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‘Fields of Play: Sport, Literature and Culture’ - book review

A thought provoking and highly captivating contribution to the majorly untilled terrain of analytical sports literature in India.

The book cover -Fields of Play: Sport, Literature and Culture

‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ probes Trinidad historian and Marxist political activist CLR James in his modern cricket classic, ‘Beyond a Boundary’. This groundbreaking question, urging one to look beyond the concrete details of cricket into wider cultural, social, political and economic issues encompassed by the game, itself adapted from Kipling’s imperial lament, ‘What do they know of England who only England know?’ finds its resonance in the idea of sports in general.

It is such an understanding of sport, embracing its multifarious meanings, that the book ‘Fields of Play: Sport, Literature and Culture’ endeavors to encourage. Having its genesis in a national seminar, ‘“The game’s afoot’…Sport, Literature and Culture”, organized by the Department of English, Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi, the book charts the journey of sport from leisurely activity to institutionalized and marketed commodity.

Sport, being a microcosm of society, reflects its virtues and vices. Hence the book throws up for discussion interlacing of sport with individual and collective identity, nationalism, decolonization, border crossing, modernity, social empowerment, corruption and gender discrimination.

The essays are distributed in four sections on the basis of subject of discourse with Part 1 ‘Sporting Culture’ undertaking to trace the position of sport in culture, society and history. The book voices on behalf of the millions displaced during the Delhi Commonwealth Games in Iram  Ghufran’s ‘Delhi Commons: A Public Art Project on the Commonwealth Games’ by contrasting their unattended plight with the valorized struggles of the athletes. The piece retains its contemporary relevance as it evokes our empathy towards the human rights violation issues in Brazil & Qatar, the host of Rio Olympics 2016 & FIFA World Cup 2022 respectively.

The essay ‘The Indian Premier League & the Future of Indian Cricket’ contributed by Boria Majumdar highlights the polar opposites that cricket in India becomes a source of for its fanatic followers whose individual & collective identity becomes intrinsically linked to that of their national cricket team. The process of ‘decolonization’ of Indian cricket triggered off by its monetization in the late 1980s, Majumdar points out, finds its culmination in the IPL.

The money spinner marks a radical shift as the East now flexes its muscles over the West. A cocktail of cricket & Bollywood, the success of IPL has been so stellar that it is hardly surprising these days to hear cricketers from the West endearingly terming India as their ‘second home’. Even the scathing reports of match fixing fails to deter the fans injected with the delirium of ‘entertainment’.

The issue of nationalism, a recurring theme in the book, used by Majumdar to elucidate the journey of cricket in India, finds itself appropriated on the hockey & football field in ‘Sporting Legacies in India: MohunBagan’s 1911 Football Victory versus Olympic Hockey Medal’. Indians availed of the colonial tool of sports to offer resistance to colonialism both with Mohun Bagan’s triumph in the IFA Shield & when they established their supremacy in hockey through golden run in the Olympics.

Kapadia raises the intriguing contrast of religious & racial representation in the two teams, as Mohun Bagan’s playing eleven comprised ten Hindus while the Indian hockey team which conquered Netherlands in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic final consisted of eight Anglo-Indians. He also throws light on why despite being a symbol of national pride, Indian hockey failed to enjoy the hold on national consciousness as football in the past and cricket, at present.

Part 2 ‘Sport and Literature’, marks a shift in discourse to how sport impacts and is impacted by literature. The first work of the section, Supriya Chaudhuri’s ‘Other Histories: Modernity, Literature and Football in India’ explains that by introducing organized sports in India,the colonizers while viewing themselves as discharging the ‘white man’s burden’, ushered in modernity. Chaudhuri advocates the theory recognizing football as a subaltern sport, particularly in the pre-independence Bengal. She goes on to argue  that with globalization opening the Indian sports market to quality European products inform of EPL, La Liga, Indian football continues with its subaltern status.

The issue of commercialization and commodification get explored in depth in Sanam Khanna’s ‘Sport, Surveillance and Speed in The Hunger Games Trilogy’ and Paromita Patranobish’s ‘Quidditch Incorporated: Sport, Fantasy and the Consumer Child’. While Sanam Khanna questions the incessantly increasing media control over the sporting commodity, Paromita Patranobish employs the game having its genesis in J.K.Rowling’s fictional series Harry Potter to mull at the interplay of child’s play and the commodification of sport.

Sohini Banerjee’s ‘In the Long Run: The Modernist Experience as Long Distance Running’ zeroes in on two celebrated works on long distance running, Alax Sillitoe’s ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ and Haruki Murakami’s ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ juxtaposed with the movie Forrest Gump. She summons the theory of modernism to establish running as a metaphor for quest while maintaining that the disjointed post-modern world denies fulfillment to that pursuit.

