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.
The best part of the Hyderabad summer, when I was there 2 years ago, were the mornings. They dawned cold and fresh, forcing me to gather my sleeping bag and run back into the house from the terrace. In another five minutes I’d be off towards the Banjara Hilla mosque, blending in with the crowd answering the muezzin’s early call to prayer.
This is still the memory that defines Hyderabad for me, a vision of the faithful in white kurtas and grey beards, walking towards a voice that seemed to lure them towards it. It seemed magical, and if you think about it, it actually is.
I thought then, as I still do, that a little faith can be a beautiful thing.
I’d go straight to Ismail Chacha’s shop at the mosque gates, where I would be handed Irani Chai in a glass cupped within both his weathered, gnarled hands in almost lost Hyderabadi courtesy. Chacha would inquire about my health that morning & proceed to tell a story. He would start with “Jab Nizaamon ka zamaana tha, Sairam beta, tab Hyderabad main..”, and I would listen, tea in hand and my mother’s old brown shawl around me, to tales of the Old City.
Madras mornings, though, are different.
The wind is not wind, it’s breeze. The sea is Madras’s most conspicuous presence, and easily its most beautiful. But lovely as the beach is in the mornings, the city won’t give you enough time to enjoy it – the sun will be up soon, & you need to go places, see people, work, make money.
Which means the best part of the unrelenting Madras summer is when the sun decides it has done enough damage for the day, and descends to the west, much to the relief of an assaulted city.
This Monday, a friend handed me two tickets to the Chennai Super Kings vs Rajasthan Royals game.
It was half past 6 when we set out, on a summer evening in Madras.
Poet Meena Kandasamy had written a short piece for the Hindu for last year’s Madras Day, and I saved this passage from it –
“If you care to learn her (Madras’s) whole history, listen to it come away in layers, like the names of old, unforgettable lovers – Pallava, Chera, Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagara. Empires who held her close, coveted, almost concealed, since the 7th century – a port city on the Coromandel Coast.
She speaks a language with a legacy of 2,000 years; she also understands every word of English. She romps around with jasmine on jet-black hair, night or day. No other city shall ever seduce you in Madras’s Tamizhachi style: with sultry, sidelong looks; with spontaneous speech; with all her selfless, surplus love.”
It’s almost invisible, the invocation of Madras’s gender in the passage, but I was struck by how natural it seemed. Maybe this is because we almost always describe cities and countries as female, but in the case of Madras, I don’t think it could ever be otherwise.
Madras can never be a ‘he’.
As I sat on the back of my friend’s expensive sports bike and took in my adopted city, Madras’s feminine nature asserted itself, in a way I never would have thought possible.
We drove through Thiruvanmiyur, where on a small side street clogged with going-home traffic, a pookari sat on a wooden stool & chatted animatedly with a customer, while her arms expertly measured out mozhams of jasmine blooms. We passed through Adyar, where as a college bus stopped to let down students, a horde of young girls jumped down, heads buried in iPods, hair free and voices high. Footwear in front of the temple on LB Road overflowed onto the street. Mothers and daughters headed in, as the slow humming sound of shlokas being recited wafted out in the warm air.
Mylapore came and went in a buzz of activity. Madras’s oldest neighborhood is a standing history lesson, and again, women are its chroniclers. We passed Bharatanatyam students in full costume returning from classes, mamis waddling around getting provisions and the retired evening walkers gathering around the old coffee shops.
We’d almost reached Santhome.
It isn’t widely known, but Santhome is an integral part of the story of Madras’s birth –
On August 22, 1639, Francis Day signed the lease for a tiny strip of beach he had obtained from the local chieftain of the Vijayanagara Empire. It was a village called Madarasapattinam, about three miles from the Portuguese settlement of Santhome.
Francis Day chose this particular village for a reason. He had fallen for a Portuguese woman; he was in love, and she was in Santhome.
The village became Fort St. George, and marked the birth of the city of Madras, the oldest modern Indian city.
This August she’ll be 374.
We passed the gorgeous Santhome Basilica, drove on to the Marina Beach Road, and the old lighthouse flashed to our right. Queen Mary’s came and went, and the lights of Chepauk appeared from around the corner. The roar of the crowd came a minute later. The captains were heading out for the toss. My friend fed a little more juice into the bike’s engine.
