Last week, we carried Part-1 of an interview with Peter Lalor, writer in The Australian newspaper. Peter Lalor is a passionate supporter of the Australian cricket team and is fervent enthusiast for the way Australia plays its cricket. Our aim was to understand Australian aggression, racism in cricket crowds in India and a bevy of other issues by seeking the views of a respected Australian journalist. The further parts of this candid, no-holds-barred interview will appear later this week.
We thought we would try and achieve some balance in the debate by seeking the opinions of a respected Indian journalist too. And in the respect-stakes, they do not come higher than Prem Panicker. We asked more or less the same set of questions of Prem Panicker. Most cricket fans in India and elsewhere will have heard of Prem Panicker.
Prem Panicker is a valued and articulate Indian writer. He writes mostly on cricket, but, like Peter Lalor, writes on almost everything under the sun – politics, science, travel, literature, sports and more. Prem Panicker blogs actively too.
Prem Panicker has been writing about cricket for a long time. He was one of a handful of journalists who helped found Rediff.com (Nasdaq: REDF). He was based in New York, as editor of India Abroad, the largest Indian-American newspaper, after that paper was purchased by Rediff. He is currently editor of Rediff. He blogs insatiably on cricket and other things at http://www.prempanicker.com
We thought we would take the opportunity to talk to Prem Panicker — to get his views on cricket, Australian cricket, racism, sledging and a bevy of other things. If nothing else, we wanted to ensure that we did our bit to understand racism, understand cricket in India and sledging from an Indian perspective.
We asked Prem Panicker the same questions we asked Peter Lalor to achieve a sense of balance in the debate.
i3j3: Tell us something about Prem Panicker, the person. Where were you born? Where do you live? Where did you study? Your cricket/sporting past?
Prem Panicker: I’d rather, if it is all the same to you, leave me the person out of this. I’ve long felt an aversion to media personalities who become larger than the stories they cover, to the detriment of their journalism, and I have no wish to become one of those myself.
Very briefly, I studied in Christian College, Chennai first and then Calicut, in Kerala; I currently live in Mumbai, where I work for Rediff.com, and though I used to play all sorts of games and sports (athletics, cricket, soccer, badminton chiefly) in school, college and beyond, those days are long over and, in this present, too irrelevant to waste the time of your readers on.
i3j3: How and where did you start writing? And how did you start writing about cricket?
PP: I dropped out of college in my third year of the degree course, because I increasingly felt that what I was being taught and, more importantly, the way I was taught those subjects were devoid of any practical application whatsoever.
The only thing I took away from my college education was a liking for the English language. I liked to read, I liked to write. I spent the better part of eight years, post-college, bumming around, unsure of what I wanted to do. A friend who was then editing the youth section of a national newspaper kept sending assignments my way.
I dabbled with these assignments, in a desultory fashion at first, liked the process that goes into reportage, and realized this is what I wanted to do for a living. So I joined a newspaper and over time, evolved into doing profiles, investigative stories, and such.
Rediff was founded in 1996. At the time, the Internet was unknown in India -– and the World Cup was a fortnight away. We couldn’t get any cricket correspondent worth his byline to join us, because who knew what this strange medium was? So my editor looked around the newsroom, saw me lounging around doing nothing in particular, and told me I had to cover the Cup – which is how the whole cricket-writing thing began – an unavoidable accident, like a car smash.
i3j3: In your writings, you come across to us as a passionate fan of the Indian cricket team. Where do you derive that passion from?
PP: That one is easy: I love cricket, I love writing – give me a chance to club the two, and pay me for doing it, and what’s not to be passionate about?
Admittedly, I am – if not actually a “fan” of Indian cricket in all its particulars – attached emotionally and mentally to India, to the idea of this country. I would like to see it do the best it can in all fields; cricket is no exception.
i3j3: Are you passionate about any other team in world cricket today? Why?
PP: To reiterate a point made earlier, I am passionate about the game, and hence can get worked up watching two well matched teams play it to the best of their abilities. If your question is, do I unquestioningly follow a particular team, no – not even India.
i3j3: How did you feel at the end of the India-Australia ODI tour to learn that writers such as Peter Lalor (cricket writer in The Australian newspaper) were being branded as a racist in the Indian media and on Indian blogs?
PP: It is an unfortunate corollary of the increasing trend towards sound-byte journalism that we prefer name calling to considered critiques. I noticed that certain sections of the media were being labelled racist, with Peter in particular copping it, yes — but I don’t recall reading anything that substantiated that particular case.
i3j3: What do terms like “racist” do to a person like you? How has it affected you?
PP: What does it do? It leaves me cold – and mildly contemptuous of whoever it is who will not take the trouble to understand another human being but presumes himself fit to judge that other person anyway.
Take the incident with Peter for instance. He wrote a column questioning the official reason/excuse given for the crowd behaviour in Nagpur. Among other things, that column suggested that no crowd would pray in the middle of an ODI. I thought that comment was somewhat ill-informed – we pray all the time, for all sorts of ridiculous reasons. And I said as much on my blog. Was the comment racist? No – at best, it applied a different standard of cultural behaviour to judge the Nagpur incident.
i3j3: Do you feel that Australian cricket writers are being vilified in Indian media and Indian blogs for the opinions they have openly and directly stated?
