To the Tendulkar of our Gotham City
I usually don’t like writing letters, especially on a public forum. Putting across one’s argument in epistolary format has been overdone in recent times, and the product has almost always been emotional harangue. But here I resort to it because what I want to write is more personal than anything I have ever written.
I don’t maintain a diary. Had I listened to my father’s advice and adopted the good habit of maintaining one, I would have made up a list of anecdotes. I don’t want to dig out statistics from Cricinfo. For what I want to express, and I am failing to, cannot be quantified.
I am angry. I am sad. I am relieved. I don’t know how I feel. This isn’t a tribute, although it wishes to be. This isn’t a letter of apology, although it wishes to be.
So from where do I begin? The first sentence is the most difficult thing.
This is Debojit Dutta, a fan of yours, a believer who had been deluded somewhere in the middle, but has now returned back to faith. — Melodramatic. Siddhartha Vaidyanathan begins his article in Cricinfo with “Sachin Tendulkar has retired from one-dayers. Does this mean anything to you?” — I thought here I wasn’t borrowing.
Let’s forget the beginning and begin from near the end.
In my very short career as a journalist, and even shorter tryst with sports, I have come across many chest-thumping fans of yours, who follow every move of yours with a peculiar curiosity. Although they, in their fanboyism, provide moments of genuine laughter, it becomes cloying at times to see the world through their eyes: where you carry a pandemonium wherever you move; where you aren’t one among us, a different species.
I have been a fan of yours for as long as I have been a fan of cricket. I had my room decorated with your pictures — the one with those boyish curls, with a bottle of Pepsi in hand. No? Okay, another hint: do you remember the picture that came out with that jingle “Sachin ala re”? No you don’t remember? I do.
Do you remember May 23, 1999, the match versus Kenya in the world cup where you scored a century? I know you do. It was special for you; you dedicated it to your father who had then just passed away. It was special for me too, but for other reasons. That match saved me from having to bear with Sanjay Dutt’s Kartoos playing on a local channel. That innings was a respite, having come a few hours after I had spilled boiling water on my thigh and rubbed my skin vigorously causing further damage. It was burning; I think I still have the marks. But for few hours when you were toying with the teenagers of world cricket, I had no memory of the burns.
Still to see the world through their eyes is a difficult thing. As it is difficult to think of you as ‘other’ and celebrate your triumphs as my own: to see in your dance-down-the-track my victory over my father’s principle of stand-watch-defend, keep-it-on-the-ground; to learn from example that fame and money isn’t always as dangerous as it is made out to be; to cherish having, for most part of my life, an infallible hero who looked like and acted like one among us, and failed miserably, as do we, whenever he tried to be anyone else.
My Tendulkar didn’t know how to react to verbal abuses on the field. At best, at a loss for gestures, he would nod with his head bowed down, knock the ground twice and carry on. My Tendulkar, you might not have noticed, would pair a blue T-shirt with same-coloured denim and shiny sun-glasses and pose for magazine covers. My Tendulkar, should I say had no signature moves? Because the one he had, few would want to imitate. That crotch adjustment is a difficult thing to perform in public. You see, my Tendulkar was all human. You were me. So when you adopted a new hairstyle early this year, I knew it would fail.
But the Tendulkar of the priestly imagination is hard to relate to. The Tendulkar who when he cries at the demise of his spiritual guru, Sathya Sai Baba, shows us his “human side”! The Tendulkar, who now needs to maintain a Facebook page which irritates with regular updates and ridiculous photos that border on narcissism. The Tendulkar in whose defence, at the slightest provocation, some sanest journalists had to stoop down to the level of school kids — “my hero stronger, your hero sucks” (The most outrageous example of this must have been set by Suresh Menon in his article for a cricket website, where after your nomination for a seat in Rajya Sabha, he wrote: “There is much to recommend India’s first sporting nominee to the Upper House of Parliament… Dara Singh, let’s face it, was no sportsman; he was an entertainer in a version of WWF wrestling, taking on moniker-challenged folks with names like King Kong and periodically proclaiming himself ‘world champion’”).
So it became hard in recent years not to let my faith shake a bit.
But that doesn’t mean I agree with the army of detractors who have suddenly popped out from unknown hideouts. When were they born? Where were they hiding all these years? I can understand when a person in his early teens fails to realise what you mean to us, not just our cricket. But people of my age: the Ganguly-lovers, the Dravid-haters; the Ganguly-haters, the Dravid-lovers, didn’t they all merge at this one neutral point?
Their biggest problem as most of them tell me is that we consider you greater than the game. What irritates the purest and the most “practical lovers” of the game of cricket is that some of us have offended the game by saying that we won’t watch a single match after you are gone. They laugh at us, because in such moments of frivolity we forget that cricket has made you what you are, and you aren’t bigger than the game. They laugh at us, calling us the only country in the world which practices such ridiculous level of hero worship.
What do they know about love and game, and love for the game, they who without a stammer pronounce “love” and “practicality” in the same breath? Send them to fetch me a lover who is practical.
I agree cricket has made you what you are, you agree to it too. But while you agree to it, do remember when you came in twinkle-eyed, with records in school cricket to back you with, smashed Abdul Qadir all around the park, it was pre-liberalisation era. Even in the most well-to-do households, televisions took some time to move in. And in families with lesser financial standing, in remoter surroundings, it took even more time, and the process is still going on. For most of us you were faceless. You were someone who existed somewhere in our Gotham City, did things that we all were capable of and just weren’t doing.
You weren’t a cricketer for those who were yet to see live cricket, not to those who for a long time in their childhood thought Shane Warne was a fast bowler, not to that kid I used to know who knew Kapil Dev by the name of Ukil Deb and had no clue what that guy used to do. His Ukil Deb had retired before he learned to distinguish between cricketers and coloured dots on the television screens. So you see, you were his first recognisable face of a hero. You never started becoming more than cricket. Perhaps you were always more than cricket, because you came before cricket started making sense to us.
I admit we are an emotional country. Our mothers mourn on telly-serial characters’ death and are elated when they resurface a few episodes later. We pray for our movie stars even when they catch a cold. We believe an old man who emerges from nowhere and tells us that he is going to change our world. But can you smell the ridiculous amount of optimism here? Where else on earth does a player’s selection become a national debate?
We are a foolish nation if it is foolish to believe in heroes. We are a foolish nation if it was foolish to crowd the fronts of television stores when you would bat. We are a foolish nation if we cannot distinguish between individuals and sports. We are impractical. We are stingy creatures. We are sycophants(?). But we will worship you, adore you, and swear by you, because we have every right to. You are our creation.