Past Masters of Indian Badminton: Damayanti Tambay's endless wait and a career curtailed by love
Damayanti's aviator husband, Flt-Lt Vijay Tambay, was lost in action during a skirmish on India’s north-western border during the Indo-Pakistan conflict of 1971, and his body was never found
Editor's Note: Owing to the Coronavirus outbreak, all sporting action across the globe stand suspended or cancelled. The crisis, however, presents us with an opportunity to step back, rethink, and write on sports differently. In line with this thought, we are starting a series of profiles on India's illustrious badminton stars. The articles, penned by Shirish Nadkarni, promise to take you on a nostalgia trip while touching upon the lesser-known facets from the lives of the past masters.
Believe it or not, there are three Indians who have the All-England singles winner’s original medal in their possession. Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand, by virtue of their victories in 1980 and 2001 respectively, are widely known to be two of them. But the third?
The winner's medal, representative of the ladies’ singles triumph in 1966 at the world’s premier badminton tournament, is in the possession of Damayanti Subedar-Tambay, whose own blossoming career was cut short by her own hands at the age of 23, when she had already won the National women’s singles title three times in a row.
How did that precious medal land in Damayanti’s hands when she had been to the All England just once as a teenager, and did not get beyond the third round? Thereby hangs a heart-warming tale.
Says the tall, slim 71-year-old lady, who worked a lengthy four-decade stint as sports director of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), “Judy Devlin-Hashman, who won the All-England singles title ten times and the women’s doubles crown on seven occasions, is a very dear friend. Judy had played at Lucknow when the Badminton Association of India (BAI) invited her to come over in 1966. She gave me the All-England medal she had won that year as a keepsake after she learned that I had called a halt to my badminton career. After all, what was one All England winner's medal to Judy? The Devlin family is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having won 41 All-England titles – 17 by Judy, 18 by her father Frank, and six by her sister Sue!”
Damayanti's momentous decision to hang up her raquet could well be labelled '1971: A love story'. Her aviator husband, Flt-Lt Vijay Tambay, was lost in action during a skirmish on India’s north-western border during the Indo-Pakistan conflict of 1971, and his body was never found.
For several years, Damayanti steadfastly believed that he might have been incarcerated in a Pakistani jail as a prisoner-of-war, and that he would return someday. The two had been married for a little over a year when the tragedy took place. Damayanti swore that she would not play badminton again until her beloved husband came back, or was proved to have been killed. It is the kind of love story of which legends are made.
Even as she talks to me, Damayanti’s eyes keep returning to the fading black-and-white photograph on her desk which shows the young couple in the first fine flush of wedded bliss. After I have carefully taken the picture out of its frame, preparatory to scanning it onto my netbook, I turn it over and see a small indication of their intimacy.
On the back of the photograph is written in a bold hand: “Dearest Damayanti, Whenever you see this photograph, our hearts will get together, regardless of the distance between us – whether I am flying or you are thrashing your opponent 11-0 on the badminton court. Your loving husband, Vijay. 28th October 1970.”
At that time, Damayanti, as Miss Subedar, had already won the country’s National singles crown twice in succession, and appeared all set to extend that record substantially. With great pride, she completed the hat-trick in her newly wedded husband’s hometown, Hyderabad, in 1970-71, and got the ‘Tambay’ surname inscribed on the National women’s singles trophy.
Damayanti had easily accounted in the 1968-69 Amritsar National final for the aging Meena Shah, who had won the title on seven previous occasions in a row; and thereafter, looked virtually unbeatable at the domestic level.
“I beat Bombay’s Shobha Moorthy in the National final in both 1969-70 and 1970-71,” she says. “It was a strange thing that the draws always seemed to have me meeting Maureen Mathias in the quarters, Rafia Latif in the semis and Shobha in the final. I would have a tougher time with Rafia than with Shobha. She was faster on her feet than Shobha, and would reach a lot more shuttles, so I had to stretch myself to beat her. But I did not lose to her.”
Born in Allahabad on 2 May 1948, Damayanti was the daughter of a lawyer, Sharad Kumar Subedar and Vijayalakshmi, a principal in a Montessori school. Her mother hailed from Indore’s Dravid family; in fact, former India cricket captain Rahul Dravid is her first cousin, with his father and Damayanti’s mother being blood brother and sister.
