When Pele visited Kolkata with Cosmos

Two sets of fans often pit their nostalgia against each other, but Pele fans have one big advantage – the king of football played a match in Kolkata.

Vast swathes of West Bengal went into mourning last month when Luka Modric’s Croatia knocked Brazil out of the World Cup. But there are other parts, equally big, which are still celebrating Lionel Messi & Co.’s triumph. However, both sets of fans were anxious about the health of the world’s most famous Brazilian – Pele – who passed away in Sao Paolo on December 29. Perhaps, excluding their own continent, Pele and Diego Maradona, friends and foes now together up above, have their most passionate following in West Bengal. The two sets of fans often pit their nostalgia against each other, but Pele fans have one big advantage – the king of football played a match in Kolkata, the maverick Argentine could only wave to the gallery and show off some moves he was born with. He was 48 and long retired when he landed in Kolkata.

“Credit [for Pele’s first visit in September 1977] goes to Dhirenda (legendary Mohun Bagan official Dhiren De),” says former India footballer Subrata Bhattacharya, who led Mohun Bagan in that famous exhibition match against Cosmos Club at Eden Gardens. “Dhirenda took the initiative to make Cosmos, and thereby Pele, play in our city. I can’t forget the excitement when he first informed us that we were going to play against Pele. That team had some other World Cuppers, too, like Carlos Alberto. But we were so overwhelmed by Pele that we stopped warming up before that match just to watch him warm up.”

Bhattacharya’s enthusiasm was shared by Pradeep Chowdhury, who was one of the two footballers trusted with marking Pele that day by Coach PK Banerjee.

“Whenever I remember I’ve played a match against Pele, I feel I’ve lived my dream,” Chowdhury says. “Pradipda (PK Banerjee) had planned zonal marking for the great man. Gautam (Sarkar) was supposed to mark him in his own half and I had that responsibility in our half. To know we mostly succeeded (the match ended 2-2) makes me happy even after so many years.”

In fact, Mohun Bagan were leading 2-1 with goals from Shyam Thapa and Akbar for a long time before Cosmos equalised via a controversial penalty. But that is for the record. The emotions Pele generated that day – 24 September, to be specific – at Eden are still felt in the voice of Amit Kumar Basu. The 75-year-old die-hard Mohun Bagan and Brazil supporter watched Pele from the stands that day.

“I was fortunate that my uncle was a member of Mohun Bagan and I got the chance to watch the king of football from so close in my late twenties,” he says. Basu clearly remembers the atmosphere at the ground. “Unlike one of those matches against East Bengal or Mohammedan Sporting, the crowd was vociferous for the home team yet friendly towards the opponents. Because everyone was there to watch Pele. Each one of us realised it was the chance of a lifetime, even though Pele was in his twilight years.”

It is important to remember that television was still a novelty in this part of the world and Kolkata Doordarshan started its journey only a year before the Cosmos match. What prompted the fascination for Pele then? Basu credits the recordings of 1958, 1962 and 1970 World Cup matches. “Sometimes they (Doordarshan) used to telecast some matches long after they were played. Instead of whetting our appetite they used to make us hungrier but thank heavens, we came to know of the greatness of Pele and that Brazil side.” That is how, he explains, hordes of Bengalis became Brazil fans. Hence the urge to see Pele in the flesh.

Different accounts of that match suggest there were close to 75,000 spectators at Eden Gardens that day but in fact, almost all of West Bengal had its eyes and ears glued to Pele.

“Live sport was a rare thing on TV in those days,” recalls Debasish Bose, a retired engineer. “But we came to know from newspaper ads that the Pele match would be shown live. We were eager to watch it.”

As luck would have it, Bose had to go to a party meeting far from his home in Shibpur, on the other side of Ganga. “Some of us had gone to Hedua (north Kolkata) for a political programme but somehow we got into a community hall where the match could be watched. I had just started my engineering course at Shibur BE College. There were around 30 people, mostly young, in front of the TV. We thoroughly enjoyed the action. Pele’s lob to Carlos Alberto for the first goal is still fresh in my memory.”

Bose, however, feels the Brazilian could hardly show what he was famous for. Pradeep Chowdhury partially blames the underfoot conditions for that.
“There’s no denying Pele was not the same force in 1977,” he says. “But one has to admit the ground was not very playable either. There had been heavy rain a day or two before the match and the state of the ground didn’t impress Pele’s insurance agents. But the man was so magnanimous that he said he couldn’t disappoint so many people who had turned up to watch him.”

Read Messi, Mbappe, Pele and Maradona in grand finale

Subrata Bhattacharya described how Pele appreciated Mohun Bagan’s performance and that motivated them.

“Dhirenda took me to their hotel after the match as I was the captain. Pele hugged me and congratulated us for our show on the field. Truly, from goalkeeper Shivaji Banerjee (who is no more) to Habib, Akbar, late Subhas Bhowmik, Pradeep, Sudhir Karmakar, Dilip Palit – everyone was excellent in that match. Till then the season was not going well for Mohun Bagan. We had lost to arch-rivals East Bengal a few days back and fans were very upset. The performance against Cosmos charged us up and we defeated East Bengal in the IFA Shield final four days later.”

Bhattacharya has a picture of himself with Pele at the toss framed on his drawing room wall. Obviously it is an unforgettable moment of his life. But Pele has penetrated much deeper into Bengali collective memory. In Satyajit Ray’s last film Agantuk (1991), Ranjan Rakshit (played by the inimitable Rabi Ghosh) comes to meet globetrotter Manomohon Mitra (Utpal Dutt) and asks him about the places he has been to. The moment Manomohan says his last stay was in Brazil, Ranjan gets palpably excited. The globetrotter does not understand the reason, so the husband of his niece explains “O bodhoy Peler kotha bhabche” (He’s perhaps thinking about Pele). Ranjan is agitated that somebody coming from Brazil does not know who Pele is. Manohoman, on the move since early youth, can recall with some effort that Pele is some footballer. He admits he does not know much about football: “Mohun Bagan, East Bengal. The limit of my knowledge.”

It seems Bengal’s most famous filmmaker thought you can take a Bengali out of Pele, but not Pele out of a Bengali.

Originally published on Outlook online

Messi, Mbappe, Pele and Maradona in grand finale

Believers could hold this as proof that matches are made in heaven because there could not have been a more fitting finale to the most competitive World Cup in memory.

One can only see Pele’s Brazil up against Diego Maradona’s Argentina in the FIFA video game, but reality has refused to be left too far behind. It has set up Kylian Mbappe’s France against Lionel Messi’s Argentina. Believers could hold this as proof that matches are made in heaven because there could not have been a more fitting finale to the most competitive World Cup in memory. Japan have beaten Germany; Saudi Arabia have defeated Argentina and Tunisia have beaten France in this edition. Africa got its first World Cup semifinalist in Morocco, who got rid of Spain and Portugal. In short, this World Cup has made the glorious uncertainties of the game the only certainty. In such a World Cup, to have two finalists who started the tournament as favourites feels like a twist in the tale.

