Sunday, March 25, 2007

Passion For Cricket? Or Life By Proxy?

Tiger biscuits, Sansui TV, Fiat car, Hero Honda motorcycle, Sahara flight tickets, Mayur suitings, Pepsi cola, Tata Indicom mobiles, Lupin pharmaceuticals, Emami cosmetics, Surya bulbs, Castrol engine oil, Natco tiles, ESPN, LG and Sona Chandi Chyawanprash -- those are the good things in life that we'll purchase, if our larger-than-life, product-endorsing cricketing hero wins a match for us. Doesn't matter even if the match happens to be the most insignificant of ones. And if he doesn't -- well -- we'll slap the coach, break the window panes of the player's house, burn effigies of all and sundry who belong to the team, call for the head of the captain, and indulge in endless chest-beating in television studios, often in the illustrious company of retired cricketing heroes, whose record in their own times of failing to deliver has been no less spectacular.

The bandwagon of scribes whose sole claim to glory in life is that they puff cigars and pipes while watching cricket on their drawing room television sets will now bleed bucketfuls of sympathetic tears for the common Indian fan on the street, whose hopes have been mauled, we'll be told, by the utter callousness of the players. (Not the callousness of the sponsors, mind you, whose ads we certainly need to keep every households's economy running, and also indirectly pays for those cigars to puff.) Even the netas whose behavior on the field (in-House, that is) is world-beating (beat everyone with chairs, microphones, chappals, and what not) will now demand explanation about why the cricket team is not a world beater.

The story has repeated so many times now that one would be hard pressed to tell whether even Shakti Kapoor utters his jumla in a film any more number of times, or whether there isn't more variety in an episode of Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. And the wheel will keep chugging along...till kingdom come...

Which brings us to the question of why is it that we keep chasing after that elusive cricket win as if our life depended on it, huffing and puffing even against sides who are younger to cricket than even the kid in Baby's Day Out? Leave alone the World Cup which, to all intents and purposes, has been nothing more than a pipedream -- I'm talking about a tournament win of any import whatsoever. When was the last time India won anything, which has involved three or more teams? -- can you remember anything from the last five years? So why do we naively keep waiting in the same place for this tsunami of hollow expectations to come and run us over? Is it because we have sunk ourselves to the utter depths of disconsolate masochism? Or is there something more to it, which keeps hitting us time and again, waiting for us to get the message, but which we are too afraid to face squarely in the eye?

There is a phenomenon known in the psychiatric circles, which goes by the name of the 'repetition compulsion'. (It's not what is called as the obsessive-compulsive disorder, which has a somewhat different causality.) The repetition compulsion is something which is pervasive in the lives of each of us. Say, you react in a particular, abrasive way when under stress, which makes you lose your closest ones. Something that you regret every time after the fact, but can't seem to stop yourself from behaving in the same manner the next time you find yourself in the same situation. That's what is the repetition compulsion.

When psychoanalyzed this will usually unfold in some kind of truth about ourselves that has often confronted us, but which we have deliberately tried to repress, by looking the other way, thereby denying the existence of the truth. Denied thoughts, denied feelings -- because it was too painful for us to feel them in their true form. So we keep pushing them under the carpet, and pretend that all is well, and that the problems will go away on their own if only we can forget about them long enough. And paste a phony smile on our lips which will give the airs of optimism from a distance.

But the truth won't change its skin just because we have chosen to deny it. It keeps coming back to us in the garb of this replay act -- the repetition compulsion. It'll keep putting us in the same situation where all our worst fears about ourselves -- our own failings -- will seem to get enacted through the medium of others.

When one notices this repetition compulsion, often under the guidance of a trained analyst, it's time to get to its original seed. And realize our failings. Our failings may not always be our own faults -- in fact we may have often been a victim ourselves. The failing lies in refusing to accept that we failed ourselves, or somebody close to us whom we had trusted failed us, or that we let ourselves be willing victims of circumstances, simply because we didn't have the courage to revolt or take effective action. Our deep-seated feeling of inadequacy, of our not having risen to the occasion when we should have, which we consciously please to be unaware of, is what becomes an unconscious desire for punishment. And that punishment is what we enact via the medium of others, through the repetition compulsion.

