More than a game

Cricket is a re­li­gion in In­dia, it is said, a na­tional ob­ses­sion and for many, a ticket to the good life. For poor ( and not- so- poor) par­ents across In­dia, a son break­ing win­dows in the neigh­bour­hood is no sor­row. It’s a cause for cel­e­bra­tion, for it ho

DNA Sunday (Mumbai) - - FRONT PAGE -

Mo­han Ku­mar had grown up in the poor­est end of a poor taluk: Rat­na­gir­i­halli in Alur, in the foothills of the Western Ghats. As a boy, each morn­ing at four, he stood on the back of an open lorry that took him to a cof­fee es­tate. There he signed his name in a long green reg­is­ter. Then he cleared twigs, dropped sunna from his fore­fin­gers in white cir­cles around the plants, and wa­tered the bushes, tak­ing more care of the Ara­bica, and less care of the Ro­busta. At ten o’clock, the man su­per­vis­ing the es­tate paid him three and a half ru­pees, and he climbed back onto the open lorry. There was school for the rest of the day. He learnt to read and write. This was some­thing new for his fam­ily. His dowry went up. Sex: with a pros­ti­tute out in the fields; mar­riage: to a girl from his own caste; em­ploy­ment: to the landowner who had hired his fa­ther; pil­grim­age: to Kukke Subra­manya, in the moun­tains of the Western Ghats, as soon as his wife fell preg­nant. All this was as it had been for gen­er­a­tions in his fam­ily.

But one morn­ing a neigh­bour yelled, ‘ Who is go­ing to pay for the win­dow?’ The win­dow that had been bro­ken by Mo­han Ku­mar’s son in the most re­cent game of cricket.

Mo­han looked at the bro­ken glass and re­mem­bered what a boy in Mumbai had done to the win­dows in his neigh­bour­hood. A boy named Sachin Ten­dulkar. Now Mo­han Ku­mar stood by pass­ing trains and trucks and saw them in a dif­fer­ent light. He ob­served high­ways and mighty things in a dif­fer­ent light. He saw the sun, high over the peaks of the Western Ghats, charge from cloud to cloud like a soul in trans­mi­gra­tion. Mo­han, Mo­han – how peo­ple laughed. Why Mumbai? Take your son to Ban­ga­lore to learn cricket – it’s closer, cheaper!

Bom­bay it had to be. Mo­han Ku­mar put his wife and Radha and his sec­ond son Manju into a bus and then into two trains be­fore they de­scended into VT sta­tion in Mumbai to take a third train to his cousin’s small tin- roofed hut in a slum in Dahisar that was fa­mous for its me­chan­i­cal flour- mill, which ground wheat early morn­ing and red chill­ies late morn­ing. ‘ Any­thing I touch in Mumbai turns into pow­der like that flour- mill makes,’ Mo­han wrote to his brother Re­vanna back in the vil­lage. He had tried pho­to­copy­ing books, bind­ing them, and sell­ing them near the sta­tion; the po­lice ar­rested him and kept him in lockup for a night. Ten lakh books are sold in black in Mumbai ev­ery day and he has to be put in lockup! Big Thief Walks Free. Small Thief Gets Caught.

A year later he dis­cov­ered his wife was fuck­ing a Chris­tian man near the train sta­tion. He waited for her, and bolted the door be­hind her. Never tell your mother lies, never tell your wife se­crets. That was a golden proverb, why had he ever for­got­ten it? He made up for it with his hands. Noth­ing more than a man’s nat­u­ral right, but next morn­ing the so­cial work­ers – six of them – barged in and told him to stop hit­ting his wife, or else go to jail again. Can you be­lieve what they do to a man in this city? One night he re­turned home, and found that she had run away with his money and his hon­our. So he had noth­ing left; he lay in bed, and stared at the ceil­ing, and thought, I should just kill my­self.

‘ Get up, Mo­han,’ a voice said. Though there was no one else in the room, he heard fin­gers snap­ping in the dark. ‘ Why?’ he asked. The in­vis­i­ble fin­gers snapped a sec­ond time: ‘ Be­cause I say so. Don’t you know who I am?’ Des­tiny, I sup­pose, he thought, and rose, and breathed in the crisp, en­er­giz­ing air of cri­sis. Tak­ing the bus all the way to a spot in Ban­dra where one could ob­serve the new sky­scrapers of Prab­hadevi and Lower Parel, Mo­han Ku­mar clenched a fist and held it over the king­doms of Mumbai; af­ter clos­ing an eye to per­fect the il­lu­sion, he brought his fist down on the city. Ex­cept to grow a thin black mous­tache – a ‘ state­ment’, he de­clared, of protest against his ill luck with women – he never com­plained; he never again looked back; he sim­ply trans­ferred all his hopes in life onto young Radha Ku­mar. Old Sharadha came in ev­ery day to do the cook­ing. She made chut­neys from green mango, lemon and raw guava, and Mo­han Ku­mar tried to sell them. This meant that ev­ery day he cy­cled around Mumbai swal­low­ing in­sults more pun­gent than any chut­ney he took with him; yet ev­ery night when he lay down to bed, he could say: ‘ To­day my son has be­come a stronger and bet­ter bats­man.’

Mo­han made Radha hold the cricket bat low down on the han­dle, ex­actly as Sachin had done. At the age of five he made Radha grow his hair long and pose with the bat for a black- and- white photo ex­actly as Sachin, Bac­chus- haired, had posed at that age. At the age of seven he took Radha by train to Shivaji Park to lis­ten to Ra­makant Achrekar, ex­actly as seven- year- old Sachin had been taken to sit at the great Achrekar’s feet to learn the sci­ence of bats­man­ship. Around this time, his sec­ond son also be­gan to break win­dows when he was play­ing cricket. ( Re­pro­duced with per­mis­sion from the

pub­lish­ers, HarperCollins In­dia).

Aravind Adiga’s lat­est, Se­lec­tion Day, is a gritty, yet amus­ing take on In­dia’s ob­ses­sion with cricket

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