On his right cheek were daubed the letters “SAC” and, on his left, “HIN”, spelling out “SACHIN” as in Sachin Tendulkar.
“I don’t know how I’m going to live without Sachin,” spluttered this middle-aged man as tears rolled steadily down his cheeks.
“I don’t know how I’m going to cope now that Sachin Tendulkar has retired from cricket.”
The man looked genuinely grief-stricken – as though he’d just found out that a close relative had died.
He was one of the many thousands standing outside Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium the other day, scene of Tendulkar’s 200th and final Test appearance.
This man was not an isolated sight, and nor was his an isolated story. For everywhere the television camera panned there were people just like him, those who had come to worship not just a god of cricket but a man some of them believe is actually a living god.
Tendulkar himself has rubbished this suggestion.
The 40-year-old, who is a devout Hindu, recently told his adoring worshippers that he is “not a god as I make mistakes and gods do not”.
But try telling that to the chap with the legend “SACHIN” emblazoned across his face, or many of those who idolise the now former cricketer.
To them, Sachin Tendulkar is a god and the end of his cricketing kingdom a concept with which they are struggling to come to terms.
Of course, Hinduism, the primary religion in India, is a diversified belief system which, according to the dictionary definition, involves “the worship of one or more of a large pantheon of gods and goddesses”.
Most Hindus believe in a supreme God, one whose qualities and forms are represented by the many deities which emanate from Him.
For some, Tendulkar has risen to god-like status because of his perceived supernatural power.
It goes a long way to explaining the incredible extent to which he is venerated – quite unprecedented in cricketing terms.
Without wishing to disparage anyone’s personal beliefs, which are as valid as mine or anybody else’s, I found the suffocating outpouring of emotion that attended Tendulkar’s departure – fuelled by any religious consideration or otherwise – difficult to digest.
As I watched the aforementioned middle-aged man with tears rolling down his face, for example, I found myself wondering whether some people might just have lost touch with reality – assuming they had contact with it in the first place.
There is a big difference between having sporting heroes and carrying hero worship to the extreme that the hero is invested with divine status.
Tendulkar was an outstanding cricketer – but a god?
I read some comments the other day from Boria Mazumdar, who is writing the official biography of the man affectionately known as “The Little Master”.
Commenting on Tendulkar’s rise to divine status in the eyes of some, Mazumdar said: “It is a bizarre kind of thing but it is a very Indian belief.
“It happened with the Mahatma Gandhi and also with Swami Vivekananda.
“It’s like a supernatural power that you seek refuge in to give you strength and hope, and that is what Sachin has been to many Indians and that is why some have elevated him to a demi-god.”
And therein lies the heart of it. Tendulkar has given the Indian public strength and hope.
Through his many amazing achievements, too numerous to mention, and his unswerving dignity and humility, this remarkable individual has helped them escape the mundanity of existence, the harsh realities of their own lives – realities which most of us, thankfully, will never have to experience.
Life in India can be desperately hard, and heroes are a necessary and important part of all our lives, whoever we are and wherever we live.
Tendulkar has been placed on the very highest pedestal.
But if a grown man can wonder how he will “live without Sachin” and how he is “going to cope now that Sachin Tendulkar has retired from cricket”, then something, I would suggest, is seriously wrong.
The line between reality and fantasy has not so much become distorted as destroyed.
And the wonder of it all is that Tendulkar has apparently come through unscathed.
The cult of celebrity is omnipresent. Those with talent in the fields of sport and pop music, for instance, are feted beyond all recognition and totally out of proportion.
Some of them – though emphatically not Tendulkar – become arrogant as a result and, rather like their myopic worshippers, dangerously detached from reality.
They develop an inflated sense of their own worth and we see the results on the front and back pages of newspapers.
Those myopic worshippers are also prone to the most curious double standards.
If the Manchester United and England footballer Wayne Rooney, for example, could neither kick nor head a ball for toffee and was skilled only in the field of corporate finance, earning comparable sums of money, he would be a target for ridicule by some who presently revere him.
They would despise him for his suit and his flash car, his money and his foreign holidays, and doubtless some of the more thuggish elements who blindly sing his name at football grounds would think nothing of giving him a good shoeing if they chanced across him on a dark night.
Such is the insanity of life, the blinkered irrationality of hero worship.
Sport matters; of course it does – and none more so than in India, where it has given much-needed hope and enjoyment to millions.
But we have long passed the point where sport matters too much – not just in India, but all over the world.
In my own industry, for example, we are guilty of investing the most preposterous importance in sporting matters that are spectacularly trivial.
Every match is vital, every point crucial, and the sad truth is that some folk actually believe it.
“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death,” the former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously said.
“I am very disappointed with that attitude.
“I can assure you, it is much, much more important than that.”
Shankly’s sentiments highlight a common loss of perspective.
The reaction to Tendulkar’s retirement in India is proof of it.