Everyone’s religion

I happened to meet Gurcharan Das over the weekend, in connection with this book [More on the book and the author later, after I file the stories for Rediff and for India Abroad].

In course of a catching-up chat before the actual interview, we were discussing the time he went back to school, in a manner of speaking, some three years earlier to refresh his memory of the Mahabharat and other Hindu texts. He talked of how he found himself a worldly-wise septuagenarian among bright, inquisitive twenty-somethings, and of the kind of discussions he had with his class mates.

In particular, he recalled this boy of Jewish extraction who, in Das’s words, “argued vehemently” against the Bhagwad Gita’s central tenet. The thrust of the argument, Das said, was that if you take the concept of ‘dharma’, of ‘your right to the action only, leave the good and bad to me’ philosophy to its logical conclusion, you can then use it to justify any act no matter how evil — as for instance the Holocaust.

That debate apart, what intrigued me about Das’s experience was the kind of interest there is abroad about Sanskrit, about Hinduism and its literature [Das was pointing out among other things that the best faculty teaching and researching Sanskrit exist on US campuses].

Tangentially related, here’s a good read from a good friend: Salil Tripathi in Tehelka examines Wendy Doniger’s [wiki] most recent work, The Hindus: An Alternative History.

Early in this impressive walk through Hinduism, Doniger notes the coexistence of apparent contradictions within the faith: “You could easily use history to argue for almost any position in contemporary India: that Hindus have been vegetarians, and that they have not; that Hindus and Muslims have gotten along well together, and that they have not; that Hindus have objected to suttee (sic), and that they have not; that Hindus have renounced the material world, and that they have embraced it; that Hindus have oppressed women and lower castes and that they have fought for their equality.”

And it is this plurality that offends Hindutva adherents, who believe it weakens Hinduism. Historically, Indian scholars and practitioners have viewed the faith on their personal terms, providing radical or conservative interpretations. Abroad, Hinduism has fascinated experts for a long time. But Hindu nationalists now want discourse to be only from within – external views, particularly critical, or unconventional (in their eyes, that is) interpretations, must be ignored, since they come from outside the faith.

While on the book, here from my archives is an earlier Michael Dirda review, which is where I first read of the book. And here’s Doniger herself on her blog [a large part of the comments that follow are illustrative of what Salil is talking about -- our lack of tolerance for external views]. From Doniger:

Myth has been called “the smoke of history,” and there is a desperate need for a history of the Hindus that distinguishes between the fire, the documented evidence, and the smoke; for mythic narratives become fires when they drive historical events rather than respond to them. Ideas are facts too; the belief, whether true or false, that the British were greasing cartridges with animal fat, sparked a revolution in India in 1857. We are what we imagine, as much as what we do.

Hindus in America, too, care how their history is taught to their children in American schools, and the voices of Hindu action groups ring out on the internet. Some of these groups, justifiably incensed by the disproportionate emphasis on the horrors of the caste system in American textbooks, and by the grotesque misrepresentation of Hindu deities in American commercialism, ricochet to the other extreme and demand that all references to the caste system be expunged from all American textbooks.

And so I tried to tell a more balanced story, in “The Hindus: An Alternative History,” to set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a statue of a Hindu god is set in its base, to show how Hindu images, stories, and philosophies were inspired or configured by the events of the times, and how they changed as the times changed. There is no one Hindu view of karma, or of women, or of Muslims; there are so many different opinions (one reason why it’s a rather big book) that anyone who begins a sentence with the phrase, “The Hindus believe. . . ,” is talking nonsense.


An apres Bhim beer?

24 hours after having the final Bhim episode up, I’m still in hangover mode. Usually, Tuesday morning on the drive to work is when I used to start thinking of what I want to do with the next episode, where I want it to go. This morning’s drive was done in a mental vacuum, and right now it feels good — though there is no telling how long that will last and just when restlessness will kick in again. :-)

I’ve been toying with vague thoughts of the what-next; a suggestion I found in the comments section about rounding the reinterpretation effort by doing Draupadi and/or Karna resonates to a certain extent with ideas I’ve been toying with.

On date, I know this much: that somewhere doing the writing of Bhim I had this idea — or, at this point, the germ of one — of doing a work of fiction that very loosely has its base in the Mahabharata. The idea needs to marinate a lot more in the mind before I can even start working on it; in the meantime, the thought of working on one more PoV narration in blog format is appealing: it keeps me thinking of the epic and allows me to explore the idea a little bit more; and it gives me an excuse/opportunity to work on long-form writing skills, where I reckon I need more practice.

Hopefully, vague thoughts will crystallize into something concrete within a month. In the meantime, readers had a while back asked if, once this is done, I’d be open to doing readings [No!] and face to face interactions over beer.

Yes. :-)

Strikes me as a chance to meet new people and to hear at first hand from regular readers what worked and what didn’t — insights that hopefully will inform whatever I do next in this space.

So — if readers in Bombay are game, let’s meet. Through the comments field, you guys figure out the date [ideally Saturdays only, please] and venue, and let’s see if we can make this happen.

