Friday, June 29, 2012


There are many Mahabharatas, and "Sarala Mahabharata", composed by Sarala Dasa in Odia in the fifteenth century, is one of them. Mahabharatas, composed in local languages, have received neglect from Mahabharata scholars in general. Just as the so-called “dialects”, whether regional or social, are often viewed negatively by the speakers of the so-called “standard dialect”, the local language retellings of the Mahabharata have been viewed similarly negatively. Many of these deviate from the canonical text and for that reason tend to be regarded as rather adulterated. But the same is not exactly true of at least some of the many Ramayanas. Tulsi Dasa’s "Ram Charit Manas", for instance, is held in great reverence.  Ram’s – the most exceptional human’s - story (charita) became a sacred text when Ram came to be viewed as an avatara of Vishnu; no version of Mahabharata in contrast ever became a sacred text in popular perception. It has not been viewed as Krishna’ story; when Vyasa decided to compose Krishna’s story, he composed "Srimad Bhagavata". “Krishna charita bhagabata” (Bhagavata is Krishna’s story), as the saying goes in Odia. Despite his emphatic presence in the narrative, Krishna remains a secondary character in the story of Mahabharata, which is primarily the story of the Kuru clan. In Odisha, as elsewhere in the country, it is believed that one must not keep a copy of the Mahabharata at home because it leads to quarrel in the family. There is no Mahabharata parayana (ritual recitation of Mahabharata) in at least Odisha. Jaha nahi bharate, taha nahi bharate (Whatever is not there in the Mahabharata is not there in Bharata) is a popular saying in Odia, yet, there are very few temples and bhagabata gharas (one-roomed houses in many villages in Odisha) where any version of Mahabharata is worshipped or regularly recited. Sarala Dasa retold the story of Mahabharata so as to make it Krishna’s story as much as possible, and even called his version “Vishnu Purana”, but there never were some mentionable number of takers of his purana claims for his retelling.

Sarala Dasa was a devotee of goddess Sarala, which is how he came to be known as Sarala, as the legend goes. He is celebrated as the adi kavi (the first poet) of Odia literature, although he was not really the first poet; many trace the origin of Odia literature to the carya poems of the tenth century. He is indisputably the first major Odia poet. With him started the rich tradition of Odia puranic literature. Of the three puranas that he composed, Mahabharata is unquestionably his most creative, most profound and most popular work, and is generally known as Sarala Mahabharata. He remains the greatest storyteller in the rich history of Odia literature.

Sarala Mahabharata is not a translation of the canonical text in Sanskrit, namely Vyasa’s Mahabharata. Sarala retold the story in Odia, as had done many others before him in other Indian languages, and many did after him. The root form of the verb for what he did is lekh (write); we say “he wrote Mahabharata in Odia”. One with a highly creative, myth-making imagination, he reconceptualised the story and composed a really wonderful narrative. His version contains some episodes which do not occur in the canonical version and we do not find in his retelling some episodes that do in the classical narrative. Some episodes are conceptualized differently in his version. Some parvas (cantos) are shorter than in the canonical version (Shanti Parva), and some longer (Mousala Parva - Musali in Sarala Mahabharata). These apart, in certain ways he has localized the narrative; the Pandavas came to Odisha on pilgrimage and went right up to what is now known as Bhubaneswar, and Yudhisthira married an Odia girl. The canonical version is said to contain about one lakh couplets, and Sarala’s, one lakh and forty thousand. To the best of my knowledge Sarala Mahabharata has not yet been translated into any language.

Although Sarala Dasa is revered as the adi kavi of Odia literature, not many today are familiar with his work. It is as though reverence for the poet has brought neglect for his work. An important reason could be that his work has not been properly disseminated. There is, for example, no short version of Sarala Mahabharata or a collection of stories from it or a modern rendering of it; if there is any of these, it is not available in the market.  No one in Odisha, unless it is part of his profession, knows his Mahabharata from Sarala.  Ask someone in Odisha about the disrobing of Draupadi, the chances are that he will describe it as it occurs in Vyasa Mahabharata. It is extremely unlikely that he will tell the story as it is occurs in Sarala Mahabharata. He will say how Krishna provided clothes to Draupadi, but this is not Sarala’s version, in which god Surya’s consorts draped Draupadi with those unending pieces of divine saris. Ask him about Sakuni. He is far more likely to say that because of his love for Duryodhana he had the Pandavas exiled for long twelve years, etc. than that he really wanted to take revenge on Duryodhana, who had used deception to eliminate his parents and relatives in a cruel manner. There is a popular saying in Odia: ganga boile thibi, gangi boile jibi (as long as you call me Ganga, I will stay (with you), when you call me Gangi (a term of disrespect for Ganga), I will go.). Everybody knows this saying, but not many people know that it had its origin in Sarala Mahabharata.

