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The Heroism of Tragic Characters


By Pradip Phanjoubam

It has been a rather dismal performance by India overall in the ongoing 17th Asian Games at Incheon, South Korea. In the last two days India as expected picked up some more medals from the track and field events and secured for itself a place in the first 10, but this normally should not have been seen as good enough for a country which in terms of size is second only to China. It is also a country billed to be a future economic and military superpower, and this confidence should have been reflected on the sporting fields at the Asiad as well. But something is still very wrong, and much smaller countries are still far ahead of India in sports. It may be, as many observers have noted, India`™s most pampered sports, Cricket, is miniaturising all other sports in the national imagination, but even though this is a likely cause, it cannot be the only one. A glimpse of the other major reason may be what the unfortunate Laishram Sarita incident provided `“ a very corrupt and unconcerned sports administration.

For Manipur, it was a mixed bag of fortune and tragedy. While Mary Kom brought cause for celebration and jubilation, with a boxing gold, her companion L. Sarita, came into the news prominently for another reason. Indications are, what may be Sarita`™s personal misfortune could well turn out to be the wake call for Indian sports authorities to shake up and revitalise its oppressive sports administration. Whatever the case may be, all are justified in taking pride in what both the boxers brought home. One earned glory for all, the other provided what may in the end turn out to be a life saving alert for Indian sports as a whole.

There is little left to be said of Mary Kom, except that we wish her good form till the Rio Olympics so that she can end her brilliant career with a golden icing from there. On the other hand, there is uncertainty now on the boxing career of L Sarita. If the AIBA, International Boxing Association, does go ahead and suspend or ban Sarita, her Incheon Asiad could be her last appearance on the competitive arena, national as well as international. We do hope this does not happen, and she too would be able to join Mary Kom in Rio in the gold hunt two years from now. Both boxers would be on the edge of their primes by the time and it is unlikely they would be able to keep form thereafter. It must also be noted here that women`™s boxing is also getting increasingly competitive, especially after three weight categories were admitted into the Olympics, and even within the country the two are not without stiff challengers from younger boxers.

The Sarita episode has all the elements of a grand Tragedy. By tragedy with a capital `T`™, I do not mean just a personal disaster, and instead allude to the term as in the literary genre by the name. I am wary of the term martyr, and believe nobody should be encouraged to be one. On a lighter note, in contemplating the idea, I cannot but help recall the words of Gen. George S. Patton, commander of the 7th United States Army during WWII, in chastising his soldiers ahead of a battle. He is said to have told them (perhaps apocryphal), `I don`™t want any of you dying for your motherland. I want the enemies to die for their motherland.` In two sentences, he succeeded in totally de-romanticising martyrdom.

It is strange but true, that Tragedy is not only remembered better but has a much more profound influence on life and philosophies of life than Comedies. Demonstrate this to yourself by trying to recall the heroes and heroines in Shakespearean great Tragedies and Comedies. On this, I am sure I will be able to generalise my own experience and say while Tragic heroes like Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, still ring fresh in the mind, and the lessons from them still etched indelibly on the pages of memory, I can only recall the thoroughly enjoyable Shakespearean Comedies but very few of the characters by names or their actual parts in the plays. `As You Like It`, `Much Ado About Nothing`, `Midsummer Night`™s Dream`, `Merchant of Venice`… well perhaps Shylock from `Merchant of Venice` have a very good recall value, perhaps as much as the great Tragic heroes. But then, although occurring in a Comedy, he was more of a Tragic character, `more wronged than he has wronged` as a critic put it. Even local myths and folklores roughly follow this same thumb rule: `Khamba and Thoibi`, `Sandrembi and Chaishra`… the list can go on.

Another great writer Leo Tolstoy encapsulates this thought in the famous opening lines of his great novel, considered as one of the immortals of literature, `Anna Karenina`. The novel begins with the memorable lines: `All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,` and chronicles the life of a beautiful but unhappy woman. For that matter, John Milton`™s `Paradise Lost` tells of the same tale. Satan`™s discontent with God`™s `tyranny` is a subject which has excited far more intellectual discourse than the quiet obedience of the rest of the angelic hordes in Paradise. Satan`™s Tragedy (John Milton`™s Satan not the Biblical one) is his inability not to question authority and received knowledge.

Tragedy`™s attraction may have to do with the fact that it tells of the inherent fallibility of the human condition. The hubris, the harmatia, the indecisions, the weaknesses, the prides, the foibles… and the consequent mistakes and disasters they bring, are all in some way or the other, and in varying degrees, part of each of us, therefore the instant identification with the predicaments of the Tragic characters of the great literatures. The heroism involved in the individual`™s struggle against such overwhelming odds of life also earn these men and women through generations, universal awe. Would Hamlet have been the immortal he is, if he did not have his Tragic flaws which made him so indecisive? Doubtful indeed!