PP: Not en masse, no – but yes, it has happened. We have long since forgotten how to treat opinion as just that – the thoughts of the person concerned, nothing more. Accept it if you think fit, debate it if you disagree, but I don’t see where you get off slinging epithets around. Such name-calling tells me nothing about the target; it does tell me, though, that the person doing the blanket name-calling is somewhat intellectually challenged.
i3j3: How do you think the Australian media should go about correcting that image that they seem to have acquired?
PP: Why should the “Australian media”, assuming there is any such animal, bother? (I am not much of a fan of clubbing an assorted bunch of journalists – Australian, Indian, whoever – of widely different talents, abilities, and personalities into one homogenous unit.) It is not part of a journalist’s brief to shape his image and his writing to confirm to someone else’s perception – in fact, it is fatal. His job is to report, to analyse, to critique and comment, to the best of his ability, integrity, and belief. As long as he is doing that in all honesty, I don’t see why he should worry about how readers, or some other segment of the media, see him.
i3j3: What is your view of the Austrlian cricket media? How do they come across to you as (a) a reader, (b) a fan of Indian cricket?
PP: As I pointed out above, there really is no such thing as the “Australian cricket media” – or the “Indian cricket media” for that matter. There are journalists of varying calibre covering Australian cricket, the same applies to India and everyone else.
I read, as often as I can, the major Australian newspapers and have come across articles that range the spectrum from outstanding to ordinary.
What is sometimes not taken into account is that even the best of writers have their off days – if you consider the amount of words churned out worldwide on this game we all follow, you will appreciate how impossible it is to be consistently insightful, to constantly come up with new things – ergo, the off days. Who was it who once said “Only mediocrity can be always at its best”?
i3j3: What makes a comment racist as opposed to one that is rude or personal? Does there need to be a link with race, gender or some sort of generalisation? What specifically (in your view) made the comments against Andrew Symonds racist?
PP: Um. I can’t off the top recall the name of the US Supreme Court judge who once was asked to define obscenity, and who responded with “I can’t define it, but by golly, I know it when I see it.” Same difference, I would think, with racism.
Racism is far too serious, and too convoluted, an issue to be disposed off in a few sentences; to even attempt that is counter-productive.
For all that human beings pretend to homogeneity, we happen to be divisive by nature; we dissect ourselves into groups and sub-groups and our allegiance is bottom up, not top down. That is to say, to our sub group first, and so on up to the national level.
For instance, sometimes I comment about a particular player, and I am promptly abused as a “bloody South Indian”. I’m sorry, what has the place of my birth got to do with anything – and why is characterising, condemning me in that fashion not racist? I don’t presume to speak with expertise on how it is in Australia – I am curious, though, to know what language Sydneysiders use to refer to Melburnians, say, in the heat of battle, and how you would characterise that.
About Symonds specifically, I honestly don’t know just what the crowds in Nagpur said – I’ve heard a dozen different versions and, to quote Harry Belafonte, “It was clear as mud, but it covered the ground, and the confusion made me brain go round.”
I don’t intend to suggest that Symonds was lying; nor do I intend to buy into the official explanation wholesale. I cannot however entirely discount the possibility that he did not understand what was said, and took offense where none – at least, not on racist lines – was intended.
That said, what a section of the Mumbai crowd did was downright unacceptable. It had already been made clear that Symonds was upset by the “monkey” references. From that point on, all debate about intentions and such needed to end. The Mumbai crowd was not petitioning the gods; it was perpetuating behavior that had already been denounced as demeaning, and that is unacceptable. The idiots responsible deserved far more by way of punishment than the slap on the wrist they ended up getting.
i3j3: Several Australian crowds would often “send off” a departing Indian batsman with a “You drive a taxi” comment or a “You’re going home on the back of an elephant” chant. In your view, is this a racist slur?
PP: Sure, it uses a national stereotype to abuse an individual. It also can prompt a digression into stereotypes themselves. For instance, to suggest that you have a Roman nose is not racist, or to suggest that you have an aquiline proboscis is not to insult you with bestial comparisons; both are descriptors, even complimentary adjectives. Halle Berry however recently got into trouble on a chat show, with an off hand remark about Jewish noses that crossed that line and descended into racist stereotype, and had to apologize.
It is a damnably thin, often ill-defined line, and the sensibilities of the person at the receiving end are the best, often only, yardstick we have. That most times the practitioners of such abuse use it instinctively, even unthinkingly, and would be startled to know that the recipient felt hurt compounds the problem – that racism is an almost unconscious reflex in our minds.
i3j3: Are you planning on writing on this topic of racism in cricket?
PP: That would take a book – and by the time you were done you would have enough material for a sequel. I suppose when confronted with specific instances I will likely write on them, but I am not sure I have the bandwidth to examine the issue of racism as a pervasive societal malaise.
[to be continued…]