Sunday, August 23, 2015

The greatest hero of our time, and civilization

The Cricketing world will pause for a moment, to celebrate the legendary career of Kumar Sangakkara that has drawn to a close, and then move on; a bit richer for the legacy he leaves behind, for the standards he raised, expectations he upheld and for his story being entwined with the story of Cricket. He has already confirmed his place among the greatest test batsmen the game has ever seen. Yet the people of Sri Lanka will pause for longer and with heavier hearts; not merely beset by doubts about who now will rescue their hopes the next time their openers get dismissed in quick succession. To most Sri Lankans, he is more than the greatest Cricketer their country has ever produced. By far the most loved and respected Sri Lankan of his generation in Sri Lanka and throughout the Cricket playing world, for Sri Lankans, he is also their Hero. Our choice of heroes - as individuals and as nations - reflect more deeply and authentically, our history and character as well as our hopes and aspirations.

The first popular hero of the Sinhalese was a king named Gamini from Sri Lanka’s Deep South. Gamini was a rebel from his younger days, raging against his father’s inhibition to evict Ellalan: a Cholan invader who occupied richly irrigated Northern plains - the rice bowl of Sri Lanka. It earned him the nickname ‘Dutugamunu’, meaning ‘Gamini the Wicked’.  When he eventually waged his successful military campaign against Ellalan, he did so with the army that his father had built, having marched along the East Coast through Tamil villages where his father had nurtured friendships in order to supply his troops. Gamini’s army is said to have been led by ten ‘giant’ generals with superhuman powers that his father had recruited and around whom he had organised his troops. The impassioned king and his ten giants led a heroic campaign against many odds to unify the island politically - in 205 BC - for the first time in the islands recorded history. Despite the connotations of this event, Tamils and Sinhalese continued to live rather peacefully together for centuries to come.

Yet, for two millennia, as Sri Lanka came under constant attack and threat of invasion, the quintessential Sri Lankan hero conformed to a version of Gamini’s prototype – usually a tragic-heroic king or royal princeling who defended his race from foreign invaders and protected his faith from heresy. Every generation and historical epoch that followed was characterised by the nationalism and fervour of heroes they spawned; whose lives reflected the fears and aspirations of their time and whose tales become the progenitor of heroes that came after. The stereotypical Sri Lankan hero therefore, was invariably a brave nationalist. From Dutugamunu in the third century BC, to Veera Puran Appu in the nineteenth century, this type of heroism crystallized in the national psyche to the exclusion of all others. Despite its heroes, a stable, independent and unified Sri Lanka did not materialise for another two thousand years, and the intermittence of political and geographic unity never allowed a coherent and inclusive national identity to emerge; let alone the unity of hearts and minds of the diversity of people that inhabited the island and those who came from afar to trade and settle.

Like Gamini, for much of the island’s long, rich and conflicted history; its heroes have been cast on the field of battle. They distinguished themselves in conquests waged to unify their land politically, but opinions about their heroism or villainy remained divisive because they often fought to protect their own ethnic, religious or cultural identity to the exclusion of others. It has therefore been a common feature even during its struggle for independence from British rule, that Sri Lankan heroes of one community were often perceived as villains by others.

Therefore at its birth as a modern nation state in 1948, the Dominion of Ceylon faced a serious deformity that would cripple it for decades to come. Strong nation states - more often than not - are born out of collective struggles; through which emerge their defining values, legends, myths and - perhaps most importantly - heroes that personify and embody all the vital elements of a nation’s identity as well as the aspirations of its people. While each community had their own leaders and historic legends, there wasn't a single heroic figure that represented the identity of an inclusive nationhood and the aspirations for peace and unity among its people within a pluralistic state. Instead, narrow visions of national identity and short-sighted politics led to decades of divisive communal violence. Most notably at the end of the war in 2009, Sri Lanka needed - more than ever – a voice of intelligent cosmopolitanism that could elevate the island nation from the divisive legacy of its past heroes and their fearful insularity from the outside world. They needed someone who would inspire the myriad cultural and religious groups to unite. Yet, it was a void that the island’s conflicted history was ill-equipped to solve by itself.

