Paint my love
Bathed in canary yellow, Sudhir Kumar Chaudhry, better known as Sudhir Gautam, leans forward, his kohl-lined eyes glued to the badminton match on the court below. A giant yellow flag rests beside him. As a smash lands wide, Sudhir jumps up. Grabbing his flag, he waves it fervently from side to side, blowing his conch shell. Spectators seated behind grimace, even attempt a meek protest. But Sudhir isn't listening. After all, he's only doing his job.
For easily the most recognisable sports fan in the country, associated with its most venerated sportsman - Sachin Tendulkar - this is fresh turf. A familiar presence in the stands at every cricket match featuring the Indian team for over a decade and half now, home or away, Sudhir found himself, at the start of the year, in freezing indoor stadiums for the first time. A new sport and team have been added to his itinerary. Tendulkar has willed it so.
In December last year, Tendulkar bought stakes in the Bengaluru Blasters franchise of the Premier Badminton League (PBL). During the first day of India's Test against England in Mumbai that month, Sudhir was summoned to Bengaluru for a PBL commercial. It was the first time he had missed a day's play in cricket in 16 years.
And so, with a formidable record under his belt - as of early January, when ESPN spoke to him, he had watched 278 ODIs, 49 T20Is and 58 Tests, numbers similar to the playing CV of cricketer Yuvraj Singh - Sudhir made his "debut" in another sport, although Tendulkar remains the connection.
"I'm supporting Sachin sir's team [Bengaluru Blasters] though he is not in the stadium. I have 'Tendulkar 10' written on my back, though this is not Team India. I'm very happy that Sachin sir is encouraging sports other than cricket.
"I have not asked him for anything till date, but whenever there's a match outside India, I request him for a pass. He's never said no. Somehow he arranges everything. He's my God," Sudhir says.
His bare upper body painted to resemble a human form of the national tricolour, Sudhir was accorded special status by Tendulkar and offered passes for all India matches, no matter in which part of the world they were being played, and turned into a willing unofficial mascot.
"When I first went to the stadium with 'Tendulkar 10' written on my back, he liked it. When Sachin sir asked me if I would like to watch more matches, I did not for once think about the graduation exam form that I had filled out. He asked me to appear for my exams first. I was adamant, though. I never expected that I'd watch all those matches."
Growing up, the closest Sudhir could get to his idol was a peeling poster in his tiny, dilapidated settlement in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. Attempting the Tendulkar upper cut and straight drive, he would often end up being dismissed cheaply in college cricket matches. In 2002 he was picked for a state cricket tournament from his college. Around the same time a local journalist, aware of Sudhir's fandom, suggested he cycle down to watch the India-West Indies one-day series. Sudhir agreed. The first ODI was to take place in Jamshedpur, 519km away from his home town. As luck would have it, when Sudhir got there for the match, he heard Tendulkar had suffered a hamstring injury and was ruled out of the series. "I was very disappointed," he says, "That's when I decided that in 2003 I will travel to Mumbai on my cycle again."
The following year, Sudhir, then 22, cycled for 16 days, from Muzaffarpur to Mumbai, roughly 2000km away, where he finally caught a glimpse of his idol outside a five-star hotel in the south of the city. He threw his cycle to the ground to distract the security personnel before jostling past gathered fans to touch Tendulkar's feet. His life was never the same again.
Not only was Sudhir invited home by Tendulkar and offered a match pass, but just when he was about to return to Muzaffarpur, content with his accomplishments, things took a different turn. After India lost the Wankhede ODI to Australia, Sudhir paid Tendulkar one last visit before heading home. "Aur match dekhoge, Sudhir? [Would you like to watch more matches, Sudhir?]," Tendulkar politely inquired.
Skipping his graduation exams, spurning any prospect of a full-time job and distancing himself from his family, Sudhir chose a life single-mindedly dedicated to cheering for Tendulkar and the Indian team across the world. Nearly 14 years later, he has no regrets. "I've left three jobs and haven't completed my graduation till date. But I'm happy."
His first job was that of a railway ticket collector in Hyderabad, following which he took up work at a dairy in Muzaffarpur. He left that job to travel abroad for an India match, digging into his last reserves - his provident fund - to acquire a passport.
His travels have taken him across the country and the world, whether by cycle to Pakistan, or as far away as Australia and New Zealand for the 2015 World Cup. "I have friends everywhere, Dubai, Bangladesh or Australia, with whom I stay with during matches. In Pakistan, for instance, I know I'm always welcome at [the famous Pakistani cricket mascot] Cricket Chacha's house."
Tendulkar not only offered Sudhir passes for the 2015 World Cup but also ensured that he had a comfortable stay. "Since it was my first time in Australia, Sachin sir booked a hotel room for me. If I happen to travel there again, I won't need to stay in a hotel, because there are Indians everywhere and everyone likes Sachin sir, so I can stay with them," he says.
The high point came in 2011, when India's won the 50-over World Cup on home soil. After the final, played in Mumbai, Tendulkar, who was making his last appearance in the tournament, asked Sudhir to join the team in the dressing room and then handed him the trophy. "That was an unforgettable moment for me."
