December 24, 2012

My tribute to Leslie Claudius

My most vivid memories of Leslie Claudius have little to do with his prodigious hockey skills, those that won him four Olympic medals (three golds and a silver) and led to him becoming the first man to play 100 matches for the Indian hockey team. His playing days were long over by the time I came of age. His final Olympic Games – Rome, 1960 – occurred before I was born.

Nevertheless he was a presence in my life, as a boy and an adult. He was a family friend, and I count his son Brandon as a buddy. More than that, Leslie Claudius was a legend of Kolkata and a lion of the Anglo-Indian community. He was everything we aspired to be – successful, genial and unfailingly polite. “Yanka”, his term of affection for younger people – and at 85, almost everybody was younger than him – reflected his eternal avuncular spirit. He was not just “uncle Les” to me; he was everybody’s uncle.

My most poignant memory of him is from 1978. His young and brilliant son Bobby (Robert), not yet 20 and just back from playing for the country in the hockey world cup, was killed in a motorcycle accident. It would have broken anyone. Leslie Claudius took it with a stoic and grace I can never forget. Deep inside, though, he never forgot Bobby, not for one day.

Leslie grew up in a railway colony in Bilaspur, learnt hockey in Kharagpur – both cities being Anglo-Indian bastions back in the first half of the 20th century – before settling in Kolkata. Here he worked and played for the Customs. Old habits die hard. So often I would see him at the races, taking a keen interest in horses but dressed impeccably in a white shirt and white trousers. I guess this was a throwback to his Customs days. I’d like to believe it also reflected the colour of his heart.

In January 2013, a world Anglo-Indian reunion is taking place in Kolkata and members of the community are coming from across the planet. Anglo-Indian achievers representing several disciplines are being honoured. Talking to the organisers I suggested they also honour an “Anglo-Indian of the Century”. The choice was unanimous: Leslie Claudius. We weren’t honouring him; he was honouring us by accepting.

Leslie had been ailing but seemed to be better when I met Brandon at the Dalhousie Institute on Wednesday (December 19) for Carol Singing Night, the informal inauguration of the Christmas season. His brothers, Leslie Jr. and Richard, would be home from Australia by 11.00 pm on Thursday evening, he said; “And by Christmas Eve we’ll all be having a drink.” Leslie’s boys would be home for Christmas. It must gladden the old man’s heart, I told myself.

It was not to be. On Thursday, at 3.30 pm, while his sons were en route, Leslie passed away. A man presented the Padma Shri in 1971 and the Banga Bhushan earlier this year had to answer to the Longest Whistle.

May he meet Bobby in the Field of Dreams.