Adelaide. Melbourne. Perth. Hamilton. Auckland. He’s everywhere the Indian team plays.
Yet, he has no source of income.
He’s a frequent visitor at Sachin Tendulkar’s plush Bandra residence, often sharing a meal with India’s most wanted.
Yet, he can’t remember when last he spoke to his father.
He carries a power bank to ensure his smartphone is never out of juice, you never know who might call.
Yet, he never picks up when his only sister calls.
Meet Sudhir Kumar Chaudhry, also known as Sudhir Gautam, the instantly recognisable Indian superfan.
You know him because it seems no India match actually begins till he blows his conch. You know him because no Indian century celebration is complete without him waving the tricolour as if his life depended on it. You know him because he was on the balcony of the Wankhede Stadium in the wee hours of April 2, 2011, holding aloft the World Cup trophy with Tendulkar. You know him because he is in advertisements, on the radio, in newspapers, on television, wherever the cricket is, despite not being one of the privileged 15 who represent the country.
But, do you really know Sudhir?
Did you know that he quit three jobs to pursue the life he lives? First, at Sudha Dairy in Muzaffarpur in Bihar, where Sudhir says he was an allrounder, experienced at producing everything from kalakand to khowa. Having worked there just long enough to be eligible for gratuity, he quit at the first possible opportunity, using that money to get a passport so he could travel abroad with the Indian team.
Then came the opportunity at Shiksha Mitra, one that was not a full-time job, and therefore, theoretically, allowed him the latitude to cheer India on. But, to accept that role, he had to undergo training in February 2004. Instead, he set off on his cycle to Pakistan in January, not giving the job a chance.
Finally, in 2005, he passed both the physical test and a preliminary examination for a job as a ticket collector in Indian Railways, for a posting in Lallaguda, Hyderabad. When the call for an interview came, Sudhir realised that this would clash with the sixth India v Pakistan One-Day International in Delhi, you know, the one Parvez Musharraf attended. Obviously he had to be there, so Sudhir tore up the interview letter.
When we sit down to speak, some 11,000 kilometres away from what either of us would call home, Sudhir is dressed like an Indian cricketer from head to toe. The Adidas shoes are a gift from Tendulkar, the matching Nike Team India training top, track pants and cap courtesy Ramesh Mane, the masseur.
Sudhir does not wait for the ends of some questions, so familiar is he with them and so practiced his answers are. “In my childhood, I only watched cricket for Sachin Sir,” says Sudhir, always referring to his idol thus, not taking the second name once. “There was a triangular series in which Australia and New Zealand were playing (in 2003). There was a match against Australia on November 1. I left home, by cycle, on October 8 and reached Mumbai on October 24, which was Diwali. For a day, I roamed around Mumbai, asking for Sachin Sir’s house. I went to the Mumbai Cricket Association and met Professor Ratnakar Shetty and Lalchand Rajput, and explained to them that I was not asking for passes. I had no interest in the match. I just wanted to meet Sachin Sir. They shooed me away.”
Some journalists spotted Sudhir and told him that Tendulkar was to make an appearance at an event at the Trident Hotel the same day. Sudhir and his ever-present cycle stood in wait. “When Sachin Sir reached, all the photographers rushed to one side. I threw my cycle, pushed past people and security and ran. I touched Sachin Sir’s feet for the first time, and he told me ‘Sudhir, come to my house’.”
On October 29, Sudhir was not merely welcomed at Tendulkar’s home, they shared a meal, and he was given a pass to watch the forthcoming ODI. “The next time I met him, my graduation exams were coming up. Sachin Sir told me to write my exam and come back, but there was an ODI against New Zealand at Cuttack,” recalls Sudhir. “I could write my exam any time. So I went to the match. India were struggling, but when Sachin Sir was batting I ran on to the ground to touch his feet. The police caught me, and Sachin Sir told me not to come on to the ground, but he also told the police not to beat me. They listened to him, but threw me out.”
