This consciousness of context gives Fire Burns Blue the feel of a Renaissance painting — there is both depth and detail
Many years ago, when the men were struggling during a Test match at the KSCA Stadium in Bengaluru, a section of the crowd began the chant: “We want Shantha, we want Shantha.” This was Shantha Rangaswamy, the best-known woman player, maker of India’s first Test century. She was (and continues to be) articulate and a beacon for the sport.
At a talk she gave soon after, someone asked: “What’s the difference between men’s and women’s cricket?”
“That’s easy,” she replied, deadpan. “Women don’t need to wear boxes.”
Women needed a sense of humour to survive then. Things are different now — although not quite hunky-dory yet — with the Board of Control for Cricket in India having taken over the administration, and players now under annual contracts.
It is a sign of progress that Mithali Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur have the confidence to go public with their grievances. Not so long ago, an Indian captain was slapped by an official for no fault of her own. Another captain, the well-spoken Mamatha Maben was dropped for ten years for missing a catch!
Harmanpreet Kaur’s 171 in the World Cup against Australia has already assumed legendary, even mythical proportions. She had, according toThe Fire Burns Blue, walked out to bat “with a serious expression, a clear mind, an aching shoulder and a borrowed bat.”
The marvellous economy, the telling detail and the research implied in that short sentence make for a wonderful introduction to the book. The qualities are sustained through this, the first history of women’s cricket in India. It is, in fact, the finest book written on cricket history in India, men’s or women’s.
The authors Karunya Keshav and Siddhanta Patnaik might well be asking, “What do they know of women’s cricket who only women’s cricket know?” For women’s cricket needs to be seen in the context of sport, women’s sport, the place of women in society, the challenges of breaking through the hardened cultural and psychological barriers and much more.
“When we started out reporting on women’s cricket,” say the authors, “it was hard to ignore how almost every person of any relevance was single.”
This consciousness of context gives the book the feel of a Renaissance painting – where the background and foreground are both in focus; there is both depth and detail here.
It means when the large issues are discussed, they gain significance in the story of the individual, while an individual’s story illustrates a bigger point.
Story of players great and small
The Fire Burns Blue is the story of the players great and small and the gradual emergence of a sport from the sexist cartoons (“All they want during the drinks break is the make-up kit”) to the back pages to the front pages and live television and the highest sign of acceptance today – social media trolling.
The stories of struggle — “Thoughts of suicide crossed my mind”, confesses one player — and the sacrifices of the pioneers make the turnaround that much more rewarding and heart-warming.
It is a far cry today from when the women travelled in unreserved train compartments, learnt how to pull the chain without getting caught (to help those who rushed in late where the train stopped for a very short while) and time their run to the food carts on the platforms so they didn’t have to get a teammate to pull the chain. There was little administrative interest, hardly any money, few matches, fewer international engagements, but as one official said, “The girls just wanted to play.” Still the fire burned.
At one point in the book, former captain Purnima Rau says, “Initially we had great individuals: Shantha, Shubhangi (Kulkarni), Diana (Eduljee), but India never gelled as a team.” That could have been taken straight from a history of men’s cricket, when despite some great players: C K Nayudu, Amar Singh, Vijay Merchant, Vijay Hazare, Lala Amarnath, “India never jelled as a team.”
Perhaps that is the Indian way. Perhaps that is the burden pioneers have to bear. A reading of the history of women’s cricket informs our understanding of men’s cricket too.
The Fire Burns Blueis a book of unexpected gifts. Virginia Woolf puts in an appearance, as does Emily Dickinson. Mandira’s Bedi’s role and women’s issues seldom spoken about are discussed intelligently: menstruation, pregnancy, sexual harassment, sexual preferences. There is a plea for a progressive pregnancy policy. Post-career counseling is crucial too, as another former captain Pramila Bhatt says.
Of India’s narrow defeat in the final of the 2017 World Cup, the authors say, “The Japanese art form of kingtsugi repairs broken and flawed pottery with gold, silver or platinum. It doesn’t hide the cracks, but embraces them, seeing them as integral to the object’s history, and rebuilds something new. (Had India won), the cracks would have remained unexposed. The margin (nine runs) is the perfect mirror to look back at the gains, learnings and areas that still need work.”
It is an unusual but thought-provoking take from the two finest writers on women’s cricket in the country. It puts that 171 in perspective.
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