Monday, July 24, 2017

Mithali Raj and Night Trains

I’ll be honest. Sunday’s Women's World Cup final between India and England was the first women’s cricket match I have ever watched. Sure, I had read in the papers about Mithali Raj’s epic 214 a long time ago and of the current Indian team’s amazing progress all the way through to the final of this tournament. But it was only in the second half of the match when India began its chase of 228 that I actually started watching. 3 overs into the Indian batting performance, it was obvious to me why I hadn’t followed women’s cricket all this while. It was boring.

Boring is also how most people would describe the Bharuch I grew up in. Only one road ran through the ‘city’, the imaginatively named Station Road (Hint: It ran by the railway station) and that was all the city there was. Long before the Internet and data arrived to make Bandra news instantaneously available in Bharuch, we were in our own little pocket of boringness. So boring in fact that a pastime in my group of teenage guys was to grab a glass of tea from the railway platform, one of the handful of places that stayed opened late into the night and sit on the platform benches to watch the nightly express trains go by.

It was difficult to make time go by, a Facebook status was already saying, when watching the Indian women’s cricket team play. Looks like a third grade amateur match not a World Cup final. For me, that feeling only lasted till the 4th over, when without any explanation whatsoever Punam Raut whacked one straight over the bowler’s head and into the boundary boards. OK. Something familiar after all. This was the same sport that I loved and idolized then. But more dreariness was to follow. Harmanpreet Kaur spent her entire time at the crease pretending that only the leg half of the stadium existed. It wasn’t pretty to watch.

Existed would be the right description for my sporting life. Not pretty to watch would be equally apt. Saddled with an initial-days-Dravid technique (sorry Dravid fans… believe me, I worship the guy) in a see rubber ball, hit rubber ball universe, my talents were not quite eye catching. Naturally they remained underappreciated except for those times when an explosive leftie at the other end needed a drab ‘sheet anchor’ partner. But I existed on the sporting field alright, especially when the team was falling short of the 11 needed to participate in a match. What did not exist, at least on the playing fields I grew up on, was the female half of the world. Playing with dolls, were they?

Apparently Mithali Raj was not. In that brief innings in the final, I saw the magical Indian batting wristiness a-la VVS and also VVS in the lazy runout. Harmanpreet’s swag was Yuvraj grade and so was her unwillingness to be cowed down by this ‘big match’. Punam’s grit in sprinting the singles even after the cramps came on was Gautam Gambhir reselected. It is a testament to their potential and an indictment of my biased interests that I don’t even have female athlete names to compare them against.
Come on, I hear some of you say, don’t tell me our Women In Blue are even half as good as our Men In Blue are.

I’ll be honest. They aren't. Men’s cricket is far more fun to watch. Lords has seen far better cricket matches.

But what they are is astonishing enough.
It is easy to simplify things too much. As per the Indian Constitution, women have the same rights as men. Some laws, like the anti-dowry law, are even heavily pro women. Hence women are now equal to men. Boom. Problem solved. If it were only that simple.

What we are forgetting is the circumstances that these women fought to get here. A week before their trip to England some of them were struggling to get a kit bag to carry their gear in. What we are ignoring is that we still largely live in a culture where everyone from the society watchman to the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh has an opinion on what women should do, eat, wear, hang around with and by what time they should return home, let alone play sports among the ‘boys’. The reality we are continuously in denial of is that though everyone jumped onto the “Support Women’s Cricket” bandwagon (me included) as soon as they saw a chance of India winning the Cup, some of them like our BCCI’s own Rajeev Shukla did not even know whether the tournament was the Champions Trophy or the World Cup.

The Women In Blue have emerged out of this maze, this maze of expectations and inhibitions and girls-should-not-do-this-ness, to the highest level their sport has to offer. Yes, they stumbled catastrophically at the last hurdle but they showed a glimpse of what could be if 50% of our population is able to reach their full potential. Not worry about how hours in the sun would reduce their marriage prospects and think about how it would help their medal prospects. 

This whole process I must admit is going to be a little complicated. 

In my own home, my Mom was the only person watching the game from Ball 1. My Dad and me joined in post England’s batting. Dad made the mistake of putting into words what I was also thinking “Well… this match is interesting!” only to have his head bitten off by Mom for his ‘patronizing’ tone. Why should it not be interesting, Mom asked, is it just because it’s girls playing? At the same time, a cooking experiment which Mom was engaged in went awry much to her embarrassment. Dad polished his share off not willing to risk any more fire. I whined and tried to secretly feed my share to the dog who promptly declined.
But it was odd when you think of it. Here was this modern woman fighting for equal treatment yet at the same time drowning in old-school womanly guilt about not having cooked well. When I cook, all my cooking goes awry, simple non-experimental dishes too. I feel no guilt about it whatsoever. This is what I made. Now eat it. 499950 years of flawed cultural programming may have something to do with it.