Psychodynamically speaking, this is in fact a healthy sign. It forces us to realize our shortcomings, and take corrective action, thereby curing us of the disease. The symptom -- of repeatedly finding ourselves in the same punishing situation, which we create ourselves -- serves as a signal. Much like fever -- which tells us that we have become infected with something -- and that we need to attend to our health, and no longer indulge in things that exacerbate the disease. But...only if we are willing to listen...willing to unearth the underlying problem, willing to patiently work through the resolution of it, whatever be the cost and pain for us. The shortcut which we'll mostly adopt is to gulp an antipyretic, and suppress the fever for the time being. Letting us heave a sigh of relief, however false. For all we know, we might just be delaying the discovery of our own cancer. Till it gets too late...

And the cancer in our case is that we want to be offered the gifts of excellence, without ourselves playing any part in generating that excellence in our own spheres of activity. Much like the proverbial Marxian exploitationist who wants to consume, but without producing.

It's high time (as if it wasn't high time two decades earlier itself) that we asked ourselves: what is our own contribution to the sporting excellence that we seek through a bunch of eleven individuals? What is the place of sports in our lives -- apart from the contribution of eyeballs to the ad-flicks that are dished out for our consumption while trying to lose ourselves in a fantasy world of televised sport? When was the last time we participated in a competitive event, even if played at an amateur level?

The maximum, I bet, we'll manage to recollect will be some kind of time-pass game, just to enjoy ourselves -- the whole matter reeking of farcicality. The last time we played cricket ourselves would have been to grace our gullies on the bright morning of a bandh day. And when we return home that evening we believe that the enormous sacrifice that we'll be making the rest of the evening in watching all our advertisements entitles us to the solemn right of becoming world champions. And when the castle in the air comes crashing, it's very comfortably the fault of the eleven men in blue for having failed to repay us. For the ad-revenue we generated. How many other instances of such self-righteous indignation can we find in the world?

And, mind you, that will not be an exception. It's how we conduct ourselves in all spheres of our lives. There is nothing that we do in which we take ourselves seriously; there is nothing that we want to invest effort in so that the end-product shows any signs of excellence. And even with our sab-chalta-hai philosophy we remain smug that our heroes will do it all for us, no matter what jokes we make of ourselves in everything that we do. No wonder that the punishment keeps revisiting us every few days; only to prepare us for the next bout of punishment, a few days later. And on we go with our lives, in blissful stoicism.

The very definition of a 'fan' in our dictionaries is a unique one. Our 'fan' is not one who loves the game, or even knows anything about it. And participating in it actively, with a spirit of competition that the game is all about, is what he has postponed for his next life. Our 'fan' is one who wishes to wipe off all the frustrations of his life through an illusory cricket win that he'll watch from his armchair. His being a guinea-pig of consumerism is what, according to him, also entitles him to his relish of victory.

The fact that a game is primarily meant to be played, not watched, has been given a quieter burial in our culture than Mozart got for his own. It's easier to find Govinda in an art film than to find a game -- any variety of game -- being played in competitive spirit by the amateur public anywhere in India. Contrast this to the hundreds of counties in England; to the multiple division, even beach, soccer clubs in Latin America; to the German Bundesliga where amateur chess playing teams take leave from work to play alongside professional grandmasters.

It has left us that the pleasure of the game is to be had by playing hard and beating your fellow peer or peer team on the field, not by watching TV from your drawing room. That requires a degree of involvement, discipline, practice and above all an urge to compete. We have said goodbye to all of that and merely hope, nay demand, that our 'heroes' give us a vicarious pleasure, which we are not willing to partake first hand. The first is the much more comfortable pursuit, the latter the much more arduous, and isn't 'sloth' the middle name that we have chosen for ourselves?

Cricket is not the only sport in which we have sunk. That story has unfolded in all other kinds of sport since long, so much so that nobody even remembers any more. Cricket is only the latest in the string of what looks like inevitable downward slides. The other day the news was splashed that we have lost eight places in the FIFA world rankings -- which had me really perked up with reassurance that there still are some more countries left behind us, and we still have it in us to fall further down! May be there are just so many countries in the world that 170-180 too doesn't qualify for a last place finish these days.

In hockey too, the other crown jewel, we have stopped qualifying for even quarter-finals of major events. In track and field events, Olympics, Asian games, our delegations carry more officials than players, and return with more bagfuls of shopping goods than medals.

Even the ones who show some semblance of international class, coming in most cases from the toiling, poorer sections of society, are left to fend for themselves. The other day an Asian-games silver-medallist wanted to switch the state she represented in domestic events, because of official apathy. There are no sponsors for her. No prize for guessing whether, given an option, she'd have preferred switching her country altogether, and settled for maybe China.

