September 20, 2000

MJ Gopalan: His mere presence is bliss

There are times when a person could find himself at the right place at the right time and get to be part of a truly memorable occasion. There could be no iota of doubt as to what could be in store for an average cricket fan when the occasion could be as significant as a function got up by the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association to herald a new lease of life for the long forgotten Gopalan Trophy. More so since the occasion also offered a glimpse of the man to whom the Trophy has been dedicated - MJ Gopalan.

The prospect of meeting the great man had aroused the curiosity in me since Gopalan was making one of his rare public appearance, while presiding over the function at the MA Chidambaram stadium. All said and done, at his age, the vast experience of this nonagenarian would be manna for any hungry soul. To say the least, Gopalan has etched his name in the annals of sports history in this country and his exploits have become nothing short of grandma's tales - as I found out while traversing my formative years. With this in mind, I had somehow anticipated a great oration from him.

But then the turn came for the 91-year-old former double international to hold the microphone came around, he took to it like a bewildered child. He gave a look over the shoulder towards the TNCA secretary Ashok Kumbhat, which seemed to convey as to why was he made to go through all this. Before long, he cleared his throat and started with the words: "Please excuse me, I am not a good orator..."

I lost track of what he said thereafter as these words started to sink into my mind. I felt my dreams shattered, like an expensive piece of glassware slipping from my hands and breaking into pieces as it hit the floor. What transpired after that might have been of interest for the others present on the occasion. Gopalan dwelt at length about the do's and dont's on and off the field as a cricketer, while wishing the team luck and exhorting the players to be goodwill ambassadors of the game.

My interest through all this was maintained only faintly but throughout his speech which lasted about ten minutes, I kept searching for the broken pieces of my dreams. Perhaps the fault was mine. Blame it on the immense expectations that I had harboured. But what else could the frail old man do? In a way, it was still amazing to find him active enough to make public appearances and then make speeches when others of his age would find it hard to bring their thoughts into focus.

His speech ended and so did the function. I prepared to leave. On the verge of exiting the hall, I stopped and turned to take a final look at Gopalan and saw him rising from his seat. He slowly raised his frail body to its full height, grabbed at the long slender piece of wood for support, steadied himself and prepared to leave.

I had jumped at the opportunity to be in the company of a sporting icon. I had been mesmerised by stories of his deeds and with all the literature that has been written about him. In a way, I was disappointed. And yet, I shall always cherish the three quarters of an hour I spent that evening at the Sriraman Hall all through my life.