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A MATCH THAT LIGHTS

Not being among the lucky ones who could convert a working Saturday into a holiday because India was playing Pakistan in the World Cup, I managed to catch up with the match only late into the Indian innings. The internet informed — as did the frequent shouts from the streets — that there had been a Tendulkar storm in reply to Pakistan’s 273. The weather was looking good for India. There were about 15 overs to go, but at the rate the Indians were going, I risked missing the finish if I tried to cross half of Calcutta to reach home. A split-second decision, and I landed at a restaurant-cum-bar on Bentinck Street, right behind my office.

The familiar, relaxed and sparsely-populated interiors of the restaurant had changed into a crowded and noisy space. The commentary from the three television sets was lost in the din and the ringing of cell-phones. The composition of the crowd was an interesting study — a cross-section ranging from unfortunate ones who had had to work for the better part of the day to those who thought the match was too exciting and important to be watched in the staid company of wives and children.

Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh were guiding India to what appeared to be an easy victory. A collective shout would escape the restaurant crowd every time willow touched leather, so that it became difficult to distinguish boundaries from ones or twos, or even a dot ball, if one were not closely following the movements on the screen. And in such distracting company, it is difficult to stop the eye from flitting from the screen to the activities all around and back. As a result, dismissals sometimes have to be watched in replay.

It was while negotiating the live telecast and a livelier group of viewers that I saw the TV camera pan on a section of the gallery. It zoomed in on a banner enthusiastically held up by an Indian fan. The banner had an crude outline of the Taj Mahal, with an accompanying slogan about the greatness of the Indian team. A voice from a nearby table suddenly rose above the din: “Arre, Taj Mahal kyon dikha raha hai' Ram mandir dikha” (Why the hell are you showing the Taj Mahal' Show the Ram mandir instead.). There were noises of approval, and the crowd went back to watching and cheering.

India won the match in style. And then came the assault of the cell-phones. Every cell-phone owner in the restaurant — roughly three-quarters of those gathered — seemed to have a Pakistan-supporter to call up and abuse. In the table next to mine, a middle-aged man, who had been acting as the resident cricket expert (interestingly, with a prominent tika on his forehead), was heard explaining on his mobile how the Mohammed Kaifs and the Zaheer Khans can never be relied upon — never mind that the former made a spirited 35 and the latter took 2 wickets.

On the way back home, old scenes — of jubilation and revelry, bordering on mayhem — were revisited. Similar scenes have been witnessed on nearly every previous occasion when India beat Pakistan. But what has changed, slowly and almost imperceptibly, is the manner in which a large section of Indians chooses to watch an India-Pakistan match.

Sentiments of nationalism always run high when the two countries face each other on the cricket pitch. Since when and how this particular and special kind of nationalism started to become coloured by religious considerations is difficult to pinpoint. But it is a telling fact that in the attacks on Indian cricketers’ homes and property after their defeat to Australia, the player targeted after the captain and the vice-captain was Mohammed Kaif, one of the juniormost members of the team. The attacks on Kaif’s house in Allahabad cannot be explained by saying that he was going through a bad patch. So were a few others, but they escaped the public’s ire.

If this is too flimsy for proof, what about the reports that started coming in from Ahmedabad and other parts of Gujarat after India won' An 18-year-old youth was killed and several injured as Hindus and Muslims clashed over the outcome of the match. It is important to note that the dead man was a Muslim, who “was struck when he came out of his house hearing the commotion”. Newspaper reports will only go so far, but from the pointers they provide, one can attempt to reconstruct the genesis of the violence: India wins, people come out to celebrate in the streets, the revelry takes a communal turn without much provocation (Pakistan is a Muslim country, and therefore Indian Muslims must be supporters of Pakistan, they assume, like those calling up “Pakistan-supporters” at the restaurant), the police arrive and fire at the first person they see, even if he happens to be a mere onlooker.

In cities like Ahmedabad, which are like volcanoes waiting to erupt, the effect of such exultation is captured in the photograph, carried by many newspapers on Monday, of a burnt scooter with a young man looking at it with fear on his face. There are other people in the picture, but they pass by the scooter as if it were something as innocuous as a post-box. The image brought back memories of a year ago in Ahmedabad, Vadodara and other parts of Gujarat. And it was certainly not by random choice that two one-day matches in the India-West Indies series were allotted to Ahmedabad and Vadodara a few months after the Gujarat pogrom, and some weeks before Narendra Modi faced the ballots.

On the eve of the match at Ahmedabad, the Indian team visited the Shah-e-Alam camp for “riot”-victims. Like all such events, this one was also a public relations gesture, thought up by the team’s image-managers for the benefit of the media. How could this visit have affected members of the team like Mohammed Kaif and Zaheer Khan (who, incidentally, represents Vadodara in the Ranji Trophy)' There is no evidence whatsoever of the the performance of Indian players being influenced by the communal overtones around them. Yes, Mohammed Kaif scored eight and four in Ahmedabad and Vadodara, but then, this was entirely in keeping with his string of poor scores throughout the series. Mohammed Azharuddin has been one of the most prolific scorers for India against Pakistan in Sharjah, and most of his sterling knocks were post-Babri Masjid.

This is why it bothers all the more that a Mohammed Kaif should be considered less valuable than even a Dinesh Mongia, and that painting a Taj Mahal on a banner should be regarded as a sign of siding with “them”. Even in the charged sectarian climate of the country, cricket had been one of the last bastions of amity between the communities. Even on the morning of the match, there was reason to believe this, as newspaper pictures juxtaposed people praying in a city mosque and in a temple for India’s victory. But in less than 24 hours, the country, and the city, showed that it is naïve to harbour such notions.

If cricket can be used to bring countries and communities together, it can equally well be used to drive them apart. No matter what experts like Imran Khan feel, promoting cricket between India and Pakistan will be an exercise in futility after Black Saturday.

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