“Hey Daddy!”

BY JOYA LALL

“Hey Daddy! When are you coming home?”- the first line that comes to mind when thinking of both my older brother Dev and myself, as infants unable to understand why ‘Daddy’ was constantly away for so long! ‘This ‘Daddy’ was one of India’s then tennis representatives, constantly travelling both nationally and worldwide. According to Google, this ‘Daddy’ was in ‘the Indian ‘Davis Cup’ team from 1959 until 1973, competing in 41 ties and compiling a record of 52 wins and 32 losses.’

“In less than a week!” was the answer with a giggle, at a time when the rotary dial black telephone, now classified online as an ‘antique’, was in every home. A time also when voices effortlessly and subconsciously increased in volume, if and when speaking, on a 19th-century term: “trunk-call”!

The ‘Three Musketeers’ (ie: ‘Daddy’, Ramanathan Krishnan and Jaideep Mukherjea) would always return from their overseas tours, with ‘goodies’ for their families. These ranged from the regular ‘After Eights’ and ‘Polos’ to toy slot racing cars with tracks, of a scale of 1:64. Not to forget Barbie dolls and toy houses with furniture corridors, washing rooms etc. Barbie dolls unveiled round about then, mimicked glamourous stars of those times, such as Elizabeth Taylor. Boy! Were we lucky to get all the toys which at that time, were not even manufactured or available home in India.

‘Daddy’ would often have tall, fit and friendly international stars at parties hosted at home. Both Dev and my favourites were ‘Uncle Santana’ and ‘Uncle Illie’- as we recall both as two contrasts- one with a soft-spoken and gentle tone of voice and the other more experimental and fun-loving, even trying out a motorbike late at night, down our then ‘Camac Street’ in the then ‘Calcutta’! Let you guess which of the two were more adventurous!

No doubt, Dev and I would close our eyes extra- tight, lye extra still under our separate blankets, pretending to sleep, when our doting mother, known to many then as ‘Glamourous Georgie’, would peep into our bedroom, regularly checking on us, especially on the nights our ‘Daddy’ was due back from a tennis circuit. Even if fast asleep, I recall awaking to a slight peck on the cheek or forehead, a fresh aroma of after-shave, (perhaps why his memory comes to mind when viewing ‘Old Spice’ in the Supermarket now!) leading to a big scream and “welcome home Daddy” hug! We’d then be up those nights, till our eyes could keep open with both Dev and myself pushing each other until we were disciplined to “be fair and take turns to sit on Daddy’s” muscular yet comfortable lap! The Fred Perry shirts were his favourite, even for travel! No wonder much later, as a Pre-Primary Teacher which started just a decade ago, I’d mimic what was regularly done to us as infants!

“Let’s see if you’ve grown these last few weeks! Can you now sit on my lap without falling?”, Daddy would ask in the perfect tone and pitch. As a two, three and even five-year-old, I would listen attentively and nod enthusiastically, just to get the thrill of him separating his thighs while we took turns to sit on them, to make us feel as if we were falling! Funny how I’d do this for those eight-plus years, to my three- and four-year-old nursery students at ‘IELC’ Whitefield Bengaluru, who’d line up one behind the other methodically for their turn, even if tenth or maximum twelfth! Many would visit my class for the same thrill until the second term of the next year- Reception! Some are still in contact over Facebook and send their wishes for the new year!

The second seated position on ‘Daddy’ would be on his tough shoulders, being able to see both ‘living and non-living things’ instead of the usual view we had-of calves and thighs! I will never forget how I’d often grab a pair of trousers which looked similar to my ‘Daddy’s to look up and hear another voice- not his, say “Hello Darling! Afraid I’m not your Daddy! Daddy’s there, practising!” pointing to the first court after lifting me up so that I could view it! What a thrill even if somewhat embarrassing! “When’s he going to finish?” would be my regular question thereafter!

Once we reached the age of being able to hold a “real racquet”, both Dev and I happily and regularly presented our old toy racquets, together with so many other toys and books from Hamleys, to our now ‘Saint’- Mother Teresa’ whose home was ‘down the road’ from us. We’d spend all our energy climbing floors, visiting flats asking if they had any old clothes, toys, games, books etc to give to charity. Undeniably, we’d enjoy the exercise as always aimed to be able to jog like our father! Will never forget the day when our then ‘Mother Teresa’ touched my head saying “Bless you my dear!” making me wonder if the blessings meant, I’d be able to either go with or have ‘Daddy’ be away less!

At weekends, he’d have us accompany him to the Calcutta Race Course. The three of us would start off together hearing him say, “Ready, steady, go!”. Daddy would always affectionately take little steps in acting style letting me overtake him. I’d no doubt, put in my best, panting after less than fifty metres, whilst Dev would overtake and soon have me left with no view of either! Just those thick bushes on either side of me and grass everywhere, with an occasional head of a ‘maali’ pop up from the greens- no doubt understandably “scary” for an infant! But these caring “maalees” would always take me via a shortcut, resulting in a deep sigh of relief when I’d spot my sweaty, hardly panting, fit “Daddy” smiling and thanking them with the Gratitude of a discreet tip. That together with modesty, is what he always had! 

All childhood, had us view the love and admiration from every person we met whilst with ‘Daddy’. Venues such as chemists ‘Lallu’s besides ‘O. N. Mukherjee’ on Camac Street to ‘Jyoti Vihar’- our regular Sunday Dosa lunch with the close Lall and Sukhtankar family of cousins, undoubtedly would have his fans gasping for breath gazing at him. Some shops had us remember to say the magic word ‘Please!’. This resulted in each of us getting a packet of those delicious green round mint sweets and fudge- both chocolate and vanilla!  We’d wonder why he always had other customers at these shops, take out a paper asking for his signature gasping in awe at him! Autograph books were taken to tournaments in clubs. Young middle-aged and elderly ladies would gasp at ‘Daddy’ and coyly request for his autograph which he’d never decline!  It is amusing how ‘Wimbledon authorities’ have stated the fact openly, that this ‘Daddy’ was the first player who needed personal security guards on either side of him, to keep him safe from his fans!

“Premjit was a handsome dude and a great guy, apart from being India’s Number One Tennis Star…no wonder Georgie fell for him and vice versa…. they made a great pair! On and off Georgie and I kept in touch occasionally and carried on with our separate lives…. fond and unforgettable memories…. God Bless her!” are the words from a genius ‘Uncle’ who much later at the start of his career in then Calcutta, displayed his quiet discreet talent on the piano at ‘Trincas’ on Park Street, Calcutta, whilst ‘Aunty Pam’ (Pam Crain) with her popular husky voice, sang effortlessly in rhythm! Yes- Uncle Louiz Banks it was!

As wikipedia.org states, this ‘Daddy’ years later after an eventful life of hilly terrain, ‘died at his residence in Kolkata on 31 December 2008 after a prolonged illness’ Yes, ‘PremjitLall’ was ‘Daddy’s name!

Having been born into a family of ‘Sports’ and ‘Education’, Joya has over thirty years of experience in both teaching and personally enjoying the two subjects. Her work experience after starting in India continued for almost two decades in primary schools in London and in EFL summer-schools in Cambridge. Memories of her childhood, as the daughter of one of the country’s then top and most popular tennis players, are now being shared in her ‘short-story writing’. These are based on facts and touching memories which we hope you enjoy!