Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"Sridhar Ramanujam, 33 not out" - A short story

Sridhar Ramanujam, 33 not out
A short story by Ram Murali

Sridhar Ramanujam was a splendid timer of the cricket ball, whose cover drive was executed with supple wrists and effortless grace. But there is a good chance that hardly anybody outside of Tamil Nadu first- class cricket circles knew that. The year was 1993, a good 15 years before the Indian Premier League gave budding state level players a stage to display their talent alongside the cricket world’s international stars. Back then, cricketers who played for Tamil Nadu traveled by train to play cricket, stayed in hotels that had a few stars less than five and were paid an amount that was a tiny fraction of what was paid to the players in the Indian team. These were trivial non-issues for Sridhar, for he loved the game. Simply loved the game. And, he was good at it too.  But, was he good enough?

Sridhar had just turned 33 but was as fit as he was at 23. He had played 126 first class games, made 9215 runs and had scored 15 centuries. The number of Test matches that he played was zero, a number that, in the eyes of those few who had followed his career, did absolutely no justice to his talent. Some said, “Bad luck.” Others cited the instance when he got a chance to prove himself in the Irani Trophy match (often considered a make-or-break for Test selection) in 1988 but got out in single figures, thanks to a horrible lbw decision. Regardless of what others said, Sridhar continued to be positive and hoped for a break. On October 10th, he got a phone call from Mr. Venkat, a well-wisher and mentor of his in the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. Sridhar was standing in the living room of his two-bedroom apartment with his cordless phone in one hand and his wallet and car key in another.

“Good morning, Sridhar. How are you?”

“Very fine, Sir. Nisha and I are just getting ready to do some Deepavali shopping. How are you, Sir?”

“Sridhar, can I talk to you for five minutes or are you in a hurry?”

“Can you give me one minute, Sir?”

Sridhar, with one hand on the speaker of his cordless phone, whispered to his wife, “Nisha, Venkat Sir says this is important. Perumal-a vendiko (Pray to God).” As Nisha went into the prayer room after showing him thumbs up, Sridhar sat down to continue his conversation.
“Sorry, Sir. Tell me.”

“Sridhar, you have been a great talent for Tamil Nadu. As you know, I am one of your biggest fans.”

The pace of Sridhar’s heart beat increased just a tad as he cut to the chase and said hurriedly, “Sir, is it bad news?”
“Sorry, pa. I feel very bad to tell you that you have not been selected for the South Zone team for the Duleep Trophy.”

If good news sometimes takes time to sink in, bad news can give one a sinking feeling in the flash of a second. Sridhar though, was always a floater.

Sridhar closed his eyes, took a deep breath and said, “Sir, do you have any further feedback on my last season’s performance?”

“Oh Sridhar, of course you have always rendered yeoman service to Tamil Nadu. Last season, your century against Hydrebad was superb. But they’re looking to select youth for the South Zone team since they want to replace Amre before the Sri Lanka series.”

Sridhar had always wondered why Venkat always said, “they” when he gave him good or bad news. He had never asked who “they” were. This time, it was no different.

“Sir, I guess if they’ve decided that I’ve had enough chances, I can’t do much about it. Plus, as you said, the focus should be on youth, not me. Okay sir, anything else?”

“Continue to practice, Sridhar. I am sure your time will come.”

“Sir, maybe my time has come. Anyway, I promised to take Nisha to Kumaran’s (clothing store) today.  We will visit you for Deepavali to get your blessings.” “God bless you, pa.”

Mysterious are the blessings of God, thought Sridhar, as he walked into the prayer room. Nisha looked at him, stopped in the middle of her prayer and hugged him tightly. She said, “I am sorry.”  She had heard not one word of the conversation. It’s just that they had been married for eight years. Sridhar smiled at her and said, “Let’s go. Parking will be a hassle if we don’t leave now.”
That night, after dinner, Sridhar and Nisha were relaxing on the couch, watching Sun TV. He lowered the TV volume one notch and said to Nisha, “I’d like to discuss something with you.”

Nisha replied, “Sridhar, come here come here. I just felt a kick! Place your hand on my tummy.”

Sridhar placed his hand on Nisha’s tummy, eagerly awaiting the next kick. Nisha said to him, “Tell me now.”

“One minute. Let me first feel the kick!”

