Lower in the order?

Lore about persons — a major form of ‘folklore’ — enters the universe of dry facts in a most unobtrusive fashion. Facts give you the empirical values of a place, act, achievement or person. Only when those are splashed with the colour of stories and legends do we really come to ‘picture’ the impact and magnitude of the person. This is nowhere more real than in the world of sport. Even during the playing days of an individual, he has begun to create a ‘tale’ of his own, spin a legend.

Folklore is always based on some ‘factual’ settings and events but within that reality lies — and grows — with a life of its own a story that brings the protagonist to life.

Here is one.

The place: Chepauk cricket stadium, Chennai. The time: 1947 I think, as my father, who narrated this story to me, was 23 years old. A stylish Sri Lankan batsman, Mahadevan Sathasivam, attired in a full-sleeved white shirt, handkerchief around his neck is dispatching the South Indian IX bowlers to all parts of the park.

All this is known ‘fact’, but what comes next, I think, is a tale! At the crease, ‘Satha’ waits for the next delivery from Ghulam Ahmed (my imagination as my father never told me the name of the bowler). Satha commits to the front foot, only to be deceived by the flight and dip of the ball. Knowing very well that he cannot reach for the ball, he removes his bottom hand from the handle and, with a flick of his left hand sends the ball, over long-off for a six. This story is so important for us to understand the grand impact of Sathasivam on cricket. He was the first Sri Lankan cricketing superstar, one who has been more or less forgotten.

Last week one of Sri Lanka’s current star batsmen Mahela Jayawardene retired from the game of cricket. There is no necessity for me to reel out his record, as a simple Google search will reveal to us the quality of this player.

What we will miss in those numbers is the beauty of his cricket. But when he retired there was much less acknowledgement of this great cricketer than of even lesser mortals from India.

Somehow cricketers from Sri Lanka are rarely mentioned among the lists of wonderful players. They have been in the international world of cricket for a lesser period of time (One-day internationals from 1975 and Tests from 1982) but there seems to be another reason for this amnesia. The big brother (India) has always loomed large over its ‘small’ neighbour’s cricket and cricketers. In just cricket? I wonder!

Whether it is Chaminda Vaas, Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva or Sanath Jayasuriya, they have all seen their achievements fade; their names disappear very soon. Let us not forget that Sri Lanka did win the World Cup in 1996 and were finalists on at least two other occasions.

Players from India who have achieved far less are spoken about as ‘living legends’ across the cricketing landscape. The exception to this collective forgetfulness is Muthiah Muralitharan, but even there this mercurial cricketer was completely ignored by the World Cup organisers when he played his last one-day international in that famous final in 2011. In the chest-beating euphoria of the Indian victory, everyone forgot that the highest wicket-taker in the world of cricket would never again set foot on the field for his nation.

I am certain that, in the near future, another Sri Lankan legend will call it quits, Kumar Sangakkara. He, like his close friend Mahela, has scored thousands of runs, led his nation and even kept wickets with alacrity.

I hope that, when his time comes, we don’t make the same mistake that we have with Mahela. In a decade or so, another neighbour of ours will probably produce cricketing magicians. It is imperative that we don’t do a Sri Lanka on them. The cricketing world and its surrounding solar system has to notice every star that it has nurtured and recognise that each one of those has enriched the game and inspired many to embrace it.

Memory is a tricky thing; it disappears, hides and even lies to us. It diminishes many and enlarges some. All this is done by the number of times names and achievements are bombarded into our psyche. Let us not make the mistake of forgetting Mahela or the many others from this beautiful teardrop island. The cricketing world is a far more beautiful place because of them. Let legends and folk tales be told across the globe about Mahela and his compatriots for as long as this game is played.

In gratitude.

Originally written for The Hindu

The raga of a riposte

I will address some of the issues raised in the letters (South Pole, Aug 25) but will not be able to go into the nuances that lie within each one. Assuming I were to accept all the criticisms that have been levelled at me, I should rejoice believing that Carnatic musicians have created this perfect world of religious music, which is open to all and if any one finds himself outside it he has only his own lack of interest to blame. Also that we are completely nonsectarian and have no social prejudices.If this is the assumptive, self-congratulatory position we are going to take then I have absolutely nothing further to say.

On the observation that Carnatic music is spiritual music and only its religiosity is important, with the understanding of ragas, svaras, etc being incidental, what do I say except that if that were the case then we need not have a form called Carnatic music at all. Namasankirtana and bhajan would do a great job for religion and bhakti, so let us just go there. These `minor’ things such as `aesthetic structures’ that have been built into the Carnatic form can then be given up.

