In the rest of our lives, I am the one with the religious compulsions and he is the agnostic. But in his cricket life, he is the fervent devotee, and I, the atheist. And so, just as I say a prayer on this behalf when he refuses to enter a temple because the floor is too dirty/ too hot/ cold/ crowded/ noisy, that day too, I said a prayer on his behalf at cricket aarti time, when they rolled the green in the evening with something resembling a road roller.
I can tell the progress in my professional gender confidence from how I react to the ritual start of any meeting during cricket season- the detailed discussions on what happened, what should have happened and what will happen next. I have heard grown men take a pause from bashing each other to shed a collective tear over a missed catch. In my early working life, I used to plead with my husband to give me a short recital of the facts every morning before work, like who was playing who and where, who the captains were, which side was batting first and so on. To be caught not knowing anything that the men knew well was unbearable agony in those days. As I moved along, I said to him, just skip the factual details, tell me a few nuances about how the match was played, not very obvious ones and not ones that would start a longer discussion either. I was well on my way to being a consultant, and I wanted to participate in the male bonding ritual so as not to get left out; but realized that there had to be limits to the effort that it would take. Later on, when I said to myself, what the heck, vive la difference, I let my eyes glaze over when cricket talk began, and made a phone call instead. Of course, that meant a lot of slack time at meetings, and that made all the incredulous "You don't follow cricket? You clearly will never be one of us" jibes well worth it!
Harsha Bhogle is the ultimate male fantasy. The men gather round him at parties, ogling, wanting to touch him to make sure that he is real. Here is God's chosen one who gets to make a living with cricket, and… this is important… actually walked out on a regular job, after a regular education. I, of course, ask his wife dumb questions like "Hi Anita, where is Harsha today?" Being a woman, she is gentle and diplomatic about handling this, and doesn't say you mean you don't know the World Cup is on in South Africa. She merely suggests that I haven't been watching enough television in recent times! That is true, and I have many such gaffes to be embarrassed about, not the least of which was mistaking a famous cricketer for the lobby manager in off duty clothes at a hotel I frequent. They both looked so similar. It is more embarrassing than the woman who invited her plumber to lunch when she saw him at the supermarket the day after he finished working at her home, because he looked so familiar ("It's been too long since we last met, why don't you come and have lunch with me?" she gushed, much to his delight!)
The cultural labels of cricket are several, including the fact that it is perhaps the only glue that binds all social classes and regions of the India. When my daughter went to study in the US, she made a lot of friends from Pakistan because they were all cricket watchers in baseball land. But the genius of cricket is how it reinvents itself to become more relevant to the times and to more people over time. The inclusion of Mandira Bedi got in more women, though initially the men didn't want their game sullied with women commentators in strappy dresses. It has gone on to create a new brand variant squarely in the entertainment space called IPL. So now, at last, there is enough cricket masala for people like me to enjoy, on the sidelines of the game, without bothering with the meat of the actual game. I now no longer need to worry that I don't know a mid-off from a midriff; and I can intelligently participate in cricket conversations since they span so much more than the technicalities of the game.
With apologies to Walter Scott: "Breathes there an Indian with soul so dead/who never to himself hath said/ This is my own, my native game!/ Whose heart hath ne'er within him burned/ As towards cricket his footsteps he hath turned"? Yes, there is. And I enjoy empty roads, no queues and the city all to myself on days when there are cricket matches. The bigger, the better.