Recently I have been in touch with my old friend Mansour Bahrami who brought back memories of decades ago which started in the obscure but rather beautiful mountainous region of Assam in the city of Guwahati.
Assam is perhaps the only Indian province that one could not reach by train or bus from India itself because independent Bangladesh, which separates the two, at the time restricted such traveling.
In a way the Assam region sitting at the foot of the Himalayan mountains with Bhutan and Tibet just north of it, had the same kind of air I was used to in the high plateaus of the African Manica region where I was born.
This was my first experience in the Indian circuit and continent although like India my native Mozambique is also blessed with the warmth and beauty of the Indian Ocean.
My decision to come to India was purely economical, a month previous to that I had just finished a stint of a series of ATP qualifying tournaments Barcelona, Teheran (qualifying played in Barcelona), Vienna, Stockholm and Oslo where I played some pretty close match in the main draw against Jeff Borowiak (USA) (link).
After arriving in Madrid I realized there was no way I wanted to go back to post revolution 25th of April Portugal. The Indian Circuit became more and more attractive as I saw myself without practicing for almost a month in Madrid and India offered me cheap tournaments with traveling, hospitality and expenses paid throughout.
After a few tele-faxes with the India Federation, I took a plane to Paris applied for a Visa at the Indian embassy, which was granted immediately (surprise, surprise, Portugal had no diplomatic ties with India since 1962). As a matter of fact in December 15th 1974 I was the first ‘Portuguese’ to set foot in India since 1961 to represent Portugal in official international competitions in India.
India and Portugal signed an agreement in New Delhi on December 31, 1974, which provided for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the countries and for Portuguese recognition of Indian sovereignty over Goa, Damao, and Diu. India lifted the trade ban against Portugal on January 2, 1975. The Portuguese President only in 1992 visited Goa.
To make my part of the story short, I am going to tell you getting to Guwahati was some sort of a miracle.
The trip from Paris to Bombay was uneventful and a chauffeur was waiting for me at the airport to take me to Mr. Jimmy Metha’s penthouse in the middle of Bombay. Here I must say Jimmy, like he asked me to treat him, and his charming wife were the most fantastic hosts I ever would have in 14 years of playing tennis. I much regret that Jimmy died a few years later on a plane accident in India.
After two days of rest in Bombay, I took the plane to Calcutta and here things really became interesting.
At the airport I took a taxi to the Calcutta Gymkhana Tennis Club, were the All India Eastern Grass Courts Tennis Tournament was being held.
Sure enough the taxi driver did know a few words of English but Bengali was his forte. After a nightmarish cab drive all over Calcutta (which gave me a small understanding of the song ‘Oh Calcutta!’) finally we arrived at the Tennis Club at about 22:00hrs in the evening.
Sure enough tournament organizers, restaurant, whatever closed just a bunch guys sitting in a large room enveloped in a cloud of smoke, reminiscent of a scene from one of Indiana Jones in a bar in Bhutan.
All I could get from that nonchalant group was the name of the players hotel and fortunately, I had told the cab driver to wait and I hopped back into it and on our way to the hotel (so I thought). After possibly having driven through all possible dark alleys in Calcutta, the driver finally confessed that he could not find the Hotel.
At this point I was exhausted and told him to go back to the tennis club, but I half English, half sign language he indicated to me that he wanted me to come to his house.
Reluctant but with no other choice, I accepted and surprise in less than 5 minutes we were at his house. In the poorly lit street I could identify a modest old brick building. I knew I was possibly in a slum somewhere in Calcutta, but I had no choice I could not walk out of the cab with 12 tennis rackets, a tennis sports bag and a suite case at about 2 in the morning, what would my chances of coming out alive of the slum, zero? Yes!
After paying the driver, I went into the house which was unlit, he touch signaled for me to wait, while he went to another room and there was some sort of commotion with many murmuring voices and than silence. The driver came to me and lead me into a room where there was a small span near a window where he indicated I could sleep there.