Sri Lanka required a different kind of battlefield for a new and revolutionary type of heroes to emerge – who could unite its ancient peoples in heart and mind like never before. Cricket would prove to be that battlefield and their first heroes came in the form of Arjuna Ranatunga and his own band of ten ‘not quite giant like’ men. Fittingly, they were as diverse a group as the people they represented. They came from the all walks of life including the urban middle class and the rural heartlands that had rarely fitted the template of heroes past. Their vocation was even more peculiar. Cricket was very much a symbol of foreign conquest and occupation of the island. Heroes were more likely to be made fighting it than playing the game. Besides, heroes are often inclined to imperil themselves in pursuit of immortal glory – whereas Cricketers are required to do the opposite. Upul Tharanga was ever lauded for bravely chasing deliveries outside off stump nor Chandimal for courageously hooking bouncers down deep square-leg’s throat. But Arjuna's men nevertheless managed to achieve something that no Sri Lankan heroes have ever done before. 2201 years after the famous campaign of Dutugamunu and his ten giant worriers had briefly united the island politically, a contrastingly modest and unassuming band of eleven men united Sri Lanka in heart and mind - for the first time in the island’s history - in 1996: when they won a world cup (or “THE world cup”, if you are Sri Lankan).

Until 1996 and then again in the early 2000s, Sri Lanka’s cricketers, much like the celebrated kings and rebels of their ancient past, were tragic heroes who valiantly resisted foreign attacks; but often failed despite their own bravery and ingenuity. Most notably, they failed against better equipped and organised conquerors. Yet, whereas history had often trickled down in little streams, they were a torrent that carved out within a decade - a special space for Cricketers to stand among Sri Lanka's pantheon of heroes. The legends of Aravinda, Sanath and Murali were created on the field. Underdogs for much of their careers, they rose heroically to often rescue Sri Lanka against intimidating oppositions and sometimes, single-handedly carried the hopes of their nations to victory. The boys reflected every culture and faith, but played for a united Sri Lanka. Muththiah Muralitharan and Aravinda De Silva were embraced by all as Sri Lankan heroes. Even though the batsmen were hardly consistent enough to be relied upon and the bowlers - except Murali and Vass - were required more for rescue operations than conquests of the opposition, they represented a vision for what the country and her people could aspire be if they were united and has equal access to opportunity.

The colonial legacy in Sri Lanka had left a deep and enduring imprint in its society and culture, and Cricket was perhaps its most visible icon. The timidity of the colonised was another that persisted for decades after political independence. Aside from a few exceptions like Duleep Mendis - Sri Lankan Cricketers had modest ambitions - easily satisfied with a draw against major test nations. Much like the Israelites who had to wonder in the wilderness for 44 years after being rescued from slavery in Egypt, it took the passing of two generations of Sri Lankan Cricketers, for them to unshackle themselves from the game they were drilled to play, and discover the way they were meant to play it. So, it was not until the 90s, in the coming to the fore of Jayasuriy's devastating stroke play and lethality of Murali's perplexing action, that they were finally assured enough in their own identity to disregard the text-books and express themselves more authentically. Murali, Kaluwitharana, Mahela, Avishka Gunawardene and Sangakkara – unlike even Arjuna and Aravinda’s generation – had no direct links to the Cricketers who had only played the game as they were taught by the masters of a forgotten era.

With the opening up of the Indian economy and the advent of dedicated sports TV channels in the 90s, the modern international game transformed into a commercial enterprise - almost unrecognisable from the refined pastime that it used to be, both on and off the field. In that context, it makes little sense to compare modern Cricketers against the greats of its past because the yardstick had changed. Yet, even in that comparison, Kumar Sangakkara statistically ranks among the best three test batsmen of all time. But Sri Lankans who celebrate his heroism don’t often cite statistics to quantify their argument. Where Cricket is much more than a sport, even numbers don’t mean what they say. As much as he has been relied upon consistently to bat his team and country to victory, people all over the world remained glued to their TVs after the match was over – to hear him speak. Though his hero’s journey had started on the pitch with bat in hand, he came to the fore behind a microphone.

