BRITISH-Indian industrialist Lord Swraj Paul has revealed how he persuaded Muhammad Ali to fly from the US to New Delhi to meet Indira Gandhi – and described the encounter between the boxing champion and the Indian prime minister as “the greatest comes to meet the greatest”.
The meeting between the two heavyweights took place in 1980 just after Mrs Gandhi had been unexpectedly returned to power.
“Bringing Muhammad Ali to meet Mrs Gandhi was my way of paying tribute to her,” Lord Paul told Eastern Eye.
The steel tycoon’s memories of what happened 36 years ago came flooding back when he heard Ali had passed away at the age of 74 in Phoenix, Arizona last weekend. Ali’s funeral was due to take place on Friday (10) in his hometown of Louisville,
Mrs Gandhi, who declared a state of emergency in 1975, was turfed out of power in 1977 when the general opinion was she was finished for good.
“No one thought she could return,” said Lord Paul – or Mr Paul, as he then was.
But after the collapse of prime minister Morarji Desai’s coalition government, the Indian electorate brought Mrs Gandhi back to power – “nothing like this had ever happened before in history nor has it happened since”.
Glancing through the papers, an item caught Lord Paul’s attention. It was about a boxer called Muhammad Ali who was described as “the greatest”. He resolved somehow to fix a meeting two of the “greatest” people in the world.
“I got my friends in the US to contact him – I found he admired Mrs Gandhi from far away,” said Lord Paul.
Since Ali would spend quite some time away from home, he requested a fee which was quickly agreed (“a fortune for me at the time”).
Mrs Gandhi apparently had no idea about the guest who was coming round for a cup of tea at 1, Safdarjung Road, at that time the prime ministerial residence
in New Delhi.
“She was presented with a fait accompli,” chuckled Lord Paul, who is now 85, but who remembers all the details as though it had happened only yesterday.
Judging Mrs Gandhi’s body language accurately, Ali made no attempt to greet her with a kiss. He was entirely respectful and “the two got on very well – I was with Muhammad Ali the entire time he was in Delhi”.
Ali then flew to Bombay and Madras (Mumbai and Chennai as they are now) where he was taken in hand by Lord Paul’s late younger brother, Surinder.
Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan and his younger brother, Ajitabh, posed for a photograph with the boxer.
The boxer took part in good-humoured exhibition matches, posed with children and amused audiences with his distinctive brand of humour.
Ali was quick witted. He noted that on the way from the airport into town that he had passed Muhammad Ali Road. His audience erupted with delight as he joked: “I am happy to be in Bombay; I was driving here from the airport and came via Muhammad
Ali Road – you have already named a road after me.”
Lord Paul said: “Sadly, on that trip, there was no time for him to go to Calcutta. But before he left, he presented me with a pair of white boxing gloves. I had them all these years, I only gave them away recently to a charity called Piggy Bank Kids. It was raising money for a good cause.”
An Indian filmmaker made a significant contribution in enhancing the reputation of the boxing legend. Vikram Jayanti produced a 1996 documentary, When We Were Kings, which won an Oscar. This was based on the “the Rumble in the Jungle”, the historic boxing match in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) on October 30, 1974. Ali knocked down the then undefeated world heavyweight champion, George Foreman, just before the end of the eighth round. The fight is “arguably the greatest sporting event of the 20th century”.
A decade after his first trip, Ali did visit India for a second time. On this occasion, he was able to go to Calcutta (now Kolkata) at the invitation of a local football club, Mohammedan Sporting.
His death has received front-page coverage in Indian newspapers, as it has everywhere in the world. But there have also been surprisingly sharp pieces, comparing India’s pampered cricket icons unfavourably with Ali.
A typical comment piece by Debdutta Bhattacharjee was headlined: Why India’s sports stars like Sachin won’t ever come close to Ali’s greatness.
It is obvious that in very many ways, Ali spoke to a generation of young people in the subcontinent and across the south Asian diaspora. To them, his greatness extended beyond the boxing ring, important though that was.
“Perhaps more than his achievements in the boxing ring, what defined Ali was his stand against discrimination and war, and his support for civil rights in a socially turbulent and racially segregated America in the 1960s and 70s,” said Bhattacharjee.
“He was denied service at all-white restaurants. Even the Chamber of Commerce told him that it didn’t have time to co-sponsor a dinner after Ali returned from the Rome Olympics with gold.
