...or, memories from past lives at Sharjah stadium.
The print version is a bit shorter than I would have liked, due to space considerations. An earlier, longer, version, follows:
I wish I had held on to those -- brochures? booklets? we called them “souvenir books” even though they commemorated no memory, instead serving advance notice -- glossy publications issued in connection with the Sharjah cricket tournaments of the 1980s. Looking back, the articles in the souvenir books were little more than puff-pieces on the Indian and Pakistani cricket teams, and the obligatory third team (and sometimes, a fourth or even a fifth) brought in to avoid the tournament seeming like a bilateral India-Pakistan series, veiling the latter, as it were, but only to heighten the ultimate pleasure of the encounter. But back then, they seemed like little pieces of magic that my father would bring back from his trips to Sharjah stadium, and I devoured not only the write-ups, but also the full-page photographs that made even obscure players -- such as an uneasy-looking Laxman Sivaramakrishnan in the white-bordered souvenir issued for the 1985 “Challenge Cup” -- seem like titans. Even the tobacco ads did not escape my attention. We lived in Abu Dhabi then, and I had never been to Sharjah, not being Old Enough to be allowed a day trip to the stadium; accordingly, I had to content myself with these souvenir books, coveting them almost more than news of who had won the match.
Things began to look up after we moved to Dubai: I was older, and Sharjah wasn’t far away at all. Certainly close enough to go to an India-Pakistan match with my father in 1987, where no fewer than three Indian batsmen perished to the generally unthreatening Salim Jaffer’s full-tosses. My father didn’t stay long -- he had to work that day -- but there were many more matches in the ensuing years, both with him and with classmates, leading to a treasure chest of disjointed images for memories: Viv Richards walking back to the pavilion after having scored 36 nonchalant runs that briefly lifted the tedium of yet another predestined West Indies victory -- the match doesn’t matter, he seemed to be saying to me as he walked back to the pavilion with that inimitable swagger of his, only the style does; name-calling in the stands, as a red-bearded Pathan raffle-ticket seller grew enraged at being mock-whistled at (“like a girl,” he fumed); Waqar Younis running in to complete his 10-over bowling quota, destroying New Zealand to the tune of a two-figure score, his run-up and action an excuse to showcase his godlike open-chested form at the point of delivery; my father’s binoculars, difficult to focus but indispensable if I was ever to associate the men the scoreboard assured me were on the pitch, with the photos I had seen in Khaleej Times; that impossibly little boy with curly hair walking out to bat, to face batteries of West Indian and Pakistani fast bowlers -- Sunny Gavaskar always said Sachin was special, and in my memory that specialness lingers in an image of the child’s fragility; he was only 17 or 18, wasn’t he? Surely that helmet was too big for him? Surely Sunny -- who never could be hurried, who always seemed like he had more time than anyone else -- should have made Sachin wait?
Never having watched a cricket match being played in any other country, I had no idea, in those days before live telecasts of the 1992 World Cup from Australia and New Zealand, that the Sharjah stadium pitch was a “flat” one, that its cracked and parched surface greatly favored batsmen over bowlers. “There’s no grass on it,” my father had long mourned, but it wasn’t until years later, when satellite TV began broadcasting images from England and New Zealand that I began to appreciate what he meant. Television gave rise to other doubts too (just how many of Aqib Javed’s 7 wickets represented dubious umpiring decisions?). By the time I left Dubai behind in the late 1990s, Sharjah cricket was losing much of its sheen: upstart neutral venues like Singapore and Toronto were springing up; and there were growing murmurs about match-fixing, murmurs that couldn’t simply be ascribed to the whining of Indian fans who turned up at every tournament to watch India snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against Pakistan.
Or perhaps it was that I was simply older, and more likely to fancy myself a cricket connoisseur and look down my nose at the batting paradise the curator had cooked up, affording even the moderately gifted time to back away from the stumps and pummel a Curtly Ambrose offering through the offside (I thought Pakistan’s Basit Ali was good back in 1994, but I knew he wasn’t that good). More likely to wince at the taunting chants of Ganpati Bappa chorya (“Ganpati [Lord Ganesh] is a thief”) by some of the more raucous Pakistani fans -- taunts that could not be repaid in kind by Indian fans who were similarly inclined, who would know that analogous insults against Islam would not be tolerated by the authorities. Neutrality only went so far; Bambai mein bolte to bataate (“We would’ve showed ‘em had they said it in Bombay”), I heard one spectator mutter near me. All in all, by the time Sharjah hosted what turned out to be its last match in 2003, I was indifferent to its cricket, preferring to watch the various test series and tournaments I could access in New York thanks to TV and the internet. It didn’t seem to matter anymore (did Pakistan celebrate after beating Zimbabwe to lift the Cherry Blossom Sharjah Cup that year?), and it wasn’t until much later that I realized no one played international cricket in Sharjah any more.
