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Two years ago India won their second World Cup, casting a luminous spell that lent the illusion of lasting greatness
April 2, 2013
It seemed all boundaries had become redundant, time itself made fluid; both the nostalgia of past memories and the adrenaline of impending celebrations flowed like tributaries into the present moment. The senses suffered from a kind of excess; the pandemonium in the middle, the uninterrupted announcements on the giant screen, the fireworks shooting off the roof and lighting up the already hazy sky. The spectators around me seemed not to know what the hell to do with themselves. They chanted, danced, sang and yet the expended energy did not feel adequate to the occasion. Perhaps nothing would have.
Even though I could no longer feel like a fan, the adrenaline was such that, without thinking, I ran to the press box from the stand. No time for celebration here; everyone was glued to their laptops, as if in a trance. Phone calls were answered swiftly, as one would during a military operation. The broadsheets cared about nothing else tomorrow and the editors kept ringing with an almost nonstop demand for more and more stories.
In the centre, innumerable sub-plots unfolded: the entire Indian team scurrying from the pavilion and converging on Dhoni; Yuvraj collapsing in pure tears; the Sri Lankans mournful to a fault, as if they had all gambled away their houses. And it was only later that I could weave through the diffuseness of it all and dissect it moment by moment. At the Wankhede, the sub-plots quickly gave way to the narrative that would inevitably occupy centre stage.
Kohli, seizing the moment, lifted Tendulkar onto his shoulders and carried him around his home ground. The crowd quietened into a reverential hush, as if witnessing the passing of a saint. Applause broke out in the press box and, for the only time, it did not feel unprofessional. The little man had transcended partisanship. The symbolism of the moment was powerful, in more ways than one, for it was a night where the young had made up for the failures of the old guard. And yet, despite all that, it appeared such an ordinary thing. Without the magnifying lens of television, it seemed such an ordinary way to commemorate a man's quest stretching more than two decades. Like so many other things that evening, the gravity of this moment could only be felt later.
At the presentation, Sangakkara was ambassadorial as ever. "With this Indian batting line-up, you're never safe unless you get over 350," he said. "Both Sri Lanka and India can be proud of the way we've played, but the better side won." As the Sri Lankans collected their medallions, I felt for these cricketers who typified both exuberance and humility. Gracefulness in defeat, self-effacement in victory; the Sri Lankans alone seemed repositories of old-school qualities disappearing in this age of brashness.
To nobody's surprise, Yuvraj was voted man-of-the-tournament. His renaissance was complete; plagued with self-doubt at the beginning, he thrillingly grew in confidence as the tournament wore on, ending up with 362 runs and fifteen wickets. It was a decision that could have been made without a jury. Facing Ravi Shastri, whose tiring baritone felt the only repetitive element this evening, Yuvraj's face revealed the exertions of sustained crying. He spoke rapidly and thanked an unlikely assortment of people. These included his spiritual gurus as well as Narendra Hirwani, who had been helping him with his left-arm spin. Finally exhausted, he said, "Tonight's going to be a good night."
|Dhoni's poise, so tightly held, had all but vanished, replaced by giggly fits of laughter that he shared with Yuvraj|
Minutes later, once all the talking was done, the wieldy golden ball on three stilts, which had obsessed a nation for so long, was theirs. The twenty-eight-year wait had ended. India had won the World Cup, becoming in the competition's thirty-six-year history the first team to do so on home soil.
One false note was the BCCI's shameless attempt to make immediate political capital of the win, announcing cash prizes even before the confetti could come down. The momentary distaste was forgotten as another parade made its way around the ground, this time a large gold object gleaming within the masses of blue shirts. Far away in a corner near the pavilion, Sourav Ganguly stood in his commentator's garb. A still figure in his grey suit, he observed friends, protégés and others, all uniformly sweaty, soaked and delirious. It was impossible not to feel his pride, for he had planted the seed for the defiance, the self-confidence that now seemed so natural. He was the man with whom it had all begun; his circumstance another instance of how sport, like life, can sometimes be a relay and those who begin a race may not always see its end.
