paan singh tomar

Two days back, I watched Paan Singh Tomar. Several friends had highly recommended it, and for good reason, I think. If you have two hours to spare that you are considering whiling away on TV or Internet browsing, watch this movie instead.

(Spoilers) It is a film adaptation of the life of a successful Indian army athlete of the 70s who later became a dacoit, driven to despair by State apathy to his athletic contributions to the country. The director of the film, Himangshu Dhulia, dedicates the film to the "unsung heroes" of Indian sports — the end titles naming some of these sportspersons.

I don't find it surprising that sporting heroes are not celebrated in India. Don't name cricketers, they are celebrities owing to a wholly different set of conditions. And Saina Nehwal, Vijender Singh, Vishwanathan Anand, Pankaj Adwani, etc. are a laughable minority who get some attention sporadically. Anyone using these names to make the argument that sportspersons are treated well in this country is falling prey to the survivorship bias. Also, most celebrated athletes in India come from privileged backgrounds — Anand, Saina, Sania, Advani, Rathore, Bindra all come from families that could more or less support their passions without State help until recognition came.

Cricket is a colonial inheritance. A lot of fortuitous circumstances came together to take it where it is today. It could just as likely have been football, if the British were so inclined.

It isn't that sports are the unfair target of a malicious neglect that all Indians suffer from. The problem is larger. There is no dignity of labour in India. Physical work is not respected, no matter how impressive, strenuous or demanding it is. Two factors come to mind when explaining this.

First, of course, one cannot ignore the hierarchical structure of the caste system. The lowest castes and the 'outcastes' were the ones that traditionally performed physical labour. The upper castes performed mental labour. This distinction has morphed into the inherent 'superiority' of mental labour vis-a-vis the 'inferiority' of physical labour. The superiority-inferiority dichotomy can be, and indeed is, easily read as the classic purity-pollution dichotomy of the caste system. This difference has been ingrained in the psyche of the nation. Those who argue about how 'things have changed in this day and age' would do well to note that to this day it is nearly impossible to find a Dalit in the boardroom of big companies. It is just as unlikely, perhaps more, to find an upper caste sweeper/scavenger anywhere in this country.
Examples abound: While living in a rented apartment with two other students in Mumbai for past year, my landlord insisted that we keep a domestic help to do the cleaning around the house against our protest of doing it ourselves. While negotiating with the maid, she said she would do all the cleaning, including the bathroom, but not the toilet. Because "it is unclean and her caste doesn't do it."
In Brisbane, I knew a couple of Indian students who worked at fast food joints part-time. The duties rotated and soon enough it was someone's turn to clean the loos. Many of them left the jobs, opting for riskier & more fatiguing 7-11 jobs.

Second, is the economic fact of surplus labour. In a country as populous as India, finding cheap unskilled and semi-skilled labour isn't difficult. They come a dime a dozen. The 'price' of labour goes down as supply exceeds demand.

This is obviously a pop theory. But it has got me thinking of exceptions. Is there any form of manual labour/physical activity that garners respect in India, without having overt colonial overtones? The Army may come to mind, but it has obvious colonial influences. Sure, nothing is untouched by colonialism, but some institutions are more directly influenced. Paan Singh grew in fame in the Army where, for the first time, his physical gift was appreciated, celebrated even. He then comes out to the India where his medals count for nothing, where there is no dignity of labour. Steeplechase is just 'running' for the State.

Waiters, security guards, policemen, gardeners, laborers, sweepers, cleaners… In India, there is little respect for them. It is surprising how often people shout at waiters in a restaurant and ask to "speak to your manager". The manager will not be shouted at, in most instances. Then again, I never quite understood half the reasons why people get angry in India.

I would be naive to think this is about to change any time soon. But it is sad that the basic courtesy of being nice to another person — or if that's too taxing — not being mean to her irrespective of her work is starkly absent in India. You are summed up the moment you reveal your profession. It isn't an innocent judgement. It is a basis for negative discrimination.


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