Watching India play Pakistan was a life-defining experience in the 1980s. The Doordarshan logo that threatened to spiral out of control, the sari-clad North Indian lady who would say, “aaiye aapko le chalte hain Gwalior jahan Bharat aur Pakistan ke beech teesra antarashtriya…”, and finally, the long-haired, athletic Imran Khan getting ready to leap into your dreams and nightmares.
The games against Pakistan set you up for rejection, filling you with a brooding sense of fear of failure — a deep rumbling in the guts, an anticipatory onset of the blues, if you will — and also an ecstatic feeling of triumph, a tingling delight that left an after-taste for the entire evening, and the ‘morrow at school. Ultimately, it matured you.
Perhaps it percolated from the adults that this bat-ball thingy against the neighbours is something much more than a game. You got swept along, without understanding the bigotry of the relatives in some cases. The past wasn’t the wonderland nostalgia-pedllers claim: All the stereotypes were present, perhaps even exaggerated: “Did you know Indian Muslims celebrate Pakistan wins?”
And then you also felt a strange “umbilical cord” twinge. The term might be a cliché for two split countries but there is something to it. It was a negative feeling at times, in the sense it made you wish Pakistan would lose even when they weren’t playing India, but left you feeling eerily flat when it happened. More often than not, it was a positive feeling, making you wish they do well and feel chuffed when they did. All this began to raise questions: What am I feeling? Why does a piece of coloured cloth — the flag — kick up some chemical-locha inside you?
The strangest development in Indo-Pak affairs on the field was how it made you dread Fridays. It’s one of those messy things that spill out from human nature. There was a game that really skilful-player-against-spin Salim Malik won against all odds — shimmying to the leg side, exposing the stumps, and carting and carving the pacers and spinners alike. It’s all amusing now but then, once India scraped their way on weekdays and set up a final on Friday, the sinking feeling would set in.
Fridays were of course a special day for the Muslims and it would set off another bout of questions about what you felt. Sport threw up the deepest feelings in boyhood, perhaps some in school were loitering about in love and lust, but for many of us, cricket, and Indo-Pak matches in particular, threw up the most complicated questions of our life. Slowly, the breakout moments came through: You realised the bigotry of some relatives, the amount of unconscious social conditioning that had percolated in you, and you strived to break free. Ultimately, it was the Pakistani cricketers with their dazzling skills that helped you in this. Sport often panders to the parochial but these men in green elevated you with their jaw-dropping brand of cricket. It was easy to like them and it became easier to push forward towards maturity.
One thing that helped was that the world at large allowed you to go through these internal monologues on your own. There were no hectoring anchors on TV hammering in their definition of patriotism, the “go-back-to-Pakistan” sentiment wasn’t at the ridiculous level it is now, and even debates about Kashmir were more civilised. Bigotry about Pakistan and Islam was muted, and you could work your way out of the mess without it leaving any psychological scars.
Not that bigotry wasn’t prevalent. I remember hearing a commotion, and opening a door at a relative’s house to see adults clapping and cheering at the TV. The demolition of the Babri masjid was being shown — a VHS tape from the karsevaks’ point of view was doing the rounds then — and there was utter mayhem at the site, and celebration in the room. Luckily by then, enough cricket had been seen to realise that one could step out to play some cricket. You were playing Pakistan vs India with other teenagers, and the Imran leap had to be practised.