Cricket: For Whom It Really Matters

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This post was originally written on 26th March 2015 in the wake of India’s defeat in the World Cup semi-final against Australia. The post was published in OpIndia.com and can be read here.

The streets outside office are chaotic to say the least, with Kolkata’s trademark yellow cabs zipping around in all directions in the junction with murderous intent, while hordes of people deftly maneuver around them on foot, cigarettes in hand and unfazed in expression. Majestic stone and brick buildings from the colonial era line the street, discoloured with neglect but oozing beauty and charm- ignored by the people making their to and from work, or making a living under their shadows. These hawkers line both sides of the street, selling fruits, magazines or cooking delicious meals on hot embers and stoves.

It was under one of these magnificent buildings- now the corporate headquarters of a large conglomerate that I first discovered the chaiwalla. He sat behind a large aluminium pot filled with bubbling milk, flinging tea powder and sugar skilfully from where he sat. Soon I was a regular, and today was no different. The street was significantly less crowded, both from people and vehicles, but it was business as usual for all the hawkers. The chaiwalla sat with a transistor close to him, listening to the commentary of the semi-final match against Australia while pouring steaming hot tea into kulhads with rapid pace. He looked up at me and handed a cup immediately while he shouted “Ladies First” through a massive grin. “Dada, the score looks too huge for us to chase, you think we’ll win?” I asked in Hindi. The Aussie innings was nearing an end and it was a competitive score to say the least. “Of course!” he replied, “We have Dhoni & Virat, one of them will hit a century and India will win, you wait and watch!” I muttered “Let’s see” and left.

Hours later it was time for a second cup of tea. India had lost 8 wickets, and defeat was imminent. I went downstairs to be met by a very surly chaiwalla. He banged his chai vessel on the stove with a deafening clank, and screamed at a nearby customer to be patient for his turn. He didn’t look up when I asked for my tea, and simply placed the cup with a “thud” on the table near me. Excited shouts wafted from his transistor, and it was evident that India had lost the match. I took my cup and joined my colleague in the corner of the street. We sipped on our chai, watching people in heated discussions and op-eds about what lost us the match. Sadness and disappointment were the moods all around, with expressions of resignation- “we did come pretty far after all, and they tried hard”. Suddenly, a man who was standing near us looked at us and immediately went into a rapid and emotional monologue in Bengali on his disappointment while brandishing his beedi, with my colleague acknowledging with sympathetic noises. Once he was done, he walked away and my colleague and I exchanged amused glances.

This is cricket in India. It is the glue that can bring together our diverse people, spanning multiple languages, cuisines and cultures. But most importantly, it is the joy that lights up the lives of millions who barely earn a living performing mundane chores day in and day out, struggling to make ends meet and with just about enough to survive each day. It is the sole entertainment for those who cannot afford pretty things or vacations. Many have little else to look forward to in their lives but an Indian victory or a big knock from their favourite player.

And this is why the attitude of some of most “intellectual” and educated upsets me deeply. First we were subjected to Ashis Nandy’s bizarre explanation that India shouldn’t win the World Cup because it would reinforce already “too high” Nationalistic feelings. Then the popular Outlook magazine then ran a poll, seemingly seriously, asking people If India Should Win the World Cup? (Duh!) During the match itself, a popular comedienne tweeted that it really doesn’t matter if a homophobic country wins or loses ‘some silly’ game (What’s the connection?). And then of course there’s Times Now, running a hateful campaign against our Men in Blue after their loss, using the hashtag #ShamedInSydney.

The likes of Times Now, Ashis Nandy and their ilk need a wake-up call from their self-obsessed elitism. This isn’t about you, and never will be. You don’t represent the multitude of Indians for who cricket actually matters-so much. Hell, a huge cricket fan myself, I wouldn’t give me too much importance from a cricket perspective. I am part of a fortunate minority who can recover from a cricketing loss and find other things to look forward to in my life- like a nice dinner, drinks with friends or a fun weekend plan. Someone wishing loss to the Indian side is either highly delusional or incredibly selfish. And another who decides to call hate towards the side, a lot less gracious than the millions who will feel depressed for days while still ending their day with a prayer to their favourite cricketing idol.

Solitude by the Ganges

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For the last few months, I have been based out of Ludhiana on a project. Although I can go home every other weekend, I decided the exercise isn’t worth it given a 10 hour journey and regular flight cancellations due to the heavy fog that has engulfed the North of India and holding on tightly. So I decided instead to take a 5 hour long train journey to Haridwar. I always had a great desire to see the Ganga, and this was probably the best time to do so due to low pilgrim footfall in winter. A tough few months also meant that a break was needed, and what better than one of the holiest places in India?

This trip marked the “first time” of many things. It would be the first time I would travel by a train by myself. It would also turn out to be the first time I would travel in a train ticket-less. It would be the first time I would bribe an officer to get a seat on said train.

The first time I explored a city alone all day. And that’s where things got exciting. I expected to be overwhelmed at the Ganga’s beauty and sheer enormity. Instead, I was met by the sight of large piles of wet clothes on the stairways, men wearing small nothings that were also soaking wet, children crying because their parents insisted on dipping them in the freezing waters (parents who would otherwise bundle them with so many clothes that they would run the risk of rolling away), sellers shouting out to buy their wares of plastic bottles filled with the holy water and garlands, and families having lunch picnics. I ambled around, soaking in all the sights and sounds, and soon found myself in the midst of small shrines which nestled marble statues of Radha & Krishna, Hanuman ji and Shiv lings. Each shrine had a pandit who called me over to take prasad. And this is when my experience turned refreshingly unexpected.

In the South, where I have done most of my temple visits, any hint that a 27 year old is single is followed by a blessing that she quickly finds a suitable husband. Not just temples- I have had playful arguments with my grandmother who would do the same, urging her to instead bless me to get a good job or grades. Married women are promptly greeted with a blessing that her husband outlives her, because of course.

But not by the Ganga. The pandits’ first reactions when I approached them was to politely enquire if someone would join me. After I would answer in the negative, they would proceed to chant mantras and guide me to make offerings of flowers and ganga-jal to the deities. When it was time to customize blessings, I was asked if I was married. Newly single and overcome with pain, I would pull myself together and say that I wasn’t, waiting for the familiar Sanskrit words urging God to find me a suitable boy to marry. But that’s not what I heard. I was asked to stretch out my right hand to have holy thread smeared with vermilion tied around my skinny wrist, because if I were married, the thread belonged on my left hand. Being a girl with a childish face, I was then asked if I was a student or a working professional. On answering, the pandits would recite a chant interjected with wishes that I progress well in my career and receive peace and prosperity.

The entire experience was a very refreshing one. My solitary spiritual experience was contrary to my expectation of one fraught with gender discrimination and judgment. And considering we were all by the Ganga, also made complete sense. This mighty river, revered as a Goddess, has single-handedly nurtured civilizations for centuries. She flows on, deep and silent, despite the many abuses she is subjected to. She needs no one, but without her, the millions of lives that depend on her would cease to exist.

What an irony it would be to tell a daughter of the land, standing besides the mighty Ganga, that she needs another for her well-being?