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Sachin and the god particle
The debate over whether Tendulkar should retire provides us a perspective into our collective psyche. How dare he fail after we have worshipped him for 23 years?
Five months before the English cricket team began its tour of India, triggering a passionate debate on whether Sachin Tendulkar should retire from international cricket, the batting maestro was in Herzogenaurach, Germany, where the Adidas headquarters are located. The Germans were astonished at the reception Tendulkar received: a few hundred Indians gathered at the headquarters, lustily cheered and screamed at his sight, and jostled to touch or have him sign their autograph books. One Adidas executive remarked to a journalist, "Even Lionel Messi did not receive such a reception. " The dwarfing of Messi for a soccer-crazy nation seemed inexplicably mysterious.
Obviously, the German executive did not know that deification is embedded deep into the Indian psyche. Remember the bewildering pantheon of gods we Indians worship. Recall our propensity to turn the cremation sites and residences of mortals, extraordinary though their achievements are, into monuments and museums. From gods we ultimately become a tad alienated as our supplications do not lead to divine intercession, goading us to shout Jim Morrison style, "You cannot petition the Lord with prayer. "
From the Invisible we can only turn away, but our disappointment with the flesh-and-blood gods provokes us to acts of vengeance. It is we who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. We mock Jawaharlal Nehru, pummelling him more now than what we did in his life, dismissing him as a woolly-headed idealist who wanted to keep India non-aligned and insisted on the state occupying the commanding heights of economy. We have belatedly begun to herald BR Ambedkar's contribution to the framing of the Indian Constitution but have no qualms in breaking his statues.
It is this national trait of deification which has turned Tendulkar the cricketing genius into Tendulkar the god of cricket. How dare he fail after we have worshipped him for 23 years, pinned our hope on him for India's redemption on the cricket ground, bought goods he advertised and sent our children to coaching camps! It is galling that his failure has coincided with India's precipitous decline in Test cricket. Aren't gods supposed to magically help us overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, which perhaps are consequences of tamasha cricket aka T20 cricket?
No doubt, unharnessed popular expectations mounted tremendous pressure on Tendulkar. What else can explain the sudden dip in form as soon as he reached his 99th international century? Till then, he had been in fine fettle, batting with aplomb and scoring centuries as frequently as only he can. Thereafter, in 17 Tests he managed 953 runs, at an average of 31. 76;in ODIs, he managed 473 in 14 outings, at an average of 33. 78. On reaching his 100th international century against Bangladesh, Tendulkar said, "I was not thinking about the milestone, the media started all this, wherever I went, the restaurant, room service, everyone was talking about the 100th hundred. Nobody talked about my 99 hundreds. It became mentally tough for me..." Indeed, there couldn't be a more apt example of how deification unravels gods.
The debate over whether Tendulkar should retire provides us a perspective into our collective psyche as much as it has diminished his chances of, yet again, rediscovering his old form. What explains our national trait of creating idols of our heroes? In some ways, it is redolent of the feudal mindset, from which we believed we had emerged. The personality of the feudal lord was infused with charisma that made his subjects consider him worthy of unquestioning adulation. It was/is an important factor why many erstwhile royalties were/are elected to Parliament. The subcontinent is the land where charisma reigns - the Nehru-Gandhis are supreme in India, as are the Bhuttos and Sharifs in Pakistan, the Wajeds and Zias in Bangladesh and, to some extent, the Koiralas in Nepal.
Worship presumes accepting your own inferiority in relation to those who boast of seemingly exalted lineages or, as in the case of Tendulkar, are prodigiously talented. From them, we feel, flow our blessings, whether in politics or cricket. We prescribe a different set of rules for them. We wish to exempt Tendulkar from the mandatory duty on the car he wants to import. We nominate him to the Rajya Sabha, knowing he won't have the time to attend its proceedings. Not for us a culture, say, that of Germany, which incarcerated tennis star Steffi Graf's father for violation of tax laws. Our inferiority stems from the pervasive caste codes which have taught us to accept the inequality inherent in the social system.
