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The meaning of Murali
Afew weeks before he decided Galle would be his final appearance on the Test scene, Muttiah Muralitharan was driving down Colombo's streets when he was approached by an old woman at a traffic light. She had a child in her arms and, immediately recognising Muralitharan, started begging persistently for help. Muralitharan forked out a handsome sum, got on the phone to his manager Kushil Gunasekara, of the Foundation of Goodness with which Murali's philanthropic activities are associated, and asked, "Why do we see people like these in our city? I don't like it. What can you do about this child?" Gunasekara, the coordinator of the immense tsunami relief work Muralitharan has been involved with, runs an orphanage as well, and says he got to work immediately.
"He was insistent and not just complaining, he wanted some action. I contacted the local police station and they found out the child had been kidnapped and was in the process of being sold. The lady was a known scamster. They were nabbed in the nick of time. We were being too idealistic, and perhaps a bit naïve. But that's Muralitharan for you. The man has a vision, and he refuses to either become cynical or be cowed down, " said Gunasekara. Muralitharan's place in cricket's pantheon is unique, but unlike any other sporting icon in the world, he is not identified or adored for his sporting prowess alone: He carries a cross outside the field too, an identity tag which has been a passport to strife and suffering for thousands here. As one of the very few Tamils of Indian origin to play cricket for Sri Lanka - Russel Arnold being another - he is a marked man in a land in which the Tamil issue is always prioritised as a litmus test for democracy and pluralism. This is a rite of social passage the likes of Sachin Tendulkar or Michael Jordan never had to pass.
Oddly enough, while on the field his skewed action made him a hate figure and a tool for leverage in cricket's perennial East-West divide, Muralitharan has never been a poster child for the minority community in Sri Lanka. He has had to consciously stand apart, resisting the enormous pressure to be straitjacketed or appropriated by either side of the Lankan political fence.
Mohammad Azharuddin once played up the minority card when confronted with evidence of his involvement in match-fixing. Muralitharan has never had to resort to such self-pity. He belongs to all of Sri Lanka. The controversies swirling around him across the cricketing world have only cemented the love. His decision to retire has brought out thousands in droves across the land to pay tribute, and if you are in Sri Lanka now, his aura is inescapable, from Colombo to Galle to Kandy to devasted Maankulam, an ex-LTTE heartland in the north. "Muralitharan's socio-cultural impact on Lankan society is immense. He is conscious of this, " says Brian Thomas, an ex-journalist who is now Sri Lanka Cricket's media manager, "So he strives to give back, through the tsunami-relief work, through his work for the United Nations World Food Programme. He hasn't worked for Tamils as much as the Sinhalese. His Sinhala is better than his Tamil. But now, after the dismantling of the LTTE, he is preparing to make inroads in the north too, in Jaffna. He is a rare species. "
How has Muralitharan, with all his public prominence, managed to so astutely remain an apolitical unifier in a divided land torn apart by war and ethnic strife? His wife Madhimalar, a Tamil Indian who has had the rare opportunity to view Sri Lanka through Muralitharan's eyes in these difficult times, offers an astute and honest observation. "I would advocate restraint when it comes to these tags. It's a bit scary, " she begins, as any family member would. "When I first came to Sri Lanka, I was a bit apprehensive about what to expect. But I have never seen such love. Sachin Tendulkar looms large in India everywhere, he is mobbed wherever he goes. He cannot lead a normal life. In Sri Lanka, it's the same with Muralitharan, the only difference being they respect his privacy enough to leave him alone when he goes out. It's a big difference. This is the power of sport, I think. Things wouldn't have been the same if he were a film star or a politician.
Muralitharan will never join politics, that much he has made clear. And I have never experienced any visual hate because he is Tamil. Muralitharan also refrains from making any political commentaries. He says he doesn't need to be a politician to help people. " This absence of 'visual hate' because of the 'power of sport', as Madhimalar puts it, could be a reason. But maybe there is a more personal explanation. "He did campaign for (President) Mahinda Rajapaksa this time around, but to understand what shapes Muralitharan, you have to look at his background very closely, " says Gunasekara, "The controversies over his action and the abuse in Australia were not the only times Muralitharan has seen difficult periods in his life. "
Born in Nattarampotha near Kandy, Muralitharan's early outlook was shaped by his grandfather, the late Periyasamy Sinsamay, who had migrated from India in the 1920s. Sinsamay was a man of liberal views and a staunch believer in a modern education for Muralitharan and his three brothers. Muralitharan was sent to St Anthony's College in Kandy, a private organisation run by Benedictine monks. All of 10 years old, Muralitharan wanted to be a fast bowler in those times. After Black July it all changed. An LTTE ambush on Sri Lankan soldiers in July 1983 spurred a wave of anti-Tamil attacks throughout Sri Lanka, killing an estimated 3, 000 people and spurring a mass exodus. The family's biscuit factory, a cottage enterprise and the source of livelihood, was burnt down.
"Those were difficult times for him, " says Gunsekara, who played for the same club as Muralitharan, the Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic club. "It must have had a deep impact on the young Muralitharan's psyche. But instead of spurring hate, it spurred love. It's understandable why suffering, trauma and poverty disturbs him deeply. He's also learnt to stay calm in adversity. The tsunami shook him up again, and that's why he has worked tirelessly to reconstruct the southern coast. It's got nothing to do with ethnicity. "
So is there some resentment that he hasn't worked harder for the Tamils? "In some sections there are, we have faced some problems, " says Gunasekara, "Sometimes the LTTE would voice an opinion or two. But you must remember Muralitharan was nearly killed by the tsunami. He got a glimpse of what those people went through. That's why he chose to retire at Galle. And of course, his charity work began much before that, in 1999. "
Muralitharan was headed for Seenigama, a coastal village south of Galle, to meet some school children for one of his charity projects. Midway through, he was contacted and told to turn back when the tsunami struck. He barely made it. Today, he has helped generate funds to reconstruct houses and work for rural empowerment in over 25 villages along the coast, roping in his Sri Lankan teammates and the likes of Shane Warne and Ian Botham in the process.
In Seenigama, Muralitharan is god. At one point during the restoration project, he called up one of the managers and said he wanted 1, 000 houses to be built. "We can't do that, we don't have funds. We can build a maximum of 250, " said the voice at the other end, pleading: "Do you mean houses or huts?" Muralitharan would have none of it. In the end, they ended up building 1, 024 houses.
"It was a script written, he was to help the south, " says Madhimalar, but Muralitharan isn't satisfied yet. After the war, he is now keen on working further north, to make inroads deep into the LTTE's domain and replicate the Seeenigama model in places like Maankulam. Maybe the real work begins now. Maybe the legend of Muttiah Muralitharan has just begun taking root.
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