When my father starts talking about Vivian Richards, there is this glint in his eyes I love. I can tell you what he’ll say, to the word. Vivian was big, he’ll say, imitating the famous swagger of the Caribbean master, and then he’ll tell me why he loved Vivian Richards, and why the world loved him too. He showed the white man how to hit a cricket ball, my father will say, he battered them into submission.
He showed them, did Vivian. That’s what my father will say.
For my father’s generation, Vivian Richards was the black man who gave it back to the white overlord. He was an era’s pent up emotion; he was their black salute. To a generation that rose from apartheid, stung by issues of race & strengthened by a sense of community, he was more than a cricketer.
Vivian Richards was an icon.
In the preface to the single greatest book on cricket ever written, Beyond a Boundary, the Trinidadian intellectual CLR James wrote, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” The sentence was not entirely his, being a take on a line in Kipling’s poem ‘English Flag’, but to me, that is the most beautiful and meaningful sentence written about the game I love.
When Sachin Tendulkar made his test debut against the arch enemy in Karachi, he was 16. The bowling attack he faced still gives me goosebumps – Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Abdul Qadir. Warriors and magicians they were; arguably the best bowling lineup ever assembled after the great West Indian pace battery of Clive Lloyd.
The year was 1989.
India wasn’t going anywhere.
Having modeled itself on the USSR’s economic policies of state control and central planning, India remained a financial crackpot of a country. The power of its young population was squandered in those years, entrepreneurship was buried behind so many layers of red tape, corruption and elite control that creative energies fizzled out. The only way you could get into the middle class in those dark days was if you could snag a government job through bribes or well placed contacts, or work in one of the public sector enterprises. Goods were scarce; imports for the state controlled markets were sold exclusively on the black market.
My country struggled to eat the food it wanted to, work in sectors in wanted to, do things it wanted to; the world looked down upon it.
The world had reason to. Millions of dollars in foreign aid reached our shores. Well heeled westerners travelling to the ‘exotic east’ found that everything was beautiful, but that India was stagnating, rotting away in an ugly sludge of its own making.
And India’s young people were sad, a proud culture found its uniqueness and identity questioned. National pride is seldom threatened in India; our country has fought wars armed only with unnatural courage and blind patriotism. But still, young India found itself in a strange place then. Their country was giving them nothing to be proud of.
It was then, on finding itself in an economic situation with probably no other solution, India opened up its markets to the world. India’s infamous red tape found its length shortened by several kilometers. Foreign corporations were allowed entry into the humungous Indian domestic market; for the first time in decades, monopolies were challenged, competitiveness was questioned. India was back.
The year was 1991.
Sachin was turning heads in the cricketing fraternity that year. And the heads that turned to see him stayed glued. He was complete, they said, he was the best since Bradman, they said. They argued about him, wrote about him, and basically went crazy over a teenager who could hit balls thrown at him with a heavy wooden bat.
It was in the 1991-92 tour to Australia, when Sachin made 148 on a Sydney pitch alien to a boy from the Bombay maidans, that Merv Hughes made his famous remark to Allan Border. He said, “This little prick’s going to get more runs than you, AB”.
Sachin was becoming the player India hoped and prayed he would be. But even one person among the entire booming population of my country could not have imagined what we came to associate with Sachin, and what he came to mean to us.
India was growing. Money was coming into the country. PV Narasimha Rao’s government had demolished the bulk of the License Raj, invited multinationals in, and cut import duties and taxes. People had more to spend. Things were looking up after a long time. The English news channels on newly arrived cable television had nice things to say about India. Smartly dressed anchors and journalists debated India’s growing might at prime time. India was to be the next superpower, they said, India would grow like there was no tomorrow and that there was no stopping it.
And Sachin, being the star that he was, became the best vehicle for newly arrived brands to reach an adoring local population.
When Sachin said ‘Boost is the secret of my energy’, we flocked to buy Boost. When Sachin declared that there was ‘Nothing official’ about Pepsi during the 1996 World Cup, we refused to drink anything else.
Bollywood boomed too, in those days. The age was one of action movies, where a good guy, someone we called the ‘hero’, would beat up several bad guys, kill the villain, and get the girl. A young India modeled itself on those movies. We wanted to be that hero. On the global stage, we wanted India to be that hero, the proverbial ‘good guy’.
