A crooked smile comes to play, as if saying ‘I know what you’re getting at,’ still R Ashwin waits for the question to play out. His profession has scarred him to an extent that the only person he trusts is ‘himself ’. Though “it helps in a competitive sport”, it’s not the ideal mantra, he admits, and more so the reason to have a life outside cricket. So, the fear of the “bubble bursting” (experiencing a vacuum) once the playing days are over doesn’t hold in his case.
“Post-retirement plans are already in place,” the grin now a wide-toothed one. While “becoming the world’s best entrepreneur” is one, there are others that preoccupy him. A late bloomer as far as literary interests go, the 29-year-old is headlong into books, and his voracious reading surely has the father smiling quietly.
Growing up with “intelligent cousins” meant Ravichandran too wanted to raise a bright son. While Ashwin’s impeccable academic record point to his mental abilities, reading did not catch his fancy; not even after Ravichandran stacked his room with books.
World of words
While his contemporaries’ reading lists grew, Ashwin did not go beyond comics. Since it did not give enjoyment, it was pointless. This was till he laid his hands on ‘Attitude Is Everything’. At 19, the impressionable mind was drawn to Jeff Keller’s inspirational narration.
Perhaps it is linked to his rise in stature as a player; time has also fuelled the quest for knowledge outside his domain. “Cricket teaches you to be a high performer in life too,” and the proud practitioner he is (an unexpected axing from the squad a few years back left him in tears), Ashwin has meticulously cultivated interests outside the cricket field.
Though the trait took time to germinate, listening to tales from his father, once an aspiring cop, on how he caught a thief all by himself, left a mark. Ever since he picked up Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, a thriller sends the mind racing back to the days when he would sit crosslegged and absorb all that came his way, wide-eyed.
Archaeology was once a career option but the choice was shot down by elders. The lack of monetary incentives had a role to play. The compulsions of settling down long gone, the exploits of Raja Raja Chola, a towering historical figure in these parts, have his attention, as do the Ramayana and Mahabharat. It is with interest that he’s following an ongoing research that is trying to prove that the latter is much more than a piece of fantasy.
These are times far removed from the days when the parents toiled — mother Chitra worked extra shifts and Ravichandran worked alongside, in cricket and academics, to ensure that the son was “happy in whatever he did”. Ashwin still notes with pride “the hard work within the family”, and the journey has ensured that the past is not forgotten. Among the things he keeps reminding himself is the life-changing step at 14. Ashwin was diagnosed with an affliction of the hip (a shift of the pelvic bone), which threatened to nip his cricketing career in the bud. Surgery loomed large and while the boy was too young to be a part of the decision making, his parents decided against it and sought a second opinion. Bed rest did the trick and he was back on the field in a few months.
Ravichandran and Chitra remain central figures, and why not. Till Ashwin could afford a car, the father used to drop him for almost every match since he was eight, and that under-17 selection match is still remembered with fondness. “Dad stood by the boundary and the first boundary I struck was captured in camera. He stood on one leg till I was at the crease; one of the superstitions he had,” he says softly.
Attribute it to his connection with a competitive sport, the desire to take centrestage is always there, but the craving for attention is missing. The family still stays in the familiar surroundings of West Mambalam. Prosperity has ensured the house wears a new look, but otherwise, the hospital at the end of the road still stops work on Sundays and cooperative neighbours facilitate a game of tennis-ball cricket.
Not the one he rode to watch him play, the grandfather, at 93, still rides a bicycle, and Ashwin is equally comfortable in a Maruti 800. “The joy does not come from driving a BMW or Audi. For me, its driving that gives me pleasure.”
The visits to the corner chaat shop have dropped from the days when group classes culminated with a plateful of ‘gobi chana’. The taste hasn’t changed, a mouthful still brings about a click of the tongue, and so have the family’s links with the local merchant. Ashwin calls it uncanny that his growth has coincided with that of the grocer. A supermarket now stands at the spot but it still supplies the family’s monthly provisions.
Love my space
Rebuilding the house wasn’t to flaunt his status, but for the love of space. The numbers are up and the family is waiting for its youngest member, Ashwin’s two-month-old daughter, to become a little more aware of her surroundings before adding to its canine members.
Ashwin was always fond of dogs as a child, but asthma became a deterrent. The mother’s writ prevailed and the German Shepherd was given away to a relative. The argument put forth was with both parents working, there was no time for the pet. The equation changed with the advent of wife Prithi, a dog lover, and Chitra “lost out by a few votes” in the latest venture. The two Labradors and mongrel have already struck a bond with the child, and more will follow once she is older. Whatever the number, it will be a mongrel again. “It’s a sturdy breed and very conscious territorially”, unlike the genial Labs.
A champion of the ‘dog adoption campaign’, as “buying and selling a living being is a strict no-no”, being a part of the movement to promote indigenous breeds has another dimension. Ashwin gets to interact with actor Trisha, a brand ambassador. “I still have a crush on her,” he says with a twinkle.
Despite spending considerable time with them, Ashwin is still unable to understand dog psychology. “Whenever I say something, they understand, but that’s not the case when they bark. It’s strange considering that man’s supposed to be the most intelligent being.” It’s a work in progress and Prithi keeps her husband informed with readings on the subject.
More in the head
It’s time for lunch, and the conversation shifts to the dining space near the lobby. There is hardly any hesitation in stepping out of the confines of the hotel room. “I think it’s more in the head,” he says on the fear of being mobbed. “People in our country need to understand that celebrities have a life and they will go out,” the eyes survey the layout as the glass lift descends. There are instant signs of recognition but nothing to cause concern. Maybe, the upscale setting has a role to play to the muted response, still Ashwin stays confident. “I’m not under threat from a terrorist organisation, so why should I be afraid? If someone crosses the limit, my friends are there to protect me.”
Those years made me
The years spent at the SSN College of Engineering were like a double-edged sword. While he got a lot of leeway to play, he had to attend classes once a week. Whichever day it was, the teachers ensured he did not have it easy. “I used to complain then but my college days shaped me in a way that I realised that life wasn’t a bed of roses. The rigours of academics filled me with sadistic pleasure — to go to the field and give it back to others.”
Aggression, for him, is action, not mouthing expletives. A series of setbacks between 2008 and 2010 shaped the outlook in a way that he came to believe that “there’s only one person you can trust — yourself”. The bitterness is apparent, but there is no blame game.
While he would not like to “point a finger at anyone or circumstances,” he still maintains “everyone is my enemy”. The sombreness is broken somewhat, as he says in a matter-of-fact tone, “A professional environment is not for friends but colleagues.”