Jaswant redux

For news-starved TV anchors, Jaswant Singh is proving to be the gift that goes on giving — the latest offering being the charge of plagiarism being leveled against him. Those involved with the book have been ‘unavailable for comment’, so we’ll likely have to wait for the next news cycle for this story to progress.

What however is not getting the required amount of media attention is this petition challenging the decision of the Narendra Modi government to ban Jaswant’s book in Gujarat. The ban itself was ill-considered, knee-jerk, and unconstitutional in the extreme, and deserves to be struck down in court.

The larger point, however, is the total lack of public outrage at this growing tendency of states to ban books on specious grounds. During my hibernation of last week a friend, Nilanjana Roy, did an outstanding blog post on the issue that merits your attention. Nila’s takeaway:

The banning of a book, especially by a particular state, works wonderfully well in practice. It’s much easier to organise a statewide rather than a nationwide ban, and even if the courts overturn the ban a few years later, the political point has been made. It allows politicians to express their willingness to defend a national figure or a religious belief—ignoring the fact that in most cases, that figure or belief is being questioned by the author, not attacked. It keeps the cadres happy, offers fodder for a string of stirring speeches, and is a cheap, easy gesture. The only constituency that is upset is the very narrow band of readers, publishers, and authors. We don’t constitute a vote bank, so our “right” to free speech is effectively irrelevant.

What we do lose with each ban, though, is the right to examine our own history. The bans against Nasreen and Laine had scholars and writers re-examining their work, for fear that they might attract the next ban—or angry mob. Publishing houses should be above the fear of lawsuits, so long as they believe in the author’s honesty and integrity—but many will now avoid anything too controversial. This has a devastating impact on research into the freedom movement, where few will now write about leaders as if they were more than statues on pedestals. And, contrary to what politicians believe, few readers want to read about statues.

Read the post in full [and if you like reading, follow Nila on Twitter -- it's like having a reading guide with you at all times] then ask yourself this: how come such issues don’t seem to exercise the imagination, and the vocal chords, of the Rajdeeps and Arnabs of this world?

Number two

The churn in the Test rankings following Australia’s Ashes implosion is exercising a lot of minds lately. Anil Kumble, for instance, speaks of the possibility of India vaulting to the top of the rankings, and what it needs to get there [Item: play more Tests!]. Elsewhere, two informed voices speak of Sri Lanka and its gradual progress to the number two slot it currently occupies: SR Pathiravithana, and Suresh Menon. The former looks at the what-next question:

The former President was also elated by this development. He was also of the view that the present crew played good cricket, but the Lankans lagged a bit behind where the bench strength and the feeder points were concerned. He said: “We must delve into the reasons and make our bench strength strong enough to take up the challenges of present day cricket. But, we really are far behind where the feeder points are concerned. Punchihewa elaborated: “Even some prominent cricketers are of the view that Sri Lanka will keep discovering the Mendis and Dilshans on a regular basis, but that is too hypothetical.

Twenty five years ago Sri Lanka boasted of the best school cricket team in the world. But, today we are being beaten by even Bangladesh on a regular basis. I feel this is one of the biggest drawbacks that is ailing our cricket. Even to put a simple building, one must have a strong foundation to hold it up”.

Suresh Menon, meanwhile, puts his finger on the larger flaw: Lanka’s home and away record is lopsided. In the 2000s, which is being identified as the period when Lanka worked its way up the ladder, it has played 40 away Tests for a 13-18 win loss record; against that it has played 53 at home for a 31/11 win loss record. Narrow that down, and you find that in the three years starting September 2006, Lanka has 10 away games for a 4-4 record, and 14 home games for a 10/1 record. You could argue that this is not Lanka’s fault as much as it is the lopsided nature of the ICC-sanctioned international cricket calendar — but the fact remains that much of Lanka’s position at the number two spot in the Test hierarchy is built on success at home powered by its battery of three spinners, in a fashion reminiscent of India’s record when the spin troika was at its peak. From Suresh:

And now comes the difficult part. Breaking through to Number 1. South Africa are perched there as if by right, and a glance through the records shows that Sri Lanka have to work on their away record before they can be considered the best team both statistically and psychologically.

Of their 18 victories abroad, seven have come in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, six in Pakistan, two each in England and New Zealand and one in the West Indies. No wins in India, Australia, South Africa, although they have victories against all of them among their 42 at home. This is the lopsidedness that Sri Lanka will have to correct if they have to evolve from an exciting team capable of giving the big teams a run for their money into a well-rounded outfit which approach every game on at least level terms with the opposition. It is no compliment to be known as unbeatables at home if the flip side of that is “innocents abroad”. It took their neighbours India years to live down their image as tigers at home, lambs abroad.

In Sangakkara, Sri Lanka are fortunate to have as captain at this crucial juncture a man who is hard as nails and combines charm and toughness in rare measure. Both behind and in front of the stumps he is an inspirational figure, a Ranatunga without the rough edges, a Jayawardene without the gentleness.