Heroes are more inclined to monopolise the limelight than share it, so it would not have been a surprise if the war hero of Sri Lanka’s past and the Cricket hero of its present eventually clashed: for one to emerge dominant while the other is relegated to the shadows of time. At an august gathering at Lord’s in 2011, Kumar recalled an encounter he had with an unknown soldier, at an obscure checkpoint somewhere in the labyrinth of Colombo’s streets. By the soldier’s own admission, the Cricketer was the more dominant and valuable hero. Remarkably, Kumar had survived an armed attack just a week earlier. It is possible to imagine that the soldier would have never experienced the heat of battle himself - but could only hope that the next vehicle he hailed down to inspect would not be a fatal choice. Yet, the unknown soldier and the great Cricketer took turns appreciating each other’s contribution to their own lives and the life of their country - calling each other ‘heroes’ before departing, perhaps never to meet again. They were both right of course; and so the Cricket star and soldier both were enhanced by that experience.

In that speech, Kumar went on to brew a cocktail of emotion; with wit, humour, passion and rage. His words that tugged at the heartstrings of the Cricketing world, and from Sri Lankans in his worldwide audience, it drew tears. A few months earlier in November 2010, Mathews and Malinga had turned an impossible chase against the odds at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Jayawardene had scored a match saving century just weeks before. But, in all the years since Arjuna and his team won the world cup in 1996, it was through Kumar’s voice that Cricket spoke most compellingly to Sri Lanka’s hearts and minds. His words also made Sri Lankans look at themselves in a way that made them sad, and angry, and laugh. That story and the broader content of his speech, has since held a mirror for Sri Lankans look and understand themselves and the world more deeply. Cricket writers all over the world invariably wove it into the story of Cricket too, and thus Kumar grabbed the conscience of the world on that day in a way that it could never escape. Those who doubted him before could not resist his charm afterwards. His moving lecture at Lord’s was perhaps the inception of his heroic status in the international game, and the way he spoke and conducted himself outside the field has been the foundation of its longevity. But the roots of his legend lay buried deeper in the land and its history, up in the hills of Kandy.

Through much of the island’s history, the irrigated lowlands of the North and the fertile South Western plains nurtured Sri Lanka’s cultural, political and economic centres. The wealth of ancient Sri Lanka and its heroic architects were made in its northern and western plains. Vestiges of great monuments that had witnessed bygone times of immense prosperity and creativity, as well as the continuous cycles of conflict that raged over them, still lie in ruins there. Kandy did not feature in any legend or myth in all that time; no hero of consequence in Sri Lanka’s glorious past was ever known to have been born or raised there. Even with the ripening of time, Kandy could not produce a hero on its own accord, but required a long and remarkable collaboration with an occupying enemy and a struggle with its own geography.

A game like Cricket could never grow organically in the mountains around Kandy. Even when it was brought in as a foreign implant, roads had to be straightened and mountains - quite literally - had to be moved before the game could dig in its roots and draw from its fertile soil. One such effort was sparked by the vision of a man named Alec Garden Fraser who took over as Principal of Trinity College at the turn of the twentieth century. He wanted the school to have a Cricket field and ambitiously acquired crown land spanning over two nearby hills to build one. There was no heavy machinery or equipment at hand, so the students and staff of the school made their way to the site a few hundred yards from the school premises, every day; where over a couple of years, they cut down the bigger hill and filled the valley below to make their field. Yet it would be Kandy, in Kumar and Murali, that would produce the two greatest Cricketers ever to play for Sri Lanka to date. Kumar learned his Cricket at Trinity and played much of his Cricket as a schoolboy on the Ground that Fraser built; and nearly a century later, scored two test centuries and a double century there.

Fraser was not done however. Much to the displeasure of his own colonial secretary, he envisioned that his school should nurture Sri Lankan leaders who were immersed in their own culture and learn about their own history and proud heritage. Fraser made social service, the teaching of local languages and comparative religion a cornerstone of his education policies, much to the dismay of the colonial authorities at the time. Perhaps Kumar Sangakkara was innately predisposed to reach out to his own people with respect and empathy and speak against injustice. Perhaps it was instilled in him by the individuals and institutions that nurtured him. Whatever the case may be, the qualities that people of Sri Lanka would later celebrate as his ‘heroism’ were not cultivated on the Cricket pitch alone. His empathy for the struggles and triumphs of life in many corners of Sri Lanka and of the world not only reflects the best features of the rebellious past and proud heritage of his people, but is also informed by a deep and soulful knowledge of it.

