Five months before the English cricket team began their tour of India, triggering a passionate debate whether Sachin Tendulkar should retire from international cricket, he was in Herzogenaurach, Germany, where is located the Adidas headquarters. The Germans there were astonished at the reception a few hundred Indians accorded Tendulkar, prompting an Adidas executive to remark, “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 in the Indian psyche. Remember the bewildering pantheon of gods we Indians worship. Recall our propensity to turn the cremation sites of mortals, extraordinary though their achievements are, into monuments. 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 we did in his life.
It is this national trait of deification that has turned Tendulkar the cricketing genius into Tendulkar the god of cricket. How dare he fail after we have worshipped him for 23 years, even buying goods he advertised! It is galling for us 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, themselves perhaps consequences of tamasha (show) cricket aka T20 cricket? No doubt unharnessed popular expectations mounted tremendous pressure on Tendulkar too. What else can explain the sudden dip in form as soon as he reached his 99th international century? Until then, he had been in fine fettle. 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, “It’s been a tough phase for me...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 because nobody talked about my 99 hundreds.” Indeed, there could not be a more apt example of deification unravelling gods.
The debate over whether Tendulkar should retire provides us a perspective into our collective psyche. 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 a certain charisma, so much so his subjects considered him worthy of unquestioning adulation. The subcontinent is the land where charisma reigns; the Nehru-Gandhis are supreme in India, as are the Bhuttos and Sharifs in Pakistan, the Hasinas and Khaledas 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. We must 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 parliament, knowing he will not 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 the political ambience of the 1980s, in which he made his debut, and you will understand why we turned him 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, and the anti-Sikh riots. In those days, an organisation printed 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 a movement to build a Ram Temple at the site where stood the Babri Masjid. The nation was pushed to the edge.
It was in December 1989 that Sachin Tendulkar, a callow 16-year-old and 223 days, stepped out on Pakistani soil to make his debut. In the second Test of his life, he was struck on the nose, blood gushing out and still refusing to leave the field. The picture of that moment was there in every newspaper; he went on to score 59. 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 the nation was bitterly divided. In this gloomy scenario Tendulkar became the symbol of national unity, his majestic wielding of the bat papering over, however ephemerally, all divides. He was also our only popular entertainment, as the culture of the VCR was gradually squeezing the life out of Bollywood. 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 incarnation of Durga and then pelted stones at her, only to vote her back to power three years later.
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. Perhaps he now finds difficult to overcome his mind because he lacks the resilience of the young. Perhaps he still believes he can overcome the gradual withering away of his powers.
Let us 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 singing a delectable swan song. Let us hope for an exceptional knock from him and then perhaps clamour he should bid adieu. Should such an innings prove elusive, he will not potter around, for assessment in cricket, unlike in films, is based on objective criteria. In it, you can’t be a Dev Anand, who continued to produce films for the love of it even though no one watched. We owe this to Tendulkar, for bringing light and warmth in those gloomy years we lived in.