South Asian immigrants tend to follow a few unwritten rules in their contacts with the rest of the world.
Rule one: Don't knock people from your community in public, especially if they're famous and the best at what they do.
Rule two: for wives. Don't knock celebrities whom your husband almost worships.
Rule three: never forget rules one and two.
Even so, I need to break those rules now that Vijay Singh has brought so much unwelcome attention to himself -- and perhaps to us, too. When he reacted to Annika Sorenstam's inclusion in the PGA Tour's Colonial tournament this week, he said: "I hope she misses the cut. Why? Because she doesn't belong out here. If I'm drawn with her, which I won't be, I won't play."
I wish Vijay had remained aloof and out of the media -- something he was good at for so long. Singh's remark is the kind that makes my heart sink. Here's a sportsman at the top of his sport who has the luxury of thinking beyond labels and limits. Here's also a sportsman who must have had to face his share of bruises when he was told by others what he could or couldn't do, based on his color, demeanor or nationality. So I expected better of him. I would have expected him to react as well as Tiger Woods. Tiger said Annika should not only play in the Colonial, but she should also be given several chances to compete in the PGA tour so she could "get on the roll."
Now that's sportsmanship.
Sure enough, Singh tried to backtrack. He said he actually meant to say that if he missed the cut, he hoped she would too, because he didn't want a woman to beat him. I can't help thinking that this man needs a PR advisor. Either that, or he should keep away from reporters.
Although he comes from Fiji, some people may blame Vijay's insults on his Indian cultural background. I was tempted to pooh-pooh that explanation.
Yet, I remember my meeting with an Indian cricketer in Madras many years ago. I interviewed him for my undergraduate thesis. Though I was already representing India in sports shooting, I was in awe of this world-class sportsman. That's until he told me that he thought women shouldn't play cricket, because they look ugly crouched down over the wicket or bat, and because they weren't capable of taking the strain of a five-day game. After that, he was no longer a hero to me. I wouldn't tar all South Asian men with the same brush; in my own sporting career, I received support and encouragement from some enlightened men, including my coach, my father and my husband. But I can't help thinking they were exceptions to the typical male response in that part of the world.
Let's just say it's easier for South Asian men to develop a greater sense of entitlement than their sisters; the culture does emphasize men's supposed superiority. Just recently, the story of a spunky young Delhi woman who called the police on prospective in-laws who demanded more dowry in the middle of her wedding ceremony made the front page of the New York Times. The story is news because that kind of confidence and courage just isn't common enough in India or the South Asia community here in the US. There will always be apologists and complainers who will try to deflect criticism by asserting that the US hasn't really delivered equality to women yet. Not exactly a constructive approach. We as a community could do with some introspection. This includes being able to tell our stars where to get off.
Sports will continue to be one of the most public arenas for South Asian women to assert their independence. Movies such as Bend it Like Beckham, now among the top 10 movies in the US, succeed because they resonate with the audience. A wide cross-section of the American movie-going public has taken to its heart the story of the young heroine's struggle to succeed in a sport rather than settle down to a life her conservative parents would like for her. The audience recognizes the challenges and cannot help rooting for young women who wish to go beyond the limits imposed on them.
Women shooters often jest that shooting is a sport in which the sexes didn't compete separately till the women started defeating the men consistently.
In reality, the differentiation was recognition of the sheer brawn of men; the rules had changed to allow men to shoot longer matches with heavier rifles. Similarly, golf rules recognize the greater power of a champion male golfer's stroke. Yet the question here is, why oppose an accomplished woman's entering the men's sports arena? Annika is a woman attempting to push her performance more than is possible within the confines of the women's league. Men don't need to fear such exceptional women who would like to enter male bastions. Given the challenges the women face, those who do take on men will be few. And in the end, they'll only enrich the sport by adding a few new wrinkles or nuances to it.
I'm happy Vijay won the Byron Nelson championship this week -- and somehow not surprised that he has chosen not to play in the Colonial and therefore will not continue to be part of that media circus. (Though golfers very rarely take a week off after a win; they believe strongly in capitalizing on streaks). I hope it's a retreat back into the aloofness that kept him quiet on the sidelines -- and out of headlines. Unless he's teeing off, not sounding off.
Roopa Unnikrishnan, who has been a sports rifle shooter since 13, has won multiple international medals for India, including the Commonwealth Games gold. For her achievements, she received the Arjuna Award from President K R Narayanan. She is also a Rhodes Scholar and was captain of the Oxford University shooting team. She now works as a management consultant in New York City