May 14, 2008

Batting for the Country?

Back from almost two weeks without web access ... thoroughly recommended. While I get the normal life glasses into focus again, here's an essay I wrote that appeared on the oped page of the Hindustan Times (Tuesday May 6, while I was away). Any thoughts welcome.

(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."
Fine words, right? Maybe even assertive ones?

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.


Pankaj said...

Random thoughts:

(Disclaimer: not attempting to justify the actions of the individuals concerned. I think what happened in Australia, and what happened in the slapping episode was wrong, and that it is time for players to learn other techniques to fight stresses)

- Was there severe provocation to Harbhajan or other team members when he called Symonds names?

- What, in the cultural context of people from the north, specially from Punjab and Delhi, is the seriousness with which people view the expletive he is supposed to have used against Symonds? Indeed how seriously do north Indians take such profanities them in a region where profanities are used as punctuation marks?

- Taken in the Aussie cultural context, what is the seriousness with which Aussies themselves view some of the sledge words they use against other teams?

- Was the provocation offered by Aussie teams to opponents of an earlier era as sustained and of the same magnitude as that offered by the Aussies of the Waugh-Ponting era? Was it part of the Aussie team strategy even then? Is it conceivable that the more feisty players of earlier eras (Durrani, Engineer himself, Amarnath - father and son - even Bedi), would, in their own way, have also gone over the top if they had been deliberately provoked as much?

- Was there a strategy among all or some of the Indian team to retaliate against Aussie sledging, and were people like Harbhajan asked to implement the strategy? If so was this the correct approach? Should the entire team, (or the group which thought of this strategy) not take the blame? In the middle of the ODI series Dhoni (ODI captain) seemed to indicate this strategy in an interview.

- What was the provocation offered by Sreesanth in earlier matches that Harbhajan was riled up enough to slap him? And for Rajput not to restrain him?

- Who made Harbhajan the IPL team captain when Sachin was injured? Were they not aware of his shortcomings on the personal front? Had they ever seen him perform in a leadership role? Did they think captaincy of a team in the IPL performing circus is a trivial matter? Why then did they choose him? Why not Pollock at the start itself?

- Nevertheless, shouldn't players, specially when being watched by millions on TVs, not be more careful of what they say and how they behave? Can they not retaliate by mental strength than by descending to the level of the opposition? Or is this wishful thinking? Everyone is not as mentally strong as a Tendulkar or a Dravid or a Pataudi. Should there be coaching for improving mental strength as well as physical prowess? Is BCCI doing anything for this? Or are they happy treating players as auctionable commodities?

Sidhusaaheb said...

If I may add another name to the list of those who played the gentlemen's game, I'd like to mention one Sunil Gavaskar, who held the record for having scored the maximum number of test centuries for nearly two decades and whose record was broken rather recently by Sachin Tendulkar.

Can any of the 'aggressive', 'new age Indian' players touch that kind of glory ever?

Regarding one of the questions in the previous comment, Bishen Singh Bedi riled this 'over the top' behaviour of today's players, mentioning some by name, in a programme on NDTV 24x7, which was part of 'The Big Fight' series that is aired periodically on that channel. Incidentally, the some of the other participants were all praise for 'new age Indians' like Harbhajan and Sreesanth. Bedi clearly said that the Australians' sledging should be answered with sterling performances on the field and not with verbal abuse.

BTW, I wonder why Sreesanth was not banned even for a single match, either T20 or One Day International.

Sidhusaaheb said...

P.S.: Please excuse the grammatical errors.


ak said...

Not to mention Dhoni, from Sreesanth and Harbhajan's own generation, who has shown himself to be one of our calmest cricketers - he's almost like a sage on the field.

And while unrelated to the post, I think it is time to stop giving Harbhajan the sort of importance that we have been. Neither Indian fans, nor Indian captains (Ganguly and Dravid) appreciated Kumble's efforts in the ODIs, consistently choosing the dull Harbhajan over him, leading to his retirement (which might be a blessing in disguise since he'll hopefully play Tests for longer).

I hope we have the sense to try some of our newer spinners now.

Anonymous said...

Shobhaa De does speak for herself. But it seems to me that perhaps there are others who were secretly ashamed of being Indian. Now that the economy is growing rapidly, these people are rising up and loudly, defiantly declaring their patriotism. I wonder what their bluster conceals.

These people now tell us it is wrong to criticize India's faults, and try to look at the good and the bad, in a balanced perspective. They tell the rest of the Indians that we are not as patriotic as they are.

Personally, I wouldn't call these people patriotic, they are just jingoistic.