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Swaying the mass imagination of a nation

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Swaying the mass imagination of a nation

Mahatma On the Pitch

Author- Kausik Bandyopadhyay

Publisher- Rupa, Rs 395

The author creates a parallel between Gandhi and cricket, making the latter read like an alter ego to the former, and forcing one to rethink the understanding of both, writes BHARGAV OZA 

Kausik Bandyopadhyay’s Mahatma on the Pitch: Gandhi and Cricket in India, The Story of a Forgotten Partnership is a captivating read. It almost makes the reader imagine Mahatma Gandhi hitting the ball outside the stadium for a six! And that is why one will wonder about the absurdity of the mis-match. Gandhian idealism and cricket history — how can the two have anything in common, but the colonizer? How can the two even be served on the same platter? The former was a Swarajist. He championed the spiritual ideals of truth and non-violence. He tirelessly rebelled against the colonial masters. And simultaneously, he also reformed his own worldview. He fought with his own country-men over abolishing untouchability and reluctantly pursued secularism.

The latter is a sport. But, it is almost sketched as a Gandhian alter-ego. It was the white masters’ favorite pass-time which was used as a civilising tool for native Indians — often princes, to distract them from political mobilization. Today, the history of the sport has its own glorious milestones from when the cricketing bodies were first formed. Local clubs and gymkhanas unpacked it from royal British spaces, took it to streets, and made it accessible for commons. It is marked by the sweet taste of overwhelming victories, and also the bitter crushing defeats of national teams. Here, the author gets one to think about the symbolic moments when through its evolution, the game almost performed the Gandhian values of satya and ahimsa on the ground. It provided a level-playing field for people of all shades of caste and religion, minorities and subalterns reversing the Hindu-dominated, upper-caste narrative. This interesting juxtaposition runs throughout the book. Gandhi and cricket are their isolated selves. But, they are also seen interacting with the larger socio-political scheme of things. At times, this partnership seems forced and unnatural. But at other times, it seems intimate and inseparable.

Bandyopadhyay thoughtfully examines these aspects: What are the points of intersection between Gandhi and the game of cricket? What was Gandhi’s personal take on it, and how did it change over time? What was his personal relationship with cricket like, and where was the place for cricket in his spiritual world? How did Gandhi experience the inside of the game at different points in his life —as a child, a student, a practicing lawyer, a  Satyagrahi, a saint, a politician, a Swarajist... a Mahatma? Did cricket, in turn, as an institutionalised sport in free India, get influenced by the Gandhian ethos? Or, did it break away and subsume an altogether different form? How did the last few years of the Bombay Pentangular pan out in the larger political adventures of diverse actors: cricketers, fans, administrators and managers, Congress leaders, politicians, and colonial officers — after Gandhi’s wrath against communal cricket?

Bandyopadhyay has not focused on just Gandhi while talking about cricket. At various points in the book, there are references to characters like Baloo Palwankar, Ranjitsinh, BR Ambedkar, CK Nayudu, Vijay Merchant, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The writer has not isolated cricket from the larger political events panning out under Gandhi’s astute leadership. He has simply sketched Gandhi within an all-subsuming cricketing narrative. This cricket history includes Gandhian ideas on the abolition of untouchability; his commitment to Hindu-Muslim unity for a common freedom struggle, the Satyagrahas during his time in South Africa, and later during the Non-Co-operation, Civil Disobedience and Quit India Movements. Of course, his thoughts on communal cricket that changed the course of the Bombay Pentangular permanently, after 1941. All these impacted history of the game. Cricket, in turn, and the actors involved, often played ‘Gandhi’ on the field.  

However, we do not see any reflection of several significant themes that influenced Gandhi, the freedom struggle as well as the game of cricket, in the book. For instance, Gandhi’s thoughts on gender (except for scattered references like his choice for leading a spiritual, celibate lifestyle). Or, the role of women n the freedom struggle and how they viewed cricket during those times. Or, why cricket — no different from other physical sports — did not transcend from the obvious masculine sphere, or for that matter, institutionalised women’s cricket which always had a marginal place in cricketing history.

 Its subsequent evolution in the twentieth century alongside institutionalised (men’s) cricket is not talked about. There is not enough material on how cricket was entrenched within the Gandhian political movement during the colonial period. Later, it traversed through Nehruvian socialism. The Emergency period under Indira Gandhi’s regime, in the context of India-Pakistan troubled relations, the massive wars — the impact of all these on the game is not explored in this otherwise interesting read.

The reviewer is an Urban Fellow from Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore




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