A Chronicle of National Obsessions

February 21, 2010 § Leave a comment


 A Corner of a Foreign Field (Guha, Ramachandra)

“I realise that Indian cricket actually reflects our country’s own growth story during this time. Cricket is so much a part of our national fabric that as India – its economy, society and popular culture – transformed itself, so did our most-loved sport. ”
Rahul Dravid, Sir Donald Bradman Oration, December 2011, Canberra.

Ramachandra Guha burst into stardom and Indian yuppie bookshelves only in 2007, with India After Gandhi. However, he had actually earned his spurs as a writer 18 years prior to that, when he published his groundbreaking work on Indian environmental history, The Unquiet Woods, drawing wide-ranging respect from ecological and sociological academic circles around the world. At some point between the two events, he published A Corner of a Foreign Field, and while I am unaware of its reception

Religion and Cricket in India. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 in academic circles (the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, where he taught for a while, must surely have been mystified), I can state without fear of contradiction that the coming of this book did not create much of a splash among the Indian glitterati, the Indian literati, or even the Indian sit-around-and-chatterati. This is a shame – because I have just finished reading it, and the book is a triumph, and I will remain indebted to my friend Shamik, who had recommended it, and whose copy I had ‘borrowed’ a couple of years ago.

The book is misleadingly subtitled ‘The Indian History of a British Sport‘. It isn’t a history of cricket in the conventional sense. If you want statistics and scorecards, almanac reports and anecdotes, you’ve come to the wrong place – try Cricinfo instead. In actuality, this is a history of Indian society and its overriding preoccupation with race, caste, religion and nationality, seen through the prism of another of its overriding obsessions: cricket. Ramachandra has woven his themes into the narrative so convincingly and with such mastery, that it now appears to me to be the only logical way to examine the subject. I am now convinced that if someone were to write, instead, the history of any other aspect of Indian society – its cinema, say, or music, or politics, or even cuisine, in the duration under consideration (1860’s to the turn of the millennium), the master categories of race, caste, religion and nationality would be inescapable; in fact, their absence from any serious attempt at analysis would be inexcusable. Our lives revolve around them. The cricket is just a convenient, and rather pleasant, prop.

In fact, Ramachandra says as much, right in the preface:

This book is … not so much a history of Indian cricket as a history of India told through cricket and cricketers…the making of modern India is its theme, with cricket serving merely as a vehicle, as my chief source of illustrative example.

The role in the making of modern India, of the conflict of race – between the colonial overlords and the natives that they wouldn’t initially condescend to include in their cricket teams – is the one that we are most familiar with from our history books, and most comfortable talking about today, simply because it is no longer an issue for us. It has been overcome, both mentally and physically, in the twentieth century, and we can now joke about it, in much the same way that black Americans can joke about slavery and American women about cooking and cleaning in the 1950’s. As Guha points out, riotous jubilation ensued when Bhagwat Chandrashekhar spun India to victory over Ray Illingworth‘s England at the Oval in 1971,  precisely because the nation was still beset at the time by a general sense of inferiority. This is no longer the case, for a multitude of reasons, as amply demonstrated by Saurav Ganguly‘s triumphant and irreverent half-monty on the hallowed balcony at Lords in 2002.

The conflict of caste and community, on the other hand, is still a raging one in the country, though the English-educated urban classes do not encounter it in our daily lives and can pretend it doesn’t exist. We rub against each other in sweaty local trains with nary a qualm (as long as they get us to work on time!), we do not worry about the caste of any of the people we work with or who serve us in restaurants (as long as the service is good!), and we really don’t care if the captain of the Indian cricket team is from a different community from ours (as long as he WINS!). However, it wasn’t that long ago that people set themselves on fire over affirmative reservation on a caste basis, and inter-community marriages still raise an eyebrow or twenty even among the well-heeled. To top it all, Bal Thackeray and his acolytes still have a violent problem with non-Maharashtrians living in Mumbai and speaking other languages than theirs, and I can’t believe they don’t have a silent, but significant constituency that shares their views and approves of their methods.