There could not be a better final for a neutral. On one hand is Messi, compared both fairly and unfairly to Maradona, in what would be his last World Cup match going by his own assertion. On the other is the obvious heir to Messi’s throne as the best footballer in the world – Mbappe.

Just as Pele was a boy wonder when Brazil won their first World Cup in 1958, Mbappe was an eye-catching teen when France won it in Russia four years back. One could already see his brilliance and wonder what he could become. Today, Mbappe is the scariest predator in attacking third since Brazil’s Ronaldo in 1998 and 2002. The French has scored nine World Cup goals so far and he is just 23. Thus he has broken Pele’s record for most World Cup goals before turning 24. His place among the all-time World Cup greats seems inevitable, especially if he scores in the final. And we are not even discussing his assists, his sheer presence on the field which makes the opposition lose track of threats like Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann or Ousmane Dembele.

How incredible Didier Deschamps’ lot is can be gauged from the fact that they have had all bases covered without having Karim Benzema in attack, Paul Pogba and Ngolo Kante in the midfield. Not that the French defenders have not fluffed their lines at all – they conceded two penalties against England for example – but the imposing figure of Hugo Lloris under the bar has not let them concede many.

This French side has looked unbeatable (not counting the Tunisia loss when Deschamps basically fielded his reserve bench) but they are up against Argentina. Messi’s Argentina. If football is more art than a game for you, it is difficult not to love Messi, no matter which team you support. This, by far, has been his best show at a World Cup. Like Mbappe, Messi has scored five goals so far. But even more captivating has been his overall control of the game, the culmination of which was his hypnotism of Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol in the semifinal. The resultant assist to young sensation Julian Alvarez sealed the final berth and this happened when people were not finished discussing Messi’s final pass to Nahuel Molina for Argentina’s first goal against the Netherlands in the quarterfinal.

Unlike his previous World Cups, Messi, at 35, has looked like a free bird in the company of talents like Alvarez, Lautaro Martinez, Alexis Mac Allister, Rodrigo de Paul et al. They have been so efficient that Lionel Scaloni could give a player of Angel de Maria’s calibre breaks. The defence of Nicolas Otamendi, Cristian Romero, Nicolas Tagliafico, Marcos Acuna et al has been solid after the Saudi disaster. Even more solid has been Emiliano Martinez with the gloves. Two saves in the penalty shootout against the Dutch reminded one of Sergio Goycochea, who kept rescuing Maradona’s side from one shootout after another in Italia 90. Having someone like that under the bar is reassuring for those who think Messi deserves to sign off with the World Cup in his hand, for the joy he has provided millions with for almost two decades.

Read IPL auction: Where privilege holds court

But is Messi really up against France or is he up against Maradona? The emotional genius who took Argentina to glory almost single-handedly in 1986, set the bar so high that even Messi has found it beyond reach till now. The bar shall not be lowered and to be honest, nobody deserves the World Cup more for what he has done over the years. The team that plays better over the all-important 90 minutes deserves it. That was West Germany in 1990 and Germany in 2014. That is why Maradona and Messi had to end those evenings in tears. Maradona is remembered as much for his success as his imperfections. Can squeaky clean Messi script the perfect ending?

Originally published in The Meghalayan

World Cup: We are all Nero’s guests

Authoritarian rulers never seem to learn from Adolf Hitler’s Berlin Olympics experience, when his bid to showcase Aryan supremacy boomeranged as Jesse Owens reigned supreme.

It is said that in ancient Rome, Emperor Nero used to hold extravagant garden parties. Poor people were smeared in tar and bound to wooden stakes. Then they were set alight to illuminate the garden. With all that is happening around us, it would not be insane to ask if we are all becoming Nero’s guests. Because all the greatest shows on earth are unearthing some kind of cruelty or the other. Nero’s guests could be excused for being ancient, therefore backward, but what is our excuse for keeping eyes wide shut to the cruelties done in Qatar for the World Cup commencing on Sunday?

While authorities in Qatar and FIFA president Gianni Infantino insist only three workers have died in the last 12 years during preparation work for the World Cup, human rights organisations like Fair Square say that number is a “willful attempt to mislead”. Their Supreme Committee claims 36 more from construction sites have died after a day’s work, but those deaths were not counted, blaming “natural causes”. If Human Rights Watch is to be believed, the number actually runs into thousands.

Forgive me, dear reader, if you are feeling cheated by the first couple of paras of this curtain raiser. You were expecting mouth-watering dishes made of Messi, Neymar, Mbappe, Lewandowski et al but the starter tasted like bitter gourd.I could not help bringing up the dead workers as England’s The Guardian newspaper’s investigation says 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since 2010. Coming just a couple ofyears after we saw migrant workers walking thousands of miles through our own country and dying on the road, it is impossible to ignore these facts in the excitement of a sporting spectacle.

Spectacle it shall be, no matter how many workers (Amnesty International says more than100,000) have been exploited and abused by lax labour laws of Qatar. Many have reportedly worked 14-18 working hours a day. To be fair, Qatar did not change their laws overnight to get the World Cup job done cheaply. Entire world knew how things were in that country and members of FIFA still voted for their bid. What role cash and kinds played is another story.

One can justifiably argue that this is all politics, not football. But having excluded Russia from this World Cup for attacking Ukraine, it would be rich of FIFA to dismiss the above criticism as just politics. The English FA has vowed to push for new labour laws and Migrant Workers’ Centre in Qatar. As many as eight captains are planning to wear rainbow-coloured ‘One Love’ armbands in support of LGBTQIA+ community during the matches, many teams have cancelled fan zones protesting the oppressive laws about homosexuality in Qatar. Also, many footballers and coaches are on record saying the World Cup should not have been held in that country. World Cup 2022, therefore, cannot escape politics.

However, this is not the first world event to be underscored by politics. Dictators have always exploited sporting events to prove their supremacy. Vladimir Putin did that with the 2018 World Cup, Argentine dictator Jorge Rafale Videla with the1978 edition and Benito Mussolini with the 1934 edition. Authoritarian rulers never seem to learn from Adolf Hitler’s Berlin Olympics experience, when his bid to showcase Aryan supremacy boomeranged as Jesse Owens reigned supreme. They have good reason not to. Those who played in Italy (1934) and Argentina (1978) remain divided in their opinion about the glory. Some believe they played and won for the people of their country, not the ruler. Some feign ignorance about what was happening at that point in time while others declare helplessness. None of them is fully wrong.

Considering what was going on in Mussolini and Videla’s regime, Qatar would just be dirty. Hopefully, there is no detention camp within walking distance of one of the stadiums, as was the case in Argentina. Moreover, Qatar cannot possibly lift the trophy on December 18, thereby further glorifying the monarchy. In fact, it would be an achievement if they progress from Group A, which has the always fascinating Netherlands and African giants Senegal.

Read Falling from the sky: The insignificance of being human

Gareth Southgate’s ever-improving England should find it easy in Group B. Harry Kane& Co. have already made it to a World Cup semifinal and a Euro final, surpassing all the English sides of the past but one. Southgate has already said he knows the contract till 2024 cannot protect him if he fails to lift this trophy. Why should such a team be worried about Wales, United States and Iran?