But that is self-deluding in the extreme. If one was to analyze the compositions of the great vaggeyakaras, study the treatises and trace the practice of the music itself, we will experience at once sanctity in musicality , and a bhakti in its aesthetics going to make the integrated beauty in the `Carnatic.’ I am well aware of the various nonbrahmin names thrown at me as examples of inclusiveness. I don’t have space for it here but I request readers who want to feel justified by bringing up those names to also read about the caste-related discrimination and obstacles most of them faced. Whether it was TN Rajaratnam Pillai or Madurai Somu the underlying caste battle they had to fight is evident and obvious.

I wish everything was as simple as “if you have talent you will be heard.“ There is a social structure built around an art world and everyone has to maneuver through that. Here it is brahminism and it excludes the rest of society.

Let us not trivialize the great art of nagasvara by saying “There can be no auspicious occasion without the great nagasvara“. Do we really listen to the `great’ nagasvara at a wedding? Temples today are not the main stages for Carnatic music and therefore even if nagasvara vidvans have some space left there it does not do any good for them. Where do they feature prominently in any major festival? How many nagasvara concerts can you hear in a December music season? Let us not become sanctimonious and blind ourselves to patent facts when we raise these arguments.

It should be understood that my critique of the system is also a self-critique, hence I accept that I have also been closed and elitist. I am trying to change and hope to succeed. It is completely wrong to say that there are a lot of accompanying musicians from other castes. There is a very small number of them in Tamil Nadu and rather more so in Kerala but in the Carnatic world as a whole they still constitute a tiny part.

It is quite astounding that we do not realize that hegemony and hierarchy are complex socio-psychological pressures.The elite groups exert a huge amount of psychological pressure over others and we need to recognize this. As a Carnatic community we have to accept that we are an unwelcoming lot. I know for a fact that when some people from certain other sections of society enter a sabha they do feeling somewhat self-conscious, as the Sanskritised atmosphere of the sabhas does impose a cultural pressure. I must add here that my demand for inclusiveness goes far beyond the traditional isai vellalar community. Nobody can be forced into the system but it is our duty to provide access with the sensitivity to understand the underlying fear and diffidence that the `others’ have when they want to enter the Carnatic world. What I will be doing will, I hope, be seen in what I do and I will not say more; the interviewarticle (Aug 22) says enough.

Originally written for The Times of India

Distinctly, DEATH

Death is a fascinating word, its origins being traced to Old Saxon Norse and German. It means the end of life, a permanent cessation of a body’s vital functions, extinction of life. Its synonym ‘mortality’ also connects quite beautifully with the Sanskrit mrit or the Persian murd. Death is a tantalising idea, which excites our mind, even if it is in the most morose sense. Hear the word and you visualise a corpse. The expression has no meaning, of course, for the corpse itself.

Death is a word for the living; a word for all of us who know that we will perish whether we want to or not. A person is dead only when someone knows he is dead and the moment that happens the dead comes alive. Every dead person is a silent commenter on the living.

Express rage at the killing of Muslims in Gujarat and immediately you will be dubbed a pseudo-secularist and asked “Have minorities not been killed in Pakistan?” If you were to express concern over the safety of Hindus in Kashmir, you would be perceived as a Hindu nationalist. I have just described the dead as Muslim and Hindu forgetting that they were human beings. So what am I protesting against? Can we ever condemn the death of people without dragging the dead into the religious divide? Or will I have to make sure that as soon as I say something about the dead Muslim I need to equalise that with a comment on the dead Hindu? The issue here is intent. Is my disgust about the killing of life or about religious identity? This is a question that I have to answer for myself.

Death is a pronounced differentiator between the urban and the rural. In mainstream narrative, the life of a city dweller is far more valuable than that of the villager. The urban vision of India is the only vision that we know, want to know and are constantly told about. The rural landscape is a fantasyland of natural beauty and some unreal old-world ethnic aesthetic. The stories of farmer suicides will flash across our TV screen and newspapers and all it will get from us is a non-linguistic groan of sadness. Our engagement begins and ends there.

But, all city dwellers are not equal in death. Caste, race and wealth separate us. A death in an upper-caste household draws my attention far more than that of a Dalit, that of a fellow-Tamilian more than a Minicoyan or a Mizo. My conscious mind tells me I am wrong. Don’t I feel the same anguish?

