SPORTSPERSONS MAKE me cry.
I’m sitting in Vishy Anand’s house in Chennai. His wife Aruna has set the meeting up. A sparkling, cultured lady, we chat as Anand comes out of his bedroom holding a small box in his hand.
“Here, this is for you,” he says and hands me the box. It’s small, dark blue and a little battered. My first feeling is one of anti-climax. Stupid me. Here I was expecting a sizeable contribution and all Anand’s given me is this palm-sized box. I open it. Inside is a medal. It has Winner, World Championship, 2008 inscribed on it. The ribbon’s in the colours of the German flag. A thousand thoughts rush through my head. This is his world championship medal that he won in Bonn. He beat Kramnik. It was the last of the garland of three world championships a chess player must win to be seriously called one of the greatest players of all time. The confusion compounds. Why is he giving it to me? Is he showing it to me just to see, because he cannot be just giving it away. Surely not. I mean, in my profession actors will kill you before they let go of their Filmfare Awards, forget National Awards. This is the chess equivalent of the World Acting Awards. Then again he did say, “Here, this is for you…”
“What is this, Anand?” I say very softly.
“Well, it’s the world championship medal I won at Bonn.” Anand has a technically beautiful voice. Warm, gentle with a melodic quality that some Tamil-speakers possess.
“Oh, I know what it is. Why are you giving it to me? You don’t have to. Seriously.”
“Because you’re doing good work.” Pause. “Please take it. It’s yours.”
“It’s his first world championship trophy from 2000. He won it in Tehran. Please take this too,” she says. They exchange smiles.
I AM SITTING in Abhinav Bindra’s impossibly palatial residence on the outskirts of Chandigarh. He has eaten lunch but sits politely as I wolf down three varieties of kebabs, dal and raita. We chat. He has a gentle sense of humour laced with a sharp sense of irony. After lunch he introduces me to his family. They are warm, down-to-earth, and very proud of Abhinav’s achievements. We chat and banter, I invite all of them for the auction. Then Abhinav and I go into a room that looks like a trophy room. I walk around slowly, squinting to read every inscription.
A pause. Then he says, “Well, it’s unlike any other sport.”
I wait. He continues, “You have to work yourself up to a pitch in other sports but in shooting you can’t. You have to be calm.”
I digest this. “So, the greater the excitement the more ‘bored’ you have to be?”
He smiles. “Something like that.” Then adds, “So it’s really difficult for me to get excited now.”
I tell him I cried when he won the Olympic gold. He smiles, excuses himself. When he comes back he’s holding a long, hard plastic case. Grey, battered, airline tags. He opens it and takes out what can be best described as a weapon straight out of The Matrix. Lean, complex, stripped down to the reason why guns were made — to fire bullets accurately — in this case, more accurately than any other gun on the planet.
“I won the World Championships in Zagreb with this system. (I’m gathering shooters say ‘system’ for guns, like photographers say ‘images’ for pictures.) Broke the world and Olympic records with it. Won, oh… about 25 medals with it.”
I am speechless because this gun/system is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Also because I’m trying to figure out how am I going to say no without hurting his feelings. I can’t possibly collect a gun and put it up for auction without the police, home ministry, defence and god-knowswho- else putting me behind bars.
“Uhhm, Abhinav, won’t there be a huge problem?”
I can’t possibly collect a gun without the police, defence, home ministry and god-knows-who-else putting me behind bars
“It’s a gun. I don’t have the papers, nor the permission to collect one.”
He allows himself a smile. “Don’t worry. It’s an air gun. You don’t need any paperwork or permissions.”
“Sorry?” Did he say air gun?
“Yeah. It’s an air gun. You don’t have to do anything. I shoot with an air gun.” My mind begins to bend. “So… the air gun I used to fire at telephone poles…”
“Is the same as this.” He pauses. “Well, not exactly…” Another smile.
My shadow starts doing the bhangra as I effusively thank him, say goodbye to his family, make them vow they’ll all be there for the auction and leave. At the front door I thank Abhinav again.
“You’re welcome.” A pause. “You know, I’ve had that gun for six years.” Another pause. “If there’s anything I’m attached to, it’s that. All the best, Rahul.”
I’M AWARE how dodgy it sounds when I say I too have played for India. I mean — what now? Am I going to start putting myself on par with the psychological and emotional journey of a Sachin? No, but bear with me. When you play sport at the highest level the gears shift. And whether you’re an Indian cricketer or a player on its rugby team, the ruthless judgementalism is the same — only the numbers change. A billion people go to bed cursing you or no one sits at your table during the team dinner.
