The year is 1999. I am plonked on a single-seater couch in my living room. I have discovered Algebra a few months back, and I want to get into IIT. Writing doesn’t interest me yet. I also have a huge inferiority complex because I am not fluent in English; I occasionally stammer while speaking the language. I don’t understand the meaning of most of the words. I definitely don’t understand what ‘postponed’ means, and although I use the word ‘ridiculous’, I don’t really know what that means. I am also scared of girls because I can’t speak to them; also, because they appear a lot fluent in English. Especially hoity-toity girls from that convent school, Mount Carmel. I think ‘love’ happens to people who are both unfairly fortunate and good-looking. I am sure I am neither. And, obviously, I am unaware of the finer joys of masturbation. I do not know words such as indifference, boredom, absurdity, cynicism; words, which years later will dictate most of my adult life. I am doing what I feel the most comfortable doing: watching cricket. An India Pakistan test match. And, we are chewing an abnormally tough rope here. It makes me uncomfortable, but I can’t put a word to that feeling, mostly because I have not experienced that emotion before. It’s called heartbreak. I will understand what that truly means years later, when I would have befriended it, but not right now. Things go according to plan in life. I am not a cynic. Fuck that. I don’t even know what that means.
We are chasing 274 against Pakistan in a test match in Chennai. It’s the fourth day and every run is being applauded. Both because the pitch is diabolical and also because Wasim, Waqar, and Saqlain are relentless. We have lost our way and are reeling at 82/5. Sachin is on the crease, along with Nayan Mongia. There’s got to be a way out of here. Can I do something? I think I can. I go to the puja ghar of my house and light 5 agarbattis (incense sticks). 5 of them for the 5 wickets remaining. This is the least and the most that I can do. I kneel my head down and pray. I know there are 5 agarbattis, but I know am kneeling down for just one. Because that’s supposed to take care of the rest.
I come back to my living room and witness a dogged partnership between Tendulkar and Mongia. There are players all around the bat. Pakistani fielders are sledging with abandon and glee. That atrocious, intimidating ‘Bowling Saqi’, pierces my ears. Soon, Tendulkar struggles with a back pain. The helplessness creeps up again. He better not retire hurt. In comes the team physio with a belt. It’s red in colour. I don’t know what it’s supposed to do but till it makes Sachin feel better, I couldn’t care less. Tendulkar puts it on. And goes on to make a century. It’s by far my favourite Sachin innings. Because of the quality of the opposition, the pressure it exerted, the scarcity of resources Sachin was rallying with, and his own frail body. Moreover, throughout that innings, I have seldom felt so fearful and so alive ever in my life. We are almost home. We need 17 runs to win, and have five wickets in hand. Lighting those agarbattis was a great idea. God obviously takes care of you. Saqlain comes on to bowl and Tendulkar attempts to clear the in-field; the ball is air borne sufficiently, but it hasn’t gone the distance. Instead, it dies in Akram’s hands. 17 runs to win, 4 wickets in hand. Still easy. We end up losing that match by 12 runs. After the match is over, my first instinct is to shout. I feel betrayed, and then when I realize I can’t shout anymore because I am tired, I begin crying. I am alone in the room and I shout to no one in particular that this is the last Indian match that I saw. This is it for me. No more cricket. I do not know what happened to those agarbattis in Puja room.
I try to ask myself so many questions— why is this happening to me? It’s just a stupid game, and Tendulkar is just another player. We lost, so what? But, I am angry right now, and crying is my only form of defense.
Few days later, I am in front of the TV to watch the next test match in Delhi.
My father had a peculiar way of watching a cricket match. When I was growing up, my brother, father, and I used to watch practically every match together. He would sometimes call from work to know the score. The score would invariably be accompanied by the question— is Sachin still batting? And, on days we watched a match together, after the match got over, we would analyze the team’s performance in excruciating detail— what went wrong, what we could have done better, why do we keep repeating the same mistakes. Then, gradually, he stopped watching cricket with us. He would playfully chide us if we would get a tad too excited by Sachin or some other Indian batsman scoring well. He perhaps couldn’t bear us getting disappointed if we started playing badly in the same match. Downplaying and dismissing Indian team became his defence mechanism. Because, God knows, we lost matches by the dozens in the ‘90s. Eventually, he stopped calling from work to ask for scores. Any conversation about cricket resulted in him being overtly cynical, something that never went down well with me, and we ended up having heated conversations. He had stopped watching cricket, and had transformed into an automaton. Our cricket conversations had almost died down. I missed them. I missed my cricket-crazy father.
One night, the sound of cricket commentary woke me up. I went to the living room to see my dad in front of the TV. What was he up to? The answer that he gave me will probably never leave my memory: He had seen Indian team lose so many close matches in the past that he felt he would not be able to enjoy and endure the heartbreak of a nerve dangling live cricket match. So, he had stopped watching them. Instead, the next morning he would just read the scores and if India had won that match, he would watch the ball-by-ball telecast of the match (something ESPN used to do in those days), later in the night. But, why would he do something like that? “Because I know I am not going to be disappointed ultimately,” he had said.
It made me glad that the father I knew had not gone anywhere. He had just changed his timings. I left my hometown at the age of 15, but we would still chat a lot on the phone. And almost every conversation was bookended by: “Did you see that match?”;“Our team is finally finding its groove”; and Sachin. In those days, it was nearly impossible to talk about Indian cricket and not invoke Sachin.
