December 3, 2000

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Hand it to Gopi!

Rohit Brijnath

Find his phone number. His e-mail ID. His address. Find a piece of paper. Write him a note. Apologise. Profusely.

Iím talking to myself, and to you. All of us whoíve talked Tendulkar till dawn, all of us whoĎve lived and died cricket, and canít see beyond our Wisdens, we need to find him and say "sorry".

Iím talking Puella Gopichand, and if you say í"Puella Who?" do what your mother told you when you swore aloud: wash your mouth with soap.

Iím talking about a guy with a smile so bright he could light up the Taj Mahal at night. Iím talking about a quiet man, whose knee went bust, and people turned their backs and said "Heís gone", but he went on.

Iím talking a sportsman, who comes to the arena, does his job, and does it well, but does it without fanfare or television cameras, and picks up his bags and goes home, without people knowing who he is.

Iím talking a player who is, just now, the sixth best player on the only planet that plays badminton.

Except we donít know about it; and heís wondering why.

Puella Gopichand When shy, smiling Gopi, says, "I am well known in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but not in my own country," it makes you want to hide your head and cover your face.

When big-hearted Gopi, who won in Toulouse and Scotland last year, and on his slim back carried India to the Thomas Cup finals for the first time in 12 years, says "It is rare any Indian sportsman attains this level, but the media was never a source of motivation for me and had been a let down," it makes you want to weep.

We didnít write, you didnít watch, and then we wonder why Anand (himself an invisible man for too long) is the only world champion we got.

It gets worse. This is not new. Every Olympics, Asian Games, we discover athletes we never knew we had. Jeez, Jyotirmoy Sikdar can run; hell, Sunita Raniís fast; boy that Sanamacha Chanu is tough (weightlifter, fellows); boss that Dingko has quick hands. Itís as if theyíve popped out of the woodwork.

Sorry mate, itís us who have.

Itís what sportspeople hate. I remember Shakti Singh saying before one of the Asian Games, "Hey you guys remember us only every four years; only every four years do you ask us about our problems".

In effect heís saying, where were you when we didnít have shoes to run in or lived in dormitories where the sheets were yellow and the mosquitoes dive bombed in squadrons; where were you when we bent down to touch the dirty feet of filthier officials and were being injected with a milky liquid without a label; where were you during my sweaty early mornings on the track and my screaming evenings when I cramped with no masseur in sight.

He doesnít have to say any more. We know where we were. At the cricket.

But still heíll answer your questions, and suffer your ignorance with a tired smile, and walk away into his anonymity once again.

Sometimes you have to wonder whatís wrong with us. In short order we believe that members of our cricket have been dishonest, are unfit, canít field, throw, hit, bowl, catch, run between wickets. Yet your exams are on but youíre up at 4 am, books forgotten, cribbing about someone bowling wides.

Yet when Gopiís playing down the street ---and how many individual world No.6s with an Indian passport do you know? -- suddenly youíre busy.

I said it before and Iím saying it again, shame on us.

Sportspeople in India have it tough. Money, equipment, coaches, exposure, sports science, theyíve got close to nothing. Sure theyíre not all big-hearted, noble, sacrificing, focussed warriors weíd hope theyíd be, but itís hard to be noble when youíre running on empty.

But we expect from them, we expect the best from them, we trot out that ragged, weather beaten, faux patriotic phrase, of "Youíre representing youíre country, youíre playing for India, donít forget that". Except, Gopi is turning around and more or less asking, "But where is India when I play, how come you forgot me?"

Answer him.

We need to support our teams. We need to celebrate men when they win national championships, because thatís a feat too, and not just wait till they win Wimbledon. We need to walk down to stadiums we never have before and cheer. We need to switch on the TV and even though itís lousy, scratchy coverage on Doordarshan, we need to watch. We need to remember faces and names so we pick them out at airports, stations restaurants, movie halls, and shake their hands, wish them luck and tell them weíre proud.

Itíll cost us nothing; itíll mean the world to them.

Last month in Chennai, I spoke briefly to Vishwanathan Anand and he told me a story I keep writing and keep retelling. I asked him what the best moment heíd had since becoming world champion. He could have talked about the President and the Prime Ministerís telegram or the ministers he met or the filmstars. But he didnít.

He talked instead about the day he was being taken out across Chennai in a horse-drawn carriage. And how he saw a bus, on the other side of the road screech to a halt. And the driver opened his small door and leapt out. And ran across the road, and hurdled the dividing railing, and raced to Vishy and shook his hand.

It was the hand of ordinary India.

Itís the hand we need to reach out to Gopi.

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