Damayanti was the third amongst four siblings. Since they lived in their formative years in the Hindi-speaking belt of northern India, everyone spoke Hindi at home; and her knowledge of her mother tongue, Marathi, is relatively limited. She can understand most of what is being said, but has no confidence to converse in Marathi.
“My getting into badminton was a natural and easy progression, based on the fact that both my parents played, and were very fond of sports,” says Damayanti. “My father represented Allahabad University in five sports; and my mother played badminton, tennis and table tennis with equal felicity.”
The four kids would go with their parents to play at the Mayo Hall Sports Complex in Allahabad. Damayanti started winning quite early on, but it was not considered important.
“Those days, one did not play out of the ambition to excel at the game and win; you played primarily because you enjoyed the game,” she says. “I was never really interested in my studies, nor was I very good at them. I was just an average student. But I would always look forward to the club when I would get a chance to play.”
The first time she went for the state championship in the Under-12 section in 1959, she was barely ten-and-a-half years old. She won the junior title alright, but went one better.
“As luck would have it, a lady in her late-20s or early-30s was hunting for a partner to play ladies’ doubles,” Damayanti recalls. “She asked me whether I would be willing to play. I was quite apprehensive, but I agreed to play. And we won the open state title.”
That was the most encouraging beginning to her career. In a short time, she was selected by Uttar Pradesh for the Junior Nationals. It must be remembered that the junior event was only until the age of 16, not 18 as it is now.
Damayanti won two junior national singles titles in 1962 and ’63, and could have vied for a third title if she had not been ruled ineligible to play by some bizarre and illogical rule that said you could play only for up to four years after you left school.
There was no formal coach, but the strokeful Suresh Goel, who was five years her senior in age, also belonged to Allahabad, and played for UP before he joined the Railways. He took young Damayanti under his wing, and she learned more strokes by observing him play.
“We travelled together,” she says. “When he went for practice, he used to pass my house, ring the bell and ask me to accompany him.”
Damayanti, more by observation than any structured coaching, imbibed his style of play, especially the fluency of stroke and movement, and that fabulous backhand. And she employed tremendous deception, in Goel’s best tradition.
“If you ask me, I would rate Suresh Goel above any other Indian player,” she says. “He had everything when he was at his best – speed, fluency, artistry of stroke, superb footwork, and power. In those days, there was beauty and music in the game; and every one of the players playing at the top level had a different kind of game that was pleasing on the eye.”
Back then, physical training was almost unknown; and people just played. But there was one time when she had ten days before a tournament and did some regular skipping – and was amazed at the difference it made to her movement on the court.
At 17, Damayanti was part of the first Indian team that went to the All-England in 1965 after a big gap since the time of Davinder Mohan, Nandu Natekar and TN Seth.
“There were four of us – Meena Shah, Suresh Goel, Dipu Ghosh and I,” she recalls. “We played the All-England and some friendly matches in the UK after that. I reached the third round and lost to the third-seeded Swede Eva Twedberg. Not such a bad performance for a teenager playing her first international tournament.”
That ended up being the only All-England in which Damayanti played. The BAI lacked the funds in those days to send a team every year.
“In 1966, Judy Hashman had come to India to play some tournaments at the BAI’s invitation,” she says. “She liked my play; and sent me and Sarojini Apte an invitation to come to the UK for one month’s playing and training at her own centre. If we could muster the funds for the return airfare, she promised to take care of the training and playing, boarding and lodging without charge.
“Sadly, we could not raise the funds for the trip. The BAI was not strong enough to induce the government to fund our trip. And we could not secure any sponsors. So the trip died stillborn.”
Damayanti was married in April 1970, and played her last Nationals at Hyderabad as Mrs Tambay. Her marriage was a purely arranged alliance with the son of a Hyderabad-based Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer’s son. Vijay Tambay was in the Indian Air Force, based in Ambala and flying Super-7s.
“It was a traditional boy-meet-girl in the presence of the respective parents,” she says. “There was a two-month engagement, and then we were married. Vijay was very keen that I win at least one National title as Mrs Tambay. I managed to do it for him in his home town of Hyderabad in 1970-71. And then, the war broke out and he went missing in action.”
Damayanti was devastated. She was mentally simply not there, and there was no way she felt she could play badminton with that uncertainty at the back of her mind about whether her husband was alive or not.
