By Binoo K John
When the rise and fall of modern nations is written about, India will fare well, surely, due to one particular national obsession: giving itself numerous awards for tasks both enlightened and crass.
Thus it is that India, solely among all modern civilised nations, has the maximum award-giving functions and the most number of awards. Nowhere is more time wasted on perpetuating mediocrity than in India. There is a national consensus that since the world does not recognise any of India’s contributions, we might as well do so and award ourselves.
This is being written soon after the government of India changed the norms for the award of the Bharat Ratna, possibly with the intention of giving the highest civilian award to Sachin Tendulkar, and probably the late hockey wizard Dhyan Chand. We are also experts at posthumous awards unlike, say, the Nobel and other major awards, which are not conferred on the dead.
Tellingly, on 16 November, the Jamia Millia University awarded a D Lit to Amartya Sen, that most awarded of Indian thinkers, this being the 90th D Lit he is being stuck with — most of it from India. We must be grateful that Amartya Sen did not pick up the habit of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or he might have added at least three or four Dr prefixes to his name as he is surely entitled to three or four from the 90 he has received.
So bereft of national geniuses and big ideas are we that to fill the gap, we are, apart from constantly awarding Amartya Sen, also recalling the virtues of that other great Bengali Nobel winner, Rabindranath Tagore. This year the reason is his 150th birthday. (Will we be still celebrating his 250th anniversary?) So busy are we this year releasing Tagore works in various physical forms (paperback, hardback, gilt-edged, gold embossed, leather-bound) and holding conferences in his name (I attended one in the ICCR in Delhi with 20 Tagore scholars from all over the world and 10 listeners), that we are scared that time will somehow wipe the memory of that lone great writer we have.
Contrast this national habit of harking back, to the US which sweeps Nobel prizes with utterly boring regularity each year. Not a single anniversary of these great US scientists is celebrated there. The embarrassment of riches they have makes it difficult for them to even mention all of them in national contexts and functions even one year after they win the grand prizes.
The highest civilian award in any country is given to those whose ideas and stories live and whose actions have changed destinies. A sporting achievement does none of these. Few alive today have seen Dhyan Chand play, so few will argue about his hockey skills. If Sachin is given the Bharat Ratna, can Sehwag be far behind, for he is likely to score his third triple century in Tests and thus overtake Don Bradman himself?
What about our Olympic gold medal winner Abhinav Bindra, if for nothing else, at least for wiping away the national shame of having over one billion people and not even one individual Olympic gold to tell posterity about? Isn’t that a bigger achievement if national image is any criterion?
It is true that Sachin has given new ambitions and idealism to a generation of Indians bereft of heroes and ideals. He has been the ideal Indian even in the moral sense of the term and, unlike some other great sportsmen, hasn’t crossed moral boundaries, always boringly sticking to prescribed norms.
Being morally a centurion as well as scoring a hundred hundreds will bring him the Bharat Ratna, though Dravid fans can argue that Sachin is not that well educated and so will never be called to give the Bradman oration, so why the Bharat Ratna? Millions of boys have been named after Sachin by aspiring parents in the hope that by at least being a bearer of a great name they will be under pressure to achieve at least part of what Tendulkar did. But a Bharat Ratna? No-no.
Sport, at its very best, is physical achievement and hence fickle. It signifies the breaking of barriers of time, speed, stamina and, in Sachin’s case, that of scores. These are not instances which can spur a nation many years hence. What matters is the large question. Will Amartya Sen’s study of poverty mean more to a future India or, for that matter, Tagore’s writings, than the image of Sachin kissing the Indian emblem on his helmet after yet another century? Will his undying search for landmarks be a guiding light many years hence? Do ideas live or do sport statistics? What changes destinies?
There is no doubt that people who leave great ideas behind are those to be considered for the highest civilian awards. Sadly, neither Sachin nor Dhyan Chand qualify. India is not a sporting nation nor are South Asians a sporting race. So why fool ourselves by embossing national sporting heroes on to the pantheon of immortals?
We run the race more as a routine. To breast the winning tape is not an Indian trait in any field. Compare us to miniscule Jamaica and Trinidad, which now produces the fastest runners in the world, where at least four or five of them can run below 10 seconds for 100 metres, a feat that will take an Indian at least two decades to achieve. They wear their physical greatness lightly, even as they stretch and reset one barrier after another.
Our achievements are nothing to talk about in the high tables of global leaders. We have many billionaires, but hardly one global brand, to take pride of place in the shelves of global malls or in the marketplace of ideas and invention. We are a pathetic people who take pride in announcing that the iPad2 is available here on the same day of its Tokyo release, rather than trying to create something nearing its genius.
We fear global achievers and competition and unite to keep away foreign technology retail shops from our midst lest the bania mentality and sunken strategy which dominates Indian thinking is exposed for what it is. We are happy in our insulated and insular cubbyhole, sometimes venturing out to piggyback on some great technology, often stealing and duplicating world class products.
Our sarkari scientists are specialists in reinventing the wheel (look at our moon mission when the vehicle itself burnt out, 30 years after the US put a man on the moon). Our entire space programme is a reinvention of 30-year-old technology. We are shameless copycats of world class designs and film tunes. And then we award ourselves profusely. Thus we play out our farcical mimes.
Two years back, when the US swept all the science Nobel prizes, a government official there said it is all very good but went on to point out the deteriorating condition in the primary school system there, suggesting that future winners are not being created. Look at that humility. And this when the US has got a total of 333 Nobel prizes, far better than the second most intellectually advanced nation, the UK, which has 128. India has seven, including one foreigner, Mother Teresa, and four of our Nobel winners worked abroad.
In a hundred years from now, how many Indians will get the Nobel? As of now, one Indian is mentioned as a probable winner: V Ramachandran, the neuroscientist (The Tell-Tale Brain, Phantoms of the Brain). Like other great Indian minds, he hones his skills in the US. So did S Chandrasekhar, the physicist, and Venkatesh Ramakrishnan, the two other recent science Nobel winners.
But then, of course, we have the Padma Shris and Padma Vibhushans who glitter, or rather litter, the arid intellectual landscape that this country has become.
As I write this, an Indian lady has been officially declared by the Limca Book of World records as the shortest woman in the world and made it to the international front pages. (India is still, for the western media, the mystical Great Indian Rope Trick nation, and rightly so). Jyoti is physically challenged and nature’s aberration. And tragic in many ways. But for us it is an achievement nevertheless. A trophy.
If not for grandness of ideas, at least for smallness of the body.
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Updated Date: Dec 22, 2011 13:01:04 IST