Perhaps this is also why Sarita`™s rather extreme protest against the impervious and rigid system that administers the boxing world internationally, and indeed sports as such, earned so much public sympathy everywhere. It has also arguably been a point most discussed of the entire games, and on the day of her refusal to wear the bronze medal, according to some reports, discussions on the event was trending at the No.1 slot on Tweeter. Athletes from other countries also extended their moral support to her, consoling her with the words that she lost only because she fought a Korean. Among these include the Korean boxer, Jina Park, who was controversially given the verdict against Sarita. The feeling that the results have been rigged systematically, it seems is widespread in these games.

However, in her moment of agonised rage against the rightful verdict she was denied, Sarita decided to throw all cautions into the air and protested publicly, putting to risk her brilliant career so far. From the wordings of the statements released by the AIBA, the governing body of boxing worldwide is unlikely to let her off without a penalty for her open defiance. We can only hope the association would be lenient, and if a suspension is placed on her, it would be a short one, so that her career does not end so abruptly and that she is able to vie for gold at the Rio Olympics.

There are many now who feel Sarita should not have protested in the manner she did, for there was nothing much she could have changed, and by doing so she could have only harmed herself. I tend to disagree with this. Injustice must be resisted, and merely a quiet withdrawal can never be enough. For in such a circumstance, the injustice would have persisted. It is very much like a lot of government servants who think they are absolved of the guilt and bane of corruption corroding our society today by simply saying they stay away from it. This passivity is cowardice in many ways and can never bring an end to this disease. A proactive stance, even if it means taking on the system and risk career progress and displeasure of colleagues, such as demonstrated by kind Sarita, is essential if ending corruption is the goal.

Indeed Sarita may end up punished harshly by the AIBA, but her sacrifice would have probably begun the cleansing process of international boxing administration. As of now, the judges are treated as infallible and above reproach. Perhaps, and hopefully, the revolution Sarita has launched would initiate a process by which erring judges can also be made accountable for their misjudgements or corruption as the case may be.

The only thing Sarita should not have done is dragging in her Korean opponent Jina Park into her fight against the system. It was not Park`™s fault at all. In fact she was magnanimous enough to tell the media she too was embarrassed at the verdict, and that she too felt Sarita was the real winner of the bout. It was therefore horrifying to see Sarita walk up to Park and drape her with the bronze medal she won. This was unfair, and in bad taste. But then, at that moment, in the blindness of her emotional outburst, Sarita probably felt Park was party to the suspected larger match fixing seemingly at play to favour the hosts South Korea in this round of Asian Games.

Tragic characters however are admired for the combine of courage and flaws in their characters. Sarita fits that bill. If she had tamely accepted the verdict without making public her disagreement with the injustice of it, perhaps she would have saved putting her future boxing career at risk. Another boxer from Manipur, Laishram Debendro did just this. He too was put at the losing end by a controversial verdict in a bout against another South Korean, which as in the case of Sarita, was seen by everybody else other than the judges, should have gone in his favour. But he decided to stir out of controversy or the imminent trouble which would come from confronting the boxing authorities. For the record, even a Mongolian boxer was given a similar treatment in a bout against a South Korean, and they too protested openly, but did not go as far as the gritty Sarita did.

In the entire episode, the people who cut the most pathetic figure were the Indian Olympics Association, IOA, officials who accompanied the Indian athletes to the Incheon Asian Games. The very reason for their presence there, all on taxpayers`™ money, was to look after the athletes and give them the moral support they need so much during the competitions. Had they not stayed aloof even as Sarita got embroiled in the fight against the perceived injustice meted out by the judges, perhaps things would not have descended to such a pass, and Sarita would have been spared being left alone to fend for herself, thereby putting her career at risk.

This is where immediate action is called for. Everybody knows these sports administration bodies, both at the national level as well as, for that matter, the Manipur state level, are corruption ridden, and their officials have little interest or commitment to sports or sportspersons. All they want are the benefits of office, among them paid trips abroad to international sporting event venues. No wonder then India`™s overall performance in the 17th Asian Games at Incheon, was so dismal, barely managing a place in the first 10 spots in the medal winners hierarchy. We hope the Union Sports ministry intervenes and begins the Herculean task of cleaning the Aegean Stable of Indian sports administration. Should this happen, even if she did not manage to bring home a gold medal, Sarita`™s courageous defiant stance against injustice would have not been in vain. The protest may even find a place in the history of national and international sports movements which even gold medals could not have won in the ultimate analysis.



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