It isn’t, therefore, difficult to imagine how extensive the hold of caste and community over the people must have been, a hundred years ago. Was it the British policy of divide-and-rule that polarised us thus? Ramachandra thinks not, and I tend to agree. It turns out we were always divided, and abhorred including other communities into our society. Here’s an excerpt:

In…the last decade of the 19th century, there were dozens of active cricket clubs in Bombay. Where Parsi clubs were generally demarcated by locality, Hindu cricketers sorted themselves out on the lines of caste and religion. Consider the names of some clubs established in the latter decades of the 19th century – Gowd Saraswat Cricket Club, Kshatriya Cricket Club, Gujarati Union Cricket Club, Maratha Cricket Club, Telegu Young Cricketers. The smaller communities in this city of migrants also formed their clubs…Mangalorian Catholic Cricket Club, the Instituto Luso Cricket Club and the Bombay Jewish Cricket Club

And this, about the Quadrangular, the cricket tournament played on communal lines until independence:

The rulers might have thought the Quadrangular format to be ‘natural’ to India, but they did not bring it into existence unaided. Communal cricket was moulded as much by Hindu caste prejudice as by Parsi social snobbery, by Muslim cultural insularity and by British racial superiority.

Perhaps Octavio Paz was right in a way, when he said Indian nationhood was “a modern concept, imported by the British“. It seems to me that the British did invest us with nationhood, if inadvertently – it was to oppose them that we first got united under one banner – well, technically, two banners, India and Pakistan, which leads me to the other two categories.

While Ramachandra has much to say on caste, the main thrust of his argument is about religious intolerance and jingoism – the “ugly and destructive nationalism” that has engulfed India since the nineties, resulting in, among other things, Indian mobs setting stands on fire to stop the game rather than to see India lose at the Eden Gardens in 1996, gangs of criminals digging up a pitch to prevent Pakistan from playing a Test match in 1999, and spectators taunting and abusing foreign cricketers (Inzamam? Symonds?), rather than appreciating their cricket. I had hoped that this frenzy was a manifestation of the mass hysteria whipped up by the Hindu fundamentalist fringe between Babri Masjid in 1992 and Godhra in 2002, via Pokharan in 1998.  However, the current crisis surrounding the exclusion of Pakistani players from the 2010 IPL tournament appears to indicate otherwise. A poisonous Islamophobia courses deep in the veins of several Indians, and many of them no longer bother to keep it secret, climbing out of the closet with relief after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008, as if the act legalized and made socially acceptable the general hatred of all Pakistanis. The brainless friend of an acquaintance even found it necessary to state with complete, yet unsubstantiated conviction on Facebook recently, that “every dollar paid to Pakistani cricketers by the IPL would have been used in terrorist acts against India“.

First it was race, then caste and community, and now religion and nationalism: the average Indian seeks his identity in these, and only in these, and identifies as deadly adversaries the Others, the Not-Us. Does this stem from a deep-seated insecurity, well-hidden behind bluster and bravado, a fear of being alone among a billion strangers? When we stopped feeling inferior and downtrodden and huddled together in misery, did we spin away from each other, out of control, adrift in an endless moral vacuum? When we were told, with liberalization in 1991, that there was no longer any need to feel ashamed or guilty about wanting to be rich and powerful, did we divest ourselves of all our values, and plunge joyfully naked into the pool of plenty, secure in the knowledge that everyone else is naked, too? If so, Frantz Fanon foretold this, in his prophetic The Wretched of the Earth, written nearly fifty years ago:

Colonialism has not only depersonalized the individual it has colonized; this depersonalization is equally felt in the collective sphere, on the level of social structures. The colonized people find that they are reduced to a body of individuals who only find cohesion when in the presence of the colonizing nation.

 I do not know, and perhaps I am exaggerating, but in the limit, we seem to care most for our own families, and not a fig for the family across the street – a trait I have touched upon in these pages when discussing Professor Raghunathan‘s book. The acidity of our religious and regional parochialism eats at the heart of our humanism.

This is not a feel-good coffee table book, the sort that describes the feats of Indian champions of yesteryear with a view to allowing corpulent corporate types to bask in reflected glory and engage in jingoistic chest-thumping. It isn’t the Neo Cricket channel in book form. I doubt that one could read this book and come away without having searched one’s soul, or having gained some interesting insights into the nature of this huge, heaving, churning, beast that calls itself We The People of India.

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