Agra is only about 140 km from Gwalior where I grew up. Although I visited it at least twice later, yet my first visit took place when I was only in my teens and had just about entered college. The college cricket team was visiting Agra in December 1953 for a few matches to be played with the teams of various colleges there. Those days the colleges at Gwalior were affiliated to Agra University. The University had its jurisdiction spread far and wide - from Western UP to Rajasthan, Mahakoshal to the then newly created Madhya Bharat comprising parts of Bundelkhand and Malwa.
I wasn't good at cricket but, probably, for want of a better player I was made part of the team. That made it necessary for me to have a few white shirts. Normally, we would have shirts stitched by a known tailor. Short of time, my elder brother and I went shopping for shirts. We bought three shirts and would you believe that I got shirts costing Rs. 4 to 5 from the outlet of Samson Dresses - a brand that was commonly found in those parts those days? Incredibly cheap, isn’t it? But then a dollar was equivalent to Re 1/- in 1947. It could not have been more than Rs 2-/- in 1953. It was the external borrowings that brought down the rupee value later. That is, of course, another story.
We travelled by III class (III class coaches were still running overflowing with passengers, probably indicating the prevailing level of poverty) in a slow passenger train that took the whole of the long winter night to cover 140-odd kilometres. It suited us as we slept through the night as best as we could. At Agra we were put up in the union room of the St. John's College. It was vacation time during Christmas and the whole place was deserted. Three of us - Ramesh Tiwari (currently in Winnipeg enjoying retirement from his academic life in the University of Manitoba), Pratap Desai (retired from the National Health Service of UK and now living close to London) and I (retired and settled down at Bhopal) cornered a table tennis table lying in one corner and spread our bedrolls on it. It indeed was a tight squeeze but with the Agra cold of December we managed to stay on the table all those nights.
Next morning the match agaist St John's College was a wash out for us. Our team was bowled out for a measly 42 runs in the first innings. In the second innings they sent me out to open. St. John's had a stockily built speedster with chubby cheeks by the name Shivaji Sharma. As he ran into bowl I could see his fleshy cheeks bouncing up and down. He was pretty fast and many of his balls whizzed past. I could connect with only a few of them and my bat would get a violent thwack whenever it did so. I didn't survive long, managing an unintended brace before my woodwork got rattled by what seemed like a supersonic delivery. Never used to such speed of that shiny red cherry, I was lucky that my bones were intact. Those days there was hardly any protective gear apart from the gloves, pads for legs and an abdomen guard. The jute matting that used to be laid on the inadequately prepared pitches would add to the pace of the ball.
Walking back I was reminded of the Indian cricket team’s tour of England a year earlier in the summer of 1952 in which Freddie Truman, popularly known as “Fiery Freddy”, was introduced into the England team. If I recall it was Rex Alston, the BBC commentator who graphically described Pankaj Roy, the Indian opener, retreating towards the square-leg umpire as Truman commenced his run-up. Such was the fury of his bowling. Having gone through somewhat similar circumstances I thought Roy couldn't have done any better. No wonder, later, at Headingley, Leeds, India went four down for no score on the board. I wondered if Shivaji Sharma was so nippy what Freddie Truman was like. Though we fared better in the second innings with some good scores coming off a few bats, yet we lost the match by an innings and a few runs.
Agra is known for its famous monuments yet we didn't visit any of them. Our days would be spent on the cricket grounds and evenings in cinema halls. Our friend Desai was a great movie buff. We saw as many as four, two of them were fresh releases, Tarana and Sangdil, both starring Madhubala and Dilip Kumar - a great pair, Madhubala looking unbelievably beautiful making a great impression on our young minds.
From our daily allowance of Rs. 3/- per day we used to spend a rupee and a quarter on movies. The allowance may appear ridiculously meagre today but in those early 1950 days things were cheap - unbelievably cheap. The Late Nawab of Pataudi once happened to mention while commentating in a cricket test match that during his playing days in late 1950s and early 1960s, even test cricketers used to get only Rs. 25 per day – surely, a pittance for a nawab.
Food, for example, was very cheap. Breakfast in a restaurant near St. John's College would cost us six annas (less than half a rupee) for an omelette of two eggs and two toasted slices with butter on them. Lunch would be around twelve Anna's and for dinner our skipper, Madhu Hukku, discovered a joint, a sort of dhaba near Raja ki Mandi railway station. The man who ran it appeared to be particular about cleanliness as his place was spic and span. He would make us sit on a clean mat in front of his wood-fired choolha and pass on to us freshly baked chapattis costing one anna each. The delectable vegetables, daal and pickles were free. A quarter of a rupee would fetch us a very satisfying vegetarian meal. I always had a liking for UP cuisine having had it with neighbours. This was as good if not better.
Though I gave a miss to the monuments most of which today are World Heritage Sites I recall, however, having gone to the Agra Cant. It was a big cantonment, seemed to be much bigger than what we had at Gwalior. No wonder, the expansive Agra Cant. Railway Station was and continues to be the main railway station for the city. I remember to have found the Cantonment area very clean – in contrast to the inner city which we used to frequent. One of the markets was well laid out on one side along a broad road with an extensive open space on the other side. The imprint of the Army was evident with neat road markings in black and white with proper signage all over
If I remember we played three matches, lost two and drew one. We returned from an unsuccessful trip but gained much in experience. We came back without even having a look at the Taj Mahal – at least I didn’t see it until much later in 1993 with my wife when we saw most of them. I was disappointed to see the Cantonment area. It had become much more crowded and gone were the imprints of the Army from various roads. Perhaps our Army also cannot deal with the rampant disorderliness of the exponentially rising civilian population. In any case, Agra like many other UP towns was filthy and, in all probability, continues to be so.
In 1993 I thought I saw far too many skull caps all over – a veritable sea of white. It certainly wasn’t because of the rise in the city’s population. The cap was perhaps the way the aggrieved community wished to display its identity and exhibit its solidarity after the meaningless demolition of the historical Babri Masjid.