Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Forgotten Voice of Indian Cricket

On an overcast, gloomy evening dated July 18, 2012, as the entire nation mourned the death of "Bollywood's first superstar" Rajesh Khanna, another former superstar - albeit belonging to a different field -  silently passed away in a South Mumbai hospital, unnoticed.

Suresh Saraiya, who celebrated his 76th birthday exactly a month ago on June 20, was the person who is arguably partly responsible for the craze and frenzy that is cricket in India. A cricket commentator for the All India Radio (AIR) and other broadcasters for more than four decades, Suresh bhai - as he was popularly known as - used to be the only source of live cricket coverage for the country before the television era. People in local trains, children huddled up on the last bench in schools and office-goers gathered together in the loo - all used to stick their ears to their transistors and radios in order not to miss Suresh bhai's ball-by-ball commentary.

As the television era beckoned, Saraiya - who also worked as the Public Relations Officer (PRO) for the Central Bank of India for 33 long years - silently faded away. It is rather coincidental that Khanna too - being the heartthrob that he was in the 1960s and 70s -  had receded from the limelight as the years went by.

Thus, it was rather lamentable that while the entire city of Mumbai braved the monsoon rains on July 19 and walked along with their beloved icon Rajesh Khanna's body to perform his last rites - telecast throughout the day by news channels - Suresh Saraiya's funeral the next day at the Chandanwadi electric crematorium at Marine Lines attracted just about 50 people, most of which were family, friends and colleagues.

The procession began at 9am at the crematorium. Saraiya's body - cloaked in white - was placed on a platform at the north end of a 15x10 feet room. The guests were seated on chairs facing the platform. Family members were seen huddled together - some in tears - in front. Saraiya's only daughter Neeta, however, was sitting relatively at the back with her husband Andrew. As guests entered and paid their condolences to her, she often could not control her tears as her husband comforted her. The somber atmosphere was reflected by the ambience of the room. The gloomy weather was exaggerated by multiple chips on the walls, a few dysfunctional tube lights and the sound of hammering nails in the background.

Once the pooja was over, friends and colleagues came up to deliver their eulogies. Harsha Bhogle, renowned cricket commentator and former colleague of Saraiya's, refused to be distressed by the occasion. "I have all happy memories associated with Suresh bhai; how to mourn?" he asked, before recounting his wonderful days in the commentary box with Saraiya. "He used to call me 'mota bhai' (elder brother in Gujarati) even though I was younger to him and was always dressed in a suit and tie. He often berated me for not wearing a tie." Bhogle, in an obituary written for Cricinfo, had described how he always got Saraiya a tie whenever he went on an overseas tour without the latter. However, after returning from India's tour to Australia earlier this year, he had forgotten to give Saraiya the tie. Thus, after trying hard not to mourn, Bhogle could not hold back his tears as he placed the new tie among the garlands on Saraiya's body. "Cricket was his life," he said, emotionally.

Raju Bharatan, another veteran commentator and former colleague of Saraiya's, concurred with Bhogle. "He (Saraiya) died in his commentating boots. He had such a thirst for the game that death alone could quench it," he said.

Also present was the BCCI's chief administrative officer, Ratnakar Shetty, who described Saraiya as one of the most popular voices of the AIR. "What was amazing was his dedication to his job and his humbleness. He had no air of his status," he said.

Former India cricketer Vinod Kambli also paid his respects and reminisced about the tours he went on with Saraiya in 1993-94, and described his death as a big loss.

Other colleagues from his commentary days as well as Cental Bank of India employees talked of how cricket was his oxygen and how, for the last five years of his life, Saraiya expected a call from AIR asking him to resume his commentary duties.

One former colleague hit the bullseye when he lamented how the entire country went into hysteria when Sachin Tendulkar hit a ton of tons, but conveniently missed the stat that Suresh bhai had covered all of 102 Test matches and 149 one-day internationals (ODIs). This very  Suresh bhai was once quoted saying, "I plan to exit (commentary) simultaneously with Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar whenever the Master Blaster calls it a day."

Following the eulogies, Saraiya's body was lifted and carried to the electric furnace to complete the journey back to his creator. While some of the guests dispersed soon after offering their condolences to the family again, some close friends and colleagues stayed behind reminiscing their time spent with Saraiya. One couldn't help but rue that Suresh bhai would never again utter his trademark phrase - "Back again!"

1 comment: