Tackling Tactic

Sports and leagues are today wedded to each other, be it cricket, hockey, kabaddi or football. But this piece is not about those conglomerates; it is about a game that does not register in our sporting consciousness but has been played in the Indian sub-continent for over a century: rugby, a sport that we view as ‘people hitting and jumping on each other for an odd-shaped ball’.

Like cricket, it was introduced to India by the British. As a matter of fact, the All India & South Asia Rugby Championship has been played every year since 1924. Now if I tell you that India has a women’s rugby team, I am certain that most of you would be surprised. Due to the efforts of coaches such as Surhud Khare, who first introduced rugby to a few girls in Pune, we have a national team. The first Women’s 7’s Tournament was held in Pune in 2008, with teams from Pune, Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir and Hong Kong participating. In 2009, after the All Women 7’s event in Mumbai, the first Indian Women’s Rugby team was formed.

In spite of very little support, attention and encouragement, the women playing this sport have worked tirelessly to make this their life. The national team has even had some victories under their belt in the five years of competing at the international level. To put this in perspective, let us remember that India won its first Test match in 1952, only after 23 games over two decades.

The girls playing rugby look forward every year to the one major tournament: the national championship. This keeps them driven and focussed. But they had hoped this year would be special with the prospect of representing India at the recently-concluded Incheon Asian games.

Over the last one-and-a-half years, every member of the team hoped to make a mark in the Asian games. They put in many hours on the field, in the gym, working on tactics, strategies and honing their skills. Rugby, being a physical sport, meant that they had to adhere to strict diets and invest in protein supplements. They got hardly any support from corporate houses or the Sports Ministry. They put their education at risk, delayed surgeries, and worked at odd jobs to make the extra money. But they did not view any of this as a burden since the dream of playing at the Asian Games kept them going. Unfortunately, this dream ended rather abruptly.

The Sports Ministry decided to prune the number of sportspersons sent to the games to 516 from the 609 sent to Guangzhou, China. The ministry selected only those team sports in which it felt a top-eight finish was possible. Now by itself this may not seem to be unfair but take a look at the context. These decisions were not made two years ago; they were made at the last minute. This meant that all these girls who had believed that they would represent the country were suddenly told that it was not possible.

There is more to why such decisions don’t make any sense. The ministry’s argument, I am sure, is about the team’s ‘competitiveness’. These sportswomen hardly get any international exposure. They have hardly three weeks to prepare even for the few international tournaments they participate in. What has the ministry done to uplift the standard of the game? How can the ministry create standards for selection when it does not provide enough support for the sport itself?

More than just this one event, the Government of India — or for that matter any of us — do not cherish people who play sports that have ‘no TRP rating’; if the players are women, it is even worse. Today players such as Annapurna Bothate, Saloni Prachande, Neha Pardeshi and Vahbiz Bharucha don’t know if this sport really has any future in this country. Their spirit is gutted.

Though rugby players are not alone in this situation, this piece is anchored around women’s rugby for another reason. In a patriarchal country like ours, it becomes significant when women choose a sport that challenges social prejudices and masculine notions. Shouldn’t we, as a modern society, grasp the social relevance of their courage and provide them every support they need? Even as we rejoice in the successes of Mary Kom on celluloid, we still treat women in sports as second grade sporti-zens. Nobody is asking for favours and I am sure these rugby players will be the last to accept ‘gender-based charity’, but they demand respect. Not an unfair request, is it?

Originally written for The Hindu

Addicts to sensation

It was like any other day. I sat with my eyes moving from my gmail inbox to an English news channel, which drew me, need I clarify, towards the United Nations, with our Prime Minister emphatically making his presence felt on the minds of everyone inside and outside that iconic space. Will he address the ‘K’ issue? What will be his form of rebuttal?

But suddenly the scene shifted. It was a pavement in Chennai. Women and men were bawling, screaming and cursing the judge who had the gall to send their beloved Amma to jail. Anchors and on-site reporters from Chennai and Bangalore gave us a running commentary on every car, cycle, auto and van that entered or left the court house or Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s residence.

Cut the scene here…

Within minutes, we were transported back into the United Nations and its vicinity to feel the Modi wave. Supporters had arrived in and around his hotel and the excitement was palpable.

In between all this there was the small matter of the floods in Assam and Meghalaya. As I write, I understand that over four lakh people have been affected and 85 people are dead. But this ‘minor’ story was like a 30-second ad film placed between two mega-serials.

This sequence repeated itself through the day with the occasional Asian Games news sandwiched in-between. All in all, that day, Jayalalithaa was the star.

The reporter around the Modi fanfare was as charged as every one of the fans in New York. The anchor in the studio was pumped up and Modi’s every word was heard and noted. But when it came to Jayalalithaa, the reporting on this channel became somewhat, shall I say, detached, impersonal.

But when the telecast turned to the floods, the anchor could be seen attempting an empathetic tone.

Is it humanly possible for a person who jumps from story one to three within 10 minutes only to swipe back to story two to actually feel? The truth is that, after a point of time, the anchor is an actor who knows how he needs to sound and look depending on the story being told. He is the package, curated to perfection giving us ‘content’ that after a point is immaterial. Why do I say immaterial? Because, on that day, people losing their homes and lives in Assam were not as important as Modi or Jayalalithaa. They could wait for another 24 hours to receive their television time-share.

One may say that news is like life where death and birth, joy and suffering come together, one after another. In a way, may be news channels are philosophical levellers. A fascinating thought indeed! But the issue here is not about the varied news reports being targeted at us. It is about a conscious plan to sell news, where the channel clearly places market value on the kind of news that needs to reach us.

Even in tragedy there is saleability. The floods in Kashmir have greater visibility than those in Assam.

But this is not just about the television channels; it is as much about us sitting on our couches demanding from every thing excitement, instant gratification and titillation. We are interested in the news not for what it conveys but for how it does so — the more exciting, the more shocking, the better. We will complain that an anchor is noisy, jingoistic and violent; yet night after night at 10.00 p.m. we will watch ‘him’ hyper-ventilate from his vantage position. Every TV station knows this and plays to this reality; it is only in degrees that they differ.

Are television channels responding to our shallowness or is it the other way around? Does that really matter; we are all the same, aren’t we?

We are all consumers; news consumption is not any different from buying a Coke to satisfy our craving for sugar and caffeine. Just like the anchor, we too shift gears for every story, not knowing what we felt for the story that just passed.

But unlike make-believe entertainment, here the news channel has only so much control over what is fed to us. Depending on what or who would catch our eyeballs for the longest, the time allocation is varied, but in essence keeping to a show of variety. We ‘news junkies’ are exactly that — junkies. We don’t know why we watch news, but delude ourselves that we are more in touch with the world and that we do care.

We are addicts to sensation. That is what we are, addicts, hooked to our daily joint — news.

Originally written for The Hindu