Archive for January, 2007

Ganguly — a Bengali?

Monday, January 22nd, 2007

This column got me more hate mail than anything else I have ever written. It was all from irate Bengalis.

By the time Sourav Ganguly fell at 98 on Sunday, he had left a nation slack-jawed. Has there ever been a man with greater grit in cricket history? Has there ever been a cricketer with such self-belief, such tenacity, such indomitable spirit? For it is the quality of his mind and the strength of his will that have powered the most remarkable comeback in recent cricketing history. At 34, Ganguly is not getting any younger. And for the sort of player he is — his batting is based on eyesight and reflex rather than the bedrock of textbook technique, like say Rahul Dravid — 34 is quite an age. Add to that the fact that he is not a natural left-hander (he is right-handed in everything but batting), and wasn’t actually setting the field ablaze during his exile. Has there ever been such a cricketer? Certainly not in India.

With a hostile coach waiting gleefully for one failure so he can send him back to the history books, with a majority of Indians wishing he would just go away and not hang around like an embarrassing cousin, with a team unsure of whether to welcome or shun him, this man has sealed his place again in both the test and one-day teams. Can anyone imagine a World Cup team now without Ganguly? If any comeback deserves that lofty adjective, this one does: this comeback is Sisyphean. The gods are on the backfoot.

But the inescapable question that one has to confront — inescapable because Ganguly’s Bengaliness is as much part of his persona as the lofted six over the bowler’s head — is: Is this man really a Bengali?

Lord Macaulay was being the archetypal suspicious and supercilious imperialist when he described the Bengali as “effete, effeminate, vaporous, swooning” and “of feeble constitution”. But what is undeniable is that the Bengalis are not a warlike race. They seem more comfortable in a bookish environment, behind desks, or in the cultural arena. The British Raj was run on a day-to-day basis by thousands of Bengali clerks and petty officials. In fact, Bengalis were officially declared a non-martial race in mid-nineteenth century.

So where did this man spring from? Ever ready for a fight, obstinate and headstrong, glaring down rival captains, shouting the choicest Hindi expletives when a teammate misfields. Never has an Asian captain given it back to the white man as much since that serene streetfighter Arjuna Ranatunga. Never has any Indian cricketer been booed as much and taken the public disapproval with such disdain since the much-underrated Ravi Shastri. As cricket historian Ramachandra Guha pointed out, never since Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi has an Indian skipper been so non-parochial. And this is even more remarkable since historically, cricketers from Bengal — from Shute Banerjee to Ambar Roy, Prakash Poddar to Gopal Bose, Shyam Sundar Ghosh to Subrata Guha — have got a raw deal from Indian selectors. No other state has produced more cricketers who should have played for India and did not, or were discarded unfairly after a few matches.

Ganguly’s hallmark as player and captain has been his near-manic desire to win. Hardly a very noticeable trait in the average Bengali, who is willing to avoid an important business meeting for a leisurely adda. Born into great wealth, brought up by doting parents (what other sort would name their child Maharaj?), cocooned from the inequities of the type of childhood that a Sehwag or a Harbhajan or an Irfan would have had — this man has more hunger for achievement, victory, vindication and vengeance than the entire cast of a prime time soap opera. When hit on the helmet by a rising ball, he has to retaliate with an attacking shot the very next ball, even if it means risking dismissal. And he takes cruel pleasure in the defeat of his opponents. If born in Mahabharatic times, he would have been Bheema, drinking the blood of Duhshashan, not any of the other Pandavas. Yes, in spite of his Bengali physique. No, this man does not have the mind of a Bengali.

Yes, he has the passion that characterises the Bengali. No Indian captain has hugged any player as hard as Ganguly did when he felled Mohammad Kaif in a delirious rush after that great victory over England for the Natwest Trophy. No other skipper has shouted and sworn so much on the field. But Bengali passion has traditionally been unproductive. Thousands of young Bengalis went to the gallows or to the living nightmare called Cellular Jail for terrorist attacks on the British. But their fervour and their sacrifice hardly made a dent in the Raj. And most of the time, they could not even hit their targets. Sometimes, they ended up killing innocent men and women. Thousands again were butchered and thrown into secret mass graves by the police during the Naxalite movement. To what end? A Bengali was the only Indian leader who took on the British army with an army of his own, but it was an enterprise doomed from the very beginning. Bengali passion has been more like what the moth has for the flame, not the sort that builds empires.

This is what makes Ganguly so un-Bengali. He brims with passion, but never losing sight of the bigger picture. After all, the man built a young hungry talented team that could beat anyone on a good day, and almost anyone on any day. This man is the most successful Indian captain ever. And as this glorious comeback shows, one of the most cussed men on earth, irrespective of race. He simply doesn’t know when he is beaten, and thus forces the victorious to be increasingly unsure and finally turn tail.

