SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 16 AUGUST, 2018
Ajit Wadekar (1941-2018): A Thorough Gentleman with a Soft Heart
On a Personal Note
Cricket is not among my ten-most-favourites list and it never was. But during our teenage years, we were pulled to it for the handsome young men who crowded the pitch waiting for the big time of being included in the Ranji Trophy and then graduating to the famous Indian team.
Ajit Wadekar was one among them and the most favourite among them all. He was a student at my college, Ramnarain Ruia College in Mumbai and was the captain of the college cricket team. We had just entered the portals of this famous, Maharashtrian-dominated college we were very proud of because it was one of the best colleges that excelled both in sports, specially cricket as well as academics.
This is not about Wadekar, the Indian cricketer who made history but about Ajit, the man with a gentle heart and gentlemanly manners.
We heard he was doing his post-graduation in some Science subject but was more often in the cricket field than in the lab. We would rush all the way to the Brabourne Stadium opposite Churchgate station, saving the small coins for the trip, cutting classes too, to watch him at net practice. He was tall, handsome and had a head of wavy hair but did not pay attention to girls at all.
At the college gate, we would watch him amble across from the ground opposite and gawked at him quite openly. Shy off the field, he would walk with his head bent, cricket bat in hand. Cricketers then were attired fully in white trousers and white shirt with the famous cricket cap. It added to their glamour and their chutzpah.
Then, one afternoon, we saw him in the corridor of the “Arts” section talking in whispers with the very pretty, demure and coy Rekha Hazare, one of the best-looking girls, one year our junior. They were often seen together after that, but without any ‘demonstration effect’ one sees nowadays in young lovers, not even holding hands, they were that shy. It later transpired that the two had tied the knot.
We were quite happy because Rekha was a very nice girl. We loved Wadekar because he never wore his captaincy or his star image on his persona. The media too, would be subtler than it is today and those who did not care about cricket did not know about Wadekar. We had a crush on him but it was an innocent crush because we liked that he was dating Rekha, a quiet girl who spoke Marathi better than English at the time.
One of the many stories that wove themselves around their love story was sweet. It appears that neither Ajit nor Rekha needed to utter the three immortal words to express their love for each other. It just happened, slowly and surely. Rekha later confessed in an interview that one day, she was feeling chilly but did not have woollens to warm her up. Ajit covered her with his own blazer. That one move was enough to render words redundant.
Years passed and we lost our interest in cricket and cricketers, perhaps forever. Then, on a vacation from Kolkata to my parents’ place in Mumbai, I met the great Ajit Wadekar in person in the living room of my parents’ flat in Shivaji Park, the hub of Indian cricket. By then, he was the captain of the Indian cricket team, fresh from India’s historic first win in England in 1971. An elder relative was there with him and this was the first time I was introduced to him by my late father who was Wadekar’s regular physician. My father was a noted homeopath with his clinic in Sion but Wadekar would visit him at our residence to avoid fans and crowds.
I was married by then and was still amazed at his extreme groundedness. He had become a friend of my father over time and would occasionally visit him for medical advice. My father, a staunch Marxist, hated cricket because of its bourgeois and colonial associations so they would never discuss cricket.
But I could feel a hint of appreciation for him in my father, for the focus Wadekar had displayed through his long and illustrious career and more for his modesty and groundedness. He was a man of few words but always smiled and was a perfect gentleman. When my husband once asked him about some serious tiff with a fellow cricketer, he simply smiled and said, “I hate to rake past things up. This is just a part of life.”
One morning, my father asked me to accompany him to Wadekar’s residence somewhere along the way to Worli. Rekha opened the door, now a mature, mellow, wife and mother. She did not remember me until I enlightened her but that was because I had changed more than she had. We shared a cup of tea, chatted a bit while the small boys came out to see who had come. Wadekar was his own self, unaffected by the fame and glamour and aura of success that surrounded him.
When my father had his first heart attack in 1975, Wadekar heard of it from somewhere and promptly came to Shivaji Park to enquire after my father’s health. He asked us whether we needed any help on the medical side and he would try to help. I was deeply touched. Imagine.
The captain of India’s cricket team was right inside our middle-class home, asking after my father and also offering to help! Before leaving, he took one look at my anxious face and said, “Don’t worry. He will sail through. He has tremendous will power.” His words proved right.
That was the last time we met. My life in Kolkata had almost phased out these small slices of nostalgia from my mind till I saw the morning papers today to learn that Wadekar, one of the greatest gentlemen Indian cricket has ever produced, is no more. I hope Rekha is reading this.