To his credit, Dhoni did not forget to name-check him - along with Kumble, Dravid and Tendulkar. "It was their contribution that has paved the way for us to win today." It was the only coherent statement he made in the entire press conference. His poise, so tightly held, had all but vanished, replaced by giggly fits of laughter that he shared with Yuvraj. Minutes ago, when they arrived, a large section of journalists had abandoned the last shred of ethical distance and mobbed them like fans. And now, as Yuvraj kept pestering his captain to give shorter answers, Dhoni found himself repeatedly in the grip of uncontrollable laughter. Amidst all this, one journalist was alert enough to ask Yuvraj: now that the World Cup was won, who was the 'special person' he had been playing for? The answer revealed itself to be the worst anti-climax. "Sorry to disappoint you guys, it's not my girlfriend, it's Sachin Tendulkar." This answer seemed the last interesting thing to be gleaned from this interaction. In a way, not unlike the first press conference of the tournament, the media had run out of questions in the last one too.
Minutes ago, during the parade with the trophy, I had returned to the stand and found Andy Zaltzman already stationed there. Dhoni's innings had converted him into a fanboy. "The showmanship of that last shot..." he trailed off, half-talking to himself. "He's got balls of steel." And then, standing less than a hundred metres from Marine Drive, he asked, "Where should I go to see some celebrations?"
Three weeks after the Bombay attacks in November 2008, at the Asia Society in New York, Salman Rushdie read out some extracts from his novel The Moor's Last Sigh:
Bombay was central, had been so from the moment of its creation: the bastard child of a Portuguese-English wedding, and yet the most Indian of Indian cities. In Bombay all Indias met and merged. In Bombay, too, all-India met what-was-not-India, what came across the black water to flow into our veins. Everything north of Bombay was North India, everything south of it was the South. To the east lay India's East, and to the west, the world's West. Bombay was central; all rivers flowed into its human sea.
It was an ocean of stories; we were all its narrators, and everybody talked at once. What magic was stirred into that insaan-soup, what harmony emerged from that cacophony!... O Beautifiers of the City, did you not see that what was beautiful in Bombay was that it belonged to nobody, and to all? Did you not see the everyday live-and-let-live miracles thronging its overcrowded streets?
Bombay was central. In Bombay, as the old founding myth of the nation faded, the new god-and-mammon India was being born. The wealth of the country flowed through its exchanges, its ports. Those who hated India, those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay..."
For anyone who lived through the terror of those days, the nausea escalating as the hours passed, it was impossible not to feel moved today. In an endless magnetic churn, droves in vehicles and on foot spilled onto all four kilometres of Marine Drive. The Queen's Necklace appeared so full of people that it seemed this human congregation was constrained only by the vast darkness of the sea beyond. It was a scene that was being replicated all over urban India. My cousin called from Delhi to congratulate; presently she was trapped in a jam stretching over many kilometres on the way to India Gate. The same was true of friends heading towards Calcutta's Park Street, the arterial Anna Salai in Chennai and Bangalore's MG Road. After travelling in an empty local to Wankhede this morning, the effect was slightly disorienting for me: the ominous, gripping urban silence all day and now this eruption by night.
I was lucky to find Aditya, for we spoke just before mobile networks across the country became jammed. He had been watching the game at a friend's place not far away and now he appeared just outside the stadium. I was surprised by the intensity with which we hugged. We were supposed to join in with another group of friends. I had called one of them a few minutes ago. "We are all at the Taj!" he yelled through the noise. They were waiting for the team bus to arrive at the hotel and would make their way back to Marine Drive once they had fulfilled the obligatory fan duties.
Twenty minutes later, the possibility of re-establishing contact through phone had evaporated. Aditya and I stood at the intersection of Veer Nariman Road and Marine Drive, guessing that our friends would take this route back to the apartment in Churchgate where all of them had camped. Meanwhile we stood and watched the procession of waving flags and honking cars. After a while, the scene seemed hypnotic; the cars and flags gave off the dizzying illusion of emanating from an inexhaustible conveyor belt. A distraction appeared in the form of Aamir Khan, who arrived in a SUV and swiftly disappeared into a hotel. Once in his hotel room many floors above, he waved to the crowd. As we waited, Aditya and I watched too, wondering at the meaning of it all. What did a Bollywood star have to do with any of this? Soon after, I spotted our friends, walking back in single file because of the crush.
