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While all the friendly matches of football, hockey or cricket used to be played on the College grounds the tournaments used to be held at the Race Course grounds. The Race Course as a destination has now disappeared, the grounds, the pavillions and other assets having been given away to the College of Physical Education now known as the Laxmibai Institute of Physical Education. As these grounds became unavailable for tournaments a stadium was built, I suppose, to fill in the void.
On the football tournament days as a child I used to frequently accompany father to the Race Course. One Mathura Prasad Choube, an old Jhansi Heroes legend during his hockey-playing days and in-charge of games at the college, would come to pick up father and would throw the temptation at me to accompany them and witness the match. It was an offer that just couldn’t be spurned. So, mother would quickly dress me up and I would climb on to the tonga. As the college had not till then acquired a bus the teams used to be ferried to the Race Course in tongas. Some of the tonga-wallas were regularly engaged and they were well known to the players and the staff who used to accompany the football or hockey teams. They had become die-hard supporters of the college team. I remember there was a portly tonga-walla by the name Bhagona. He was such a big supporter of the college team that he would go cart-wheeling along the far boundary line if the college team scored a goal. Such loyalties are seldom seen today.
No races of horses were ever held at the Race Course. At least, I hadn’t seen any. It had a football field on which hockey matches also used to be held. A cricket field would also be carved out of it with a chalk boundary. The ground being devoid of grass cricket or hockey balls would run very fast on it. Beyond these grounds which were next to the two pavilions there used to be a piece of vacant land of huge proportionsthat was meant for Polo.
Polo matches would be held on these grounds which would generally coincide with Scindia Gold Cup Hockey Tournaments that has an unbroken record of being more than 80 years. A huge tent would also be erected on one side of the ground for the players and their assistants. Horses used to be kept away from the tent. As horses had to be changed after every “chukker”, there used to be quite a collection of them. Not many spectators would assemble to watch the matches as not many were familiar with the game. It was, till then, a maharajas’ game. Many of them would, however, go all the way to have a glimpse of the maharaja, if he happened to be playing.
The sleepy town, as it was, would seem to be suddenly coming alive with such activities as hockey and polo matches with Gwalior Mela that would also be on its month-long run at the same time. Once, the town was agog with excitement when the maharaja fell off a horse while playing polo. Anxious citizens rushed to the hospital to inquire about his welfare even though it was well-known that the maharaja was safe and sound in body and soul. People were terribly fond of the Maharaja. Those were feudal times and the maharaja was considered to be good feudal.
Since I used to potter around the house when I was the only child at home, having nothing better to do I used to hover around father. His classes apparently started after mid-morning in winters and yet my mother had to hurry up to give him lunch before he left. Despite mother’s rush she occasionally wouldn’t be able to cook the regular course-wise Bengali meal and frequently she would boil some eggs and cook daal to go with the rice and a vegetable dish. As he sat down for his rather early frugal meal he would ask me to sit next to him. He would mash the eggs, mix the mash or hash with the rice and add salt and some black pepper. He would then make small balls out of the mash which he would shove into my mouth. Later, I saw that boiled eggs and rice with salt and ghee are favourites of many bongs. I, too, have always liked this stuff, only I add a generous bit of green chillies to give to the mashed-up pile quite a bit of fire.
After a meal that was basic to the core he would start dressing up. Despite the modest income, he had built up quite a collection of suits over a period of time. His shirts, generally white, were most interesting for me as to them he would add the detachable collars and cuffs. These were all imported. This was in early 1940s and the Great War was still being fought and, hence, perhaps, the austerity. The shirting used to be of cotton that was scarce. The collars along with the edges of the cuffs were the first to get dirty and hand-washing would quickly wear them off. Those days there were no strong detergents and no washing machines. The tailors, too, wouldn’t use any stiffeners. These detachable attachments that were permanently starched freed people from this worry as these would remain stiff even after a wash and perhaps give a smarter look to the ensemble. After use, one could wash and reuse them which is precisely what my father used to do. They wouldn’t crumple – such was the stiffening material inside.
The shirt itself would remain clean inside the jacket and didn’t need to be given frequent washes. Introduction of synthetic cloth made out of artificial fibres along with several other accompanying changes including those of fashion have ushered in many sartorial changes for men, as they surely must have for women too. The detachable collars and cuffs have since disappeared from the Indian market. These were virtually a necessity those days but today perhaps only the rich and fashionable use them Much, much later I saw Jerry Lewis in a film wearing under a dinner jaclet only the cuffs and collars with an attached stiff white triangular pad tied at the back.
To keep the collar firmly attached to the shirt father used to have a couple of biggish buttons – one for the back of the neck which used to be somewhat collapsible and the other for the front top buttonhole that used to be part of a set of four buttons. This was before the plastic age and hence there were no plastic buttons down the shirt front. The front opening used to be only up to half way down the shirt-front, anyway, for which a set of four buttons was enough with a slightly bigger one for the top one to take in four layers of cloth for the collar. My father used to use brassy looking buttons and cuff links whereas well-to-do people would use silver or gold buttons. After all this time-consuming rituals he would select a tie which would be normally be fromhis collection of Tootal ties. Tootal used to be a famous brand for ties before Independence. If I am not wrong, these ties are just not available In India any more. Of course, other brands have occupied its predominant place and have kept pace with changing cycle of fashion.
He would then put on his shoes, generally a tan Oxford (a black Oxford was supposed to be a no no during the day time – a convention which he asked me to observe even when I was going to the Academy of Administration), and then the jacket and he was ready to go with his battered portfolio with a sola hat on his head. All of us used to marvel at the way my father walked as even after a day’s outing he wouldn’t lose the shine of his shoes. We used to live in a lane that was pretty dusty as the maharaja’s establishment probably could never find the resources to metal it. And yet, while our pairs used to be overlaid with dust, father would come back home with his shoes still be shiny with only a thin film of dust on them.
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