When left-arm paceman Thangarasu Natarajan took two wickets in his maiden international match in Canberra, against Australia in the ODI series, Tamil Nadu, his home state, celebrated his achievement as its own.
The youngsters in the state, particularly from rural areas, have seen the bowler’s dream debut as their own. Even a meme that went viral on social media said that the player is being celebrated as one of their family members and his mother as their own mother, due to her hard work and sacrifices she made for her son.
Natarajan, who hails from Chinnappampatti in Salem district, was born and brought up in a family which is economically and socially backward. He is the eldest of the five children. His father Thangarasu is a powerloom worker and his mother Shantha runs a roadside eatery. Natarajan showed interest in cricket when he was in Class 5.
In rural Tamil Nadu, a child starts playing cricket with dried palm branch, using it as a bat. As far as bowling is concerned, the child grows up from using plastic balls to rubber balls to tennis balls to cork balls. Like those children, Natarajan too played with tennis ball till his 20s. He was spotted by a senior cricket player named Jayaprakash, who is also from the same area.
Breaking Brahminical hegemony
He started playing in divisional cricket and slowly climbed up the ladder to Ranji Trophy and Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL). In 2017, he was bought for Indian Premier League (IPL) by Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) and since 2018, he is playing for Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH). He was also reported for a suspect bowling action in 2015 and underwent elbow surgery in 2017. His performances for SRH in IPL 2020 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) landed him in the Indian squad for the Australian tour.
This is the success story portrayed by the media. While most of the north Indian media appreciates his skills and fitness, some of the media in Tamil Nadu celebrates him for breaking Brahminical hegemony in cricket. Surviving in a team dominated by Hindi-speaking players is another feat.
— BCCI (@BCCI) December 2, 2020
It is interesting to note that former Sri Lankan off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan helped Natarajan to hone his bowling skills while playing for Sunrisers. The Sri Lanka legend is SRH’s bowling coach and mentor in IPL. He was appointed in 2015.
Muralitharan, a hill-country Tamil, like Natarajan, has come from an ordinary family. He was also the eldest of four children to their parents Sinnasamy Muthiah and Lakshmi. His grandfather Periasamy Sinnasamy migrated to Sri Lanka as a tea plantation labourer in the 1920s. Muralitharan’s father had a biscuit factory. While his grandfather chose to move to India during the later part of his life, Muralitharan’s father chose to stay back in Sri Lanka. Muralitharan’s wife Madhimalar is from Tamil Nadu.
Controversy over ‘800’ movie
In 1977, Muralitharan witnessed an assault on his father arson attack on their factory by Sinhalese during violence against Tamils. It is to be noted that the members of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist movement, were mostly from northern and eastern regions. The hill-country Tamils are still economically backward and they are considered as lower caste. If we look into the history, it is clear that the welfare of hill country Tamils was never a demand of LTTE. Their struggles were never a discussion points among the Eelam sympathisers in Tamil Nadu too.
It was in this backdrop, Muralitharan got a place in the Sri Lankan cricket team heavily dominated by the Sinhalese. He is considered as a hero, both by Sinhalese and Tamils. But when ‘800’, the biopic of Muralitharan was in discussion, he came under scathing attack from Tamil nationalists in Tamil Nadu, because of the allegations that he toed the line of the Sinhala majority during the civil war. Threats were also issued to Tamil film actor Vijay Sethupathi, who initially wanted to act, and later withdrew. “How can a Tamil actor play in a movie that celebrates a Sri Lankan?” was the base for the outrage.
It was a quintessential example for judging a book by its cover. Just by seeing the motion poster of the film, the Tamil nationalists have arrived at a decision that the biopic would paint LTTE in bad light more than showing Muralitharan’s cricket prowess.
Even the celebrities from Tamil film industry like director Bharathiraja, lyricist Thamarai and Seeman, criticised the decision of Sethupathi for accepting such a film. While Seeman threatened that the movie would not run in the state, Thamarai went to the extent of comparing Muralitharan to “saliva”. It is pertinent to ask, if they are given a chance to do a film about Sri Lanka’s civil war, will they maintain neutrality by admitting the crimes by the LTTE? How can then they expect that Muralitharan should support Tamil cause? It is natural for everyone to be faithful to the system which gave him or her opportunity to prove their mettle.
Sri Lankan spin legend’s choices
“Perhaps, we should not be surprised that in casting Murali as a generic Sri Lankan Tamil, with no mention of his particular community, his harshest critics have stumbled into the same more of illogic that inflamed the Sinhalese who attacked central hill-country Tamils over separatist agitations in the north and east. Nationalism, of any stripe, makes no concession to complexity,” says Sri Lankan cricket journalist Andrew Fidel Fernando while writing in The Hindu.
The same people, who are now celebrating Natarajan for breaking Brahminical hegemony, criticised Muralitharan who did the same in the 90s. From being criticised for “chucking” to taking a world record 800 Test wickets, Muralitharan’s is a compelling story of forgiveness and grit. Though Muralitharan conveyed that he was never against Tamils, the Tamil nationalists here have conveniently forgotten the fact that an individual has a freedom to choose his identity.
Since being a Tamil and in a national team, it cannot and should not be expected that Muralitharan would speak in favour of a separatist group or India for that matter. How Muralitharan identifies himself is more important than how the people of Tamil Nadu identify him or compelling him to identify in such a way. Muralitharan is a Tamil but he has always put his country first. He identifies himself as a Sri Lankan first and the racial identity comes next. That is why in numerous interviews, Muralitharan has never been a critic of his government. That is his choice and it cannot be criticised.
Murali’s charity work
It is to be noted that Muralitharan through his charity has handed out various welfare measures to Tamils and one which highlights his name even today is the housing project where he built 1,024 houses. But the politicians, who are opposing him here, have not even moved a stone for Sri Lankan Tamils. All they did was a lot of public speaking to build their image.
When Natarajan shot to fame, some claimed him to be from Vanniyar caste. For an argument’s sake, if Natarajan tomorrow supports Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which is seen as a casteist party and a biopic made on him, will these Tamil nationalists, activists against caste remain silent? Or will they tell sporting achievement is different from one’s political leaning?
If breaking the hegemony of one particular caste is the reason behind celebrating Natarajan, then Muralitharan’s achievement has also been celebrated. In fact, he should be celebrated by the people who lecture about the conditions of Sri Lankan Tamils. On the contrary, pressuring an actor to withdraw from the ‘800’ film or threatening that the movie would not run in the state, neither brings Muralitharan’s fame down nor it will help the Sri Lankan Tamils.