Sunday, 1 May 2016

The Gift Of Anonymity

Every journalist has a taxi story. Some, like Dileep Premachandran's, give us lessons on forgiveness. Some, like Osman Samiuddin's give us perspectives on our jobs. My taxi story happened a couple of years ago, and involved chasing a Volvo bus half way across Mumbai while discussing school fees. Last month, I found another story, or rather it found me. 

I was in Nagpur covering a couple of games of the WT20, my first time travelling as a journalist since my retirement from competitive cricket. Checking into the hotel alone, as opposed to with a team was a strange sensation. I was used to the cacophony of 14 other girls in the reception (waiting to see who they will have to endure as a room partner), and the bustle of the beleaguered hotel staff (playing spot the difference with 15 identical kit bags). But I digress; complaints about the life of a journalist as opposed to a cricketer are for another post.

A day before the Australia-South Africa women's game at the Jamtha stadium, I was due to have dinner with a player at the team hotel. The rickshaw driver, by the name of Mushfiq, misheard me when I said 'Le Meridien', and instead thought I meant 'The Raddison'. It turned out Le Meridien was a good 8 clicks ahead of The Radisson, so we had enough time for a conversation.

I asked Mushfiq if he knew a women's international match was going to happen the next day. As expected (since neither the VCA nor ICC seemed to have put much thought into local publicity), he didn't. As it turned out, he was a cricket agnostic- one of the Indian minority who don’t consider cricket to be the centre of the solar system, as opposed to the sun. He even told me a story about 'some test match' that had taken place in Nagpur (the India-South Africa test in November 2015 whose pitch was rated as poor), where he had driven around a foreigner who was part of the touring team. 

This piqued my interest. Security for a touring team is usually as accommodating as a straitjacket. Players are rarely allowed to wander out of their hotels in rickshaws without an escort. Even the friend who I was on my way to meet couldn't get out of her hotel. I imagined the security around the men's teams would be a lot tighter. So how did a South African international cricketer get past security and take a ride with a clueless rickshaw driver?

He sneaked out, according to Mushfiq. The tale made the 30 minute journey along Airport road seem much shorter. 

Mushfiq had just dropped off a customer at the hotel where the South Africans were staying. He was puzzled by the throng in the driveway that was causing the security barrier to bulge; the buzz about them would have put off the meanest bee. He lingered for a few moments longer than he normally would have, long enough for two white men to quickly climb into his back seat. Pleased by the sudden arrival of customers, Mushfiq happily led them out of the hotel, the hopeful crowd unaware that the objects of their admiration had just blindsided them. 

At their request, Mushfiq drove them to an area just outside the airport, where the duo took pictures of the setting sun. Mushfiq meanwhile, factored in the crowd he had seen at the hotel and the whispers of a cricket match in town, and like incy wincy spider, the possibility that these guys might be famous cricketers crept up on him. On that hunch, he asked them for a photo with him as well, and they happily obliged. 

Then, Dale Steyn, owner of more than 400 test wickets and the chainsaw celebration, returned to the rickshaw and Mushfiq drove him and his as yet unidentified companion back to the hotel. Mushfiq dropped them off and accepted their fare, and their thanks, dimly aware that he had been in the company of cricketing royalty. He shook off feeling almost immediately though, as he turned his attention to his next customer. He had only learned of his passengers' identity when he showed the photo to his family and friends, but thought little of that ride until our conversation. 

The story got me thinking. In a cricket mad country like India, it is easy to envy the players, to want after their celebrity. Many would give anything to have so many strangers hankering for selfies with you. Perhaps Dale Steyn and his companion expected this; that if they did slip past the security curtain, they might have to face the pitfalls of stardom. They might have been mentally prepared to fend off an overenthusiastic rickshaw driver who knew his cricket statistics as well as his meter card. 

It must have been some solace then, that they met a man who knew them simply as customers till almost the very end. A man who provided them not only a ride and a photo opportunity, but also the gift of anonymity, and the restful silence that comes with it.