Who is this man?

Banal and sickeningly simple

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2007

Evil in its purest form is both utterly simple and utterly incomprehensible. What Moninder Singh Pandher of Delhi suburb Noida did was simple — he lured young girls into his home, sexually assaulted them, killed them and buried them in a drain, often cutting them up into small pieces. But the very simplicity of the crime — though ‘crime’ seems a dismaying euphemism when used to describe Moninder’s acts — makes it nearly impossible to come to grips with. The first reaction from anyone who saw or read the news on the Noida butcher would have have been: how could someone do this? How?

Any decent human being would be today trying hard to stop his mind from imagining what those little girls went through in the last hours of their lives. Any decent human being would be physically nauseated if his mind still threw up shards of images. It would not be unnatural for some people — especially the families of the girls — to wonder whether the order of the universe, whether the teachings of every major religion about good and evil and justice are mere hogwash after all. And to atheists, acts like Moninder’s would only confirm that the universe is an entity completely indifferent to the fate of any living organism, governed by the rules of chance and circumstance.

For, after the initial shock and outrage, sober reflection can only end in one conclusion: evil has been with us as long as there has been human life on earth. ‘Evil’ spelt backwards is ‘live’. In Anthony Burgess’s novel M/F, the hero Miles Faber is asked a riddle: “Who was the final final, say/ That was put back but had his day?” There are two opposed answers, both equally valid. One is ‘God’, which is ‘dog’ backwards (every dog has his day), the final final, the ultimate reality. But the opposed ultimate reality is ‘devil’, ‘lived’ backwards: if you have lived you have had your day. Metaphysics loops back on itself and is incapable of giving clear answers.

Moninder’s act is one of individual private evil. But if there is one common thread running through human history, it would most likely be of public evil. Emperors, from ancient times to modern, have tortured and murdered millions and millions of their enemies and their own subjects. Just the 20th century saw enough mass murderers to last a millennium: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the list is long. Each of them would have had thousands of soldiers and policemen and bureaucrats carrying out the actual acts of evil. Indeed, one of the most powerful theories to come out of studying the Holocaust was about the very “banality of evil”, as political philosopher Hannah Arendt put it.

Arendt followed the 1962 trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi bureaucrat who managed the logistics of deportation to ghettos and subsequent murders of millions of East European Jews. She found that Eichmann came to his willing involvement with the genocide through a failure or absence of the faculties of sound thinking and judgment. Far from exhibiting any malevolent hatred of Jews, which could have accounted psychologically for his participation in the Holocaust, Eichmann was an utterly innocuous individual. He operated unthinkingly, following orders, efficiently carrying them out, with no consideration of their effects.

Arendt concluded that Eichmann was constitutively incapable of exercising the kind of judgment that would have made his victims’ suffering real or apparent for him. It was not the presence of hatred that enabled Eichmann to perpetrate the genocide, but the absence of the imaginative capacities that would have made the human and moral dimensions of his activities tangible for him. Evil was banal, routine daily entries in ledgers.

Of course, the school of moral relativism holds that standards of good and evil are only products of local culture, custom or prejudice. For instance, homosexuality and abortion are considered evil in many societies. Yet, there are some acts which are universally evil; there is no scope for pleading extenuating circumstances or lack of evil intent. The Holocaust was pure evil. The Boston Strangler was absolutely evil. The crashing of planes into the World Trade Centre was simply evil, even if Osama bin Laden believes that Western civilisation has become evil and corrupt, and must be destroyed. What Moninder Singh Pandher did was uncontaminated evil.

But uncontaminated evil was also the way the police behaved. Over two years, as village family after village family came to complain to the police that their children had gone missing, they were turned away; FIRs were not lodged. They were poor people, their children were not important to the policemen, who, morally, were clearly as degenerate as Moninder. When the system that is supposed to preserve civil society and ensure the safety of citizens acts with such amoral indifference, it is as abominable as an individual pervert’s sick actions. Moninder Singh Pandher cannot be forgiven, but neither can the policemen who scoffed at helpless and confused parents over two years. These men are as heartless as Moninder, and as responsible for many of the murders as Moninder is.

Yet, we know in our hearts that a week from now, a month from now, or a year from now, we will waken to some other unspeakable act. Some pervert may already be at work, waiting to be discovered. Right now, some brainwashed terrorist is plotting to murder innocents. In some other time zone, some mad dictator is planning his next pogrom, his next war. Plato observed that there are relatively few ways to do good, but there are countless ways to do evil. Clearly, he had studied men well. Evil, and pure incomprehensible evil, are inherent truths of the human condition.