Cricket and the Brahmans' bodies
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Cricket, Brahmanism, Bodies
Cricket, Brahmanism, Bodies
Anand, S., Eating With Our Fingers, Watching Hindi Cinema And Consuming Cricket,
Outlook, This essay originally appeared in Himal.
Who really plays cricket in India? I am not a historian of the game, but it does not require much disciplinary training to infer that cricket is a game that best suits brahmanical tastes and bodies, and that there has been a preponderance of brahman cricket players at the national level. Bored princes and Parsis bent on mimicking the white sahibs might have been the first to take to the game in the Subcontinent, and we eventually had the Bombay Pentagular (communal cricket as it was called till 1946, where teams called Hindus, Mohammedans, Parsis, Europeans and Rest played each other), but post-1947 it has been a game mono-polised by brahmans and brahmanical castes. Little wonder Ashis Nandy, chronicler of modern Hinduism who dedicated one of his books to VD Savarkar, thinks cricket is a game naturally suited to Hinduism. Some commentators see cricket as truly vedantic. As Nandy has it, it is less Victorian/British and more Indian/Hindu.
Maybe we need to take this considered view seriously. Compared to other modern team sports such as hockey or football, cricket hardly involves much physical activity. A cricketer can stay put in one place for a long time. Even a fast bowler expends energy in short spells and cools off at the boundary.
Besides, fast bowlers are not what India is known for, except for Kapil Dev, a meat-eating jat. We do not need too much statistical backing to assert that Indian cricketers have excellent personal records at the expense of the team. Sachin Tendulkar might top the batting averages in test and one-day cricket, but as a team India would be in some low-down position. The more Sachin scores centuries, the less India wins — to be precise, only two centuries of Sachin's ten result in an Indian test win. (In a February 2002 Wisden list of 100 all-time best one-day innings, Sachin, who has more one-day runs than anyone else, figures in the 23rd place.) Such a strange statistic is unlikely to be available in say, hockey: Dhanraj Pillay scoring the maximum goals during a tournament and the team being in the dumps.
No sport will tolerate such neglect of bodies as cricket in India. Take Sunil Gavaskar or Gundappa Vishwanath, conservative brahmans both, who could not have afforded their brahman priest-like paunches and dormant slip-fielding if they had been playing a more physical game like hockey. Not surprisingly, hockey, which has been called 'the de jure national game' of India (cricket being the de facto national game post-1983), has drawn players predominantly from Dalit, adivasi, OBC, Muslim and Sikh communities.
(India's most celebrated hockey player, Dhyan Chand, though, was a brahman who joined the First Brahman Regiment at Delhi in 1922 as a 'sepoy'.) Moreover, a game like cricket involves a colossal waste of time. Historically, it was a sport only the leisured class could indulge in. Before the advent of the one-day form, which purists continue to smirk at, it would a take a full six days for a match to be played (rest day included). At the end of it, in many cases there is not even a result to show for the time spent. Spectators too must have surplus time on their hands — one must be able to waste five whole workdays on a test match. Even in the result-oriented one-day format, a whole day needs to be spared (even to watch the game on television). But such has been the craze for cricket, that for the recent one-day fixture at Madras between India and the visiting England team, the local government declared a public holiday to enable its citizens to watch the match. Such gestures have of course become common.
In sharp contrast, a hockey match is likely to yield results in about two hours. And despite the Indian hockey team's recent wonderful performances, the game is never likely to recapture the public imagination. Most important, Dhanraj, Thirumavalavan, Dilip Tirkey, Jude Menezes, Lazarus Balra or Pargat Singh are unlikely to win the confidence of the publicity managers of Pepsi or Coke. They are also unlikely candidates for promoting credit cards (Add to this the fact that cricket players tend to be a fairer lot compared to hockey players. And TV and cinema have always promoted an Indian brand of racism that excludes the darker-looking majority).
This marginalisation also owes to the social backgrounds of hockey players, and they are unlikely to make much headway in brahman-dominated cricket. After the monopoly of Maharashtra brahmans in the 1970s and 1980s, the 1990s saw Karnataka send in its brahman pack of Anil Kumble, Sunil Joshi, Rahul Dravid, Javagal Srinath (dubbed 'the world's fastest vegetarian bowler') and Venkatesh Prasad (a fast bowler who runs all the way only to off-spin the ball). Dodda Ganesh and David Johnson were their non-brahman contemporaries whose careers, not surprisingly, were short-lived. While Johnson played just one international match, Ganesh did hang around for some time. Sunil Joshi persisted longer than Ganesh, but the four other Karnataka brahmans have been mainstays in the 'national eleven'. There have been several occasions when up to nine out of eleven players have been brahmans in the team. Let me substantiate this with a quote by Shekhar Gupta, editor, Indian Express: "Harbhajan is seen as the fighting new Indian, non-English speaking, definitely non-brahman (in a team usually boasting 8 of them) and not from Bombay or Bangalore, the nurseries of Indian cricket, but from a small town in Punjab from where most immigrants to Britain come. So you know where that never-say-die spirit of the Southhall Sikh comes from" (26 March, 2001).
