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Pride by Proxy

By Siddhartha Deb
February 28, 2003 22:11 IST
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There are a couple of lines from a play by Bertolt Brecht that will come in useful for Indians watching the match with Pakistan on Saturday.

As you follow Tendulkar or Sehwag going in to bat, many of you will agree easily enough with the first line: "Unhappy is the country that has no hero." But Brecht was a Marxist, which means he didn't believe in straightforward propositions. So, if by chance the hero fails and is departing from the pitch rather quickly, remember the second part: "Unhappy is the country that needs a hero."

These lines from Brecht's Life of Galileo came to me last Saturday morning, when I was observing the game between England and Pakistan and I started wondering why and how nationalism has screwed up Indians and Pakistanis in everything from cricket to everyday living.

It was cold and grey and wet outside as I hunched over my PC to find out about the game, English weather for a part of the world that colonialism has given the name of New England. The moment was noisy with the ironies of history - an Indian in a country mistaken for India watching a game between his former colonial masters and people who were once his fellow-countrymen - but I let it pass in order to savor the uncertainties of the present.

Heroes create records occasionally, I thought, as I read about Shoaib Akhtar's 100 miles per hour delivery, but they don't always win matches or change things for the better. Heroes create batting or bowling records, win beauty contests (when they're heroines), get a national company into the Fortune 500, have a film nominated for the Oscars, and you get the impression that India or Pakistan has a respected place on the world stage, although you have to be fairly ignorant or making a profit out of the situation to maintain that impression in the face of such overwhelming odds.

This is nationalism, this skewed perspective of self-importance, and although it often works through heroes, it also works without them. It gives you false victories in exchange for lifelong defeats, and it obscures the truth that whether you have a record-breaking bowler or a record-breaking batsman, it is the West that always wins.

It's like the score published in newspaper headlines when India and Pakistan carried out their nuclear tests five years ago, and when many people in the subcontinent believed that those explosions spoke of a new assertion and self-confidence. A few years later, shortly after both countries achieved a record of sorts by getting the Indian subcontinent dubbed as "the most dangerous place on earth," both India and Pakistan were jostling for a place in the American sun, each more eager than the other to be on the side of the world's one and only superpower.

Nationalism is a parasite, at its strongest and most hysterical when the host society is weak. It says a lot for the way things are in India that nationalism so often gets smuggled into the pleasure of watching a cricket match, like the soda bottles and brickbats some spectators bring with them, ready for use at the first signs of the team in trouble.

But just as soda bottles thrown into the field don't win matches, slogans of patriotism won't change the country's image in the rest of the world, which is why it's worth considering why we shouldn't watch the India-Pakistan match as nationalists.

This question of not watching a match as nationalists is quite different from wanting one side or the other to win, so let me explain. National pride is not at stake for either India or Pakistan, because the collective national pride of India and Pakistan taken together doesn't manage to feed its people or take care of them in any discernible way.

Two weeks ago, I heard a story on the radio about Pakistani immigrants trying to cross over the border to Canada because they were afraid of being arrested by the United States authorities. They were being turned back by Canada and housed in refugee shelters in upstate New York and Vermont. Many of them had permits that made them legitimate residents, though some of the poorer ones probably didn't, just like the Indians I occasionally meet around this country who work hard but don't have papers.

I don't know what the Pakistan government, ostensibly an ally of the United States, is doing for these people -- not much, I suspect. But this isn't just about Pakistan, which Indians like to think of as a failed state even as they try to emulate some of its worst aspects.

When I had to call an American company's technical support to fix some problems with my computer recently, guess who I got on the phone? The first time it was Mike, the second time Brad, though as I continued my conversations with them it became clear that their names were neither Mike nor Brad and that they weren't sitting in Minnesota or Texas. They were Indians with perfectly sound names like Pavan and Durgesh, but they needed these "handles" in order to work for an American multinational.

I'm not criticizing them for taking on these names. In their place I would have done the same, but keep this little detail in mind when you find yourself swelling with national pride the next time.

My last example is about both Indians and Pakistanis. Earlier this year, I happened to stumble across a reference to an article on the Indian and Pakistani armies in the American magazine Outside. Since references to South Asia in the mainstream US media are far and few in between, and because I like to keep up on what's being written on something I rather nationalistically look upon as my turf, I went searching for the issue.

The story was billed as a "world exclusive" on the cover of this hard-as-nails adventure magazine, and perhaps there were a few things in the article to keep Indian and Pakistani nationalists happy: little details about the endurance and determination of the soldiers on the highest battlefield in the world.

Mostly, though, the "full story of a hidden catastrophe at the top of the world" was about dirt, about the garbage Indians and Pakistanis leave behind, turning the Siachen into a place "where the scale of human suffering is matched only by the environmental degradation wracking one of the last great swaths of unexplored terrain in the world."

Clearly, there's something hypocritical about an American adventure magazine criticizing India and Pakistan for environmental degradation, when the United States is the only country in the world that refuses to do anything about global warming, and which is talking right now about using nuclear weapons in Iraq.

But it's still true that we litter our landscape and mountain tops and send off our impoverished working-class men to get frost-bite, all so that we can maintain our national pride and bring up the added resonance of Siachen and Kargil when Tendulkar faces Shoaib.

Perhaps I exaggerate, and maybe there are many Indians who want to enjoy the game between India and Pakistan without thinking it has anything to do with the state of the nation, whether on this or the other side of the border. But if not, it is time to realize that a nationalism that depends on beauty queens, ancient Hindu texts, nuclear missiles, and winning cricket teams is a useless, outworn paradigm in a complex, changing world.

Whether we're smarting from defeat or delirious with victory after the India-Pakistan match, the day after the match would be a good time for many of us to start asking questions of each other, without expecting easy answers from heroes.

(Siddhartha Deb is the author of the novel 'The Point of Return', published by Picador. He currently lives in the United States.)

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