Same for Argentina in Group C. An Argentine World Cup campaign, even during the days of Diego Maradona, used to be tumultuous. This is the first time the genius would neither be in the dressing room, nor in the stands looking like a child desperate to see his favourite side win. This is also the first time Argentina are coming into the tournament as firm favourites even though Messi refuses to acknowledge it. That is a good way to deflect pressure because who can be a favourite if a team that has not lost 35 games on the trot isn’t? Messi, for all his exploits in European club football, has always hit a wall called Maradona. Fans back home and critics world over always pointed out Messi has not won anything for Argentina. Maradona passed away in 2020 and Argentina won Copa America next year. That monkey is off Messi’s back now. It is highly unlikely that he will get another opportunity to emulate Maradona’s 1986. There could not be a better opportunity, too, as Lionel Scaloni’s team is the best Argentine side in a longtime. When was the last time they had a defender of Cristian Romero’s calibre?

The fight for top spot in Group D would be a competition between defending champions France and dangerous Denmark, unless Australia, struggling in the qualifiers, spring a surprise. Didier Deschamps’s side is a good unit even without Paul Pogbaand N’Golo Kante in the midfield. A mature Kylian Mbappe and in-form Karim Benzema could be nightmarish for any defence and the reliable Hugo Lloris is still in goal.

Luis Enrique’s Spain and Hansi Flick’s Spain in Group E are rich in history and have been poor in recent past. Germany, perhaps, have never been poorer in big tournaments. Their group stage exit from the last World Cup was followed by a second-round loss to England in Euro 2020. But this German side is again overflowing with top performers. If the striking power of Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane, Kai Havertz, Timo Werner is not enough, there is still the old fox –Thomas Mueller. And Manuel Neuer remains one of the best to guard the goal.

Likewise Spain have talented attackers and young ones at that. Pedri, perhaps their biggest star at the moment, will turn only 20 during the World Cup. But he has already played almost 100 matches for Barcelona. Ansu Fati, another young Barcelona recruit, could light up the World Cup if he is fit enough. They would have the calmness of elder statesman Sergio Busquets behind them.

Group F should be a cakewalk for last World Cup’s runners up Croatia, with deteriorating Belgium as the only challenge for the top spot. While Croatia havegrown in the last four years and look a set team under Zlatko Dalic, Belgium’s golden generation seems to be over. Roberto Martinez does not have the services of a stalwart like Vincent Kompany anymore, Romelu Lukaku has lost some edge and Eden Hazard has been plagued by injuries, not being a regular for Real Madrid. Only Kevin de Bruyne and Thibaus Courtois remain the same force.

Cameroon have high hopes in Group G. When Rigobert Song’s boys beat Algeria in March to ensure qualification, legend Samuel Eto’o, now the head of Cameroonian Football Federation, told the team “We go to Qatar to win the World Cup.” Dreams are good but Cameroon will have to get past decent European teams Serbia and Switzerland first, assuming Tite’s Brazil will not have problems topping that group. Neymar, like Messi, never had a better team with him. Raphinha, Richarlison, Lucas Paqueta – coach Tite is spoilt for choice as far as attackers are concerned. Then there is Casemiro in the midfield and Thiago Silva at the back. Dreaming of the sixth title is not outrageous.

Cristiano Ronaldo, in his last World Cup, has landed in a tough group with his side. The other teams in Group H are Ghana, Uruguay and South Korea. Ghana played a World Cup quarterfinal in 2010, Uruguay are two-time champions and South Korea, apart from being the most regular Asian team in the quadrennial show, have been in the semi-final. In fact, it is Portugal whose best World Cup performance came way back in 1966, when they finished third. But Ronaldo has taken them through their best ever period, winning Euro 2016 and the inaugural UEFA Nations League in 2019.

However, Ronaldo’s form and fitness have become a concern now. For the last few days, he has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Ronaldo claims he has not been given enough respect at Old Trafford either by Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag or the management. He has also spoken ill of Wayne Rooney unprovoked. Did Ronaldo need this distraction to charge himself up before the big event or will it further dent his team’s chances? Whatever it is, the campaign will be doubly difficult for Portugal if CR7 is not at his best.

Pray for him if you are a Portugal fan, pray for whichever team you support. But do keep the dead and the persecuted of Qatar in your prayers. We can do only that much because we cannot help becoming Nero’s guests. Today’s world does not have one Nero.

Originally published in The Meghalayan

IPL auction: Where privilege holds court

Suhana and Aryan Khan look so like their father that even somebody who has stopped following showbiz and news, shall know they are Shah Rukh Khan’s children the moment he/she sees them. But this Saturday afternoon, while watching the Indian Premier League (IPL) auction I was wondering who the other girl beside them was at the Kolkata Knight Riders table. Wonder does not last in the age of social media. Within a few minutes, I came to know that she is Juhi Chawla’s daughter Jhanvi. The revelation came through a Twitter thread where people were arguing over dynasty. Some were scandalised that Jhanvi, Suhana and Aryan were judging the ability of some hard-working professionals whilst being present at the auction just by privilege of birth. The other lot argued, it was not their fault that they were born to rich and famous parents. Some went to the extent of saying: their parents worked hard, yours didn’t. Deal with it.

I found the conversation more comical than caustic because it reminded me what Rahul Gandhi, India’s most hated dynast, had said in Parliament just ten days ago. “There are two Indias — one for the rich, one for the poor — and the gap between the two was widening,” he had said. “Today, the earnings of 84 percent of Indians have dwindled, pushing them towards poverty.” I couldn’t help laughing. The IPL auction was making people from this 84 percent argue for and against the privilege of the 16 per cent.

We came to know in 2019 that India’s unemployment rate is at a 45-year-old high. The pandemic has only worsened the situation. If Gautama Buddha were alive today and the mother of a jobless youth went to him asking for her son’s/daughter’s job, Buddha would have asked her to bring a handful of mustard from a home where joblessness or pay cuts have not hit. The lady’s only hope would be the hotel where the IPL auction was held. Even during this distress, 204 cricketers found themselves worth Rs. 550 crore.

I am not going to put you off by talking about migrant labourers. I don’t need to. Because even Indian cricketers outside the IPL fold are part of the 84 per cent. If you look around, you will find enough reports about domestic cricketers deep in debt running their family in absence of first-class cricket. But IPL, supposedly, is the fountain that feeds the stream of domestic cricket. That fountain kept flowing during the pandemic, even shifting countries in the midst of waves of crisis. Which all means that the Ranji Trophy not taking place should matter little financially to cricketers, groundsmen, umpires, scorers et al. But it did. The Board, busy keeping the fountain alive, did not care about the stream. Compensation (and a much-needed hike) was announced only in September 2021. One can clearly see the two Indias here. IPL’s India deals in hundreds of crores, the rest of Indian cricket has to suffer an agonising wait for a few lakhs.