In ‘Refugee City: Football and Other Divides of the Self in Post Partition Kolkata’ Debjani Sengupta projects the derby match between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal as the site which enabled the expression of local conflicts between regional and class foes. The football rivalry between ghotis and bangals, Sengupta argues, defused the tensions and enmities that could have otherwise acquired a more brutal turn.

In the final essay of ‘Sports & Literature’ section, ‘The New Girl and the British School Story’, Aishwarya Subramanian takes up, for literary analysis, the genre of the British schoolgirl story which had sports at its center. Sports, while enabling the girls access to ‘masculine values’ guarded them against the ‘feminine faults’. So, though lacking a feminist stand these stories marked a radical shift with their stance on affording physical freedom to the Victorian girls and boosting their self-worth.

Part 3 ‘Sporting Bodies’ focuses on the levels on which sport impacts its performing bodies, also depicting the grapple between the ideas of virtual and other realities with the advent of computer gaming. In ‘The Expressive Body: Notes on Individualism and Solitude in Sport’ Maitri Baruah dissects the deceptive yet captivating art of spin bowling and the unsung craft of goalkeeping to project the ironic co-existence in the life of their disciples of extreme rigors and risks.

The insecurity bred by cosmic contrast between the grandeur of success and ignominy of failure aggravated by the fragility of skill prone to devastating injury and inexplicable disappearance leads to melancholia in the sporting body. Baruah turns to the stories of Sonny Ramadhin, Jack Iverson and Robert Enke to supply the example of lives claimed by this feeling of loss and emptiness.

However, the last essay of this section, Aratrika Das’ ‘The Matter that Matters-Re-thinking Corporeality in a Computer Game’ challenges the concept of ‘sporting body’ by placing it in the context of rapidly evolving field of E-Sports. Das deliberates on the theory of material and virtual reality to decipher the embeddedness and entanglement of the human in this innovation of biotechnology.

Part 4 ‘Sport and Cinema’ directs our attention to the intersection of two of the biggest money spinners in globalized India, cricket and bollywood. The first of the three essays in this part, ‘Shoonya (The Zero Zone, 2007)’ by producer/director Arindam Mitra, through a series of flashbacks, takes the readers on a journey into match fixing and gambling. Following Mitra’s personal account of making of Shoonya is PoonamTrivedi’s ‘Playing Fair, Playing for Money: A Note on the Film Shoonya’. Trivedi terms cinema as the cultural barometer of the country to project the problematization of the various ideas and ideals associated with sports in ‘Shoonya’.

The same cricketer who was once deified now becomes demonized as his act of match fixing bring his heroic qualities to a naught. It becomes interesting to note how recently released ‘Azhar’ has crashed at the box-office for ham-handedly trying to exonerate the player, while Shoonya which offers sympathetic investigation into the heart of matter, continues serving its ban in India. The fate of this new film once again shows how sport and the complex issues associated with it are not so easily resolved and serious discussions about them, as undertaken in the book, are needed.

The link between nationalism and sport finds itself extended in Anas Tabraiz’s ‘The Underdog Bowling to the Cultural Field in Kukunoor’s Iqbal’, wherein Lacanian theory of language and entry into the Symbolic is utilized to analyze the inspiring story of a member of marginalized and differently abled community. The essay demonstrates how the mass appeal of cricket can serve the purpose of commenting upon the propagation of the narratives of nationalism across the Indian nation.

Continuing the discourse on marginalization and discrimination Mithuraaj Dhusiya’s ‘The Gender Games: A Study of Chak De! India and Meerabai Not Out’ questions the inherent sexism in sports. In our patriarchal society, obedience to male is woman’s ultimate triumph as it is the female hockey players’ surrender to the supremacy of the only ‘gunda’ in the team that leads them to the World Cup glory and the ardent fan Meera is compelled to close the ‘cricket chapter’ and seek her solace in the domestic bliss. The gravity of the issue raised by Dhusiya gets reasserted as the sporting fraternity moots over the pay disparity between the genders.

The book, thus, through its collection of essays examines what sport signifies to further its attempt of expanding its reader’s understanding of sport. By making sport a subject of academic discourse, it makes an effort to provide what journalistic coverage of the genre in our country falls short of. It offers a platform to professionals from various walks of life, united by their love of sports, to assume and discharge the responsibility of according sport its due heterogeneity.

A thought provoking and highly captivating contribution to the majorly untilled terrain of analytical sports literature in India!

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