Modern Times

That Stunned Look Again

Manu Joseph became a journalist because he did not have to crack any objective-type entrance exam to be one. He is the author of two novels -- The Illicit Happiness of Other People, and Serious Men, his first, which won The Hindu Literary Prize and was one of Huffington Post 10 Best Books of 2010.
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There is nothing more Indian than what is happening with the Commonwealth Games. Why are you pretending to be outraged?

There are facial expressions only Indians can achieve. One of them is even the true mascot of India. You see it often on the streets, probably every day—the look on a guy who has just fallen off his bike. After riding like a moron all day, he finally falls, rolls on the road and picks himself up with that inimitable expression on his face. He is stunned. How did this happen, he seems to ask. That wounded surprise at a natural consequence of imbecility—we all have it. 

It is on the faces of our television reporters who tell us every day that our Commonwealth Games preparation is steeped in kickbacks and absolute incompetence. It is on the faces of the self-righteous people who appear to be baffled by the scale of the corruption. It is also on the faces of those among us who laugh in disdain, for even though we chuckle in a knowing way, we are still aghast at it all, wounded. Even this column, while trying to achieve a superior grin, is a lament at our moment of shame, and as I write this I probably have the same obtuse gaze I used to have when I used to periodically fall off my Suzuki Samurai. 

But what did we really expect? That a nation which cannot pass through a traffic junction without looking like a republic of clowns can efficiently host an international sports meet? That a country with no talent in planning, no respect for order and systems, where something as low grade as practicality is overtly held superior to morality can organise a giant event? 

In 2003, when India bagged the Games after defeating Canada by 24 votes, that pleasant country accused us of bribing the Commonwealth nations by promising them $100,000 each. We claimed that it was only a large-hearted gesture from us to improve their sports facilities. That is what we said. It implied that we were donating money to countries like England and Australia to improve their sports infrastructure, which was absurd. But the bribe was not our only deceit. 

India had sent a delegation of about 50 to Jamaica for the final round of bidding, where only India and Canada were left standing. A few days after India won the right to host the Games, I spoke to one of the key delegates, who told me how they went about selling India. They made stunning audio-visual presentations in which “we showed no snake charmers or naked sadhus”. Instead, we showed the new malls and our alleged wealth and modernity. We laid out an impressive variety of Indian food for the voters, who later even danced to Hindi pop on a beach. We sold ourselves as a modern nation that can very easily build the infrastructure needed to host a major sporting event. In short, we generally lied about our true nature. Our pitch in Jamaica was so compelling that even the Pakistani delegates backed us. They stood and clapped after Sunil Gavaskar made a fervent speech (in return, he gave them a salute, which must have made them feel homesick).

The reason why we did this was for national pride, which is the most exasperating thing about us. All our lives we have been searching for reasons to be proud of our country and we desperately cling to anything that promises that. Then, when reality dawns, we look like the biker who has just fallen. Surprised, hurt. Some people say that no matter how pathetic we are as a nation, we must be proud of ourselves. This is a dim view. 

Confusing the swagger of inferiority complex with pride will only result in a huge wastage of resources. It is evident in our overrated space programme, which is at best poignant, and in our investment in scientific research institutes, which have largely failed for want of a true scientific tradition, which is not possible without a meaningful investment in primary education. It is also evident, needless to say, in our foolish bid to host the Commonwealth Games. It was supposed to be our foreplay before we bid for bigger things. And now the world knows that we can indeed screw the Olympics.