Notes from Kolkata's 'Sachin festival'
Sunday, November 3
There are few chhaatas out in Kolkata. The rains are over, the sun is not that harsh. The umbrella, that quintessential companion of the bhadralok [gentle folk], has been left at home; the weather is just too good.
This is possibly the best time of the year to be here, but there is a hitch: India continues to pretend Kolkata and regions of the country further east don't need a separate time zone. By a quarter past five, it's pitch dark, although it is not cold yet. The light falls suddenly, and with a finality. One moment it looks good enough to even play cricket in, the next moment it is dark.
The sun has also begun to set on Sachin Tendulkar's 24-year international career. Tonight he will land in Kolkata, along with other Test specialists from the west - Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane - for his penultimate and 199th Test. The latter of the two is expected to take Tendulkar's place once he retires.
"You mast go to receibh Shochin at the airport," you are told. So you do what you must. Rahane slips quietly out of the airport, unidentified, as Tendulkar is mobbed, gifted bouquets, a saree for puja, flowers. The carousels inside the airport are rolling, but no one cares about the luggage. Tendulkar lets people take photos, signs a few autographs, and tells the Cricket Association of Bengal officials to send the gifts to his hotel room.
If he finds it excessive - he has a pretty emotional Test series to play - he doesn't let it show. It's also because he possibly hasn't heard what's in store during what the CAB calls "not Diwali but Sachin festival".
An album by a local artist with 11 songs about Tendulkar has been launched, tableaus and hoardings are all over the city. All this has already happened. Promised by the CAB in the next week: the launch of a coin with Tendulkar's face on it for the toss, 70,000 Tendulkar masks on day one, placards that will together compose a giant Tendulkar face when lifted overhead on day two, helium balloons with Tendulkar's face on them to be released on day three, the chief minister to felicitate him on day four, 199 kilos of rose petals to be showered from a low-flying aircraft on day five. This sunset is definitely not sudden.
Monday, November 4
Time for a staged welcome to Eden. Kids wearing white t-shirts with Tendulkar's face on them form a guard at the entrance, a hurriedly done wax statue of Tendulkar stands outside the Indian dressing room, the music album released recently plays, flower bombs go off, and confetti sprays. Tendulkar walks briskly through into his dressing room but promises photographers he will pose with the statue.
Susanta Ray, the sculptor who made the waxwork, is among those who wait hours for Tendulkar to finish yet another meticulous training session. Ray wasn't given any measurements for this statue. He took a photograph, searched on the internet for Tendulkar's height, bought the clothes and pads and arm guard from a local sports shop, emblazoned the BCCI logo on the shirt, and dressed the statue. For him it is worth it when Tendulkar finally comes out and poses in front of the statue with him.
Azad Hind dhaba in Ballygunge. Along with a few other dhabas, refuge for creatures of the night. Home to another artist. The great painter MF Husain used to eat here. The owners wouldn't charge him, but to show his appreciation he painted a mural on one of the walls. Far away, near the Shahid Khudiram metro station, is a studio-cum-house with a painting partly done by Tendulkar.
Sanatan Dinda, a much-renowned painter from Kolkata, was told one fine day in 2008 by a friend that Tendulkar was looking for his mobile number. Tendulkar wanted a painting from Dinda's Yugpurush series, and he wanted it urgently because he was leaving the next morning. He had seen the painting in someone's house, and had been looking for its creator ever since. Dinda delivered the painting, and began a friendship with an art connoisseur.
Tendulkar once commissioned a painting too, which Dinda delivered. Tendulkar said, "I like it, but don't mind, there is a small problem with it." Dinda says it came as a revelation to him - there indeed was a problem.
Two years ago Tendulkar called Dinda up when in Kolkata and said he was coming to his house for an adda. "But Sachin, I am a small, unknown man," Dinda said. "No, you might be unknown, but you are great at what you do, and that's what matters," Tendulkar said.
So Dinda received Tendulkar at his house. He made Tendulkar paint a little, and then worked on the strokes left by Tendulkar to come up with a priceless piece that is not up for sale. Now that Tendulkar is retiring, Dinda has done a portrait of him, as part of the Yugpurush series, which has included Gautam Buddha, Rabindranath Tagore and Lord Shiva among others. Yugpurush literally means a man who comes once in an era. You can't argue with the assessment.
Tuesday, November 5
There has been a story on the wires quoting a CAB official that Tendulkar has expressed his displeasure at the board going over the top with the celebrations. It is quite imaginable, except it didn't happen. Tendulkar has not said such a thing to anyone. He knows of the story, and is believed to be pretty miffed. The CAB is quick to release a statement saying the said official has been misquoted. What the association should worry about is the scenes right outside its ground.