Read Troll comes full circle for Kohli and how

Like the debate over dynasty, the point about hard work and talent will obviously rear its beautiful head here. Some will definitely say, “Those who have enough talent and work hard play IPL.” Of course, T20 is the best form of cricket to judge talent and hard work. Don’t let banal commentators and star cricketers doing lip service tell you otherwise. This is not the era where cricketers will be happy receiving Rs one lakh each from a Lata Mangeshkar-led fundraiser, after winning the World Cup. It is the age of Chris Gayle and Kieron Pollard, who are comfortable not playing for their country as they can make a killing playing in T20 leagues all over the world. It is also the age of Liam Livingstone and Tim David, who may never stake a claim to cricketing immortality but are treasured more than World Cup-winning Eoin Morgan and the Bradmanesque Steve Smith. Talent and hard work are so key to IPL success that Paul Valthaty, Manvinder Bisla became footnotes soon after big success; Pravin Tambe succeeded at an age when life insurance policies mature, with a physique Virat Kohli still has nightmares about. There is also the story of hat-trick man Ajit Chandila, who like many others, shone only in IPL. But we shall not talk about these forgottens lest it opens a can of worms.

After every IPL auction, we invariably read some rags to riches stories. A player who has played only tennis ball cricket, someone who was not a professional cricketer even six months back or somebody who has never been selected for any first-class side. In short, you do not necessarily need to come through the dusty ranks of the domestic system to get into the IPL. It wholly depends on your marketability and ability (specifically in short format). A modern day, glorified slave market, the IPL auction is. Then you land on the biggest stage possible and rake in the moolah. Through a system that reduces a rigorous discipline into a TRP-driven melodrama. The other, and more problematic aspect of IPL is that nobody is sure of the logic with which and IPL auction plays out.

Obviously, it would be wrong to grudge young men of this poor, jobless country the chance to get rich. But we tend to forget, rags to riches stories hold charm only because there are more rags than riches. Today India has more billionaires than ever, along with unprecedented unemployment. Talent needs opportunity, to announce its presence and work, to work hard. Both are in short supply for us — the 84 per cent. Celebrating the pomp of IPL and arguing about the privilege of its elite is actually a nice way to laugh at ourselves. The joke actually is on us.

Originally published on newsclick

Angry Kohli shows Indian cricket’s superhero complex

From the aggressive, expressive Kohli to the usually calm Ashwin, everyone now thinks this is acceptable on-field behaviour.

No true Amitabh Bachchan fan can forget the scene from the movie Amar Akbar Anthony, where he (the character of Anthony) talks to the mirror and scolds himself for drinking, blames getting badly beaten up on being drunk, then pastes a band-aid on the mirror instead of his wounds. Likewise, no ardent Virat Kohli fan will be able to forget the scene from Cape Town, where he talks to the stump microphone and scolds the TV broadcaster for ‘siding’ with the home team. Intoxication made Anthony’s behaviour plausible in Prayag Raj’s screenplay, but the screenplay writer of Kohli’s biopic will find it hard to make this stump mic scene plausible for cinema-goers of the future, who may have not watched it live.

How would the screenplay writer show what was going through Kohli’s mind? Being the Indian captain and having spent 14 years in international cricket, it is not possible that he did not know how the Decision Review System (DRS) works, or that HawkEye is not owned by Cricket South Africa. Then what prompted the overreaction? Was he more angry with himself because of his failure with the bat despite spending a lot of time at the crease, and needed somebody to shout at? Was it the feeling that the final frontier is slipping away, despite South Africa having a less experienced, perhaps less talented team?

The role of Ravichandran Ashwin makes the scene more baffling. One can understand Ashwin’s frustration. His place in the playing XI for overseas Tests has been uncertain under Kohli, and he went wicketless in the first innings at Cape Town, the series decider. That after picking up just three wickets in the first two Tests. The wicket of Dean Elgar at that point could have turned the match on its head and proved to everyone how valuable Ashwin is even in conditions not conducive to spin bowling. But a thinker like Ashwin should have been able to contain his emotions instead of putting up a spectacle that would only convey a wrong message to young cricketers — that everyone in the world is conspiring against you. And whenever a decision goes in your opponent’s favour, you should cry “murder”.

But which invisible monster was KL Rahul fighting in that scene? When the umpire who raised the finger against Elgar is a South African himself, how did Rahul get the idea that the entire country is fighting against 11 Indians? Has watching too much Bollywood on OTT done this to the elegant batter?

Answers to those questions shall not lead us anywhere because what happened on January 13 shows it is not about individuals anymore. From the aggressive, expressive Kohli to the usually calm Ashwin, everyone now thinks this is acceptable on-field behaviour. Therefore, we need to ask how and why they arrived at this conclusion. In fact, using the word ‘they’ would be holier-than-thou because the reaction of most cricketers, ex-cricketers and fans on social media show that most of us have arrived at that conclusion. Only a handful have said this behaviour is unacceptable and have been trolled for that.

This is not the first time a DRS call has gone against India and raised eyebrows. Mayank Agarwal’s LBW in the first Test is fresh in everyone’s memory, but at least some remember the dismissal of Rahul Dravid on his last England tour. DRS declared him out caught while the truth is he had only hit his shoelaces. Why did he not scream afterwards, not allege conspiracy? Why has the sky fallen now? One can always say Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly et al were softer human beings; as opposed to the bold, new Indian team built by Kohli and Ravi Shastri.

But the former lot had had their share of bad boy moments, most memorably, the Mike Dennes moment in South Africa. That was the first time the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) showed its monetary might to oppose the punishment meted out to six of its cricketers. Call it bold or arrogant, the board at least had the decency to negotiate matters with the International Cricket Council (ICC) after the heat of the moment evaporated. While five Indian cricketers had their one-Test ban overturned, Virender Sehwag had to serve it. Reason why that generation knew, no matter how big a stars they were, over-the-top reactions shall have consequences.

That is not the case with the current lot. BCCI’s coffers have grown in leaps and bounds since the Dennes incident. Today, the BCCI, with its rich brethren from England and Australia, decides who and how much they will play. Moreover, the BCCI has the Indian Premier League — a league everyone wants a piece of. The likes of Kohli, Ashwin and Rahul know they can live on their own terms, even if that goes against all norms.

Read Troll comes full circle for Kohli and how

Hence Kohli’s proud post-match remarks: “We understood what happened on the field and people on the outside don’t know exact details of what goes on on the field.” On one hand, this is a back-handed compliment to the BCCI. As if Kohli knows whatever his differences with the board president, that chair is so powerful that ICC would not dare to punish his employees. On the other hand, this is a warning to everyone concerned: if a technological error goes against us again, we shall deal with it this way.

To be fair to Kohli, Ashwin and Rahul, it is Mahendra Singh Dhoni who first showed an Indian cricketer is above the game. During the 2019 IPL game between his franchise Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals, he went straight into the ground to protest a no-ball decision reversed by the leg umpire. For such an unprecedented and uncouth behaviour, Captain Cool was only fined 50% of his match fee.