Monday, June 18, 2012


On reading my piece on missed penalties, my friend Professor Mrityunjoy Chakravaorti suggested that I write a similar piece on wrongly awarded penalties that significantly changed the course of the matches concerned. I lack the resources to do some meaningful research on the subject and have not been able to access the wealth of material on the subject that surely exists. So I thought of writing a general note on various football wrongs of significance alleged to have been committed by referees.

The problem is that one can never be sure whether a referee’s wrong decision was a genuine error or was deliberate, because to arrive at a conclusion, one has to figure out the intention of the referee; the stated intention (by the referee himself) or the attributed (by everyone else) intention will simply not do.  But it is well-known that one can at best have a hypothesis about another’s intention, and this is one major source of conspiracy theories. This conspiracy approach to things is important because, whether it leads to the truth or not, it certainly leads to interesting stories. Consider Bjorn Kuiper’s awarding a penalty (the second penalty) to Barcelona when they were playing their Champions League second leg group match against AC Milan last year at Camp Nou stadium for Nesta’s shirt-pulling of Barca’s Sergio in the penalty area – just “shirt-pulling” only on hind sight, and probably after watching those couple of seconds’ replay – at least for most spectators. But let us grant that it was just shirt-pulling. Now pulling the opponent’s shirt is not a legitimate act in a football match. And if the referee saw it as part of an act of stopping the player from a position of advantage in which Sergio was placed and pointed to the spot, was it because he felt pressured to do so? Now if one says no (he could say the referee absolutely right, a bit too harsh perhaps) there is no place for stories. But if one says, he was indeed acting under someone’s instruction, then one opens up the possibilities for stories and more stories: who was that someone, what were his intentions, how exactly the deal was settled, and it goes on. The story would grow as one would start from where the other had left. When Guardiola said two clear penalties were not awarded in their favour in the first leg of the match at San Siro, but he would not make an issue of such things, he was closing the possibilities for stories. On the other hand, there is Mourinho, the quintessential conspiracy theorist of contemporary football, who creates such fertile conditions for story making. From this point of view, Guardiola’s approach is not interesting, Mourinho’s is. “Truth”, if it can really be known, closes the possibilities for stories; conspiracy approach opens up the possibilities. Stories are fascinating to listen to, and since intentions can never be known and are always attributed, we can say that we live by stories and beliefs rather than the truth.

Thus, of the numerous bad decisions, many have no doubt that Maradona’s hand goal against England in World Cup 1984, Henry’s hand goal against Algeria in the qualifiers on World Cup 2006, and Lampard’s disallowed goal in England’s match against Germany in 2010 World Cup, for instance, were all due to referee’s errors and not manipulations. It is difficult to find an example of a wrong decision by a referee which is unquestionably mischievous and partisan at the highest level of football. And for most of the rest, one could keep arguing: Chelsea’s goals against Wigan in the 2011-12 Premier League, both scored from offside positions, Manchester United’s penalty against QPR in the same tournament when Young, already in an offside position was brought down, the sending off of van Persie in the 2010 semi-final match of Arsenal against Barcelona, Ronaldinho’s dismissal in Brazil’s match against England in the 2002 World Cup, among others; a list, which in fact is long. Many great teams have benefited from bad decisions by referees, but this is not the subject of much talk. Quite naturally, one would like to keep quiet about the undue benefits one has received, and scream about one’s victimhood.

As the beneficiary of wrong referee decisions, Mourinho has singled out Barcelona. We do not have comparative data, but for the sake of argument, we accept his assertion. We also do not have the resources to study whether the kinds of conspiracies that the detractors hint at have substance (which teams Platini wanted to play in a Champions League final, which he did not make public, which referee met which manager during the half-time break, and what transpired between them, etc.). So we choose to explore a different approach to answer this question.

The late Brazilian legend, Socrates, is said to have told some reporters after one of Brazil’s matches in the group stage during the 1986 World Cup that referee decisions would always favour Brazil because World Cup is about money and (power) and Brazil brings people to the stands. He earned FIFA’s displeasure, and was asked not to speak to the press during the Finals again. But he had spoken enough. More recently, when asked why Guardiola did not rest Messi, he said something similar: people pay money to see him play and he too was always enthusiastic to step on the field. One can be sure the same could be said about other great players as well. Football is no more a recreation, and has become the spectator event par excellence, and a huge commercial enterprise, as Eduardo Galeano has observed, so the interest of stands (and now the television viewers) can simply not be ignored.

People enjoy watching the beautiful game played the beautiful way: open, attacking, attractive play, dazzling dribbling, and successful and creative passes, swift change of positions of players in aesthetic moves, imaginative control of the midfield, variation in attacks, beautiful field goals scored from difficult positions, among others. Quite a few teams traditionally play the game beautifully: at the international level, Brazil, Portugal, Holland, Spain and even Argentina, and at the club level, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Arsenal, to name a few. Winning is important, very important, but winning in style is far more so. Coming after twenty four years of their third, Brazil’s fourth World Cup, which they won on penalties, is not memorable; their fifth is, because it was won with style and authority. May be in some football cultures winning at the cost of grace and elegance is acceptable, but fortunately in many it still is not. All said, beauty triumphs in the end: after that match was over, the talk was about Maradona’s mesmerizing second goal against England, not the disgraceful first one - the one with which he, for all practical purposes, had already won the match!      