In one of those years my father bought a Bajaj Sunny for my mother to go to school on – a weak looking, little plastic thing. But in those days, for a defense family to have two vehicles –my father’s Bajaj Chetak was the other one, was unheard of. The day the red scooter came home, an occasion for Pujas, coconut-breaking, and friends to come over, there was a cricket match. I remember the scene clearly. All of us Air Force families sat together eating a south Indian sweet called ‘Kesari’ my mother had made, and watched Sachin bat.
Those were good times, the 90s, full of hope, music and a belief in the country’s future and its place in the power plays of the world. It was a time of national pride.
Sachin was an embodiment of that pride. When the world hailed him, we were overjoyed, we were vindicated. Here was an Indian being the best at something in the world; we believed it was only a matter of time before we were the best at everything.
It was Sachin who first made us believe.
I was 2 when he made his India debut. I was in primary school when he smashed the Australians to oblivion at Sharjah; ‘desert storm’, we called it. I was writing my 10th board exams when he let loose against Pakistan in the World Cup. I was studying engineering, my graduate degree when I watched him in a TV shop window, winning the CB series in Australia. I was in the auditorium of my business school when MS Dhoni’s India won the World Cup after 28 years and dedicated it to Sachin. I had been working for 3 years when I cried as I watched his engraved-in-memory visage take the field for the last time.
When I say I grew up with him, I’m not kidding. I’m 26 years old, and I have not known the game I love without him.
I’m just one boy among millions; I’m talking entire lives here.
The void is not just physical, it’s emotional. Sachin was the last remnant of a time India holds very dear to its heart. He was our leading light in those days of hope and approaching glory. Because we Indians have never believed in anything as much as we believe in our country. And we never believed in a person as much as we did in Sachin.
This is the void that he has left behind, and that is why India cried that day, as its greatest sporting hero walked into the dusk, leaving behind memories a proud nation will cherish, and tell stories about.
To my father, the memory of Vivian Richards is one of rebellion, of defiance, of heroism.
To me, the memory of Sachin is of my nation’s rise.
Sachin took an emerging India to the world, as much as he brought the world to us.
He was our last action hero.
For those who came in late, this post follows the last one. So if you’re new to the story, read the earlier post before you start this one. And if you’re already familiar with Raghu and Priya’s story, read on..
There’s just one thing I failed to mention before. The University, the locations, even the Football League outside our mess hall and the Amrita Trophy are accurate descriptions.. Every bit is true. These are real places the story is taking you..
The Story Continues..
I woke up with a start.
Lord No, had I overslept? Please God, not today! I frantically reached for my phone and checked. Phew!
I said a small prayer. Nothing should go wrong today. Not one thing. It meant so much to him. And to me too.
I threw away my covers, stood up and opened the window. The cold draft hit my face like a splash of fresh water. I could see nothing in the mist outside. Ettimadai was famous for being this way. It was best in the mornings, the greenery invigorating, the coldness refreshing and the mist just breathtakingly beautiful. Many a morning I had lazed here, sipping hot coffee and looking at the hills that stretched as far as I could see.
My phone beeped its message tone. My heart leaped. It was 5. Raghu was up. I ran to pick it up. It’s been three years, but his morning message is still my drug, my opium. I’m addicted, I truly am, not to the drug, but to the peddler, to Raghu, in every way possible.
“Priya, big day for me girl. I just wanna say this. Everything’s been because of you. Every single thing. You’ve made my dreams come true, but you know what? You are the biggest dream of them all. Come soon baby. Love you”
His words always have the same effect. I just can’t wait to see him. I ran off to get ready.
Coming Baby. Love you too.
The stands are half full. I’m standing near the gym’s entrance as hordes of people make their way to the ground, most of them in jackets and sweaters. Some of them gave me knowing smiles. We were no secret. Kinda difficult to keep it under wraps, we were inseparable and I sometimes even went to his training sessions. We gave two hoots anyway. The mist was lifting and the pitch was just about visible. It was still very cold. I pulled my sweatshirt’s hood up. Where was he?
There he was.
