Clay vs Ali


Clay vs Ali

Illustration: Mudit Ganguly

Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr was the face I used to have in mind when I got bullied in the schoolbus as a boy. Muhammad Ali is the man I think of when I have to decide between my principles and how the world works. The universe separating boy and man got all blurred and bent out of shape, when I heard of Ali’s death. I don’t think I have earned the right to write the obituary of The Greatest. I can, at best, explain the place both he and Clay have built inside me – the place where a lot of “me” comes from.

Idolising Clay was neither easy nor therapeutic. A God who was comfortable anointing himself The Greatest wasn’t exactly a Bengali Bhadralok-friendly God and you had no business following such heretics. You see, in the Calcutta of the ’80s and ’90s, if you had ambition it was akin to having a permanent boil on your ass. You couldn’t sit easy and you never spoke about it – your atonement was a painful, uncomfortable silence. The omertà of the cultured Bhadralok. I wasn’t a cultured Bhadralok by any definition but I had jumped out of the loins of educated doctors and nursed on the sweet milk of Bhadralok culture. So for my parents’ sake, I had to hide the monster chip on my shoulder and the ambition to show the world something, anything.

My crass and un-Bhadralok secret self was further spiced with my limitless inadequacy with the English language and the fundamental inability to hold a conversation. If you were in an English-medium convent school (into whose parlours I snuck in when they weren’t looking) and had your English medium twisted around your Bengali ankles, you were asking for trouble with a BIG trombone up your ass. That trombone played itself out for me daily. Its notes were cruel as only schoolboy cruelty could be and its heavy bass was weighed down with ridicule, mockery, insensitive provocation, and violent japes of ingenious compositions.

When your English was broken, your articulation was a screeching testimony to a complete lack of it, and your demeanour was halting at best, apologetic at its very best, you needed a God from a less blessed background. You needed a God who was as damaged as you. You needed a Clay.

I believe his obstinate, bull-headed, and highly intelligent default state was the toughest pillar around which his personality was built. And his personality was anything but perfect.

Every time I was bullied, ragged, ridiculed, and otherwise made to feel like Bhadralok pond scum, I thought of Clay. Every time my accent, my silences, and my gargantuan awkwardness got in the way of my feelings, I thought of Clay. And every time the rich kids not just made fun of my English but also my existence, I thought of Clay. Thinking of Clay made the bricks in me harder. Thinking of Clay made me want to become steel.

So while the world today is pasting his quotes all over public walls to feel and promote vague senses of proximity to the butterfly who stung like a bee, I feel indebted to document my relationship with Ali. My homage to Ali, all through my life, was unlike other homages. Normally, the devotee and the deity are joined by a feeling of smallness felt by the former in the presence of the latter. Ali, however, made me feel larger and stronger. More decisive, more confident. And in some sense, he will always be a part of my decision-making apparatus.

But let me wind back a little to a time when Cassius Clay was a man standing for a few things. What those things were may not be easy to comprehend today – what with skin colour and war being subjects of an earlier, almost forgotten era. But Clay stood for something grander. He stood for himself. He did not start with “issues” like racism or the mindlessness of war. He started with not doing a single fucking thing that he didn’t feel a sanction for, from within himself.

He did not use his principles as bargaining chips. Rather, the bargaining chips were used to further embellish his principles. Ali’s greatness lay not in the fact that he stood for issues, but in the way he just was. I believe his obstinate, bull-headed, and highly intelligent default state was the toughest pillar around which his personality was built. And his personality was anything but perfect.

Ali’s world was made only of Ali. Ali’s mind was made only of his own idea of himself. Ali’s friends, Ali’s opponents, even Ali’s family, were props put in serendipitously for Ali to scorch people’s imagination. And yet, Ali, the faulty, damaged God built his own ragtag federation of disciples across the world: Blacks, yellows, reds, the halting, the lowly, and the fucked-up. And they were all united by the strongest thread of all – kinship.

How else can one explain a crazy convert with four marriages, nine children, and a bunch of affairs under his belt (that’s some underbelt) telling America to go fuck itself? How else can one explain a title-obsessed, publicity-aware battering ram with the speed of a hummingbird and the punch of a mule on cocaine, eventually getting reduced to a trembling heap and yet die as one of the most influential icons of our times? How else can one explain a black Muslim from across the seven seas shaping the germ of counter-culture confidence in a Calcutta boy struggling with his own inadequacies?

But who said our Gods have to be made out of comfortable clay? Ali, you will live forever in every punch I throw in my life. And Clay, you beast – I will always dedicate every punch I take on the chin to you. Fucking yin yang.