Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: A tennis coach and flautist represents a 'Bombay story' of grit as gritty Sewri is

Bachi Karkaria
·4 min read

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Chaurasia of our tennis court

His notes waft across the podium garden, insinuate themselves into the thuck of ball on racquet, merge with the aroma of toast and paratha from breakfast kitchens, trip out of the gate and drown in the jarring commerce of the street. He is no Orpheus or Krishna Kanhaiya, but I do believe that the champa bends to listen, and the raat ki rani extends its allotted hours to exude a little more of its heady offering.

Subhash Salvi, 55, makes my mornings. He is the tennis coach of our housing complex, and while his wards are playing their sets, he plays his simple wooden flute. It's not mehfil-grade music; it is the incongruity which rivets me. This is Mumbai, not some faraway river bank. Moreover, this is raucous, rundown Sewri. Despite its creeping gentrification, the despair of a derelict mill industry still skulks in squalid shadows, and the arrogant towers are yet the arriviste exception to decaying chawls. Into this cacophony flow the limpid notes of Subhash Salvi's flute.

In the rigid months of the lockdown, I missed his music as much as my morning walk. Then, our Dosti Flamingoes also began opening up. The clubhouse facilities were the last to start, and I'm glad that the intrepid tennis gang did some Mumbai jugaad, and made an unofficial re-entry into the court. With them has returned Salvi €" and his bansi.

I was always intrigued by his 'doubles'. Thanks to this column I actually sat down to chat with him. His is as much of a Bombay story of grit as gritty Sewri is; as much a story of aspiration's grasp and swing as the techniques he teaches to our resident Nadal/Serena wannabes.

He wants to talk more of tennis, I keep bringing him back to his flute. It's an uneven contest. The latter came into his life just over three years ago. The tennis is what has been rozi-roti since arriving penniless from his Raigarh village in 1984, and managing to get a job as a ball boy at the Maharashtra State Tennis Association. "If we managed a meal at noon, we didn't know if we would eat at night. But my three brothers and I owe all we have to the early struggle of my mummy aur unka father."

Their guardian angel in Mumbai was their paternal uncle, a supervisor in St. George's Hospital. "We stayed in his quarters, and of the two chapatis he got, he would save one-and-a-half for us." In 1987, Salvi moved up to the Cricket Club of India, where he spent the next six years as a tennis marker, training at the Taher Ali Academy and travelling to several cities. (He later WhatsApps the proud clippings, especially that of his ward, Radhika Jadhav, the U-14 champ). He did private tennis coaching during those years, and then switched to full-time freelancing in 1993. He was signed up at Dosti in 2009, where he's much loved equally for his demeanour and his dedication.

"Your bansi, your bansi ki baat kijiye," I badger him. Salvi shrugs, "Oh that came about by chance. When I arrived in Mumbai I could not dream even of owning a cycle, but by 2013 I had managed to buy an Innova in which I would take tourists to nearby places. In 2017, on the Ganpatiphule beach, a flute seller sat playing to attract customers. I've always loved music, so I bought this same bansi for 70 rupees. Slowly, slowly, listening to the radio, encouraged and corrected by my wife, baith-baithke mein bajana seekh gaya. I get lost in it. I don't know where I am." He adds, "Every child should learn some instrument or sangeet of any kind. Music gives us great shanti."

Salvi doesn't seem to have much of a repertoire, but predictably, his favourite is the Lata Mangeshkar-Manna Dey bhajan 'Yashomati maiya se bole nandlala'. Next he's trying to master 'Lambi Judaai' from Hero, which features a bansi-cradling Jackie Shroff. "Our home is full of music," he says. His daughter Komal who has begun coming along to coach the kids, sings. But his wife, Shubhangi, is the real koel warbling old numbers as she goes about her chores.

Salvi rewinds to 13 December 1985, when they got married. "She stayed on with my mother, and I used to do up-down from Mumbai. When electricity came to our village, we got our first light bill €" and it was in her name." Then he softly adds, "Meri wife has lit up my life ever since."

And walking past him as he breathes through his bansi, the rest of us carry along the bizarre bonus of a lyrical Ganga-kinara vibe in prosaic Sewri.

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