Playing Fair and Square on the Green Fields

The scene is the cricket match between India and the West Indies during the recent WorldCup.  Sachin Tendulkar is batting.  He has barely faced a few balls when one races through his arm-pad and lands in the wicket keeper’s gloves. There is no appeal—neither from the bowler nor from the wicket keeper. But Tendulkar is walking toward the pavilion. The players are stumped! And so are the million audiences over the world! Tendulkar realized perhaps that the ball had indeed grazed his forearm and so without waiting for the umpire’s decision he retired.  While in the commentary box the erstwhile icons of Indian Cricket Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Sastri debated the issues and virtues of “walking” the play resumed.

Now, we in the present appear to have forgotten the fact that cricket is a game to be played with the sportsman spirit it calls for. In all fairness Tendulkar had demonstrated it albeit the fact that he was playing for a country and that there are enormous amounts of money involved in the whole process. After all, the entire industry of Indian cricket and the business of the World Cup with its whole rigmarole of mega crowds, hoardings, televisions and their ubiquitous commercials, big business offers and betting and so on, revolves round the strategic issue of big money. How could anyone deny that? The spirit of play may be one thing, but the spirit that runs the whole thing is another. In this context what has playing fair and square got to do with the game?

And what is game? What is play? What is fair and square in the field and off the field?  All games we must recognize are essentially sport, which entails entertainment, recreation, and exercise primarily. There is a whole history of human sports that would trace its evolution from the primordial ritual to the contemporary scenario of big Capitalist business. There is also the implied connection with war and destruction and domination: all contemporary games at the international level (and even at its minor levels) are perhaps symbolic versions of battles and wars—a mockery of the all consuming, vindictive passions of the human being!

            Game, Sports, Play—almost synonymous, but each are descriptive of different issues. Game as it is usually understood, is something innocuous, non-violent, played out for the sheer pleasure of it all, and for the most enjoyable and involving little or no disastrous physical violence. It has a beginning, middle and an end—there is a marked difference between the before and after in terms of the protagonists as well as the spectators; above all there is entertainment and enjoyment for all in a game. Sports I would categorize in the similar manner as one that involves outdoor, physical activities, for the most. Entertainment and enjoyment there is, no doubt. There is a game in Sport and there is a sport in game as well. But the point is that all games and sports have their own set of rules which are purely arbitrary, having evolved over the years over cultures and times. In simplistic terms we could even state that all games and sports are products of sets of rules—they keep varying of course, but their visible presence (read umpires, referees, field book etc) and invisible presence (read time, place, action etc) account for the structure of all games and sports. However, the concept of play is something rather loose. It has a structure, no doubt, but this is an ambiguous, amorphous and protean structure, very loose and almost a non-entity, as when children get together and play about.

All three words have conceptual backgrounds; their own socio-political, cultural, economic and historical dimensions too. The proto game-sport-play is of course shrouded in human prehistory. It has necessarily evolved over many centuries.  One could trace its graph from ritual to the romance of the Capitalist market economics of the present. However, there are these sets of rules that govern the logic and pattern of the game that is disrupted if not observed in practice. Rules, we recognize are invisible (or visible as the case may be)–threads that govern, condition and control all sports and games. The rules themselves are arbitrary and not nor never absolute, and this is what makes sports and games entertainment. For instance from the long colonial structure of a five day test match (with a rest day in between) how far has cricket come these days!  When Kerry Packer invited major players to a fifty-over limited version of the game there was so much hue and cry over the sanctity of the test match structure and its disruption. Nothing sanctified was violated but the limited over cricket game evolved and attracted more viewers and audience. Commerce and market caught on and the television and technology supplemented the game. From there to the twenty-twenty rules and regulations have been altered and amended from time to time: nothing has remained inviolable, everything was open to transformation, change. All it required was convenience, consent and consensus. All rules are subject to change, very much like human history. We play on.