The uncomfortable truth is that I don’t. There is to death a distinct nearness, kin and class angle. I will go a step further and reveal that I find the way death is ‘celebrated’ in a lower caste funeral to be vulgar and crass and even a waste of ‘their’ money, while the spectacular obsequies of a business tycoon will be taken as standard and even touching. The passport I hold blurs my reactions to death. When the Malaysian airline crashed in Ukraine I was assured “No Indian was killed”. Was I supposed to feel happy? Relieved? Similarly some say why mourn for the death of Palestinians when there are people being killed in my own country? I didn’t realise sensitivity to bereavement has hierarchy or prioritisation.

The social or political value of a person can be gauged by every action that follows his or her death. Newspaper advertisements will tell you how important the individual was depending on the size of the advert, the editions in which it appeared and the number of times it appeared. The coffin itself is not removed from this narrative. The quality of the wood and the ornate designs on it are all status symbols. The size of the tomb is also indicative of the power and influence of the dead. As much as we would like to believe that all this is just a gesture of love, we know it is not.

Humanity has wasted centuries wondering where we go when we die and almost all the answers have only further sullied our societal attire. One dead person is rarely equal to another. The further the distance from the dead the less important they are. It is indeed ironically apposite that I write this piece on August 9, in the very week in 1945 when over 200,000 human beings were mass murdered by U.S. bombers in ‘distant’ Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Originally written for The Hindu

Woe, man!

Ever since we were told that India’s health minister held the opinion that ‘Sex education’ should be banned in schools since it was against our culture, this subject has come back into the narrative of public debate. The minister later clarified that this was not what he meant. But beyond the accuracy of the statement itself, the truth is that a lot of people feel this way about sex education. The question that arose for me was, why this discomfort?

In India, the passionate kiss or a tender caress can almost never be part of a mature conversation and especially if such thoughts are aired in the presence of a woman. That would be considered utterly reprehensible. We are a patriarchal and puritanical society and within this space, sex as a subject is taboo, especially with women. There is more to this than embarrassment or awkwardness.

In our minds sex education seems to hold within it a subtext; the unstated societal norm (created by men) that girls/women should not be exposed to or participate in such discussions. Those who break this norm will not fit into the idea of a ‘good woman’ or be considered — to use that Hidious expression — ‘marriage material’. Even though we know that girls experience and hence explore their sexuality as much a boys, we prefer to brush it under the carpet. In our consciousness we find it difficult to accept the fact that teenage girls like boys struggle with their own bodies and its transformations and hence need to be informed about that subject. This will of course result in girls becoming sexually and emotionally aware. But is this acceptable within our social framework? We after all live in a society where many feel women ‘invite’ molestation and rape when they dress in a certain way.

Women are seen as ‘sensuous creations’ that satisfy the man. Our films repeatedly portray women in such a manner. The man chasing the girl, using sexual innuendos to ‘acquire’ her is completely acceptable. But the girl is almost always innocent and succumbs. Even the girl who has spunk during courtship, once married suddenly turns into a shy and coy ‘Bahu’ and ‘patni’. The woman always belongs to someone. On the other hand sexual virility is celebrated in the man; ‘the macho man’.

A sexually sensitive, conscious and assertive woman is considered immoral. Similarly the idea that dancers are ‘easy’ or that all film actors are ‘fast’ comes from a deliberate negative typecasting of women. Therefore it is considered good for a woman to be sexually suppressed because that will keep her from ‘straying’. It is ingrained in us that sex is the domain that should be managed by the man and the woman’s job is to play by the set rules. Hence, there is no necessity for her to understand her own sexuality and responsibilities. In any case, even her sexual liberation can only be sanctioned by a man. The sindoor and the burqa are symbols of this arrangement. Our ideas of virginity and morality come from this twisted notion.

This socially sanctioned domination is the cause for the abuse of women. Let us not make the mistake of attributing these perceptions to the lack of education or exposure or associate them with the rural-urban divide. We are as a culture, extremely judgmental about people’s fidelity based on their sex, race and colour.

If men look at themselves even closer they will find this chauvinism ingrained even in the most liberal mind. Within that precious space shared by lovers there are times when the moment is not right for physical sharing. But men find it very difficult to accept ‘No’ for an answer; it hurts their masculinity. But women are expected to accept such a rejection from the man. The sharing of the physical is about love and trust, but even that is trapped in the man’s ego.

There needs to be a shift in the perception of sexuality in our society and this is where sex education can play a pivotal role. Sex education is not only about safe sex, condoms and AIDS. It must instil in every student a deep sense of respect for oneself and the partner both at a physical and emotional level. This learning is as essential for the girl as it is for the boy. The boys in fact have a greater responsibility in transforming the ‘man’s world’. They cannot see themselves as sexually and physically dominating creatures. This change has the potential of changing the sexual paradigms of society leading to a more gender equivalent and caring society.

Originally written for The Hindu