The Mumbai that made Tendulkar
They're naming gymkhanas after him, they're minting gold coins with his face on it, politicians are falling over each other to honour him, jealous administrators are trying to pull the rug out from under each other's feet, but thankfully they have left alone the places that made Sachin Tendulkar, some of which were made by Tendulkar. More than any other cricketer of his era, Tendulkar has been about his fans. How nice it would have been had the politicians, businessmen and administrators running Indian cricket sent some of them to visit these places in the weeks leading up to his farewell.
The unkempt maidans (fields), the unassuming school, the residential buildings, they all have something genuine to say about Tendulkar. Mumbai cricket even. Mumbai even. They don't stand out or lose their simplicity just because Tendulkar was there. In the week in which Tendulkar will end his international career, it is business as usual in the places where Tendulkar has spent most of his life outside international cricket.
Shivaji Park in Dadar has kids playing even at 11am because the Diwali holidays are on. Different clubs, teams and individuals own plots here, as on other maidans, where they hold their nets sessions, training and games. Some parts of the ground are bald, some have long, untended grass, and some are well taken care of. There is no boundary rope, and no white-paint markings anywhere, though. The young Tendulkar's coach, Ramakant Achrekar, used to teach at the Kamat pitch. Not all the players here can point to it. It is not a patch of great interest.
The Kamat pitch is close to the centre of the ground, leaning towards the northeast. Next to it, a serious match of cricket is on. The whites worn by the kids - no older than 15 - are immaculate, there is no sightscreen, the umpire moves to the other end at the end of the over, and the keeper wears a helmet. The field is pretty attacking, but there is no boundary here either. That's the Mumbai way: you don't think of hitting boundaries, you just bat. You have to run your runs, and are not allowed to hit in the air. "Hawet maaraycha nahee."
These kids have picked up a lot of mannerisms from televised cricket, but the coaches here are making sure they play proper cricket, at least in their formative years. The Bombay school of batsmanship lives on, at least for the time being. There is something peaceful about Shivaji Park despite its being bang in the middle of busy mid-town Dadar. You get to watch innocent cricket, sit in the shade of the many trees, eat sing dana (peanuts) and wonder what others whiling away their time here are up to. Some of them are fast asleep on the benches.
About three kilometres to the southeast is Shardashram, Tendulkar's school since 1984. Except you can't spot it without having gone past it two or three times. The Shardashram residential society opposite the school is more prominent. The school doesn't have a single photo of Tendulkar. The only signs that he - and others like Chandrakant Pandit, Pravin Amre, Vinod Kambli, Ajit Agarkar and more than 100 Ranji cricketers - studied here are the trophies in the cabinet in the principal's office. The board outside is small, the front of the building is rented out to a bank and a gym, and its simple colour scheme makes it look every bit like a school meant for, as principal Krishna Shirsat puts it, the "lower-middle and middle class".
Shirsat used to teach maths and chemistry when Achrekar brought Tendulkar here in 1984. Cricket was the sole reason for his move from a school in his suburb, Bandra. Shardashram would even move its internal exams when they clashed with the cricket. And cricket was all Tendulkar did.
"We used to win everything," says Shirsat. "Harris Shield, Giles Shield, Vinoo Mankad, Matunga Shield… And because we won everything, there would be a first round, second round, third round, and so on. So as soon as the cricket season started in July, you would rarely see Sachin in school." Shisrat would always be available to help Tendulkar, should he need help with maths and chemistry after school hours. When he was selected for Mumbai in 1988-89, the match clashed with a practical board exam, and Shirsat tried to use all his influence to make a special allowance for Tendulkar so he could take the exam after the match.
About two years after Tendulkar enrolled, along came Ragini Desai, a physical training and Hindi teacher, a jovial woman with an expressive face and constantly moving eyes. Achrekar was Shardashram's cricket coach, she was the team's manager. She was present when Achrekar blasted Tendulkar and Kambli for batting on and on and putting on a 664-run partnership against a weak team. She knows of all the vada-pav (a street food) escapades of the two friends, and she has a valuable notebook titled "Cricket".
When she went to matches with the team, Desai recorded brief scores in this notebook. She added clippings from newspapers next to the scores as the kids became more and more famous. She has preserved that notebook, and would love to show it to Tendulkar, but she hasn't ever had the opportunity to meet him after he left school. She hasn't tried to do so either. She would love to go to the Wankhede Stadium for Tendulkar's last match, but she is not complaining about how the chances of getting a ticket are minimal.
