October 18, 1990. The day will be forever etched in this schoolboy’s memory. A student of Std XII, I had wrangled a pass to the Eden Gardens that morning. No, there wasn’t a Test match on. A few hours later, as I pushed, shoved, fell down, got up and finally found myself a seat inside the world’s second largest cricket stadium that could then hold over 80,000 people on a normal day, there were at least a hundred thousand people inside, many standing in the aisles. And believe it or not, there were an equal number of people outside. We were all cheering one man, a man most of us had never seen but read about, a man everyone from 18 to 80 considered a hero and a living legend – Nelson Mandela.
Days after being released from prison after spending half a lifetime behind bars during the apartheid rule, South Africa’s greatest son was making his first trip abroad. His first port of call was Kolkata (called Calcutta then). I do not remember much from that day except that we had sore throats the next day from shouting ourselves hoarse every time Mandela stopped to inhale or drink a glass of water during his speech. And I remember singing “We shall overcome someday…” and Mandela singing along. What a feeling!
And I do remember that he spoke of being a man reborn. Since then, one line he said has become legendary: “I feel like a man with his batteries recharged and very hopeful,” he said, referring to the crowd’s frenzy. He said that after visiting the city and realising that people halfway across the world had followed his every move, his every statement from prison, and were welcoming him like one of their own, he felt overwhelmed. I remember we were all given flags as we stood inside – the Indian tricolour and the flag of the African National Congress (ANC) that Mandela led. We waved both with equal gusto.
I also recall losing my shoes that day and I am sure over 1,00,000 people who made it inside the Eden Gardens in Kolkata that day have similar stories to tell. Some had torn shirts, some bruised legs and others missing shoes and broken watches. But it was a small price to pay for being a part of history, and hearing one of the greatest men of our times.
More than a year later, by then a college student, I was lucky to be part of another historic event at the Eden Gardens – and this time it was a game of cricket. On November 10, 1991 Mohammad Azharuddin and Clive Rice walked out to the middle to a deafening roar. The South African cricket team, once arguably the best in the world before the apartheid regime ensured it was barred by the International Cricket Council, was back in business.
In India to play their first international game after 22 years, they had chosen the Eden as the venue for their return. The first of the three-match ODI series was won by India and once again, if one goes by old newspaper reports, the Eden overflowed with at least 10,000 additional spectators finding their way in. India won the match, but I still recall the awe with which we watched a young South African fast bowler running in and knocking the Indian wickets back in regular succession. Most of the times, we could not even see the ball; so fast was this guy called Alan Donald. The tag “White Lightning” came later. But we had seen lightning strike not once but five times that day.
At the end of the match, everyone stood up and clapped as Rice spoke of Nelson Mandela and his contribution to South African cricket and the nation as a whole. We applauded and the crowd broke into an impromptu “We Shall Overcome” yet again. Nelson Mandela is no more. But his legacy, his work and his stories will continue to inspire people not just in South Africa, but also around the world. And boy, do I have a story to tell my son, of the day I saw Mandela!
- The writer is Editor, Sunday MiD DAY