Of Cricket Fans And Memoirs

Last week, I sent in the draft manuscript for my next book–“a memoirish examination of the politics of cricket fandom”–to the editors at Temple University Press. The book, whose description, not title, I have indicated above, will now be reviewed, revised and then finally rolled off the presses as part of the series Sporting, edited by Amy Bass of the College of New Rochelle. By way of providing an introduction to the book, I’ve taken the liberty of excerpting–what else–the book’s introduction below.

Introduction

This is an autobiographical book by a voluntary exile, an immigrant. My cohort is famously supposed to suffer from dissociative identity disorder, “the presence of two or more distinct identities…with at least two of these…recurrently taking control of the person’s behavior.”[1] Inconsistency and flirtations with incoherence have thus been an inevitable feature of my being; I carry within me many unresolved tensions. Migrants tell stories of travel, of transformation both external and internal; this is mine. It marks and documents changes—political, emotional, and perhaps moral too.

I have chosen to tell this tale through cricket: a story about that game’s presence in my life, and how my response to its offerings—sporting, aesthetic, and political—reflected my changing perceptions of myself, and the nations and cultures, those by birth and those adopted, that I called my own. As I grew and was displaced, spatially and psychically, my understanding of the activities of men in white changed. I understood their doings differently; I fitted them into alternate templates of understanding. Most broadly then, this book details the transformation in my thoughts about the cricketing world, its cricketers, its fans, and its peoples. To chart these changes is to contribute to a larger history of how those who leave home and live elsewhere devise identities for themselves.

Why tell such a story of personal change through an autobiographical recounting of the following of ‘a mere game’? Cricket has obsessed and moved me since I was a child; it has remained an invariant, an immovable fixture; it has intersected with every person and event in my life in some fashion. It thus offers an exceedingly good lens through which to conduct an examination, admittedly and unavoidably partial, of myself. Cricket was not a domain in which I found myself transcending politics, a zone of dispassionate, detached, and impartial contemplation. Rather, it allowed for the vociferous expression of my political—and thus personal—sentiments, whether by something as overt as a written opinion on a blog, or as covert as the emotions that surged through me when I saw a scoreboard or a telecast of a game played far away.

So this story is a public accounting of personal change. I went from being a misautogenic Indian, the archetypal diminished post-colonial who took perverse pleasure in the thrashing of the Indian cricket team by its opponents, to becoming a fan of the Indian team, basking in its reflected glory as it embellished a homeward-bound look mounted from my adopted homes and cultures and made its activities the one domain in which I could feel and want to be Indian, and finally, ambiguously, someone with an indeterminate sense of nationality. Such descriptions do not do justice to the complexity of my life’s stations. Writing this book may clarify them for myself and possibly others too.

Like others who attempt to write memoirs, I’m struck by the intractability of this task. It is hard to tell a coherent story about yourself for public consumption. By our actions and our pronouncements we spin one outwardly directed version of our autobiographies; their incompleteness is palpably felt by, and is visible to, their subjects. We are aware we have kept a great deal, the proverbial ninety-percent, artfully concealed. So making this story’s central character more comprehensible, by greater confessional revelation or forensic investigation, is not straightforward. We have forgotten a great deal; we often remember incorrectly; we subject our autobiographies to persistent ongoing revision; we are good at suppressing and embellishing their details—where the devil supposedly lurks. (Though, like all immigrants, I remember the life left behind with greater clarity than the new one I constructed on distant shores.) In an attempt to make more palatable the unvarnished truth, we introduce incoherence; we might construct a too-sanitized picture of ourselves, struck by timidity at the thought of exposure. Our putatively refined exterior surfaces mask considerably less sophisticated interiors; in writing about the past, I must, as Ernest Hemingway once suggested, keep in mind the distinction between what I felt then and what I feel I should have felt then.[2] We have layers of accreted detail in our selves; a coherent story about ourselves, one we take hundreds of hours to recount on a therapist’s couch, might not be for the written page. Writing it is a lifetime’s labor; it would be tedious, of little interest to anyone. I am not close to solving these challenges.

