost two matches, I was now their only hope to good food and fun.
We began winning the next few matches and reached the quarter-finals before bowing out. Both the goals were met: extended stay for them, undisputed position for me.
Returning back, I firmly established myself and played before packed crowds with visiting teams like IIT’s, Delhi University, and others. Trophies came by. Every year, tours to Kanpur, Lucknow Delhi, and others followed and I took over as the captain in my third year. The crowning glory came in the fourth year at Bhilwara when we won the inter University championship for the first time. We were accorded a jubilant reception on return.
Our Alumni, which will be celebrating its fiftieth year of passing out in 2021 has been meeting periodically; and I keep getting asked the same single question:
” how’s your table tennis going, Keshav?” Never a question about my career as a chemical engineer! A few years ago, I was stopped at a restaurant by a face that looked familiar. ” Hey ! are you not Keshav from the 1966 batch at BITS? ” I said yes, sure. “I am Ramaswamy, your senior”, he said. Your walk gave you away. You were fantastic with your table tennis. We simply enjoyed seeing you play. I just blushed and thanked him.
Just last month I sent a birthday message to a long lost batch mate. Pat came his reply- reproduced verbatim.
” Thanks, Keshav. I always linked your name with TT – standing there under the floodlight and smashing away. We all left Pilani with degrees which we had to. But you left leaving a mark even with your handicap.
Thanks, Dad! Thank you so much for standing by me in all my decisions. Thank you for the pearls of wisdom that came from you, from time to time. I may not be remembered the world over or even in our country but I sure am remembered for something by a large group of students at BITS even after fifty years!!
And the credit is all yours.