If India itself is an idea, a concept, then it was Sachin who helped nurture the idea to its apotheosis in sport
“Now I can die,” said the elderly man in Tamil, his voice trembling. He raised the gnarled, arthritis-ravaged fingers of his hands, and cupped them with great effort to form a namaste gesture while looking up at the skies almost in a state of prayerful trance.
“I just wanted to live long enough to see him play his last Test series for India,” he said.
Perhaps dying itself is no big deal when the one man who helped bolster our idea of ourselves as Indians — as a people — and our idea of human fulfilment itself, more than any other sportsman in the last quarter of a century, walks into the sunset to mark the end of the most celebrated career in the history of sport in India.
The elderly man, a former insurance agent who has spent a considerable portion of his retirement savings to watch Sachin Tendulkar in many Indian venues over the last two decades, will hopefully live long enough to enjoy watching the little man excel in another role after retirement.
But death and longevity are not the point. As the late Bill Shankly famously said of football, “It [the sport] is not just a matter of life and death, It is much more important than that.”
The importance comes with the value that each of us places on our own Sachin Moments. It is down to what men in the business of measuring national well-being often call the happiness quotient.
Perhaps from the time languages first evolved, the wiser among our species have argued about the value and meaning of happiness itself.
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
John Stuart Mill attributed those lines to Socrates himself.
On reflection, happiness comes in many, many shades. And the kind that Sachin provided too has various hues. This is precisely why the word genius comes in handy when talking about the little master.
But genius is a word that has long since been done to death by my tribe. In our work-day routine, it has become a part of the banality of the quotidian. For want of vibrant verbs, we pick that noun to earn our few quid and retire for the day thinking that a single word has conveyed to the reader everything that we desperately wanted to say.
And never does the word genius come in more handy, and is liable to be abused for that very reason, than when you are talking about a man who has given more enjoyment to the people of a single nation — India — than any other anywhere in the world in the last 25 years.
“This noun ‘genius’…makes us squirm,” said Jacques Derrida in 2003, a year before he died.
Nowhere is this true than in the world of sport, nowhere else is the word as routinely abused with impunity as in the world of ball games.
But even at the cost of belittling a Charles Darwin or an Albert Einstein or a Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this sports hack would not go into a tizzy, into all sorts of intellectual contortions that might reveal little, should someone choose to describe Sachin as a genius.
Yet, the point about Sachin is not his genius as a cricketer; it is even less about the numbers that statisticians love to dish out.
It is about this: without him, many of us would not be who we are, as individuals, as a people. If India itself is an idea, a concept, then it was Sachin who helped nurture the idea to its apotheosis in sport.
He was not only the touchstone to a generation of batsmen, but more importantly, also a man whose name became a synonym with a great game itself.
Can you imagine cricket without Sachin? Little wonder then that the elderly, hunch-backed, retired insurance agent was no longer worried about the arrival of the Grim Reaper.
But what does genius do when the avenue for its flourishing ends in a cul de sac?
In his NBA Hall of Fame speech in 2009, Michael Jordan called basketball his “refuge.” He said it was “where I have gone when I needed to find comfort and peace.”
In the last 25 years, nowhere have I seen Sachin more ‘peaceful’ and at home and — if you are spiritually inclined, which this writer is not — truly ‘liberated’ than when he was out there in the middle, as a batsman, as a fielder, as a bowler, at the nets…
He might not have been a refugee as Jordan claimed he was. But Sachin and a cricket field were like Van Gogh and the Sunflowers. In our minds, one cannot exist without the other without both being diminished.
Then again, in a purely socio-cultural context, the Sachin phenomenon necessarily had to be an Indian phenomenon. Surely, people elsewhere in the world, too, are busy replacing angels and other assorted divine messengers they once looked up to with, among others, athletic-cultural icons — something that is as natural a process of memetic evolution as the genetic evolution that shaped us over millennia.
For, essentially, Sachin was as much our creation as his own. And Sachin the Superman was built into the narrative precisely because we chose to do it.