If it is Thursday, and if it is approaching 7 pm, you would most likely find me hovering around the Royal Cafe waiting for the IT College girls to arrive for their weekly coffee and give us layabouts (with plenty of time to spare) a chance, if not to mingle, then at least to feast our eyes, if only for an hour or so, on the second sex. Very few, no one in my circle at least, was actually on talking terms with any of the girls. However, no one could stop us from zeroing in on the table opposite where they sat. We made up imaginary conversations and if per chance one of them looked in our direction for more than 10 seconds, our evening was made. Indeed, several evenings were made.
On days besides Thursday, you would find me busy playing table tennis, also called ping pong. Some of the top players in Lucknow were Muslims: Abrar Alvi, Mansoor Ahmed, Sultan Ahmed, who played barefoot in pyjamas and tight sherwanis. In 1959, I won the UP table tennis championship for the fifth successive year, and if memory serves me right, I was ranked number seven in India in an era which produced Farokh Khodaiji, Gautam Divan, Dilip Sampat, Sudhir Thackersey, Jayant Vohra—all Bombay boys. Uttar Pradesh, in table tennis terms, was then an area of darkness and for that state to have produced a player competing with the best in the country was quite an achievement. In my study, I have displayed proudly the splendid cups and shields I collected, all of which are polished at regular intervals. My mother preserved a file of cuttings, mostly from The Pioneer and National Herald detailing all my victories and a few defeats. However, I can’t seem to find the file.
I was still studying at La Martiniere College for my intermediate exams. Having got a second class in my Senior Cambridge is the pinnacle of my brief academic career. Otherwise, I consistently stayed at third class. I opted to stay on and do my intermediate from Lamarts, before spending two undistinguished years trying to get a BA at Lucknow University. I finally got it through a prolonged and acrimonious dispute with the university. Interested in the gory details? Refer to my memoir, Lucknow Boy, still on sale!
What was it like to be a 17-year-old in Lucknow? If I use the word “bliss”, it would not be an exaggeration. We were foolish, uncorrupted, free from communal and casteist feeling, unaware of the complexities of nation-building but somehow confident that a bright future awaited us. What the basis for that hope, I cannot say; all I can confirm is that it was very much present.