Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Alan Ross’s retrospective, Blindfold Games, is an unusual autobiography. The author, a noted poet and travel writer, uses verse at the end of prose chapters for a fuller development of his themes and motifs. These poems illuminate the four major sections of Blindfold Games, each of which centers on a time of change in his life: his experience as a child growing up in Calcutta, India, at the end of the British Raj; his forced move to England, early school experiences, and his growing love of the game of cricket; further educational adventures at St. Andrew’s School and his successful years at Haileybury Public School; and finally, his years in the Royal Navy during and after World War II.

Ross’s earliest reminiscences concern a lost India. He recalls an ease-filled time when his young life was presided over more by his ayah (nanny) than by his parents. Other memories follow in leisurely succession: the two-storied, porticoed house in Calcutta where he lived, the glimmer of Asian eyes, hair, and saris, rickshaws speeding through streets, and the Hooghley River, mysterious and majestic in its unhurried flow. Deliberately forgotten, he admits, are the ovenlike heat, the mosquito hordes, and the squalor and misery of Calcutta’s street residents.

Ross’s time in India was quite brief, but India remembered shaped the remainder of his life, its potent images haunting his imagination and dreams: “What I left behind I came to understand less and less, but all the more to need. . . . Through those boarding-school years [in England] what was most loved and familiar was oceans away.”

The second part of Blindfold Games focuses on boarding school in Cornwall and the playing of cricket as an escape from ennui and homesickness. One detects a great distance between the author and his parents (particularly his mother), who shunted him off to a Cornish school after unceremoniously yanking him out of India. He recalls a father who led the ordinary life of a successful Anglo-Indian merchant. His mother, who disdained the Indian people for their “pagan” religion and odd customs, was nearly equally estranged from her own son. Ross says remarkably little about her and manages few comments about her which lack astringency. Ross communicates his sense of alienation from her and the frustration born of it, as well as the emotional deprivation he suffered. She represented the fifth generation of an Anglo-Indian military family, and on her side of the family tree were members of the famed Bengal Lancers; nevertheless, she harbored the same narrow beliefs about India and its people that her husband stubbornly held: “Outside, people prayed and plotted and mated and died on a scale unimaginable and uncomfortable.” She also committed the sin of abandoning her son at the time of his greatest need, leaving him with a farmer’s family in a strange rural district in Cornwall while she went about her pursuits elsewhere.

In Cornwall, Ross made the best of a hard situation. At Belmont House school, still reeling from the shock of abandonment and loss, he learned to play rugby and cricket with Ralph and Billy James, sons of the uncouth farmer with whom he stayed. His liking for cricket turned into love, and the observing and playing of the sport has since been at the center of his existence.

The book’s second section opens with his arrival at St. Andrew’s School in East Grinstead, Sussex, at a time when cricket was undergoing a renaissance there. What helped propel Sussex cricket to national eminence in 1932 and for a number of years thereafter was the presence of Indian players, who, given Ross’s intense nostalgia for things Indian, earned his instant respect and admiration. The ten-year-old Ross found new romance in...

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Blindfold Games Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

London Review of Books. Review. VIII (January 23, 1986), p. 25.

Massie, A. Review in The Listener. CXV (January 30, 1986), p. 25.

Oakes, P. Review in The Times Literary Supplement. February 21, 1986, p. 201.

The Observer. Review. January 5, 1986, p. 43.

The Spectator. Review. CCLVI (January 18, 1986), p. 22.