The India-Pakistan encounter on the cricket field is often spoken in terms of war. A cheap variety of nationalism is laid, like landmines, and the entire nation transforms itself into a border.
Metaphorically, on the day of the match, the expanse of the nation is squeezed and stretched into a narrow line. Everybody lives on edge. There is a lot more at stake, people believe, when the two countries play.
In fact, the game is mostly an excuse to imagine the enemy. The fiery contortions of Shoaib Aktar's face or Saeed Anwar's dense beard or the aggression of the rival team could well be the starting point of such an exercise.
All this may sound like a stereotypical assertion. But let's look at what happens on the real border. In this case, it would be the 1,035-km Rajasthan stretch of the International Border (IB). If one were to take a look at the many dispatches we receive, the frenzy of imagining the enemy on the border takes place in the desert's own stark colors: uneasy piercing pink, queer yellow, etc.
Cricket or no cricket, the enemy is in a perennial process of metamorphosis in these narratives. He becomes a lunatic, locust and also a cricketer. Cricket is just one event. In fact, India has not met Pakistan on the cricket field for the past three years. But what if there was no cricket, there was preparation for war.
Sample some of these dispatches sent during Operation Parakram last year, when the troop build-up was quite heavy.
This frame of mind and myth-making about the enemy could be assumed as a constant on the border: One report said Pakistan was afraid of "real war" and had therefore resorted to "psychological war" by infiltrating lunatics, yes madmen, into Jaisalmer and Barmer villages. These lunatics would slowly turn the population on the border into madmen, it warned.
A few days later there was an update to the story. It said that Pakistan had shifted an asylum close to the Indian border, and the number of lunatics who would infiltrate across would be much bigger than those who come in from loose points on the LoC in Kashmir.
Then, a few months back, there was the locust attack on crops in the border. The losses were big. For the local population, the enemy had now become an insect and was being blown in through a specially designed machine built by the ISI and placed right across the border. It is needless to say that pilferers and pickpockets who are arrested in the border villages are first honored with the designation of a spy.
With desert minds being so fertile, how would they respond to an India-Pakistan World Cup tie on the cricket field? We received a big story for the occasion:
The dispatch landed on Wednesday, and it said that some people were extremely annoyed that Pakistan Television (PTV) was disrupting Doordarshan's relay of the World Cup matches. How? A Devi Singh of Jaisalmer explained: "Mobile transmission units are active on the other side of the border, just to disturb Doordarshan's relay. By airing nonsense stuff, they want to demoralize us." The fuzzy techno-logic was convincing in the first read.
Here's some not so plain stuff: Radio is still an active medium of communication on the border and a fairly accurate indicator of the thinking on the line. On AIR Barmer, Manish Solanki intervened between songs to say villagers are not very much aware of the cricket World Cup, but they do know that something is happening between India and Pakistan and hence there is a "patriotic wave."
Bhanu Purohit of AIR Jodhpur, who handles phone-in programs, says the number of calls from the border expressing "patriotic mood" for the Indo-Pakistan match is surprisingly huge. This assertion of patriotism, which means taking an aggressive verbal pledge on the border, is happening under very special circumstances generated from within the border and not from across the border.
The expression of patriotism is no longer a harmless secular slogan of oneness here. It has taken on a deep communal color. It is now a 'mantra' that excludes, more than it includes. The likes of Dr Praveen Togadia visit these border areas often. They have started distributing tridents (trishul diksha), imported from neighboring Gujarat, across Rajasthan.
If some corporate got the idea, the image of a border being watching cricket would make a very interesting frame for an ad campaign: A man squatting bang on the borderline, in a saffron robe, unkempt tresses of hair, ash and vermillion smeared all over and a shining trishul pitched hard on the ground. To complete the image, a television with the India-Pak match on the screen!
The explosive thing about the India-Pakistan World Cup encounter on March 1 is that it falls on Maha Shivaratri day. Patriotism gets a new garb. The plans are already laid out: There is a special abhishek at Safed Aakda Shiv Temple in Barmer on March 1. In Jodhpur, bhang would be offered at the Jabarnath Shivalingam. All to pray for India's victory, of course.
If this is all about raw nerves, there is a pragmatic side to the cricket debate on the border: There is a tiny village called Lordiya in Phalodi tehsil of Jodhpur district. One could call it a betting center of the border. But take care never to call the village by its name! Say 'America' and people would understand. This would hold even if you are sending a snail mail to the village or a lightning telegram.
Villagers gave this ultra modern name to their village a decade or so back, when they reasoned by some strange calculation that the name Lordiya had brought ill-luck to them. After they changed the name, the satta business in the village's badi bazar has apparently thrived. On Thursday morning, India's fortunes in this bazar had improved. The 82-run victory against England had put the odds at 70 paise for India and Rs 1.30 for Pakistan.
So that's the border for you: India, Pakistan and America.
(Sugata Srinivasaraju is News Editor with Hindustan Times, Jaipur)