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Commentary/Rajeev Srinivasan

The national pastime: it's kabaddi, not cricket!

I am one of approximately 2 per cent of Indians who don't care for cricket. The rest are apparently cricket-mad. A recent survey showed that the television viewership increased by some 50 per cent whenever there was a cricket match live onscreen. And 35 per cent of the viewers are women! I thought women hated cricket. Some of my friends's wives are cricket widows -- for example their husbands would watch the World Cup all night at theatres in Fremont, CA, and come home bleary-eyed in the morning.

It's not that I oppose cricket per se. I glance at the scores -- for instance, I felt suitably crushed at the 952 for 6 by Sri Lanka recently against India; and I do occasionally read Prem Panicker's passionate paeans to cricket, but that is mostly because Prem writes well, not that the subject matter excites me.

I do believe watching cricket is about as exciting as watching paint dry. But it isn't the worst -- baseball takes the cake. It is boring, and stupid, and disgusting. I mean, how can you be serious about a game where the players come out of the `bullpen' and sit, chewing gum, in the `dugout'? Oh, and the spitting -- apparently developed into a fine art. And the eyeball-to-eyeball spats with umpires. And the loathsome radio commentators --where *do* they find these guys?

Despite assertions to the contrary, baseball really isn't America's national pastime. That is a vile rumour put about by hot dog manufacturers and stadium owners: there is an interminable season of some 100 games per major city team, and there are some 40 of them, so there is a lot of -- in my opinion far too many -- baseball games being played and lots of hot dogs consumed.

Anyway, I think American football is the real national pastime, because its fundamental principles are reflected in the way Americans strategise, whether in the military or in business: the application of well-choreographed, highly coached, irresistible brute force to overwhelm the opposition -- just like Operation Desert Storm. Throwing resources at the problem is a time-honored American tactic.

Similarly, I do believe that the humble and wholly Indian game of kabaddi should be declared the national game, because it is the closest metaphor for the way Indian society behaves. Consider: you do a lot of meaningless running-around, you hold your breath and hope nothing bad happens, you mutter senseless gibberish constantly. (For the humour-impaired, this is in jest, sort of a counterpoint to all the gravity of the 50th anniversary of the Indian Union.)

I used to think Indians were champions at the art of masterly inactivity (consider former and current PMs Narasimha Rao and Inder Gujral). But I have changed my mind recently: Indians are really world champs at the art of meaningless activity. Look around any bank or government office: there is plenty of stuff happening, lots of mysterious consultations, plenty of diligent scribbling in enigmatic ledgers, in triplicate, no less. And in the end, absolutely nothing gets done.

One of my favorite bosses, a firm but fair person, used to remark that activity was good, but that results were golden. On this count, the average Indian bureaucrat fails miserably. Ever stood in line to make a railway reservation? I was recently gratified to hear that Railway Minister Ram Paswan summarily fired a booking clerk for dawdling over his breakfast while a long line of customers waited. Excellent beginning, Mr Paswan! Now if you could work on about 20,000 others...

For that matter, I take my hat off to the Kerala high court for declaring that bandhs(politically motivated forced shutdowns of business activities, often accompanied by destruction of public property) are unconstitutional. Bandhs and protest marches are a prime examples of meaningless activity (although they admittedly offer steady employment to a lot of lumpen elements).

As for holding one's breath and hoping nothing bad happens, this has been a cornerstone of Indian foreign policy and defense since time immemmorial. When Mohammed Ghori came to sack Somnath, I am sure the priests stood around hoping for divine intervention. It is the essence of the Panipat Syndrome, waiting until the enemy has already gained tactical advantage, then fighting a hopeless battle. Not exactly a winning technique, as amply demonstrated in the past.

I see this syndrome aplenty in certain quarters -- those that would throw the country at the tender mercies of foreign powers. They believe, apparently, that if India signs the CTBT and stops developing the Agni and Prithvi, all of Indian's unlovely neighbors, including Pakistani mercenaries in Kashmir, Chinese with nuclear missiles in Tibet, Taliban in Afghanistan, plus Americans in Diego Garcia, will immediately become peace-loving vegetarians (as my friend Raj Kattil, he of the picturesque speech, would say), hug trees, and beat swords into ploughshares.

