In his compelling collection, Lawley Road & Other Stories, R. K. Narayan narrates the highly poignant tale ofSelvi, the leading classical singer of her day. The subject is accustomed to the adoring applause of celebrity audiences, and yet immune to it through her piety to music. Following a renunciation of the spotlight, she restricts the expression of her art to a daily saadhana, witnessed & cherished by a handful of Malgudi commoners. The descent from exclusive chamber sessions at her estranged husband’s plush residence in upscale Lawley Extension, to impromptu rehearsals in the verandah of her late mother’s humble dwelling in decrepit Ellamman Street, fails to tarnish the quality of music.
Art breathes in its own inspiration. Dispossess it of the big stage. Divest it of adulation. Yet it remains resplendent, adorned by its inherent effulgence. It was a happy coincidence that I read Selvi in the car on my way to watch 2 artists grace an occasion more modest than their habitual realm. It has been second nature for Rahul Dravid & V. V. S. Laxman to parade their gifts in the rarefied echelons of international cricket. It is also to their credit that their relationship with domestic cricket (since they graduated to higher honours) wears proud commitment and goes beyond random dalliances. It was one such tryst with the Irani Cup in 2003 that gave me an opportunity to watch them forge a memorable partnership in flesh – one that didn’t win them as many accolades as their triple-century heists at Kolkata & Adelaide against Australia, but no less memorable for me personally. It was a game that saw most of their peers follow their example and embrace domestic cricket. Indeed, Rest of India, led by Saurav Ganguly, was pretty much the Indian Test XI save for Sachin Tendulkar who captained the opposing team, the Ranji champions Mumbai.
The first 3 days saw one of the most delicious contests possible – Anil Kumble bowling to Tendulkar – playing out to near empty stands at Chepauk. Neither man bested the other, but their gratitude for not having to lock horns in an international game was reinforced. Twin half centuries by Tendulkar & a substantial first innings lead for Mumbai meant RoI had to get 340 on a wearing wicket to lay their hands on silverware. They got 50 of those by stumps on day 3, but lost both openers Virender Sehwag & Sanjay Bangar. Dravid walked out the next morning amidst enthusiastic cheering from a healthier Sunday crowd for local boy L. Balaji, and quickly banished Ramesh Powar over long on for a couple of sixes. The nightwatchman’s resolute defiance nearly lasted through the session, but altogether progress had been relatively slow. Laxman took guard with the misery of a 53-ball 5 in the first knock hanging over his head. On the other side of the luncheon interval, both men blossomed. Leg-spinner Sairaj Bahutule looked to exploit the rough. In a twinkling exhibition of decisive footwork, Laxman repeatedly met him on the full and the expanses at extra-cover & midwicket lay enslaved to a sovereign whim. Dravid stayed crisp and efficient against the faster men Ajit Agarkar & Avishkar Salvi, combating the short stuff with the fierce cut and the regal pull in all his majestic glory. Powar came back for a new spell with an over that was bookended by 2 4s and 2 6s. The former brought Laxman his half century, both full tosses caressed away. The latter took Dravid from 88 to 100, in a manner that would go on to become synonymous with Sehwag. On each occasion he danced down the track flouting open impertinence to the challenge, and thundered the ball into the Royal Sundaram stand high over the bowler’s head. A stalwart of Indian cricket had shown an upstart his place. After tea, Laxman relegated even Dravid to spectator, uncorking one champagne stroke after another. The promise of a glorious hundred wasn’t honoured though, Bahutule pooping his party one short of the landmark. That was my cue to leave as I had to catch a train back to my college in Vellore. As I haggled with an autowallah near Buckingham Canal, Chepauk went up in a groan that could only have meant Dravid’s dismissal.
With my hair standing on end, I wondered what the forthcoming season – featuring important tours to Australia & Pakistan – would have in store for the partners-in-crime. Dravid had started the season with a legitimate claim of being India’s finest. Six months later, he would end it undisputedly as the world’s best. 3 double centuries in 9 Tests, each one successively higher than the previous, would propel his Test average from 53 to 58. Laxman would also score 3 Test hundreds, and curiously, 5 ODI hundreds that winter. His 99 that day had been scored at nearly run-a-ball.
I got an SMS from my father as the Yelagiri Express pulled out of Central Station. I learnt that Ganguly & Kumble had steered the Rest home after a mini-collapse. I was also informed that I had left Selvi behind, my copy of Lawley Road & Other Stories having been forgotten in the car.