A foreign field no more…July 2, 2008
This, I wrote a long time ago…. replicated here for you, dear readers.
Book: A Corner of a Foreign Field
Genre: Society/ History/ Sports.
Publishers: Picador India 2002
I love social history. I love sports. I quite like cricket. So I picked up “A corner of a foreign field” with hardly any trepidation. I had to like the book…. And you know what? I did.
Now I am not a greenhorn in the cricketing history of our country. I remember actually identifying Palwankar Baloo’s snap at some quiz somewhere. I did know him as the first in the line of great spinners that India has produced, and had read of the famous unofficial tour to England in the early part of the last century where this great dalit cricketer, with only two English words in his vocabulary (How’s that!) wrecked havoc among the best of the English batsmen (After reading Guha’s book, I tend to believe that this story of Baloo and his command over the queen’s language was more of romanticised urban legend that anything else). I did know him as one of the first few truly national figures among the dalits. I had in fact heard of the Triangulars (of Mumbai) which eventually became the Quadrangulars and then the Pentangulars. I have heard and read of the exploits of CK Nayudu, and the paeans written for him by musty-eyed old cricket writers. I had heard of such names as Buchi Babu and Lord Harris and CB Fry.
And there were many take homes for me from this book. In a clipped, honest, sturdy rather than poetic style, the writer details for us the whole history of Indian cricket, especially of its pre-test status era. Ah, and would a social historian just give one the facts and figures? Would he stand back from analysing the data that he has collected? Thankfully, Guha does not. His analysis is precise, correct to an extent of assurance most of the times, and I should not really complain, for the only situations where I differed with his views completely in the first three parts of the book was about Calcutta football, clearly not one of Mr. Guha’s fortes.
The book is divided into four chapters to indicate the four great social waves into which Indian cricket could be divided. To start with, the establishment of cricket in the country, and the osmosis of the stiff-upper-lip fish-and-chips sport into the spicy kitchens of India ( a simple example: the conversion of the popular proverb “it isn’t over ‘till the fat lady sings”, often used in the game of glorious uncertainties, to the manifold more colourful “it isn’t over till the fat sardarni from Bulandshehr does the bhangra” which I happened to read somewhere); the opposition Indian cricket had to face in its infancy from the British rulers who hardly considered Indians capable of ever playing the game at the standards of the founders of the game; a nice analysis of why this game more than any other, took the fancy of the Indian public in general, on how the nature of the game was perfectly suited to the Indian’s tastes and behavioural idiosyncrasies; are all perfectly reproduced in the first part of the book, termed ‘Race’. The next chapter deals with that bane of the Indian Hindu society, caste. As cricket grows in the country, so does the country develop and try to eradicate the bane of untouchability from within it. Rather, how the dalits make their presence felt in the arena of sports, this serving as just a precursor to their presence at all other segments of society, in spite of all the despicable methods adopted by the higher castes to keep them from the mainstream Hindu folds. It is here that the chief characters of the book, the Palwankar family, are presented to the reader. The third part of the book deals with the most direct intermingling of the freedom struggle and cricket in the country. Religion, an issue which was hardly a major factor in the previous two parts of the book come into serious focus in this part, due especially to the times (the 30’s to the 50’s), and the religious uncertainty permeating the country at that time.. CK Nayudu, possibly the most dominant Indian sportsperson (definitely in the minds of the public) in pre-independence Indian sport, comes to us with all his spectacular brilliance as a sportsperson and with his most human flaws. The fourth part does not deal so much with the cricket as with the fans of the game, and how they underwent the transformation from a genuine cricket-loving race, appreciating good sport and yet wanting their side to win, to rowdy partisans, who want the team to win at any cost; now putting the cricketers on a pedestal as national heroes, now unceremoniously pulling the images down after one shoddy performance.
Guha’s style of writing befits that of a historian with a knack for writing. For all his love for the cricket of the Palwankar brothers, he never goes at lengths into the beauty of Palwankar Baloo’s follow-through, neither does he go ballistic in his praise of Vithal’s batting and fielding. He presents the facts exactly as they are. Economical with his words, he says what he has to say exactly the way he wants to say it. His analysis is almost always supported with facts and numbers and reliable anecdotes. I was really glad to see that he does not go into comparison between cricketers of different ages, a common bane of sports writers. He presents the facts as a historian, does his analysis as an analyst, with the help of numbers and vignettes rather than any pre-conceived notion, and is convincing throughout.
But if I could say, the bane of this book, and of Guha himself, is the bane of most historians. Very true to the facts in his analysis of history, he never overshoots, neither does he miss any single strand of information in his accurate analysis of Indian cricket before Independence. The first three parts ring true because of the meticulous research and impartiality of his observation and analysis, And this is precisely where he misses out in the last section of the book, where his personal feelings come in (obviously so, for how can you be impartial and observational as a historian to something you have yourself seen with your eyes), making this part more strident, clearly taking sides, the Ramachandra Guha in him comes into prominence with his preferences and dislikes, his political and his social beliefs; the impartial, impassive historian in him gradually sliding into the woodwork. The voice, economical with words, clipped, with an honest ring to it, becomes shriller, with the analysis becoming more and more the case of one trying to prove his point by hook or by crook. And that has to be anticipated too. Historian or no historian, no Indian, especially someone with so much passion for the game and the country, could be completely impartial in their observations of the two major panacea of the country, cricket and politics.
What comes across the most at the end of this book is the intense love for a game by the author. It is possibly because of this love that he is able to be impartial and honest in his analysis in the first three parts, and even more so, this great love could be sited as the reason which prompts his to sometimes be a bit opinionated in the last part of the book.
All in all, a knowledgeable, intelligent, researched read, which thankfully never becomes tedious in its pursuit of the unrecorded and unregistered. I would call it a definite success, Guha did reach where he wanted to in the end. I think it’s quite a landmark in the Indian sports writing arena, and would suggest it to everyone who has a love for either of social issues, the Indian freedom struggle or cricket, and can at least appreciate the other two. It, I guarantee, will be quite an enchanting read and a rewarding experience. Thank you, Mr. Guha.