By Arul Mani
When we passed Std IV and went upstairs to V D, there were three people left behind from the previous year. These were chaps who had failed the final exam, and everybody avoided them for the first few weeks as if failure was a disease you could catch. Of the three, Mohammad Yahya was what they called a stylo. His hair was carefully slicked back in what would later come to be known as Disco Cutting. He wrote only with Hero pens, and always had two clipped to his breast-pocket. His shirts were freshly pressed, and his spectacles would turn a golden-brown two minutes after he put them on. He rode to school on a snazzy bicycle. Somebody pointed it out to me and said 'tenspeed' in the same way people said Taj Mahal or Qutub Minar. Yahya was equally fastidious in speech, and chose his words and the people he spoke to very carefully. So he barely spoke in class and had no friends.
I was assigned to sit next to him in Std VI. I noticed on every one of his notebooks, and on the surface of the desk a calligraphed two-word inscription and on a wild surmise, I said Mohammed Ali, and he smiled for the first time, and said nothing.
The next day he showed me a scrapbook full of pictures of Ali. There must have been over two hundred, cut out of newspapers and magazines, most of them grainy and black-and-white and revealing who the hero was only by his teeth. Over the year that we spent in the last bench, we had only two kinds of conversations--about Ali's style, and about boxing. Yahya failed again that year, and our conversations came to an end.
I never pointed out that he had made a mistake with the inscription. He spelt it Never Last, and while I wondered why he did that, I never asked. I had the flavour of a personal motto, and I thought it best left alone.
I recognised his inscription only because of an afternoon in summer 1979. School had just ended, and on the first day of vacation my father took me to his college, and I sat at his table and played with the paperweights while he went away to take his morning lectures. He then introduced me to his principal, a scary woman named TK Nagambal, and after several minutes of polite conversation, took her permission to take off for a couple of hours to the British Library with me. We left, and spent barely ten minutes there, and then we cycled to Pallavi Theatre, and stood in line for five minutes for tickets. There were no hoardings or posters up, just a title reading The Greatest. It was only two minutes into the film that I realised what the film was about, and how carefully he had engineered the surprise.
I loved the film. I ignored all the conversations. They spoke English too fast and too funny for me. I just waited for the fights, actual footage from his many bouts, and parked myself on the edge of the seat in those moments and shrank into myself every time he got hit, and laughed out loud once when somebody he punched went pultying across the ring. In all these fights, his shorts bore the name EverLast which I took to be some kind of signature statement. We then went and belted a South Indian meal at Woodlands down the road. I know it was Pallavi because I looked out at some point and saw a big tank with water in it, and asked him if it was a swimming pool. No, Kanteerava, he said. While we cycled back, he said if Nagambal asks, don't tell her about the film. I nodded. Years later, I would find that my favourite falsetto song, The Greatest Love of All, a la Whitney Houston, was actually written for this film. I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry.
Will historians of the Seventies in India have room for moments like this, and the love from afar they typify, for this great love built out of very little? Ali spoke to Yahya in some form. My own enthusiasm for the man was one that I inherited from my father. Both these came out of an essential paucity--paragraphs in the daily newspaper, or the occasional photograph. I remember a morning when my father and I both jumped up and down in the air while repeating the day's headline: Ali Beats Spinks. For inhabitants of the farthest reaches of the mediaverse then, this paucity of material to read or look at sat in an inverse relationship to the inspiration that we seemed to derive from the man and his lip--whether it was a Muslim boy making his way gingerly through a Christian school, or the village-boy in the city that my father continues to be.
Through the 1970s, Ali was on a poster on every boy's wall, and everybody had their own special Ali story scrounged from some private moment of reading or just their imagination. I found his autobiography in the local library years later, and borrowed it to read several times, and wondered what his gold medals were doing at the bottom of that river, and what it would be like to find them. My first copy of the Manorama Year Book had a special boxed feature on Ali's greatest fights, including one with a wrestler named Antonio Enoki. When my parents gave me a copy of the Bournvita Quiz Book, a process that involved saving tinfoils from several tins over several months, I was quite frankly meh. Till the day I opened it at random at a page where Ali was snarling over Sonny Liston. That's how I began reading it--to find out what they had said about him.
AIR Bangalore had a listener's choice programme at lunchtime on Sundays, and during that decade this song by Johnny Wakelin titled Black Superman would blare extra loud from every house every week. I used to know it by heart.
(The author is an English lecturer in Bengaluru. This article was originally published by the author on his Facebook page and has been reproduced here with permission.)