He walked towards me and I could see he was nervous. It was the biggest game of his life, the final of the Amrita Trophy. He’d fought long and hard to get here, but I wanted to see him win. He deserved it. From street football to captaining Amrita University, the boy I loved had come a long way. He stopped in front of me and took my hand. It was all we could do, but my face burned. I badly wanted to kiss him. But I held back. He had a trophy to win. Time for all that later. He looked at me and squeezed my hand “Wish me Luck, Priya”. That look of his. It always made me feel that he could see through me, that he could somehow read my mind. “You’ll win”, I said and that was enough for him. He walked to the edge of the pitch, bent down to touch the earth, and went in, as the crowd screamed, whistled and cheered their captain on.
I watched him as he ran, wearing the new Reebok studs that I’d got for him. I watched his muscles work, the sweat dripping from his brow, as he sent in the first goal. I rose with the crowd and shouted myself hoarse. I was proud of him, always had been, always would be, but at such times I felt truly glorious. My mind wandered back to our time together, a treasure chest of memories. That day during Anokha when he told me he loved me, the train trips, the long evening walks, the movies at Coimbatore. There were just so many of them. How he’d changed for me, from a boy who cared about almost nothing to the boy who is now a regular volunteer at orphanages, from a boy who’d never come on time to class to the boy who never makes me wait even for a second, from the boy who hated looking at a book to the boy who was starting to Australia today for his final project.
That stopped my chain of thought. I didn’t want to think about his leaving, not now. I had promised myself that I wouldn’t even think about it till evening. It wasn’t working. I felt myself slip.
But again Raghu made it easier for me, netting another one. I jumped up and cheered, the ordeal of the evening pushed back again, but still nagging at my heart, like a string tugging at a flying kite.
I stood at the gate, waiting. The match was over. Raghu had lifted the trophy. Amidst a cacophony of celebrations and mind numbing noise, he had come over and given the trophy to me. It was all he wanted, to play for his university, and to play well. He had done better. He had led his university team to glory. And I had stood by his side.
But he was going now.
And I could not bear the thought of it.
This was his career, his life’s biggest opportunity, his triumph on a path that I had led him on. I had made him study, work on his subjects as hard as he worked on his football. And he had trumped both. He was one of the very few chosen to go abroad to do their projects. I was happy. Of course I was.
But he was going. For six months. What was I going to do?
I was afraid too.
We had never discussed our future. It seemed stupid at that time. We were in love. How would it matter? I had never seen any reason to think about it. But now, as he left, I felt stranded. What was gonna happen to us? Would it just end, like another one of those cute college romances? My mind swirled as it comprehended the enormity of the situation. It had all been a fairy tale. I had lived a dream. But it felt like this would be the end. Life had caught up with us. Our four years of insulation from the rest of the world was gonna end. I had known this of course, that we would have to talk about this. I had dreaded it, but I had known it. I just had not foreseen that it would come down upon us so fast.
But I would not ask him. Not now. Raghu was heading towards his life. I would not stand here and ask him to make promises. He had given me everything, every inch of happiness that I had was because of him. He owed me nothing. And I would not put pressure on him. Maybe it was how it was meant to be.
I saw them.
Raghu and Hari walking towards the gate, from the ATM. I pulled myself together. I could not cry, not after holding on so long. I had to let him go.
Hari was the one who came near first, “Bye, beautiful”, he said. He always called me that. This guy was the reason we were together. He had refereed our fights, got us out of trouble, stood up for us, even given proxies for us when we were off together. He was our best friend, and I loved him for what he gave us. I could not speak. I was breaking down. But he put his hand on my mouth, “Don’t say anything”. He gave me a package in red wrapping. I knew what it was. It was a photo of the three of us together, framed in some ornate casing. Raghu had told me. “Raghu wants to say something to you, don’t cry yet.” He laughed, ever the joker. I mock punched him. But he’d moved away.
And Raghu came close. It still felt like the first time I saw him. It was always the same. His chiselled, sharp features mesmerized me, held my gaze, like they had, thousands of times before.
“Priya” he said simply.
I had written him a letter. I gave it to him. “Go, Raghu, it’s almost time. Don’t stand here and make me cry.” “I’m going,” he said, “but there’s something I have to say first.”
I waited. He waited too, before speaking. I could see Hari at the far end, too, waiting.
