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Tom Alter, a man who batted straight

In life, as distinct from cricket, one is still best served by playing straight. That Tom Alter always did. He is gone, but memories of him as an actor, speaker, writer, cricketer and friend endure.

columns Updated: Oct 08, 2017 08:29 IST
Tom Alter in the play Lal Qile Ka aakhri Mushaira.  The actor, who passed away on September 29,  became an Indian citizen, and contributed enormously to the cultural life of his country.
Tom Alter in the play Lal Qile Ka aakhri Mushaira. The actor, who passed away on September 29, became an Indian citizen, and contributed enormously to the cultural life of his country. (Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times)

Sometime towards the end of 1973, I was playing for a Dehradun XI against a team from the hill station of Mussoorie, which included several members based at the mission settlement of Woodstock. We bowled second, I took a few wickets, but a bearded white man held out for a draw, blocking my best deliveries. As we walked off the field, honours even, I told the visitor, ‘For an American, you play with a straight bat’. He replied in Hindustani: ‘Aakhir yaar, cricket mé aur zindagi mé bhi straight bat ké saat hee khelna parta hai’ (My friend, in cricket as much as in life, one must always play with a straight bat). There were peals of approving laughter all around. I later learnt that he was studying at the Film and Television Institute of India in Puné, and that his name was Tom Alter.

I met Tom Alter perhaps half-a-dozen times thereafter. Our conversations were mostly about cricket. Once, in the 1980s, when the movement for a separate hill state of Uttarakhand was gathering steam, he joked that the state better be created soon, so that both he and I could become Ranji Trophy players. Later conversations turned on the heroes of our youth: Gavaskar, Bedi, Chandrasekhar and Viswanath of course, but also the great West Indians of that generation, Lloyd, Richards, Kallicharan, Roberts and company.

Tom Alter’s three loves were acting, the Urdu language, and cricket. The first two have been well documented in the obituaries that have appeared since his death, and the third has also featured, as in the lovely clip of Sachin Tendulkar’s first ever video interview, conducted by Tom, looking down indulgently on the little lad. These three loves were brought together in a fourth, which was of his country, India.

The term NRI stands for Non Resident Indian. Since these NRIs turned their back on the land that nurtured them, and since so many of them grumble so much about the condition of the country they left behind, they have sometimes been referred to as Non Reliable Indians. The wealthiest as well as the most unreliable of these NRIs are, of course, those who live in the United States of America. To those kind of expatriates I would like to juxtapose their exact opposite; Americans who made the reverse journey and settled in this country. These are the ARIs, or Americans Resident in India.

Americans have come to India since the 18th century, seeking fame and fortune as missionaries, businessmen, and soldiers. Arguably the first American to root himself in Indian soil, however, to serve and understand rather than to preach and exploit, was Tom Alter’s fellow Pahadi, Samuel (later Satyananda) Stokes. Stokes came originally as a Christian missionary, and based himself in what is now Himachal Pradesh; seeking to convert Indians, he was converted himself to India. He abandoned the Church, married a local girl, identified with Gandhi, and became a thoroughgoing Indian patriot.

Stokes was both a social reformer and a political activist. In the first capacity, he worked strenuously to abolish the system of forced labour, begar; in the second, he went to jail during the non-co-operation movement. But, being an American, he was also an entrepreneur; in which capacity he planted the first apple trees in the hills, laying the foundations of what is now a multi-million dollar industry. He lived and died in a wonderful wooden house he built in the village of Thanedar, with a view of the river Sutlej. His descendants include writers, scientists, schoolteachers and politicians, who have enriched the life of Himachal Pradesh and of India.

Stokes started as an American Resident in India, but over the years became another and better kind of ARI, an Always Reliable Indian. A slightly younger contemporary who underwent the same transformation was RR (Dick) Keithan. He came to India in the late 1920s to preach Christianity, but threw in his lot with the Gandhi-led freedom movement instead. For this act of trans-racial identification, Keithan was deported by the British authorities in the 1930s , and again in the 1940s. Both times he returned, to promote rural reconstruction and inter-religious harmony in the Tamil country. Long after his death, Dick Keithan remains a much admired figure among Gandhian social workers in South India.

Another remarkable American-turned-Indian is the sociologist Gail Omvedt. She came here in the 1960s, to write a doctoral dissertation on the non Brahmin movement in Maharashtra. She married a socialist doctor from Kasegaon, and became an Indian citizen. Omvedt is an authority on Phule and on Ambedkar, and has also written a pioneering study of Indian feminism. Her identification with Maharashtra is as complete as was that of Satyananda Stokes with Himachal Pradesh , or of Dick Keithan with Tamil Nadu.

Unlike the other ARIs profiled in this column, Tom Alter was born in India. But he chose to stay on, when — like other children of American missionaries — he could so easily have moved to the more secure and prosperous land of his forefathers. Going further against the grain, Tom became an Indian citizen, and contributed enormously to the cultural life of his country.

When Tom Alter and I first met in the 1970s the first cricket World Cup had not yet been played. The Indian Premier League lay many decades in the future. Now, in 2017, young cricketers are told that it does not always pay to play with a straight bat. But in life, as distinct from cricket, one is still best served by playing straight. That Tom Alter always did. He is gone, but memories of him as an actor, speaker, writer, cricketer and friend endure.

Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India

Twitter: @Ram_Guha

The views expressed are personal