Farewell, Gaja-da

GAJANAN HEMMADY, the former Indian doubles player ranked no.4 in the world, died early on 19th October. I got to know only yesterday.

I was listening to some tapes of his interviews when I got a call from SS Mani, the former Treasurer of the Badminton Association of India. It was just a courtesy call, and then he mentioned Mr Hemmady’s death.

Hemmady was part of the golden era of Indian badminton, having reached the final rounds of the 1952 and 1955 Thomas Cup. In 1952 the Indians beat Denmark and lost 4-5 to USA; while in 1955 they beat the US and lost to Denmark. Hemmady had established a famous combination with Monoj Guha; the two had a nearly unbeaten record in Thomas Cup competition. In 1955 they lost to the All England champions, Finn Kobbero and Hammergard Hansen, after leading 11-3 in the first game. “Kobbero single-handedly won that tie for Denmark,” Hemmady told me. “He beat Nandu (Natekar) in the singles; in the doubles we were were comfortably ahead. At 11-3 I made a mistake. I’d noticed him inching forward while preparing to receive my serve, and so I flicked back. Unfortunately, it went out, and from then on, Kobbero controlled the game.”

But my association with Hemmady goes beyond what he meant as a player. I was working on Prakash Padukone’s biography, and I landed in Calcutta at 10pm. Hemmady had been waiting for my call. He’d arranged with his friend Subhas Mantri for my accommodation at Maharashtra Nivas.

Early the next day, I got word that he was waiting downstairs. I go down and – there he was, walking stick and all, and a wide grin. “Dev Sukumar!” he says. “I’ve been waiting for you!”

He hugged me warmly and took me by the hand. “Come,” he said. “I have lots to tell you!” A hand-pulled rickshaw was waiting outside, and we sat on it. Magical. This was the first I’d seen of Calcutta – the traffic whizzing by, the rickshaw-puller weaving his way through it, and one of the pioneers of Indian badminton sitting by my side. He pointed to Maharashtra Nivas. “That’s where I used to play badminton with Vijay Madgaokar.”

Madgaokar. I felt I’d been hit by a lightning bolt. Vijay Madgaokar – the first national champion, 1934! This man had played alongside him! And right through that short journey to his house, I had the biggest smile in the world… I’ve never felt closer to heaven.

The next ten days, I talked badminton as I never have. We talked morning, afternoon and night. It would be late, around 10, that I would take leave and walk back to the Nivas. He told me the grand old tales of Indian badminton – of George Lewis, of Devinder Mohan, of their first Thomas Cup trip to Canada in 1949, of playing badminton on the deck of the ship; of playing friendly matches against the Canadians; of his visits to Thailand and Singapore, and Chee Choong Keng and Samuel and Dorai and the early greats of Malayan badminton. Of Nandu Natekar and TN Seth and Suresh Goel and the young Prakash Padukone.

Oh what days I spent in Calcutta. What a happy man he was – what a great raconteur, telling grand tales of badminton and the men and women who had played the game. What a memory he had – he could recall with exactness dates and months. And what a jolly bloke he was – always painting his stories with grand flourishes of his hands, and ending with a loud guffaw!

What colourful tales! Of how the women in Canada took to him, how they fell in love with him; how he once played a game in Jaipur after downing a few glasses of champagne and started seeing three or four shuttlecocks!

He was in pain. He had a varicose vein problem, and his leg was hurting. He was trying homeopathy, and he could walk only a step at a time, stopping every few metres to recover his breath. But he never complained. He talked as if he would get well soon and things would be normal once again. He took me all over town, to Dilip Ghosh’s house, to Monoj Guha’s house; to Romen Ghosh’s house. We talked badminton in the taxis, on the stairways, on the streets.

He lived a full life. He’d played and loved and lived. He’d excelled in his job as engineer, even fashioning his own weighing machines that became famous all over the country. When I last met him, in July this year, he’d become much weaker, but he recognized me. He got a call on his mobile, and then I recognized the Hemmady of old. “My dear,” he said into the phone, “if you look as sweet as you speak, I would love to meet you. But I’m afraid I can’t move around much.”

The caller was from a credit card company. He’d always had a thing with women. As he once said of his partner Monoj Guha: “Monoj lived only for badminton; I lived for everything. I had a thousand girlfriends – how could I concentrate on badminton?”

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About badmintonmania

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the Indian in Thoreau's Walden who makes cane baskets and is surprised nobody wants them. A. was talking about discipline when she said: "But Dev, if you want to move ahead in life, you'll have to be like that," and she may as well have defined everything else for me. I've played the low percentage game for too long to believe there's anything in it but the romance; the odds keep getting jacked up higher and higher; and you may be a good Idealist but a worse Fool.
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