Sportspersons are the planet’s greatest self-help gurus. Imagine yourself going out to bat to save India in the fourth innings of a Test. You are the last hope of the team, the country. You get out playing a stupid, stupid shot. People react with horror, outrage and abuse. Yet, three days later you take guard on the first day of the next Test — optimistic, energetic, relaxed and raring to go. What kind of emotional spring cleaning did you require in those 72 hours when some people even whispered you might have accepted money to get out in that fourth innings? What strange mix of self-security and humility did it require to eject the negativity, shame and anger and reinject hope, belief and the killer instinct?
Sportspersons are life’s great philosophers. Winning and losing mean everything and nothing. All they can do is their best on that day. Which might be very different from their best on another. They don’t need to be told everything is Maya. They live it. If Arjun had been an international player, the Gita wouldn’t have been written. Which is why off-the-field most international sportspersons are uncomplicated. In the black or white world they inhabit, the only option is to live in the moment — always. And they never lose focus. Sachin. Vishy. Saina.
I AM sitting in Pullela Gopichand’s academy in Hyderabad. I’ve come to meet Saina. The room has a massive glass wall so Gopi can look straight through at the eight courts on which protégés of different ages are playing out a bewildering mix of drills. I feel like a teenager who’s stumbled on a free stash of porn. I can hear coaches shouting, whistles going off, the squeak of sole on surface, the thwack of shuttle. Everywhere players are leaping, lunging, smashing, slowing to stillness, uncoiling, sprinting, stretching. I watch transfixed, automatically comparing our rugby drills with these.
Gopi enters with Saina. I have never met either before. He is tall and she, taller than she looks on television. Both exude calm in very different avatars. His is Buddhist, hers banked fires. I explain what my foundation does etc. (the difference between me and a traveling salesman is beginning to wear thin), and then await her reply. She looks moved, doesn’t take a moment to think and says, “Of course I’ll donate something.” She and Gopi exchange looks. She continues, “I’ll give you one of the rackets that is part of the set I have won everything with this year.”
I’m thinking, ‘Why? Why is a national treasure putting her limbs at risk behind the wheel of a car in this crazed country?’
This year she’s won four tournaments on the trot and reached world No. 2. This year has been the biggest year of her life. “Why don’t you
come home?” she asks, “I can sign the racket there.” We follow her car. She’s driving, her mother’s with her, and I’m thinking to myself, “Why? Why is a national treasure putting her limbs at risk behind the wheel of a car in this crazed country?” She’s moving the machine at a fair clip. Then I remember she’s 20.
We drive into one of the new, condo, gated communities in Hyderabad, sandstoney feel, new security guards, underground parking. We enter her flat. Clearly they’ve moved in very recently. Saina sends a kid scurrying for a black marker from the next door neighbours. She signs the racket handle. As she hands it over, she look at me and says, “Just wait. One minute.” She comes back and puts a gold medal in my hand. “This is the Indian Open gold medal I won. It was one of the four — a grand prix tournament.” I am about to tell her she doesn’t need to do this, her racket is talismanic enough for any sport-crazy bidder because it’s the racket of the next world No. 1, when she interrupts my head saying, “Wait one minute more.” She comes back smiling and hands me a signed T-shirt. Now she looks satisfied. Now she feels she’s done the cause commensurate good. Her mother and she see me down to my car.
I know it sounds dodgy when I say I have played for India. Am I going to put myself on par with the journey of a Sachin?
LAST TWO vignettes. Over dinner at a friend’s I ask Sachin if he’ll donate something for the auction. “Yes, certainly.” Noble as his intentions are, I know he leaves for Sri Lanka in 24 hours. I hesitantly call him the next day. He says he will call me back. He does, it’s all arranged. A day later I have personally collected his fourth highest ODI–scoring bat.
A day later I speak to Ajitpal Singh. Two months ago, after chatting over a nimbu pani at his Delhi home, he had said he would go back to his hometown, Jalandhar, and find Islahuddin Siddiqui’s (the losing 1975 Pakistani skipper) hockey stick from that epic final, along with one of his own sticks, and send them to me. He did. Now I am on the phone with him. I am thanking him and confirming his attendance at the auction. His was the longest shot I took — I did not know him from Adam and his is one of my most precious pieces of the event. I have secretly thought I will bid for it. He says he is coming, then adds, “I wonder if my piece will even sell. It was so long ago and…” I tell him there is already a bid for the sticks. There genuinely is and it’s not mine. The captain of India’s greatest hockey team sounds happy. He says, “Ok, that’s good.”
Sportspersons make me cry.