Australia’s fall from grace would seem a great opportunity for Test cricket to acquire a greater degree of interest; an opportunity for the ICC to create a series of contests between the top four-five teams with the number one slot at stake, but the FTP suggests that is an opportunity largely missed. Short term, though, India has a chance to leapfrog Sri Lanka to the second spot when we host Sangakkara and his team for a three-Test series later this year. That should set up quite nicely the three-Test clash [a bit of a downer being this, too, is at home] against South Africa in 2010. Here’s Anil Kumble:

We need to play more Tests… If you look at the 12-month period from last August, Australia played 17 Tests, while India played 10… To get to No.1, you first need to play more. Then, obviously, you’ve got to do well consistently… Once we get to No.2, getting to No.1 will be taken care of.

Addendum: Here’s Harsha’s equally distinguished brother Srinivas Bhogle’s thoughts on the Sri Lanka as number two question:

So while Sri Lanka are winning practically everything — and that’s really the best that any team can do — they are deriving a significant benefit because of three things: (a) Sri Lanka play Test series with relatively fewer matches, (b) they have lately played a lot of cricket at home and (c) they have only encountered weak away opposition recently.

Let me explain the meaning of ‘recently’, because this is one of the merits of ICC’s ranking scheme. The essential idea is that wins in the recent past must get a greater weight than wins in the not-so-recent past. There’s no need to quibble about this; it seems to make good sense.

But how recent must ‘recent’ be? ICC takes it to mean one year (they also  have a curious fixation about the month of August, but we’ll let that pass), but, at least for Test cricket, one year seems insufficient — two years seems more reasonable, especially given the current reluctance to schedule too many Test matches.

I therefore believe (a) ICC should not give such a generous one-match bonus for Test series wins involving just 2 or 3 matches, (b) ICC should distinguish between the home-away results (it’s always easier to win at home), and, (c) ICC should not scale down the weight after just one year (two years is better).

Cricket India, Inc

A few days back, I’d met up with Harsha Bhogle for what was part ‘catch-up’, part interview [which, when it appears, I'll link to here] for Rediff & India Abroad. As always, much fun, and extremely informative.

At one point we were discussing the three forms of the game and the increasingly crowded calendar that has resulted from the popularity of T20s. Shane Warne is just one of many who in recent times has said the ODI has outlived its usefulness, and must go.

The argument advanced by this group is that when the ODI was devised, it was seen as a compressed alternative to Test cricket, and was meant to cater to the thrill-seekers while “conventional” cricket catered to those who like their cricket to be layered, nuanced, and as much a mental as physical sport. Now that the T20s provide the capsule thrills [and provide them better than the ODIs], there really is no need for the intermediate format, is the argument: retain Tests for the purity, and T20s for the kicks, and be done with it.

Harsha had an argument against, and it was based on cricketing grounds. In sum: for the structure to hold, each form of the game should feed off the others not merely financially, but also from the point of view of player development. Thus, Harsha argued, if you accept that a top class ODI batsman should be able to bat through 25, 30 overs, that is more than one session of Test cricket. If you remove the ODI from the mix, the gulf between T20 and Tests, from a batting point of view, becomes way too vast, and over time you end up with a situation where players are good enough to play either the one or the other. If you take that argument further, you could conceive of a situation where the really talented players only want to play T20s, leaving the Test arena to the second rung players.

Hence, Harsha was arguing, we need a strong ODI structure to run parallel with Tests and T20s, and one part of the solution could be doing away with bilateral ODI series altogether [later this year we are scheduled to play seven of those against Australia, and that is overkill in anyone's lexicon] and only have the Champions’ Trophy and World Cup formats.

If a system where national teams play international ODI tournaments only once every other year is to work, though, you need a strong domestic ODI structure — and that could be where initiatives like the Corporates Trophy launching today could come in handy.

The flip side of course is that it further crowds the calendar, and puts even more pressure on national players in particular, who will find this new tournament eating into the little time they have to rest, recuperate, and work on their skills — and the answer to that could be that at some point soon, the stakeholders of cricket, including players, need to sit down across the table and work out a calendar, both domestic and international, that reconciles the conflicting needs.

Addendum: Former India player WV Raman reckons that among other things, the Corporate Trophy will help develop the game at grassroots level.

In Mumbai, the corporates that provided employment to cricketers gradually began to ease out of the situation, and by the mid-1990s, the players here became professionals, in the sense that they played cricket right through the year to earn money. Of course, in recent years, the average first-class cricketer does make enough money in a season but cricketers need to look at life after their playing days are over. A lot of cricketers suddenly find themselves in a no-man’s land after their playing days for want of a job. With cricket having become an industry of sorts, there are enough opportunities but not everyone can hope to get a placement.

In this context, the initiative of the BCCI needs to be commended. Its foresight in not allowing the corporates to have guest players will force them to employ cricketers in the future.

Personally, I think this concept works better in theory than it will in practice — but that is for another post, another day.