Madras’s IPL team, the Chennai Super Kings is captained by someone the city loves to bits, as I do too, Mahendra Singh Dhoni. They chant his name like a God’s, they fight his critics rabidly, they pay thousands to watch him play. I know this, I do too. The man from the small town of Ranchi, in Jharkhand is now claimed by Madras as her own.
There have been numerous attempts to decrypt Madras and its people, its conservativeness, its intellectual snobbishness, its aspirational atmosphere, all of it. I have an explanation of my own.
Madras is a small town. It is not a metro, and it never will be. It is a migrant city, populated by people coming from all over Tamil Nadu’s small towns and villages. Madras is the city where dreams congregate. This is where people come in search of success and fame. It may be one of our country’s biggest cities, a centre of art and culture, a business and technology hub, but Madras’s people will always be from the small town.
And that explains everything.
In a Tamil village, where they are usually homemakers, the evenings belong to the women. They have finished the chores of the day, had their customary evening shower, and have descended, goddess-like, into the streets for their shopping, or are looking out from their balconies, or are gossiping at doorways or are going to temples, smelling of jasmine and turmeric.
Madras absorbed the village evening, and reflects it every single day.
Dhoni is loved for this very reason as well. He wasn’t born in India’s major cities like Bombay or Calcutta from where most of India’s cricketing stars come from. He did not attend elite schools, which usually pave the way for young cricketers into the state teams and then into the national team. He was not rich, nor did he have any influential uncles. He served as a ticket collector when he played for the Indian Railways team. He was from the working class, a boy from the backwaters.
Dhoni is a small town boy, like most of Madras. He was born in the hinterlands of a bustling country and made his way up himself, through hard work and more of the same, like most of Madras aspires to do.
Of course Madras loves Dhoni. Of course he is one of their own.
I got patted down by the security people at Chepauk and was shown my seat. Two rows behind me sat an elderly woman and a little girl wearing her hair in ponytails. When the Chennai Super Kings theme song came on, the little girl broke into dance and the old lady laughed as she clapped and sang along –
“Enga ooru Chennaiku periya whistle adinga”
I turned around towards the game, singing with them.
It was a Sunday. I was 14 or 15, probably the youngest playing in the league that day. I was sitting around the team, hoping that at least today the captain would send me in the field, as a substitute, for a few overs. I was much younger than the others on the team and we were playing a far superior and stronger club. I’d been on the fringes of the team for a long time and had not played a single game yet, though I’d shown a bit of talent in the nets. We had proven players in the setup, there was no need to throw a rookie into the fray. This was Division 2 Cricket, worlds away from First Class or List A cricket, but this was where it all began, even for the best in the world.
A phone rang somewhere. Our strike bowler had fallen somewhere and couldn’t play. Another one had already pulled out. So there was a bowler’s spot, but there still was another medium pacer who could get the nod before me. I was never under the impression that I would get a game. But I did. The captain (plays for Railways now) asked me to kit up. I was overjoyed. It was my first game in the league, I’d only played for my school before this. I’d led my School team n all , but in my eyes that didn’t count. I wanted a league game, and I wanted it badly.
I took 3 wickets in 3 overs that day, two of them bowled and a catch at mid on. I still remember. We lost the match, but the day was recorded in my memory as special.
This game is a part of my life. I always knew somewhere in the back of my mind that I would never go anywhere with it, that my love for it would only translate to a few games for my college or university and that too by a long shot. But I never stopped playing. It’s too much a part of who I am. The feeling of being there, on the field, having the ball in hand and running in is something that can never be explained or put into words. It’s a feeling I’d do anything for.
Why Cricket? Why not Football or Basketball or anything else? Well, I don’t know. I’ve no idea. But I do know that cricket is the greatest leveller in the world. It’ll teach you about life, that everything isn’t easy, the bad times will come and you’ve to be prepared for them too. And if you believe in yourself and stick through them, you’ll come back, and win again. Even the greatest have their bad patches. But what separates the great from the mediocre is the ability to pick themselves up, go back to the basics, try harder, and come back to fight again. My game is fought more in the head than against the opponent in the field.
