Sourav Ganguly takes a special pleasure in disguise and subterfuge. At the beginning of his recently-released book A Century Is Not Enough , co-written with Gautam Bhattacharya, his close friend and a veteran cricket writer, he tells us—with no little glee—about the time when he took on a Sikh get-up to avoid being recognized in the Kolkata throng making its way to the ghats for the immersion of the Durga idols. On the historic 2004 tour to Pakistan, he gave the slip to the security detail—wearing a black cap that covered half his face—to accompany his friends on a kebab run in Lahore’s Gawalmandi area.
On both occasions, he was easily recognized. On immersion night, the Kolkata police refused to let the city’s hero ride on the truck with the idol and the neighbourhood boys. In Lahore, he encountered mildly suspicious locals before he was eventually and inadvertently ratted out by the journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, who was on his own street food adventure with then information and broadcasting minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad. The day after the Lahore escapade, Ganguly was reprimanded over the phone by then Pakistan President Parvez Musharraf.
In a way, the instances are telling of the essential fact of the Prince’s life and career. However endearing his half-baked attempts to merge with the hoi polloi, he could not help but stand out. One senses that he, understandably, takes a certain pride in being recognized despite his efforts not to be. Yet, in his interior life—as evidenced by the book—he might not be so different from us after all.
In our private moments, many of us like to believe that we are wearing a mask for the world, that our inner life is something else, something heavier, more profound and accessible only to us. In Century, Ganguly writes that even though “he looks tough on the outside”, he “bleeds” on the inside. But that seems as untrue of Dada as it is of us plebeians. He spoke his mind, he twirled his shirt at uppity Lord’s, he publicly expressed his admirations and revulsions. And despite his claims of shyness and introversion, his struggles and his victories were for all to see. And that is how he (and we) preferred it.
In Pakistani-American writer Daniyal Mueenuddin’s short story Lily—part of his fantastic collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders—the titular character worries that her almost-lover will be swept away by the current as he swims in a raging river. When she expresses her concern once he has returned to solid ground, he quotes a bit of Persian poetry as only, presumably, a handsome, rich Pakistani man can: Standing there on the shore,/ What do you know of my troubles,/ As I struggle here in midstream.
Should Dada read these words, he would feel it in his bones. That was the sentiment that informed his rise, fall and resurrection, and it is the sentiment that permeates Century. On its face, it may look to be an odd thought to associate with a man of his social class and upbringing. In many ways, he is the epitome of the Bengali bhadralok, ensconced in the genteel creature comforts of the upper middle class since childhood.
A doting mother (who packed his bags for overseas trips), an indulgent father (who sent him to summer in England to work on his game), a chauffer-driven car to shuttle him to and from net sessions. In an alternate, cricket-less world, he might have expanded his family’s printing empire. It is easy to imagine that everything else in his life would remain more or less the same. He still lords over his Behala mansion (which, in his own admission, has a drawing room bigger than most English county dressing rooms) and dutifully fulfils the role of respectable pandal benefactor during Durga Puja season.
But cricket was pursued, he had a talent, and so was on his way to a life less ordinary. Of course, in India, it can be argued that by virtue of being the son of a printing baron in a presidency city, you are already less ordinary. However, that form of analysis does nothing for understanding the motivations of day to day living. At that level, we are circumscribed by our social reality in a way that it becomes something matter of fact and also a thing to transcend.
If that is the key to understanding Sourav, it is easy to see why his ways exasperated those abroad—cricketers and the press. They simply did not have the tools to fully grasp this very Indian reality, gently feudal though it may seem. It was the English that had the most trouble with him. Ironic, because like any upper class Bengali man worth his salt, Ganguly cherishes spending time in the Old Blighty.
His Lancashire team-mate Andy Flintoff referred to him as “Prince Charles”. In a 2007 interview with The Guardian, Ganguly felt that he was perceived as aloof because he, never much of a drinker, did not join the lads for a pint after games. Also, he would have to rush back to Manchester to spend time with his wife. In his own words, “Girl alone at home—we’ve grown up in a different way.”
Century does not deal with all this consciously or critically. After all, it is about Ganguly’s “roller-coaster ride to success”. The idea seems to have been to put together some sort of instructive playbook for young professionals, with nothing less than Ganguly’s journey as an Indian cricketer being the carrier to glean those learnings from. The cultural and social milieu appears as obvious throwaway fact, not a thing to be dissected, and this is only fitting because that is the truth of Ganguly’s life. The background, the context, was taken for granted. All he had to do was work on himself and this cricketing life that was less destiny than active choice.
Because of this, there is not much in the book about the early days, typically standard fare in sporting autobiographies. We don’t know when Maharaj (as he is referred to at home and by his close circle) first picked up a bat and what he felt when he creamed the first of those gorgeous cover drives in a competitive game. It would not be safe to assume that he simply doesn’t remember or treat those milestones as important enough. In his essay on going through divorce during the summer of the famous 2005 Ashes, the sportswriter Daniel Harris opens and closes with the memorable line, “People who like sport remember their lives better than those who don’t.”
Sourav’s memory, especially when it comes to cricket, is legendary. And there are more than a few flashes of it in Century. But it does seem like Sourav to want to start the story with the India shirt. At one point he tells us, “Most of you can switch jobs…For us cricketers, we have only one job. India placement. There is no other job. It is simple—India or nothing.” He candidly admits that it was a challenge to trot around provincial grounds, playing to empty stands as he tried to stage a comeback to the national side in the period after Chappellgate.
On the occasions where the book is almost forcibly steered into self-help territory, the banal metaphors begin to jar. Just when you are sinking your teeth into the nice little bit about his attempts to re-integrate into the side soon after landing in South Africa for the storied comeback in December 2006, the writing descends into platitudes like “Professional life is all about remaining in the present” and “No point in living life if you lose your pride”.
We are advised that there is “no point dwelling on people who are not worthy of [our] attention”. We must learn to “ignore our detractors and be so good at [our] work that they fall by the wayside”. We know this, Dada. It is all there in those countless God-helps-those-who-help-themselves manuals stocked under the “Business and Self-Help” section in the neighbourhood Crossword.
Maybe we—the 90s kids who grew up with him—are expected to read between these lines. When he says that he was forced to do THAT Pepsi ad (“Mein Sourav Ganguly hoon. Bhule toh nahin?”) under pressure of a legal notice, we get the sense that he expects us to know that he couldn’t have minded all that much. The copy may have been given to him by the agency, but he looked like he meant those words when he spoke them. We, sitting in our living rooms, felt it too. To protect ourselves from being seen as soft and sentimental, we all pretended otherwise.
Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that the epic of Sourav Ganguly was made and re-made in his living of it. And in our individual and collective acts of giving real-time meaning to it. It took shape in real and imagined slights, in redemptions big and small, in a typically Indian sense—as much of ancient myth as Bollywood melodrama—of perceiving oneself to be up against the world, while being surrounded by a motley band of devoted and unquestioning loved ones. All this is the stuff of life. It would be unfair to expect the writing, the art, to match up.
Vikram Shah is a freelance writer, who says 'Never say never’ when asked if he plans to return to commercial law.
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