Like it or not, Indian cricketers are superheroes in the eyes of a lot of people, including themselves. Unfortunately, they do not have somebody like Spiderman’s uncle, who would pronounce “With great power, comes great responsibility.” So Cape Town can any day be repeated in Christchurch, Kanpur or Kandy. Endless whataboutery can be done to justify our superheroes. The problem is, superheroes can soar above rule of law but not laws of nature. What will happen if both teams on the pitch grow the superhero complex some day? Are we betting on the TRP of a Rashid Patel versus Raman Lamba rerun during an international match?

Originally published on newsclick

One for the team: Logic behind Kohli’s sacking as ODI skipper

Sounds like a man who thinks the captain is not named by selectors but by the skipper himself. Such thoughts are always wrong in sports

Photo courtesy: Internet

During our college days in Bengal, there were some journalists whose articles we used to devour like a newly-wed man devouring luchi (Bengali version of puri) and mutton at in-laws’ place. Behind-the-scenes story of the Indian cricket team’s dressing room was their USP. Sourav Ganguly was the hero in those stories. Naturally, when captaincy was snatched away from him in 2005, Ganguly became a tragic hero — a man more sinned against than sinning.

While Greg Chappell was the villain, the “et tu Brute” dialogue was directed at Rahul Dravid. They made their debut together, Ganguly gave him the big gloves to keep him in the ODI side, didn’t he? How could he betray Dada and become Greg’s ally! This was the discourse we were fed, and we believed it.

It took many of us years to realise that the point to ponder in the Chappell-Ganguly saga was not personal rivalry but team cause. Ganguly was 33 in 2005 and his batting form was dipping. After winning the Natwest Trophy final in 2002, his team kept losing crunch matches, the most important one being the 2003 World Cup final. A fresh man at the helm could give the team a new direction.

The real conflict was between two cultures — one of hero worship, the other of putting the team before individuals. Chappell’s attempt to establish the latter in Indian cricket ended in failure with India’s shocking group-stage exit from the 2007 ICC World Cup. Those in the know say there were other reasons as well for that unmitigated disaster. Whatever it is, the man cannot be grudged today as the cricketers he had placed at two ends of that tug-of-war, have come together to do what he meant to.

No matter what we were made to believe back in the day, it is now clear that Ganguly does not think of himself as Julius Caesar and Dravid as Brutus. It is possible that he did when it all happened, but looking back with age on his side, he obviously realised team cause had to take precedence. And Dravid had the safest hands to hold that cause. Otherwise, he as the BCCI president, would not have put his old mate in charge of Team India’s supply line first, the team itself next.

There are people who would oppose this way of looking at Virat Kohli’s ODI captaincy being snatched away, saying Ganguly was a struggling batter back then, Kohli is not. But the parallels are too many to ignore. Kohli is also 33 and though he still averages a monumental 59.07 in ODIs, there has been a dip. His last ODI century came on August 14, 2019 in Port of Spain. After that match, he has averaged 43.26 in 15 matches till now. It is still good enough for most batters and that is why his place in the team is not in question, unlike Ganguly. But his repeated failure to drive the team towards trophies mirrors Ganguly’s difficulties in the last days of his captaincy. Unless one thinks winning trophies is not important, this warrants a change in leadership.

Much is being made of Kohli’s winning percentage as captain, ignoring the fact that bilateral ODI series have lost much of their significance. In the age of T20Is, even the numbers of ODIs are going down. More and more bilateral tours are being planned with more T20Is than ODIs. Even the bilateral T20Is are less important than franchise cricket. Nowadays, all teams look at bilateral white-ball series as a build-up to the world event. There is a World T20 every two years and a 50-over World Cup every four. In short, a team is playing four white-ball world events in five years. In fact, in the eight years between 2024 and 2031, this number will go up to eight, including the Champions Trophy. How do bilateral wins matter then?

One may pertinently ask, why sack him now? After all, the last ODI India played under Kohli was in March. What new failure has come his way in the meantime? The answer lies not in the recent past but in the near future. Kohli has given up on the T20I captaincy and Ravi Shastri has left, which allows a new management to shape a new vision for the 2022 World T20. After that, there will be less than a year left for the 50-over World Cup. It would be too late to change the captain, the need of which has been explained already. In case that does not satisfy you, there is the board president’s explanation of course: there cannot be two captains for two white-ball formats.

That brings us to the question, why did Kohli relinquish T20I captaincy? If Ganguly is to be believed, the board wanted him to stay, and nobody knew before the World T20 what a disaster it was going to be. Kohli’s own explanation, in his Instagram post, was “I feel I need to give myself space to be fully ready to lead the Indian team in Test and ODI cricket.”

That sounds like a man who thinks the captain is not named by selectors but by the skipper himself. Such thoughts are always wrong in sports. Steve Waugh realised it a year before the 2003 World Cup, despite leading Australia to the trophy in the previous edition of the tournament. Australia were looking at the future of the team, not the greatness of their captain.

Future! How can 34-year-old Rohit Sharma be the future? This rebuttal is more interesting than correct, because it helps us question the progress India’s ODI side has made under Kohli-Shastri combine. When Australia removed Waugh, the man to replace him was 29-year-old Ricky Ponting but we do not have an option other than Rohit. Because except him and Jasprit Bumrah, there is not one cricketer in the ODI side who is experienced enough for the job, and Bumrah has never even been the vice-captain. Shikhar Dhawan is out with lack of form, Hardik Pandya does not know how fit he is. Nobody else has been given a long uninterrupted run in the playing XI.

KL Rahul’s talent was never in question, and he made his debut in 2016. In spite of that he is only 38 ODIs old. Under Kohli, everyone from Ambati Rayudu to Vijay Shankar has played at No. 4 and failed, but Rahul has mostly warmed the bench. In the end, he had to don the big gloves for his chance. Shreyas Iyer was picked, dumped and has now been picked again. Better not talk about what happened to Manish Pandey after that match-winning century Down Under, or why past-his-prime Dinesh Karthik played the 2019 World Cup. Ravichandran Ashwin was never in the scheme of things under Kohli. Even Ravindra Jadeja was out of favour for some time as Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav were touted as the next big thing. First Yadav fell out of favour for a handful of bad shows, then the inexplicable axe fell on Chahal. So which team has captain Kohli built in so many years? What was the vision? Clearly, the team was going nowhere.

To come back to the parallels, Ganguly’s captaincy had also gone to a player his age. That did not produce desirable results in ODIs, but success is never guaranteed. Besides, Team India did not have a rich supply line back then. One hopes at least that is not a myth waiting to be busted. If it does turn out to be a myth, there will be ample scope to criticise the BCCI. Putting team cause over reputation cannot be faulted today.

Originally published here

https://www.newsclick.in/one-team-sound-logic-behind-virat-kohlis-sacking-odi-skipper

Troll comes full circle for Kohli and how

What is now happening to the Indian cricketers, is more or less, what happens to an army which has lost a war.

During his international career, Virat Kohli has mostly seen the bright side of fame. Only since last Saturday has the dark side started to make its presence felt. The brickbats he is receiving would be fine had the reason only been Team India’s abject failure in the ongoing ICC T20 World Cup. But he is being panned more because of his counter-attack in defence of teammate Mohammad Shami. In fact, brickbat would be a horrible euphemism for the abuses being hurled at Kohli, and shamefully, his 10 month daughter.

