Rum, reggae and responsibility

BY Vijay Nambisan| IN Media Practice | 10/03/2007
This can`t be an Indian writing about another less developed nation, can it? It must be Tony Greig writing about an Indian tour, or Dean Jones in terrorist country.

Vijay Nambisan

The senior sports journalist Ajay S. Shankar has just inaugurated a column related to the cricket World Cup, ¿Caribbean Cruise¿, in The Indian Express. In an evocative first piece, ?Welcome to rum & reggae country? (March 8, 2007), he leads off:

Almost as soon as the Air Jamaica aircraft started trundling along the Heathrow runway, I knew I was in trouble. The overhead baggage rack started rattling, the toilet door slammed open, the headrest over the bewildered airhostess¿ [sic] head toppled over, we were straining to take off.

Once in Jamaica, ?West Indies will win,? is the surly welcome at immigration, the burly lady officer then abruptly disappearing with my passport, unable to decipher the special all-Caribbean visa specially issued for the tournament. She hadn¿t heard about it.

Oh well, they had said this World Cup was going to be a backroom nightmare.

So much for text. Now for context.

Does Shankar remember how the British and Australian press covered the Reliance World Cup back in ¿87? I don¿t have access to archives, but I assure him it was very like this: England organised three smooth Prudential World Cups before this. Now just because India won last time they (with Pakistan) think they can organise a World Cup! Ho ho, these natives. Prepare for Delhi belly, for corruption; prepare to pay more for everything. We won¿t get decent food, we won¿t get decent drink, we¿ll ask for a hardship allowance. The roads will be bad; the driving will be deadly dangerous. The hotels will stink. All we can look forward to is getting together in the five-star bar or the High Commissioner¿s house where we can club together and pretend we¿re not in bloody India.

As it happened, India and Pakistan pulled off a hugely successful World Cup which was not only smooth but spectacular. It filled the ICC¿s coffers, and those of the host nations¿ cricket boards. It was the beginning of the rise and rise of Jagmohan Dalmiya, and of an emphatic shift of cricketing power to the sub-continent. Pakistan won the next World Cup and Sri Lanka the one after that, which was again hosted by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. There was not so much condescension in 1996.

Now subtext, and O for the brain of an Edward Said! Shankar effortlessly establishes at the outset - one is not an experienced journalist for nothing - that

1. He is from the First World (the reference to Heathrow);

2. He usually travels by a superior mode of transportation;

3. He is confirmed, by the class of transport he is provided, in his expectations of the destination;

4. He is not disappointed on arrival (the ¿surly welcome¿); and

5. These natives can¿t organise things properly.

There is such a strong sense of deja vu as you continue reading:

Be prepared, they had warned. And I braced up [sic] for the worst. Till I ran into Victor Taylor outside, and his dazzling smile. It¿s a smile that I was to see on hundreds of faces in the next two days. The kind of smile that soothes you, makes you feel good, convinces you that you are with good people, in a happy world. The kind of smile that forces you to pay that extra dollar, everywhere, knowing that you are being fleeced through your guts [sic].

This can¿t be an Indian writing about another less developed nation, can it? It must be Tony Greig writing about an Indian tour, or Dean Jones in terrorist country. The subtext is, of course, that the aborigines are friendly and shiftless and live off the hapless tourist. Never happens in India.

The next paragraph takes us deeper into this heart of darkness:

Shifting the gears of his beat-up Nissan like a maniac, Taylor turned to look behind, hardly worried about the 16-wheel trailer truck that was looming in the windscreen. ?We Jamaicans, we will do a good job, maan. We will give you the best. But watch out in Trinidad, they are going to fleece you.?

Every single First World correspondent who has written about India, even the well-disposed ones - from James Cameron to Christopher Kremmer - has said how terrifying it is to drive or be driven in India. Every single one has written of how rampant corruption is. Every single one has talked of poor infrastructure: roads, buildings, vehicles. And now we are being derisive of the West Indians. Is it because they are mostly blacks, hubshis, and most of India has for long been more colour-conscious than the most rabid Nazi or pukka sahib?

Does Shankar live in Heathrow? When he covers a cricket match in Cuttack or Guwahati or Kochi as he sometimes must, does he sleep all the way to his seat in the press box and all the way back? On certain Indian air routes it is common enough to see passengers put their feet up on the cushions. Are they therefore savages? Not too long ago the inaugural flight of India¿s first budget airline caught fire. Does it mean we can¿t run airlines? That airline has since done very well. So when the West Indies World Cup proves a success, will Shankar still be writing about his last attack of diarrhoea?

I¿m getting shrill. It¿s because I¿m scared. This whole business of India as a Global Superpower is, of course, a media construct; but have journalists themselves begun to believe the myth they made?

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