It’s Not About the Medal

Social Commentary

It’s Not About the Medal

Illustration: Mudit Ganguly

 

W

here have you gone, Joe DiMaggio/

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Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you

This last week, in the grip of an Olympic fever, I’ve heard Mrs Robinson on loop, going back to these lines over and over again. And in the last few days, more than a billion set of lonely eyes have been sated, consoled, and elated.

This last week hasn’t been about the two medals that came home. Dipa Karmakar proved that when she found a place in our collective consciousness even though she came back empty-handed. A medal is an achievement, but the pride and honour that the trinity of Sakshi, Dipa, and Sindhu have bestowed on us, is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Three unknown girls, playing three unlikely sports have changed the mentalscape of a nation and in doing so, they’ve filled our dark, cynical hearts with abundant, glorious hope.

A professor of mine would holler in class, “By God, each one of you is God.” It came to be the only reason I never cut his lectures. For a middling boy from the middle-class means, no hit came close to feeling so good, as when I heard that I could be God. Maybe God is mediocre but in that little classroom in Sion, that hollering man filled me with hope.

But hope is not the currency we deal in. We’re a country that lauds consumption, fervently praying to the Gods of free-market economy, a Big Mac in one hand and a Coke in the other, steered by a CEO who only goes by the numbers. India is so busy chasing the vision of a corporation that we’ve let go of the idea of a nation – at least one that refuses to be hemmed in by the phrases “soldiers in Kashmir” and “gauraksha” – thus leaving us with the impossible task of coaxing emotion out of an indifferent youth. Economies may be built on consumption but nations are built on hope. Soul-lifting, unreasonable hope.

DiMaggio brought some of that uplifting hope to America in the summer of 1941. As World War II spread over Europe, and the Americans laced up their boots and strapped on their helmets to join the Allies across the continent, Joltin’ Joe set a record for a 56-game hitting streak. No matter how hallowed his score, no matter how it contributed to his heroic aura, it matters less than what he was able to achieve for the country: Bringing together a despondent nation, the executive and the ranch hand, who gathered around their radios to ask, “Did he get a hit?”

The DNA of a dream is irrational but it’s shaping is an act of reason, of planning, and of thought.

The hitting streak brought some succour to a nation preparing its young men to become cannon fodder. As documentary filmmaker Ken Burns put it, “DiMaggio was considered the glue that kept us all stuck together that summer.” More than 75 years later, on this side of the hemisphere, Sindhu and the girls just might be the glue that we need, a breath of fresh air that infuses some vitality into the summer of our discontent, pockmarked by rioting gaurakshaks and attacks on children.

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On my mind-numbing daily commute from Thane to South Mumbai, I’d often pass Aurora cinema in Matunga. On the day of a big release, I’d see thousands queuing up for the latest Rajini movie, many of them too poor to change out of a wholly torn shirt, too poor for shoes, and sometimes too poor for dinner. And yet they‘d line up for a movie where their hero doesn’t sell them a story: He sells them hope.

That hope is their dinner. It sees them through the night, and if the movie is good, maybe it will see them through the month. The more desperate your circumstance, the more you need to believe. In Rajini, in Sindhu, in anyone who is selling it.

So yes, we may debate Raghuraman Rajan, and GST, and federalism, and the fact that the farmworker has better roads on which he takes his Atlas cycle to the market and that there is a bulb with magical electricity now hanging in his hut. But it’s not the stuff that will make him whistle with joy. Watching Sindhu take on China will.

The final smash in which Sindhu took out an outranked player, the sight of Dipa racing toward her vault, the tigress that Sakshi set free as she pounced on her opponent, transcended all our divided ideologies, our class wars, our income disparities because all of them unleashed that age-old instinct we had learnt to put back forever; that animal which breathes slowly into our ears, “Anything is possible.”

But have the captains of our government heard the power of that breathless whisper? If you are managing 1.2 billion Indians and 1.2 billion different aspirations, the one thing that you can take a safe bet on is that each of them wakes up in the morning hoping it’s going to be a better day. Each of them, whether it’s the farmworker, the industrialist, the beggar, or the artisan. That’s hope, that’s promise. What are we doing to power that along and channel it into something monumental?

History is replete with examples of the power of sport in bringing together nations, quelling uprisings, and making its people stand for something larger than themselves. In the film Invictus, a fictionalised but largely accurate account of how, after being elected South Africa’s first post-Apartheid president, Nelson Mandela shrewdly seized the opportunity of the Rugby World Cup to help foster the country’s healing process and prevent a civil war that many feared was inevitable.

The DNA of a dream is irrational but it’s shaping is an act of reason, of careful planning, and of thought. A thought that is several times greater than the narrow confines of money and Bollywood/cricket popularity at whose altar we worship. Over a billion Indians need a million heroes, not five Bollywood actors and 11 cricketers.

To deal with our nation as people whose primal needs are all that need to be addressed, is to strip us of our humanity. If we want to power dreams, we need dreamcatchers and hope-mongers. Maybe it is time for the government to take a step back and focus on their core agenda and hand over the baton in sport. Maybe it is time to institutionalise support to private endeavours like Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy that hone sporting talent, instead of harbouring grand ambitions of hosting the Olympics. This shift in thought may not bring us the global validation we so crave but it will go a long way in keeping the flame alive in little hearts in the boondocks, where people lead lives of quiet desperation.

As Andy Dufresne – a man who conquered his desperation on the slim hope of freedom – said in The Shawshank Redemption: “Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

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