They looked at each other without saying anything. Sridhar felt the kick. He kissed Nisha on her forehead and said, “Nisha, I want to call it a day.”

Nisha could usually predict what Sridhar would say when he got pensive but this time, she was taken aback.

“No no no, you can’t, Sri. This is very impulsive, so unlike you. Please reconsider for my sake.”

“Nisha, I started playing cricket when I was nine. In the last 24 years, this game has meant a lot to me. But as I look ahead, I don’t see a future for me in the game. I am not getting any younger.”

“But you are super fit. Remember the catch that you took a long-on in the Goa game, Venkat Sir said that it reminded him of Madan Lal.”

“But once you are over 30, it is a barrier. I even had a conversation with Venkat Sir once about mental maturity and how I was peaking two years ago in all the facets of my game, both technical and mental. But the call never came.”

“You still enjoy the game, Sri. Don’t you think you should play till you’re at least 35?”

“Vijay Merchant once said that you should quit when people ask ‘Why?’ and not, Why not?’”

“Forget about Vijay Merchant. I really think you’re overreacting. The thing is, this is not like you.”

“No, Nisha. I did think about it this afternoon when you were taking a nap. The way I see it, I can spend more time here with you and from Jan 14th, with the papa (baby) too. I can also concentrate more at work. Last year, my work suffered quite a bit because of all the traveling.”

By now, Nisha realized that Sridhar could not be convinced otherwise. She leaned on his shoulder and said, “Hey, there’s a Revathy movie releasing on Deepavali. Can we watch it?”

Sridhar guffawed and said, “Yeah, ‘Marupadiyum.’ I heard that it’s a remake of ‘Arth.’ ‘Arth’ was very heavy. Let’s think about it later. Go to sleep now.”

At around 3:00 am, Nisha woke up to drink a glass of milk. She saw that Sridhar was still awake, going through the scrapbook in which Nisha had compiled photographs and newspaper articles on Sridhar. 

She noticed Sridhar’s eyes were a little moist. She said to him, “Get some sleep, Sri.”

He replied, “You know, I just feel bad that I never got to make an impact. I mean, at the international level. Zero impact. That’s what I feel bad about.”

Nisha, in a bid to ease the tension, said, “Make an impact on me now by getting me some milk!” Both of them broke into laughter instantly. The wound healed temporarily. But the pain remained.
The next morning, Sridhar went to the beach for his usual morning run, wearing his worn out pair of shoes. When he returned, he noticed a brand new pair of running shoes and a pair of sandals outside his apartment.

As he entered the living room, he saw his teammate Vinay and Vinay’s wife drinking tea. He said to Vinay, “Enna Pudhu Maaple (newly married), this early?”

As Nisha walked in from the kitchen with a tray of biscuits, Vinay said, “Sir, I have some good news. Venkat Sir called me yesterday to tell me that I’ve been selected for the South Zone team. I wanted to tell you this in person and get your blessings since this will be my Duleep Trophy debut.”

Sridhar put his arm around Vinay’s shoulder and said, “Congrats, da! I am so proud of you. I always tell Nisha that you will go places. See, I am right!”

Nisha shook hands with Vinay’s wife and said, “Congratulations, Vidhya! Vinay, Vidhya is your good luck charm!”

Vinay smiled bashfully and said, “Yes, akka (sister). She is! Sridhar Sir, you are a big reason why I am playing in Duleep Trophy.”

As Sridhar and Nisha sported quizzical looks at each other, Vinay continued, “I don’t know if you remember, Sir. Before my first game for Tamil Nadu two years ago, I was sitting near the pavilion rope, twiddling my thumbs. You put your arm on my shoulder and took me for a walk around the ground. I actually don’t remember much of what we spoke about but one thing I remember clearly. As we walked past the D stand, you told me that the fans who sit on the uncomfortable benches and cheer for us, those are the ones that matter, that as long as we can make them happy with our style of playing, that we must consider ourselves lucky. You told me that enjoying ourselves is the most important thing because that enjoyment is very infectious. That really…that really made a huge impact on me, Sir.”

Sridhar looked at Nisha, gave an acknowledging smile and said to Vinay, “Best of luck, Vinay. I am sure you will do well.”

By the time Vinay and his wife left the house, Sridhar’s pain had vanished for good.