THE BEST-KNOWN CRICKETER on the planet is now my neighbour. I mean, even with my aging arm muscles I’m sure I could fling a stone from my balcony and shatter the pristine plate glass of Sachin Tendulkar’s windows, not that I’m about to attempt that feat. After three years building his mansion, he moved in one balmy September morn. That day, on the otherwise nondescript lane in our Mumbai suburb, there was a steady influx of TV cameras, pert correspondents wearing inordinately tight clothes, crowds of excited young men, schoolgirls carrying bouquets and wiping sweat off their brows, women carrying what looked like trophies of a kind, a group with a welcome banner that climbed a tree and incurred the neighbours’ wrath—all right, my wrath—when they casually snapped a few three-foot-long branches and threw them to the ground.
“We are doing good work here today,” one argued when I went over to remonstrate, “and you’re trying to stop us? These were just twigs! They blocked part of our banner! Besides, do you know how many poor people our organisation helps? Bet you don’t help any!”
And when Tendulkar appeared at his entrance in the early afternoon, the boom mikes snapped forward like a crowd of alert cobras, cameras pressed in, men shouted and up on my fourth-floor balcony, overlooking the scene but with no stone at the ready (I promise), I heard despairing feminine wails from somewhere inside the crush. The bouquet girls and trophy ladies were not even visible any more. Later reports, no surprise, suggested there had been some minor injuries.
That morning, I asked one TV crew: are you really going to spend all day here? Why would you do that?
“All right for you to talk,” said a slender man in an electric blue shirt, his lips twisted in envy. “You’re going to be invited to his housewarming party!”
Blindsided by this, I spluttered: Me? I don’t know him at all! Why would Tendulkar invite me?
“Go on!” he scoffed. “He wrote all of you personal letters before he started building this place!”
This is true. In late 2008, Tendulkar bought the plot opposite us, with its crumbling prewar bungalow (TV crews came then too). When gangs of men with long hammers arrived to tear down the bungalow, each of us who live on the street found a letter from him in our mailbox: “My dear neighbours,” it began. Tendulkar went on to say that he knew the construction would be noisy, but he was going to “make sure that the work is done in a manner causing least inconvenience to all”. He went on to say, too, that he looked forward to moving in.
Nice letter. But because I got one of those, I’m going to his party?
Letter or not, and no fault of Tendulkar’s I’m sure, in these three years the construction has been a nuisance often enough. Three times we called the cops past 10:30 at night to stop deafening sounds erupting out of there. Innumerable times we argued with the security guards or the foremen about the noise. Eventually we even got to be sort-of friends that way, even on first name terms with them—Milind, Iqbal, Simon and more, all pals with our kids. Simon lent us `20 once to pay a rickshaw fare. And one evening, we invited Iqbal up for a drink, to give him a sense of what it was like for us. Pleasant hour, pleasant man, though we had to shout to chat. Haven’t seen him since.
Then there was the time a monster truck with a load of something tried to back into the site. Its battery died, so it blocked the entire width of the street. Traffic making U-turns to retreat and find other routes, frayed tempers, you name it. Nearly two hours later, I went down to see what the matter was. The driver, sitting on the side of the road, asked me: “Do you know any mechanics around here?” He hadn’t thought to inquire. Look, I said, we can’t let this continue. Can’t we get a whole lot of people together and push the truck out of the way? He shook his head and smiled condescendingly at the depths of my ignorance. “Marble,” he said. “35 tons.”
But he hadn’t thought, either, of his partner truck, parked at the entrance to the lane, waiting for this one to unload. It had a similar load, but more to the point, it had a similar battery. When I pointed, he put a hand to his mouth, ran there, brought its battery over and got his truck moving.
As I said, all this was no real fault of Tendulkar’s. He has played so much cricket these past few years, breaking so many records, that I wonder how he kept track of this construction on the side. But we, with it happening in front of us, we kept track. Oh yes.
One morning some months ago, a gleaming Audi SUV was parked outside. The man himself must be here, we thought, so here was our chance to tell him our woes ourselves. We asked a thickset bodyguard—new guy, nobody we had gotten to know—can we meet him? Some hemming and hawing, some stifled grins, then: “You see, sir is in a meeting and it will take two or three hours.”
We’ll wait, we said. My wife brought down some exam papers to correct. I brought down a chair and my laptop. We sat on the street for the next few hours, working, waiting. I actually finished an essay I had a tight deadline for, I remember. Eventually, Tendulkar and his wife appeared. They were immensely gracious, listening patiently and then he said: “I would be upset too, if I were you.” Right there, he instructed the foreman about late night work. It never happened again.
But although we met him that one time, now that he is installed in his mansion we see nothing of him. (No, I wasn’t at the party, if it has happened, that is). What we do see are pilgrims, and I use that word deliberately. Most times I walk out of my home, a taxi screeches to a halt outside and disgorges half-a-dozen star-struck fans. Like so many eclipse lovers gazing at the sun through darkened glass, they stare up at the Home of the Man, pointing here and there, cellphones held just so to capture grainy likenesses they can call their own. Often it’s a young couple, cooing and giggling. Is a cricketer’s house the newest trend in places to go on a date?
“Sachin is God”, reads the T-shirt that many fans surprisingly wear. One, muscles rippling beneath the words, actually had two women with him as he craned his neck to see what he could see. Fifteen minutes he was there—I know because I waited too, for my daughter’s school bus—as one woman spoke on her phone and the other filed her nails. Just a building, I couldn’t help saying as I walked past, just a man. The nail-filer flashed a smile no less condescending than a truck driver’s had been, months earlier. “Yes, but this is Sachin’s biggest fan!” She raised her voice enough that Tendulkar’s security guard—another new man—turned to look: “The BIGGEST!” Yes, but what was this biggest fan doing? He stood immobile, immovable, uncannily like a giant praying mantis clothed in white and suffering a neck problem.
It got me wondering: How will a god—this god—live any kind of normal life? Nonentity that I gladly am, I can stroll to the corner store without a thought, when we need bread. To the nearby mochi when there’s a sandal to be fixed. To the florist when it’s somebody’s birthday. Being rich and famous must have its pluses, but how sad that my new neighbour can never hope to indulge in the small pleasures his neighbourhood—our neighbourhood—offers.
Back to the morning he moved in. A petite reporter with a stylish hair arrangement stands at the mouth of our lane. “Unfortunately this is part of our job,” she says, looking less than pleased about waiting indefinitely for Tendulkar to appear. “But we have to be here. He might, you know, say something.”
Of such anticipation, a hundred news reports and YouTube videos are born. So welcome to the neighbourhood, Sachin Tendulkar. Whether or not you say something.