Siraj, the hero we need to be
Sundaresan, who lives in Australia, begins the piece by giving examples of how casually he’s discriminated against during the course of daily life in that country. [In case you are feeling smug as an Indian reading this piece, you should reflect on our how we discriminate against people from North India East in our own country.] Sundaresan then quotes cricketer Ravi Ashwin’s experience of being racially abused in Australia: “”I had no clue about racial abuse and how you can be made to feel small in front of so many people. And the people actually laugh at you when you get abused, When I stood at the boundary line you wanted to stand another 10 yards in to keep yourself away from these things.”
That’s what racial abuse does to you. It belittles you. It makes you feel “small” like Ashwin said.”
Countless cricketers – Indian or otherwise – have been racially abused like this for decades. It is in this historical context that what Siraj did (after being subject to racial abuse by the spectators) during the Sydney test match is so remarkable: “Siraj would have felt quite tiny in the face of it. Yes, he’d been told by his senior teammates that he should bring it to their attention if he did hear something. But to be able to do so, not once but twice, and that too during the course of a Test match talks of true character. You need to be brave to stand up to discrimination. It’s not easy. For, your first instinct in such instances is to get defensive, maybe even scared. Or look for other escape routes, making a joke like in my case.
Siraj though did what we all should aspire to do by standing up to his abusers. As he walked down from fine-leg at the Randwick End and informed the umpires about it a few minutes before the tea-break, he went from victim to hero in an instant. And you can just hope that it becomes a symbol of change. He’s not the first overseas cricketer to receive a spray from the crowd at an Australian ground. But he’s now hopefully set a precedent that cricketers don’t necessarily need to just stand by and let it happen.”
Sundaresan then reflect on the lessons he has learnt from watching Siraj’s courageous conduct: “Far too often, I’ve been guilty of trivialising racism because I believe I’m thick-skinned. By exaggerating my own stereotype. At times, by even passing unsavoury comments about my own self, just because it makes someone else saying it feel normal. It’s wrong though. I cannot be desensitising the matter to such an extent that I indirectly give someone the go-ahead to be vile to someone else. That would be like some former cricketer in India suddenly rubbishing the Siraj incident saying, “Oh no big deal, I endured the same when I played there”.
Respect for someone else begins with being able to say their name right first. So maybe the key is to sit someone down and help them say yours right – maybe explain it phonetically – rather than be ok with having it made a mockery of. Saying Cheteshwar Pujara should not be that difficult.
I was on a talkback radio show as a guest a month or so back when I overheard a former cricketer, who was the studio guest, making a mockery of my second name and then laughing, blissfully unaware that I could hear all of it. So when they finally came to me, I made it a point to tell him that Sundaresan if anything was quite a straightforward name to pronounce if one simply focused on each syllable. He not only sounded apologetic but even managed to start saying it right.
I now look back at that moment with a sense of pride. That was if anything me doing what Siraj would do at the SCG. It was in retrospect my moment to be a hero and I ended up being one. But like Siraj showed us today, it’s never a one-off. It’s about sticking with it. It’s about being the change every day. It’s about calling them out on every occasion. It’s about being a hero all the time.”