Umesh Kulkarni, who had a brief India career in the sixties as a fast bowler, was all packed and ready to travel to Auckland in New Zealand when the coronavirus scare wasn’t yet a full-fledged pandemic. The 78-year-old Kulkarni and his wife hadn’t yet met their newborn granddaughter and they were all set to do so with a visit beginning on March 27.
Then as the scare became an outbreak, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a nation-wide lockdown from March 25 onwards and just two days before their scheduled travel date, Kulkarni knew he wasn’t going to be able to meet his granddaughter in person after all. Today, nearly two weeks after he was supposed to be in Auckland, a bag full of toddler clothes and toys lies unopened in a corner of his apartment in Worli, Mumbai.
Kulkarni stays at Sportsfield Apartments—an old high-rise on Worli Sea Face built for sportsmen. Sportsfield houses prominent Indian sportspeople from the sixties, seventies and eighties and the nine-storey structure is something of a landmark in Mumbai. Not just because of its famous residents but also because the building itself was ahead of its time —probably the first tall apartment block built in this part of Mumbai (then Bombay) back in 1987. In many regards, Sportsfield is representative of the passage of time—nine of the 17 stars who bought a flat in this building have since passed away. Bapu Nadkarni, the former cricketer who played 41 Tests, was the most recent of those nine; he breathed his last in January this year. Before Nadkarni, India’s exalted Test captain Ajit Wadekar—who stayed on the top floor of Sportsfield—died following prolonged illness two years ago.
Also, not everyone who owned a flat still call Sportsfield home. Former badminton star Pradeep Gandhe, who stayed on the second floor, has sold his house and relocated. Ravi Shastri, the Indian cricket team’s head coach who continues to own a flat on the fourth floor, mostly resides at his other property in south Mumbai. And Sunil Gavaskar too shuttles between Sportsfield and his other house in Worli itself.
But those from the good old days who continue to be residents of Sportsfield are doing all it takes to keep their systems healthy in these unprecedented days of a global pandemic. “Everyone in the apartment has been strictly following the lockdown,” says MM Somaya, a member of India’s Olympic gold-winning hockey team from Moscow 1980.
India’s 1980 Olympics hockey gold winner MM Somaya with wife Shami at their apartment in Sportsfield, Worli.
“My day revolves around listening to news mostly. But once the news becomes too frightful, I switch over to songs and movies and not step outside.”
Like most buildings in Mumbai, Sportsfield too has clamped down heavily on entry into the society. But because the residents are mostly aged and Worli is a coronavirus hotspot, the restrictions are followed to the T —which entails not allowing newspaper vendors, drivers and domestic helps into the premises. “We have to maintain a strict lockdown because lots of areas in Worli are now containment zones,” says Somaya, who stays on the first floor. His neighbour, India’s finest short-leg fielder Eknath Solkar, passed away in 2005.
Without any aid for domestic chores, the ageing superstars are getting reacquainted with housework; and some of them, like Somaya, are dealing with cleaning duties for the first time. “I have never done this before. Now I wash my own dishes, operate the washing machine, do the gardening and ironing,” says Somaya. “These are all new to me. I also offered to cook, but my wife didn’t want to take the risk.”
Somaya is 60-years-old. The septuagenarian in Kulkarni is 18 years older, so for him housework is a lot harder. “Cleaning a 1500 sq-feet household is not easy. But I do what I can by washing my own utensils and preparing breakfast and tea,” he says.
It is a quiet life for a largely active group of people. And quieter still when there is a lack of celebration during important days. Former Test great Dilip Vengsarkar, who resides on the fifth floor, brought in his 64th birthday earlier this week in a mute fashion. “This birthday, zero celebrations,” says Vengsarkar. “I received some 800-900 wishes on WhatsApp and many calls. That kept me busy. But apart from that nothing else. I haven’t stepped outside at all during the lockdown.”
Vengsarkar means it. He claims that he hasn’t even attempted to go to the terrace above or the society compound below, mainly out of fear of touching buttons on the building elevator.
Somaya too deals with his share of anxiety—his wife Shami works at a bank in Matunga and travels to work everyday. “Being an essential service, she has to go. But one gets worried. She has to deal with people and documents on a daily basis,” he says.
Because the residents of Sportsfield are mostly 60 and above (except for the sons of Solkar and former cricketer Ramakant Desai), the residents share a society help by the name of Ramlu, who helps out with groceries during these trying times. So how do the men and women get their daily exercise? Somaya says that he works out for an hour on the Sportsfield terrace, overlooking the Arabian Sea. Kulkarni is happy practising yoga at home, while the others are simply happy with a view of the sea and they in turn keep themselves busy with entertainment television.
Vengsarkar spends his time watching reruns of English Premier League matches, while former Test cricketer Yajurvindra Singh (Shastri’s Sportsfield neighbour on the fourth floor) keeps himself busy with e-papers on his mobile phone. Singh, incidentally, left Sportsfield to go to his farmhouse in Alibaugh for a break before the lockdown and has had to remain put there ever since. “It’s better here. We have a garden in the farm and a swimming pool. And whenever I speak to Vengsarkar I realise how fortunate I was to get away when I did,” says Singh.
For Sportsfield’s most famous resident, Gavaskar, who has a house on the eighth floor but is currently social distancing and exercising in a different property of his in Worli, the lockdown has meant that he is staying indoors more than he usually does and the break has had a positive effect on him. “I have almost come down to what my weight was in 1971 (the year he made his debut for India),” the 70-year-old Gavaskar says.
For Gavaskar and his ilk at Sportsfield, who played for the country during simpler times, life during the lockdown is a throwback to a former life. “During my playing days, we would share kit bags and bats and sometimes even abdomen guards,” says Kulkarni. “We played with limited means. And that is how we have to live in the days of this pandemic as well.”
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