Archive for September, 2007

Defined by Dhoni

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

In school, they used to call Mahendra Singh Dhoni ‘Sachin Tendulkar’. It was the fully appropriate name for a friendly easy-going schoolboy who seemed instantly possessed by some particularly destructive god of war every time he walked out to bat. And today, his mates from DAV School Shyamali and the Shyamali Mecon colony in Ranchi must be marvelling at the fact that ‘their Tendulkar’ is going to captain a team that has the real Tendulkar in it. Yes, this is surely worthy of celebration.

But in many ways, Dhoni’s elevation to captaincy is not just about the selection committee for the Indian cricket team taking a long-term bet on a talented young wicketkeeper-batsman. The last man who captained India and who could claim to be from a small town was Chandu Borde, who led India in one Test against Australia in 1967-68. Borde was from Pune, which, with the liberalisation of manufacturing and the software revolution still far away, could be called a small town then. Since then, the skippers have come from Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Chandigarh, Kolkata and Bangalore. Yet, the last few years made it obvious that a small-town Indian at the helm was something bound to happen. For, the most dramatic phase shift that has occurred in Indian cricket over the last decade or so has been the loosening of the grip of our big cities and our middle and upper classes over cricket.

Mumbai has only regular member in the Indian Test and ODI teams; Bangalore and Kolkata too have only one each. Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad have none. The class structure has also changed. The team no longer teems with Maharashtrian brahmins from the Dadar-Shivaji Park area and upper middle class boys from Bangalore. The current Indian cricket pantheon bristles with young men from distinctly lower middle class and even penurious origins. This trickle-down effect in Indian cricket, the emergence of players whose childhood deprivations just made them hungrier for success, steeled their resolve even more, is a great sociological victory for the game. Dhoni as captain, whose father operated the pumphouse at an officer’s colony of public sector engineering firm Mecon, brings that groundswell to its first inevitable peak.

But this 26-year-old from Ranchi holding two of the three second-most important jobs in the country (he is captain in one-dayers and 20-20 matches; the Test captaincy is still up for grabs) signals something even larger than the democratisation of the game we are mad about. It signals the emphatic and permanent arrival of small-town India in our metro-focused consciousness. These people, millions and millions of them — 62.2 per cent of the total urban population according to the 2001 census — have been traditionally dismissed by the metro elite as hicks and hillbillys. Yet the signs have been around us for years now. The signs have been there in the proliferation of computer academies in every small town, in the number of private schools offering quality education, in the explosive growth of telephone density, in the boom in beauty parlours. A large majority of the students of the IITs now come from small-town India. Visit any Tier 3 town, and the rising aspirations and newfound confidence and determination are palpable.

If these projections are even halfway correct, India is in the process of a seismic change that will more than shift every known paradigm in our society and economy. And anyone less than terminally cynical will instinctively know that these will be more than halfway correct. This is a wave built on inexorable economic logic that is now self-perpetuating, beyond the control of any human agency. This is millions of small-town Indians waking up to the possibilities that are open to them, that could be within their reach. Millions of young small-town Indians who want to seize the day and are willing to give it their best shot. And Mahendra Singh Dhoni being made captain of India just made all of them even more ambitious and resolute.

Remixing ourselves to death

Monday, September 10th, 2007

Sudden fame can do strange things to people. Some men start sporting ponytails without any prior warning, some start chasing skirts. In the case of Mir Ranjan Negi, he starts dancing in Jhalak Dikhla Ja (I may have missed out a few k-s and h-s in the title there, but never mind). Last Sunday, I was startled to see the former Indian hockey goalkeeper and women’s hockey team coach, whose inspirational life was the basis for Chak De India, competing with TV actors on the dance show, grooving to a Hindi film song.

A couple of hours later, while I was still puzzling over the metaphysics of that one, I caught a match between England and Australian veteran cricket teams on ESPN. The players included Allan Border, Dennis Lillee and Graham Gooch. What a star cast. Border held the world record for most Test runs for many years. Lillee was perhaps the greatest fast bowler ever, and once upon a time held the world record for the number of Test wickets. Gooch, Wisden magazine discovered last year, scored more runs — league, county and international matches combined — than any batsman in history. Three world record holders.

Dressed in England and Australia colours, they were playing eight-overs-a-side cricket with tennis balls on a beach, in arena slightly bigger than the ones used for beach volleyball.

Every line between seriousness and frivolity has been blurred, no, has vanished. Of course, all these men have the right to make money any way they please, as long as it doesn’t break the law. Absolutely. But surely they owe something to the millions who have respected their achievements, and even idolised them? Negi is a man whose story should be in every school textbook. Humiliated and forced to give up the game after India’s 7-1 defeat to Pakistan in the 1982 Asian Games final (just one measure of the public venom directed at him: at his wedding, rowdies cut off the power supply to the venue), he returned 20 years later to coach the Indian women’s hockey team to the Commonwealth Games gold. Screenwriter Jaideep Sahni read about him in a newspaper item and was moved enough to write Chak De India. And then the makers of the film insisted that it had to be Negi who taught the actresses hockey. Negi had just been devastated by the death of his 19-year-old son, but he rose to the occasion , especially given that most of the actresses had never touched a hockey stick in their lives. Perhaps I’m getting old, but I do feel that the stirring nature of Negi’s story could be slightly diminished in the eyes of many when they see him trying to do the salsa as hard as some TV actors whose names few of us would know.

Lillee could be bowling on a beach, in informal games 24/7, and no one would think twice about it, but I did not want to watch him play beach cricket for money. Even though he was swinging the ball prodigiously. I did not want to watch, for Lillee’s sake, and for the sake of my memories of that extraordinary bowler. I did, but purely out of morbid fascination.

But anyway, that was an England-Australia game. Let’s look at India. We have ruined most of our classic film songs through remixes, whose only contribution to the originals is one or more of the following: speed up the song, underlay a synthesised beat to the vocals, or have some deep voice growl “Ooh baby” and some hip-hop nonsense in between stanzas. Our highly popular stand-up comedy contests on television thrive almost exclusively on objectionable male chauvinistic jokes, and the hosts and the studio audience laugh themselves silly at each one of them. At our political talk shows, the participants spend most of their time shouting at one another, and often the moderator outshouts them all. In our print media, we ask pretty film stars to expound on the future of the unity and integrity of the nation. I recall one of them being quizzed on who started the modern Olympics, during her run with the Olympic torch in Delhi before the last Games, and she answered: “Was it Hitler?” But her comments on global warming and world peace find space equal to that of a Nobel Prize winner.

India as a nation currently feels more confident than perhaps ever in history. But we are also a nation amusing ourselves to death. A people which brings the same rules to engagement to both Shakespeare and John Grisham, to Kurosawa and Manmohan Desai, is a disturbing proposition. Kent told King Lear: “I will teach you differences.” We must learn the differences, and our heroes must think of them too.