Great Indian family

Mindset

Great Indian family

IPL FAMILY: ‘Kabhi Khushi, Kabhi Glum’

I remember first getting hooked to cricket commentary at the age of six. We had a small Panasonic transistor which I carried everywhere with me, like a favourite toy. I used to call Malcom Marshall Milk — come Marshall. Then we got a radio, a proper five-band receiver, a Phillips Skipper. When India went to play Tests overseas, I’d set the station to Radio Australia at night, set an alarm for five in the morning. I drifted into sleep with sweet anticipation, cramped for space between the stolid Skipper and the red and gold Favre-Leuba.

The other day, while looking through a drawer at my parents’ place in Allahabad, I chanced upon a scrapbook I’d made at the age of 10. It’s a schoolboy’s album, an Indian schoolboy obsessed with cricket, pictures of players cut out from newspapers and magazines and stuck in a plain Bharat register with Camlin glue. There’s one of Shivlal Yadav and Ravi Shastri with the caption “Ice-Cool Spin Twins”, and one of Chetan Sharma, “Adequate but Not Deadly”, even a Sudhir Dar cartoon of Bishen Bedi and a blonde, “Do you make love with your turban on?”

It was a time when cricket was mostly untouched by television, big money endorsements and Bollywood. Things would change soon, dramatically, and very quickly. Far away, in the Arabian desert, Sharjah was waiting to happen. Subsequently, cricket in Sharjah evaporated in the desert heat but it made sure that Indian cricket would never be the same again. It was there, amongst the sand dunes and sheikhs, that Bollywood glitz, corporate and mafia muscle, and political power first came together in a heady cocktail, a cocktail that Modi refined and repackaged for his cronies and 21st century India.

In a story called, ‘The Great Game’, Amit Chaudhuri nailed the ‘family’ atmosphere of a Sharjah cricket match with characteristic wryness. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the IPL tamasha, “The Bombay ‘glitterati’ were there again, dutifully, the executive vice president of Pepsi sitting next to the chairman of the Board of Cricket Control in his dark glasses, their wives, in their flamboyant saris which might have received interrogatory looks from passersby in the streets outside, smiling vacantly at the camera at their friend in Bombay…Their children, in striped T-shirts or jeans, either leaned and lolled against their fathers or revolved like satellites around their parents and parents’ friends, tripping lightly down the steps.”

Sharing the spoils

The media might have gone hammer and tongs at Modi and Tharoor, ranted about corporate ethics and nepotism, but the fact remains that for the man on the street all this really doesn’t matter; it is part of the natural scheme of things. The average Indian is comfortable with the idea that you share spoils and riches with your family and close friends, the muh bola bhai, the rakhi sister. Given this, it would have been fitting if IPL stadium DJs, instead of playing Queen’s jaded anthem ‘We Will Rock You’, had played Sister Sledge’s (equally jaded but more apt) ‘We are Family’: “Living life is fun and we have just begun/ To get our share of the world’s delights.”

The family can be at loggerheads at times, like the BCCI is now, but even then the idea is to conduct business under the same roof, much like a grocery store divided amongst two brothers and their wives. The counter on the left, with all the shelves, belongs to brother A, the one opposite to brother B. The two brothers are not on talking terms, and maintain separate accounts, but still conduct business from under the same roof, often compete in selling the same products. Yes, in India, family is paramount. And we learn this while still very young.

My first brush with it was when my school, an all-boys’ grind for more than a century, turned co-ed. Of course, we were very excited. Still, it wasn’t lost on us, even at 15, that the reason for this dramatic change was not what our headmaster claimed, “I want to throw some roses among the thorns.” The real reason was this: His daughter wanted to study commerce, and in those days, girls’ schools in Allahabad didn’t teach commerce. What could be simpler than upturning the school constitution and making it co-ed? As soon as his daughter passed out, the rules reverted to what they were previously. The girls abruptly vanished into thin air. No one questioned the validity of the headmaster’s decision. The general feeling was: It’s his kingdom — this school; it was the least anyone could do for his daughter, bend some rules and add a few clauses to accommodate her.

Now, look at Chirayubhai, the octogenarian who has taken over as interim IPL chief after Modi’s departure. He’s got his entire family on board too. He is CMD of Alembic, the Rs 1200 crore pharma giant. His wife is a co-director there, while his three sons have all joined the family business. This family obsession cuts across the middle class: Businessmen, industrialists, actors, doctors. Once the family patriarch has located the honey pot, the rest are supposed to gather around it. So a doctor’s son will become a doctor and join the family nursing home. Dentists’ sons often become dentists, for why let the legacy go waste? Despite 15 years of capitalism, we are still not comfortable with the notion of an individual with a life plan of her own, family be damned.

In our obsession with family, we have a lot in common with the Irish. Take the case of the Robinsons who are involved in one of the biggest scams in Northern Irish political history. This January, a BBC documentary revealed that Iris Robinson, wife of Peter Robinson, a powerful politician himself, had, at the age of 59, solicited 50,000 pounds from two property developers to help fund a business run by her 19-year-old lover. I suppose, like Shashi T, she could have claimed she was just a mentor; instead, she had a nervous breakdown. But that wasn’t all. It turns out the Robinsons went on a house-buying spree, from London to Florida. Their new house in Belfast Hills has a wonderful view: On the left is his constituency, on the right hers. The family saga didn’t end there: Peter employed one son as parliamentary assistant and their daughter as office manager, while Iris’ staff included their elder son and daughter-in-law.

Playing ball

To understand corruption in Indian cricket, it’s also useful to look at Italian club soccer in the 1950s. In 1993, Ian Hamilton wrote an epic essay in Granta on the Geordie genius Paul Gascoigne. In the essay, he spells out the differences in the two footballing cultures, “Italians were more passionate about the game than we (the British) were but they were also, or therefore, more corrupt…Their clubs were richer than ours, their rivalries more vehement, but this was only because they are owned by industrial chieftains and political hustlers who were using the game to promote themselves, their businesses or their careers…We heard of back-handers, under-the-counter payoffs, fixed cup-ties, referees who could be bought, horrors unimaginable in our decently feudal dispensation.”

These comparisons with Ireland and Italy help us, to some extent, come to grips with the problem at hand but they cannot be used to justify corruption. For the Italians cleaned up their club soccer a long time back, and Mrs Robinson is in deep trouble in Belfast.

Little of the sort is going to happen here. One bunch of goons will be replaced by another. It’s really the family playing musical chairs amongst itself for the umpteenth time. All we can do is sit, watch and clap. For this is the Indian way. Surely, we must be made of the crookedest timbre that humanity has ever had on offer.

(The writer is the author of ‘Eunuch Park’)

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