Ticket stall outside Eden Gardens. The clerk says they're sold out. A man whisks you away and offers you a season ticket marked at Rs 1500 for Rs 3500. I want to look at it first, you say. The tout goes to the stall that didn't have a ticket and comes out with a stash. He ridicules you when you say you won't pay extra.
The frustrating part is, it won't be a full house. Most state associations in India remain in power by distributing free tickets to clubs, authorities and everybody else who is influential. That has left only 6500 for the man on the street in this case. You know the ground is not going to be full because you see about 50 people with complimentary tickets trying to sell them. These are the small percentage who actually have the time to come out and sell them; others really don't care. Inside, those visitors who bought their tickets off ticketgenie.com are struggling to explain to the babus what an online sale is. They are in for a long fight.
Disgusted, you walk inside and sit in the stands. Tendulkar is two matches away from quitting what he has loved doing most in his life, what he has been doing since the age of 16, and everybody is exploiting the fact.
In the nets, though, everything is forgotten. This is his sanctuary. Under the helmet, everything stops mattering. The same rigour, the same meticulousness. First the fast bowlers, then the spinners. Once he is done, the pads don't come off. One reason for that is, if he is not wearing pads, he might not be able to stop himself from bowling in the nets, a sacrifice he has made because of injuries.
The other being the fabled throwdowns he faces. He wants more of them. It is fielding coach Trevor Penney's turn to test his shoulder. Gary Kirsten used to throw balls with his bare hands; coaches nowadays have a device called Sidearm. The effort is not even in the same ballpark. Somewhere, with a sore shoulder, Kirsten will tune in tomorrow. As Tendulkar knocks fists with Penney in gratitude at the end of the session, you realise this could be the last time you see a proper Tendulkar training session. Eden Gardens at least lets people watch practice; Wankhede Stadium next week will throw everybody out.
What fun it has been to watch Tendulkar in the nets over the years. The precision, the minor adjustments, his game continually evolving to meet the demands of the time, the pitches and the opposition. The time he got Ishant Sharma to get his length right and told him what exactly troubles batsmen. The time he got hold of a bowling machine and hit Harbhajan Singh all over the body and laughed like a little child. The stories of his fielding practice when Kapil Dev was around, when the two used to throw from the centre pitch into the stands. The stories of his contests with the best batsmen of the team when he still used to bowl.
Wednesday, November 6
Morning of the Test. Reach the ground half an hour before the toss. Lucky to find a rag somewhere. You have to wipe your seat yourself, you see. These haven't been dusted for months. Only the Club House, where all the influential people sit, has been cleaned. Half the seats are empty. What a shame. If somebody wants to honour Tendulkar on his retirement, please give his fans tickets and clean seats, not him flowers and silver banyan trees with gold leaves.
Down on the field, a young India player at the fine-leg boundary motions to Dharamvir Singh to get him a bottle of Gatorade. Dharamvir is a boy who has become a man while following the Indian team. He travels wherever he can, insists he wants to retrieve balls when the team is practising, and somehow manages to procure a ball-boy pass everywhere he goes. He is also crippled and crawls on all fours, and is now serving a young India player Gatorade he has fetched from about 200 metres away. You can't imagine Tendulkar being so callous. They might replace Tendulkar the batsman but how will they ever replace the man?
Or the mischievous bowler who can bowl everything? Tendulkar's relationship with Eden as a bowler has been as good as it has been for him as a batsman. That Hero Cup final over. The exploitation of a turning pitch and an intimidating crowd on the final day of the legendary 2000-01 Test against Australia. Today he comes on to bowl just before tea and lands the first legbreak on a length and in front of off. The next one is a massive googly that beats the batsman and the keeper. The fourth ball doesn't turn much, and Shane Shillingford is trapped in front. Tendulkar is happy, Eden is happy, India is happy.
Thursday, November 7
Thirty thousand faces turn to the Indian dressing room. They don't care M Vijay has been out stumped and is not happy with something - as he seems to be in need of a crane to take him off the field. After all, this is the second wicket India have lost. Some are even cheering. Everybody is up. All eyes on the dressing room. Tendulkar puts on his arm guard, then the helmet, then dries his hands before putting the gloves on, and walks out. The roof comes off the building. Under the helmet, behind that wall, Tendulkar looks up to adjust to the light. He takes guard. He prepares to face. That noise refuses to come down.
This is awesome, this is also tense. This is awesome tension. This 30,000-person band has got the chorus right: Sachiiiiiin, Sachin. Even a forward-defensive draws a roar out of the crowd. How does Sachin concentrate? This takes an awful amount of focus. This is not a 100-metre dash. This is not T20. This is not tennis where you can run the tension off. There are minutes spent standing still with your name being chanted. You know if you get out, all of them will shut up. They might even leave. And you have a Test innings to build.