However, India is not made of right-wing trolls alone. Many on social media also hailed Kohli for his words. More importantly, the media wrote reams of praise. While doing that, some have even compared his statements with Sunil Gavaskar’s well-known heroic act of saving a family from a violent mob during the 1993 Mumbai riots. This comparison is symptomatic of our times. Virtual reality has so overwhelmed us that we think words are as good as, if not better than, actions. They are not. And that is a valid enough reason we need to look at Kohli’s outburst more critically.

There is not one word in that statement which a sane human being would disagree with. However, it would be naivete to dismiss so many people just as Rs. 2 trolls, especially because many of them were ardent Team India and Kohli lovers till the other day. Therefore, we need to ask why so many cricket fans in today’s India think losing a game of cricket is the end of the world.

Bitter truth is, those who run Indian cricket have themselves injected this idea into fans that cricket is a lot more than a game and the other team is not our opponent but enemy. Kohli, too, has played a big part in forming this idea.

The Kohlis and the Dhonis may not want it that way, but their life is their message for the fans. They not only copy the star’s batting stance, hair cut or mannerism, but also his behaviour on and off the field. They may not take a politician’s words seriously but shall trust every word the favourite cricketer says. In the age of 360-degrees, 24×7 sports coverage, they shall copy the pointed finger, the middle finger, the chest thump, the fist pump, the aggression, the frustration, the shout, the pout. Whether that is the right thing to do is a different question.

Read Cape Town highlights Indian cricket’s superhero complex

Three years back, the Virat Kohli Official App was launched. A video was released for its promotion where Kohli was answering questions sent by random people. One person had written in, saying he thought Kohli was an overrated batter and he enjoyed watching English and Australian batters more. Kohli’s reply was “OK, I don’t think you should live in India then… you should go and live somewhere else, no. Why are you living in our country and loving other countries? I don’t mind you not liking me but I don’t think you should live in our country and like other things. Get your priorities right.”

This remark, obviously, goes against the spirit of cricket which prompts the Caribbeans to write songs praising Gavaskar, Australians to name their children Sachin and Pakistani Umar Draz to hoist the Tricolour because he is a Kohli fan. But neither the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), nor any former cricketer told Kohli that his behaviour was unsporting. Naturally, that incident would prove to a common fan that praising cricketers from other countries is blasphemy.

There was more to that comment than absence of sporting spirit though. It was in line with and eerily similar to the “go to Pakistan” jibe critics of the central government have been targeted with since 2014. India’s otherwise liberal cricket writers somehow missed this point and are now aghast that people are being arrested for supporting a different team.

The not-just-a-game theme was taken up a notch in 2019, when Kohli and Co. played a One-Day International in Ranchi on March 8 wearing army camouflage caps. It was to honour the victims of the Pulwama terror attack. Interestingly, nobody in the army or the government found it disrespectful to the jawans who died that the caps not only had the BCCI logo on them but also the sponsor’s logo. The team went to town about their love for the army and how it was Mahendra Singh Dhoni, an honorary lieutenant colonel in the Indian territorial army, who came up with the idea. Thus, in popular imagination, the cricket team could acquire the same place as the army.

Once again, no ex-cricketer, no expert, not even the International Cricket Council (ICC) found anything objectionable in this. The ICC regarded it just “as part of a charity fundraising effort” because the Indian team also donated their match fees to the National Defence Fund. But it became too much even for them during the World Cup later that year when lieutenant colonel Dhoni sported the dagger logo of his regiment on his wicket-keeping gloves. When the ICC objected to it, who all spoke out for Dhoni? BCCI Committee of Administrator chief Vinod Rai and sports minister Kiren Rijiju. While Rai’s logic was that it is not an army symbol, the minister tweeted “… the issue is connected with the sentiments of the country, the interest of the nation has to be kept in mind.”

Clearly, even a logo on the gloves of a cricketer who is just an honorary member of a paramilitary force is connected to the sentiments of the country. So much so that even a minister intervenes if it is asked to be removed. One could rightfully ask, why did Dhoni need to place such a sensitive logo on his gloves? So many army men have represented India in different sports over the years, including Major Dhyan Chand and Tokyo Olympics gold medallist Neeraj Chopra. If none of them needed to sport any army insignia, why Dhoni? The only possible answer could be his wish to be something more than a cricketer. Or was the board trying to elevate cricketers to a different level? Nothing wrong with that if they can handle the pressure of being treated as army men by the fans.

What is now happening to the Indian cricketers, is more or less, what happens to an army which has lost a war. Soldiers of a defeated army hardly get any love or respect in their country and the choicest abuses are reserved for the general. For Kohli & Co., one can only hope the online trolling stays online. Millions of Indians know how bad things get when the hate produced online spills on to the streets. The street-fighting body language this Indian team has acquired under Kohli could work before Joe Root & Co, may not before mobs Delhi saw last year. One can possibly emulate Gavaskar’s courage on the field with talent and hardwork, emulating his courage before rioters is way more difficult.

Originally published on newsclick

Falling from the sky: Insignificance of being human

Eric Cantona had once quoted Shakespeare to describe footballers as flies to wanton boys. Zaki Anwari proved it, almost literally.

We live in an era where an endless flow of images constantly assaults our imagination. Of late, there have been some that did much more. They made us realise how humans have made the lives of fellow humans insignificant. The image of human beings falling off a plane leaving Kabul is the latest in that series. It was almost a relief that the incident took place in the air, where there was no one like the late Danish Siddiqui to capture the cruellest of details. Relief was short-lived though. The impact of the image grew manifold the moment it became known that one of the men that died thus was a 19-year-old footballer from Afghanistan’s youth team. The French footballer Eric Cantona had once quoted Shakespeare to describe footballers as flies to wanton boys. Zaki Anwari proved it, almost literally. Some human beings behave like gods in our age and treat others as wanton boys treat flies. It is their wantonness that consumed Zaki and the others.

Nothing has portrayed the insignificance of human lives better in the recent past than the image of a dead Aylan Kurdi. An adorable boy in red shirt and blue shorts, lying prostrate on the sand near the vast ocean. Six years on, this shot by Nilüfer Demir still makes one shudder at the truth captured in a frame: a child’s life in our world is as cheap as a plastic bottle thrown away in the sea. The sea washes both ashore. When this image ripped us apart in September 2015, artists poured their hearts out. Some gave Alan wings which would fly him to heaven, some placed him in the lap of god. In the mortal world it did force some European powers to take a more moderate view of the refugees, but by and large, that haunting image has neither made humans more compassionate to the less fortunate, nor less xenophobic.

Nilufer’s frame showed a small boy vis-a-vis a huge expanse of water. The next image that comes to mind did not have someone in the frame, such is the insignificance. The image only showed a few rotis lying on a railway track. It was May 8, 2020. Sixteen migrant workers were run over by a goods train near Aurangabad while they were asleep. These were people trying to walk home, all the way from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh, as the country went into lockdown at four hours’ notice. Their fault was that they figured no train would pass as passenger trains had stopped plying from midnight on March 25. What was responsible for those deaths? The apathy of the system, or the apathy of a nation? The Prime Minister did tweet his shock and sorrow when the news went public. But, perhaps he did not have such people in mind while announcing the lockdown. There is no dearth of images which captured the inhuman struggle of migrant workers during the nationwide lockdown.

