By Jamie Alter
It was one of my father’s dreams to see a full-fledged, modern cricket stadium in Mussoorie, the town of his birth, and that the hill station known as ‘the Queen of the Hills’ would also hold an annual 42 km marathon to showcase the region’s athletes and encourage the community to stay fit, apart from honour his father Jim’s memory.
And, thus, it warmed the heart to hear from his dear friend Roopchandji on September 27, 2020, that he and members of the Mussoorie Sports Association (MSA) held a memorial service at Mussoorie’s Raj Bhavan to mark my father’s third death anniversary, where it was announced that plans are underway to inaugurate a cricket stadium in his name as well as a full marathon. Hurdles remain, I am aware.
Good men like Roopchandji understand sport like few others in Uttarakhand, and his life-long association with sports, and unflinching dedication to promoting sports in Mussoorie are traits which endeared him to my father from a young age. Because my father, at the core of his multi-faceted self, was a sportsman.
He had many dreams – his elder brother John once mused about what language my father would dream in, Hindi, Urdu or English? – and these did not always mean that he needed to be asleep to envision them. He was a sportsman and sports addict since childhood, with this life-long passion nurtured during his years studying at Woodstock School and holidays spent in the nearby town of Rajpur, where he and John would spent hours and hours playing an invented game (an amalgam of multiple sports) they called ‘hock-sock-crick-foot’.
To listen to my father, recall those intense sessions of ‘hock-sock-crick-foot’ with his older brother in the lawns of the Christian ashram his parents founded and managed was to be transported to a time and era of freedom and simplicity which seems incomprehensible in 2020. At Woodstock, my father was an avid basketball player and cross-country runner, but he participated in every single sport possible there. He swam, he played tennis, hockey, football, badminton, table-tennis and, once, with his best buddy Paul Skillicorn, cycled from Rajpur to Delhi.
Woodstock School yearbooks from the mid to late 1960s showcase my father’s sporting abilities; multiple black-and-white grainy photographs of a lean and athletic teenager always smiling. While studying at Woodstock, my father also acted in numerous plays and was student council president – indeed, many old-timers from that era remember ‘Tommy’ as an all-round standup guy – but it was as a sportsman that my father fancied himself.
After he cut short his stint at the prestigious Yale University – where he tried out for basketball and also played cricket – and returned to India, my father worked at Woodstock briefly as student activities coordinator and, during this time back in Mussoorie, he helped organize sporting events and played cricket locally for Rock Blues, where he forged a dear friendship with Nand Kishore ‘Bamboo’, the doyen of Mussoorie sports. This sporting friendship saw the two play in, arrange and facilitate many sports events in Mussoorie because this was the town of their birth and they dearly wanted to give back to the community.
My father loved returning to Mussoorie, but if it was with his cricket team from Bombay, MCC, or to watch Woodstock’s Wyn Mumby Basketball Tournament with his best friend Ajay Mark or to play in Brij Lal’s farewell cricket match or as chief guest at one of the various hillside schools’ Sports Days, it made it all the more special.
Well into his forties, my father would try to get MCC up to Mussoorie once a year or every two years to play, apart from the town’s several boarding schools, in Bamboo’s six-a-side cricket tournament. Well into his sixties, my father played cricket matches at Dehradun’s Kasiga School and, when he had a spare moment, would face tennis-ball deliveries from me at our Landour estate, Oakville.
I used the term ‘spare’ moment, because if my father managed three days out of his busy acting schedule to make it back to Mussoorie, most of these were spent meeting Bamboo’s brother Roopchandji and planning a sporting activity for Mussoorie. The two friends inaugurated a half marathon on my grandfather’s name several years ago, and after my father’s passing in 2017, Roopchandji and the MSA have held this in his name.
In 2018, Roopchandji – in his capacity of MSA secretary – helped put together another six-a-side cricket tournament in my father’s memory, held at their beloved Survey Field near Mullingar, where eight Under-15 teams from places like Rohtak, Delhi, Meerut, Haldwani and Mussoorie competed. Over the past two years, Roopchandji has been in touch many times updating me of developments regarding sports in Mussoorie – the good, bad and the ugly – and I hope his commitment, as well as those of his fellow MSA members, results in better opportunities and infrastructure for the region.
Not just because that was what my father would have wanted to see, and no doubt he would have dropped whatever he was doing anywhere in the country to attend, but because Mussoorie’s youth and athletes need such a platform from where they can aspire to take on India’s best across disciplines. I have played cricket in Uttarakhand and I know the talent in the state, as well as the politics that has weighed down Uttarakhand cricket’s development for years.
Who is to say that the next MS Dhoni doesn’t come from Library Bazaar, or Mullingar, or Hathipaon or Happy Valley?
(Jamie Alter is a sports writer, journalist, author and actor).