As the train rattled towards Churchgate at 3:45 yesterday, I was inside, wondering what to ask the boy who had agreed to meet me today. I opened up a writing pad and wrote 'Parthiv' on the top of a page, and listed a bunch of random questions that I hoped were direct, yet did not sound inconsiderate. As Marine Lines went by and Wankhede Stadium loomed, it struck me that interviewing someone was like an interrogation of sorts. Both required a baring of the soul.
Parthiv was in room 26 at the Garware Clubhouse, a place of residence for visiting teams. On seeing me he wore a bemused look as he walked out and tentatively stretched out his right hand, keeping his dislocated left thumb well out of the way. I shook it. He was dressed in track pants and a loose-fitting t-shirt. Gujarat had suffered a heavy defeat earlier in the day.
Where can we talk, I asked. He said here would be fine. 'Here' was a dingy corridor where a young girl walked by aimlessly several times. We spoke about life on the fringes. He said he wanted to be back, even though the pressure was enormous. Not long ago, he was 17, playing for India for the very first time, and it was hard to find a person not moved by this cherub. Now, on the verge of his 20th birthday, he's out again, and doesn't know how to get back. He said he needed to score runs. I told him the issue was never with his ability to score runs. He didn't say much.
The man I met was unshaven, but it was more of a fashion statement than an element of sorrow. I asked about his game and plans in life. He answered, and said everything I thought he would. You could almost hear his mind tick, contemplating every step, every word that escaped his lips. This part of the world is cruel towards the forthright, and it was a fact that did not escape him. But I wanted to know more.
He likes movies, though I don't like what he does. He liked Aitraaz, a movie I thought should have been averted at the brain-storming stage. He didn't know that Aitraaz was based on the true story of an ostracised athelete. He wears glasses, but doesn't read. He likes coffee, and hangs out with friends. He hates being at home when tours aren't on, because, in his own words, "when you're this young, you want to get out of the house." The kid's normal.
Then I asked him about women. If he was white, he'd have turned pink. He put his knees together, swayed around, put one hand in his pocket and giggled, "I never notice these things." He sounded like he was 12 again! We laughed before I pressed on, "who are you trying to fool?! You're 20, and you say you haven't noticed women?" He giggles and lets on, "when I visited England for the first time, I didn't notice..." and he breaks into a broader smile. The man wasn't letting on anymore.
He was the first athlete I've spoken with. I wanted to know him better, and tell him that everything would be fine, that he would play for India once again. But you never get too close to your work, or one or the other will suffer. Some day we might meet again and speak as friends. But for now, I'll be known as the guy who got Parthiv to look like a 12 year old.
The day before that, as I sat in the car, an old man, probably pushing 85, walked by. He turned around and looked at me, and came closer. I rolled down the windows and asked whether he needed directions. It turns out he needed to go to Kala Ghoda. I was five minutes away from there. He hopped in, and we drove towards his destination. A conversation began, and it turned out he was a freedom fighter from Gujarat who now lived in Borivali with family. He was here to speak with the governement about his pension, which hadn't been paid since 1947 or thereabouts. He was owed 2000 rupees a month for over 40 years. Nearly a million rupees. He didn't say much, or ask for money. He stepped out of the car and walked into an alley. I wanted to stop him, and ask him for his phone number, and see if I could help in any way. But as he walked away I felt powerless. I was only a cricket writer, and getting involved meant really getting my hands dirty. Only later did I regret not asking him. I could have helped by doing something. Anything.
This city has taught me to think quickly, and on my feet, but it has also taught me to be sceptical and expect a trick every stage of the way. So when truth presented itself, and the time came for action, doubts sprung up. The old man wearing the khadi kurta walked away, leaving me to wonder why I didn't move a finger.
(Update: My mistake. His pension could not possibly be a million bucks. I forgot you get a pension only after retirement age, which is 55 or 60. Still, no pension for 20 or 22 years of your life....)