My relationship with Pakistan—a love affair that went bad—constitutes a prominent and significant thread in this account; it illuminates a personal history of cricketing encounters between India and Pakistan. In writing that, I have perforce talked about national self-image and diasporic interactions, especially the ones online. The game of cricket—often, in naïve cricket writing, described as a force unifying nations and peoples and cultures—is all too often a divisive factor. It is not just so because “evil politicians are exploiting it.” The fans can, and very often are able to, exploit the game themselves; they bring their own agendas to their watching of cricket. If the game of cricket is a text, then its fans bring their prejudices and histories to their reading and interpretation of it. The oft-told tale of modern immigration is that of the diaspora bringing together two communities, of access to the other’s cultural productions and the Internet facilitating this process. Sometimes it goes the other way and conventional wisdom is upended; sometimes distance is found to have preserved desirable illusion.

There are other relationships here that changed. There was disillusionment, honeymoons that soured: the world of Anglo-Australian cricket, which established and represented cricketing ideals, standards of excellence, and cricketing rectitude, came to be understood by me as exerting ideological dominion, a mental hierarchy, a hegemonic control of cricketing information and its resultant value systems. India changed too, going from being a weak outsider begging for scraps and attention and respect at the cricketing table, to becoming an arrogant financial dominator of cricket, one that dispensed largesse to those clamoring for it and demanded its pound of flesh in return. Balancing these two perspectives in a stereoscopic vision of the game has often introduced dizziness. Writing about them may induce some much-needed clarity.

It is a philosophical commonplace the most elaborate of intellectual systems and doctrinal commitments is a disguised autobiography, a confession. So too with sporting preferences and hierarchies; these serve as reflections of our inner beings, pointers to events, persons, and inclinations in our lives. To tell a story of lifelong sporting passion is to provide access to our inner selves, to write, as here, an autobiography. I found old loyalties to cricket teams disrupted, and new ones built, purely on the strength of associated personal relations and affiliations. As these changed, so did my ties with cricket.

My relationship with the Indian cricket team remains a complicated one. Its players carry many burdens. Most heavily of all, they bear the brunt of my frustrations with myself, the anger provoked by others but channeled to them, my need for them to wage battles on my behalf. Even those with whom they do not share nationality—in the official passport carrying sense—have aspirational claims to make of them, based on their shared provenance. They do double duty for those Indians who live overseas: not only must they win cricket games but they must also win them in a particular way. They are thus pawns, engaging in disputes pertaining to pride, respect, and the establishment of nationalist credentials. Their treatment by those who are not Indian is no kinder: they are expected to conform to standards selectively applied to them, drawn up and established by strangers from distant lands, caught up in archaic conceptions of them and their cultures. The Indian cricket team might not realize their cricket is a conflict, the parameters of which have been established by their countrymen and those they joust with—whether on the field, or in print or in virtual spaces online. The phrase “proxy war” is sometimes banded about when speaking of sporting contests; it is an appropriate one, for it speaks of the waging of political and cultural conflict by the medium of sport, for the settling of scores on a field. The Indian cricket team often has to play its overspecified role in such battles; it is expected to provide healing balms to wounds inflicted by nations and history. Its task is exceedingly onerous.

Cricket often brought forth unflattering dimensions of my always-under-construction self. I consider myself a political liberal and progressive, but I have been prone to illiberal tendencies and thoughts. In my watching and understanding of cricket I was often vulnerable to an unvarnished, unreconstructed take, an immediate, visceral response clouded by emotion. I was susceptible to nationalist propaganda, to faux patriotism, to prejudice of every sort. In using these terms I am aware I am being more reflective than I ever was, that my writerly self might be considerably removed from my other selves. Cricket was able to bring out the best and the worst in me; my responses to its offerings often offered me clues to understanding which aspect had come to the fore.

My identity is still not determinate. This book is an attempt to make its outlines just a little less blurred.

[1] Charles Simic. ‘What A Beautiful Mess,’ New York Review of Books, 20 February 2014, at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/feb/20/what-beautiful-mess.

[2] Geoffrey Wolff Intro, Best American Essays 1989, Ticknor and Fields, Boston, 1989, page 29.

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