In my hand, I hold two tickets to a World Cup match. Barring a nasty surprise, I shall be inside Chinnaswamy Stadium this Sunday to cheer India as it takes on England in a league match. I don't know why I'm not weeping with joy. Logic and history tell me that I must.
Confused? Let me explain.
It was 1996. I was in my final year of engineering. I already had a job (one I was not too keen about, because it required me to be an engineer, not a writer). Under such circumstances, I accompanied 17 of my classmates to Churchgate. Our mission: to buy a ticket each for the India-Australia match to be held at the Wankhede Stadium. It was a significant match. Every die-hard Indian cricket fan still flinched at the memory of the India-Australia match in the previous edition. We lost that match in 1992 because of (as per a Mid-Day headline) "Rain, rules and Ravi (Shastri)!"
This was time for revenge. And we engineers-on-the-cusp were determined to witness it. With that intent, we hopped onto a local train after college hours and reached Churchgate around 4 pm. We exited the station, turned right, and to our surprise, found that the queue was already long enough to kiss the air around Churchgate. Not losing hope, we joined the tail of the queue and began the wait. With luck, the counters would open at 9 am tomorrow. We some more luck, we'd have our tickets by noon tomorrow. Our bladders were strong and our appetites were our servants. So we were quite confident of weathering the wait. We had much to learn.
Around midnight, even as we fought hunger, thirst and sleep, the cops arrived on the scene. They had decided that it was indecent of people to actually queue up a day before the counters opened. Wearing callous faces, operating their calloused hands, they began swinging their lathis around. Soon, the air reverberated with the sound of thick wood landing on skin and bone. Men shrieked and began running helter-skelter. The cops pursued those who moved too slowly for them. Within minutes, they had cleared every ticket-aspirant. I was one of those who decided to run towards Marine Drive instead of towards Churchgate. I guess the sea breeze appealed more than the stench of stale urine.
It took a while for a few of us friends to regroup in Marine Drive. Returning to Wankhede immediately was out of the question. So we decided to be adventurous - we actually found the gall to tell each other, 'There's Oberoi. Looks nice. Let's go there.'
The 24-hour Coffee Shop inside Oberoi was open. We settled into a couple of tables and opened our wallets. Once we set aside the price of the tickets, all of us, put together, had sufficient money to order just a pot of coffee. One measly pot of coffee. Till date, I wonder why the waiter didn't throw us out. In fact, he served us without rolling his eyes. We, of course, repaid his kindness with the most miniscule tip of his 5-star career. And we stayed in that Coffee Shop longer than decency permitted.
Once outside, I decided to spend some time alone, watching the waves of the Arabian splash against the rocks and wall of Marine Drive (the tetrapods were not installed those days). So there I sat, looking westward. I kept sitting there long after the sun rose on the other side of south Bombay and revealed the murkiness of the water. I think I returned to Wankhede only around 7 am or so. To my utter delight, I saw my classmate Kalpesh Mehta standing very close to the entrance. I joined him, ignored the people who threatened to tear my limbs apart for breaking into the line and resumed the wait. It should have been smooth sailing from this point. It wasn't.
As 9 am approached, people in the back of the line began pushing. Soon, the line, in an attempt to grow shorter, grew stouter. And yet, people in the back pushed relentlessly. Within minutes, the situation turned into a frenzy. I was standing right next to the wall, with my back against it. And suddenly, without warning, the push became so intense that all of us leaning against the wall were pressed hard against it. In an instant, my lungs were squeezed like the auspicious lemon against a brand-new tyre. The air whooshed out of me. I was a reasonably strong guy those days and I pushed back. But the harder I pushed, the harder the throng pushed back. In a few moments, I felt giddiness and an unbearable pain in my temples, not to mention the hardness of rock against my skull. I tried to stand on tiptoe, allowing my lungs more opportunity to suck in air. I think I had almost given up hope when a few angels descended on the scene. These were fellow citizens, fellow ticket seekers. They just happened to be spunkier and trusted their voices to carry further. It took a while, but they restored a reasonable level of order in the line. I lived to watch another match. We got back in the line, but not before Kalpesh and I sat on the sidewalk for a few minutes, catching our breath. I cannot forget the dazed expression on Kalpesh's sun-drenched face. I daresay I looked just as dazed to him.
The rest of the adventure was about enduring the inefficiencies and chaos... the usual Indian stuff. By noon, I was at the counter. I trembled as I handed over 200 rupees and trembled even more as I received my ticket. I hugged it to my bosom during the 90-minute train journey back to Nerul. That evening, after a prolonged afternoon siesta, I went to a friend's house to brag. I had no opportunity to do so because he was facing a crisis of sorts. He had to muster his college fee in the next two days. I knew what I had to do. It was a no-brainer, really.
So on Match Day, I returned to Wankhede, this time to the road on the other side of the railway tracks. I had no difficulty in selling my ticket for 2400 rupees. I returned to Nerul, handed my friend the money and went home to watch the match on TV. That day, we lost yet another World Cup match to Australia.
Having experienced this series of events, I've always nursed a strong desire to watch a WC match featuring India. And yesterday morning, believe it or not, the tickets for the India-England fixture fell on my lap. Just like that! Well, not really. It fell on my lap thanks to a sweet friend who shall remain unnamed as of now.
And what's more, I've been ordered to sell the other ticket to the highest bidder amongst my friends. If only it were so easy to find cricket enthusiasts in our country!
P.S: This post is dedicated to my backbencher friends from college - Bhupender Bohra, Nikhil Kajrolkar, Manoj Sangra, Ashish Makhijani, Anand Nair, Varghese George, Deepak Singh, Rahul Prasad, Satish Sakhardande, Kalpesh Mehta, Jignesh Miyani, Niranjan Risbood, Saurabh Deshmukh, Bhushan Bangale, Navin Patil, Dinesh Nasarpuri, Arijit Chakraborty, Ananthakrishnan Iyer and, of course, the occasional backbencher - Amol Dharmadhikari.