Place the national psychology and Tendulkar's breathtaking talent against the backdrop of political ambience of the 1980s, in which he made his debut, and you will understand why he was turned into a national icon. The 1980s was the decade of pessimism. There had been a succession of grisly communal riots - Moradabad, Bhagalpur, the Nelli massacre etc. In 1984, the assassination of Indira Gandhi sparked off a veritable slaughter of Sikhs, prompting an organisation to print a poster with the photos of Kapil Dev (Hindu), Mohd Azharuddin (Muslim), Roger Binny (Christian) and Maninder Singh (Sikh) with a caption declaring, "If we can play together, we can live together. " In 1989, the Bharatiya Janata Party initiated the Ram Janambhoomi movement, bringing consecrated bricks from different parts of the country to Ayodhya. The nation was pushed to the edge.
It was also in December 1989 that Sachin Tendulkar, a callow 16-year-old, stepped out on Pakistani soil to make his debut, against the fury of their fast bowlers. In the fourth Test of his life he was struck on the nose. Blood gushed out but he refused to leave the field. The picture of that moment was there in every newspaper;he went on to score 57. A dream had been born, of talent and aspiration.
It was to take another three-four years for the dream to truly develop wings and soar high. By then, the Babri Masjid had been demolished and Mandal and Mandir politics had bitterly divided the nation. In this gloomy scenario Tendulkar became the symbol of national unity, his majestic wielding of the bat papering, however ephemerally, over all social schisms. He was also our only popular entertainment, as the culture of VCR was gradually squeezing the life out of Bollywood until the multiplex-driven renaissance resuscitated the cinema from its death throes. We made him a national icon because of our own compulsions, and laid out different yardsticks for him.
Forgetting our own connivance in turning Tendulkar into a god, we have triggered a debate not only graceless but also deeply insulting to our own memory of pure bliss he brought to us. As a people we are notoriously fickle. We hailed Indira Gandhi as an incarnate of Durga and then pelted stones at her, only to vote her back to power three years later. Likewise, we mounted such pressure on Tendulkar at the time he was a century away from his 100th ton that his batting prowess diminished overnight, as if some celestial being wished to punish us for our pathological obsession with milestones.
Yet a question remains: why didn't the crossing of the 100th-century milestone relieve the pressure on Tendulkar ? Alas, as any psychologist would tell you, it is difficult for a person to rediscover the earlier state of serenity once his mind learns fear and anxiety. Such foibles are habit-forming. This malaise had afflicted him earlier as well. Tendulkar took as many as eight Tests and a string of poor scores - 2, 8, 1, 8, 2, 5, 55, 3, 20, 32* - to equal Sunil Gavaskar's 34 centuries, then the world record. He took eight more innings to reset the record and another 18 innings to score his 36th ton. That malaise has now returned on a more tragic scale.
Perhaps he now finds difficult to overcome his mind because he lacks the resilience of the young. The biological change is often sudden - for instance, many 40 year olds suddenly discover one day that they need to hold the newspaper closer to their eyes to read it. It's the body's signal to have reading glasses prescribed. Tendulkar's cheap dismissals are time's intimation to him of his ageing body and slower reflexes.
Perhaps he still believes he has the capacity to adjust to the gradual withering away of his powers. Or perhaps he can't retire because, as some allege, the business model built around him would collapse. But give Tendulkar a few more Tests to know whether or not his form has deserted him permanently. Let Tendulkar bat without the fear that he might be asked to leave without a delectable swansong. Should such an innings prove elusive, he won't potter around, for the structure of sports can't sustain a cricketing equivalent of Dev Anand, who continued to produce films for the love of it even though no one watched them. We owe this much to Tendulkar, for bringing light and warmth in those gloomy years we lived in.
(The author is a Delhi-based journalist. Email: ashrafajaz3@gmail. com)
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