The ticket fare in the unreserved compartment of the Sampark Kranti Express is a good deal less than the cost of a reserved, second class ticket. Ram Babu knows this, because he has made the 50-hour journey from Chandigarh to Bangalore in the general compartment, cans of paint in tow with his luggage, on borrowed money. Knowing the schedule of India’s Test against Afghanistan is no good if you don’t have the cash to book your ticket in advance.
He is recognised on trains, even without the paint, for there is a strange intimacy between sardines in a tin can. Babu lives in the reflected celebrity of MS Dhoni, and there are no shortage of Dhoni fans on trains.
Think MS Dhoni, and you will soon think of Ram Babu. Only you don’t know him as that, you probably know him as the other painted man.
I say 'other' because the first is Sudhir Kumar Chaudhry, first citizen of Indian cricket fandom. Chaudhry’s journey, much of it on cycle, is as well documented as he is well painted. The paint lines on Babu’s body though, are not as crisp. Here and there, white intrudes into orange territory, especially at the back. But the letters ‘DHONI’ and the number ‘7’ are unmistakable. As is the passion, bordering on madness.
The night before a match, he hardly sleeps. A hired painter or a friend helps him lather his upper body with oil paint, the type we reserve only for the walls of our bathrooms. The next few hours are spent sitting as still as possible, letting the paint dry. For a Test match, he will sleep with the paint on his body for all five days, his nose accustomed to the smell, his skin having made its peace with this unhealthy sheet.
He is at the Chinnaswamy stadium an hour before the teams arrive, dressed in his pigmented armour, waiting in the parking lot. It helps that the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA) has agreed to his request and have put him up in a dormitory just next to the ground, since his usual friend was out of town. They have also allowed him to carry his folding flagpole inside. So the team bus arrives to sight of their national flag being waved, Babu’s arms and vocal cords working in unison to welcome them.
Up in the stands, there is no sign of fatigue as he waves the flag without a break for almost half an hour as the team goes through their warm up. Sweat beads through the oil paint, even in Bangalore’s pleasant mornings. Once the match begins, every time a boundary is hit, a wicket taken, or a landmark achieved, he is up in arms, chanting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and ‘Vande Mataram’. In between balls there are a hundred selfies. People sit around him just so that they will be on camera, but he speaks only to a select few he knows, Chaudhry among them. At every break, there is a dash to the toilet; even there, a few selfie-seekers give him no respite.
So much for the ‘how’. What about the ‘why’ though?
One might as well ask ‘why not’. In a way, Babu is living the dream, doing what he loves, now with the blessings of the one he deifies. It’s tough, but so is becoming the CEO of an MNC. “I was never interested in studies, but I played cricket a lot before”, he tells Firstpost. “But since I didn’t go ahead there, I became a diehard fan of Dhoni. Now, I’ve even got his blessings.”
Babu describes how in the 2000s, he would turn up for every game at his native Mohali, wearing the long hair he sported back then, dark sunglasses and an MS Dhoni shirt. His first claim to fame was as a lookalike, not a superfan. After Dhoni cut his hair in 2007, Babu’s locks went too. “I first painted my face at an India-England match in 2008 at Mohali”, he says. A few months earlier, India had won an emphatic victory against Australia at the same venue. Dhoni, standing in as captain for Anil Kumble, claimed Player of the Match in that game. Perhaps that was the beginning of Babu’s second life.
Once the fandom had set down roots, it slowly drew more and more from the soil of his life. He started travelling for more games, painting his face on occasion. At the 2011 World Cup, came the first real bloom. He claims to have been at every ground, resplendent in full body paint.
The story of how Chaudhry got to meet his idol, Sachin Tendulkar, after the final at the Wankhede, is cricket lore. But Babu was far away, in another stand; his time had not yet come. He was content watching Dhoni do what no captain had done in decades, and sign it with a six.
It happened in an India-England ODI at Dharamsala in 2013. Standing bare-chested in the north Indian winter, he met Dhoni, whose attention he had caught by then. “Dhoni shook my hand and embraced me. That felt great”, he recalls. Babu says he has not had to buy a match ticket since then, but gets one through the team, irrespective of whether Dhoni is playing.
He narrates another story from the WT20 in 2014. Dhoni had arranged for his travel to Bangladesh, as he now does for international tours. But once there, Babu took ill, with the food not suiting his then vegetarian tastes. “Once Dhoni found out, he called me down to the ground and spoke to me. I hadn’t eaten properly in 15 days. Once or twice I even fainted at the ground”, he says. When the medication given by the team physio didn’t make a difference, Dhoni took matters into his own hands. “He said ‘You’ll have to go back to India. Aap theek hoge tabhi match dekhoge’. So he immediately booked a flight for me from Dhaka to Chandigarh.” Babu says he was in hospital for a month on return, and that Dhoni ‘sir’ bore the expense. “My mother was there with me through it, she also thanked him”, he adds.
But his family’s relationship with Dhoni is far from hunky dory. Babu has an older brother who works in a travel agency, and a younger brother and two younger sisters who are studying. His mother is a homemaker. His voice goes a little low as he talks about his father, who passed away in an accident before the World Cup. “I do whatever job I get; driving a car, working in a shop”, he says. But since he decided to travel to all of India’s games, these are always part-time. “Usually I have to go back, resign from my job, and then look for a new one. It’s difficult, but kya kare, karna nahi padta hai. Passion hai team India ko cheer karna, Dhoni sir ko cheer karna (What to do? Cheering India and Dhoni sir is my passion, and I have to do it).”
His celebrity does little to ease his penury though, and he still gets to hear taunts from his family. He recounts his mother’s words: “Ye nahi sudhrega. Kam kar, match tereko roti nahi deta hai. Ghar me problem hota hai to hum face karte hai (This one is hopeless. Cricket will not feed you, get a job. When there are problems at home, we have to face them).”
“Every mother wants her son to work and support the home”, Babu says. “That I feel bad about that, because I also face problems.”
I ask him about marriage, and he looks away, then looks back and then laughs sadly. “Marriage pressure is always there. But I can’t marry. The aggression and passion I have for the team, wo khatam nahi kar sakta hoon (I can’t let that die). Whatever happens I will face it, God is there, there is hope. But I can't remove this passion.”
Turpentine eventually removes the paint, but the obsession, the mania, the junoon is etched, as permanent as the five Dhoni-themed tattoos on his body. I ask what drives him, why does he do what he does, and he keeps coming back to that phrase: Passion hai. There must be more, for an individual should not be able to commit so much to just those two words for little or no reward.
But he does not articulate it, and I wonder if he knows himself.
Maybe it just is.
The author is a former India cricketer, and now a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She hosts the YouTube Channel, ‘Cricket With Snehal’, and tweets @SnehalPradhan