I once made 70 odd runs in a run chase that boiled down to 122 in about 10 overs, probably the best I’ve ever batted, but that is not what I hold most close to my heart. Last year in a practice match against Amrita School of Engineering, our team were 6 down and in dire straits. We’d made barely 100 runs and were in danger of getting all out in a 25 over game. I played the remaining overs that day, only made about 30-40 runs, but stuck to the task of getting my team a respectable total. I was peppered with painful bouncers, hit on the head twice, sledged and abused, all part of the modern game, but I refused to get out. We made 146 in our allotted overs, hardly anything to shout about, but still something to bowl at. My team clapped for me when I went back, and that’s a second I’ll cherish for posterity. I would never give it up for anything. That is the reason I play this game. Whirlwind half centuries don’t even come close.
Only the best men ever become great cricketers. The Don, Sachin, Dravid, McGrath, Lara are examples. Men of character, of innate goodness, of strength, of honour. Cricket exemplifies these qualities. It brings out the best in men. It’s the fighters, the scrappers, who become the best players, the players the cricket fan loves, admires & looks up to. Langer, Collingwood, Hussey, Kirsten, Harbhajan, Lee are all examples.
And that is why I’m coming to it for inspiration. It’s been a tough last few months. I’ve lost sight of what I set out to do, lost my way, forgot who I am and where I come from. I’ve been, in one word, bad. I’ve done a few things that I’m utterly ashamed of. To those whom I hurt and traumatised because of my actions, I’m Sorry. I know that word is not enough, but I have no idea what else to say.
I’m gonna try to come back, to again become the boy I once was, to throw away all the bad things I’ve done and to begin, again. I’m gonna go back to my run up, I’m gonna run in again, and I’m gonna bowl my heart out.
The game I love & play has taught me that there’re such things as second chances, but also that you’ve to work really hard for them.
Mine was a well thought out routine. Even though there were buses on this route every five minutes, I preferred this bus that started at about 8.20 am. 29C is one of the busiest routes in Chennai, if not the single most busiest. On an average, it took me 70 minutes to get from Perambur to Adyar, but it’s not at all surprising if on a particularly bad day it takes you 2 hours to reach and on another day, it takes you just 50 minutes. Welcome to Chennai!
And so, a back breaking 2 hours and 20 minutes on a bus, daily. If you started running from my house to Pondicherry beach (that’s probably the whole length of my town), it’d definitely take much less time!
Chennai wakes up late. Even at 8.20, there won’t be many shops and businesses open. But the rush would be on, government employees in uniforms, software pros with plastic ids proclaiming their organisations and of course, not to forget the kids with their huge school bags. On an average, a 29C would have about 2 fights per trip, each way. Immensely more enjoyable than some of the paperbacks I read, they sometimes would culminate in awesome fistfights. Not to mention the ticket checkers, when they came in, a verbal duel is definitely on the cards. Well, I never complained, they make for great time pass on a long bus ride.
Each day brought with it a different story, which I watched from my not-so-comfy window seat. There would be the domestic brawl, the wife brandishing a broomstick and a drunken husband (in a lungi that threatened to fall any second) trying his best to fight back. This was in Otteri, I think. Then there was the absolutely-in-love pair that would be making their way, hand-in-hand to one of the many great hang outs at Nungambakkam. And of course, the quintessential Chennai death procession, complete with a cacophony of drums and dancing men. I saw at least 4 of these, and each one had the same underlying theme – flowers, music and the dancing.
But there is another fact here. Why do I think this is the best route in Chennai and why was I in my best spirits day in and out of a demanding internship? The answer is simple. Two great educational institutions lie on this route – The Stella Mary’s and the Dr.MGR Janaki College. I refrain from further elaboration by simply stating that both of these are women’s colleges and I’m 21 years old (Okay okay 22!!). No further comments.
Sport is critical as well. Every playground I saw was almost always full. Cricket and Basketball being the most played. And when Chennai won the IPL, the celebrations lasted a fortnight, complete with fireworks on the streets and sweet distributions on the bus. The bus drivers and conductors put up posters of Dhoni with the trophy on the sides of the bus. I loved the involvement. These people love their city.
Each great city has a character, an identity. This one has it as well. South India’s sprawling metro is a city to reckon with. The speed at which it moves might be overwhelming at first (It was for me), but once you get in the groove, you become a part of it. You become yet another cog in the wheel of the unstoppable juggernaut that is Chennai.