This school-playground duo is complemented by the tag team of Sahitya Sahawas and MIG cricket club, further north, in Bandra East. Along the way you pass two other influences on Tendulkar's life: the Siddhivinayak temple where he sneaks in to pray late in the night, and St Michael's church in Mahim, where his wife, Anjali, lights a candle for him every week.
Sahitya Sahawas literally translates to "literature living together". A building in Worli where Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri, Dilip Vengsarkar and Ajit Wadekar lived is named Sportsfield. Sahitya Sahawas is the Sportsfield of Marathi literature. It is where Tendulkar lived as a child. The Tendulkars have neither sold their house here nor rented it out. The guard - stern but not rude - says it will take an application to the secretary of the building a day in advance for him to even point to the window of the Tendulkars.
A stone's throw away, MIG is more open to intruders. A huge Tendulkar mural has come up only a couple of days ago on its main wall. So close to his childhood home, in a city with houses with no outdoor spaces to play sport in, MIG has been Tendulkar's personal laboratory. Over the years - 25 to be precise - MIG has fulfilled his odd wishes, says Aashish Patnakar, the club's secretary.
Before going to Australia, Tendulkar would practise on half-pitches with rubber balls; he got that here. Before going to England he wanted to bat against wet balls on moist, grassy pitches; he got that here. When he was recuperating from a back injury, he wanted to jog here, but not during the day; they would open up for him at 4.30am. During the busy season when all grounds are occupied, Tendulkar can come to MIG and expect to get a proper facility during the lunch break, which is extended to one hour for his benefit.
It is here that Tendulkar and his friend Atul Ranade used to do what technology has just started doing: simulate different bowling actions and release points on a bowling machine. Ranade was a master at doing impressions, and he would run in imitating different bowlers and help Tendulkar prepare for different actions. Even when Tendulkar moved to Bandra West - closer to the sea, posher - he would come here to practise.
In Bandra West, Shirsat went to meet Tendulkar about five years ago at his residence in his new building, La Mer. "I told his PA I wanted to meet Sachin," Shirsat says. "His PA said I would have to wait for 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes later, he came and told me Sachin was too busy. I got angry, and asked the PA to tell Sachin that Shirsat sir has come, does he want to meet him?
"And Sachin came running like a four-five-year-old kid comes running to his parents. And then we spoke for 15 minutes with him looking down. Even in school he would look down after saying something "
Tendulkar has now given up that apartment for a bungalow of his own, not too far away, in the same suburb. A police van outside the bungalow is a permanent presence nowadays. He is also a member of parliament, although the other day he drove himself far into the north of the city, to the suburb of Kandivli, for a Mumbai Cricket Association function. The bungalow now looks like a fortress.
When he was desperate to move in here, he got the workers to do double shifts. The noise in the night obviously disturbed the neighbours. The neighbours were each given a handwritten letter from Tendulkar, asking for their co-operation with the Tendulkars who needed to shift there as soon as possible. No one complained after that.
It's back in south Mumbai that the boy became a man in the world of cricket, playing Kanga League matches in senior sides on wet pitches at Oval Maidan, Cross Maidan and Azad Maidan. His debut as an 11-year-old came for a side housed at Azad Maidan, which is equally well known for being a venue for strikes and agitations. Two days before Tendulkar starts his final Test, about three kilometres from here, fasts until death are being observed for 100% subsidy by the higher-secondary school committee, for railway admissions under notification 1/2007; and an indefinite protest - among others - for an 8% reservation for a particular community. Big photos of Mahatma Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and Che Guevara abound.
Many such protests would have been on when Tendulkar went into the tent of John Bright Club in 1984. These maidans are all heritage sites, so no club can build permanent structures here. The notices outside clearly ban any kind of commercialisation in the form of posters, banners or advertisements on the fences of the maidans; cooking, hawking, peddling et cetera are outlawed; water connections can only be used by proper authorities for "in general, only cricketing activities".
Tendulkar's next club, SF Sassanian, is like John Bright in betraying no signs that Tendulkar was first seen by the cricketing world while playing in the Kanga League for them. All it has for a dressing room is six ramshackle benches and a few cupboards.
All this, Tendulkar's world before he scored a century on first-class debut, hasn't changed much over the years. Everywhere you go, Shivaji Park, Oval Maidan, Azad Maidan, Cross Maidan, you can imagine that curly-haired boy squeaking away - he was quiet only while teachers were around, every teacher of his says - from net to net, from maidan to maidan riding pillion on Achrekar's scooter, having fun with not a bother in the world, eating vada-pavs, going to school once in a while.
You can find a bit of Tendulkar all over Mumbai. And you don't need plaques, commemorative coins or extravagant felicitations to establish that bond.
Click here to look at pictures that mark a few of the important places in Sachin Tendulkar's journey