NEW DELHI — Sachin Tendulkar is a short, stout man with a gentle paunch that is the right of any 37-year-old Indian male. He does not look like a millionaire sportsman, but he is that and much more. He is a genius cricketer, one of the greatest batsmen ever to have played the game.
For several years now, fans and journalists in the country have been calling him God (he has denied that he is).
He is probably the most famous living person in India, where the predominant sport is cricket. His epic career has stretched over more than 20 years, and his reign continues in the World Cup that is under way in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Such a man tells the story of his nation in a profound way that economic indicators and the laments of activists cannot.
Peter Roebuck, the former English county cricketer and popular cricket writer, says that Mr. Tendulkar “reveals the state of the nation, its evolution.”
In 1989, when Mr. Tendulkar started playing international cricket as a 16-year-old prodigy with an abundant mop of hair, India was on the brink of a severe economic crisis. In a few months, the country would exhaust its foreign currency reserves and have no money to pay for imports. It would have to endure the humiliation of selling its gold to save the day.
The 1990s were difficult, but Mr. Tendulkar bloomed in that decade. The beauty of sport is that even though it is in the realm of entertainment, it is also an indisputable reality. And Mr. Tendulkar became a rare Indian reality that did not depress Indians. In an impoverished, chaotic nation, he swiftly became the most reliable agent of mass euphoria.
In the final week of 1998, the national newsweekly Outlook dedicated an entire issue to him, declaring that he was “The Last Hero.” Tarun Tejpal, who was the magazine’s managing editor then, wrote in that special issue, “Indians are lucky that a short, gifted man can, with a few swishes of his wand, take away the cares and drudgery of their lives and transport them to a 22-yard pleasure palace where the onslaught of disease and the price of onions is for fleeting hours no more real than a distant mirage.”
That one sportsman could bring so much happiness to a whole nation is a consequence of the unsophisticated nature of collective poverty. In the first decade of the 21st century, as the effects of economic liberalization began to show and middle-class Indians boldly purchased comforts that gave them the sweet feeling of growing personal affluence, Mr. Tendulkar’s extraordinary influence over the mood of the nation dwindled (much to his relief). Even as the Indian cricket establishment became exceedingly rich through staggering corporate sponsorships, Mr. Tendulkar was now only a part of the larger celebration of the new Indian capitalism.
The writer Ramachandra Guha, in an essay that is to appear in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack next month, says that Mr. Tendulkar remains “the balm of the nation.” But, Mr. Guha points out, there have been crucial changes in the last 10 years:
“The social anxieties of Indians abated,” he wrote. “Economic liberalization created a class of successful entrepreneurs, who in turn generated a growing middle class. Hindu-Muslim riots became less frequent. It became possible once more to appreciate him in purely cricketing terms, rather than as the Savior of the Nation.”
India loves Mr. Tendulkar not only for his style of play, which is aggressive and crafty, but also for the way he behaves off the field — he is respectful and subdued. In a country that is just beginning to shed its sense of inferiority, humility is highly valued in a successful person, and the swagger of confidence is usually met with unspoken disdain. Mr. Tendulkar knows that. Part of his extraordinary fame is a result of his complete understanding of the nature of his people.
He does not flaunt his wealth, he leads a fiercely private life and guards himself from controversy at all times. When he appears in ads, which is often, there is a cultured austerity about him. For instance, his genius is rarely mentioned, he is never surrounded by pretty girls, and he does nothing outlandish.
During the 2003 cricket World Cup in South Africa, Mr. Tendulkar was walking bare-chested on a beach in Durban when an Indian photographer took his picture. I heard him tell the man, only partly in jest, that if he wanted to continue in the media business, the images should never leave his camera. Even as late as 2003, Indians were not used to seeing their cricketers bare-chested, and Mr. Tendulkar probably imagined that the images of his semi-nudity would get too much media play. (He was right.)
Indians are used to self-serving public figures, but somehow they have the extraordinary expectation of Mr. Tendulkar that he should do nothing wrong.
He faced public ire for the first time in his career when news broke in July 2003 that the Indian government had decided to waive the customs duty on the Ferrari Modena that the Italian sports car manufacturer had presented to him as a gift. The waiver, which amounted to about $250,000, created a media storm. The public consensus, as expressed in newspaper surveys and on television shows, was that it was obscene for a poor country to favor a rich man in this manner. People condemned Mr. Tendulkar for not insisting that he would pay the customs duty. (It is still not clear whether he applied for the waiver or the Indian government had volunteered it to honor him.)
The late Pramod Navalkar, a leader of the rightist political party Shiv Sena at the time, said: “Sachin has earned enough for five generations. He needs no financial considerations.”
It was a view that was largely shared by the Indian public.
The many ways in which India reacts to Mr. Tendulkar reveal something about the psychology of the nation. But Mr. Tendulkar, for his part, does not overtly react to India. When he speaks in public, his focus appears to be on avoiding trouble. The Ferrari controversy has made him even more cautious than he already was.
So, he has never spoken out against communal politics or against corruption, and it was with great reluctance that he spoke a little about a scandal that involved his former teammates accepting money from bookies to throw matches.
But even his silence says something about India. Success is a precarious fortune in this country, and people who have achieved something do not want to squander it by antagonizing the powerful. As Mr. Tendulkar told me about 10 years ago when I pressed him to comment on the cricket-bookie nexus: “We should mind our own business.”