“Until you have actually seen the end of somebody, you cannot concentrate, with the turmoil in your mind,” she says. “To play any representative match, you need to have physical, emotional and mental equilibrium for you to be able to give of your best. I did not think I could play freely after my husband went missing.”
Damayanti was induced to come out of her self-imposed retirement to play in one Uber Cup in 1974, thanks mainly to the urging of former BAI president Fazil Ahmed. She played both singles and doubles in that campaign against Malaysia in Lucknow, but her heart was not in it. She was beaten in her singles in three games; and, though she and Maureen Mathias won the doubles, India could not win the tie.
Did she ever consider emerging out of self-imposed retirement and playing at the top level again? “Don’t forget, after Vijay was lost, I had to take up a job to be independent,” she says. “I had a new job at the JNU, and had to devote full time to it. That did not leave me with time for a parallel career in badminton.”
Does she miss the game? “I do,” she says, soberly. “When I go and watch the game now, I sit and imagine what stroke I would have played instead of what had been played at the time. And very often, I kept thinking that I would have played some other stroke. When I did TV commentary, I would occasionally express myself that a player could, or should, have played some other stroke.”
Damayanti did do a coaching course in 1979, and then conducted coaching at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala. She was the coach of the girls’ national team for the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi.
“I also went to the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane as the coach; that was where Syed Modi won a gold medal in the singles,” she says. “I also went as coach and manager for the 1984 World Championships in Calgary, so I remained in touch with the game. But I was not very happy being a manager; I would have preferred being the coach.”
Damayanti managed to renew acquaintance with Judy Hashman after a long period of no contact, in 1984. After that, they have managed to meet once a year, with Judy coming to India nearly every year, and Damayanti going across to the UK once in three to four years. The Indian remains a great admirer of the flaming red-haired Irishwoman, known in her young days as 'Little Red Dev’; and considers her to be one of the greatest players of all time.
“I had gone to her place in 1984 when she suddenly gave me a small wrapped packet as a gift,” says Damayanti. “When I opened it and saw it was her 1966 All-England medal, I asked her why she was giving it to me. She said she wanted to share it as a memento of our first meeting in 1966. She is a fantastic person, and I feel very privileged to call her my friend.”
At the end of each player’s career, Damayanti feels, the person concerned should look back and examine whether it has been a satisfying career, or whether there were things they would have done differently.
“The greatest thing I have got out of the game is my friendship with Judy Hashman,” she says. “We still sit and discuss badminton. She still tells me anecdotes of how she started to play, how her father Frank trained her, some of her best matches, how she would mentally prepare for them, and so forth.
“I think we in this country have never realised the importance of mental preparation before a match. I know Prakash was particular about being by himself 15-20 minutes before a match. Judy used to sit for long periods and watch the game of the next 10-15 players so that she knew how they played and was well prepared if they ever came up against her. That was how a champion’s mind worked.”
A final question. If she had the power to do a full rewind of her life to the point where she hung up her racket, would she again do what she did in 1971?
“Yes, yes, yes,” says Damayanti, fiercely and passionately. “I loved my husband more than badminton, and it was never a question of wanting or continuing to play. I just could not have, with the mental and emotional condition I was in. After I won the National title as a Tambay, the game and he became synonymous with happiness. Yes, I loved the game, and I loved playing; and just maybe, I could have achieved more if I had continued playing. But I just could not countenance the idea of playing without Vijay being there!”
Isn’t truth often stranger than Bollywood?
The writer is a former veterans' world champion (50+ age group men's doubles, Kuala Lumpur 2004), an eight-time National champion, and a 13-time Maharashtra state veterans' doubles title holder.
All England Championships: Treesa Jolly and Gayatri Gopichand's sensational run ends with semi-final defeat
The two young shuttlers found the going tough against Korean world number 20 pairing of Baek Na Ha and Lee So Hee, losing 10-21 10-21 in a 46-minute women's doubles contest at the Utilita arena.
All England Championships: Lakshya Sen, HS Prannoy make winning start
Lakshya Sen will square off against Anders Antonsen in the second round, while HS Prannoy will meet third seeded Indonesian Anthony Sinisuka Ginting next.
Swiss Open: Lakshya Sen makes first round exit; Sindhu, Prannoy advance to pre-quarterfinals
The eighth seeded Lakshya Sen looked a pale shadow of himself as he failed to match the level of his rival, losing 18-21, 11-21 to bow out of the men’s singles competition.