Cricket and The Crisis of Indian Masculinity (Or, Sydney Redux)

Rather convoluted title, no? Forgive me. I recently posted an item about the increasingly aggressive and militaristic themes used to advertise IPL teams, when I recalled another draft I never completed about the Sydney Test. 

Over a year having passed now, it’s clear that the Sydney Test between India and Australia was a seminal moment in the cricket world. You have the umpiring errors, which led to the referral system now widely in place; you had a near-split between the Indian and Australian boards, and you had the sledging moment between Andrew Symonds and Harbhajan Singh. While Singh went  on to bigger and better things, Symonds lost his way, bitter at his team and Cricket Australia. The Australian team itself also fell a notch; they lost the next Test at Perth, drew the last one in the series in Adelaide, and then enjoyed one of their worst years in a decade. 

I want to talk a bit more, though, about the Indian side. Much of the debate in the Symonds-Singh affair centered around Singh’s alleged comments, and whether they were racist to begin with. Lost within all this noise, however, was any discussion of whether Singh should have said anything to begin with. In fact, most Indian observers were only too happy that their cricket team was “giving it back” to the Australian side. Indeed, it seemed most Indian fans wanted more aggression — more sledging, higher run-rates, more daring declarations, more ruthlessness. I don’t think it’s a coincidence India’s best bowlers are now seamers, whereas before, its spinners were its pride. 

Perhaps this feeling is limited to cricket, but I’ve suggested otherwise. In the last two decades or so, a far-right Hindu movement has emerged in India and gained increasing power (the 2004 elections were a slight setback). Anyone familiar with this movement knows it advertises a particularly aggressive brand of masculinity: the RSS has its uniformed boys clad in brown khakis; the Shiv Sena (a large party based out of Mumbai) worships Shivaji, a Maratha warrior who enjoyed middling military success before the modern era. In Gujarat, meanwhile, we have the infamous Narendra Modi, who as chief minister presided over (some way organized and encouraged) massive anti-Muslim riots that featured some of the worst communal and anti-woman violence seen, even by India’s terrifyingly shoddy standards. 

The RSS brand of masculinity stands apart from previous Indian models of masculinity, like those found in Gandhi’s political thought and ancient Hindu epics. Martha Nussbaum, a noted American academic, has diagnosed this new militarism, which finds its roots in a paranoia and insecurity towards the West:

[As] I’ve noted, the traditions contain a wound, a locus of vulnerability, in the area of humiliated masculinity. For centuries, some Hindu males think, they were subordinated by a sequence of conquerors, and Hindus have come to identify the sexual playfulness and sensuousness of their traditions, scorned by the masters of the Raj, with their own weakness and subjection. So a repudiation of the sensuous and the cultivation of the masculine came to seem the best way out of subjection. One reason why the RSS attracts such a following is the widespread sense of masculine failure.

I think we’re seeing this same sense play out in Indian cricket. We want Indian cricketers to respond to Australian antics; indeed, more fundamentally, at some sense we want to be just like Australia and win every game and absolutely dominate. 

Nussbaum rightly notes, however, that other Indians, most notably Gandhi, offered a broader range for the definition of masculinity:

[Gandhi] showed his followers that being a “real man” is not a matter of being aggressive and bashing others; it is a matter of controlling one’s own instincts to aggression and standing up to provocation with only one’s human dignity to defend oneself.

Perhaps some readers will deny any connection between this larger presence in Indian culture and Indian cricket itself. But I think the trend’s there for all to see: notice, for instance, how Zaheer offers a primal scream after taking a wicket (something he started doing only after India’s tour of England, when the jelly beans incident pissed him off), or how Gambhir actually physically assaulted Shane Watson during a Test match. Notice, also, how the Indian team doesn’t act in the same manner against “non-white” teams, but only with Australia. For whatever reason, we’ve allowed Australia’s dominance to get under our skins and our response — we should act just like them — isn’t exactly edifying or even how we play cricket.

As Ashis Nandy once observed, cricket was invented by Indians and discovered by the English. That’s true, he said, because much more other sports, cricket relies on the fate and chance and luck, not just human agency, skill and perserverence. It’s a game open to the natural elements and, for many years, that’s how India played it, preferring draws to the all-out win and producing wondrous spinners over great seamers.  That’s changing now.

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3 thoughts on “Cricket and The Crisis of Indian Masculinity (Or, Sydney Redux)

  1. […] other words, there’s life in this game. Regular readers know my longtime praise for Ashis Nandy’s The Tao Of Cricket, which argues that cricket relies more on fate, chance […]

  2. […] Nussbaum, another (white) foreigner has diagnosed this trend very well: [As] I’ve noted, the traditions contain a wound, a locus of vulnerability, in the area of […]

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