Sport and South Asian Diasporas: Playing through Space and Time

Author:   Stanley Thangaraj
Publisher:   Routledge
Reviewer:   Ashwin Kumar

Stanley Thangaraj, Daniel Burdsey and Rajinder Dudrah (eds.) (2014); Sport and South Asian Diasporas: Playing through Space and Time; Routledge, London and New York; pages, 128, ISBN10 1138019011


“War minus the shooting” was what George Orwell once described international sport. He mentioned it as a critique of the overtly nationalist and political symbolism that sport transmitted  and which people reacted to. Nevertheless, this piece of writing is one of the most important texts that acknowledged sport’s capacity for representativeness, and its capacity to refashion ideas and narratives within communities. It provides an interesting point of inquiry when it comes to studying diasporic society formation in host countries and how sport can play an important part in its processes. With this book, the authors have tried to understand and analyze particularly South Asian communities and how various sports- both their locally played ones as well as sports played in the host country, help them assimilate and even refashion their own identities within the host countries. This collection of essays tries to analyze South Asian communities and tackles various issues regarding, nationalism, identity formation as well as tackling various concepts of masculinity and femininity and how they intersect with sport in these communities.

After an introductory chapter by the editors laying out the scope and the issues taken up in the various chapters of the book, the first article by Sameer Pandya deals with the specific experience of the professional golfer Vijay Singh and his often difficult relation with the American media post his success and stardom- which Pandya attribute to his extremy unconventional background especially in the predominantly white dominated sport of golf. Having come from a Fijian- Indian background and being in the wilderness of professional golf for many years, Vijay Singh rose to fame in the early 1990s by some spectacular performances in the prestigious PGA tour in the United States and eventually even being ranked world no. 1 for a period. However, where the American media was expecting a man grateful towards the American sporting society for providing a chance for a minority and a sporting outcast the opportunity for success, they would normally be greeted by a curt reservation by Singh himself. This led to a strained relationship with the media which led to many prominent journalists being frosty towards Singh despite his massive success.

Pandya, through excerpts of various prominent journalists covering Singh’s rise at the time, argues that the exposure of Singh’s apparent flaws always had an angle of the “ungrateful minority” who never acknowledged the opportunities that America provided him. As an example, Pandya shows Singh’s disparaging remarks against Annika Sorenstam, the top woman golfer of the time, drew criticism not only because of its inherent sexism, but also mainly drew upon his indifference to struggles of minorities, something which he should apparently have had more empathy towards. However, Pandya does not absolve Singh from the straining of the relationship either contending that Singh’s often conspicuous silence has been a major contributing factor to it. Compared to the immense attention garnered by the likes of Mohammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith for African American civil rights, Vijay Singh was perhaps the role model that never was for Asian American issues.

The next article by Shalini Shankar deals with the idea of affect and the use of South Asian celebrity athletes in advertising products for the South Asian communities in America. Vased on an ethnographic study consisting of qualitative interviews with various advertising executives around the America, the study looks at how celebrity South Asian athletes such as Sania Mirza, Shoaib Malik and Rahul Dravid are often used as instruments to get South Asian communities relate to certain brands. For example, the study uses the example of how an insurance company uses the game of cricket, not a very popular sport in the US, as a backdrop to get their messages across for South Asian consumption. AS such, the articles tries to put forward an important concept- that of the South Asian community as a “model consumer”. South Asian communities in the US are generally regarded as hard working, educated and affluent, a so called “model minority”. Shankar contends that the use of sport and affect are used by companies to convert this “model minority” into a “model consumer” within the neoliberal framework, which in turn provides the opportunity for the reframing of classic race categorization in the United States.

Stanley Thangaraj provides the next article with his ethnographic study of the South Asian basketball community and their participation in the so- called “Asian Ballers League” in the American city of Atlanta. Thngaraj buils on previous experience of being part of a South Asian basketball team in the league and tries to the analyze the interesting ways this South Asian group of South Asian assert and try to reframe their identities as Asian Americans. According to the aforementioned “model minority” trope, Asian Americans are often seen as “all brains, no brawn” and not particularly physical in their presence. Thangaraj shows how the South Asian basketball team, as well as the entire Asian Ballers League in general, tries to overturn that notion by participating in a physical port like basketball- hitherto seen in a black/white racial binary. The essay also tries to examine the various sub categorizations and what it means to be “Asian-American” and how do South Asian communities fit within this normative understanding of race.

The next essay by Saima Ahmed explores the idea of young, educated Muslim women of Pakistani descent participating in basketball leagues in Britain and how the spport allows them to refashion their identities. Ahmed shows how these young women challenge the traditional idea of Muslim femininity- one who is supposed to be timid and “oppressed”, by engaging in a traditionally masculine activity like basketball.  Ahmed also quite interestingly includes the voices of the women themselves in how they themselves view their participation in the sport, by showing how they are still conscious of their femininity- “playing sport helps me keep fit and attractive” as one respondent puts it- while engaging with the traditional masculinity that engenders sport.