Jacques Derrida the harbinger of deconstruction—a veritable destructive and reconstructive practice of re-reading and reinterpreting interpretations themselves—initiated the whole issue of recognizing the play element in human sciences while delivering a significant address in the mid sixties in the Johns Hopkins University in the US [See Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Alan Bass, tr. Writing and Difference (1966), pp. 278-95)]. According to him, human history (read western history of ideas) has been one structured round the idea of centre and periphery. It has been a virtual centre that has potentially ruled, manipulated and conditioned the structured thinking of the human being (read western). The invisibility of a centre that could be transcendentally present within a system maintaining the stability of the system without undergoing any change in itself has been the mainstay of western history of ideas. There have been no doubt many attempts to overthrow or discard this centre but for the most these attempts have been toward replacements rather than any displacements.  As Derrida demonstrated, western history of ideas has revolved round such invisible centres. If one were to think of the idea of a god as the centre, one could almost logically close off all doubtful positions—all elements within the circle of the invisible structures are created, organized and maintained by god, and while he/she is at the indispensible centre all else is locked. The various elements within this system cannot bring any change to the centre, while they themselves could be changed. From Derrida’s reading the process of western structural change has been from god as the centre through science and rationality in turn replacing god as the centre.  There has been virtually no change in the system even when such transplanting take place. This could perhaps account for the system’s stability.  It is however when the element of play enters that a new discourse comes to be created. When the centre remains invisible and unaltered play is possible for all elements within a given structure. But this is playing within the structured rules of the game—playing fair and square. This element of play could be unending if one could imagine a structure without a centre, because then all the elements with and without the system would be constantly in a state of play!  This just like a kindergarten class-room without a teacher in the middle!  Utter chaos?  Sheer confusion? But a recognition of total freedom, no doubt! However, the moment the teacher enters the class-room the system is restored to its harmonious structure.

The implications of Derrida’s concepts can be seen in close examining a totalizing situation where everything is dictatorially controlled and maintained. Human freedom is at stake here. So then, play reintroduces the element of human freedom, the recognition of the very condition of human existence. This is play at its extreme. When all totalizing systems collapse (like the state withering away) then the extreme conditions of entertainment and ecstasy would be revealed in play. We have come very far from the idea of play we started out with.  But we are armed with new insights.  When Tendulkar walked away from the crease he probably never even dreamed of all these possibilities. He was playing fair and square on the green fields! But he was also making a statement that rules and regulations are invisibly present in the game and this sport is essentially a play that needed to be played out within a structure– an arbitrary system– that is always open-ended. Many new transformations could be padded on to these rules—much could be changed, but for the most there is an implied idea of entertainment and ecstasy within a set of rules at a given time—all players have to adhere to that. Some of course play fair and square, others might wait for the umpires to dismiss them—still others would appeal to the third umpire loaded with his techno-tools and rule-books and strategic calculations. But the point of it all: heroes are made within the set of invisible rules–  to play well is sometimes strategically to break the rules, to go beyond the boundaries, but the play within the imaginary rules is sometimes even more magnificent.


The Song of the Whistling Thrush

Come to think of it, we have known each other for over thirty, thirty- five years! That is a very long time indeed.  We speak of each generation in terms of a gap of thirty years, and so this is over a generation of friendship. He was always a calm and composed person, and when he did laugh his whole body shook, and his long dark mane of hair flew in the breeze like a flag behind him. Many a time I had been tempted to ask him whether he had allowed his beard to grow without any trimming at all! In fact someone had the cheek to ask me one of those days how I managed to maintain my beard! With the characteristic impudence of youth I had derided: I don’t maintain it, it just grows! But Shanthi’s beard was much longer than mine and bushier. Yes, in those days all of us friends had unkempt beards and we also dressed carelessly in loose fitting garments sometimes much longer than our knees, and I had always been at home only in jeans! This was a generation that didn’t fit anywhere just like that. Born after Independence, and not being able to connect to the previous Gandhian era in any meaningful manner. Religion did not hold much sense either and neither did skepticism for that matter.  We were willing to believe, provided we could.

I had taken up teaching in a state Government college in north Kerala in the early eighties and then one day a whole host of admiring students ushered in two kurta-clad bearded forms right from the highway all the way up the hill to the college. I was in class lecturing when Shanthi and Raman came up to the open door. For a minute I couldn’t believe myself, I had given up hope of ever being with my old friends once I joined the Collegiate education department. And here they were right in my classroom! I had just about winded up my lecture on the nuances of modernist writing and so we all trouped into our college canteen. Shanthi said while munching banana fries: we are on our way to Kollur, care to join us?  I said yes and then we were off in no time. I stuffed some things into a haversack and we jumped into the first available bus north-bound. Travel in those days was a little more difficult than that of the present. Buses were rather few and far between. Trains two times a day. Our journey took us to Kannur, to Kasaragod and then to Mangalore. There we got into a private bus and were on our way to Kollur and the Mookambika temple. We reached sometime in the late evening and stayed at an Ashram. The next day Shanthi went around looking for his friend and guide to the hills Chandukutti sami.  He was a rather short dark tough person who spoke very little and smoked beedies. He agreed to come with us into the hills. And we set off the next morning. Shanthi and Raman had gone about collecting a few essential stuff for lighting a fire, vessels for cooking etc. The walk into the shola forests of the greener parts western ghats was memorable. Trees of the tropical evergreen always appeared to reach right into the skies and each one struggled to reach higher than the rest for the favoured sunlight and warmth. Dew dripped from above on to the bush and creepers below.  The rivulets sparkled in the speckled sunlight as the breeze blew high among the trees. It was late September and the touch of autumn was on every leaf. The climb was slow first and then became arduous and demanding as the path became steeper and steeper. Once we were on the top of the Kodajadri I was informed that the total walk was but 16 kms. However, the scramble through the tangled bushes and creepers dodging thorns and sharp rocks appeared then to me pretty long indeed. This was my first exposure to the wonders of Kodajadri.  As the ubiquitous mist withdrew briefly I could see the breathtaking panorama of the blue and purple hills. All three of us were silent for the most and our stops and pauses were as though decided in unison. Perhaps this was what they meant by the touch of the hills. I had written in a rather long poem about Ganga a couple of months ago:

The mountains know the hand of god. They are so huge, so mute, so invincible.

I have lost my bearings confronted with such vastness.     

I recalled my experiences in scrambling up the lower Himalayas in search of the trickle in the bosom of Himvant!  Here in the far south of India I was experiencing almost the same breathless joy! The touch of the hills was magnificent, almost religious. What is prayer but the heart’s lonely mutterings to the unknowable? The seeker and the search have become one here in the silence of the hills. Kodajadri will remain with me forever. The profundity of feeling, the depth of emotion, the largeness of vision my heart experienced cannot be expressed in plain words and I did not try the impossible either. I had just let myself go and merge with the rising curling unknowing mist of unreason. Where was I? Was it morning or time to sleep? None of us cared. We were in the thick of being. That was all. Shanthi always had a smile as answer to many of my queries. Raman was one of those people who could simply fade away here in the hills. He kept pace with the breeze and clouds.  He helped to light the fire and make the food, wash up and get our sleepings places readied. Shanthi sometimes would talk about many things, about his Guru, about meditation and meaning. We sat around the dancing fire near the Sarvajnapeetam and listened. This was the sacred place that Adi Sankaracharya lay when he was sick and the benignity of the Devi brought water trickling down the hills. We huddled together in the late evening and watched wide eyed as the sun disappeared over the hill tops and the cave Chitramoola became mysterious all the more. The trickling sound of falling water and the gathering dark were extraordinary. And then I heard the whistle. Because I had heard it earlier in many of my wanderings in the hills I recognized it immediately. The Malabar whistling Thrush, we call it the Whistling Schoolboy. Because the thrill and the casualness of a truant boy straying off from school was there in the song. Now this day it rang mysterious, while the bird lay hidden in the darkening evening. This entire Kodajadri, this outcrop that descended from the hump of the hill that held the Sarvajnapeetam, on to the sheer drop below the cave of the ancients called Chitramoola, reverberated with the song of the dark thrush. We did not know the passage of time, neither did we care. The trees were shivering in the coldness of late September and the sky was vibrant with vanishing and merging colours. The hills were sentinels of a strange experience a hastening in of complete being.  I had not felt such calm mingled with such excitement; the sheer touch of amazement. The bird would not stop.  The breeze was becoming chillier and night was swirling up the carpet of darkness through which some strange points of lights flickered. Kodajadri was lighting up with the mystery of all being. Here was the centre of all life. This was the point where everything returned. My mother’s arms reached forth and embraced me. I was a child once more.  I didn’t know anything. There was no knowledge. The song and sky and mist and breeze and star all rolled into one. The rock on which we sat for meditation had disappeared and the sound of falling water was so loud. Where is the thrush song leading me? A deep fever rose in me—deeper than the distant seas, dreams and forms rolled into one long experience of nothingness.

It took me a few days to get well. We slept in the cave and meditated on the sun and wind. Water was there a plenty and silence through the colours of the rainbow as the sun’s rays danced on the droplets. Then many days later we decided to regain our mortal existence as Shanthi and Raman and myself. Our walk downhill was even more silent. The thrush song was everywhere but the touch of mystery had lifted. Life was so ordinary afterwards. But then we are all mortals. We live and we pass. I had kept in touch with Shanthi for a long long time. Much later when I was travelling toward Umeo in Sweden, I flew into Stockholm and the old familiar face with the long beard appeared at the airport. Shanthi had driven all the way from Goteborg where he was living then and he brought me a large case full of warm clothing.  He had k

nown I was flying further north and had come to arm me for the severity of the northern winter. By then he had become quite well known and had followers and disciples all over the world as far away as Rome and Italy and Sweden. We both looked up at the moon and marveled at its upturned figure. This was close to the north pole and cold.  There was thrush song too in this late autumn in Europe. But I recalled our Kodajadri.  Our own Himalayas. The toughness of the mountains and the pure existential touch of the hills. The song of the Malabar Whistling Thrush!  Nothing like it before and after.