Saturday, June 16, 2012

He silenced his enemies.

Why do writers feel that for someone to be labeled  a champion or a hero,  he/she must be shown to have been through untold suffering - constantly warding off detractors and evil spirits, silencing the relentless doubters and critics, putting up with major inconveniences, struggling with poverty and so on? 

For example, a student who gets the first rank in the Board Exams must be described as one who read in the park everyday ( no lights at home) or walked six miles through slush everyday to reach school. I can almost visualize the reporter prompting the student, “ Did you have to study in candlelight or using kerosene lamps anytime?”.  “Yes, yes, now that you remind me. The evening before my Maths Exam, there was a two-hour power cut in our area…” 

A sports champion must be shown as one who came from a very humble background, practiced 16 hours a day, cycled 15 km for his coaching, caught up with his school homework at midnight and rose to the top through sheer determination in the face of adversity. 

Many of these stories are true, of course. We should not belittle them. But look at anybody’s life, I’m sure you’ll find some major setbacks they’ve faced or the many challenges they had to overcome. This is a reality and it’s ridiculous to hype this aspect. Every sportsman who has achieved something or not would have worked very hard at the game, often at the expense of something else in life. 

When Anand won the World Championship title for the 5th time recently, it was no mean achievement. He had to work hard against a formidable opponent who showed enormous resolve and intent to dethrone Anand. But that’s how it is in any sporting event. Theirs is often a reigning champion and someone else trying to unseat him from that position. At the level of a World Championship, it does get intensely competitive.

But when you put it this matter-of-fact manner, it sounds tame and insipid.  So, a special dose of melodrama needs to be injected into the narrative. That’s what Chidanand Rajghatta does in his report: 

They trash-talked him, ridiculed him, and wrote him off. They said he had slowed down, lost his flair and chutzpah, and become conformist and traditional in his play. But Viswanathan Anand took on everything the Russian-Israeli chess mafia and his growing band of critics threw at him and emerged on top yet again on Wednesday, winning the world chess title for the fifth time, and shutting up detractors for now. 

.. the Russian chess mafia has long been smarting at the loss of the chess crown to the genial Indian after the Karpov-Kasparov combine dominated the game for decades.

Anand has taken on everything they have fired at him from since 2000, including a divided and discredited world title. But since 2007, he had been the undisputed world champion, defeating the Russian Vladimir Kramnik, whom Moscow regarded as the heir to the two Ks, and the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov in 2010.

In each instance, Anand has had to battle not just his opponent, but also a mighty chess establishment, and sometimes even forces of nature. In 2010, he had to drive from Spain to Bulgaria, a distance of nearly 3000 kms across Europe, after the volcanic ash disrupted flights and the (challenger's) host country refused to delay the start, citing TV rights issues. He got to Sofia just in time -- and went on to win. 

So, this is the picture that Rajghatta conjures for you. Anand, the valiant Indian, all alone and with no weapons- surrounded on all sides by the evil, scheming Russian-Israeli mafia who want his blood to mix with their cocktail. He can hear his severe critics guffawing away in a menacing and cinematic voice over.  But Anand subdued and tamed them all,  as only Chidanand Rajghatta - out of the billions of people on earth -knew he would. For, he alone knew the size of Anand’s heart. 

Anand’s triumph was fantastic, even without bringing in these references to Israeli-Russian mafia and so on. But it had to be brought in by Rajghatta.  Perhaps he felt that  the reader won’t be able to appreciate the enormity of the achievement without this hyperbole.

Maybe, while reporting on achievers, the emphasis on the hardship is necessary to inspire so many people who are struggling with poverty and discrimination, to provide them the motivation to pursue a lofty ambition. If Ramanujam hailing from a poor family and who had his schooling in a small town could become a world-renowned mathematician, so can you. If Mary Kom can win five world champion titles in women’s boxing despite her background as the daughter of a poor farmer in a remote place in North-East India, so can you.  

But this aspect need not take over the narrative and become the dominant or central theme.  And, as in the case of Rajghatta’s report on Anand, new forms of hardship or adversity need not be invented just to conform to the template.

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