The next essay deals with the with identity of the Afghan diaspora in Britain and trying to situate their place in British society through two extremely popular British sports- football and cricket. The author deals with British imperialist history as well as recent history of a displaced society in the wake of the US invasion of Afghanistan. The article initially focuses on the widely acclaimed 2011 British documentary “Out of the Ashes”, which depicts the rise of the Afghan cricket team from a rag tag bunch of amateurs to a winning team. The author criticizes the  documentary for depicting the Afghan cricket team as a successful project of a British civilizing effort, which may have brought a reluctant society fromerstwhile barbarism to the light of British and modern civilization- as opposed to the violence brought upon their homeland by the British themselves a century and a half ago. The author compares the condescension towards the Afghan socity shown in the backdrop of cricket, to the struggle to regain some of their place in society by engaging in football leagues in Britain a place where Afghan players try to find pride in who they are and in their traditional identity.

The next and final essay is an analysis of the specific characterizations and depictions of diasporic identity shown in two Bollywood movies- Patiala House and Chak de India. Patiala House is essentially the tale of an elderly  Punjabi immigrant in England who distrusts the British establishment and his tussle with his son, who aspires to play cricket for the English cricket team- a thing his father counts as treachery . while the essay does focus on the tussle as a fight between identity and nationalism, the essay later focuses on the female voices in the movie. Essentially in the background, the female characters provide instances of cultural hybridity and tamed ambitions- depicted in the contrast between the lead female character who shows the confidence of her western upbringing and the more tamed female members of the household where the ego tussle between the male characters are taking place. The essay then shifts to the female hockey players depicted in the movie Chak de India. Though being from the same country, the characters come into the hockey team their specific regional and linguistic identities. The movie goes on to show how the earlier discredited coach, forces the players to give up their identities and its associated frictions to unite under the common consciousness of India- which leads them to win and redeem the coach. The author shows that while both movies essentially revolve around the male characters, the female voices in the movies provided equally (if not more) engaging stories themselves. The author suggests that the next generation diaspora movies in Bollywood would do well to get these voices to the forefront.

The final two essays in the book deal with the Pakistani diaspora. The first one by Thomas Michael Walle deals with the importance of cricket in the imagination of Pakistani immigrants in Oslo, Norway. The author shows how cricket and Pakistan’s success in cricket forms the basis of imagining an ideal picture of Pakistan in these immigrants. For these people, who have been removed from their homeland and its recent troubles, the cricket team’s success allows them to imagine a Pakistan that could strive for success and excellence given the right mi of factors, and thus becomes an alternate source of homeland imagination for them. The next essay deals with the story of Haroon Iqbal Khan, a boxer and younger brother of the famous boxer Amir Khan who won an Olympic medal for Great Britain in the 2004 Athens Games. Following Haroon’s participation in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the media attention it got, the author uses it as a prism to deal with racial and ethnic assimilation and acceptance in British society over the years. Taking the example of the (in)famous Tebbit’s test hypothesis, the author shows how athletes from different ethnic backgrounds have always had to strive harder than others to be accepted as “British” athletes in every sense of the word- they have always had to prove their loyalty to Great Britain at every step of their careers. The author shows this through the careers of Haroon and more famously Amir Khan, whose switch to professional boing was seen as a treacherous move after hopes were pinned on him to provide more medals in subsequent Olympic Games. The essay shows a stark picture of how these athletes have the added burden of having to prove they are worthy of representing their countries of birth, which always plays in their minds and leads to often fractious relationships with the outside world.

Overall, the book tries to gather and analyze ideas which attempts to crystallize the various dimensions of the South Asian diaspora through the lens of sport. Sport, with its emphasis on community participation and representation,serves as an excellent prism for the book’s primary objective of research. The book contends with familiar notions of race relations, identity formation, placing of these societies and refashioning the way these societies are perceived and assimilated in the host country with sport forming the backdrop as well as the main focus of these processes, which is certainly a novel point of analysis when it comes to diaspora formation. The various media which the essays deal with whether on the sporting field or through cinema provideplatforms for the engagement of crucial questions- which is the central theme running through all the essays whether it be the refashioning of gendered stereotypes- both masculine and female or the retaining of a lost identity as explored in the essay on Afghan cricketers and footballers in the UK. This forms an interesting dimension to diaspora studies.

Having said that, the book does suffer when trying to assimilate these various themes and ideas into a single, coherent flow. Perhaps, the book could have done with a thematic categorization of essays to take the reader through a logical flow while reading. Instead the placement of essays does seems a bit jarring. The book also could have done with a greater focus on either region, ideas or confining the studies to only that of on-field ethnographies like the ones mentioned in the essays on the Asian basketball leagues or the Afghan diaspora in the UK or a focus on film studies.

Nevertheless, the book is certainly valuable for the perspective it brings to the study of diaspora formation. Sport as a tool for analysis of diasporic societal formation is one that has been gaining ground in recent times and this book is a valuable addition to the growing literature in this budding field of study.

By Ashwin Kumar, Research Scholar, School of Interdisciplinary and Trans-disciplinary Studies, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi. Email: [email protected]

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