Sanjay was the only child of a cricket player who went on to represent India. But one didn’t have to know a thing about the sport or his father Vijay to get to know him because he never played or followed cricket. His mother Lakshmi never had an issue with that. What she had an issue with but rarely voiced was the chasm that existed between her religious beliefs and his atheistic leanings. He would accompany her to temples but wait outside until she was finished. She would pray for a bit more quiet to silence the din in Sanjay’s mind, a place where events from 1998 routinely paid a visit and played off-key notes.
March 20, 1998. MAC stadium in Chennai, India.
The stadium emanated heat like a frying pan. Beads of sweat ran across Vijay’s forehead. The heat was not the only culprit; the game had come down to the wire. His opposition needed 16 runs to win off the last six balls, a stiff but not impossible task. After he made changes to the field, he sprinted to his fielding position, barely a few feet away from the batsman.
No sooner had the bowler completed his delivery stride than the batsman hit the ball in Vijay’s direction with the ferocity of a howitzer. The ball traveled at a pace that even a cricketer blessed with Vijay’s reflexes could not stop the ball from hitting his forehead. His wail echoed all around the stadium, most notably in the direction of Lakshmi who had been watching this from the pavilion, with six-year old Sanjay seated on her lap. As Vijay collapsed, she rushed to his side.
The clock in the hospital seemed frozen. Lakshmi’s stomach felt like the insides of an overpowered blender. She was surrounded by her family and Vijay’s teammates. Meanwhile, Sanjay was at home wondering why his grandparents had come to spend the night with him. As the doctors and nursing staff flitted in and out of sight, Lakshmi chanted prayers under her breath. The silence was sickening; she could hardly hear her own prayers. 24 hours passed. It felt more like 86,400 seconds. The doctor walked up to her and said something that she heard but could barely register. Regaining the voice in her mind, she signed a consent form. As she got up from her chair, she shook the doctor’s hand and said, “Thank you for trying your best, Doctor.”
March 20, 2017. MAC stadium again.
Lakshmi held a gathering every year on this day, where she presented cash awards to three budding cricketers. She alighted from her car along with Sanjay and her husband Anil – she had remarried in 2003.
During the course of the ceremony, the batsman who had struck that unfortunate, fatal blow 19 years ago, walked up to Sanjay.
He put his arm around Sanjay’s shoulder and said, “Sanjay, you know, I felt so miserable the day Vijay left us. I wanted to quit the game. But the day after the funeral, Lakshmi visited my house. She comforted me and my wife that what had happened was an accident, that my going on to play well for India would be the best tribute to her husband, a person who simply loved the game, almost reverentially. I don’t remember her exact words but they meant a lot to me, my career and my life. And I thought you must know that.”
Sanjay smiled faintly and replied, “Thank you, Uncle.”
After the ceremony, as they approached their car, Sanjay said to Anil, “Pa, I need some time to myself. Could you drive back home and I’ll come later?”
Anil smiled, patted him on his cheek as Lakshmi responded, “Don’t be late, okay?”
Sanjay went back into the desolate stadium. Save the bees buzzing around, there was not a sound to be heard. He stood behind the ropes, in front of the pavilion. For a few seconds, his eyes were fixed on the area around the 22-yard pitch located at the center of the magnificent stadium. He sat down on the grass and gazed at the stillness of the azure sky, vast in its expanse and rich in its simplicity. He looked at the center pitch again and sported a smile. By now, even those nearby bees couldn’t punctuate his silence.
Nowadays, whenever he accompanies Lakshmi, Sanjay continues to wait outside the temple. But then, the means never mattered to Lakshmi.