“He had written in his autobiography The Greatest that he had thrown his Olympic medal into the Ohio river out of disgust, after a fight with a white motorcycle gang, which started when he and his friend were refused service at a Louisville restaurant
because of their colour,” noted Bhattacharjee. “The story may be apocryphal and Ali may have only misplaced the medal, but the point was made.”
His refusal to fight in Vietnam won him no friends. “If that wasn’t bad enough for the racist mainstream American society of the time, his refusal to be drafted into the army to fight in Vietnam was the last straw. ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,’ said Ali adding, ‘No Viet Cong ever called me n*****!’”
Ali’s words from 1970 has resonance to this: “They don’t look at fighters to have brains. They don’t look at fighters to be businessmen, or human, or intelligent. Fighters are just brutes that come to entertain the rich white people. Beat up on each other and break each other’s noses, and bleed, and show off like two little monkeys for the crowd, killing each other for the crowd.
“And half the crowd is white. We’re just like two slaves in that ring. The masters get two of us big old black slaves and let us fight it out while they be, ‘My slave can whup your slave.’ That’s what I see when I see two black people fighting.’”
“This was the extent of difficulties that Ali and others from his community faced, something which the Indian sportspersons, least of all the cricketers, can ever imagine,” Bhattacharjee pointed out. “They are mollycoddled and hero-worshipped
by most of us, we afford them the luxury of swanky cars and posh bungalows, we jump on anybody with all our might if he speaks even a word against our ‘cricket god’, we derive vicarious pleasure and satisfaction at the wealth they earn from brand endorsements, and are the first ones in the queue to buy those products.
“Without intending to belittle the struggles of our sportspersons of today, let’s say this: the way we put individuals like Sachin Tendulkar or Mahendra Singh Dhoni, for instance, on a pedestal is totally uncalled for,” remarked Bhattacharjee.
“The way we have been going gaga over Virat Kohli lately is also how it should not be. Cheering good performances is not wrong, but the way we go overboard with our admiration for sportspersons in India is. It will be tempered when you think long and hard about the difficulties Ali faced and defeated.”
This might be heresy, but another commentator, Sandeep Dwivedi, has also suggested that people like Tendulkar should learn from Ali and be prepared to speak out even at the risk of courting unpopularity.
According to Dwivedi, “What Ali was to the world, Tendulkar is to India. Their body of work, the precious heirloom that their respective nations flaunt, gave them the unconditional love of millions. Ali understood the power and responsibility that accompanied this love. He knew he could push the envelope and get away with it.
“His fans appreciated that Ali’s courage wasn’t confined only to the ring – even without gloves he could take on the non-boxing heavyweights. They were so indebted to Ali for being ‘anti-national’ and talking peace during those frenzied days of war, that they didn’t mind his occasional misjudgements.
“Tendulkar, too, has that licence, but either he isn’t aware of it or is too conservative to use it. He has told friends in private that he avoids taking stands since he doesn’t want to get dragged into controversies or offend people. But not speaking out and wasting a mandate that he has so diligently earned like Ali, is a bigger breach of trust.
“Except for that one statement where he said that ‘Bombay belongs to all Indians’ – an undeniable fact, but a stand Bal Thackeray didn’t want a Maharashtrian to take – Tendulkar has been a silent spectator during every emotive or divisive controversy
India has grappled with.
“A few years ago, there was hope when Tendulkar walked into the Rajya Sabha. After his stunningly articulate extempore farewell speech reduced Wankhede to tears, you saw potential. The House of Elders, you thought, would get to listen to the voice that commanded pin-drop attention at team meetings, solved dressing-room differences and drew awe in the cricketing world. That didn’t happen.”
In comparison, Dwivedi has argued, “take any prickly issue – religious, social or political – the heavyweight boxer never pulled his punches. In contrast, the pantheon of our sporting demi-gods – who called the late Ali their role model – is blind to the world outside the stadium.
“They have been hailed as innovators,glorified as visionaries, compared to gods, but they haven’t lent their wisdom to unravelling India’s complexities nor have they joined the knotty debates this diverse land throws up every day.
“Typing #MyHeroAli takes little time. But to be his real follower needs a lifetime of climbing up mountains and walking on fire.”