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Just like many people in my generation, the world as I knew it began in 1983, that seminal year when India joyously, and mysteriously, won the Prudential Cup, and conquered a world few of us babies of the early and mid-’70s knew existed. When, less than a year later, Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian in space, spending seven days, 21 hours and 40 minutes aboard the Soviet craft Soyuz T-11, our cup of joy was complete. Cricketer or cosmonaut, there were really only two choices in life.
But our age of innocence was to be cut brutally short within months, first with Operation Bluestar, and then the consequent assassination of Indira Gandhi. Modern India had entered its most turbulent phase and the next decade or so would do nothing to lessen that tumult.
I was a completely confused nine-going-on-10 when we moved to Delhi from sleepy Secunderabad in 1985, mere weeks before the gunning down of the local member of Parliament from South Delhi, Lalit Maken, allegedly by members of the Khalistan Commando Force. They, as many others do, reportedly held Maken to be one of the main instigators behind the horrific riots that followed Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. The tension in the capital, already simmering with the strain between a Sikh community that had had its heart and soul ripped out, and everyone else, was almost tangible, even to a young, cricket-mad girl still high on India’s World Cup win.
The hushed whispers of adults discussing the news, the nervousness with which people went about their business and the sudden appearance of grim-faced security guards at colony gates were an indication of the instability and indecision that was to haunt India for the next few years and make a mockery of that age-old phrase we were brainwashed with in school, ‘Unity in Diversity’.
Over the next few turbulent years of change, we children of the ’70s came of age against the backdrop of the Mandal Commission riots, the assassination of another prime minister in Rajiv Gandhi, the intensified insurgency in Punjab and Kashmir, the move towards economic liberalisation by the first major non-Nehru-Gandhi-clan prime minister, the end of Hindi cinema’s most forgettable decade, the rise of the Hindu right-wing fanatic and the beginning of the age of technology. It was a muddled, chaotic time, a time of exciting change, a time of sorrow, a time of rage, and a time of flux.
However, it was also a time of hope from a most unexpected quarter: the Bombay suburb of Bandra (Mumbai had not yet made its appearance) and an almost pre-pubescent-looking teenager. Sachin Tendulkar. I, like many others across India who lived our lives by cricket, could not help but hear about this kid from Bombay with seemingly supernatural powers. My uncle, a member of CCI and an avid cricket lover, first told me about the then 14-year-old with almost paternal pride, “Watch this kid.” So we waited, and watched, as “Sachin” (of course, we were already on a first-name basis with him) conquered the Ranji, Duleep and Irani Trophies on debut. And then, at 16 years and 223 days, an age when most of us were still battling acne, teenage angst and dealing with first love while idly wondering what we’d do with the rest of our lives, he made his bow for India in Test cricket.
It was momentous, it was scary and it was the beginning of a life-long love affair. I began this piece with a rushed (and probably flawed) synopsis of what the India I grew up in was like, to provide some context for what Tendulkar came to mean to his generation—and mine—because it was also the India he grew up in. The dramatic social upheaval, the rapid economic changes; the sudden choices when you went to the market or bought a car or travelled; cable television, cellphones and the Internet; the emancipation of the urban Indian woman; the growing realisation of the dichotomy between the India we city kids grew up in and the vast lands and people that lay outside our urban sprawls—the politics, the hysteria, the endless chaos, this was the India we grew up in.
Present-day India’s coming-of-age story, in many ways, mirrors Tendulkar’s; in the flexing of its economic muscle, in its technological advancements, in its rise to world prominence, if not dominance. In other ways though, Tendulkar remains, even at 40 (23-and-a-half years after he was first introduced to the country) the manifestation of what the aspirational India, and the aspirational Indian, still wants to be.
For those of us of his generation though, already 40, or almost there, he’s more than that; he not only represents what we can achieve, but what we have achieved, even as we have gone about changing India, challenging India and daring to follow our dreams.
We have walked in his shadow, danced in his reflected glory and cried, laughed, raged and prayed with him—in his darkest hours, and ours. Irrespective of religion, region or socio-economic class—much like no Indian, perhaps, except M.K. Gandhi—he’s been our faith, our inspiration, our talisman, and whether he knows it or not, our lives have been inextricably linked to his, simply because he kept us going; steady, strong, imperturbable and, apparently, impregnable. He anchored us when everything else in the world as we knew it seemed to be falling apart on the field, especially in the aftermath of the match-fixing scandal and off it, through the last two tempestuous decades. The first thing that occurred to me when I was asked to do this piece was, “Wow, is he already 40?” The next thought was, “Heck, that means I’m almost there too.” Where did the years go and when did that kid from Shivaji Park suddenly hit middle-age? Well, he’s almost there, and so are we.
All in all though, so far, it’s been a wonderfully varied journey, one that just wouldn’t have been the same without Tendulkar being a constant companion and, really, a beacon of hope; a living, breathing manifestation of the fact that even in this India of tumult, you could reach for the stars and hold on—that anything was possible if you tried hard enough and worked hard enough and had the courage to stay true to what you believed in. My India, the one I know, doesn’t really exist, couldn’t really exist, without Sachin. And this isn’t an extraordinary statement. It’s just the way it is and, perhaps, always has been.
(The writer is ex-editor-in-chief, Sports Illustrated India.)