Tom Cleary Looks Back

by Tom Cleary


The Indian National Billiards Championship


Wilson Jones, who hailed from Bombay, became a national hero and his employer, Mr. Vissanji, invited my wife and me to visit that city. After three days of celebration at Calcutta we arrived at Bombay amid great excitement. We were met at Santa Cruz airport by dozens of Government officials, Mr. Vissanji and his family and many notable sporting personalities. A great fleet of limousines was made available to drive us all through the streets of Bombay. Nearly every thoroughfare was decorated with bunting and thousands of people thronged the streets. It was as if the President of the United States of America was arriving.


After a drive through the city lasting about two hours, we arrived at Mr. Vissanji's home to attend a banquet in honour of Wilson Jones' victory. After a wonderful evening, Mrs. Cleary and I were driven to the Bombay Cricket Club - the famous Brabourne Stadium - which was to be our home for the next seven days. Although playing billiards was not the purpose of my visit to Bombay, I was asked to give several exhibitions. I played on about ten occasions, but not once was Wilson Jones asked to play. At the conclusion of this visit, Mr. Vissanji presented me with a beautiful hand woven tablecloth. It had been hand sewn with hundreds of little mirrors interwoven. It was a beautiful piece of work and is still in use in my home.


At the end of my stay in Bombay I, and Mrs. Cleary, were given a send-off at the Palace at the Shah of Persia. This was a magnificent building constructed of white marble. The Shah only occupied the Palace on occasional visits to Bombay, but it must have cost an enormous amount of money to maintain the Palace as twenty servants were constantly employed there. Such is wealth! The proceedings commenced with an Indian luncheon served in the banquet room. About forty people were present, including some of the wealthiest residents of Bombay. No cutlery or crockery is provided to eat an Indian meal - one has to manipulate the food to the mouth with the thumb and first two fingers. The table setting provided each guest with a large banana leaf, about 24 inches in diameter. This was used as a plate and all food comprising the various courses was laid out on the banana leaf.


The main course was a mutton stew, flavoured with chilies, which was considered to be a great luxury, but it was almost impossible to eat it. Too add to my discomfort, I was extremely thirsty because of the heat, but the only beverage I felt it safe to drink was a soft drink served from a bottle. In Bombay at that time it was not possible to obtain beer or spirits as the State was subject to liquor laws which prevent the consumption of alcoholic drinks. I asked for a glass of lemonade and eventually, when I was feeling particularly parched, it was served to me. However, before I had time to take even a sip, the servant attending me accidentally dropped some food into the glass and thereupon removed it. I had to wait about half an hour before I was served with another glass of lemonade, and by that time the highly flavoured food had made me very thirsty indeed. Although Mrs. Cleary was quite hungry, she was unable to eat the food. She neatly folded the banana leaf around the food and explained to the servant that she could not eat because she had had a meal shortly before. In a foreign land such as India it is very difficult for the Westerner to fit in with the eating habits of the local people who, incidentally were always most hospitable and almost overwhelming with their kindness.


After leaving Bombay I journeyed to Madras, where previously I had been approached by the Madras Billiards Association officials by means of a somewhat flattering reception, accompanied by garlands of flowers for Mrs. Cleary. There was a purpose behind this cordial welcome as they wished me to play in the National Billiards and Snooker Championships which were to be held at Madras following the World Amateur Billiards Championship to be conducted at Calcutta. The officials were well aware that my entry in these events would be an additional draw card towards attracting spectators, as at the time of the invitation I was the reigning World Champion. This interlude meant a further stay of 21 days in India, and as my wife had not seen Madras I decided to accept the invitation to play in the "Nationals", as they are called. However, I informed the Madras billiards officials that I would compete only under certain conditions:

  1. That first-class accommodation was provided for me and my wife.
  2. That I be granted an allowance of 3 a day.
  3. That I be provided with two plane tickets from Calcutta to Madras.


Upon arriving at Madras after the completion of the world's championship series at Calcutta we were driven to the Air Lines Hotel, where we were provided with second-class accommodation - not at the beautiful Conamara Hotel which I had hoped for. I immediately contacted Mr. Nardu, Secretary of the Madras Billiards Association who informed me that he had been unable to obtain accommodation at the Conamara. Later I discovered that his was not true. I had become very friendly with Sam Banerjee, of Calcutta, who was a competitor at Madras and who was staying at the Conamara at his own expense. He informed me that there were plenty of vacancies at that hotel - so the first condition I had imposed on the Madras officials was not met. Sam came from a very wealthy family and at this time was a considerable help to me. As he was about to leave the Conamara Hotel each morning on his way to practice he would phone me and arrange to pick me up in his taxi outside my hotel, thus saving me some little expense.


