01 January 1970

My Sharvan Nana And Stories Of Cricket, Ganges, And Trips Down Memory Lanes

Weekend Reads

My Sharvan Nana And Stories Of Cricket, Ganges, And Trips Down Memory Lanes

In 2023, the author’s Sharvan Nana has turned 100 and is in bed. His stories of cricket, Pakistan, and Ganges have also aged with him. He hopes he would recognise him and yearns for a story of pandubbis of Ganges, which he had first listened to as a child.

Pilgrims near Gandak River at Sonepur Mela, Sonepur, Bihar
Pilgrims near Gandak River at Sonepur Mela, Sonepur, Bihar Swapan Nayak/Outlook

It could have been more appropriate to write Sanskritised 'Shravan' instead of Sharvan, but then how do you address someone goes back in time and acquires eternal hues that defy ravages of time? So he will always be Sharvan Nana for me and my brother. 

Tall, fair, handsome, clad in starched dhoti-kurta, with some serious talent for scandalous gossip, and a sharp ear for cricket commentary on radio and interminable stories, it is how I remember him from my first conscious encounter with him sometime in 1981.

India were visiting Down Under to engage Kangaroos in a three-match Test series. Australia had won the first Test match with ease and the second Test had ended in draw. Sharvan Nana would add a touch of theatre before proceeding to describe the vicissitudes of the third Test. He paused for a while, grunted, and cleared his throat before describing how the third Test match went to the wire. While praising GR Vishwanath, he would use his hands to indicate GRV's short stature and stocky build. He had scored a brilliant century. But before completing the description of the match, he would digress into the much-debated sporting rivalry between Gavaskar and Vishwanath.

Reams of literature have been written on who of the two was the better one. Sharvan Nana was an uncritical GRV acolyte. He would shut his eyes before mumbling — Vishwanath is a magician. We would bother him to complete the description of the third Test match against Australia. He would resume and now singled out Kapil Dev, who bundled out the mighty Aussies for paltry 83 in the fourth innings. Little did we know what cricket was and how it was played but then cricket in India has always had its storytellers around whom a bunch of gullible novices gather — hooked on to its bewitching characters and their majestic exploits. Perhaps football lacked such storytellers.

In 2023, a centurion Sharvan Nana lies recumbent in bed with shoulder and head elevated on a pillow smelling of mustard oil, rotting moth, and dense staleness. Eyebrows white, unkempt, curly white hair still in place and eyes looking smaller and duller than usual, he has great difficulty recognising me. He squints his eyes to figure out who I am. His son who has himself turned old and has been avoiding sugar in tea for close to two decades with varying degrees of failure asks him whether he recognises me or not. He squints his eyes, forehead registering creases of incomprehension, eyes moving slowly from left to right before right eye choosing to stay put half-way. I tremble in anticipation that he would mumble my name — at first inaudibly and a little later more coherently. A housefly rises from the bottom of a tea-cup lying on a stool nearby, circles around his eyes before suddenly deciding to perch on the tip of his aquiline nose. He gives up. He closes his eyes. I sit by him hoping almost desperately that he would open his eyes again and utter my name.

My craving to be recognised by him is turning desperate. As he lies motionless, I try to reason out why I wish so desperately to be recognised by him.

My Nanighar is by the Ganges and those living by the Ganges have so much of the river inside them. Jai Ganga Maiya was his default expression which he would utter ever so often. They outsource their happiness and despair, sighs and sorrows, being and becoming to the river. If the crop has been good, it is on account of the mighty river. The failure of crop could be made good by the Ganges the following year. I would piggyback on his shoulders to the river. While he would bathe and swim, I would fool around splashing water with a stick and depending upon force and contact, it would yield different sounds. 

Once he had probably woken up before than usual and as it was a full moon night, his eyes had been deceived. He woke me up and despite that I had still some sleep left in my eyes, I reluctantly got up. Riding piggyback, we reached the bank of the river in no time. By then he had realised that his eyes and senses had been deceived. The last part or prahar of night was still left. The Moon-basking in the reflected glory of the Sun was still energetic. On the bank of the river —Sharvan Nana pointed out to me were— were sitting a number of 'pandubbis' in a row. He stopped in his tracks.

'Pandubbis' were apparently ghosts of people who had died by drowning in the mighty river. Some die because the river tempts them. Some because life doesn’t tempt them. Some because they have had enough. Some because they do not have enough. Some because the ground had slipped beneath the feet. Some because they in their complacent hubris had challenged the might of the river when it was in spate. These 'pandubbis' sitting neatly in a row as if awaiting to increase their tribe by making victims of unsuspecting men and women. One had heard lots of tales about them. 

