Never Ever Again

The last week of November is Thanksgiving in the U.S.  For the past two years, I have taken additional days off with those I get as the holidays from work, and traveled to India to watch Test matches. It so happened that both years, the matches took place at the Wankhede stadium in Mumbai. One was an excruciating draw against the West Indies in 2011 and the other, a thorough shellacking at the hands of Kevin Pietersen and Monty Panesar in 2012.

This year, when the dates were announced for the suddenly organized West Indies tour to India, the two Tests in the series were scheduled a couple of weeks ahead of the Thanksgiving travel week. Initially, I thought I’d just make a trip to India during the usual time, skip the tour, and try to catch some First Class matches. That is, until it was announced that Sachin Tendulkar was going to play his last Test match for India, his 200th, at Wankhede and bring the curtains down on a spectacular 24-year career.

That changed everything. Now, I had to go.

It wasn’t just that this would be a trip to see Sachin one last time. The Sachin I grew up with, celebrated and idolized has long since left the building. At 40, this Sachin is very much a shadow of the man-child superstar that single handedly captivated an entire nation and provided reasons for hope when there were none. No, this trip is not just for Sachin—this trip is for closure.

I was 17 years and 1 day when my father passed away. He was sixty-seven. The doctor said it was a heart attack, but he had already been bed ridden from paralysis; first a stroke to his left side which he almost recovered from and a second one to his right side, which broke him down.

I am the 10th of eleven kids and all my early memories are of my father being the bedrock of our family. He was the strongest person I had ever known, both physically and emotionally. To watch a man of enormous inner strength, conviction and independence wither away, someone that was a source of inspiration, someone who taught me the alphabet and multiplication tables as I sat underneath the desk at his office, was extremely painful – for him and us. The wasting effects of paralysis made him entirely dependent on the family members for all his daily functions. There were times when I fed him, I would hug him and both of us would cry at the pillaging that time did on this rock of a man.

When I came home from school to watch him lying in eternal rest, my first reaction was of relief. Relief that he doesn’t have to feel the pain from the bedsores any more, he doesn’t have to feel small about himself that he was completely dependent on others. I didn’t cry because others were. I needed to be strong because that’s how my father would have thought.

We were a Hindu Brahmin family and the death rites last 13 days. My father was cremated the same night he passed away. The physical connection had been terminated, but the process of mourning continued on.

I didn’t cry. I couldn’t cry. It hadn’t sunk in. There hadn’t been closure. It was the 10th day of rites when my mother was officially made a widow. The rather odd and cruel process of her bangles being broken, the kumkum on her forehead being removed brought the message home for me; it was like a brimming dam that broke open and I bawled my eyes out. You see, I hadn’t known my mother any other way. It finally dawned on me that the gradual erosion of my father alleviated the grief of his passing, but the finality of his passing rung through when the only way I had known my mother all my life was irrevocably changed.

When Tendulkar posed on the pages of Sportstar with a Power bat, that’s the Sachin of my teens. When Tendulkar stepped out of the crease to terrorize the Aussies, that’s the Sachin that brooked me in to adulthood. When Tendulkar launched Shoaib Akhtar over square point at Centurion, that’s the Sachin that connected me to my carefree past even though I was thousands of miles away. When Tendulkar messed around with Dale Steyn like he was some hopeless net bowler in Gwalior, that’s the Sachin that made me forget my advancing years.

Every time there were questions about him, he just reinvented himself in newer ways and kept plugging away, showing glimpses to the believers that the Old Sachin was still there. Just trapped in an older body. But eventually time wins the ultimate battle. It erodes away the strongest of body and will. The glimpses become few and far between.

I watched Sachin in the last 2 years in England, Australia and in India. Some of the struggles reminded me of the times I would hug my father and we cried together. The gradual erosion mitigated the sadness when the announcement came. It brought with it a sense of relief that this great man doesn’t have to put himself through the ignominy of getting defeated by bowlers who couldn’t hold a candle to him in his pomp. It was relief that his spot doesn’t have to be questioned again. He doesn’t have to deal with snide remarks. No more mocking. No nothing. It’s peaceful now.

In England and Australia, there were standing ovations every time he walked to and from the wicket. It was those fans saying their final goodbyes. I witnessed those but I still need my closure. So I needed to be at the Wankhede stadium when he walked out for his last ever game for India.

And so I was. Landing in Mumbai in the wee hours of the morning, with no ticket for the match promised, I checked in to a hotel right next door to the Wankhede. If I can’t get in, at the very least, I’ll be in the vicinity of divinity, one last time.

“Never, ever again” repeatedly said the sobbing young man standing next to me in the last row of the North Stand, directly in line with the Wankhede wicket. We had just witnessed Tendulkar walk through the guard of honor from his teammates, with a stump in hand.

As Mohammad Shami ripped out Shannon Gabriel’s middle stump, it abruptly brought an end to the great cricketing career of Tendulkar. Deep inside, I was hoping that West Indies would put up a fight to drag the match on, so that we got another chance to see Tendulkar in the only way we have known him– under the helmet, but it wasn’t to be. Even as the retirement circus had dragged on forever, when the end came, it was sudden.

Those of us there stood in unison and clapped the champion off the field. Even as things unfolded on the field in a blur, I felt a giant lump slowly pushing its way from the pits of my stomach to my throat and the only way I could let it out was to cry. And I did, with the sickening knowledge that this would be the last time I would see Tendulkar in a competitive setting. Never ever again.

Tears uncontrollably streamed down my face and I made no attempt to hide them. I was just one of the thousands there that were going through it. I was crying amongst strangers and it strangely felt intensely personal.

The speech was Tendulkar’s way of acknowledging everyone that formed the foundation from which more than 50,000 runs were launched and it had several poignant moments that made the heart sink. When after all the celebrations had ended, the man walked on to the turf, one last time, to pay his respects to the 22-yard strip from which masterpieces were composed, to return to the pavilion. It broke me. I bawled. He quickly turned and climbed the steps to the dressing room. Never ever again.

I hung around the stadium for another hour or so to meet a friend at the offices of the BCCI. After the meeting, as I made my way out, there was quite a bit of commotion. The Tendulkar super fan appeared out of nowhere waving the tricolor. It was the Indian team bus. Seated in the front row was Sachin Tendulkar with his wife for company. I was stood no more than six feet away. Sachin waved goodbye. It very well could have been for Sudhir but I’ll take it to my grave it was for me. And the bus was gone. So was Sachin in the only way I’d known him. Never ever again.


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