Sachin Tendulkar smiles while signing an autograph for a young fan

If there was no Tendulkar, would we have willed him into existence?

© Associated Press

Essay

Still loving Sachin

It has been five years since Tendulkar left the stage, and India's obsession with him makes a little more sense

Pranay Sanklecha |

It's normally considered brave to reveal your vulnerabilities and your weaknesses, your fears and your failures. And perhaps for many this is indeed a scary thing to do. For me, though, it has always been the other way around. Revealing the wounded spaces of my soul has never really troubled me; rather, I've found it much harder to reveal what you could call the positive things, things like my hopes and dreams, my ambitions, even just my tastes.

Some of this is down to the inexplicable idiosyncrasy of every individual self, of course. But some of it is also pretty easy to understand - tell me what you like, said Ruskin, and I will tell you what you are. There's something true about that. The things that draw you, the things you admire, the things you love, these can reveal something very intimate about a person. And the things that an entire country loves, well, this might well tell us something about that country?

An entire country has loved Sachin Tendulkar. We - this is not the royal "we" but something even more presumptuous, namely a claim to speak for Indians generally - have loved him for almost 30 years now. We have loved him since he was a squeaky-voiced 16-year-old who thumped Abdul Qadir for four sixes in an over; since the Boost ads with Kapil Dev; since Manchester 1990, Perth 1992, the Hero Cup in 1993. And because love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, through all the changes in his life and all the changes in ours, we have continued to love him.

And this says something about us. Why did we love him like we did?

I may have had an English accent, I may have stopped being vegetarian, I may have consciously rejected virtually all my heritage - but I still loved Sachin

Now, when you ask a lover why they love their beloved, they will normally attempt to give some reasons. She's beautiful, she's kind, she's smart, she's blah, blah, blah. These reasons will not be exhaustive. Indeed, they cannot be, because at the bottom of all love is mystery. But they will at least say something about the beloved.

But we know so little about Sachin. I mean, sure, we know things like when he was born, the number of international centuries he scored, etc. But these are incidental facts. About the man himself we know nothing.

This means that our love for Sachin is especially revelatory about us, because, really, it's not Sachin we love. Sachin functioned, not entirely but to a significant degree, as a blank canvas for a country to paint its dreams on. He was the beautiful woman sitting at the end of the bar, on whose smile men spin, according to taste, visions of weekends in Paris or an eternally blissful marriage. The visions were caused by her beauty and the smile, but they are really much more about the men doing the spinning.

What we love, in other words, is not Sachin the real person but rather our idea and our image of him. In fact, his very unknowability is a crucial ingredient in our love for him, precisely because it gave us the space to create the ideas and the images that we needed to create.

I love my parents. But I haven't always had an easy relationship with them. On the one hand, I'm Indian, and loving and respecting your parents is just what you do. It isn't negotiable. On the other, well, our worlds are different. We've seen different things, had different experiences, been exposed to different situations and ideas. And so naturally we have different values in some areas, even some very important areas (cf. our views on whether I should get married or not).

This has made our relationship difficult to navigate. On the one hand, I do love and respect them, and in my Indian context, part of what this means is honouring and living by their values. But I can't do this fully, because I don't share all those values. And they, on their side, face a symmetrical problem. Here's this son whom they love, but who does some things that contradict some very basic values they have.

It was easy to love Sachin because he was a canvas on which we could paint our hopes and dreams

It was easy to love Sachin because he was a canvas on which we could paint our hopes and dreams © AFP

Now, there are some specific reasons for my situation. But there is also a general thing, which I think is applicable very broadly to Indian parent-child relationships. In the 1990s, which is the decade when Sachin found his odd, special place in the hearts of Indians, India was living through a period of enormous social and moral change. Values were in flux, old certainties were being, if not rejected, at least seriously questioned. In such a time, the parent-child relationship acquires a special and particularly intense set of challenges; the normal generational conflict becomes deeper and more deeply felt. Which raises for all sides urgent existential questions. How are we to reconcile the conflict while still remaining authentic? How are we to love despite being separate?

