Chandigarh’s avid autograph-hunter Dharam Vir Duggal was planning to buy a PPE kit and pair of gloves when he heard that the much-delayed Indian Premier League (IPL), despite the COVID-19 outbreak, might take place later this year. Stuck on 572 signatures, the 58-year-old who doubles up as occasional cricket reporter for local newspapers, was banking on the star-studded T20 tournament to take his collection to the ‘600’ milestone. Far away in England, James Brighton too was hopeful to take his tally of signed Manchester United scarves to 11,777 till the time he heard that the English Premier League would be held behind closed doors.
With live sport action, including the IPL, expected to take place without spectators, memorabilia-seekers are facing what the grand old man of the autograph collectors’ club, Chennai’s T Balasubramaniam, a 75-year-old Chepauk regular, calls an “existential crisis”. “Already, a lot of celebrities have tie-ups with different companies. Then there is the selfie army, which has outnumbered us. Now the players and celebrities have more reason to refuse us,” he says.
Duggal too is despondent as he isn’t used to being not allowed for cricket games. “I had zeroed in on the players, already brought 40 miniature bats (to be autographed), so that I can complete 600 autographs during this IPL season. They are all lying in a room gathering dust,” he says.
The obsessed collector shares how he thought things would have been easier for him this season as only die-hards like him would turn up for games. “I had thought there wouldn’t be much of a crowd chasing players. You know these selfie-hunters, who take a lot of time. I had plans to go in wearing a PPE kit and a pair of gloves, one for me and the other for the player (signing the autograph). The pen and the bat will be sanitised too,” he says.
Duggal says the planning to get a prized signature is no different from a shikaar. “You wait and wait for your prey, and then latch onto it. If you can get through Chandigarh Police, you could slip past any policemen in the world,” he claims.
For this persistent bunch, it’s not just ink from a celebrity’s pen immortalised on a piece of paper that thrills him, but the pursuit excites them too. “It’s like James Bond. There is no thrill in managing an autograph without enduring some pain. You can buy autographs these days, so it’s not about signatures as such, but the whole journey of getting a cricketer to sign. The longer I have to wait, the more precious the signature will be.”
Relentlessness pays off; so does ingenuity. Faridabad-based autograph-hunter Amarjeet Singh narrates a story of how he procured Diego Maradona’s signature after several heartbreaks with a flash of ingenuity. “I went to Kolkata three times, but twice he (Maradona) cancelled the trip for one reason or the other. The third time, I was determined. But there were thousands of fans like me. But I had done my bit of genius. I had an artist draw a huge portrait of his and I began waving it. He saw it and called me by his side and gave his signature. It’s the most memorable one I have,” he says.
But unlike the upbeat Duggal, 28-year-old Singh, who works in the private sector, has resigned to the reality that autograph-seeking is implausible this year. “It cuts both ways. They wouldn’t be comfortable signing autographs, nor would I be. The virus doesn’t differentiate between a celebrity and an autograph hunter. I have to be careful about my own health. So I will lay low until the virus subsides and everything is back to normal,” says Amarjeet, who has in his treasured collection the original signatures of Albert Einstein and Alexander Graham Bell.
United fan Brighton too is worried as he insists on buying scarves from the vendor from outside the stadium. “Mostly, counterfeit ones, the club anyway makes a lot of dime. Let these fellas too,” he says. But with the corona protocol not allowing anyone near the stadium, he finds it tough to secure one as the EPL restarted.
But he hasn’t given up. Amidst the uncertainty, all the autograph seekers agree on one thing: “The next autograph will be the sweetest of their lives.” The next scarf, Brighton says, will be framed and hung on his drawing room. “Except for the two months when there’s a break, I bring home a scarf every week, now I have to keep waiting till the spectators are allowed inside and the shops are opened,” he says.
A former accountant from Chennai, Balasubramaniam informs that autograph-seekers are “eternal optimists”.
Duggal exemplifies this. “I wanted to get Donald Bradman’s autograph. I kept on writing letters to him, he didn’t respond to the first 49. But to the 50th, he replied and gave me an autographed gold coin. So if I have a name in my mind, I will go to any extent to get his autograph. Last year, I jumped in front of (Chris) Gayle’s car to get his autograph, as he had earlier refused me. Whether spectators are allowed or not, if cricket resumes, I will find my way,” he says.
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