What incredible times we live in! The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena are both taking credit for a Big Achievement.
And what is the Big A? Starting vocational courses for young people? Encouraging the spirit of entrepreneurship in Maharashtra? Introducing special programmes for the girl child? The Big A they are fighting over is stopping the Mumbai launch of Shoaib Akhtar's book Controversially Yours.
Are you surprised? What surprises me isn't that they are boasting about this, but that the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena of Raj Thackeray hasn't joined the fray. For, what we have in the country is Competitive Intolerance.
Whether it's a book on Mahatma Gandhi that no one has read, or an obscure reference to Chhatrapati Shivaji, or a depiction of one of our gods or goddesses, or now a remark about Sachin Tendulkar, the immediate response isn't to engage in debate or discussion but to suppress and ban. Is this what we call democracy?
I know a bit about the Shoaib book because I was personally involved in its Mumbai release. Let me explain. Last year I started 'Literature Live!' Mumbai's first international literary festival.
With a small but dedicated team, we pulled this off, and the second edition will take place at the National Centre for Performing Arts on 3, 4, 5 and 6 November. Illustrious names like Thomas Friedman, Shashi Tharoor, Mark Tully, Sunil Khilnani and several others will be present.
We then decided that Literature Live! should be an ongoing festival throughout the year culminating in the November event. We would, therefore, hold book releases every month, and so far we have featured Amitav Ghosh, Patrick French, Aatish Taseer and Tarun Tejpal. We knew Shoaib Akhtar's memoirs wouldn't be quite literary, but autobiography is certainly a time-honoured form of literature, so why not launch the book and engage the author in a conversation?
The rest you know. Word got out, enthusiastically pitched at a high decibel level by television that Shoaib had criticised Sachin Tendulkar.
"How dare he?" said everyone, and all hell broke loose. CCI, the Cricket Club of India, which had agreed to hold the event, backed out, the Sena and NCP (I believe) held demonstrations and burnt effigies, and Akhtar, once the world's fastest bowler, decided to go slow on his plans to come to Mumbai. Notch that up as another victory for the people whose favourite phrase is Shut Up.
What would have happened if the event had been held? I had asked sports writer Ayaz Memon to have the Conversation with Shoaib. Ayaz, who knows his cricket as well or better than any man in this country, tells me that he had gathered enough factual ammunition to make Shoaib squirm. Plus the audience was to be given enough time to ask their own questions. In the end, enlightenment of some form would have been achieved.
Unlike most people making this high-pitched noise, I have actually read Controversially Yours. The title, of course, is revealing: it tells you exactly what the author intends to do, which is to stir things up.
So he goes after the Pakistan Cricket Board and its chairmen, iconic Pakistani cricketers like Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, and confesses to ball tampering as something everyone does. Then he takes the ball in his hand, takes his inordinately long run, and tries to bowl bouncers at our icons Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid.
Here is what he says:
Players like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid weren't exactly match winners to start with, nor did they know the art of finishing a game. Things changed when younger players like Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh arrived on the scene. These guys didn't play for records, they played to win…
With the coming of the younger players, the Indian team took the No 1 Test spot… And Sachin has started scoring quickly, and playing the role of match winner for his team. I can't recall a series from his earlier playing days when he helped win matches. But now, with the help of Sehwag, Yuvraj, Gambhir, Virat Kohli and others, who are terrific batsmen and keep things moving, he wins matches for India. He has taken a leaf out of their book and bats beautifully. Now he is a complete batsman.
"Please don't get me wrong. I think he was always a great batsman, if not the greatest in the world, and I admire his extraordinary skills. To me, however, winning is everything. Vivian Richards, Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara are great batsmen who dominated with the bat and were truly match winners. Initially, when I bowled against Sachin, I found these qualities missing…But in the last time three years, I can see he has changed his game.
Continues on the next page
You can see Shoaib bending over backwards trying not to offend. But if he thinks Sachin Tendulkar was an accumulator rather than a dominating batsman, he is entitled to his opinion. As it is, he gets so many things wrong: Yuvraj and Kohli in test teams? Where did he get that from?
And why does he forget a simple little equation, an odd omission coming from a bowler, that it's bowlers who win matches? If Richards and Ponting and Lara dominated, it was simply because they had the world's best bowlers in the team. In the later years of Lara's career, the West Indies team lost all its bowling strength. Did Lara's 'dominating' batting win his team any matches then?
One more passage from the book has caused the biggest problem. But as you will see from the extract, the problems have arisen because Shoaib has not been quoted correctly. What he says is this:
Sachin was suffering from tennis elbow; this severely handicapped the great batsman. We managed to psychologically browbeat him. We bounced the ball at him and were able to unnerve him. I returned to the dressing room that first day with the knowledge that Sachin was not comfortable facing the fast and rising ball. And he was distinctly uncomfortable against me…
When we got back on the field, I bowled a particularly fast ball which he, to my amazement, didn’t even touch. He walked away! That was the first time I saw him walk away from me – that, too, on the slow track at Faisalabad. It got my hunting instincts up. In the next match, I hit him on the head, and he could not score after that.
This is typical fast bowlers' talk. In fact, without the aggro and the bravado that this passage shows, Shoaib Akhtar would hardly be the hostile bowler he was. But has he insulted Tendulkar? You be the judge.
The point, of course, is even if he did say disparaging things about Sachin Tendulkar, or for that matter anyone else, it’s one man’s opinion. As long as Shoaib does not get abusive, he has the right to his opinion, right or wrong. The way to deal with it is to refute his arguments with fact and reason. Not burn effigies or stop him coming into your city.