Steve Waugh and Glenn McGrath have spoken about this crowd phenomenon. When Tendulkar was at his attacking best, it completely demoralised the fielders. That noise in their ears with every boundary used to annihilate their spirit. By the time they would get used to the noise, Tendulkar would already be 40 not out.
He is not the same Tendulkar nowadays. He likes to graft his innings, accumulate without risk, needs to concentrate harder. It cannot be easy with such noise. You want the crowd to be loud when you are bowling, so the batsmen can't concentrate. Not when you are batting. Not in a Test match. The crowd: Tendulkar's friend, Tendulkar's nemesis.
Forty-one minutes later, the crowd is stunned into silence when Umpire Nigel Llong's right index finger goes parallel to the ground, though the doosra from Shillingford was sailing over the stumps. The crowd turns against Llong. One advises 12th-man Ishant Sharma to take a pair of prescription glasses for the umpire when he goes out with the drinks. Another wants Llong to come to long-on, and they'll "see him". The local papers the next day will term him "villain". All this in response to the dismissal of a man who has always taken bad decisions in his stride.
Rohit Sharma and R Ashwin, though, rescue India from 83 for 5. Rohit, who has waited for this chance so long he has set the record for most ODIs before a Test, looks up at the sky upon reaching his hundred. That's a celebration Tendulkar started after his father died, suggesting Ramesh Tendulkar has been watching over him from above. Nowadays everybody in India looks up at the sky after getting his hundred. They grew up watching him celebrate hundreds; they are now doing it at international level, and Tendulkar is still there.
Friday, November 8
The CAB has not delivered on its promises. The masks arrive a day late. The placards that will become a giant face don't turn up. The balloons are set off, but they are not as cool as the masks. The crowd, of course, have to clean their own chairs every day; not even newspapers are allowed inside. The match is over in three days, with West Indies batting incompetently. You wonder if their way of spoiling Tendulkar's party - an intention they kept repeating in the lead-up to the series - was to let him bat only once.
Everybody who wants to draw mileage from this occasion has to change plans with alacrity. The chief minister is good at it, and turns up. The aircraft with rose petals doesn't.
Tendulkar rushes out of the city the same night. It leaves in tears Ragunath Basak, the masseur known as Pintu da, whose services are utilised every time India are in Kolkata, though they have two other masseurs travelling with them.
Pintu has been working with Tendulkar since 1991, and has moved ahead in life thanks to the association. He even named his son Sachin. Pintu has been without work as a cricket masseur after Pune Warriors were terminated. He says Tendulkar himself brought the topic up when here this time, and said he would try to do something about it.
During the cab ride home, he says Tendulkar once had lunch with him, and rebuked him when he left food unfinished. "There are so many dying of hunger in India," Tendulkar said. "Never disrespect food."
Along the way, Pintu gets a call from a man whose wife has reportedly been cooking for Tendulkar when he has been in Kolkata, ever since the time Dilip Vengsarkar took Tendulkar to the couple's house for the first time, in 1987. Pintu tells the man he has told - as required - Virat Kohli that this man's wife cooks really well, and that he should keep it in mind whenever he comes to Kolkata. Another big player has to be found as Tendulkar goes away.
When you reach Pintu's house, there are people waiting to interview him. In he goes, and lays out on the bed all the memorabilia Tendulkar has gifted him, all the photographs with Tendulkar. Personal gifts out for everyone to see. The young Sachin Basak is asked to come and sit on the bed. He doesn't like it but he is made to talk to the camera.
Saturday, November 9
The caravan has left Kolkata. It's eerie at Eden. People keep coming to ask for refunds for the fourth and fifth days, which of course cannot happen because the match has been decided on its own volition.
A few have come on a train from a faraway coastal village in Odisha. When they boarded the train they had no clue West Indies would fold so spectacularly.
Play cricket with kids in the maidan. Good use of the free day. Find yourself drawn to the water body in the city. Babu Ghaat it is then, on the banks of the Hooghly, which is a distributary of the Ganga. It is dirty and all, but on a walkway next to the train line at Eden Gardens there are benches and they play Rabindra Sangeet. Calm. In those settings, you contemplate the unease the hangers-on have generated over the last week. The administrators, the cooking lady, the massage man, the associations, those selling this poorly conceived series around the Tendulkar farewell.
Then again, what are you? The cricket journalist who has hung on and taken the opportunity to be on cricket tours. Hasn't he risen with the emergence of Tendulkar? Hasn't the fan escaped through him when there was nothing else to cheer for in Indian cricket? Haven't his team-mates piggybacked on him in the past, letting him take all the pressure as they played to keep their places in the side safe?
Tendulkar has been an industry all along. An industry that has generated employment, an industry that has generated fame for those around him, an industry that has most importantly still managed to generate hope and joy like no other cricketer has ever done in India.
One more match to go. One last dance. It is not sudden, it is not early, but it is getting dark.