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Still Stumped: The dearth of Indian sports biographies

Harsha Bhogle at the launch of ‘Timeless Steel – An analogy of articles on Rahul Dravid’. (FILE PHOTO)

On Friday, 2nd November 2012, an interesting session enlightened the audience with a panel discussion on a decline in the number of biographies of Indian sportsmen, at the Tata Literature Live festival at National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai. The panel comprised Harsha Bhogle – a television commentator and cricket expert, Ayaz Memon – a veteran sports journalist, and cricket historian Boria Majumdar. The event was chaired by Sanjay Jha – cricket writer and founder of a cricket website.

Reasons why there are no great biographies in the recent years?

Memon singled out that the Indians have a poor sense of recorded history which prevents the writers from penning down a quality biography. In this day and age, it is very difficult for the aspiring writers to collate the information from disparate sources, and write a biography. He said that former Indian skipper Dilip Vengsarkar, had asked him to do a biography on him, but the sum of money involved was low and the investment at the time was high. Same was the case when Lala Amarnath wanted to talk about the acrimonious incident that took place in 1936 tour of England. Amarnath was sent home by the captain of India, Maharaja of Vizianagram, on disciplinary grounds. Amarnath had promised the sum of a few thousands to Memon in the early 1990s, to write a book. But it wasn’t enough for the journalist to leave his work and commit to Amarnath. “Those were the cheap years”, expressed Memon .

Bhogle, who had written a biography on Mohammad Azharuddin in 1994, said that he made very little money out of the book and Azhar made none. “It (writing a book) involves a lot of investment of time. The best time to write a book is when you are young and hungry or when you are retired”, said Bhogle. The biography on Mohinder Amarnath was the first biography written by Bhogle, which never got published. One wonders if the time is right for the publishers to publish Amarnath’s biography, considering how he was unceremoniously sacked from the selection panel by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

Majumdar was optimistic. He said, “If Indian fiction can make money, there is no reason why sports biographies cannot”. He also said that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the writers to get the support from the subjects themselves. In 1993, there was a thirteen and a half hour ICC meeting after which India were to be the hosts of the World Cup for the second time. After the meeting, a BBC correspondent asked a question to Jagmohan Dalmiya about how the cup went to India, in a manner which irked Dalmiya. His response was instantaneous. Dalmia said, “I wonder, how you ruled us for 200 years with such intelligence?” Majumdar feels this could be a great story, but Dalmia who is 71-year-old, is reluctant to speak on the issue. The world would never know about such things.

Are the current players intimidated by the sports authorities?

Bhogle said that today the players are making good money. Why would they want to publish their biographies, where the money involved is not that great?

Majumdar said that the players are never speaking against their boards and if they do, they are meted out with punishments. “How many players would have the audacity to say that the recently concluded Champions league T20 was a useless tournament?” he asked.

Jha pointed out that most of the star players playing the English Premier League (EPL) have their biographies. Memon said that the players in India are coy and reticent to open up. “The players like to be conflict-free”, said Memon.

Some of the American athletes do write their autobiographies, while they are still playing the game. “It is never going to work in India”, commented Memon. The players, especially cricketers, travel a lot and their schedule is jam packed.

Is it a good idea to have ghost writers for the players? The panellist agreed that it could be one of the ways to address the issue of lack of biographies.

Where is the good writing these days?

The panel agreed that some of the good cricket articles are found on the “blogosphere”. The effort by the writers, in putting across their point, has made blogging a popular medium to disseminate the ideas.

Majumdar said that most of the bad writing comes in from overuse of the quotes. He also said that the regional language writing is very good. He follows some of the Bengali writing himself, which he says, is better than some run-of-the-mill English writing.

Memon said that some of the hardest working people are bloggers themselves. There is this obligation for the bloggers to write well and establish themselves.

Bhogle said that there is no story in some of the biographies written. He recently read a biography on Wasim Akram. “I waited for the story to begin on page 40, 41, 49…but it just did not start”, expressed Bhogle.

Is there a need to have more cinemas to give tribute to the sportspersons?

Bhogle said that the storytellers might tell the sports stories in a better way. The writer might not be a good storyteller. Paan Singh Tomar’s story is well documented, he said, in the form of a movie. There has been no piece on him which appeals more than the actual movie.

“Chak De India” has now become an inspirational song for the Indian teams wherever they go. The movie was also a great piece of storytelling, which appealed to the audience.

He feels the attention span of the readers is going down. Hence it would not be a bad idea to depict a biography pictorially, and by those people who know how a story needs to be told. “Are we the readers or watchers? We have become event-centric and have embraced instant cricket. The reading habits have also been influenced largely by the format of cricket we like.” he said.

The panellists (from left) – Ayaz Memon, Harsha Bhogle and Boria Majumdar

What is the future of biographies?

“Australia and England appreciate the longer format of the game. The players of both the nationalities have published many biographies and autobiographies in the recent years. I sometimes wonder, if there is a correlation between the two?”, wondered Bhogle.

Memon thinks that it is a good idea for the publishers to leverage e-books. This might well be the future, according to Memon.

Rahul Dravid – A good subject for biography?

Majumdar said that he had asked Dravid about the same, just before the start of the Boxing Day Test against Australia in December 2011. Dravid considered that his story is not a good one because there have not been many ups and downs in his career.

Bhogle said that Dravid is “a conservative, out-dated person with middle-class virtues”. He will probably think, “How can I say nice things about me, like I played the ‘innings-of-the-series’?” A modest account might not be a good read.

The final word

The session talked about various sportspersons who have made the country proud, but little is known about them. Do we know the importance of Dinko Singh in Indian boxing? Do we know the story of Gurcharan Singh who missed the Olympic medal by a whisker at the Sydney Olympics? What happened to him after that? How Dhanraj Pillay sobbed like a baby over the phone and apologized to his mother, after he failed to win any medal in hockey for three editions. Sandeep Mishra’s account of Pillay’s emotions, while talking to his mother, is captured wonderfully in his book, “Forgive me Amma”.

The chairperson, in his concluding speech, told the story of Serena Williams’ comeback into the tennis circuit, and the reason why it would be an inspiring read, considering her state of hopelessness just a year ago.

I hope the future biographers are reading this!

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