Cricket and nationhood
March 27, 2012
Bangladesh was only three runs away from a historic victory. If post-match reactions are any indication, the nation needed this glory. There have been too few soaring moments that could galvanize the whole nation (the last one was probably Professor Yunus’ Nobel victory). In any case, even in loss, Tigers have lifted the spirit of all Bangladeshis at home and abroad.
Losing by two runs brought conflicting sentiments. On the one hand, it showed that the Tigers could put up a gallant fight against any opponent, no matter how mighty they are. On the other hand, because it was so tantalizingly close it hurt much more. Shakib’s melancholy stare is imprinted forever in the collective memory of the nation as the archetypal face of the Bengali tragic hero. For us, it was hard to control that embarrassing ocular fluid. During the terrifying silence when Shahadat’s bat failed to fetch the required number, it was no longer merely a cricket championship. It was an existential battle with destiny and nationhood.
It’s been a few days since the Asia Cup final. Slowly, the heart-wrenching pain of losing this epic battle to Pakistan is spawning a startling range of introspections. It would be worthwhile to mine some broader meanings of cricket in Bangladesh.
First, it is amply evident that cricket can do miracles in Bangladesh. It has the power to bring all feuding politicos to one venue. The common dream of the national team’s victory creates a momentary camaraderie. Many people wishfully thought: Oh, if only the cricket stadium had somehow morphed into the parliamentary assembly, where matters of national interest were sincerely deliberated. Could cricket — not the game itself, but the image of togetherness that it evokes — be a great antidote to the divisive political culture that plagues Bangladesh? It seems like Shakib, Tamim, Mushfiq, Mashrafee, and Nasir now have robust political clout, without being political in their actions.
Second, the reaction to the Asia Cup final was a sublime spectacle —heart-broken Tigers, an audience transfixed with disbelief, and a stunned nation that almost savoured the taste of victory. All of these reveal how hungry the nation was — and is — for glories. The nation needed this victory, not just to advance the cause of cricket, but also to define itself, to claim some comforting visibility on the world stage. The reaction to the Asia Cup transcended sports. It was about the nation’s inner angst, its earnest need to feel happy, as much as it was about 237. Suddenly, Shakib, Tamim, Mashrafee, and other Tigers were larger-than-life heroes because they carried the burden of the entire nation’s lofty hopes.
Third, and most important, it would not be premature to explore the social significance of Shakib, Tamim, Mashrafee, Mushfiq, Nasir, and other Tigers in our national narrative. But how does one define a nation? It is a simple, and banal, question with no clear-cut answer. In his famous essay “What Is a Nation?” (1882) the French theorist Ernest Renan tells us, a nation is a complex project of political imagination, for there is nothing given about a nation. It is what we imagine a nation to be. We make, or drum up, a roster of certain cultural patterns, common attitudes and language, ethnicity, past heroes and their accomplishments, among other things, to delineate a nation.
But Renan argues that this is not enough. How people imagine their present and future is also an important part of cementing nationhood. An element of the future works as a powerful myth for a people to flourish. In some ways, the quality of a nation is revealed by the quality of its imagination of the future and heroes.
Who are our heroes? Do we have any heroic models who new generations of Bangladeshis could emulate? Who would lead us into the future? What kind of characteristics do we demand from them? What kind of attributes should we promote among the future generations that would cleanse our corrupt politics; bring business into the 21st century; develop education for a knowledge-based society; and solidify a new type of pragmatic, rather than sentimental, patriotism that really matters?
Shakib, Tamim, and other Tigers offer a flicker of hope. Seeing Tamim bat with poise and self-confidence one wonders whether this is a new type of Bengali youth. Shakib’s nonchalance when defeat loomed large was a sharp contrast to the emotional and nervous route Bengalis typically take. When Mushfiq lofted the ball beyond the boundary (against Sri Lanka) with dispassionate professionalism, we witnessed a novel style of a calculated pursuit of targets. Mashrafee’s bowling was the epitome of total commitment. Mahmudullah’s performance represented both humility and skill. They persevered, delivered, and fought with steely determination.
But, alas, Tigers are the exception within a violence-prone young generation in Bangladesh. There are good apples here and there. But, generally, we have a jittery and angry youth culture. Our students clash with the police and vandalize properties with the most trivial of provocations. All too often, youngsters become mindless foot soldiers of political parties and their extortionist agendas. The recent violent confrontation between the students of two private universities presents the epitome of a misguided generation. The English-speaking teenagers often exhibit a peculiar antipathy toward Bangla and, sadly, the motherland that celebrates it. Tech-savvy youths resort to eve-teasing with mobile devices. Cheap thrills of substance abuse have permeated a restless young generation. A new alarming trend is a stock-market cohort driven by a dangerous get-rich-quick ideology.
This is not entirely the failure of the young. This is our collective failure to imagine a diligent and honest nation and nurture its development into a country guided by an ethos of hard work, pragmatism, and perseverance. We have not articulated what makes an ideal Bengali, a Bengali hero for the 21st century. The Bengali hero maybe an illusion, but the process of imagining it is itself a necessary mental exercise of a conscious nation. Unfortunately, we Bengalis don’t have a sustained history of fostering this mental attitude.
The likes of Shakib, Tamim, Mashrafee, Mushfiq, Nasir, Razzak, Mahmudullah, and other Tigers could fill this gap. This is not to say that everyone has to be a cricketer. What the new youth can emulate is Shakib’s determination and persistence to reach a target, whatever that maybe.
Meanwhile, sports officials, please do not politicize cricket and refrain from unwarranted interventions. And, Shakib and other Tigers, please resist the temptation of easy money from match-fixing crooks. You all have bright careers ahead of you. The world will be admiring you for your skills. And, we Bangladeshis will be proud to call you our very own Tigers, our rightful ambassadors of lofty Bengali virtues.
teaches in Washington, DC.