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War minus the shooting

By Sunaad Raghuram
February 28, 2003 20:31 IST
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The clock says the time is one hour twenty minutes past noon. The calendar on the wall of my room says its 1 March 2003. Out on the wide streets of Mysore, still littered with the autumnal fall of a million leaves from the ancient, regal looking trees that dot the sides, there is not a single soul that I can sight. Even the pie dogs, which mostly rummage around the corner or doze off the long afternoon hours in the shade of a tree or under the belly of a permanently parked truck in my neighborhood, have abandoned the outdoors for reasons that only they seem to know.

Through the window of my room I notice a man, a typical old-timer, attired in a dhoti and kurta, scamper past my house; anxiety and a sense of foreboding written all over his gnarled face. Somewhere in the distance a cow moos, breaking the almost frighteningly dismal silence that seems to pervade the locality.

Even the raucous auto-rickshaws that ply the streets, spewing their obnoxious lung choking smoke, as a result of the driver's pitiable poverty – not necessarily monetary but of thought - which makes him opt for a mixture of fuel which has more of kerosene and less of gasoline, seem to have been vanished by some mysterious magician's unseen wand.

There is almost an otherworldly emptiness; a kind of forced silence on the streets that I notice; a hollowness that I can perceive; a sort of void; a strange tension; the air thick with an almost inexplicable tautness. 

The few men that I do notice on the streets seem to be consumed by their own thoughts, as they cycle towards wherever they are headed, with the silence of a cat in search of a meal. Somewhere, from inside some house, I hear noises that seem to be emanating from a television set. Above the roar of a million excited voices in the background, I hear a man who is speaking in a state of frenzy, like the staccato bursts of gun fire, completely consumed by the drama of the occasion, in a state of almost uncontrollable passion, in a tone of voice that has as much force as agitated waves lashing against the rocks on a sea shore.

That voice is heralding the start of a cricket match between two countries. One known as India and the other known as Pakistan!

And then I know the reason why the streets looked as empty as during wartime Europe. And the reason why there was so much of anticipated silence – or should it be silent anticipation! And then I know the reason why there was not a man, woman, cat or dog going about life anywhere; and why I saw those few men still left on the streets, by some quirk of fate, hurrying away as if they were being pursued by ghosts!

The whole of India, it seems, doesn't want to miss even one microscopic moment of the action on the field. And my town isn't any different. It is populated by men whose whole fingers, and not just the nails, have been chewed off in excitement from the match in Bangalore on 9 March 1996, during the World Cup then, when the Indians won against their nemesis, the Pakistanis, in a rare show of the vitality of cricketing spirit and a touch of derring-do.

It is populated by women who have suffered and braved aching joints in their arms - should I say a divine form of the tennis elbow - as a result of circumambulating a bronze plate filled with a pile of lit camphor in front of the idol of Ganesha or Markandeya or Anjenaya or Veerabhadreshwara or Jalakanteshwara or whoever else catches their fancy. All for an Indian victory. And that too, against Pakistan!

It is populated by men who have shaved off their heads to appease the gods; men who have done so in the fervent hope that His benevolence will help India score that one extra run if they are batting second or take extra quick wickets, if they are bowling first! And that too, against Pakistan! Men who will do a penance; who will go on a pilgrimage to appease the powers-that-be in heaven; who will not turn left to go into their houses but turn right to go into the temple in front, each time they return from office.

Men who take a hurried bath in superstitious idiocy, if they see that purveyor of evil, that harbinger of doom, that vile, evil boding, obnoxious, ill-omened, sinister and disturbing creature, (in their opinion, not mine!) the crow, squatting on the branch of a tree in their backyard, especially on the day of the match. Against Pakistan!

And men, who will decide to cycle sixteen kilometres to their uncle's house in the holy town of Srirangapatna to watch the game, if an owl has hooted in the darkness of the night in the vicinity of their house, a day prior to the match. How can they after all, be anywhere around in the same area from where was heard that unholy call, the precursor to death and destruction (so they feel, not me!) and add to the negative forces around the television set?! Especially on the day of the match? Against Pakistan?!

If we carefully turn the sepia-tinted pages of the book of history, we'll know that it was an English barrister named Sir Cyril Radcliffe who drew the boundary line between India and Pakistan in the July of 1947. He was carrying out an imperial order, which brought about the near permanent physical and even social divisions of millions of men and women at that time.

Years after Sir Cyril finished his job, the two nations are faced with another boundary line, this time of the cricketing kind, where from an Indian viewpoint, the ball has to sail way over it, every time it's hit by an Indian batsman and has to remain well inside, if hit by a Pakistani! And vice versa, if your address is somewhere in Gujranwala!

In his seminal essay titled 'The Sporting Spirit' written in 1945, George Orwell said, ‘Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.'

He wrote this treatise after the visit of a Soviet football team called Dynamo, to England. The matches between the English and the Soviets were played in a climate of such animosity that Anglo-Soviet relations came to be affected.

Orwell goes on to say in his essay, 'If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Jugoslavs, each match to be watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators.'

Today he might have added cricket between India and Pakistan!

(Sunaad Raghuram is the author of Veerappan The Untold Story, Viking, 2001)


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Sunaad Raghuram