Editor Anjali Doshi makes her selection from the Winter 2015 issue. We publish one article from each edition on the website, but you can see the rest if you subscribe or buy a single issue or four-issue bundle. Anjali has chosen Manu Joseph’s piece reflecting on the Indian identification with Rahul Dravid.
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I’ve always enjoyed Manu’s writing for its perspective and thoughtfulness. In “The Rahul Dravid Concession”, he offers a unique take on the admiration Dravid inspires in his fellow Indians. Could it be because he is proof, as Manu says, that “superstardom is not the preserve of unattainable genius alone”? Placed in a socio-political context, this adulation says much more about India than it does about Dravid.
Anjali Doshi, November 2015
THE RAHUL DRAVID CONCESSION
Manu Joseph on the new Nehruvians and the Indian disdain for flair
The question was: “Why are you – one of the most famous Indians ever, a global celebrity with vast romantic prospects – marrying a girl whom your parents have picked?”
I was 21, and it was the first question of my life in a press conference. It was an inauspicious start. The year was 1996 and the question was put to chess grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand, whose arranged marriage had been announced a few weeks earlier. For reasons I still do not know, his father was seated beside him at the press conference, which concerned a lecture Anand was to deliver. And it was his father who answered: “It is an inappropriate question.”
Obviously. So? That a question should have an answer is not a requirement of human communication, and certainly not the reason why it is asked. What, then, is the objective of a public question? Is it, as questions often are, an opinion masquerading as inquiry? Or an act of altruism – a person takes the risk of being shamed, or disgraced, for the small chance that a remarkable truth is spoken? Or is an unusual question a stunt performed in the shadow of a superstar? What did the young reporter expect Anand to say? “Like most Indian men, I totally trust my parents to find me a pure woman”? That would have been illuminating. So what is the objective of an indecent question? All of the above.
Seven years later, Rahul Dravid, who had dated women, entered into an arranged marriage. I have not had the opportunity to put the indecent question to him. Between Anand’s marriage, when Altavista and AskJeeves were popular search engines, and Dravid’s, when Google’s domination was complete, India had transformed. The urban youth were in the sway of the internet. Most urban Indians had a mobile phone. But something about the new Indian middle-class male had not changed. A meaning of Dravid’s arranged marriage is this: in a society where the state is useless and unreliable, the family is crucial, the family is the state, hence an individual concedes some liberties to the family out of necessity or in gratitude. It is tradition, and tradition often is the graceful kimono of practicality.
But that is not the meaning of Rahul Dravid. Rahul Dravid, as sculpted in Indian public imagination by his elite observers, was not an adorable apology for tradition and the right of Indian parents to decide whom their son would marry. He was and remains a symbol of change, modernity, urbane sophistication and erudition. The crucial question is not what he really is, but how his glorious statue came about. And why, no matter what he did or what he turned out to be, the master sculptors of public opinion around the world persisted with a beloved notion of him.
In 2011, Greg Chappell released his memoirs, Fierce Focus, which included an account of his torturous stint as India’s coach. (What use misery if it cannot be published one day?) In the book, Chappell presents his view of Sourav Ganguly, the Indian captain at the time when Chappell was appointed coach: “His problem was common in India, where the cultural upbringing of such young stars had it that parents, teachers, coaches and other mentors, managers and even sponsors, would make their decisions for them.”
Dravid is not a part of this severe portrait. Chappell does not pause to wonder if Dravid too – whose “cultural upbringing” had allowed his parents to choose his wife – might be letting all kinds of people make decisions for him. In fact, Chappell had only praise for Dravid, for his “skill” and “leadership”, and appeared to respect him more than Sachin Tendulkar.
Chappell’s infatuation is in line with the concessions that cricket’s intellectuals usually make in the analysis of Dravid. The only batsman who was called “The Wall” is the one who holds the record for having been bowled the highest number of times in the history of Test cricket, over 20 per cent of all his dismissals. Among batsmen who have played over 175 Test innings, only four were more likely than him to be dismissed in this manner. Not such a wall after all, but an enduring beneficiary of language. His inelegance, which he has always gracefully accepted, is consecrated as “determination”. His circumspection is feted as though he ever had a choice between flamboyance and caution.
The most unremarkable description of Rahul Dravid is that he had talent. Of course he had. Once, during the 2003 World Cup in South Africa, I asked him in the course of a brief interview that he had granted out of compassion for a persistent reporter, whether he was working on his wicket-keeping skills to ensure his place in the one-day side. He said it was an “unfair” question. He said he would find a place purely on the strength of his batting. Many would agree with him.