But Ganpatti Bappa chorya stayed with me. It wasn’t just the unfairness of the situation, but the fact that it all seemed so, well, un-Sharjah. But why? It surely wasn’t the fact that some religious sensibilities were more equal than others (the state had never made any claim to the contrary). Perhaps it represented a contravention of the stadium’s spirit? After all, the whole point of Sharjah cricket was to enable India and Pakistan to play each other when relations between the the two countries were hardly friendly, and thus cricket tours of the “other” country, rare. And cricket tournaments were few and far between in the 1980s: outside of the World Cup every four years, there would hardly have been any opportunity for India and Pakistan to play each other, had it not been for Sharjah. Moreover, Sharjah wasn’t just a neutral venue: the large expatriate population from the sub-continent meant that it was one of the very few venues on the planet where neutrality would mean an almost entirely -- and equally -- bi-partisan crowd. Australia versus the West Indies at London’s Lord’s this most certainly was not. That is to say, Sharjah wasn’t just a showcase for quality cricket for the game’s fans -- it was an opportunity for Indian and Pakistani fans to wage war by other means, in each other’s presence. To me, this says something about Sharjah, more broadly, about the Gulf. About the deep and abiding connection between the Gulf and the wider region within which it is embedded.
This is an under-studied aspect of the Gulf boom: for a few decades now, it has been common to dismiss the “petrocracies” of the Middle East as almost unreal (and hence, the implication is, vaguely illegitimate) places, their success dependent on their promise of secession from a “real world” that is just too messy. One sees it even in otherwise sober media coverage, where this or that outlandish idea (an indoor ski slope; the world’s largest something or other) is held up as emblematic of what is “wrong” with the place. There is some truth to this view, indeed I remember subscribing to it myself for a long time, but it is too glib. The stadium -- and by extension, the Gulf -- wasn’t “unreal” in the sense that it had no connection to what was left offshore. Tying the Gulf, and my memories of it, to notions of “reality” (and its double, “fantasy”) would be to use the wrong metaphor: the stadium was, as the Gulf is, a crossroads, a place where certain sorts of encounters and exchanges might happen, fraught encounters running the gamut of the surrounding region. India and Pakistan mostly couldn’t play each other except in Sharjah; more broadly, Pathans and Malayalees and Sikhs couldn’t stumble over each other as they could in the Gulf. [To be sure, there were desi diasporas in Toronto, London, and New York even two decades ago, but these were far more monolithic than the Gulf: under the sign of the catch-all “desi”, one could be forgiven for thinking only of Sikhs in Vancouver, Gujaratis in the American South, Pakistani Kashmiris in the north of England, Hyderabadis in Melbourne, Sri Lankan Tamils and Pakistani Punjabis in Toronto, Bangladeshis in New York. And in North America, there was no public event that would bring desi immigrants together while reminding them of their otherness to each other; London with its cricket could have had such an event, but the sport’s authorities didn’t see England in that role: in their imagining, England was simply itself, not a medium for bringing foreign -stans face to face.]
All of which means I was right to be unsettled by Ganpati Bappa chorya, even beyond the bigotry embodied therein, but not for the reason I had imagined then: my unease was in part the discomfort of someone who had to recognize the untenability of an idea that had hitherto been assumed. Politics, bigotry, and nationalistic hatreds -- “reality” -- weren’t checked in at the Sharjah stadium gate. The promise was and is a different one: of simply enabling the encounter, on ground that has never been a blank slate.
If this is an insight, it isn’t necessarily a melancholy one: you see, I’m one of those who finds something illegitimate about fantasias (whether conceived by the the builders or critics of indoor ski-slopes and outsized malls) designed to keep the “real world” out. A snatch of a taunt and muttered discontent overheard in Sharjah stadium long ago, even perhaps the match-fixing allegations, only make sense now: the real Gulf wasn’t -- and shouldn’t be -- about keeping the rest of the world out; but also about enabling those nearby to stumble upon others who wouldn’t be encountered elsewhere. It’s also why I’ve been more sanguine than many about Dubai’s prospects in the wake of the recent economic turbulence: not because of the billions this or that entity continues to have invested in the city, but because, as long as Indians and Pakistanis, or Malayalees and “North Indians”, Bombayites and Tamilians, Pathans and Muhajirs (I could go on: west to the Levant and Egypt, then south through East Africa; or east to the Philippines and beyond -- but that wouldn’t be cricket, would it?) need to meet, do business, eat each other’s food, resent in close proximity, and make love, Dubai, and the Gulf, will keep renewing the meaning of Sharjah stadium. Ye Hindu hamare fast bowlers se darte hain (“These Hindus are scared of our fast bowlers”) I heard in 1991, in the same tournament when the 18 year-old Sachin helped take 65 runs off 5 overs from the fearsome Wasim and Waqar, as India finally broke its Sharjah jinx against Pakistan. I felt bile rising as I turned to glare at the man behind me, but nearly two decades later I see something else as well. Alone, each of us might have been anywhere; but the two of us, sitting a row apart in unfriendly togetherness, as those around paid us no heed -- back then, it could only happen there.