There has been a disturbing trend of ex-footballers dying by the hordes in their early forties. Sudip Chatterjee, Krishanu Dey, Satyan, Narinder Gurung etc -- who have played with distinction in the eighties and nineties -- are all victims of sudden deaths, in some cases even suicide. It just leads to a vicious cycle -- of active sport not being enough for financial support, and therefore the public, even the part of it with talent, looking for alternate avenues, and lack of interest and patronship leading to poorer standards.

Take the example of chess. Humpy, who is world number two in women's chess, loses Bank Of Baroda as her sponsor, because they think they get more mileage out of showing Rahul Dravid's face. Again, by a Fide rule, any 2700+ player could have challenged the World Champion for a title match provided he brought a minimum of one million dollars to the table as prize fund. Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaizan, who only recently broke 2700, manages to find it, even from a small country like Azerbaizan, and challenges Topalov. Whereas our own Anand, who has stayed in the top three of the world for more than a decade (and is currently number one) doesn't find any patronage among the Indian corporate world. Though more millions of dollars are spent on advertisements even during a ridiculous India-Bermuda cricket match. And now the corporates are bemoaning the millions that they are going to lose, because of India's first round ouster in cricket. Don't they just deserve it, for the utter cynical manipulation they try to indulge in?

I'm not very sure whether it's just a matter of economics though. There are much poorer countries than ours -- look at Africa and even the war ravaged Iraq -- who still produce international class soccer teams, and win medals in huge numbers in Olympics. It appears more to be that as a nation we just accord very little priority to what is not directly connected with our livelihood and survival. We don't have a place for passion. Or pride. Or a desire to break new ground. Or to excel. Just a place for consumerism. And we believe, nay shout from the rooftops, that we are soon to be a superpower. Well, powerhouse of consumerism, for sure; the rest takes a wee bit longer.

We believe in sending our children to school, and compete fiercely for entrance exams. Because that's connected with our livelihood and survival. And the sheer degree of involvement produces enough exceptions so that we still manage a very respectable showing in the International Maths Olympiad, and Physics and Chemistry Olympiads every year. However, sport is not our cup of tea. For it isn't good enough for our livelihood. Just as town planning is not our cup of tea. Because it's not connected directly with our survival. Nor civic sense is our cup of tea. Because nobody pays you anything for it. We believe in getting paid for doing things. Even if that be at the cheapest rates.

Coming back to the analysis of the current cricket fiasco. It's tempting for me to point out what I wrote in my earlier blog post two years ago (as can be found in the post titled 'Chapsticks' below). That a thorough overhaul of the system as Chappell was attempting is fraught with danger in the short run, even if that may bring fruits in the long run. There are two reasons for the danger: firstly, it leaves you in total disarray if you try to change too many things at one shot; and secondly, if you focus on your methods too much, you lose sight of your goals. Some readers expressed skepticism about that, and initially there was widespread euphoria that we have finally found someone -- a tough Aussie -- to deliver us from all that held us back from becoming world champions. And now the disillusionment in those quarters would be equally rampant.

In sport you don't lose because of your own self. You get beaten by your opponent. And conversely, to win you need to find chinks in your opponent's armor. To outsmart, outplay him. Our esteemed coach was more busy finding weaknesses in our own ranks. In finding why this or that player is not good enough, in discovering who deserves to be dropped, and who deserves to be given a chance to 'recover his confidence' by sitting in the sidelines, than in finding out how to exploit the weaknesses in the opposition camp. Perhaps, taking up a job in the land of Gandhi, he chose to adopt a Satyagraha approach to victory -- an approach of non-violence towards the opponents.

There is certainly a case for accountability. You have to deliver too, show results, and not merely 'process'. But given that we were blissfully ignorant of the short-term dangers, and never prepared to take pain first, we now stand equally prepared to abandon even the long term benefits of the system-wide overhaul that was initiated. We want everything too soon, with too much ease, and too little pain. Popping that aspirin is the quickest solution to that. And that antidepressant. Doesn't matter if our aversion to take the hard way continues to keep our cup of woes flowing over. Glory to the repetition compulsion!

It isn’t that the bunch of players that we sent was not good enough. But that applies to playing cricket alone. Not for serving as wish fulfillment agents for a billion people with nothing else to cling on to for pride. If only we could spend as much time playing ourselves as we do in protest marches, and burning effigies...

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