There was also much that he brought through his sense of ethics and decency and his ambassadorial articulation, which was indeed superior to that of most Indian cricketers. But on the high table of talent, Rahul Dravid was an everyman. That was, in reality, his charm among a class of his admirers. Dravid reminded them that superstardom is not the preserve of unattainable genius alone, and that there was a way a normal man can achieve. That was the unspoken Dravid hypothesis – a path to greatness exists. Not for a moment could Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara convey that. They, in fact, reminded the world that greatness was unattainable to most people. Dravid was the prophet, never the god.
His devotees then were and are the everymen, and those who had contempt for him were usually the spectacular and the stylish in their own spheres of work who believed they had the genius in them. It is a view that riles his fans, naturally – to be told that they love him because they, too, are ordinary. But ordinariness is not a deformity, it is a majority condition, the natural state of the world. Genius is the anomaly. Sport, at its peaks, is a measure of profitable anomalies. The rest of it is an equal contest between the ordinary. In its ability to move people, the idea of the “ordinary” is underestimated.
The literary critic James Wood, in a New Yorker review of Amit Chaudhuri’s novel Odysseus Abroad, wrote that Chaudhuri “has beautifully practised” the “refutation of the spectacular”. Wood goes on to say that “Chaudhuri casts a lingering eye on London in the mid-1980s. Nothing very much ‘happens’ in the course of its 200-odd pages; the book seems almost to relax itself into real time.”
Odysseus Abroad thus is a literary version of a Dravid innings. It opens with these lines: “He got up at around nine o’clock with the usual feeling of dread. He threw off the duvet. Still unused to being vertical, he pounded the pillow and the sheet to ensure he’d dislodged strands of hair as well as the micro-organisms that subsisted on such surfaces but were invisible to the naked eye. He straightened the duvet, tugging at it till it was symmetrical on each side.”
Wood’s description of Chaudhuri’s work as a “refutation of the spectacular” is filled with meaning for a reason that some of the fans and foes of Rahul Dravid would have immediately understood. Wood has borrowed the expression from Chaudhuri himself, who wrote this in a column in 2005: “When [Satyajit] Ray speaks of ‘life’ and the ‘raw material’ of life, he is speaking of a refutation of the spectacular that comprises the exotic, in favour of the mundane, the everyday, and the transfiguration of the mundane.”
Chaudhuri and Wood appear to see a distinction between “unspectacular” and a “refutation of the spectacular”. Seen in context, Wood’s use of the word “spectacular” does not mean “exotic” (Rushdie) alone, but also everything that “spectacular” means (Marquez, McEwan, Morakami). And the word “refutation” includes the sense of “rejection”. When Wood writes that Chaudhuri’s body of work is a “refutation of the spectacular”, does he presume that Chaudhuri is capable of the spectacular and has chosen never to indulge in the inferior art? It is an important question, and it can be asked in various forms to all of literature and Test cricket. If Chaudhuri is capable of the spectacular, then there is no evidence to suggest that because he has only “practised” the refutation. If Chaudhuri is not capable of the spectacular, then the “refutation” is a spectacular description of a mere necessity.
The lovers of Rahul Dravid, too, credit him with the “refutation of the spectacular”. They say he used to play Test cricket the way it was meant to be played – without the exoticism of risk. In their view, the spectacular, violent batsmen, like Virender Sehwag, were unsophisticated and their place in history is as entertainers of the unsophisticated masses. Even the genius of Sachin Tendulkar was suspect before the slow long-form of Dravid. In any case, spectacular innings in Tests were rare. Most of the time the flamboyant and the majestic were conquered, they paid the price for not being Rahul Dravid. Hence they were unreliable, unlike Dravid who was “Mr Dependable”. The unsaid supposition was that Dravid was capable of the spectacular but he chose the dignity of circumspection.
But there was a day when Dravid came out to bat, angry and determined to be marvellous. It was in the course of a one-day series in South Africa. Abused for weeks in the media for being slow, he decided to become a flashy beast. Allan Donald came steaming in. Dravid went on the front foot and hit him for a six over mid on. Some of us in the room burst out laughing. It was not joy, it was laughter at a sudden comical moment. He had hit several sixes before, but that shot was by a blind man. It was an unnatural act. He was not made for it. This is precisely the reason why some of his admirers see him as art – because he was not entertaining. It is a spurious argument.
