The lucky chair placed at exactly five feet from the television, the sleeves of the lucky t-shirt folded adequately to make the left one slightly longer than the right, the lucky wristband washed furiously to make it look immaculately white. Three sips of water (no less, no more) from a bottle placed perpendicular to the chair, a couple of bites of the nails on the middle finger (on both hands), an earnest look towards the skies (or more specifically, towards the ceiling fan) and I am ready, at last, to watch Sachin Tendulkar bat.
This used to be my checklist every time the world’s most celebrated batsman took to the crease; and no, at the time it did not feel weird. It felt as if I were paying homage, in my own little way, to witness greatness. For I was not merely obsessed with Tendulkar, I had begun to worship him – the man who could do no wrong, the man who carried the hopes of a nation, the man who had risen to be the God of cricket.
It has been seven-and-a-half years since Tendulkar’s retirement. In that time, my lucky chair has been relegated to being just another ordinary piece of furniture, with my lucky t-shirt lying crumpled somewhere in my wardrobe, and my lucky wristband looking anything but white. The only immaculate thing during this period has been the state of my fingernails.
A Repository Of Rituals
It was sometime in the middle of 2006 when an eight-year-old me watched Tendulkar get out on 35 in consecutive innings (or so my memory tells me). That is when I decided that if and when he happened to reach that fateful score, I would only listen to the commentary, with my eyes resting on the floor, until I heard that he had scored at least one more run. Naturally, I would be relieved every time he scampered for a two or sent the ball gliding past the bowler while on 34.
As a child, I had never understood the fuss around the intricate ceremonies at festivals all year round. Those excesses seemed rather inane to me, collective acts of stupidity that nobody wished to call out. But the same logic did not apply to watching Tendulkar bat, probably because the stakes were too high. It did not matter to me what oblations went into the fire to complete a yajna or what items went missing from the decoration of the Christmas tree. But it did matter an awful lot if Tendulkar lunged too far outside his off-stump and edged his second ball to first slip.
Somewhere in the recesses of my imagination, my young, naive self had started relating to Tendulkar’s performances as my own. Every time he went out to bat, it felt as if I were batting with him, even as him. Just that I was rarely watching the ball.
An Icon for Innocent Times
There was a certain propriety to the Tendulkar aura being circumscribed to the cricket field. Yes, he would frequently pop up on advertisements or illuminate the occasional television show with fifteen minutes of his exalted presence. But there were no Instagram posts saying “onto the next one” after every march, no ream of footage documenting every step of his personal life, no angry replies to trolls on Twitter.
Whenever a controversy arose around the Indian team – be it a sluggish start to the 2003 World Cup in South Africa, the nexus of senior players against Greg Chappell in 2006-07, or the monkey-gate scandal from Sydney in 2008 – Tendulkar served as a lighting rod. He did not polarise, he did not provoke. In a country riven by class, caste, creed, and competence, Tendulkar remained adored by all.
As I began to explore my fandom for Tendulkar, I realised I wasn’t the only one who would switch off their television sets once Tendulkar got out, convinced (rightly or wrongly) that the rest of the batting line-up would disintegrate with all the grace of a collapsing scaffold. Nor was I the only one who would try to emulate the values Tendulkar brought to his game – enterprise, excellence, and above all, an unflinching equanimity.
Thanks to his non-partisan celebrity, Tendulkar had become for India what French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss would call “a floating signifier”. Here was a God who could be moulded by his devotees into whatever shape they wanted.
If the country needed a hero to be a symbol of a rising middle class, embracing globalisation and neoliberalism, Tendulkar was there to be that symbol. If the country needed a spotless ambassador to endorse everything from luxury cars to soft drinks to mutual funds, Tendulkar was there to be that ambassador. And, of course, if the country needed a name to thunder across the stands of India’s most historic stadiums, Tendulkar was there to be that name.
Divorced of political patronisation and regional appropriation (the IPL only came in 2008), Tendulkar was an icon for innocent times, infinitely malleable as an idea, endlessly memorable in reality.
A Godless World
After Tendulkar delivered a stirring farewell speech at the Wankhede stadium in November 2013, Indian cricket did not miss the Master Blaster. Able deputies had already been installed to take world class batsmanship forward.
And yet, the Indian consciousness felt diminished, dispossessed of an anchor who had steered emotions seamlessly for more than two decades.
From a devotee, I had returned to being a fan. I still watched India play, still soaked in the victories, and still felt the pang of defeats. But there were no more rituals, no more batting with, or as, God.
Tendulkar has done precious little of note since retirement. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he has neither immersed himself in nurturing the future of Indian cricket (à la Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble) nor manoeuvred his way into the most powerful corridors of cricketing administration (à la Sourav Ganguly). Appearances in the commentary box have been rare, appearances in Parliament rarer still.
The most attention Tendulkar has received since hanging up his boots came in February this year when he was part of a bandwagon of celebrities on Twitter endorsing the Modi government’s public messaging campaign on the contentious farm bills.
I was not surprised by Tendulkar’s choice (if, at all, it had been much of a choice) to parrot the pro-government propaganda. Off the pitch, he has hardly been one to stand up to authority, ask uncomfortable questions or answer them.
What I was surprised by was how quickly India’s public sphere had been appalled by Tendulkar’s tweets. Articles denounced Tendulkar’s “moral timidity”, memers had a field day replacing Tendulkar’s India trousers with khaki shorts resembling those of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and so-called lifelong Tendulkar supporters revealed themselves as instant turncoats, hailing Dravid, who is not on Twitter, as the superior batsman and role model.
Suddenly, Tendulkar was perceived to be complicit in the malfeasance of the Indian government. Suddenly, a hundred glittering centuries had receded into the background. Suddenly, the God of cricket was just another high-profile sellout.
For my part, condemning Tendulkar seemed perfectly pointless. A barrage of social media backlash was not going to convert him into a crusader for social justice.
Nonetheless, I wondered whether Tendulkar’s tweets would eventually serve to taint my memories of him, whether I would regret having worshipped someone who proved to be not only anodyne, but all too pliable, away from the 22 yards.
Tendulkar, whether he really wanted to or not, had begun to polarise, had begun to provoke.
The answer became clear when Tendulkar returned to bat for the Road Safety World Series in March, an exhibition tournament comprising retired internationals. I had missed out on the first match, where India Legends made light work of their Bangladeshi counterparts. On watching the highlights, a chill went down my spine. For there, yet again, was the flawless Tendulkar straight drive, the imperious high elbow adorning a crunching stroke through the covers, the exquisite pull shot played with all the time in the world.
For India’s remaining four matches of the series, I was glued to my television. It dawned on me that there was no cognitive dissonance between my devotion towards Tendulkar the batsman and my apathy towards Tendulkar the public figure. Perhaps this distinction made me unqualified to be a card-carrying social justice warrior. Perhaps it made me a passive condoner of authoritarianism at a time when virtue signalling dictates that every dissenter be a 24X7 activist. Perhaps this, perhaps that.
As Tendulkar danced down the track and effortlessly lobbed a six into the stands, I shuffled with glee in my lucky chair. My lucky t-shirt had been rediscovered, my lucky wristband given a thorough wash.
I had become a worshipper once more.
(This is a personal blog, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)