Women can do anything. As long as they don’t have a strong opinion. Women can do anything. As long as they are cute and non-aggressive. Women can do anything. As long they still manage to be polite, slim, Fair & Lovely and keep their hair unfrizzy. These terms and conditions on being a woman are a strange mix of self-imposed and societal. Breaking out of them completely makes average ‘society’ uncomfortable. Staying completely within them makes women’s empowerment impossible. Someone should try making Rahul Gandhi understand all of this before he makes another appearance on Arnab’s s(laughter) show. Good luck!

In all those years of watching night trains go by, it never bothered me that it was boys, only boys, who could lead this carefree life of loitering and shooting the breeze. I never realized how privileged I was as a boy to get by late night entries with only a mild scolding. That late an entry by my sister would have involved a call to the police station or two. Not because my parents are conservative, they are absolutely not. But because the world outside is ‘bad’ – a sentiment half based in truth, half based in paranoia.

The world outside is 'bad' because the world outside is not used to seeing an independent woman, free of any male ‘protector’. It gets excited when it sees a girl in shorts and slavers in anticipation when it sees a girl drink alcohol. Because… why is she doing all those things otherwise? It is still struggling to come to terms with thousands of years of unchallenged male dominance and in the meantime, women have to be ‘careful’. 

It’s a wonderful way of absolving responsibility from oneself. Is it happening in India alone? How can we be misogynists when we worship women as goddesses? Have you seen Saudi Arabia? Excuses. More excuses.

That this will take time and many more Women’s World Cup finals before it translates to actual ground level changes is something already stated. But to deny that a genuine problem exists is to prevent its solution.

The same TV ad break during the final which had a nice Kotak Mahindra Bank ad showing a female sports-caster ask a cameraman out on a movie date also had the terrible Dabur Red toothpaste ad. It showed the age-old fairy tale of a handsome dude blowing a breath of fresh air at a cute girl from whose hands he had just snatched an apple. Love story begins. Don’t you see? When a handsome dude harasses a girl on the street, he’s the hero… when it’s an ugly dude harassing the girl, it’s the villain from whom the hero must save the girl from. Wrong lessons. Long taught to us.

The only way forward is to accept that women are flawed and real. Much like men are. They are not ideals of perfection to be preserved and protected within the four walls of the house. They have desires and ambitions and it is perfectly OK for them to chase them & fail at them if need be.
Like there are good men, there are good women. Like there are bad men, there are bad women. They can be brilliant. They can be normal. They can already send rockets to Mars. They should also be able to watch night trains go by.

Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention. I support women’s cricket… now.


koushik krishnan said...

Wonderfully written. And to think you wasted 10 years of your life in TCS and 4 years in Engineering ....

Roy said...

Thanks much. But wasted is not how I look at it. It was a genuinely good time, learning, travelling and exploring, these 15 (4+11 actually) years. So will be the next 15. :)

Jyotika said...

Very well written. We need more men like you. To call spade a spade but with compassion .As others, this was the first time I too watched women's cricket match (the fact that I am an opportunistic cricket fan who only gets enthusiastic during world cup was partly the reason..). And I experienced a plethora of emotions, it was very interesting. I was surprised that although it wasn't as good as men's matches, it was still exciting. I felt guilty that it took so many years to make an another indian woman with a moderate interest in cricket to watch and support them. It was heartening to see men, women, boys and girls in the audience with indian flags supporting the cricketers. Again an instant realization of how skewed my expectations are, as if I only expected to see empty stands and if people, just the english. It was also interesting, how I was more considerate in reacting to careless runouts and catches, whereas in a men's match, a stream of expletives would have instantly been uttered. For all my assumptions of being a modern woman, I realized I am still very rooted to traditional expectations from an indian woman. So just like you, I now support and will follow indian women cricket and would treat them equally in expectations and expletives.

Roy said...

Thanks. It's going to be a long haul but some little girls somewhere must have watched the game and surely will one day make the World Cup dream come true.

shringar sah said...

Great work. Happy to observe how you pick up different subjects and communicate your thoughts through them.

Roy said...

Thanks, Captain!