I have put this so far in terms of a generational conflict, a parent-child thing, and I do think that's accurate. But I also think that the underlying point is wider than that. The generational tension can be understood as an instance of the confusion created by a more fundamental question: in an India that's changing so quickly and so dramatically, what does it now mean to be Indian? There's an easy response to that question, which also happens to be correct: there is no particular way of being Indian, no specific and exclusive thing that being Indian means. And all answers to the question that claim to be the answer are precisely for that reason complete bullshit.

But to deny that there is a single, definitive answer is not the same as saying that the question doesn't matter. Clearly it can matter, and in fact it often does. For better or worse, national identity is for most people a part of personal identity, and there can be times when a person is trying to figure out who he is and a country is trying to figure out what it is.

I left India for England when I was 13. I went alone, without family, which, in those pre-internet and pre-middle-class-income days, meant I barely spoke to my family for ten years, let alone saw them. I adapted, as kids will. I tried to fit in with my surroundings, with the new culture I had been suddenly exposed to.

We still love him, of course, but we love him in the way in which we still love our first love, as a memory, as nostalgia not just for the person but for ourselves

I did this extremely successfully. I became, in fact, what some friends called a coconut - brown on the outside, white on the inside. Now, with time and relative maturity, I can laugh about such things, I can reject the premises of the problem - but at the time, living through it, it was a very big deal. What was I? In what way, if at all, was I still Indian? What was being Indian?

As with many important problems, there was no solution, just a dissolution. Eventually, the questions stopped mattering as much, the terms of the problem changed. But when the question mattered, part of my answer was loving Sachin Tendulkar. Loving Sachin was for me a way of somehow still being Indian. I may have had an English accent, I may have stopped being vegetarian, I may have consciously rejected virtually all my heritage - but I still loved Sachin. Loving Sachin, in other words, was for me an uncontroversial, unquestionable part of being Indian, of retaining at least some intensely felt connection to a society I had in other ways internally abandoned.

And I want to suggest that loving Sachin was also part of the answer, for millions of Indians, to the questions I have raised. Sachin straddled two worlds - the world before liberalisation and the world after. He was a symbol of the new possibilities that Indians had, of the success and self-confidence that began to appear after decades of a post-colonial inferiority complex; but at the same time he had (or at least appeared to have; naturally I have no idea what his values actually are) old-world values, values that India was beginning to honour more in the breach than the observance but was nonetheless deeply attached to.

And because he was this symbol, loving him was a way of integrating both Indias into yourself, a way of expressing both parts of an increasingly divided national soul. Sachin, or at least loving Sachin, was a place for parents and children to meet. It was a way of being Indian, an expression and a constitutive part of a national identity that was otherwise increasingly confused. Loving Sachin was a promise that the struggles would resolve themselves. He was the symbol of a resolution, of a harmony that would be re-established between the old and the new.

When I think about it like this, I begin to think: how could we not have fallen in love with Sachin?

Still adored, but perhaps not with the same intensity and need

Still adored, but perhaps not with the same intensity and need © Getty Images

As per Tolstoy's theory of history, while someone like Napoleon appears to be one of the great men of history, one of those people who decide the destiny of nations and the world, in actual fact Napoleon is just the necessary product of his time. He is the product of destiny rather than its driver.

I think something similar is true of Sachin and his time. India needed someone like that at that particular time, and this need found its fulfillment in Sachin. If it hadn't been him, it would have been someone else.

Sachin, in other words, is even more like God than we thought. If he hadn't existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.

And in fact, Sachin, our Sachin, the Sachin we love - he doesn't exist. He never existed. We did indeed invent him. But needs evolve, they change and sometimes disappear. The intensity of our love for Sachin appears to me to have faded since his retirement. We still love him, of course, but we love him in the way in which we still love our first love, as a memory, as nostalgia not just for the person but for ourselves, for the love that we were once capable of.

We no longer need Sachin in the way we did (in part) because our need for reconciliation between the old and the new, our confusions about identity - these are less urgent because they are closer to being resolved. The old order changeth, yielding place to new. Whether this is progress… well, it is change, anyway.

Pranay Sanklecha is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Graz. He's currently working on a book about the meaning of life, for which he welcomes editorial inquiries

 

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