However, this image showed what they really were for a number of their countrymen: non-existent. Sounds harsh? Maybe. But what is worse is that the family members of the 16 dead near Aurangabad had not receive their death certificates till March this year.

Similarly, the men falling off the plane that was leaving Kabul were mere dots in a frame owned by the flight and the blue sky. It is pictorial proof that human invention has outgrown human emotions. When a plane is to leave it shall leave, no matter how many cling on to its wheels. We could not be more insignificant to our own species.

Read World Cup: We are all Nero’s guests

Flying has been one of the oldest human fantasies. Myths in all parts of the world have something or the other on flying. Perhaps the most heart-breaking story is the one about Icarus, the son of Daedalus. Icarus’ wings were made of feather and wax. He flew too close to the sun and the wax melted. He fell into the sea and died. Insignificant humans might have to look for consolation, not in this Greek tale but in the Renaissance painting that this story inspired.

One may struggle to spot Icarus in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Fall of Icarus’ at first glance. You can see a man pushing his horse in the foreground and a shepherd with his dogs, his lambs grazing. You can see a man fishing, a bird sitting idly on the branch of a tree. In the background is the unmissable sea, with ships of different sizes. There is the sky, of course. You can even see mountains far away, and other islands. But where is Icarus? You can only see his legs as he drowns. The world around him does not even notice.

Neither will the world think too much of the Afghans falling from the sky. Countries, including our own, will keep turning away refugees. Nor will the Taliban change. We can only console ourselves thinking human beings must always have been this insignificant to other humans. An artist would not have drawn Icarus that way if that wasn’t so.

Originally published on newsclick

Great Indian hypocrisy about racism abroad

Sport is often called art but not many works of art evoke emotions that are simultaneously personal and collective. The joy of seeing a Rembrandt painting does not increase if you see it with a gang of friends, the joy of watching a Messi goal does. That is why watching the clip of a Sachin Tendulkar masterpiece makes you want to share it with friends who were by your side when you watched it live. It happens to everyone and it happened to me this March, on the anniversary of his tragic 136 against Pakistan at Chepauk. Some archivist tweeted the video of that innings. I sent the link to two or three friends who had run away from our hostel with me that day to watch the match at a nearby club. The accompanying message was “Remember this?” Everyone did, but I never knew one of them had a memory which was much more bitter than India’s defeat that day.

“How can I forget?” was a Muslim friend’s reply. “Heart-breaking. It was also the day when one of my friends told me ‘Congrats, you won’.”

Let’s be honest enough to admit my friend’s experience was not singular or extraordinary. Doubting an Indian Muslim’s loyalty to the country is common today, but it always existed. And when India played Pakistan on the cricket field, it was time to say it loud. The doubt was not confined to the fans alone though.

During the glory days of cricket at Sharjah, when Pakistan regularly gave India a pasting, the popular target used to be Mohammed Azharuddin. Tendulkar could honestly score a duck, Manoj Prabhakar could go for runs by just bowling a bad spell, Kapil Dev could drop a catch because of lapse in concentration, but Azhar’s failure was suspect. So, it would be hypocritical of us, therefore, to sermonise racist England fans for the attack they have unleashed on Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho.

It is easy to say there was no Islamophobia involved in doubting Azhar as, subsequently, he was found guilty of malpractice. We insinuated because we knew, or so we would attempt to justify. But facts suggest otherwise.

Ramachandra Guha writes in his book A Corner of A Foreign Field: “Once, when Azhar scored a hundred and India won, Bal Thackeray announced that he was a ‘Nationalist Muslim’. While campaigning for votes before the 1998 General Elections, Lal Krishna Advani, the leader of the Ayodhya campaign, told an audience of Muslim youths that they should follow the example of Azhar and AR Rahman.”

Guha points out: “These compliments were poisonous in the extreme. They carried the insinuation that other Indian Muslims were not patriotic. And what if Azhar was bowled first ball for a duck? Did he then forfeit his status as a ‘Nationalist Muslim’?”

We know the answer. We also know fans never doubted Ajay Jadeja or Nayan Mongia, who were also implicated or accused in the match fixing scandal. More importantly, the doubting did not end with Azhar.

Team India under Sourav Ganguly reversed two trends in the new millennium: of losing to Pakistan often, and of being meek losers overseas. Muslim cricketers had crucial roles in both. Who can forget Irfan Pathan’s hattrick in the first Test in Karachi (2005-06) or Mohammed Kaif’s undefeated 71 (77 balls) in the fourth ODI in Lahore (2003-04)? India were five down for 162, chasing almost 300. Kaif’s partnership with Rahul Dravid (76 not out) took the team home. Kaif will forever be remembered for his innings in the Natwest Trophy final at Lord’s.

Meanwhile, Zaheer Khan was carving out a niche for himself as Javagal Srinath walked into the sunset and Ashish Nehra’s injuries got the better of him. Apart from being part of the trio that took India to the brink of glory in the 2003 ICC World Cup, Zaheer bowled India to memorable Test victories.

That did not change some things for Indian fans. Nowadays, we shudder when children complain about who eats meat in their class or discuss class friend’s caste. But during Kaif’s Gaddafi Stadium innings mentioned above, I saw a teen say “He won’t let Pakistan lose. It’s his team after all.”

Again, it can be dismissed as anecdotal evidence. Sadly, too many people have such anecdotes. Moreover, seeing social media ignoramuses tell Irfan to go to Pakistan for speaking out on the discrimination he has faced as a Muslim, leaves no doubt about the fact that there were enough such teens who have now become parents.

To be fair to cricket fans, they are not alone in blaming someone from the minority community when things go wrong. Had hockey fans been bigger-hearted liberals, Chak De! India could have done without the social ostracization of its protagonist Kabir Khan. As the film shows, the bitter truth about Indian society is that if a Muslim sportsperson is ever believed to be on the wrong foot, he has to do something doubly heroic like Kabir to redeem himself. That must be what those racist English fans are demanding of Saka, Rashford and Sancho — bring home the World Cup from Qatar perhaps.

Read Falling from the sky: Insignificance of being human

The last resort of people in denial of the Indian reality could be: racism and communalism are two different things. Fair enough, but do we regard racism as a bad thing? Did the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) take any punitive action against Ishant Sharma when his racist comments were pointed out by Darren Sammy? The West Indies cricketer, at least, got an apology from Ishant. Did anyone from the establishment apologise to Abhinav Mukund or Dodda Ganesh for what they had gone through because of skin colour? Saka, Rashford, Sancho at least have the English FA by their side. They also have their captain Harry Kane tweeting he doesn’t want fans who are racist. Former greats like Gary Lineker have also spoken up for the trio.