And they won't send nuclear missiles India's way, for Indians are such nice guys. Those who believe all this, those Blanche duBois types (`I have always depended on the kindness of strangers') must be living on some other planet. I should offer to sell them a certain bridge in Brooklyn--perfectly lovely bridge, I tell you--for a very reasonable price. Maybe they believe in the tooth fairy, too?

Unfortunately, this sort of behaviour -- misplaced hope -- is seen not only amongst the ideologically brainwashed and those with obvious foreign paymasters (singing for supper is a long and dishonorable tradition amongst us), but amongst the Indian public at large; hence the cavalier disregard for simple safety precautions, leading to road deaths and devastating fires.

As for uttering meaningless gibberish, this must be a sport at which Indians utterly massacre the competition. I was reminded of this forcefully on a Bangalore-Delhi flight. My neighbour regaled his companion and me for two hours with tales of his masterful interactions with various customs guys and other assorted bad sorts. He, of course, won every time with a mixture of noble courage and just plain smarts. All this in a transparently fake American accent.

There was more to come on the ground. There was a long line at the pre-paid taxi counter -- approximately fifty people waiting for a single clerk to serve them. Clearly the counter could have used a couple of additional clerks. But the irritating and loud little man behind me, after having made this valid point, went on to inform us all -- not once but three times -- about how these things were done in Japan.

According to him, Japanese flight attendants would take your prepaid taxi information during the flight, take your payment, and hey presto! when you landed, you were whisked to your waiting taxi. Wonderful, but I seriously doubt if this is in fact true. I used to go to Japan a great deal, and I have often endured long delays in Tokyo's Narita airport, of an hour or more, to go through immigration or through security. Never once did I encounter on-board taxi payment. Besides, nobody in their right mind would take a taxi at Narita: $200 versus $20 for the bus.

There is a delightful moment in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, where Allen encounters an obnoxious man behind him in line at a movie pontificating about something, quoting media expert Marshall McLuhan. In cinematic sleight of hand, Allen is able to produce McLuhan himself, who humiliates the offending character and tells him he's an ass. How I wished I could do something along the same lines to the pesky Japan `expert'! As Allen says to the camera: ``If only life were like that!''

Yes, Indians are experts at talking trash, especially if the object of the trashing is India. Unfortunately, this turns out to be highly damaging in an international context. Indians always complain about everything, and other Indians know to discount the griping by 50 per cent -- we know things aren't as bad as the other guy suggests, but we all tacitly agree to focus on the negatives. But the foreigner does not -- out of ignorance or malice, he will take the bellyaching at face value.

I once suggested to an Indian editor friend of mine that she should devote more space to positive stories about India. She was sceptical. But it is true that many famous newspapers are to some extent propaganda arms of nations. For example, Noam Chomsky demonstrates in his acerbic `Manufacturing Consent' how The New York Times (`All the News Fit to Print') seldom saw it fit to print stories of atrocities in Guatemala because it was a US ally. Such tales abound.

Similarly, for China, the breathless hagiography of the Hong Kong English-language press, such as the Far Eastern Economic Review and AsiaWeek, has helped build up an overly optimistic image. Terrible famines that killed millions (during the Great Leap Forward 1958-60, 30 million died and some had to resort to cannibalism), or a collapsed dam that killed 100,000 people, did not get reported until decades later. Perception is reality, as any marketer will tell you. We fail abysmally in positioning India.

The point is not that we should all be, Pollyanna-like, bubbling away about how wonderful everything is in India. That is absurd: everything is by no means wonderful. But on the other hand, as my thoughtful friend Bapa Rao suggests, there is no need to run around mumbling apologies all over the place. We need to cultivate some semblance of a self-image: really, obsequiousness isn't our birthright.

Then there are those, my beloved Resident Non Indians, who believe India is hopeless. To them, I suggest: please go away. Nobody's holding a gun to your head to stay. Please leave. Your constant breast-beating and Cassandra-like gloom and doom are getting a little tiresome. And oh, by the way, remember to take that pitiful `Nehruvian rate of growth' with you. The rest of the gang will muddle through with kabaddi, and maybe, just maybe, make something out of India after all.

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Rajeev Srinivasan

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