(I called it "Nothing but the Slap", HT used "Batting for the Country?")
Harbhajan slaps Sreesanth, Sreesanth cries into his hands, and its all on our front pages. I mean, can't a guy get into a straightforward fist-fight any more, can't a guy weep any more, without the rest of the country watching like voyeurs? I mean, these guys were hailed as the "new Indian": aggressive, impatient with old-fashioned rules and ready to seize the world on our own terms. Yet now one has slapped the other, who wept. Why? And why are we other Indians watching so closely?
When Harbhajan didn't say "monkey" but did say "teri maa-ki", and was punished for it, we new Indians thought our national honour was maligned, thought our national duty was to stand behind our aggressive Bhajji. To stand behind an epithet that would have offended any of us. When Sreesanth thrust his pelvis and whirled his bat about, we new Indians erupted in joy because our aggressive Sreesanth was giving back in kind to a loud-mouthed South African. (Giving what back, actually? Not that anyone really cares).
It's a seductive thought: that we Indians are finally taking our rightful place on the world stage, that we will no longer be denied as we have been for so long. We can't seem to get enough of hearing it said about us.
Though in truth I've heard mostly Indians saying it, the old adage applies nevertheless: said enough times, it starts to gather an aura of authenticity, starts to seem true.
Here, for example, is Shobhaa De, our resident diva of the pithy opinion, in Tehelka:
- "Our self worth was in the doldrums, we used to shuffle around the world feeling ashamed of being Indians, holding out our begging bowls. The most radical change in India is our self-perception ... Today there is a new assertiveness. It's given us a spine."
Yet excuse me, Ms De, just who are you talking about? Who is this "we" that "shuffled around the world feeling ashamed of being Indians"? Not me, for one. Over the last three decades, I've done my share of world travel, and I don't recall doing the shuffle. I don't recall feeling ashamed. I don't recall holding out a begging bowl. I played hard, worked hard at times, made friendships I treasure, loved, lost, fought, won ... All that, and I never once felt the lack of a spine.
And lest you think this is just my story, that I'm somehow making out that I'm unique, let me smash that notion right away. I could say just the same things about plenty of friends from when we were Indian kids together. K, whose father was a station-master in a Tamil Nadu village, has made a career and life in the rough and tumble of the Manhattan financial world. B, from middle-class orthodox Hyderabad, went to the world's finest university and started an innovative software firm that he later sold for many millions. D, once head-boy of his Bombay high school, was recently named by a famous magazine as one of the world's 50 most influential people in his profession. R, a northern small-town girl, is a successful and respected bureaucrat doing good things in one of our most scorned states. Another R trailblazed a particular path that was later trodden by Barack Obama.
I could go on. In none of these people, and in fact none of many many more, have I ever detected shame about India, nor that shuffle.
So I'd like to say to Ms De, please speak for yourself. If you felt shame, or if you were wandering about holding a begging bowl, that's your experience and I wish you power with it. Please don't seek to make it mine, or anyone else's.
Actually when she speaks in this vein, Shobhaa De is referring to poverty in India, claiming that somehow we were all ashamed of it. Now that "we no longer see ourselves as poor", she says, now that we can "airbrush" such "warts" from our image, that's given us the "new assertiveness" she mentions. Yet let me also say this: growing up, poverty in India was one of the realities of my country. As it is now. It has never been something I've chosen to ignore, or felt shame about, or glorified, or claimed is the only reality of my country. It's one reality, that's all, like Bollywood or paddy fields or trains.
So I wonder, who is the truly confident Indian, whether old or new? And who is the Indian who is ashamed of being Indian -- one who seeks to "airbrush" out "warts" like poverty? Or one who says to the world as so many of us do, this is my India -- not the pits, not perfect either, but it's mine and I believe in it?
And it's thoughts like those that traipse through my mind as I read about the Harbhajan/Sreesanth imbroglio. When Sreesanth taunted Nel, when Harbhajan squared off against Andrew Symonds, yes, we heard that these men represented the new breed of Indian, assertive and unwilling to back down. In those words was a contempt for some mythical "old breed" of India who, we must presume, was never assertive, always willing to back down.
Yet if it's cricket we want to draw lessons from, what must we say about such men as Tendulkar, Dravid, Hazare, Srinath, Kumble, Pataudi? Off their bats, Dravid and Tendulkar have won us plenty of cricket matches. Srinath and Kumble, with the ball. Hazare stood tall among the ruins of a disastrous 1948 series against the best Australian side ever, scoring two centuries in one Adelaide Test. Pataudi overcame the handicap of a destroyed eye to become one of the world's finest fielders and arguably India's shrewdest-ever captain.
As far as I know, none of these men, and I could list more, chose to thrust pelvises at opposing players, or call them names. They believe in that impossibly old-fashioned idea: such things as assertiveness and spine and an unwillingness to back down are best measured by that simplest metric of all -- your performance, period.
Apart from a few flashes, Sreesanth has yet to make that kind of mark. Harbhajan made an emphatic mark in that epic series against the Aussies seven years ago, yes, but has since seemed alarmingly content to coast on those laurels. Never has he matched that 2001 pinnacle of bowling excellence.
And because these two young men don't measure up on the performance metric, they choose to resort instead to taunts and thrusts on the field. And when the rest of us hail them as the embodiment of the "aggressive new Indian", they get pumped with the testosterone they seek.
That pumped up kind, they slap and weep. Because they know nothing else.