Heroism is always bestowed by popular consensus. It is the common man who elevates heroes to their status and immortalise them in legend. Heroes are made exceptional among the common and ordinary men and women of the land and that relationship is symbiotic. The legend of Kumar Sangakkara the man was made among victims of a Tsunami and inhabitants of a war-ravaged landscape in the North and East as much as by a fairy-tale test century at Lord’s. Kumar still speaks of the power of Cricket to unite and heal the diverse communities of his war ravaged country. If the reception he gets whenever he visits the north and east of Sri Lanka is anything to go by, few Sri Lankans have personified that message as effectively as he has. That is what makes him a hero. If heroes like him had lent themselves to previous generations, Sri Lanka could well have been a different place. Loved and respected by Sri Lankans of all cultural and religious backgrounds, as well as fans and opponents all over the world – the power of his personality has been unique among Sri Lanka’s pantheon of heroes in its ability to unite as well as inspire humility.

Especially in contemporary Sri Lanka - emerging from three decades of war - celebration of the lives of ‘war heroes’ comes naturally. Cricketers - at least until they won the World Cup in 1996 - were not more than celebrities, among actors and music stars. Merely six years after the war ended, Kumar and Mahela in particular have become iconic and exceptional heroes of their time - eclipsing even the heroes of contemporary military campaigns. The association of Cricketers to heroism - even after 1996 - especially in a country at war, was not only improbable but cut against the grain of the traditional mould of the nationalist heroes of the past. Yet, the privileged place that Cricket occupies in hearts and minds of people has deep roots in the grand and conflicting historical narrative of the island. ‘The boys’ – as Arjuna and Aravinda often referred to their teammates – have been a beacon of hope and an example of what Sri Lankans could be as a nation and as individuals. Heroics on the Cricket field infused hope during the most hopeless of times – and that hope was very different from the kind that military victories inspired. Kumar Sangakkara’s sensitivity to the heartbeat of his people and the humility with which he served the game and its fans has entwined his story and the story of Cricket with the proud history of his country and of the people for whom he played the game.

But it was with these famous words, that he united them;
I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.
Through those words, he epitomised the hero that Sri Lanka, in his generation, so desperately needed. Described by Prof. Michael Roberts as an ecumenical Sri Lankan; in him, the diverse ethnic, religious and cultural communities of the island have found a hero they could all love and possess in equal measure. For a country that enjoys neither great influence nor privileged status among world powers, he has risen to capture the love and admiration of the world and represent the best of the proud history and rich culture of his people in a way that hardly any Sri Lankan has been able to do before. For that alone, he is without equal among all the heroes of our generation, and is arguably unparalleled in Sri Lanka’s history and civilisation.

In a post-match interview, Kumar once famously called on his team mates to understand their place in history. As much as history is made by heroes, they are nevertheless fallible human beings. As much as they reflect what we can hope to be, they also stand to warn us against blindly attaching our future hopes and ambitions to individuals no matter how brave or virtuous they may be. Very few Cricketers have retained their ability to inspire and awe in life beyond the boundary. Some have even turned into villains. Therefore, being the astute student of history that he is, he will have an important message to deliver to his fans and team mates on the eve of his retirement; that the legends of heroes like him are not meant to be venerated, but to inspire. Their heroism is worth nothing if all they inspire is nostalgia and longing. The greatest heroes are those who make others feel they too can, and indeed must, become heroes themselves. Kumar is the son of a lawyer and a teacher, and perhaps could have achieved even more if he had been born to a Jewish carpenter and his virgin wife. But in the years after his retirement, he will probably devote his time to raising his own children to be independent and productive citizens, because every parent must by default, also be a hero. As much as he became a hero to his people when his country desperately needed one, the greatest tribute to his legacy would be to see more heroes like him emerge in years to come; not only from the Cricket fields but from every other walk of life.

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