Having too many brahmans means that you play the game a little too softly, and mostly for yourself. Let's get a Gupta sound-byte again: "After he [Alan Donald] bowled the heart out of this, the so-called best batting line-up in the world, at Port Elizabeth in December 1992, he said the Indians were nice guys. But they were not very good at fighting. 'They don't want to handle pace. They hit a few shots and then get out,' he said. This team lost twice in Australia, South Africa, West Indies, and England and at home to both Pakistan and South Africa. They lost even the old label of tigers at home. They were not prepared for close finishes, cracked up in crunch matches and were so easily overawed by the rivals' aggressive body language. There was no other reason for them to lose to Pakistan at Madras and Calcutta (1999) and to South Africa at Bombay and Bangalore last year."
Harbhajans and Kamblis are exceptions. We are not going to see cricket at the national level being taken over by meat-eating Dalits, Muslims and Sikhs and some much-needed team spirit ushered in. But how does a game, which I argue is inherently brahmanical, and which draws upon such a small social base, continue to hijack the nation's imagination? In most modern nation-states, sport has been one area which mar-ginalised groups have used to showcase their talent. Be it Maradona or Pele, Mike Tyson or Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, or in more recent times the fantastic success of Venus and Serena Williams in a game dominated by the rich whites, or the several athletics successes from poor African nations, or the case of gymnasts from East European nations, sport has been an avenue for making one's way up from slums and ghettoes to podiums. But in India, the caste system forecloses such possibilities. While we have academic studies by African-American scholars comparing basketball and jazz as truly black sites of creative expression, in India we cannot even posit something like a Dalit/unbrahman sport (though the very thought of a sport dominated by brahamans sounds funny). We are forced to merely record how many Dalits ever got into the 'Indian eleven'. It almost becomes the same as looking at how many Dalits sing Carnatic music or dance the Bharatanatyam.
The hegemony of cricket in India not only eclipses other team sports like hockey, but makes the media, state and the public very quickly dump and forget a Malleswari or a Limba Ram (a well-known adivasi archer of the mid-1990s). But invoking caste and casteism in sport begs the question: if cricket is a game where unfit brahman men simply amble along, why is it that in other modern sports nonbrahman Indian men and women seem to lag behind? Why does Olympic glory seem to be a larger subcontinental problem? For answers, I suggest that we understand how the caste system, prevalent in South Asia, and most explicitly in the Subcontinent, could possibly disable the emergence and formation of 'bodies' that could physically rise up to competition from the best. This might seem quite a 'racist' and politically/scientifically wrong proposition to make, but consider what Ambedkar wrote some seven decades ago:
"If caste is eugenic, what sort of a race of men should it have produced? Physically speaking the Hindus are a C3 people. They are a race of pygmies and dwarfs stunted in stature and wanting in stamina. It is a nation 9/10ths of which is declared to be unfit for military service. This shows that the Caste System does not embody the eugenics of modern scientists. It is a social system which embodies the arrogance and selfishness of a perverse section of the Hindus who were superior enough in social status to set it in fashion and who had authority to force it on their inferiors." (Annihilation of Caste, 1936.)
The statement might seem crude and reductionist, but if an entire population was forced to breed for some 2000 years within extremely restrictive patriarchal sub-caste specificities, the theoretical possibility of choosing mates is drastically reduced and there is extensive sub-caste inbreeding. And we are talking about a situation where even today a Tamil-brahman, more specifically a vadakalai-iyyengar of a particular gotra (now figure that out!), does not look for a mate in an equivalent sub-caste grouping in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka. In fact, the socially mobile Tamil-brahman even if s/he is in Delhi/Bombay or Detroit seeks an alliance only in the sub-caste and sub-group, sub-region-wise suitable sub-community. Since the category of caste has been abandoned in censuses vis-à-vis caste Hindus, we have data only on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Dalits and adivasis) who officially account for 4685 communities. With this figure, we can imagine how many sub-castes and sub-communities there might be among the rest of the 77.5 per cent population.
Even if we do not take into consideration adivasis, in a country where couples marrying outside caste are forced to commit suicide (as in many much-highlighted cases in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana), there are strictures against inter-marriage in all caste-bound communities. To suggest that such massive forced inbreeding is likely to produce weak bodies, in Ambedkar words "a nation 9/10ths of which is declared to be unfit for military service", is not too wild I hope.
It is such a context — where a billion bodies cannot yield a single Olympic gold — that results in a much-unplayed game like cricket becoming the preoccupation of a caste-ridden nation. In the parent country, England, cricket is hardly the most popular game, football being the game that matters. However, English cricket today, led by a Madras-born Muslim, is more ethnically rep-resentative and balanced than perhaps any other, though there are fewer blacks and more Asians now. While Indian cricket is dogged by casteism, in South Africa cricket practises racism by omission: some 15 years after the nation formally gave up apartheid, there have been few black players. Ditto for Zimbabwe. In both these African nations, football remains the basic male sporting pas-time. In Australia (or New Zealand), the game does enjoy pop-ularity but this nation equally keenly follows other sports, and has even yielded an aboriginal Olympic gold medallist in Cathy Freeman. It is in the Subcontinent that we seem so fixated on cricket. And caste.
Caste, region and Indian cricket, which examines whether the points raised by Mr Anand on this page are backed by evidence.