My ten-year old nephew is a steadfast fan of the Australian cricket team. So in our house, there wasn’t much celebration when the Australians lost to India in the World Cup quarter finals. But we must have been the only home in our locality, and very likely elsewhere, where the reaction to the Indian win was a bit muted. Elsewhere there was jubilation and celebration. It wasn’t only the fact of India’s victory, and that they had defeated the long-standing champions, but that the real match would now follow, between India and Pakistan. And what’s more, that it would be at Mohali — the venue of the last major contest between the two.
I remember a friend describing the last India-Pakistan match at Mohali, Chandigarh’s neighbouring town. Some 4,000 people came from across the border to watch the match — enthusiastic fans all. The spirit was one of celebration and bonhomie. Anxious to match, and perhaps to outdo, the famous Pakistani hospitality, all shops and establishments in Mohali and Chandigarh were decked out with lights and colourful streamers as if the whole city had prepared for a wedding. Goods were offered to the ‘mehmans’ at half price, sometimes less, sometimes for free. Cold drinks and chai and snacks were on offer in every shop and roadside dhaba or fancy restaurant. The chief minister hosted a party for all cricket fans — anyone who had a ticket was invited. And there was a general spirit of goodwill around. It didn’t really matter who won, it mattered that the match was being played.
Something of the same excitement is palpable in India today — after a long period of hostility and cooling off, the two countries are once again beginning to talk, or to hesitantly open up to talking. On both sides officials have already been in touch post Thimphu, and have set an open agenda for the next round of talks. The cricket victory could not have come at a more opportune time — indeed I think there would have been disappointment all round if the two teams had not got the opportunity to face each other. As the Pakistan players said, they were actually hoping India would win, precisely so that they could then play India.
Keeping up with the spirit of friendship, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has announced that he will be watching the match and has invited both President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to watch it with him. Whether they’ll accept the invitation or not, remains to be seen, but the important thing is that it has been extended.
It’s important to remember though, that much has changed since the historic moment at Mohali. Some of the change has been positive and some not. In sports for example, India-Pakistan matches are no longer a rarity, and thanks to things like the Indian Premier League, cricketers from the two countries have actually played on the same side. Nor are matches between the two now couched in the terrible and hostile rhetoric of nationalism. Instead, spectators are happy to watch, and to cheer the best team — so perhaps it would not be wrong to say that the players and their faithful followers have begun to actually see the game not as a contest between nations, as much as a contest between players and teams. This, I imagine, is what makes my young nephew support Australia — he just thinks they are a superior team. Nationalism doesn’t even enter the picture.
At the political level though, such maturity seems a somewhat more distant dream. Even though our leaders on both sides know very well there is no way other than dialogue and open relations with each other, the process of getting there is always mired in the one-step-forward-two-steps-back dilemma. Of course it does not help that terrorism is a very real fact of life in both countries, both internally and between them. And yet, it’s a measure of how much people actually want a normalisation of relations that every time the dialogue opens up, people are hopeful that this time there will finally be a breakthrough.
In an odd kind of way then, the game of cricket has become not an excuse for an expression of violent nationalism, but a hope that this may lead the way to a normalisation of relations. In the same way, years ago, business people from both sides put pressure on the governments to jump or put aside the political agendas and at least open up trading relationships — for if nothing else, that could help to bring about a semblance of normalcy, and the rest could then follow.
All of these are strategies about which ordinary people know little, but on which they nonetheless pin their hopes. I’ve never been a fan of cricket, for example — if you give me a choice between watching a cricket match and reading a good book, I’d choose the latter every time. But this cricket match means something even to a person like me, and I’m waiting with some impatience for the 30th of March when it will be played.
As the countdown begins to that day, I think back to the Mohali match and the goodwill it generated. I recall a story told to me by a friend — not really a cricket fan — she’d gone to the match because she was interested in India-Pakistan relations, and because she was writing something about a well-known family of Pakistani origin. Not even in her wildest dreams would she have imagined that she would find members of that family next to her in the audience at the match, nor that she would actually find herself talking to them. But she did!
This was, of course, a random encounter. But it is of such encounters that tales of goodwill are often made. Who knows, there may be many such encounters at Mohali but even if there aren’t, what’s important is that the match will be played, and we can only hope that it will be played in a spirit of friendship.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 27th, 2011.