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Albert Camus presented the most persuasive arguments against capital punishment in his remarkable easy “Reflections on Guillotine” decades ago: it fails as a deterrent for murder, it is cynical and cruel, and it dehumanizes not only those directly involved in the execution but also the society too. There have arisen some new situations which provide additional, new arguments against the same. This note draws attention to some of these. Incidentally, by now a number of countries have abolished capital punishment and in some of the countries, where it exists, care is taken so that it is awarded in the “rarest of rare” cases.

One might view it with disbelief, but it has begun to be noted that awarding capital punishment has become a costly affair for the State. Sometimes (in fact, it is fast becoming the norm in many democracies) it takes about two decades or more for the judiciary and the administrative processes to be completed for the execution to take place. Considering the nature of the punishment, the system cannot be pressured to take quick decisions at any stage. The total expenditure (legal, administrative, etc.) on the trial of the convicts charged with various crimes punishable by death is not negligible. This is wasteful expenditure and with capital punishment abolished, this money could be used for improving the living condition of the inmates of a prison.

Some careful research on capital punishment in America has shown that the poor and the deprived tend to be awarded this punishment more often than the rich and the privileged. Sometimes because of sloppy investigation, the wrong person gets executed, and sometimes the condemned person undergoes a painful death because of the unprofessional or careless administration of the lethal injections. At times the execution becomes a cruel affair on account of a complex of factors, not merely the lack of due sensitivity of the prison staff. For instance, the condemned man, Troy Davis, was made to wait, strapped to the gurney, for about three hours for his execution, as the judges were deliberating on his fate, and his family anxiously waiting outside the prison for their verdict.  Davis’s situation is more poignant in view of the fact that his execution had been halted twice already. It is difficult to believe that such painful situations are specific to the US; it is just that some academics and journalists there have done careful research on the subject and published their findings, and the press has given the same adequate coverage.

What now follows is something Camus probably had not even thought of: because of political considerations (external or internal pressure, for example, although the former does not often yield the desired results), sometimes it is difficult to implement capital punishment. Both the party in power and the opposition have opposed the execution of the killers of Rajiv Gandhi. Similarly many groups in Punjab including the ruling party are not in favour of the execution of Balwant Singh Rajona, who had killed a former Chief Minister of that state. Influential political parties in Kashmir have reportedly advised the Central Government against the execution of Afzal Guru connected with the 2001 Parliament attack.  Many of them have spent a number of years in prison; Rajiv Gandhi killers have been in jail close to two decades. Some might consider it unfair to both the convicted and the legal system if the ones condemned to death are executed after being in prison for longer than the effective duration of life imprisonment in India, which is normally about fourteen years; to them it would amount to giving them two punishments which are really alternatives to each other. Incidentally, the social groups or the political parties who have opposed the execution of the persons named above are not against capital punishment as such; they are believed to be concerned about the possible political fallout of the executions. In a democratic country it is quite understandable; social and political systems do not work in vacuum – anywhere, needless to add.

However, on account of the above, there is the apprehension that those who do not have the support of some influential pressure group: social, religious or political – the poor and the marginalized – become vulnerable. The Supreme Court of India is aware of it and seems to have expressed concern. But ultimately to execute or not to execute the condemned man has got to be, willy-nilly, an executive decision. Now, in view of all the above, the only reasonable decision one would arrive at is the following: abolish capital punishment.

I tend to believe that in the contemporary milieu, many in our country would not really be inflexible with regard to the abolition of capital punishment. There is a view that death penalty must be restricted to crimes such as terrorism. But “terrorism” would always be difficult to define, especially for the intended purpose, and then universalistic definitions would always be questioned, and rightly so. And political interventions will most likely be the norm rather than the exception in the case of a terrorist, except when he is a cross border terrorist. But would it be morally justifiable that a country would have the provision of capital punishment only for the foreigner?

The real question is of an adequate substitute for death penalty, a matter that is extremely complex and sensitive and that needs a separate discussion. Just a word or two here: not many consider a fourteen year prison term to be an adequate substitute. “Life imprisonment must be life imprisonment” is an alternative that some consider viable. Similarly, there seems to be a growing feeling that a term of imprisonment need not be restricted to twenty years; it is not, for example, in US. At the same time, prison terms for eighty years or fifty years are not understandable, especially when awarded to an old man. Recently Charles Taylor, former Liberian dictator, sixty four years old, was awarded a jail term of fifty years by an International court for war crimes. All said, doesn’t it seem cruel to have a lifer withering away to death within the prison walls?