Sharvan Nana decided to maintain safe distance from these creatures of certain death. I was still feeling sleepy. Time stood still before giving way. The moon did give way. The sky became clearer. Pandubbis began jumping into the river...one, two, three, four...eleven... nineteen. One last pandubbi —fat, lazy, and sloth— did not feel like going back but with faint streaks of red becoming visible in the east, it did retreat.

There were lots of stories circulating around about this pandubbi. Some would say it was a female pandubbi who had been done to death after being severely violated and it awaited revenge. Others would say it was the custodian of the river Ganga. Of late, the water of the river had begun emitting a foul smell and its reluctance to go back to the embrace of the Ganges could well be understood. When the Sun —orange and red— began rising from the horizon, the last of the pandubbis retreated. While others jumped into the river, it dragged its feet back. However, one could not say if its feet were twisted back as one would get to listen to so often about these ghostly creatures.

Now that I sit by him and wait for him to recognise me, I essentially wait for him to tell a little more about those Pandubbis. Whatever happened to them? What went wrong with them? Why have our stories become bereft of 'pandubbis'? Sharvan Nana is a centurion and he knows everything about them. I must wait for a little longer for this story to come my way.

My maami serves me tea. Pure milk boiled long enough to turn slightly burnt with generous amount of sugar and a hint of dusty tea leave my lips sticky and I crave for a glass of water. Meanwhile, Sharvan Nana opens his eyes and takes my mother's name straightway — Vidya ka beta. He passes a faint smile which retains traces of smile we were so used to when he would choose to dwell upon the square cut by Vishwanath. As a kid, GVR was not strong enough to invest himself in drive and pull so he would use the pace of the bowler to make the ball travel the distance. He looked at me and then pointed to his shoulders pointing out how often I had piggybacked on those shoulders. And then he acquires a measure of semi-lucidity that turns very interesting.

Sharvan Nana begins talking about how well Sachin Tendulkar had played against Australia in the third Test in 1981. I try to correct him but he pushes ahead nonetheless: Sachin Tendulkar in that innings would get the better of all the Australian bowlers. I try to remind him it was Vishwanath but he is not amenable. May be his shorter name —Vishy— would do the trick but it falls upon impervious ears. I let him go. He says Zaheer Abbas was playing in that match too. It is how memory plays tricks. One never recalls things exactly the same way on different occasions. There is always a touch of improvisation, a hint of inventiveness, an expediency of convenience about how we call memories to account. I must let him go.

And then he starts talking about Pakistan. From sports to nation-state. He feels thirsty and sips some water from a brass glass which is said to possess some medicinal property. The glass seems heavier than usual and appears to have existed since eternity. It slips from his trembling hand, falls down, scratches the surface of the newly laid tiles, causes enough commotion to make unsuspecting flies flee randomly in different directions, rolls around for a while before turning stationary. Regardless, he launches himself into a long monologue about Zia Ul Haque and how he would destroy Pakistan. Despite that he is caught in a time-warp, there is no doubting his lucidity. I remind him Zia ul Haque is long gone but it does nothing to deter him: Zia has embarked upon a very dangerous path. He is playing with fire in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has always been the graveyard of empires but it has been its own graveyard just as well. And then something gives way and he begins talking about reconciliation between India and Pakistan and how Bangladesh could help the two come together. 

Between epiphany and serendipity, between torments of amnesia and flashes of lucidity, erosion of memories and defiant resilience of memories, he looks up to me — I guess not for validation but for audience and sympathetic hearing. Not that he is uncared. Not that he has been left to fend for himself. But lying supine for long hours and unable to move around and again unable to follow up his favourite pastime of listening to cricket commentary, he has too much on his mind. Those in the family have their own schedules. Someone who has always told stories —probable and improbable— is in need of improbable stories. I wish I could tell him stories about imagination — defying advancement in science and technology which turns a man into a story-telling animal, which in turn revitalises him into a young man with bewitching stories about the world around. I start but I flounder. I am past lucidity, past incoherence. I look at him intently. He looks at me sympathetically. Without telling a story, we end up sharing a story. I prepare to go. I bow down to touch his feet. I head towards the door.

Suno (listen), a voice from the past follows me. I turn back. He says pandubbis are no longer spotted because the pious Ganges was their refuge. But now that the Ganges is itself dying…He trails off. He looks vacantly at the ceiling. I look vacantly at him.