Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Karnam Malleswari and Miss India

This was written in October 2003


Karnam Malleswari became the first south Asian woman to win a medal at the Olympics in the year 2000.  She is also one of very few Indians who have won a medal in an individual sport. The medal capped a glorious career at the top of her sport, a career that she’d interrupted for a couple of years to get married.

Karnam Malleswari competes in an unglamourous sport, weightlifting. But weightlifting, like any other sport requires hard work. The field of sport is uncompromising. You have to perform well enough on the day to win. When you win often enough you gain respect as being amongst the best. When you lose, you just go back, work harder at getting better and come back on win. In many cases, even if you get  better, the better is not good enough. Athletes such as Sriram Singh ran the fastest race of their life (at the 1976 Olympics) and still didn’t win a medal. Competitive sport values performance.

Karnam Malleswari never features in programmes about excellence or leadership. No media or corporate house takes her to colleges to talk about her long road to the top of her sport - a saga a commitment, hard work, the bureaucracy of Indian sports federations and an unkind media. The same media that had portrayed her as fat and overweight due to an overdose of fried food and beer just weeks before the Olympics. Add mental tenacity to the list of Malleswari’s qualities.

If performance, viz., investment of time and money in promoting people like Malleswari, is an index, the Indian media and the public have failed.

Lets compare this to the media and publicity generated by another largely failure oriented industry – the movie business. 90% of Bollywood movies fail. Many young actors and actresses are already proclaimed stars and are extensively covered in the media even before the first release. Some of the stars of today have a long history of flops behind them. The industry itself has done little to establish some objective parameter of what constitutes a hit. Apparently, everyone is quite happy playing with perception including the public.

Beauty contestants who win the Miss India title, win on a matter of judgement. A few judges rank the contestants on fairly subjective criteria. A plebiscite on who is the most beautiful woman in India might well throw up Madhuri Dixit or some other name than a Miss India contestant, and it would all still be subjective.

Kalpana Chawla earned the right to be on the space shuttle as a result of a lifetime of devotion and commitment to her interest in flying. It took the tragedy of the space shuttle crash, for Indian public to get to hear about one of its heroes. And she is stale news already.

So should media not cover beauty contests or movie openings? Let the coverage continue. But can we have more coverage of the real heroes and heroines of our era. The Karnam Malleswaris and Kalpana Chawla’s of the world provide inspiration to the masses. Unfortunately, a very small fraction of our young will end up in glamourous professions like movies or modelling and even fewer will be able to make a successful living from such professions. Malleswaris and Chawlas tell us that with pure hard work and dedication, it is possible to be at the top of whatever your chosen interest is. As long as you keep performing you have a fair chance of being at the top of your chosen field.

The desire to compete is not there at the root of Indian psyche. At least while we live in India. This reflects in the way our institutions and society functions. On objective “cut-off” percentage for college admissions will be ruthlessly circumvented by high powered telephone calls. A college principal says that they can help such callers only if the cut-off percentage has been reached not even realizing that objectivity of selection has already been killed by such a statement. Political parties will routinely dismiss their rout in the polls to vague explanations like anti-incumbency rather that objectively assess if they have performed. In fact, parties rarely set themselves any objectives at all that are measurable! This in a country where there is no dearth of problems for its citizens.

The public mind needs to b exposed to people who live and succeed by competing on performance. Leander Paes may never win a singles title at a Grand Slam event, but he survives as a professional tennis player based on performance. Performance that will surpass his own abilities in certain circumstances – like when he represents India.

We can then spend time looking at pretty faces and handsome men and  hearing what they have to say. But when we shut off the TV or close the newspaper, we can start thinking about how to be the best at doing something we like – modelling or tennis or aeronautics.

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