The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, July 1, 2001
Time Off

Unknown heroes or icons
Manohar Malgonkar

ALMOST any Indian schoolboy will tell you the names of all 16 players selected for the series against Zimbabwe this year and the brighter ones can even rattle off the batting and bowling averages of star players. But ask them who Tiger Woods is and maybe one in 10 might just have heard the name because they watch TV. And then stump them all by asking: Who is Michael Jordan?

Not a single hand goes up.

In the USA, it is the other way round. There, Tiger Woods is royalty, and Michael Jordan sits among the gods. It is Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid who will cause the blank stares and uncertain shaking of heads.

In India, cricket is not only a game, but a mania. But golf? A game played by potbellied businessmen on lush lawns as they amble towards the clubhouse for their sundowners and basketball? — basket! never heard of it.

In the USA, while golf may still be like polo, a rich man’s game, basketball is an addiction, a rage-sport rivalling our own passion for cricket.

Degrees of intolerance
June 10, 2001
Red hands and red faces
May 20, 2001
Pictures that speak
May 13, 2001
Treasures in princely museums
May 6, 2001
Battle honours for staying power
April 29, 2001
Errors of precision
April 15, 2001
Hats off to the sahibs
April 1, 2001
The fate of trees
February 4, 2001
Indelible memories
January 21, 2001
Small men too can make history
January 14, 2001
Of officers & gentlemen
November 19, 2000
Officers and gentlemen
October 15,2000
Villains and heroes
October 7, 2000
Among the immortals
October 1, 2000
The sad story of unquiet graves
August 20, 2000

Rare manuscripts
August 13, 2000

Letters for sale
July 30, 2000

Retreat from Naulakha
July 16, 2000

Way back in the 1950s, the American President, Dwight Eisenhower, visited India and Pakistan which, then as now, was under military rule. Since the visit happened to coincide with a test match against some visiting cricket team or the other, the army brass thought it a wonderful idea to treat Ike to an hour of test-match cricket. It was a dull game of stonewall batting and the American President had absolutely no idea as to why the crowd should erupt into a frenzy of yells every now and then when nothing particularly sensational was happening on the ground. Ike happened to be a baseball fan.

No matter how broad-based our upbringing is, we cannot be expected to be familiar with things which are outside the range of our interests. I remember once, when I was due to fly to England, receiving a cable from my host to try and arrive by a certain date because, on the following evening, they had plans to take me to Glyndebourne.

Glyndebourne? What could it be? Ancient ruin? Circus? Dog show? Anyhow, I juggled my schedule and arrived in time. The next afternoon, we put on an evening dress after early tea, for the two-hour drive from London, with a stop at Anthony Powell’s house to pick up his son. Glyndebourne, it turned out, was an opera-lover’s dream-come-true: to give top class opera performances in a palatial country house surrounded by lawns and rose gardens, for the super rich, and sustained on the largesse of the mega-rich.

But Glyndebourne was too esoteric to stand as a test of someone’s general knowledge. Admittedly, for the people who treated me to it, affluent opera-lovers from England’s club-culture, it was almost holy a place of pilgrimage. But I doubt if the average Englishman, no matter how well-educated, knows much about Glyndebourne.

So here is something more down-to-earth: Hendrik Van Loon’s famous Lives which, as its, blurb proclaims, sets out to introduce "nearly 50 of the great men and women of the past."

It is well to remember that this is a book about people of the past, and indeed one of the Lives is that of a creature who lived in the year 123,789 B.C., and described as ‘The Greatest Inventor of all times’ who, of course, is a monkey. Actually, Lives was published in the mid-twentieth century, but none of the people in it belong to the twentieth century. Karl Marx does not figure in it, and nor do Mahatma Gandhi, Charles Lindbergh, Albert Einstein.

Of the 50 there were at least fifteen whose names I had never heard. Worse still, some names which I believed just could not be excluded from any such list Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Kalidasa were missing.

Needless to say, any such list of the world’s greatest personalities must reflect the enthusiasms, prejudices and the fields of experiences of the selector. Van Loon has included in his 50, such names as Willem Barents, and Jakob Van Heemskerk. Ever heard of them? -and-why should a King of Sweden, Charles XII, be given a seat at the high table among such towering figures as Napoleon, Shakespeare, Beethoven?

Still, it rankled that I should make such a poor showing with Van Loon’s Lives and it was with some relief that I pounced upon a list compiled by Time magazine barely two years ago, of 100 men, and women who were "The Heroes and Icons of the 20th Century."

Here, then, were men and women who had lived their lives and risen to fame in my own times. Surely, I thought, it would be inexcusable for any well-informed person not to know of most if not all of them — at least by hearsay. But I found that Time, too, is just as capricious as any of us, and prefers to find its heroes and icons in its own cultural backyard. O.K., Muhammad Ali (the boxer) and Marilyn Monroe (In Time words "delectable sex-symbol") may be thought to be ‘iconic’ personalities in America, but they make uneasy companions for some of the others in Time’s list, such as Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama. And who on earth were Rosa Parks and Harvey Milk — and even though I myself know of a film actor called Bruce Lee, does he qualify as one of the century’s ‘Great’ figures?

The Marathi writer and playwright P.L. Deshpande who, for many years was a member of the board of the Tata Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, once put forward a suggestion that the Centre should devote entire evenings to classical Indian music performances by such artists as Bhimsen Joshi. Whereupon Mr J.R.D. Tata, who usually presided over such meetings, turned round and asked P.L. "And who is Bhimsen Joshi?"

Such ignorance about other people’s heroes and icons is almost a normal human condition, and just because Mr Tata had no idea who Bhimsen Joshi was does not mean that he was an uncultivated person. Only when this sort of thing happens on important public occasions can it be deeply embarrassing.

Remember the name Mikhail Gorbachev? As it happens he was the real architect, if that is the word, who brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union he certainly deserves a place in any list of the century’s Greats. In 1987, Gorbachev was on a state visit to America. At a banquet in Washington, given in his honour by the U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Gorbachev. Gorbachev paid tribute to the courage and determination of an American lady, by the name, Lynne Cox, who had demonstrated "how close to each other" the people of America and Russia were.

In the ranks of the hosts, there were whispers, blank stares, red faces; no one among those present on the American side had so much as heard the name, Lynne who?

Frantic telephone calls to the newspaper offices and TV stations quickly yielded the answer. Earlier that year Lynne Cox had swum across the baring Straits which separate Alaska from Siberia. Upon landing, exhausted and nearly frozen to death because of the arctic cold, she had been cossetted by the Russians, and when she had recovered sufficiently, she and her escort had been treated by the Russians to a tea party on the beach.