Friday, April 23, 2010

Say it ain't so, Joe!

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The following is a story scribbled decades ago in my now dog-eared scrapbook:

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In the 1919 World Series, the Chicago White Sox were overwhelmingly favoured to beat the Cincinnati Redlegs. But it was not to be. Eight Chicago players decided to throw the series deliberately and uncharacteristically under-performing. The honest bettors lost heavily. The gamblers who knew about the ‘fix’ in advance, made the proverbial ‘mint’. Most of the corrupt players got about S 5,000 apiece.

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A year-long investigation revealed who the players were in this sordid, corrupt transaction. The Chicago White Sox emerged with a stigma that remained with them for a long time. There were, unofficially of course, called the Chicago Black Sox.

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When the players emerged from the grand jury room, a group of admiring young fans was waiting for them. One tearful small boy approached the Chicago centrefielder, Shoeless Joe Jackson. ‘It ain’t true, is it, Joe?’

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‘Yes, boys, I’m afraid it is,’ Jackson mournfully replied.

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Crushed, the small boy plaintively looked up at the fallen idol: ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe.’

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Never actually proved or disproved, this touching encounter has become an inseparable part of baseball folklore. It remains a moving account of youthful idealism tarnished or destroyed by its awareness of the harsh realities of the real world.

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Why do I repeat this story now? How is this story relevant?

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Over three decades and a half ago, a teenager, accompanied by his short-statured father with a dignified grey mop, walked into the Calcutta branch of State Bank of Travancore. The Bank Manager recognised the boy instantly: he was the one who would entrance the audience in the auditorium of St Xavier’s College during debates with the likes of Sasthi Brata and Dhritiman Chatterjee and Tilottama Mukherjee. The bright-eyed youngster had secured admission in a premier college. Would the Bank give a loan?

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In those early post-nationalisation days, banks did not have Education Loan Schemes. The already low discretionary powers vested in managers had been curtailed because those were the days of intense ‘credit-squeeze’. The Manager, however, decided to bend the rules to help the boy. After all, it was for a good cause.

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The loan was repaid in good time, perhaps from the scholarship the bright lad had won. The next thing the Bank Manager heard was that he had gone abroad for higher studies. It was not surprising that he did extremely well and set up what was perhaps a world record by acquiring a Ph D from Fletcher University of Law at the young age of twenty-two. (By now you might have guessed who I am talking about.) He landed a job in the United Nations, wrote columns and made a name for himself. He also authored several books.

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As the young lad transformed into a world citizen, the Bank Manager watched from the sidelines, just as he had, sitting in the audience, while the young Shashi Tharoor cast a spell with his words. It was clear from Shashi’s writings that he was proud to be a son of India. He admired Shashi’s cosmopolitanism and inclusivity.

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The different trajectories Life takes us through sometimes do intersect again – and again. In this case, their paths met in 2009 in Thiruvananthapuram where Shashi was a candidate and the Bank Manager was a voter.

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How would Shashi survive in this dog-eat-dog world, the well-wisher was concerned. Having spent three decades abroad, he was new to the shark-infested Indian political milieu and the old bandicoots would swallow him. There were bickerings in his own party when he was given a ticket. However, Shashi was a youth icon, representing the aspirations of an apolitical segment of the society which was fed up with the corrupt and self-seeking bunch of politicians of all hues. Rising above all sectarian, linguistic, religious or other divisions, they rallied around him and the next thing they knew was that he was given ministerial responsibility.

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Success generates jealousy. The urbane charm Shashi exuded, his felicity with languages, the way he captivated the attention of the audience with the smooth flow of his words, his popularity among the youth, all fanned the envy of those with him and those in the opposite camp. (Coming to think of it, was there a difference between the two?) They trained their guns on him.

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The turns of phrase he used, informally in most cases, whether ‘holy cow’ or ‘cattle class’ were twisted out of shape if not because of ignorance, in a deliberate attempt to cause discomfiture to him. He was accused of irreverence by people who do not know how innocuous these common English expressions are.

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All this was fine with the voters who had voted him to the Lok Sabha with a convincing majority, but the latest – the alleged involvement in the IPL-gate?

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The newspapers say that that tomorrow, when Shashi lands in Thiruvananthapuram, a ‘rousing reception’ is planned; the idea is to give him a hero’s welcome.

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Shashi, from amidst the thronging mob, if you hear a plaintive frail voice asking you, ‘Say it ain’t so, Shashi’, don’t dismiss it as a one-time Bank Manager’s; it is the voice of hundreds of thousands – men and women, young and old, cutting across all strata.


POSTSCRIPT (12 hours later)


I had sent the above piece by email to Shashi Tharoor. In 25 minutes flat, I had the following reply in my inbox:

It ain't so, sir!

I won't let you down and am confident that the inquiry will fully exculpate me.

Meanwhile, thanks for these generous-spirited words at a time of trial. It means a great deal to me that you reached out to me at this time.

This week marks a new beginning for me and I am heartened by the love, friendship and loyalty I have received. I am determined to continue to do my best for India and for the ideals that brought me back here.

ST

Dr Shashi Tharoor
Member of Parliament (Lok Sabha)
Thiruvananthapuram
Sent from BlackBerry® on Airtel

5 comments:

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

A well-written story from a unique point of view. Thanks. And one hopes Shashi Tharoor would be as brave as Joe Jackson.

The problem, KTR, is not with ST. There is something fundamentally wrong with our "maximalist" lifestyle.

wannabe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
anilkurup said...

Poignant plea "say its aint Joe".
When Sahashi Tharoor was nominated candidate from Thiruvanathapuram I like the many saw that as a whiff of fresh breeze.And I hope that it stays so.
Let me add my part "Shashi say its aint so!!
An excellent piece indeed.

Ashok Menath said...

I just sign below Anil's comment. An excellent piece indeed!

wannabe said...

Thanks, everybody!