We were at the Kalaan plantation on the outskirts of Delhi. Myna birds fidgeted in the plants, the polo training progresses, and I continuously chat with Sunny the family matriarch amongst her buzzing flowerbeds and tinkling teacups in the soporific Haryana mid-day. My boys discovered their subtle stick and ball skills from Raj, and enthusiastic to the dashing knowledge of his sons Angad and Uday, professional players who with each other comprised half the Indian country polo team. But Sangjay and Rinchen were far from that league, much more comfortable with elephants than horses.
Col Raj’s silver hair, neat mustache and army bearing with the sari-ed Sunny at his negative were an acquainted sight at both pony and elephant polo fits around the area, particularly in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. But there were none of the taints of privilege or elitism about the Kalaans – Sunny’s mischievous grin was all enjoying, and Raj shared his enthusiasm for the game with all comers, generous with his knowledge and patiently enduring the teasing imitations of his archetypical clipped army accent.
“Raj could continually be counted on for some pitch-side recommendation whether you desired it or not, and he was always correct,” remembers master-hotelier Jason Friedman, among the fans of the consummate trainer. “On or off the pitch Raj was the better gentleman sportsman, coach, friend, mentor and drinking buddy. He taught me the finer factors of polo and made me a better player and person because of it .”
Raj was a key quantity at the annual world elephant polo championships, presented on a makeshift polo ground adjacent to Chitwan’s Meghauli airstrip. In trying to adapt the game from the speed and agility of horses to the lumbering gait of elephants, the promote was shrunk, polo sticks were lengthened and only two chukkas were played of ten minutes each one, switching mounts at half time to neutralize the ‘elephant advantage’.