“Priya, you’re the best thing that ever happened to me. These four years have been all about you. We’ve been together in springtime and held together during storms. You’re the reason I’m somebody today. There’s nothing I can’t do when you’re with me. But I need to know something today, now.”
His trembling hand brought out a ring. He took my stunned hand and slid it onto my finger.
“Will you marry me?”
My hands went up to my mouth. My lips wouldn’t move. My heart was going into palpitations. I felt dizzy. I looked over at Hari, he rushed up to hold me. The tears just wouldn’t stop. It was a full minute before I finally got out the words.
“What took you so long?”
A week ago, I and Deepak set off on a bus to Kochi, happy and full of enthusiasm, because we believed that this was going to be the fulfilment of a dream both of us had held for long – to see a live cricket match. I had just reached University after visiting my recently married best friend and her husband at their flat in Chennai. Priya, being my closest friend for quite some time, knows of my fanatical obsession with cricket and used the opportunity to wish me all the ill luck in the world, that either I wouldn’t reach on time or that the match itself wouldn’t happen. I have no idea why friends do this, but they do it with amazing regularity, and it’s a trait I find hard to explain.
For example, if a guy says to his friend that he’s going to talk to this girl he likes, there will always be this member in the group who’ll say that he’ll fall flat on his face or that she might slap him, and when she does exactly that, will come and tell him “I told you so”. When I told Naga that I had my tickets to the Kochi ODI, he told me much the same thing, “Enna Machan, Mazhai varum pola irrukke da?” It looks as if it might rain. Yes, you ass. I know that. It is the retreating monsoon. It’s supposed to rain in Kerala. But can’t you say something nice, like Good Luck Sai? Grrr…
The bus ride to Kochi was punctuated by another mishap – our bus pushed down a White Dhoti clad biker and even though nothing at all happened to him, he proceeded to give an Oscar calibre performance about how he would call the Police and turn the highway into a war zone. When I tried to take his helmet and bag off the road to the side, he presumed I was gonna run away with them and asked me the same, laden with a few choice Malayalam words I understand but dare not reproduce. At last, another White Dhoti turned up, raised his voice a few decibel levels above the biker and sent him off on his way. Our bus also started off again. No Police, no settlement, nothing. I was super confused. In my state, nothing of this kind is resolved without a few punches and expletive laden kicks.
Anyway, me, Deepak and the others, took a room and made our way to the stadium next morning. Even though there had been overnight showers, it was sunny then and we hoped for the best. Great atmosphere, half a lakh fans, drums and trumpets ready, but down came the rain again. The match was officially abandoned at about 10 30 am and we walked out, along with the thousands of disappointed fans. If you want to understand how ingrained cricket is in the cultural mindset of our country, go see a cricket match. Every kind of fan was there, from the ten year old who had painted 10 and Tendulkar on his back to the 70 year old senior citizen donning an India T shirt, proudly holding a flag in one hand and a walking stick in the other. And of course, all of us in between, the hordes of young males and the groups of girls with posters like “Raina, Marry Me” and “ Zaheer, We Miss You”.
I got on a supremely overcrowded train back to Coimbatore and had to stand the entire way back. I’d gotten about 20 calls from my friends, some of them who hadn’t even called me on my birthday the previous week. It was a nonstop barrage of hearty laughter and full fledged enjoyment on my behalf. I’ll try to give you a sample. This was Rajesh “Enna Machan, Bow a?” Bow is our colloquial term that roughly translates to, well, falling flat on your face. Priya contented herself with a text “I’m soooo happy today!!!” Can you imagine!!?? There were still others, like the one when I take the call and am met with a storm of hearty laughter and stuff like “Enna vittutu pona illa, unnaku venum di.” You went to see the match without me, so you needed this. I had no choice but to endure all of it. It was my mistake; I was the one who had told them all I was going to see the match in my hyperexcited euphoria over getting the tickets.
As I stood, I got talking to this older guy standing beside me on the train who was also going to Coimbatore. He was much more depressed than I was and I tried to give him a few words of hope, but he shut me up with a few words that I had no answer for – “Veetla kooda paathuklaam pa, aana pasanga saagadichidvaanunga!!” It’s easier to take the taunts at home, about wasted money and time, but my friends will kill me by teasing.
Oh yeah…?? Tell me about it…!!