New Delhi: It’s been six years now, and I can’t seem to locate the house. We’ve been going round in circles for half-an-hour, and the auto driver is getting irritated. But I don’t want to give up – this might be my last chance to meet Prakash Nath.
To those outside the loop: Prakash Nath was best-known for reaching the All England final in 1947 – the first Indian in the final of that great tournament. The story of how he got to the final has been retold many times, but it is worth repeating: Prakash Nath and his teammate Devinder Mohan had reached Harringay Arena in London on a bitterly cold March morning after several days spent travelling from Lahore to Europe. The two Indians were so confident of their abilities that they expected to face off for the title, but to their surprise, they were drawn in the same quarter. The referee, Herbert Scheele, wouldn’t budge despite their protestations, and so, having won their opening round matches, they resolved to toss a coin to decide who would progress into the semifinal.
Indian badminton fans knew Prakash Nath and Devinder Mohan as the purveyors of different styles of badminton. While Nath was a classy strokemaker, Mohan was a powerful hitter, and the rivalry between the two had been close. In the five years from 1942 to 1946, the national title had gone to either Nath or Mohan.
Prakash Nath won the toss, won his semifinal match, and entered the final against Conny Jepsen of Sweden.
Six years ago, as I sat with him, I asked Prakash Nath if it’d been ethical to toss a coin instead of playing that quarterfinal match. “It made no sense to tire each other out,” Prakash Nath told me. “We knew each other’s game inside out. Our aim was to win the trophy. Devinder bore no ill-feeling towards me after I won the toss and played the semifinal. We were friends throughout our lives.”
Nath could probably have taken the title had he not chanced upon a newspaper on the morning of the final. It spoke of riots in Lahore – indeed, it named the very street where he was from – and Nath’s world collapsed like a house of cards. Lahore was burning due to Partition riots. He sleepwalked through the final, devastated. When he eventually got back to Lahore, the place was a ghost town. His house had been ransacked.
Sitting in Delhi that February of 2006, Nath’s eyes bore that faraway look, as if it had all been just a week ago. Lahore had been such a beautiful city and had bred champion sportsmen. The family was well-to-do. All of it had been destroyed. Like many other refugees, Nath would relocate to Delhi. He started to rebuild his life, and within a few years would build a successful company of electrical products.
He never touched the racket again. His wife told me that nearly 50 years or so later, a young relative returned to that house, and he saw a few young men playing badminton with Prakash Nath’s rackets.
The Nath family treated me well that day. After a morning spent reminiscing memories of half-a-century, they treated me to a fine lunch. I bid goodbye after taking a grainy picture of Prakash Nath.
I haven’t heard from him since. This time I was determined to check on him.
I finally recognized the lane. It looked different; less leafy than last time. I ring the bell and a man in his forties steps out. I ask for Prakash Nath.
“He passed away four years ago,” says the man, who recognizes me from my last visit. “What can I say? He was a good man.”
I’d been prepared for this news, but it still hits me. One of India’s foremost badminton players — among the first generation of Indian internationals — had died in virtual obscurity.