India books, REVIEWS, Travel books

Hitting boundaries for six

Rahul Bhattacharya, Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India

Cover of Pundits from Pakistan by Rahul BhattacharyaThe Indian subcontinent thrives on cricket. You can tell that the cricketing season in India has started by the ubiquitous clusters of people outside shops where a television set is tuned to a live cricket match. For days every fan becomes a coach – an expert on winning strategies.

But a contest with Pakistan assumes an aura of its own. The two nuclear-armed neighbours were wrangled out of British India in 1947 and have fought three wars since. Even today, contentious territorial claims on each side keep the borders tense and tempers simmering.

Not surprisingly then, all moderation is abandoned when India and Pakistan meet on the cricket battlefield. Supporters of both sides derive extra satisfaction in seeing the other side defeated and dejected. Even subdued national dailies come up with loud and jarring headlines, and both nations go into a senseless tizzy.

In 2004, after months of heightened tension and cross-border skirmishes, the neighbours turned to cricket in an attempt at reconciliation. India toured Pakistan to play a full cricket tournament after a long gap of 14 years.

Writer Rahul Bhattacharya from India went along to cover this tour for The Guardian and Wisden. His witty and personal account, Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour With India is a result of that journey. This new Penguin edition – the book was originally published by Picador in 2005 – comes with a fresh preface by the author, and a new set of colour photographs.

Bhattacharya skilfully manages to capture the hype and excitement associated with the tour. He gives his readers not only a ringside view of the exciting cricketing action but also puts them in the small dusty towns of Pakistan where many of its champions are born.

On the ground he manages to convey the excitement of the contest in his delightful prose, which becomes almost too lyrical at times.  Like this one on batsman VVS Laxman;

“There is no muscle in the art of VVS, no malice, no meanness. It is non-confrontational, innocent, lovely. Or put it this way: strip away the circumstances, strip away the competition and all the rest of the stuff that really make sport… strip it, strip it, strip it down to a man and a stick and nothing more and the art of VVS barely resonates any less.”

Armed with journalistic rigour but guided by a fan’s insights, he attempts to understand why Pakistan consistently produces excellent seam bowlers, who are naturally adept at the difficult reverse swing. He is told about the ‘tape-ball’, a ball sheathed in insulation tape with a slit left to allow swing, unknown to players in India, that provides an early training to bowlers in the narrow gullies where cricket in small towns is played. He gets to watch an exhibition tape-ball game for the cameras and comes back convinced that it is the joy that young Pakistanis feel while bowling fast that makes them so good.

Mr Bhattacharya is also an Indian travelling to a culture which shares many similarities to his own but which is much misunderstood and stereotyped in his country.

On a day-trip to see the excavated ruins of Harappa township of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation, he comes across a village so remote and so small that it is identified by the number 135A/9-L. When the inhabitants find out that he is Indian, they take great pains to make him feel welcomed.

“Mrs Rana encouraged me to bathe and nap and eat since I must be tired and hungry, and the girls and boys asked questions about Indian movies and colleges. Thereafter, rambling through the burning remains of an ancient civilisation was an anti-climax.”

Would his own people be capable of extending such welcome to their guests from across the border, he wonders.

The book, full of cricket wisdom, is a must read for all fans of the game. Others should read it for the entertainment it provides of travelling in a country which, despite its problems, retains a big heart and is always ready for a game of cricket.

Rahul Bhattacharya has written a fine travelogue full of quirky encounters which captures the noisy atmosphere of a cricket-crazed nation.

– Ashwini Bhatia

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About moonpeak

Moonpeak is an online and print magazine published in McLeodganj, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India. It features articles and interviews about travel, photography and books, with a focus on South Asia and Tibet. The magazine is based at Moonpeak cafe, restaurant and gallery on Temple Road, McLeodganj.

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