In a later match at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium in Hyderabad, India fared better and Tendulkar made a century. “If I ran on to the field when India were doing badly, how could I not do so when Sachin Sir had scored a hundred,” asks Sudhir. Again, Tendulkar told Sudhir not to enter the field. But, this time, the police were not so obliging. Far from Tendulkar’s view, the police thrashed Sudhir, and took him to lock up in Secunderabad, releasing him only in the dark of night.
There was a time when Sudhir’s family wished he would get married, but he would not consent. “I have no source of income, I have given my life to cricket, nothing else matters,” says Sudhir, and he is not exaggerating.
At the rare times when he is home, Sudhir does not speak to his father. “If he sits down to eat, I get up and leave the room,” he says, not quite as comfortable talking about his family as he is when reeling off his escapades in cricket. When you ask about home and hearth, Sudhir averts his eyes, and there’s something unhinged about his behaviour. It’s as though he can’t understand why someone would be interested in knowing about such things.
Sudhir refused to attend the weddings of either his younger brother or sister, being too busy at one match or another. Not once does Sudhir mention his mother, and when asked about his sister, he is dismissive. “She keeps calling me, but I never answer,” he says. The calls increase in frequency in the lead-up to Raksha Bandhan, but this brother has no time for such ties. “One year I was in Bangladesh, one year in Sri Lanka. I don’t have the time for such festivals,” says Sudhir. “Even if I am in India, I will either be at a match or travelling to one.”
Muzaffarpur, as famous for its lychees as its lynch mobs, is the fourth most populous city in Bihar, and its fertile soil, fed by the rivers that wend their way down the Himalayas laden with goodness, lends itself perfectly to farming. It is on a farm that Sudhir’s father works, a life that his three sons walked away from. Sudhir’s eldest brother went the Shiksha Mitra route, the younger one, who was a mechanic at Maruti, is now a driver. Sudhir, of course, does not earn a living.
“If you go to Muzaffarpur and see my house, you’ll be embarrassed by how small it is. The walls are very old, and roof is caving in,” says Sudhir. “Whenever it rains, the water seeps in, and there is more damage. It is a cement structure, but we don’t know when the roof might fall in, it’s that bad. It’s reached a stage where it can’t be repaired. The whole house has to be demolished and built again.”
When we’re speaking, Sudhir’s phone rings. It is a call from India, and he takes it, as it’s not a pesky family member, but someone from the radio station that has sponsored his travel. In exchange, Sudhir features regularly on programmes – this call was to prep him for a show the forthcoming day – and sends across photographs and video clips taken on his phone. With the players having granted him rare access to their inner courtyard, these images and videos are gold dust in this age of social media and restricted access.
While his costs at the World Cup are covered, Sudhir does not actually make any money out of his efforts, and he says that was never an aim. “What do I need money for? The only thing is travelling to matches. I used to go without a ticket on trains, but the ticket checker caught me when I was going to Kolkata after we won the World Cup,” says Sudhir. “I told him about Sachin Sir and me, and he let me go. But then, the ticket checker told me that I was spoiling Sachin Sir’s name by travelling ticketless. I have never again boarded a train without a ticket.”
There is a tribal mentality among extreme cricket fans, and Sudhir is no exception to this. Whether it is Sri Lanka’s Percy, Pakistan’s Bashir Chaacha, West Indies’ Gravy or Ireland’s Larry the Leprechaun, the one common streak is that they are extremely possessive of their team, conscious of the position they have each earned within the legion of fans. Where Sudhir is different, however, is the manner in which he has alienated his own family.
Having asked how his journey began, it made sense to find out how Sudhir thought it might end. “My thinking is that while I am on this planet, I will cheer Team India, but with Sachin Sir’s name written on my body,” he says. “As long as I’m able to walk, I will carry his name.”
If this was mere bravado, you could take it with a pinch of salt, and move on. But to understand just how seriously Sudhir takes his vocation – waving the tricolour, blowing his conch, painting his body and cheering his team – look no further than that small house in Muzaffarpur where a father awaits a lost son, a mother remains unmentioned, a sister’s calls go unanswered, and the roof is on the verge of collapse.