Can one enter the soul of another person, understand him and the motives behind his actions well enough to piece together the story of his life? That was the predicament I faced once I was deep into decoding Mansur Ali Khan, alias Tiger Pataudi. Here was a man whose background — a prince, a Muslim who goes on to lead his country 14 years after Partition, a one-eyed batsman who competes with the best, gets married to a famous film star who is Hindu by religion, and has a son who is a heart-throb of cinema buffs today —lends itself to an intriguing, fascinating story.
It is also the story of his father, Iftikhar Ali Khan, who marries into a family of a higher status (the princess of Bhopal, who belonged to a much larger principality than Pataudi), has played for England and leads India in 1946 against those who have colonised his country. When the country is split into two, Iftikhar Ali Khan’s younger brother migrates to Pakistan but not the elder Nawab himself. The Partition leads to unimaginable fratricide where people kill each other in the name of religion.
Tiger’s father, who does his bit to douse the fire of hatred between the two communities in his small state of Pataudi in Haryana, dies a decade later while playing polo, while his son waits at home to celebrate his 11th birthday.
The story, with all its hair-pin bends and unlikely twists, takes the Junior Nawab to England at an impressionable age, where he grows up to become an outstanding cricketer. Just when he is being talked about as a batsman with the potential to become the very best the game has seen, our protagonist damages his right eye in a freak car accident and suffers from double vision after that.
Tiger’s tale acquires a new meaning in the larger context of the sub-continent’s cricketing politics, seen through an individual’s endeavour to fight against all odds that finally gives him the hallowed status of a man who paved the way for India to become a cricketing power one day.
This was the man who had promised to give me access to his life with the words, “Short of letting you enter my bedroom, I will answer all your queries.” It wasn’t easy. The man desisted from talking about himself and unless I did my research well, he would not open up.
Even when he did, it was more in monosyllables, verbosity being the last thing he would ever indulge in.
It took time, but we did develop a bond where he would be less and less reticent and talk about himself, his childhood, his life in England under the shadow of the Cold War, his cricket, his accident and his being a complete novice at captaincy when he led India for the first time.
The only time he broke into laughter, though it also betrayed traces of embarrassment, was when he talked about gifting Sharmila Tagore a fridge he had brought from England during their courtship.
And the rare instance when I could detect tears in his eyes was when he relived the trauma when the Babri Masjid was demolished.
He talked about his entry into politics, life after privy purses were abolished, his deep and abiding faith in a secular, plural society and in that context the reason why Sharmila converted to Islam.
There were many reasons why my interaction with him ended abruptly, the black buck hunting case, in which he was one of the accused, though he pleaded innocence, being one of them.
That apart, I also felt, no matter how much one tries, it is impossible and even unfair to recreate a life which you have not lived yourself.