The apartment in Churchgate had been carved out of a large terrace. It belonged to a friend working at a national newspaper, whose office lay below. A group of five or six, all of my friends were attired in the requisite fan gear; blue jerseys and faces painted with the tricolour. On their way back, they chanted "India, India" to the inhabitants of passing cars. Sometimes it was the other way around, fans on the roofs of cars rousing us all to sing collectively; an extraordinary spirit of camaraderie existed. I could not take part in it fully, having lost the pure, consuming faith that allows one to be a fan.
Not long after, a fatigue overcame my friends. Victory, with its definitive sense of closing the narrative, left them feeling empty. As anxiety was dissipated and hope fulfilled, an inexplicable vacuum began to take root. On the terrace, they resumed drinking, something they had begun doing once the game's outcome seemed more or less certain. I called a friend travelling in South Africa, whose research among the Indian community had been brought to a halt. "There was no chance of interviewing anyone today," she told me from a bar in Durban.
Around four, Aditya, increasingly restive, indicated he would like to head back home to Andheri. There would have been little point in trying to do so earlier, but now the background noise of chanting and honking showed the first signs of wavering. I kept demurring for a while. The ride back to his house would signify the end of the journey and I felt a great need to cling on to these last moments. Around five, with the first intimations of dawn, I gave in. We hailed a cab on Marine Drive, where traffic had lightened considerably. The party was getting over, kept alive only by a defiant few who still had not had their fill. I observed these few cars, still chanting, still honking away and immediately a great sadness came over me. Six weeks, beginning in Dhaka, had somehow disappeared and already in this Bombay night they were becoming memory.
|My cousin called from Delhi to congratulate; she was trapped in a jam stretching over many kilometres on the way to India Gate. The same was true of Calcutta's Park Street, the arterial Anna Salai in Chennai and Bangalore's MG Road|
For the national press, the triumph inevitably became part of the larger narrative of a rising India. "ON TOP OF THE WORLD," roared the Times of India in capital letters, echoing the general tenor. The final allowed these metaphors infinite play; where the old stalwarts Sachin and Sehwag had stuttered, the young had seized the day. In crisis their confidence did not wane; instead it expressed itself magnificently. This energy, this infectious self-belief, was present too in the celebrations that followed. This triumph was seen as an affirmation - not validation - of India's place in the world.
What also struck me later was the near-complete absence of anti-Pakistan rhetoric. There had been similar celebrations three days earlier, but the euphoria had largely emanated from defeating an old sporting rival and reaching the final. And now that victory seemed completely forgotten; evidence of how far Pakistan had retreated from the national imagination.
This, too, was tied to the conviction in India's ascent as a superpower. Nourished over the past decade, it had grown - despite the evidence - into a powerful myth. Therefore it was a surprise to see how quickly it would unravel. Over the following months, as pessimism and doubt grew, the team's fall mirrored the national mood. The downward curve, not surprising after the exertions of a great triumph, was still steeper than many had expected. But as Dhoni's men were swept aside and humiliated in England and Australia, they uncannily reflected the predicament of a country that seemed to have lost its way. What had appeared a new beginning instead turned out to be rudderless, middle-aged stupor.
We took the Worli Sea Link back to Andheri. Through the large spires of the bridge, the first rays of sunlight were restoring blueness to the Arabian Sea. A few revellers, still chanting vigorously, overtook our cab. Even in these early hours of the morning, their enthusiasm showed no signs of relenting. Immediately they raised the spirits of everyone they passed. Their chants hung in the morning air, as they left us trailing behind. In those heady hours, how ridiculous it would have seemed to argue that the future would not be kind, to feel or know that a luminous spell had lent the illusion of lasting greatness. The young women and men, more or less my age, who claimed the streets, riding on the roofs of cars, impressed more on the observer than mere exhilaration. It was as if they were strutting on the world stage, confident in the singular belief that their moment had arrived.
Excerpted with permission from Triumph in Bombay: Travels During the Cricket World Cup by Vaibhav Vats, Penguin Viking, publishing June 2013
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