Sleep I thought? No way! So for the next 3 or 4 hours I had one of the most scary sleepless nights of my life. A large shadow of a person approached the place were I was at but every time I felt it coming I stood up in defensive mode and it went away.
Lucky or not I survived the night and at about 5:30 in the morning the sunlight started to show its warm colors, and the house, which later on I was able to find out, was about 50 or 60 square meter in 3 divisions.
The wife of the driver dressed in a simple sari and 3 little children and others came to the room and looked at me in wonderment. Perhaps thinking, either this guy has the testis of an elephant or is completely nuts!
So with sign language and a few English words the wife expressed her desire to offer me breakfast.
What came next almost brought tears to my eyes (it still does today). The woman made eggs, toasted some bread, gave me milk while the children watched. I ate thinking at every bite, these people are giving me the best they have and perhaps depriving themselves to do so.
Pulled out my vitamin c container from my bag and asked for ‘pani’ (meaning water in Hindi, I had learned it in Bombay) tossed an effervescent tablet into the water and I saw the kids eyes growing enormous. Of course 3 other glasses/cans came and large smiles and huge Shukrias (thank you) were expressed.
It must have been those kids first high, because after that they were running all over the place like the rabbit in the never ending battery commercial!
Yes, those people were poor, perhaps even abject poor but, in the end they were more generous to me than any rich man or woman I ever met there after, they gave me all they had, the best they had.
That was the most important lesson I learned in India and perhaps in my entire life, hospitality, generosity, selfishness, giving more than you can give.
In the end I gave some money and a few T-Shirts to the family and with tears in my eyes I said ‘Shukria’.
Went back with the taxi driver to the Calcutta Gymkhana Tennis Club, this time the tennis federation organizers were there and I was able to get all the info I need for Guwahati and I decided to fly the same day there.
In my trip from the Guwahati airport I saw a very tall fellow with very long light brown almost blond hair and a beard a true Jesus the Christ look a like, wadding in the middle of a stream.
Later on I found out it was Jim Logan an American who had adventured with his friend Arlo Elkins to cross the Afghanistan desert by camel and bus into Pakistan! Perhaps something worthy of Rudyard Kipling’s short story, ‘The man who would be king’.
Wow! After that my little adventure in Calcutta was not even worth to mention!
More surprises were to come included that some tennis players went to India just for the ‘pleasures’ of Indian grass, which I hated from the moment I smelt it coming out of one of their rooms.
Fortunately my friend and doubles partner Ross Hewitt an Aussie was not interested in that kind of stuff or any drugs at all so we were just fine.
Now, after well over a month without playing tennis, to my delight after a good night rest the next day I walked again on a tennis court. Well, a cow dung tennis court!
What a contrast just coming, from indoor tournaments like Vienna Open (carpet), Stockholm Open fast synthetic court, Oslo Open (Wood!), now relatively slow Cow Dung, goodness me, with just two days to get ready!
Well you do what you can do, so no complaining, shut up, practice, meet the other players, be friendly and enjoy the ride.
That’s in the Guwahati Assam Hard Courts Championships that I met my good friend Mansour Bahrami.
A young fellow at the time 19 years old, looking more like a mature 24 year old, with the build of an ox, hairy as a bear, with a large mustachio covering a gregarious smile and large forehead underscored by two dark brown playful eyes with an incredible ‘lust’ for a show or two.
The ‘court jester’ so many now know from TV and at club exhibitions, myself and all other players on the circuit got to know on a daily basis.
Not withstanding our friendship started on the battle field, the tennis court we were drawn against each on the Guwahati tournament.
Our match almost did not start, cow dung tennis court surfaces are redone with liquid cow dung of course and the lines repainted with liquid chalk twice a day, early in the morning and at mid-day.
The court ‘the center court’ we were to play on, was just ‘freshly’ done that morning. As usual in my natural attacking attitude and aggressive play I started warming up close to the baseline line.
Not even five minutes into the warm-up disaster happened, I slid onto the still wet line and fell forward and with the momentum of the fall, I managed to scratch both of my knees on the ground ned in the next