But there is another way to look at Dravid as art. Millions saw themselves in him, the struggling underdog with limited skills, modest techniques compensated by laborious training, an ordinary man passing through moments of survival and triumph, his head always held high. Beauty is not all there is to a moment. Also, Dravid is art because he sustained the art of the others. He held the fort for the greater artists to thrive. And in his quiet endurance he animated the art of the most ferocious and cunning bowlers of his time. Canvas, then, as art? Maybe.
If Rahul Dravid were a literary novel, if he were a subjective art instead of the objective measurable art (which an athlete is), he would have found greater acclaim. In an ideal world the greatness of a novel would lie within its pages, but that is not how the world works. The fate of a novel lies in the prejudices and frailties of the cultural elite. It is they who make a novel great. And Dravid was always the beloved of a class of Indian sophisticates – the new Nehruvians, who saw in him the triumph of one of their own. It was a misconception but it has done its deed.
The world of the Nehruvians is, to borrow an expression from the writer JM Coetzee, “framed in English”. They are mostly Indians. Once, they were the old money, the socialists and Marxists, but now they are much more than that. They are still the primary patrons of fine arts and they engage deeply with the intellectual exports of dominant cultures. They read, they write, chiefly in English. They have long been irrelevant to politics and commercial cinema, and now to cricket, as rising opportunities in small towns have transformed the nature of national players. But they have a disproportionate voice in the media.
In a typical Indian newsroom there is a caste system – the reporter is usually, though not always, from a provincial or lower-middle-class background, who sends money to his mother and whose English copy has to rehabilitated by the editors, who are usually the Nehruvians. The greatness of Dravid did not emerge as a reported fact, but as an opinion of the editors, and of writers from good stock who wrote what is known as long form. What they saw in Dravid was an athlete who had attended an English-medium school and had gone to college; he was articulate in English and he would discuss the fine points of the game – unlike, say, Mohammad Azharuddin from another time, whose only stated analysis of cricket was: “Boys played well.”
This was also the reason why Greg Chappell found a connection with Dravid. It was a warmth that Chappell extended to Anil Kumble (who was somewhat posh too) and to no one else. There is a moment that Chappell describes in Fierce Focus: “Once in South Africa, I called in Sachin and Sehwag to ask more of them, and I could tell by the look on their faces that they were affronted.” Dravid then becomes the Australian’s cultural interpreter: “Later, Dravid, who was in the room, said, ‘Greg, they’ve never been spoken to like that before.’”
There is something outrageous about the scene. Tendulkar and Sehwag – one a genius and the other who has scored two triple-centuries, but both vernaculars – pulled up by an Australian coach in front of the urbane Dravid, who later makes an anthropological observation in English.
Noted Indian sportswriter KN Prabhu once told me that Tendulkar would have been a better batsman if he had been educated, by which he meant if he had gone to college. If Tendulkar had been educated, Prabhu told me, he would have had the intelligence to carry a lighter bat. I have heard similar views numerous times over the years about the intellectual inferiority of Tendulkar and the wisdom of Dravid.
A few years ago, the Nehruvians were shocked when it was revealed that Sehwag had no idea who the cricket legend Polly Umrigar was. Actually, not many in India seem to know him. In 2002, Umrigar went to the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai to watch a match without the proper pass and he was turned away by a cop at what was, in fact, the Polly Umrigar gate. But the Nehruvians could not comprehend the ignorance of a cricketer, a Test cricketer. Didn’t history matter at all? Didn’t what the Nehruvians knew matter at all? Is it enough to just score two triple-centuries in Tests? Shouldn’t a cricketer know his history? What kind of semi-literates were entering the national team? One can see how comforting it must have been for them just to look at Dravid.
Everything that mattered to them seemed to matter to him, or that was the impression Dravid gave. Sehwag, on the other hand, stood for the irrelevance of intellectuality. In the process, often he said the cleverest things. Once he told Harsha Bhogle in Hindi: “When you guys talk about cricket it seems very difficult. But it is not so hard when you are batting in the middle.”
The Nehruvians celebrated all that they could about Dravid – his “refutation of the spectacular”, his articulation, his reading, and the fact that when he toured Pakistan he had the curiosity to visit the relics of Harappan civilisation.
The Nehruvians built The Wall in their own image. And that was why Dravid was not, in reality, The Wall.
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