At a loss for words

May 11 2014

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There were over a hundred speakers at the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF). There were over two hundred speakers at the equivalent event in Karachi. Of all these delegates less than one was related to sports. These are not supposed to be striking facts; in a country supposedly devoid of sports literature it’s not shocking that the pre-eminent literary festivals would have little to do with sports.

Yet sport, or rather cricket, was ever present in the sessions. Rashid Rana, at LLF, talked of his work “All Eyes Skyward” as being similar to a cricket crowd, and his own love for the sport. Zia Mohyeddin narrated an essay he wrote about playing cricket in English villages. And there was the lingering specter of one ex-captain of the national cricket team in most sessions related to politics. Thus even in a world which on paper was supposed to be bereft of sports, the subject remained on the table.

Sport occupies an odd relationship with academia, even outside Pakistan. It is, at once, the most popular, democratic and universal of (mostly male) activities in the modern world; and yet it is also something that is largely ignored within the cultured circles. Opera and theatre are high culture. Sport, make no mistake, is low culture. That is, we are told, as it should be. And that is also the cause of great consternation among those who do not share this view.

The general viewpoint towards sports is best illustrated by Mario Vargas Llosa, a football fan for over half a century who, even in his praise, talks of the pointlessness of his sport: “Football is the love of form; a spectacle that scarcely leaves a trace in the memory and does not enrich or impoverish knowledge. This is its appeal: it is exciting and empty.”

In Britain, even more so than continental Europe, sports and academia (or thinking of any kind) were not supposed to mix. Sports were either the purview of the working classes who in turn mistrusted the anoraks, or of the upper classes that treated it as a pleasurable waste of time.

Historically, cricket was the game that British writers played. There are records of Arthur Conan Doyle, A.A. Milne, J.M. Barrie and P.G. Wodehouse playing cricket, yet none of them ever truly wrote about the sport. Samuel Beckett played two first class matches, and even he never wrote about cricket. Nor did Harold Pinter, a man who once said, “I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing that God created on earth.” Thus it almost seems like there has been a deliberate attempt not to talk about something that so many enjoyed — that there was, somehow, something unworthy in writing about a game.

Over the past two decades there has been a quiet revolution from within sport, particularly in Britain, to try and understand and write about the game in a more cerebral manner. The inspiration for that revolution has come from across the Atlantic. Perhaps because of the lack of clear class divide, the importance of college sports (or whatever else the reasons might be) the viewpoint towards sports in the new world was quite different. Some of the greatest American writers of the 20th century covered or wrote on sports. John Updike wrote the profile of the baseball player Ted Williams in an anthology; Ernest Hemingway was a contributor to Sports Illustrated; both Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer worked as sports journalists. Meanwhile, in Latin America, Eduardo Galeano remains probably the greatest football-obsessed writer alive.

But alas, even as the attitudes in Britain are changing, the transformation hasn’t affected the mainstream as yet, it seems. In France David Walsh and Pierre Ballester’s book L.A. Confidentiel: Les secrets de Lance Armstrong sold over 100,000 copies and reached No. 2 in the best sellers list just over a decade ago; no book has had the same effect in Britain as yet. And until Britain embraces that change, the litfests of South Asia will remain as they are (the number of sports related speakers at the Jaipur Litfest wasn’t that different from the Lahore or Karachi versions).

Because for all the political influence that the new world may have over this region, the cultural elites of South Asia look towards England rather than the United States for inspiration. The reasons for this are obvious — the colonial past and the subsequent baggage that comes with it and the interaction between the two countries, especially with the Pakistani diaspora in Britain. The result of this is that unless the prompting comes from the velayet, there is unlikely to be any change in attitude towards sports writing. Furthermore the Third World viewpoint towards sports, as illustrated in the saying “parho gay likho gay bano gay nawab, khelo gay koodo gay ho jao gay kharaab”, is an additional barrier towards any intellectualisation of sport in the country.

Of course there are those who will still maintain that sport isn’t “worthy” of such discussion or writing. But as Simon Kuper says, “That argument is nonsense. You could equally argue that writing is just tapping bits of plastic; that playing the piano is just hitting bits of ivory, and so on. Something is a fit subject for literature if it inspires good literature.” Yet here we are, in a country where any sporting achievement immediately becomes headline news, but the leading Urdu newspapers can’t even offer a single page of the daily to sports.

But there are seeds to a possibly better future. Almost a decade on from its release Rahul Bhattacharya’s Pundits from Pakistan remains the best book written on Pakistani cricket by an outsider (rather niche category that); but more significantly, the success of Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman shows that, if done well, a cricket novel might be the best mirror to depict society in this region.

And yet, does it really matter? Is there any need for sports in Pakistan, or elsewhere, to want the approval of the ‘highfalutin’ classes? A week before the LLF I was at the Pindi Cricket Stadium with more people unable to get into the stadium than there were inside (the 15-20,000 capacity stadium). It was just the semi-finals of the domestic T20 and yet the frenzy, the excitement, and the sheer number of people present would have made every litfest envious — if a litfest had gotten half that interest from the general populace in the city that the sporting contest had done then the number of feel-good op-eds describing how people conversing in a secure, fortified compound had defeated Talibanisation would have been ten-fold.

The truth, I fear, is that sport doesn’t need (or doesn’t think it needs) intellectualising or approval from the bibiliophiles. It is already more accepted than they will ever be. And thus it asks itself the question, why fight the battles when you’ve already won the war?

That’s because I believe it’s a battle worth fighting; I may be alone in thinking that.