Soon after the match, Sudhir poured his heart out to Tendulkar, telling him about the apprehensions he had about his future following his hero's impending retirement. "I said I wanted to continue to cheer for the team and carry his name on my body till I die." Tendulkar assured him of his support.
When Tendulkar retired in November 2013, that foreboding was brought home by a billboard for a job-search website. Alongside Sudhir's painted face, the words screamed: "Looking for a new job?" It was an inescapable truth.
Today, Sudhir says, people often try to coax him to wear the name of a current playing member of the Indian cricket team, the popular opinion favouring Virat Kohli, over that of Tendulkar, on his body. He shuts them up with little trouble, he says. Last year, when invited to cheer for Virender Sehwag's side, Gemini Arabians, at the Masters Champions League (MCL) in Dubai, it was suggested that he drop Tendulkar's name and paint "MCL" in its place. "I asked them to book my return tickets instead," Sudhir says. Realising that he wouldn't budge, the team organisers abandoned their request and asked him to stay on.
Back in the badminton arena, eyes cast earthwards, Sudhir patiently waits for the questions, hands resting on his knees. A gaggle of curious onlookers quickly gathers around us, mostly selfie-hunters. He obliges them with practised ease. He's wiry and strikingly bald, save for a pigtail and a small patch of hair in the centre of his head that is trimmed to resemble the physical contours of the map of India and painted in the colours of the national flag. The insignia of the Bengaluru badminton franchise is painted across his chest in red and he sports his idol's name on his back in sweeping, bold letters, along with the sacred jersey number: 10. Before this, Sudhir had never watched a badminton match.
It took him a while to understand the game (which, in this tournament, is played with tweaked rules). "At first I just couldn't understand what was happening," he says. "I had no idea how the points system worked. I asked people why they were clapping. But after watching a few matches in Hyderabad, I started to get a clearer idea. Now I've begun liking it."
The water colours he uses to paint himself from head to waist for PBL matches can be applied and removed more quickly than the enamel paint he favours for cricket matches, because of its ability to weather longer hours and outdoor conditions. "I've been painting myself for 16 years now. Not once have I suffered from any skin infections or allergies," he says, before explaining why he took to painting his body. "I wanted Sachin sir to notice me. I thought to myself, much like some people paint their cheeks in the colours of the national flag during a match to show support, why don't I take it a step forward and paint my entire upper body?"
For his face, Sudhir usually uses water colours - 15ml bottles of orange, white and green, each of which lasts for close to eight matches. As he runs us through his regime with feverish detail, it's difficult not to wonder what he looks like sans his second skin.
''People, I think, know what I look like now unpainted,'' he says alluding to his popularity, "My hair and look are distinct." Enamel paint for his body, which he usually procures in half-litre batches for each series, takes close to six hours to apply, which often means having to give up sleep at night. "Lying down would mess up the paint. Whether I'm staying at a friend's place or in a hotel room, I sit through the night after my body is painted before a match."
Sudhir is a compelling figure in the Indian sporting landscape, says Prasad Mangipudi, executive director of Sportzlive, which owns the rights to the PBL. "He's one of the most visible brands for sport in the country. His distinct appearance makes for instant recall. People know him exclusively as a Tendulkar fan, so that creates a direct connection between him and the spectators. In the PBL matches that Tendulkar is not able to attend, it's almost like Sudhir is cheering on his behalf. He waves the flag, the crowd too joins in and cheers, which in turn spurs players, so if you look at it he can bring about a change in the stadium atmosphere by his presence."
The idea behind the PBL commercial - which shows Sudhir painting himself ahead of a match and Tendulkar referring to him as his "greatest fan" - was to create a flutter and make it memorable, Mangipudi says. Sudhir's presence in the stands has also set the organisers thinking about ways of enhancing the fan experience for future editions.
"We are mulling the prospect of having a fan icon for each team," Mangipudi says, "The idea is to engage fans to a greater extent, and we are looking into the possibility of running a contest to pick a fan who could maybe sit in the dugout with team members."
Sudhir is mindful of the identity he has carved for himself among sport fans in the country. Heartbroken after Tendulkar's retirement and probably unwilling to be weighed down by the baggage of memories, he gave up riding his cycle to matches.
Little else lights him up like seeing packed stands with cheering crowds. "I want more fans to show up. Today I'm there, but tomorrow I may not be around."
One of the few occasions when he looks up to make eye contact is when the topic of family is broached. "I don't answer calls from my family." He last paid a visit home after the Chennai Test in December 2016. "In case of an emergency, if someone in the family dies, I would have to leave a match and go, which I cannot. They know how involved I'm with the game."
Sudhir will turn 36 this year. Seemingly expecting the query, he dismisses the idea of marriage. "I have never thought about it and never will. As long as I'm breathing, I'll support team India. Marriage will only distract me. That's unacceptable."
Susan Ninan is a writer at ESPN.in