At first one was nonplussed by the hysterical media reaction to the wedding of Shoaib Malik and Sania Mirza. For about three weeks it was the nation’s number one issue, overshadowing even the most acrimonious contestations over the 18th amendment and the agonising darkness of loadshedding. After all, it was only a wedding. Most weddings are not a moment of national triumph and glory.
Even Imran Khan’s marriage to a British heiress did not engender such emotive displays of public euphoria. Even a moment of true national glory, the Nobel Prize for Physics won by Dr Abdus Salam, was not celebrated with such ardour. While ruminating upon the perplexing public rejoicing over the Shoaib-Sania union, one was reminded of George Orwell’s 1945 essay, “The Sporting Spirit” in which he argued that far from cementing friendly ties between nations, sports often became “orgies of hatred.”
Cricket in India and Pakistan is not only vested with enormous nationalist passion, it becomes war. Cricket has become symbolic of power and national honour and signs of the physical prowess of the nation’s sons. Defeat comes to be seen not simply as a part of the game, rather as loss of national pride and emasculation. To understand the extent to which defeat in the game is seen as ‘feminine,’ one has to only remember how the Pakistani team received bangles by angry countrymen over its loss to India in Bangalore during the 1996 World Cup.
Wasim Akram was accused of having lost to India because he wore an earring — a sure sign of being feminine! Victory, on the other hand, upholds national masculinity, pride and honour. The game is deeply gendered, as are nations and states. Pakistanis are ecstatic that their hero has brought home one of the leading sporting heroines belonging to the ‘enemy’ group. If there is any doubt that marriages resemble war, one has only to remember the number of grooms who turn up on white horses and their friends fire gunshots in the air to celebrate the taking away of the bride.
The scene is reminiscent of women being taken as war booty when the enemy rode to the vanquished side on horseback, spears or guns in hand, and took away the women of the defeated. It is not surprising that Hindu nationalists are chagrined, and Bal Thackeray peeved over the fact that Sania could not find a man in a nation of over one billion. Sania’s patriotism is in question. She had to prove her loyalty and love for her nation by asserting that in a cricket match between India and Pakistan, it is Mother India that she would support.
Her favourite player is Indian icon Sachin Tendulkar and not husband dear. Eager not to become a signifier of betrayal, she had to impress crazed Pakistani fans that she is not Pakistan’s daughter-in-law, and has married one man, not the country. For India it is mortifying that a daughter of the soil should become a daughter-in-law of the ‘enemy.’ The daughter-in-law is always weaker in the sub-continental patriarchal value system and this is a position Sania cannot possibly acquire.
Had Shoaib married a Sri Lankan, a Bhutanese, a Nepalese or a Bangladeshi, there would not have been such media hype. It is the enemy posturing with India that evokes such an emotive response that the marriage is being hailed as a triumph in Pakistan, while Indians are incensed. Nationalist posturing, steeped in patriarchal values, is discernible in cinematic representations. In the Lollywood film Lakhon Mein Aik, the hero was a Pakistani Muslim, while the girl he sought to bring home was an Indian Hindu.
In an inverted version made in India, Veer Zara, this relation was reversed: the hero was an Indian Hindu and the girl a Muslim from Pakistan. Films made ostensibly to overcome nationalist hatred by depicting love across the borders actually end up reproducing masculinising myths of national virility and the feminine ‘other’. Cross-border marriages are not indicators of a post-nationalist ethos; they conjure up images of a virile nation and a feminised other.