At the time of our visit to Madras it so happened that Marshall Tito was also visiting that city. One morning, when my wife and I were waiting outside the hotel for Sam to pick us up, there emerged from the crowd in the streets two young girls, no more than 19 years of age, who came up to us and shouted "You imperialist pigs!" and then spat in our faces. My wife was angry and wanted to remonstrate with the girls, but I immediately ushered her into the hotel. We felt that the insult was unwarranted, but no doubt all white people fell into the same category so far as the girls were concerned. However, my wife was extremely upset by the incident and, on the following day, became very ill with a high temperature. The manageress of the hotel called in a doctor and eventually engaged a nurse who scarcely left my wife's side for three days. After about ten days Mrs. Cleary's temperature returned to normal and she slowly regained her health.


On another occasion when Sam Banerjee called at my hotel to pick me up I recall noticing six very well-built young men pulling along the road a dray carrying a load of jute. I remarked to Sam, "They do it the hard way here". He replied "How much money do you think they earn?" He then continued, "In your money it is eight pence per day. Why, a traffic policeman only received eighteen pence a day". Such is life in India!


Before the National Championships I practiced for one hour each morning at 8 o'clock. At several of these practice sessions I noticed in the audience an attractive young girl who seemed to be very interested in what I was doing on the table. One morning when a suitable opportunity presented itself she politely asked me if I gave coaching lessons, to which I replied "do you play?" She said "I mainly play snooker, but have made a break of 82 at billiards, also a 59 at snooker". I was mildly astonished at this and invited her to play a few shots on the table. Thereupon she produced her own cue and proceeded to play billiards. A set of snooker balls was then produced and I placed the coloured balls on their respective spots. From in hand she then potted the six colours. Her stance, bridge and cue action were well nigh perfect, in the style of Joe Davis. I enquired how much practice she was able to get, and she replied "not as much as I would like. It is hard to get a game as there is not much opportunity here for girls to play". She went on to explain that her father owned a billiard table, but after his death it had been sold.


It is interesting to contemplate what effect an outstanding woman player would have in the field of male competition in both billiards and snooker today. However, I venture to say that if this girl, whose name was A. Kamala Devi, could have been given suitable coaching she would have defeated British women players, including Joyce Gardner and others equally well known. Later I discovered that this girl was an actress and entertainer who performed on All-India Radio. On one occasion she took my wife and I on a visit to the radio station where she played for us a number of her recordings. Unfortunately, I have not heard of her since that time. Perhaps she gave up playing billiards and snooker because of lack of opportunity and encouragement.


The National Snooker Championship was to follow the Billiards Championship and competitors included Wilson Jones, who had just won the world's Amateur Billiards Title, and Rafik Dina, both of whom represented Bombay. Other competitors were Sam Banerjee, from Calcutta, T. Salvaraj and V. Freer, from Madras, Mohamad Lafir, from Ceylon, and myself. Wilson Jones and I were seeded No. 1 and 2 in the billiards series, the other competitors not being given much chance of success - and thus it was proved. However, my semi-final match with Salvaraj was a thriller. Between the illness of my wife and the constant demands made upon me to play billiards I had become a little "browned-off", and was not producing my best form in the match. Although Madras was a "dry" area, the President of the Billiards Association conveyed a message to me asking if I would like a "reviver". It was apparent that the officials wanted me to appear in the Final against Wilson Jones, as that would ensure a good attendance. Within a couple of minutes of my indicating that I would like a drink I had passed to me a soft drink bottled containing whisky and water. The spectators naturally thought the bottle contained a non-alcoholic beverage, but after a couple of nips I felt like a new man. Soon afterwards I compiled a break of 373, which enable me to win the match.


In the meantime, Wilson Jones had won his way into the Final, but to my dismay he suddenly reported that he was ill, and announced that he was unable to play in the Final. Immediately the officials were in a state of panic. They were hoping for a full house and a good gate for the final match. The doctor who attended my wife during her illness was called to examine Wilson Jones, and he later confided to me that, in his opinion, Jones was not ill. After persuasion from the officials, Jones eventually consented to play, but he performed as though he were a sick man. Eventually I defeated him in the Final by over 500 points, thus winning the All-India Amateur Billiards Title.


The snooker championship series followed immediately, the same players taking part. After some excellent snooker from all players, I made the Final to meet M. Lafir, of Ceylon. The match was of seven frames, to be won by Lafir in the last frame when he potted the pink ball. I made the best break of the series with an 83. It proved a successful championship series for me as I won four of the five trophies contested - the All-India Billiards Title, Highest Billiards Break of 373, Runner-up in the Snooker Title and Highest Snooker Break of 83. These trophies are still displayed in my trophy cabinet at my home, together with many others I have won over the years.