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Why we will never allow Anand to surpass Sachin
I am a couch potato. We couch potatoes live life and sport through others. As spectators, we have our own ecumenical way of looking at things. We are armchair anthropologists who celebrate differences, make comparisons and connect impossible questions. Let me tell you it is not just the old imaginary games of composing the best Indian team to beat the best Pakistani team. We look at more fundamental things. As spectators, we are both witnesses and consumers;we compose discourses, examine evaluations. In this imagined anthropology, strange questions pop up like unexpected bits of toast.
This week Viswanathan Anand, Vishy to all of us, won the chess world championship for the fifth time. As an exercise of skill and stamina, it is a stunning achievement. It matches Sachin Tendulkar's century of centuries and yet I wonder why we down play the former.
In terms of spectatorship, there was one thing that was similar to both achievements - the cry of relief that greeted it. Waiting can be a gruelling act for a fan and one had to wait almost as a test of faith for both events to come true. Gelfland stretched Anand to the rapid fire. Sachin's detour of a year was an ordeal for every spectator.
Yet the two achievements as stories are so different and so differently consumed. For cricket, and the world of advertising, Sachin is fable, legend and hero. Whether mouthing Boost is a secret of success or sipping coke like a magic drink, he is the middle class dream of success. He seemed to advertise everything and anything. A hundred centuries gets him to Parliament as a Rajya Sabha member. Sachin seems allpervasive, a visual excess, and Anand seems a background figure. His only consistent connection with advertising is his NIIT contract. Both seem to expound middle class values but from radically different angles.
Sachin is disciplined, honours his coach and his father, but for all that represents middle class consumption. He is the consumer as hero, a model of conspicuous consumption that every upwardly mobile dreams of. His lifestyle demands a Ferrari, a palatial house. His discipline as a cricketer justifies consumption as excess. He is the prime example of the guiltless success that India dreams of. Sachin is a floating signifier. He works to valorise any commodity. He combines that tacit masculinity, the clear cut professionalism with that cornucopia of consumption that India dreams of. You cannot think of Sachin without a Ferrari. He looks a familiar of the Ambanis, he is courted by all from Bal Thackeray to Aamir Khan. Corporate India celebrates his hundredth hundred like a night at the Oscars with Aamir, Salman and Abhishek saying the right things. They are all his fans. Every spectator understands the nature of his achievement.
As a chess player, Anand is among the greats. He probably earns a fortune. Yet if Sachin is at home in India, Anand looks in exile in Spain. People talk of the classic physical adjustments that Rahul Dravid and Sachin make and celebrate it. The mental adjustments that Anand has to make to battle both the Russian chess mafia and the later open age of chess are amazing. At a time when chess is seen as a game of 20-year-olds, Anand can be assumed as gerontocratic. He is king. Yet he is king without a crowd. When his victory was announced, politicians spewed out certificates as if they were for good conduct. There was no discussion, none of the replays that followed Sachin's achievement. If Sachin's was a style of conspicuous consumption, Anand's was one of ascetic restraints. One attracts the crowd, the other barely summons the aficionado. Sachin is consumed by the fans but Anand appears like an alien dish, an act of production which sees no future in the consuming act.
It is as if consumerist India does not now what to do with Anand. Sachin is still the boy next door an image he shares with the wilder Salman Khan. However Anand sounds alien. It is like a Noble prize winner dropping in. Anand will never be the barber shop hero to be discussed along with Aishwarya and Amitabh. Sachin is history and fable, Anand the genius is a footnote. He does not seem consumable. The ascetic Brahmin going home after his success sounds either alien or too everyday. He summons neither hysteria nor excess. Anand is too exotic for consumption. India is a consumer society first and still not a knowledge society. Cricket makes the information revolution sound a minor event.
The spectator goes hysterical over Sachin. The commentators sanitise an Anand. Sachin summons excess, while the Anand label almost says 'for limited use only'. There is sadness here because the celebration is one-sided. It is as if an achievement is an achievement only if it is consumed. Advertising decides the consumable and Anand seems fit for window shopping. There is a cultural one-sidedness that one must confront. These are two types of genius. Both deserve the noise of celebration, the exuberance of spectators, and ecumenical sense that sees the power, the integrity, the athleticism of chess. Invented an India, chess is also forgotten here, and is subject to amnesia, in the overflowing hysteria called Cricket. (Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad. )
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