December 2023

What prayers can’t preclude

MJ Akbar offers some notes from a big, fat, festive wedding in Ahmedabad – with the wrong bridegroom

07:10AM. NOVEMBER 19. ANTICIPATION.

High Fashion has come down for breakfast, the most necessary meal in Jetlagland. The restaurant shop is host to excited NRIs, mainly from America, couples who have carefully planned their holiday to sync with the Diwali and cricket festivals.

There is more than the occasional flash of a scissored dress among wives; the humdrum men wear T-shirts clinging to undulating midriffs, signature sign of male success; or loose sweatshirts that are an assault on taste, an abject surrender to the 16th century combination of cowl and robe. At least in the old days the cowl was made from wool. Now it is churned out from synthetics. Call it pre-coffee cynicism, but one suspects that all this couture, high, low or indistinguishable, has come from discount malls. The deep secret of capitalism is the fundamental right to sell Gucci at Pucci prices.

Today is the apogee, summit of a perfect Indian climb through ten stages of victory, each accomplished with the aplomb of sporting conquerors. India vs Australia is script-perfect; India vs Pakistan would have looked like a manufactured set-up with endless jokes about whether it had been fixed by ICC or bookie.com, undercurrents overwhelming surface tensions.

A quick run-through the sports pages, the rest of the newspaper being irrelevant on this hallowed day. The eye rests beadily on a remark by Pat Cummins, captain of Australia, answering a reporter’s query about the psychological impact of a home crowd: ‘…in sports there’s nothing more satisfying than hearing a big crowd go silent’. Ominous. I gulp some thick Americano to wash down a faint but perceptible uneasiness. By 10 tonight Cummins could become the conversation of Australia and the curse of India.

A silent prayer ascends from the heart. Prayer is the premium paid for the ultimate insurance policy, divine intervention.

Heeding good advice, we leave early for the stadium. There is jam on the road and bread on the pavement; or at least the hawkers are earning enough for a month’s bread selling the blue uniform of the Indian team.

HIGH-FLIERS: the Surya Kiran Aerobatic team of the Indian Air Force

12:05 PM. THE STADIUM.

The stands are still sparse. The sun is warm on the uncovered terraces. But space has begun to fill up with noise, sometimes masquerading as music, more often in the form of the wavy crescendo of human excitement in easy collaboration with drums booming from speakers. The national team of the national sport is poised on the precipice of glory at the country’s finest stadium. This is the chorus of superb theatre on a great occasion. Is the music Hindi? Is it English? Time will tell, if time ever cares to do so. The growing gathering in the stands doesn’t care. They love the beat, and the throb is infectious.

There is much ceremony before the toss, possibly to meet the demands of advertising merchants

12:50 PM. THE FIELD.

So far the only highlight has been 74-year-old Sunil Gavaskar indulging his childhood fantasies by tucking his trousers into cowboy boots as he commentates, rather than merely comments, from the ground. Is there a secret message in those cowboy boots? A hidden signal that this is a day for cowboys; Indians should keep their guns blazing through the match?

For us in seats high above the ground such rumination is inevitable when the clock has gone into slow mode, and minutes can’t find their way forward. The field is full of men limbering up; the stars loosening their legs with football or their arms with a bowl or catch-up.

There is much ceremony before the toss, possibly to meet the demands of advertising merchants who have bought up the day in the broadcast market. It is not the multinationals who are the big spenders, but Indian companies. One is not talking about pan masala. I discover that the heavily advertised perfume is an Indian brand, created by a brilliant local entrepreneur.

The first true roar rises. India has lost the toss. But that’s okay. India will bat. Cummins prefers to field. The stands are happy. Everyone is an expert. There is agitated conversation about the descent of dew after sunset. No one is condescending about condensation. The dew will win it.

The green field has become dynamic. It sparkles. At 13:45PM the Surya Kiran Aerobatic team of the Indian Air Force roars into view, taking drama and precision into the ether. Fifteen minutes later, Rohit Sharma is off, hitting with the abandon of a winner. Then fate abandons us. When the batting calms down, we get becalmed. When word is passed on to step up, nerves cannot take the strain. The best batsmen get lost in the 40s and 50s; others get glum in single digits. Prospects shift from positive to iffy.

When we score in ones or twos, we are placid. When opponents do the same, they are boring

CIRCA 8 PM. THE GURGLE.

When we score in ones or twos, we are placid. When opponents do the same, they are boring.

Eyes switch quickly to statistics on the scoreboard when in the ennui of the evening, approaching defeat suddenly pauses. It is the 27th over. Two no-nonsense Australians have shrugged off early misadventures to seize the match by the scruff of its sagging neck. The Travis Head Marnus Labuschagne partnership has taken Australia to 157 for 3 but victory is still nearly a century away. A wicket now and Glenn Maxwell will come in with his sixes-and mixes; in another half-hour rejuvenated Indian bowlers, fuelled by an uproar in Ahmedabad audible in Sydney, might just wreck the opposition.

Now or never.

Jasprit Bumrah pins Labuschagne before the stumps. A billion Indians who chase cricket are certain he is out, but not the chap who matters. The cussed umpire. Instant appeal. The drill begins. There is no bat involved, so first stage successful. The ball hits stumps on computer trajectory. On the far edge. The batsman survives. Umpire’s call.

Bumrah wins a moral victory; India has a heart failure. At the end of the over Bumrah kicks the stumps in frustration. The match turns in Australia’s direction. Within another 10 overs, energy saps from cries of ‘India jeetega’. Excitement seeps out like reluctant air from a hyper balloon in the last gurgle of hope. Realists start to dribble towards the gates. A steady Head, scoring 96 runs in boundaries, takes the glory overseas.

In the 16th century, winking meant closing both your eyes. You were hoodwinked when a highwayman covered your eyes and face with a hood. I feel hoodwinked by Head.

MORAL VICTORY: Jasprit Bumrah

EVENTIDE: ENDGAME

A cascading murmur indicates something is happening. Since nothing fortunate is happening on the field, it must be in the audience. Necks crane. A chant rises. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come for a second time to the stadium named after him. He saw India batting in the afternoon; he will now present the trophy to the winner. Well, to Australia, unless there is some miracle. Alongside sits Amit Shah. The home minister is a fan. The prime minister is cool. The two are in the stands, not in VIP boxes. The crowd’s admiration for their leader is apparent; children go up to the prime minister while mobiles seek a fleeting glimpse.

When God refuses to interrupt the inevitable despite my morning prayers, the prime minister and his guest, the deputy prime minister of Australia, go to the podium to hand the World Cup to an elated Cummins. Spectators reserve their loudest cheers for Virat Kohli and Mohammed Shami. We learn later of the emotional visit to the Indian dressing room. No picture is more poignant than the one tweeted by Shami. He is in tears as Prime Minister Modi consoles the biggest wicket-taker of the tournament.

A little before 10PM, a perfect wave of pinpoint lights suddenly begins to advance across the night-sky from our right. Without any fanfare, the drone show has begun. Technology has brought imagination to life. The light points change into shapes of the nation, and motifs of the game, against a deep purple sky.

It is a spectacular finale to a great, fat, festive Indian wedding. With the wrong bridegroom.

MJ Akbar is the author of several books, including Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Racism and Revenge in the British Raj, and Gandhi: A Life in Three Campaigns