Wish Wasim Jaffer had such support. Earlier this year, when a few officials of Uttarakhand Cricket Association tried to settle scores using his religion as an excuse, neither the Board nor his illustrious former teammates spoke up for Jaffer. Domestic greats like Amol Muzumdar condemned the act and denounced the troll army triggered by it. But the board, led by an iconic former cricketer, behaved like Mahatma Gandhi’s monkeys.

Nevertheless, the outrage of Indian sports enthusiasts about online racist abuse of the trio deserves praise. Because it is an improvement. They did see how the West Indies and England cricket teams took a knee against racism way back on July 8, 2020, when international cricket resumed amid the pandemic. But they did not outrage when the Indian Premier League (IPL) did not follow suit, long after it had become the norm in sporting events world over, including the Indian Super League. The 2020 IPL began on September 19 but only on October 26 did a cricketer take a knee. He was Hardik Pandya, out of personal choice, not by IPL governing body’s suggestion or instruction.

To now take the moral high ground in a case of racism feels like hypocrisy but why blame only the sports fanatic for it? The recently-released ‘Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation’ report by Pew Research Center does show that most Indians prefer to stay within their own community. Why bother about who is discriminated against? We are hardly a country of fairness, we are a country of fairness creams.

Originally published on newsclick

Meet Pakistani director who used Rabindrasangeet

Mehreen Jabbar. Photo from her website

Kolkata: About a week back, Bengalis on social media were pleasantly surprised by the emergence of a video clip where a beautiful girl is seen singing “amaro porano jaha chay”, one of Rabindranath Tagore’s most popular compositions, as an equally handsome young man listens with eyes wide open. This romantic situation is as common for Bengalis as mustard oil to cook hilsa, albeit these were Pakistani actors Yumna Zaidi and Feroze Khan. They were speaking in Urdu but the song was in impeccable Bangla, that too, a Rabindrasangeet! The clip soon went viral among Bengalis. Sure there were doubters who asked if it was a carefully done deep fake, but enterprising Bengalis soon found out that it was actually a scene from Geo TV’s 2019 serial Dil Kya Kare. They even found that director Mehreen Jabbar had herself posted another sequence on Instagram, where Yumna is seen singing the other part of the same song.

It was enough to make everyone in Bengal curious about Mehreen. How did a Pakistani lady like her come to know of a Rabindrasangeet? Who sang the song for her? Why did she decide to use a Bangla song in an Urdu serial? And, of course, that question every Bengali asks at the drop of a hat: is Mehreen somehow connected to Bengal?

She not only answered those, taking time out of her busy schedule, but also spoke about the subcontinent’s shared cultural heritage and how politics often makes us forget how similar we, the people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are. Excerpts from the exclusive interview to eNewsroom:

How did you find Rabindranath Tagore? I know you have worked with people like Debajyoti Mishra and Nandita Das but is there a bigger Bengal connection that led you to him?

I found this piece because my friend Sharvari Deshpande [Indian actor and singer], who sang it, was in New York some years back, and she had sung it at a gathering. I was immediately drawn to the song even though I didn’t understand the words. Later, I got her to send the translations to me and I totally fell in love with it, knew that I wanted to use it in the serial because it gelled well with the character of Yumna Zaidi. Therefore, I asked Sharvari to record it and send it to me.

Have you read Rabindranath in original or via translation? Has he become a habit for you or do you read him/listen to his songs occasionally?

I had never read him either in original or through translation, so it was a discovery for me as well. Going forward, I’m intrigued and curious because I simply fell in love with him. This is an education for me, which I hope to take farther.

What prompted you to use a Rabindrasangeet in an Urdu serial?

It was purely an emotional response. I loved the song so much and by pure luck, it was fitting in really well with two or three scenes I used the piece in. It wasn’t in the script to start with. I think that came about later, when I was going through the story [by Asma Nabeel], and felt at these places this would be the most appropriate piece to use.

Is it common among Pakistani youth to sing Rabindrasangeet? Do they really sing them among themselves as shown in the serial?

Unfortunately, it’s not that common unless people have family who are Bengali, or lived in Bangladesh, or know about West Bengal. I’m sure there are such people in Pakistan but I haven’t been part of any such gathering. So, this was a new situation that we depicted.

You were born the year Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan and became an independent country. The conflict started over the use of Urdu over Bangla in the then east Pakistan. There is still some antipathy towards Urdu at least in my part of Bengal because of that. This is partly why Bengalis in West Bengal are euphoric seeing these clips. Almost every media platform has done a story on this. People here want to know if Pakistan has got over its cultural opposition to Bangla. To be specific, was the use of Rabindrasangeet received well, or did you face problems for using a Bangla song in your work?

Unfortunately, the younger lot in Pakistan, including me, never heard much discussion about 1971. There wasn’t much examination of the incidents either. With the result that there is no opposition to using Bangla, or any preconceived notion about it. They (the youth) are very open. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough cultural exchange with Bangla as opposed to Bollywood cinema, which is very popular in Pakistan. Because people can easily understand Hindi. Having said that, I think there’s great scope for exploring this aspect. There was no problem using Bangla at all, and in future I really doubt there would be.

Dil Kya Kare was aired in 2019. After the “amaro porano jaha chay” clip, a few other clips have emerged of other Pakistani serials where Bangla songs, not Rabindrasangeet, have been used. Can you tell me how long has this been going on and what is the reason? I mean, is there a sizeable Bangla-speaking audience in Pakistan? Or is it done to attract spectators from Bangladesh or West Bengal, keeping in mind this is the age of OTT platforms?

I would love to see the other clips where Bangla songs have been used in Pakistani serials. I think that is fantastic. I’m not personally aware of it. It’s incredible if that’s happened. But when I used this song, there was no motive in mind. It was just a beautiful rendition by Sharvari, and it went well with the story. That was the main reason. I’m just very happy that so many years after the serial was aired, it has been noticed and appreciated. That is really heart-warming to realise that.

Last question. How difficult is it for today’s artists to proactively share the cultural legacy of the subcontinent? Are there social or political obstacles? If the answer is yes, then do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?

It’s a good question. It’s unfortunate that one of the first casualties of differences between governments are the artists. They should be the last ones affected. It’s funny that trade goes on, other exchanges go on but the artists on all three sides are always marginalised. That is unfortunate. However, there are people who are still trying to collaborate. As you know, I’ve done Ramchand Pakistani in 2008, I’ve done Ek Jhoothi Love Story for Zee5, hopefully I’ll be doing another one for them. I hope this exchange continues because that is the only way, I feel, for people to get to know each other. Because there is ignorance and lack of understanding but so many similarities, so many things we share: the love for the land, for food, for clothing. There’s so much that is similar, even though we are different. There’s a shared humanity that exists in all three countries. I don’t think enough has been done to highlight that in a positive way. I hope all the governments loosen the leash because artists and art are all about creating an understanding and respect for each other.

I also feel Pakistan is unfortunately under-represented in both India and Bangladesh, especially in India. Not enough Pakistani drama or music or books get shared in your country. Whereas there’s a lot more coming in from India. But one has to always hope and not be negative. We must always hope for a better future.

Published on https://enewsroom.in

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