SHIV VISVANATHAN: Sociologist, cultural anthropologist, and an original thinker. Cricket, films and music are his passions.
The middle class suffers from a mid-life crisis of nostalgia, the mental arthritis of wanting to slow down. Sachin challenges that; he has reconstructed his game and reinvented himself for a new era
One of my great dreams is to possess a picture of four cricketers together, the four legends of Bombay. The first is Polly Umrigar, tall, gangling, hitting a century with quiet competence, retiring with equal quietness. He was paid Rs 25 for a day’s cricket. The second is Dilip Sardesai. Equally competent, equally understated, Sardesai epitomized the middleclass competence of the India of the sixties. He was outstanding, but there are no monuments to him; he would have been surprised if there were.
These men just did their job. They produced heroism without heroics. When you watched them play, you realized the odds they had mastered. They were Indians of another time for whom honesty, national pride, teamwork were the building blocks of everyday imagination. These were virtues one could not live without. There was an as-is-where-is quality to their life and cricket, which made them seem deceptively prosaic, disguising their achievements by making them appear almost dutiful.
They were outstanding individuals and personalities, but there was nothing individualistic about them. They challenged no paradigms, led no trade unions. Their only answer to racism was good manners. They were content to live within and with themselves.
The third figure is different. He is larger than life. To competence, he adds defiance. A legend in his lifetime, Sunil Gavaskar demands more for he created more. Gavaskar created a collective mindset. He demanded a different form of respect. He looked the white man in the eye, could stand alongside a Viv Richards or a Garfield Sobers with assurance. He oozed professionalism, and an impersonal competence that demanded more in recognition. There was a toughness about Gavaskar (and Bedi) which was pathbreaking. They used their competence in sport to demand a wider dignity. They were great players who demanded more from sport, and demanded more for sport. There was nothing understated about either. Their competence broke through colonial obsequiousness. Indians began getting used to victory. There was a touch
of Bombay about each of them, and an urbanity, a middle class that captured the Bombay of each period. Gavaskar represented a middle class-ness ready to take on the world. He exemplified an attitude that defied the nonsense of authority. There was something industrial about him.
He rewrote record books to show India had arrived, that the team was no longer invertebrate, that the tenor had changed. The language was no longer of survival; it now spoke a dialect of victory. Gavaskar was exemplar and paradigm of a new Indian cricket where we were no longer also-rans. You don’t write Calypso songs for the defeated.
In a predictable way, Umrigar, Sardesai, Gavaskar created the cultural humus for a Sachin. They were a prelude to his genius, the the ancestors of his competence bred on middleclass values, the ritual protocols of urban life which sought dominance through professionalism. I began with this long-winded sociology of cricket personae, because I want to see cricket as a metaphor and look at Sachin Tendulkar in a wider sense. Genius for all its individualism reeks of sociology. Cricket is one game that belongs to the oral imagination and commentary for cricket is as important as hermeneutics for the Bible. Retelling is reliving, and both religion and cricket have that in common.
School and street are an integral part of the urban imagination. They are models of life and frameworks of mobility. Here, exam and game create two parallel worlds. The legend of Sachin begins in the playing fields of Shivaji Park. There is a Drona of the cricket field, Ramakant Achrekar. There are no Ekalavyas on the scene. But there is a Kambli.
Vinod Kambli is important not just for his talent but for his zest for life. Kambli is talent that refuses to discipline itself. He is the exuberance of the street that refuses to yield to the school. Kambli is desire without discipline. He is the exuberance of the here and now that the middle class envies and despises. Kambli is the shortlived Sachin; the cameo of exuberance unlimited. Sachin and Kambli are a middle class fable that needs more attention. Kambli treats cricket as a site for desire, for the shortlived joy of politics, of cinema, of TV.
He is the middle class boy who lacks a centre. Intensely appealing, he is the other, the friend who humanizes Sachin, creates other rhythms which would otherwise render Sachin as a metronome. Kambli and Sachin are foils from school. Kambli is the other who burns out, because he burns too fast. He is the Sivakasi cracker to Sachin’s blowtorch. He is the partnership that went wrong between exuberant talent and focused genius. Kambli is the child who forgot to drink Boost, who did not have Aviva insurance, who forgot school creates a timetable for life, who happily jumped on an escalator of life without realizing that it was speeding down.
Kambli is the noise of part-success facing the silence of success; he is the friend who remains though he got left behind. But he is still Kambli, the only hyphen in the Sachin legend. The fable of Shivaji Park would be incomplete without Kambli; the shade of regret in a saga of success. The middle-class history of Shivaji Park is less ruthless. It has a place for him too.
As the legend grows, the fables diversify. Sachin appears relentless. He looks perennial at thirty, which is old age in cricket. While others move to graceful retirement, turn from heroes to storytellers, our legend grows. Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman are virtually gone. At 36, Sachin is naturally the grandfather of the team. He commands respect and the young ones sense he might still be playing when they are gone. What makes Sachin a legend is the way he has mastered time.
A cricketing career occurs in escalated time. It represents speed. It is demanding. Wounds recur and the body screams. A middle-class, middle age stodginess is tempting. Even the perennial Sachin realizes he is no longer young. His brilliance lies in the way he reconstructs himself.
The middle class suffers from the mid-life crisis of nostalgia. Sachin is a twice born genius who reconstructs his game, reinvents himself for a new era. The Dhonis and the Harbhajans know his body is a match for theirs. The discipline is almost spiritual. It cannot be reduced to diet, or exercise, or to any technique. It is a mindset which refuses nostalgia, the hypochondria of the middle class. It is not a hunger for runs; it is a hunger for perfection. Sachin challenges the mental arthritis in every middle-class Indian, the urge to settle down and be slow. A mindset where success turns into the fatty tissue of contentment. Sachin is Indian cricket’s only perpetual mobile. He is the body fantastic.
Sachin might be a millionaire many times over, but he represents middle-class values. In fact, the advertisements provide the cultural frame for him in the public domain. The advertisements almost seem to provide a prosthetic of speech for him. Boost, Pepsi and Aviva emphasize energy, mobility, prudence, skill, a social framework for middle-class success. It is an ode to children growing right, whose dreams come true.
He is a childhood dream incarnate. Sachin, the name sounds right for desi values, desi competence, for success in a global world. Boost plus Shivaji Park propels you into a world beyond what IIT and IIM can prepare you for — the leap of fame. To blue-chip security, which the middle class dream and advertisers can only offer as scenarios. There is a seriousness to cricket. Even laughter is embroidered only as a second thought. It substitutes for music, medicine or science as a profession. It is less erratic than Bollywood, more secure than crime.
Advertisements create the substitute sociology of family life, professional knowledge and financial prudence that accompanies this genius, banalizing him through middle-class ambitions. A genius is caught like a fly in a third-rate sociology. But it is only such banality scented with consumerist romance that allows us to reclaim him. This is the sadness of genius and the irony of sociology.