This article has its roots in a crowded, noisy, dimly lit Chinese restaurant in New York's Times Square. One rainy October night, I dined there with two college buddies. Over miscellaneous appetizers that we couldn't see well enough to identify, and once past the catching up and reminiscing, we began talking about events, the situation, the climate, "back home." There was never any doubt what "back home" referred to, even though only one of us actually lived there. Me.
One of my companions tells us, matter-of-factly, how his name gets him odd stares, subtle double-takes, these days in India: immigration officers, railway clerks, people he is introduced to. Just slightly wistful, I think to myself that when we were together in college, it never struck me, not even once, that his was an unusual name. Nor that it carried on its back the burden of my friend's religion. No, it was merely another Indian name. I even remember deciding, for no good reason, that it had to be a variation on that most common of Kerala names, "Menon".
Was I young, callow, naive? All three, I'm sure.
I also think that was an India that has since changed.
Whatever. My friend's name, of course, is "Memon." And of course too, today nearly every Indian and his second cousin will identify that name as Muslim. A quarter-century ago, I saw it as merely an Indian name. Now it is merely, and first, a Muslim one.
But the odd stares, the double-takes? Prime accused in the Bombay bomb blasts of 1993 are members of a family from Mahim, called Memon. Seems this is reason enough, for some, to peer in suspicion at every Memon who passes. Odd, because even though the prime accused in the enormous stock scam of the early '90s was a Mehta, another college buddy who has that name has never found people staring at him. Hell, it was during college that the hitch-hiking Chopra kids in Delhi, Sanjay and Geeta, were picked up and murdered by one Billa and one Ranga. None of us even thought of looking strangely at Professor Ranga, dinning third-year Circuit Theory into our heads.
Believe me, I could go on. Between us, me and my college chums made up a diverse collection of Indian names. Many of them can be found among people accused of major crimes.
But only "Memon" gets double-takes.
Home from NYC, musing about that and an India that has changed, I had my once-in-several-months run-in with a journalist I know. He edits a well-known Bombay paper that we all pretend to despise, but that we all read. He also writes thoughtful pieces on his true passion: cricket. But from the meetings and conversations I have had with him over several years, I have come to see him as more than "just" a cricket writer, whatever that may mean. He thinks about, and writes thoughtful pieces on, many other things around us. In fact, some of his most effective, evocative writing has been when he has drawn on cricket to speak -- sometimes allegorically, but yet somehow always directly -- of that changed country.
He's a Memon too. But no, he has told me no stories of strange looks.
We meet this time because he is a speaker on a Sunday morning symposium that I'm helping organize, though only peripherally. The symposium's theme is "Wake up and Act." It's meant to be an appeal to citizens to do just that: take greater part in civic and political affairs, give some thought to what citizenship means. His fellow speakers -- one a retired bureaucrat known for his integrity, the other another well-known journalist -- relate incidents from their experiences, their battles. Dismaying experiences, hard but often inspiring battles. The audience is rapt, breaking several times into appreciative applause.
The Memon on stage, he chooses a different tack. He decides to make his point the way he does best: drawing on cricket. And the story he tells is from the 1936 Indian tour to England, our second time playing offical cricket in that country. And this is that story.
You have to remember that in those days, Indian cricket lived and moved to the tune of Indian royalty. The price royalty -- the Maharajah of Vizianagaram, in this case -- extracted was captainship. Indeed: Vizzy, as the prince was known, was captain of the 1936 team. No matter that from all accounts, including this Sunday morning's, Vizzy's cricketing abilities ranked somewhere near mine. (In his 3-Test career, all played on this tour, Vizzy piled up all of 33 runs). No matter. Vizzy wanted to be captain, Vizzy would be captain.
But his scores began to tell the truth. He really could not hold a place in the Test team. In fact, he really did not belong on the same cricket field as his team-mates. By the time the 2nd Test at Old Trafford came around, anyone with his eyes open knew that the team could not afford a patron prince as captain -- certainly not this patron prince. Murmurs began about passing the captaincy back to the man who should have had it all along, captain on the 1932 tour and vice-captain now, the spectacular cricketer Colonel Cottari Kanakaiya Nayudu.
Vizzy would not let go. But he heard the murmurs and they burned him up. The insult, the humiliation! No matter that he had brought it on himself. The prince turned his mind, as princes must, to Machiavellian machination. Why not undermine his own team, so that his poor performances might pass unnoticed? What could he do towards such undermining?
The brightest young stars in the Indian team were its opening batsmen, Vijay Merchant and Syed Mushtaq Ali. Pay attention to those names, now, and remember the times they played in.
Vizzy probably had a mind much like the immigration officers who give college buddy Memon those strange looks. He put it to work one night during the Test. After conceding a huge first-innings lead, India -- in the form of Mushtaq and Merchant -- was about to go to bat the next morning to save the game. And Vizzy had a plan.
First, he called Merchant to his room. "Watch out for Mushtaq," he told the young hope, "you can't trust him! He'll run you out." Naturally, Merchant was puzzled. "Why do you say that?" he asked. Vizzy shot back: "He's a Mussalman, after all." That explained it all.
Next up, Vizzy brought in Mushtaq Ali. "Don't trust Merchant," Vizzy said, puzzling Mushtaq just as much as Merchant had been, "that Bania is going to run you out." Yep, in this case the "Bania" label explained it all.
So at a delicate stage of a major match, Vizzy had managed to sow doubts in the heads of these two stars, doubts that they could rely on each other. And he had done it by using the same wedge that would, a decade later, cleave a subcontinent and leave a million slaughtered: religion.
But at this particular delicate stage, Merchant and Mushtaq did something right. "Luckily", said editor Memon from his Sunday morning podium, "luckily, they decided to talk to each other." Doing so, they realized what Vizzy was up to. "Whatever else happens tomorrow," they told each other, "whether we get bowled, caught, run out or anything, we will NOT RUN EACH OTHER OUT!"
The rest, as they say, was history. Scoring handsome centuries, Merchant and Mushtaq put on 203 for the first wicket. (In their entire first innings, India had scored 203). That is still remembered as one of the finest opening partnerships of all time, said editor Memon. And no, neither of them was run out. India reached a healthy 390-5 at close, easily drawing the match. As an aside, Vizzy was not out with zero when the match ended. He did play the final Test, but the writing was already firmly on the wall. He scored one in each innings and never played for India again.
But why speak of him? This was Merchant's and Mushtaq's moment. They talked to each other. They trusted each other. They disregarded a whispering demagogue who was bent on dividing them, on turning them against each other. They built a heroic, historic, partnership together. The allegory comes through.
And for all those reasons, and because this is India Together, and because an editor Memon told this story, and because a college chum Memon was so matter-of-fact about the suspicion he now senses "back home", and because of allegory, and because Memon and Merchant and Mushtaq are merely Indian names -- yes, for all those reasons, I wanted to write this article, see if the strands might come together. Yes, India has changed, and greatly. But maybe we can choose not to run each other out.