April 2, 2011. I am sitting on the carpet in my apartment in the US, intently looking at the laptop. Sachin gets out early. But, the story is different this time around. 13 years have passed since that Chennai test. I have grown up to understand and internalize, ‘This too shall pass’, but this time I need not. Because Dhoni and Gambhir do it for India. That famous bat-twirl, that swagger, the new India. Before that day, I had only heard, read and watched people crying when they were overwhelmed with happiness. That emotion is still alien to me. I am feeling satisfied, happy, delirious, but am not crying. I am quietly soaking everything in. And then my phone rings. It’s a call from my old man. “Hum jeet gaye. (We won).” And this triggers an avalanche of memories. Because this hum, doesn’t merely mean that India has won. It also means that my dad and I have won. The ‘90s is well past us. Of countless debates, disappointments, desperation, helplessness, and wretchedness, and I see my childhood flash in front of me, and I break down. I quickly disconnect the call and cry for minutes, alone.
The next two years, I, like everyone else, would see Sachin’s fall from grace. The only difference, some would be oblivious to it, but the cynic in me is alive and kicking. Even roaring. I also cut down on watching cricket. Too many things have cropped up. And I don’t want to see Sachin struggling against the likes of Boult and Lyon. It’s embarrassing. Why couldn’t he have retired after the world cup? And I shudder whenever someone calls him “God” now. Around ten years back, I would have switched off the television whenever Sachin used to get out, now I close the live streaming browser on my laptop when he comes on to bat. I don’t want to be a party to this embarrassment. But, every now and then, the memories of Sachin revisit me. What he was and what he has become. But it’s still difficult to let go.
November, 2013. I have moved back to India for good. And, I also know something has died in me with respect to cricket and Sachin. It’s just not the same anymore. Maybe everything has a shelf life? Who knows. But, it’s still his final match. I try to procure tickets for the final test. I cannot. But when offered a chance to pay Rs. 5000 for a 1000 rupee ticket, I refuse the offer. I wouldn’t have had it been two years back. Not now. Not for this Sachin.
November 13, 2013. It’s few minutes past 12 and am at work. I have no idea about the score. It didn’t even occur to me to take a look. It’s then a colleague informs me that the West Indies team has bundled out and that’s it. Final few minutes to watch Sachin in Indian colours. I am reluctant but I give in. For old time’s sake. I watch the entire presentation ceremony, but I am unsettled the entire time because I can’t feel…anything. I am sitting in front of the laptop strangely insensate. I would ideally want to cry to vent it out. A couple of years back, I could not have imagined my reaction on the day Sachin called it quits. I see outpouring of messages for the man on social media and I tell myself, ‘I probably know how it feels but somehow, strangely, I don’t.’ But, I feel terribly guilty. I don’t know why. It feels as if I have betrayed my childhood.
But, I still want to label this feeling. It has to be something. My life has almost run parallel to his cricketing career. That has to account for something, hasn’t it? But I hate the vacuum that’s engulfing me right now. Also, it’s a new place, populated by new people and I can’t possibly tell them what this day means to me and what I should do about it. Maybe it’s the effect of watching a lot of European cinema. Crying and being sentimental is so uncool. The last 15 odd years have not only changed Tendulkar, they have also changed me. And I am no longer sure if the new me even remembers that high-school kid who burnt incense sticks for Sachin. He’s just a distant, odd memory now. I also steal some moments to smoke alone just in the vain hope that I cry, but it doesn’t happen. The damn tears just won’t materialize. But, I don’t want to wallow in this feeling for long.
So, later in the night, I call up my old man. We have not been talking much on the phone for the last few months. I know I should but a new city, long hours at work, exhaustion, and thousand other things have kept me occupied. In fact, I have stopped talking to almost anyone on the phone now. I don’t even know this new me. But, I still call him up. He picks up the call. “You know Sachin has retired,” I say. He says he does. We waste the next few seconds inquiring how the other has been. And then he says, “Tumko to Sachin se bahut tha na? (You were so attached to Sachin, right?)” And similar to that afternoon of 2nd April, I break down again. Just because I am talking to someone who knows what it means. And probably makes me understand what it means without overtly stating so. I disconnect the call soon. I sit down on my knees; place my head on the table and cry. Cry loudly. I don’t know whom am I crying for? Am I crying for Sachin? Am I crying for my childhood, which feels so alien to me right now? Am I crying for the fact that I should call my father more often? Am I crying because I have lost my innocence and can’t do anything about it?
When I had cried after India had won the world cup, I was feeling ecstatic, nostalgic and relieved. What does this bawling signify? I can’t slot this feeling. But, if I think enough, out of the many, the dominant feeling has to be the one of guilt, and an inaccessible sadness and pity. It’s always nice to see people for what they are but it’s also not too bad to see them for what they were and how they made you feel. Nostalgia is often the crutch of people who are lazy and inarticulate. And, yet, this doesn’t feel like transgression.
I can go on to being stoic and cynic from tomorrow. But, today, it somehow just doesn’t feel right. That agarbatti lighting kid would strongly disapprove. And, I don’t want to lose him today. I hope he’s still alive somewhere in me.