By Basab Dasgupta
In my younger days in India, many people liked to collect autographs of famous people. Those were items of pride that one could show to friends and neighbors as proof that one had indeed met that person.
This activity could also turn out to be an investment if a signed photograph or book of a celebrity increased in value over time. The effort needed was modest: to know someone who could arrange a way for meeting with celebrities and purchase an “autograph book”.
I got involved in this “hobby” during my high school years when the entire Mohun Bagan (MB) soccer team came to play the ChandanNagar Sporting Union (CSU) team in my hometown, Chandan Nagar.
Chuni Goswami’s uncle lived there and his elder brother, Manik, used to regularly play for CSU in a local league. It was some special occasion and CSU used the Goswami brothers’ connections to persuade MB to come to town.
I knew some officers of CSU and managed to get into the club house with a small white note pad after the game which MB won by a lop-sided 7-0 margin. I was awed to see players like Jarnail Singh, Thangaraj, Arumainiyagam, Kempya, Narsia and others in addition to the Goswami brothers in close proximity. Many of these players had participated in the 1960 Rome Olympics. That was the last time the Indian soccer team qualified to play in the Olympics. They were all very nice to oblige me with their autographs which filled up several pages of my note book.
Subsequently, I attended musical performances by artists like Tarun Banerjee, Nirmalendu Chaudhuri and Dwijen Mukherjee and got backstage to gather their signatures. I was always on the hunt for famous people – movie actors, political leaders, well-known athletes, prominent figures in the academia etc. –who visited our town and tried to find a way to face them.
After I started attending college in Kolkata, I kept mum about this hobby because I was afraid that my classmates would consider this to be childish nonsense, even though Kolkata offered many more opportunities to see and meet famous people. One day I found out that my classmate Mohammad Kamal Hussein (MKH), also shared this passion of autograph collecting.
Coincidentally, an international cricket team, composed of players from different countries was in town to play the Indian team at the famous Eden Gardens on occasion of the platinum jubilee of Mohun Bagan club around that time. MKH and I decided that it was worth the effort to see if we could collect autographs of some of these famous players.
Most of the players were reportedly staying at the Great Eastern Hotel, not too far from the Eden Gardens and we thought that the hotel would be the best place to corner the players. So, one day during this cricket match, MKH and I went to this famous hotel after our classes. We immediately realized that just getting into the hotel would be a major challenge!
We noticed that every time a hotel guest was leaving and boarding a car or a taxi, the guard would make sure to follow him/her to the car in order to get an appropriate tip. This was a momentary window of opportunity for us. Next time, he followed a guest, and we sneaked in!
So far so good, but now what? I told MKH that my first target would be Garfield Sobers, the player whom I absolutely idolized. I knew by heart his statistics of career test runs, number of centuries, number of wickets, number of tests, highest score and many other details. I had watched him play on a couple of occasions and his all-around capabilities on the field amazed me. MKH had no objection.
We asked a bellboy for Sobers’ room number and had to tip him a few bucks to get that information.
We knocked on Sobers’ door. I was in a state of euphoria that I would meet my hero face to face in a few seconds and get his autograph. He opened the door. I do not know who he was expecting, but he was clad only in his boxer shorts and the rest of his muscular body was just gleaming. As soon as he saw us, he just slammed the door on our face.
That was disheartening, but we continued our stroll through the hotel corridors. It seemed that several players were housed in the wing where Sobers was staying. One door was ajar and we saw Chandu Borde and Hanumant Singh conversing with two Bengali women wearing gorgeous saris; apparently the women were trying to teach them Bengali. Unlike Sobers, they were very friendly and signed our autograph books.
We cornered Salim Durrani and also tracked down Peter May and Nawab of Pataudi for their autographs. There were a few other players signing our books but I do not remember who they were. All in all, it was an exciting adventure, but I gave up this hobby shortly after that evening. Perhaps it was the disappointment at the way Sobers treated us or perhaps it was the realization that I had better things to do with my time than chasing famous people using trickery and lots of patience.
However, I will cherish the memory of one incident for the rest of my life. I was visiting Shanti Niketan with my family. My father was an assertive man and knew how to get things done. During our visit he asked some local person if he knew where Nandalal Bose, the famous artist lived. He indeed knew and gave us directions to his house. My father instructed our driver to drive straight to Mr. Bose’s house. We arrived at the house of such a famous and well-respected man with our whole family completely unannounced.
During my professional life, it became more appealing to me to be able to converse with famous people, even for a few minutes, rather than silently getting their signatures. I did have opportunities to talk to famous people like political leaders Benazir Bhutto and Bob Dole, physicists Eugene Wigner and S. Chandrashekhar, comedian Dennis Miller, ex-CEO of GE Jack Welch and ex-President of Sony Kunitake Ando.
I miss my autograph-hunting days. There was an intimacy involved in someone writing their names on a piece of paper that belongs to me which is not present in other interactions.
Basab Dasgupta has a doctorate in physics from University of Wisconsin and worked with Sony as Vice President of an operating division. Retired, he now lives in San Clemente, CA.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times