Piecing together the ‘Great Tamasha’ of Indian cricket
“The Great Tamasha” is a book about cricket, but it is also a tale about the rapid rise of modern India and the corruption that plagues it. A series of scandals in the Indian Premier League (IPL), the glitzy Twenty20 tournament run by the country’s cricket board, got James Astill hooked to the game in India. What followed was the 40-year-old journalist’s first book – an account of India’s rich cricketing tradition, politics, religion and the emergence of the cash-rich IPL.
Astill takes the reader from the slums of Mumbai to a village in north India, places where cricket is as much tamasha (spectacle) as it is religion. Bollywood stars, business tycoons and cricketers, both past and present, feature in “The Great Tamasha”. So does Lalit Modi, a former IPL chairman, now an outcast in India’s cricketing circles.
Astill spoke to India Insight about his book, cricket and its celebrity culture. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: Why “Tamasha,” which can mean “spectacle,” “commotion” or a tempest in a teapot?
A: The idea of spectacle and entertainment or theatricality in public life, sometimes chaotically, sometimes premeditatedly… It’s that coincidence of meaning that I wanted.
Q: “Tamasha” is being increasingly used in a negative sense in India.
A: The fact that it is used pejoratively is nonetheless something I wanted to capture. As you say, Indians speak of the IPL, speak of goings-on in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) dismissively as just tamasha — not serious cricket, not serious politics. I wanted that attitude also to be contained in the meaning, in the title, but that’s not necessarily my view.
Q: Why did you think Indian cricket was worth writing a book about?
A: I love all cricket, Indian cricket especially. But then more broadly and increasingly as I undertook research for this book, because of the way that cricket illustrates and to a certain extent explains so much else in India — in politics and business, the way that the society is organized and has changed so rapidly in recent years — lots of these things are manifested in cricket. And I think that as India gets ever more complicated, it is increasingly useful to have a lens or a code or a theme or a story to tell to explain India.
Q: Tell us about your research for the book and the writing process.
A: I’ve been visiting India on and off for 20 years, and I’ve lived in Delhi for four-and-a-half years as The Economist correspondent there. But specifically, I started out at the end of my time in The Economist with an idea to write a book about the IPL because it had been such a big news story. It seemed to say so much about growth and zest and enterprise in this new, young, fast growing India. However, that idea didn’t really last, partly because the more I read and learned about Indian cricket, the more fascinating it became, and it seemed reductive to look at only the IPL which is a tournament I’m not massively keen on anyway. And that’s why I widened the focus right back to the origins of the game in India.
Q: So the idea of writing on Indian cricket struck you when the IPL started?
A: It was really the meltdown in the tournament in 2010 and when there were a series of scandals leading to Lalit Modi being chased into exile in London.
Q: What was the most challenging part of writing ‘The Great Tamasha’. And the most fun part?
A: The most challenging part was getting close to Indian cricketers. Because of the stature of The Economist, I had very good access to Indian politicians, including cricket politicians, to Indian tycoons. I even found Bollywood stars surprisingly approachable and receptive to meeting me and chatting about their industry. But cricketers exist on a different plane in India — these are the super celebrities who certainly weren’t interested in The Economist and weren’t particularly interested in, as you say, another foreigner writing another book about Indian cricket. So it took a lot of work to just get access to top cricketers like Sachin and others. The research was all fun. If I can take sort of two cases. I would say the research trip that I did to Dharavi in Bombay (Mumbai) and to a village called Shahabpur in the eastern part of UP (Uttar Pradesh). I knew the slum quite well, I knew the village quite well, having previously lived in both of them for a week.
Q: Film stars were more accessible than cricketers?
A: Cricketers were not only very hard to access, but also extremely reluctant to talk. This wasn’t true of all of them, of course. I had a wonderful interview with Irfan Pathan, and I met Rahul Dravid who’s wonderful, and Vinod Kambli of course. But it took me hours to arrange a meeting with Sachin Tendulkar at his flat in London, and then when I met him, he basically refused to say anything. So I didn’t even bother mentioning that meeting in the book. I found that rather extraordinary.
Q: We get a contradictory picture of Lalit Modi in your book. How would you define him?
A: Well, I think he is a contradictory character. When Lalit is good, he’s very very good and when he’s bad he can be rotten. He’s been very straightforward. I’m grateful to him for receiving the book as generously as he has. It’s not altogether complimentary about him, but he invited himself to the book launch in London, came along, was the life and soul of the party. He bought plenty of copies of the book and was very complimentary about it. But many others have felt the sharper side of Lalit’s tongue, and I don’t think it’s a very happy position to be in.
Q: You don’t seem very appreciative of the IPL.
A: It’s not my cup of tea as a cricket fan. It’s not the cricket that reflects the richness of India’s cricket tradition. It’s not serious, good cricket. It’s the kind of cricket that millions of young Indians want to watch. It’s the only cricket that most of them have known. Who am I to say that they mustn’t have it? If you look at the financial management and the regulation, the league in itself doesn’t need to be the rotten, scandal-prone, turbulent mess that it so often seems to be. That reflects how badly it’s been run.
Q: You also say the IPL is a grave threat to the precious traditions of cricket.
A: The example that I dwell on is the way that the IPL has been allowed to gut the West Indies test team of players, and when West Indies have been playing recent series, they’ve been without a third or perhaps even half of their team. Their best players have been playing in the IPL having made themselves unavailable to play test cricket. BCCI has no regard for the future good of West Indies test cricket.
Q: How do you think the madness for cricket in India is any different from that in the Indian subcontinent?
A: It’s different obviously because it’s much much richer. It’s a much more influential force within the country. Another important difference which partly flows from that is the far greater celebrity status of Indian cricketers. In Pakistan, it’s possible to see the country’s best cricketers out shopping with their wives in Lahore or Islamabad or going to have a meal in a restaurant. You just don’t see that in India by and large because the cricketers will get mobbed. They’re more like prisoners in their own homes or in their tour buses.
(Follow Sankalp on Twitter @sankalp_sp)