Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the USA
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The show is over. The final episode has ended. The music has faded. The credits have rolled. Done with the presentation. Done with the speech to trump all farewell speeches. Now all we have are the memories. All we have are the stories.
It's a weird feeling, this. My mind goes back to the day in 1990, when Doordarshan aired the final episode of Mahabharat. For the previous two years, large parts of the country dutifully stopped functioning at 9am every Sunday. Those without television sets walked or cycled to the houses of friends and relatives. Grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, kids and dogs clustered in living rooms and, for 45 minutes, were rapt in attention. Everything else took a back seat.
Mahabharat is merely an example. Because those were the days when everyone in India watched the same shows. Everyone watched the same ads. Hum Log, Fauji, Vikram aur Betaal, "Washing Powder Nirma", "Vicco Turmeric (nahi cosmetic)", "I'm a Complan Boy"… You could sing the first line of an ad jingle and someone listening would complete it for you, word for word, expression for expression, note for note, tun-tun-ta-tuns included.
It's in this milieu that Tendulkar emerged, bursting into living rooms with that 18-ball 53 in Peshawar. Almost everyone I know remembers that innings but what's fascinating is that so many people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing that evening. The editor of this website remembers the brand of the black-and-white TV at his friend's house, the colour of the mat beside the TV, the flower vase alongside, the chair he was sitting on. A friend of mine remembers the t-shirt he was wearing that day, a t-shirt he has held on to for all these years.
The timing of Tendulkar's entry is crucial. It was an age when most of India had one TV channel, when most homes bought one newspaper, and when vast numbers watched Chitrahaar on Wednesday nights, because, honestly, there was little else to do. He forced his way into a pop-culture scene that was wallowing in Ram Lakhan, Chandni and Maine Pyar Kiya. Frankly, it was a time ripe for alternatives, a time for compelling diversions.
And what a terrific diversion he was: a one-man entertainment package, high art for the masses, technical perfection meshed with popcorn-bursting verve. He was blockbuster one day, avant garde the next. Here he was - still head, high elbow - grafting to save Test matches. And there he was - youthful and restless - charging down the pitch and launching the ball into the crowd. Everything about him - his precocious talent, his role in the team, the circumstances around his selection - everything seemed predestined.
"I wouldn't call it an accident," said CLR James of WG Grace's colossal effect on English cricket and society. "I don't think a thing like that is an accident. It is clear that he filled a certain need, and that a certain man fills a certain need… Would you call Shakespeare an accident? Or Balzac an accident? Or Michelangelo an accident? Something is required and they do it."
Inevitably he was a conversational centerpiece. Everyone has a Tendulkar story. I recently met a man who was convinced he had introduced Tendulkar to his favourite band, Dire Straits. The story ran thus: He had grown up in Mumbai and had gifted an audio cassette to one of Tendulkar's neighbours at Sahitya Sahwas housing colony, who in turn claimed to have lent a young Tendulkar the tape. There were no ifs and buts in this narration, only a dead-cert confidence.
Look into the blogosphere or social media (or simply trawl through the comments on stories on this website) and you will read many such tales. Some fans have written about the day they met him, or the day they could have met him, or the day they were too stunned to ask for his autograph, or the time they spotted him at a restaurant, or shared a flight with him. Some of these stories are borrowed from friends, or friends who knew friends who knew someone who… There is no stopping this anecdote avalanche. Even the great novelists might not have spent so much time mulling over their protagonists as much as many Indians have, over the last 24 years, chewed over Tendulkar.
Two anecdotes jump out of personal memory.
The first is from 2008. India were playing Australia in a Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Tendulkar was surgically taking the bowling apart. In the audience were Neil Harvey, Arthur Morris and Steve Waugh. So was the Australian prime minister. A nonagenarian, who said he had seen Bradman bat "at this very ground", had one question on his lips when he arrived: "Is he still there?" The adulation and cheers showered on Tendulkar that day were befitting an Australian hero.
My most vivid image from that game is of raucous schoolkids singing and chanting in the Monty Noble stand. Their exasperated teacher tried to hush them up. "Nobody chants when Sachin is on strike," she said, wanting to restore a semblance of order. The kids quieted for a few seconds. Then one of the boys began a chant: "No-body cha-aants when Sa-aachin strikes. No-body cha-aants when Sa-aachin strikes." The rest of the kids took it up. Soon large parts of the stand joined in. The teacher gave up. She stood no chance.
The second instance is from The Oval in 2006. A charity match between a Pakistan XI and an International XI. Returning from a shoulder injury, Tendulkar had blitzed a 26-ball 50 and added 72 golden runs with Brian Lara. After the match, journalists and fans milled around the dressing-room area. Mohammad Yousuf, Shoaib Malik, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Chris Cairns walked out. All were hounded for quotes, autographs and photographs.
Then out walked Tendulkar, kitbag in one hand, a bat in another, and made his way down an aisle of stairs. Instantly everyone took a step back, as if to clear his path. Nobody even attempted to get close. The clamour turned into a hush. And Tendulkar calmly walked on.
I thought of that on Thursday, when the West Indian players and the two umpires provided a guard of honour as he walked in to bat. I thought of that on Friday, when he made his way back to the pavilion after his final Test innings, alone, unmolested, just him on a vast expanse of green. And then again on Saturday, at the end of the match, when his team-mates saluted him with a mobile guard of honour, all the way from the centre to the boundary rope, watching him wipe tears from his eyes. Everyone stepped aside. Everyone cleared his path. And Tendulkar moved on.
He leaves behind an immense emptiness. The great novelist Vladimir Nabokov once said that every time he completed a novel he felt like a house that was emptied of its grand piano. And so it is with Indian cricket. After 24 years of dedicated service, after an emotion-drenched Test in Mumbai, the grand piano has left the building.