I was fortunate enough to travel through India recently, from Mumbai up to the city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Throughout my trip I found it impossible to escape a sense of vastness, of a populous and diverse nation at a complex and challenging point in its development.
There is an extraordinary blend of apparently conflicting factors that permeates almost every aspect of Indian culture, politics, finance and society. These contrasts are often profound and invariably poignant, be they between rich and poor, original and derivative, vibrant and mundane, illuminating and obfuscating. But the cultural collision that I found the most compelling was – still - between the colonial legacy and the impact of independence, both of state and of economy. Every step on my journey seemed to serve up a tantalising take on this point of friction as delicious to the hungry cultural observer as any tandoor-cooked kingfish.
In my view, no single spectacle offers a better demonstration of this than cricket. Pregnant with historical significance and symbolic complexity because of its empire-era roots, the sport is deeply woven into the fabric of contemporary India. And the nation has shed much of the burden that was attendant in its embrace of the game by ploughing unprecedented resources, passion and intensity into its own world-leading cricket format. The glitzy, glamorous (some traditionalists say nouveau riche and crass) Indian Premier League: the IPL.
Only Bollywood comes close to rivalling the IPL in terms of media coverage, public obsession and appeal to advertisers. There appears to be a limitless demand for TV, radio and print detailing every facet of these cricketing heroes’ lives. But that is not to say there isn’t a refreshing good humour and lightness of touch about the Indian media’s approach to this sport. There are some wonderfully irreverent yet informative broadcasters who cover the annual IPL jamboree, bringing ever more lurid colour to an already vibrant sporting spectacle.
And what an atmosphere! What fireworks (literally and metaphorically) in the Wankhede stadium, packed out and rocking as the local heroes (in Sachin Tendulkar’s case, local deity) saw off their table-topping rivals from Chennai. This was a sight, sound and sensation so impressive I can even forgive the hours queuing up alongside, around and over the railway lines to secure entry to the ground.
The beautiful Oval Maidan in the heart of the city is hallowed turf of a slightly different kind. This historic playing area was a recipient of the freshly buoyant city’s largesse back in the 1990s, restoring to a subdued part of the city a little of the old-world heritage that the British deposited in typically unsubtle fashion back in the 19th century. Strolling around this beautiful oval today it is striking how indelible the impact of the game is, the latest generation dreaming of the big time are still plying their trade on these dusty and uneven proving grounds.
Contrasts at every step but an undoubted sense of a place increasingly at ease with itself despite the troubling disparity between the haves and the have-nots. At least there is no doubt about one great unifying force in Mumbai: its cricket team. The Mumbai Indians carry the hopes of the city with them in the IPL. And they certainly have another convert watching on keenly from here in London.
Tom Edwards is Monocle 24’s news editor.