'West Indies cricket is my life'
To seek enlightenment from West Indies captain Shivnarine Chanderpaul, one must learn to interpret silence, action, body language and history. An awkwardly taciturn man, he taxes interviewers with monosyllables and rebuffs difficult questions with blunt assertions that he doesn't have answers. There is some shyness - of the kind that freezes in the face of public relations - but not enough to paralyse personal ambition.
He has been privately described as something of a tyrant, obdurate and domineering to players, unwilling to allow anyone or anything to tamper with his dream to play cricket for the West Indies. Eleven years after making his Test debut at home in Georgetown; that is why Chanderpaul could take the helm of a team divided. Ignoring the implications of signing a dotted line that the majority of his team mates had refused to do, he accepted captaincy by default. His position, if Naipaul were to describe it: WIPA-SHMIPA, I have cricket to play.
Not that he didn't know that it would be rough; the West Indies Players' Association (WIPA) President, Dinanath Ramnarine said that Chanderpaul had benefited more than any other when WIPA challenged the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) to get money for players who were injured between 1999 and 2003. All the other senior players had taken a stand; Chanderpaul wanted no part of it, just as he didn't want any part of WIPA when Ramnarine replaced Carl Hooper as its president in 2002.
Hooper and Chanderpaul share a dominant religiosity (Christian and Hindu), both inspired by their wives. 'Blessed' with a curious flatness on the surface, it has provided them with a space to retreat into, allowing their spouses, their conduits to the better life, to shape their earthly ambitions.
The crab-like stance that characterises Chanderpaul's batting evolved out of the same basic survival instinct that protected him through a chaotic and complex decade of West Indies cricket. He focussed on his stated dream to just play cricket for the West Indies. All else was peripheral, and did not concern him. From his Orlando home, Ricardo Powell's wife, Alicia, interviewed him for the first edition (September 2005) of her Basia Magazine - which featured stylishly clad Dwayne Bravo, Daren Ganga and Powell - and Chanderpaul said that his most embarrassing cricket moment was losing his first assignment as captain against South Africa, while the best was his double century in front of his home crowd in that series.
Asked about the division in the team, Chanderpaul said that it was something he did not like to talk about: "I might be accused of being selfish, because I handle things different from most people. I am not one to talk much. Since I was a little boy, all I wanted to do was play cricket for the West Indies. This was my dream. West Indies cricket is not about me, it is not about the Board, it is not about the players, it is about the fans, the West Indian people. I feel if I am selected to play on their behalf, I cannot disappoint them. I am very sad when there is an impasse, but I feel the only way to get beyond this is to play the cricket, that is what I was born to do. West Indies cricket is my life."
That is Chanderpaul's focus, forget the talk about the fans, his raison d'être is to play cricket. He flatly denied that the team was divided as it prepared for the Australian series, a claim taken as a captain's spin, even as Brian Lara's statement that divisions were still intact and evident overshadowed it in the media. Chanderpaul as captain has not yet been internalised, his imprint not yet felt, its transience foretold as he continues to walk in Lara's long shadow. Even as his side reeled under Australia in the first Test, it was Lara in the spotlight, his first innings 30 interrupted by the umpire as spectators prepared for the push towards another world record. Chanderpaul walked after two runs.
The divisions inside the team, cultural, political and otherwise, are exacerbated by an administrative underbelly that has not understood the implications of under-development. The inexperienced side now coming to understand how poor their physical training had been could not hold it together as wayward bowling and sloppy fielding again swept away any chance of a competition with Australia. The work ethic Chanderpaul declared as his cornerstone has not featured heavily in his team mates of recent times - Corey Collymore being a notable exception.
In Barbados currently, the hot debate is over the illegal presence of Guyanese, accused of working harder for less and thus denying Barbadians their bread. It has bred great hostility towards the Indian Guyanese so blamed. It goes back a long way. When slavery ended, the newly freed moved away from the activities connected to that status, rejecting mainly agriculture. But more than a hundred and fifty years ago, when Indians were transported to the Caribbean under the indentureship system to pick up the slack left by freed slaves, they were confined to barracks. Language barriers, cultural differences, distrust of those who had brought them and suspicion from those whose labour they replaced, contributed to a clannishness that has survived.
Despite great integration of cultures, differences remain. Chanderpaul appears as bemused as the tyrannical Mrs. Tulsi from Naipaul's House for Mr. Biswas, who "had no experience of city workpeople and could not understand why they were unable to work for food and a little pocketmoney." In this sense, Ramnaresh Sarwan would be more of a Biswas: ebullient, dreaming many dreams and continuously challenging the order. It didn't get Biswas far while Mrs. Tulsi prevailed over an empire that crumbled from decrepitude wrought by lack of maintenance.
Simply put, Chanderpaul speaks a different language, in the way Indian ancestors in the Caribbean retreated to Hindi words to keep thoughts and sentiments private from non-speakers in their midst. He keeps things to himself, but that doesn't mean they do not exist. While not flamboyant, he appreciates flair and panache. His wife, Amy, exudes both, and from the cover photograph on the magazine whose objective is to portray Caribbean people as "fashionable, trendy and successful," the Chanderpauls outwardly fit the bill. His team is not going to find Australian victories this time around, but for Chanderpaul, that might not be the measure of success. After all, he is playing cricket for the West Indies and working hard at it ... and that's his game.
Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad