When Outlook invited me to write an essay for their cricket special, I said, “Sorry! Don’t know a thing about the game. It’s like I’m colour-blind, you know? But for cricket.” “Whoa,” said the man from Outlook. “You must be a total social pariah, right? So tell us what that’s like! Amazing. Seven-fifty words by next week?”
“Wait, but,” I spluttered. Too late. He’d put the phone down.
It’s not just cricket: it’s sports in general. I get no thrills watching teams of Neanderthals kicking an inflated bladder of polyurethane between goalposts or muscle-bound viragos in short skirts slamming fluorescent green missiles across a red clay court. In the case of cricket, it’s one team whacking a shiny red sphere so that the other members of the team can, ummm..., well! There we go. I can’t even understand the objective of the game. Fellows in white run about. The crowd roars. The score changes. And then one of the fellows in white is once again rubbing the hard red sphere against the sides of his pants in that ominous way, like a bull pawing the ground just before charging.
My explanation for the excitement that surrounds these activities is the R-word: Religion. Yes, it’s one of my themes of late. Public art installations, sports, romance—all, in my view, are expressions of religious fervour. Belief in a Higher Power provides an anchor in the Ocean of Doubt. However many children die in your arms, spouses divorce you, lovers betray you, dictators rise and fall, stock markets crash or recover, there is some corner of a playing field that is forever glorious. With victory. With defeat. With valour. With sweat. With passion.
Anything that mimics religion gains by association. You know how the concept of One True Love has been promoted relentlessly as the international gold standard of Romance? Well, I believe it’s a cunning extension of monotheism’s ever popular One True God concept. Celebrities who stray from monogamous ideals are burnt at the stake of public disapproval while those who remain faithful to one partner all their lives are showered with tributes and giant fan-followings.
Extend this idea to sports and you get a million fans chanting “Sa-CHIN! Sa-CHIN! Sa-CHIN!” and painting their faces with the tricolour in a close approximation of devotees chanting the Divine Name in a temple and ascetics at the Kumbh mela colouring their faces with saffron and white ash. At one time, an interest in sports was considered a distinctly masculine preoccupation, connected to physical prowess and the warrior’s ethic. But that’s changing, isn’t it? Sports has become a subset of religion and religion merged with patriotism long ago. So women, traditionally responsible for maintaining the spiritual core of the home, are bound to make space for these new gods on the altars of their private prayers rooms.
Where does that leave unbelievers like me? Just as you might expect, in a grey and silent space. There are neither the dizzy heights of victory to soar up towards nor the bottomless depths of loss to be shattered by. It’s not that I haven’t felt the occasional tug of faith. I can remember a night spent at a friend’s house once, years ago, to watch a match on her superior television set. As a teenager, I was dragged to a couple of games at Bombay’s Brabourne Stadium. And when I was a child and my father was ambassador to Thailand, the nawab of Pataudi stayed at our house. The other kids at the embassy were incandescent with envy, but I’d grown up away from the Motherland. I’d never heard of him and, therefore, had no idea how lucky I was.
Initiation to any religious faith needs to occur early in a person’s life and it’s obvious to me now, at 57, that I missed out. I cannot possibly memorise all the crazy terms, for instance. What’s a mid-off and who says it’s silly? Why are there legs before wickets, not whole bodies? Where are the maidens and what are they standing over? As for the ducks, don’t they get hit by all those sizzling balls? And who removes the poor things when they die? Is it the night watchman?
There’s just too much to learn and never enough time! In the dibbly-bobbly corridors of uncertainty, with no friendly white-clad gardeners to worship and no bails to lose, unbelievers like me were clean bowled by destiny a long time ago.
The author is an artist, illustrator and writer