A hero of two lands

Updated: Feb 11, 2020, 17:20 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

A former Indian-American squash champ and his journalist wife return to 'hospitable' Bombay to release his memoir at the same club where practice cemented a sporting career that gave the game its many firsts.

Anil and Jean Nayar
Anil and Jean Nayar

All things first, are never easily forgotten. But for former squash champ Anil Nayar, the first Indian to lift the Drysdale Cup in London in 1965, which was then, the de facto world junior championship tournament, memories of those glorious years often weighed on him. "It's difficult for sportspersons past their prime to reinvent themselves. There are very few who don't go through grief [after their careers have ended]," the 73-year-old says, remembering some of his landmark moments, in a telephonic interview from Miami Beach.

A few years ago, when Nayar's American wife, author and journalist Jean Nayar, on the insistence of their friend Khalid Ansari, decided to write his memoir, it didn't seem like an easy task. "During some of the early interviews that I did with him, I managed to get only bits of information." To make it easier for both of them, Jean asked her husband to write his thoughts down on things she felt were important for the book. "Once I gave him that assignment, the little gems of memories started unfolding," she recalls.

Anil Nayar on the courts at the Cricket Club of India, c. 1974
Anil Nayar on the courts at the Willingdon Club, c. 1974. Picture/Jimmy Tata

Lucky: A Portrait of a Legendary Indian-American Squash Champion, published by Sachin Bajaj of Global Cricket School, and which launches at the Cricket Club of India on February 13, traces Nayar's four decade-long sporting career that spanned two continents.

Nayar played squash at a time when the game, at least in India, was barely celebrated beyond the confines of sporting dens. He would soon emerge as the single-most popular face of the sport, not just here, but also in the US, where he won the men's national champion cup in 1969. That same year, he was also conferred with the Arjuna Award by the Government of India.

The first Indian squash team to compete in the world open amateur tournament in Australia in 1967. (From left) Sanjit Roy, Anil Nayar, team manager ARV. Peermohamed, Fali Madon and Dinshaw Pandole
The first Indian squash team to compete in the world open amateur tournament in Australia in 1967. (From left) Sanjit Roy, Anil Nayar, team manager ARV. Peermohamed, Fali Madon and Dinshaw Pandole

Born a few months before Partition, on October 13, 1946, in Chheharta, a rural town in the northwestern state of Punjab, Nayar and his family found a new home in the more "hospitable" Bombay. It's a city that Jean writes, would leave an indelible impression on him. His early years in the courts of CCI—it would in 2001, be named after him—where he trained under coach Yusuf Khan, would cement his Drysdale success, and later make him a hero of sorts at Harvard University, where he became the first Indian to captain the squash team.

The idea of writing a book on his illustrious career came to Jean 18 years ago, when she was visiting Mumbai. "There was a party hosted for Anil and me, by his brother. His old-time close friends had been invited. Everyone spoke to me about his squash accomplishments, which, of course, I knew. But, one of the people there told me that Anil was a hero to many people in India, and that the country was sorely in need of role models like him." That comment stuck with her. "It occurred to me that as a journalist, I should make an effort, to trace his legacy."

Nayar at Harvard after winning both the US intercollegiate and men’s national championships in 1969
Nayar at Harvard after winning both the US intercollegiate and men’s national championships in 1969

The fact that Nayar wasn't the kind to "toot his own horn", and was reserved about his life, meant that the nuggets were going to be a revelation to her, too. "When I started researching Anil's life, there were things I didn't know about. You spend 22 years with someone, and you think you know a lot. But everyone always has a part of their lives, which you don't find out about, until you knock on the door and open it. It wasn't like he was keeping it hidden; it's just that the opportunity to talk about those things hadn't presented itself."

As his biographer, Jean feels there were two spectacular moments in Nayar's sporting career. "Winning the Drysdale Cup, and being the first Indian to achieve that world champion status, was an incredibly important turning point for him. Another achievement, would have been winning the US nationals. It contributed to making him a legendary player."

Nayar, however, says the time he felt like a "player" was when he won the Indian nationals in 1964. "In the lives of most sportspersons, there is this one victory that gives you the confidence of calling yourself a player, and I think, it was this victory that allowed me to recognise that I could do well in the game. My coach, Yusuf Khan, also gave me a supreme compliment, when he compared me to the legendary [Pakistani] squash player Hashim Khan [he won the British Open seven times between 1951 and 1956]. It gave me the confidence in my ability to compete and beat the folks in England."

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