Sunday, June 3, 2012

Our obsession with lists

Now that Viswanathan Anand has won the Chess World Cup, this event coming as it does, soon after Sachin scoring his hundredth hundred, there are learned articles once more analyzing ' Who is the greatest Indian sportsman of all time: Sachin or Anand'.  Of course there are other names that are briefly considered. Dhyan Chand, Ramanathan Krishnan, Geet Sethi, Prakash Padukone, Sunil Gavaskar… and discarded just as quickly.


At a fundamental level there seems to be something wrong in making these kinds of comparisons. Each sport is different, each era is not the same, and each individual named above has achieved greatness in his own sport in his own unique way.  Why can't we just celebrate them all as they come, the victories and the victors, take satisfaction in their achievements, and just let things be?  Ah, but there lies the catch. We cannot. We have an obsession with making lists. Our minds are conditioned to understand achievements only in terms of rankings and ratings – even world champions are not spared – everyone needs to be shown his place in the pecking order.


The whole nation waited with bated breath for a year for Sachin to make his hundredth century. That it was an artificially contrived list (one-days plus tests) did not matter. That he was part of a larger game where the objective was for the team to win the match first, that too seemed to matter little. That we lost the match, and that too to Bangladesh, when he finally did reach his much awaited landmark, again did not seem to matter at all. The whole nation seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief, gave a collective whoop of victory, and started celebrating. Cola giants who had been waiting with their cans in the godowns – cans which commemorated Sachin's victory – got into action. His legions of fans stood up in salute. While I admire Sachin and his cricket, and hundred hundreds is no doubt good, I wonder what is the achievement that we are celebrating – what has he achieved now that he had not when he had completed 99 centuries?


For that matter what is the significance of the number 100? Just because the world collectively chose to follow the decimal system, numbers like 100 and 1000 achieve a special significance. Why not 108?  That has always been an auspicious number as per Hindu tradition. Why not 1024? That marries the binary system, used so much in modern computers, with the decimal system since it is 2 raised to the power of 10?


Now let's talk about Anand, who recently won the Chess World Championship against Boris Gelfand.  It is of course a great achievement, and for Anand, par for the course. But are we satisfied with merely celebrating the achievement? We want to make lists and go over them to see where he stands in every pecking order possible.



Anand is the first recipient of the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the highest award for sports in the country.
Is the only sportsperson to get the Padma Vibhushan award in 2007.
Is the first Indian to become a Grandmaster in 1987.
He is one of the few players in the World to defeat six computers simultaneously…


And the lists go on…  The uncharitable would of course point out that as per his ELO rating, he is actually only number five in the world (or is it six, does it really matter?), and when he drew with Gelfand in this tournament in the regular-time format, his ratings dropped and Gelfand's went up. 


The following quote from Wikipedia again underlines the point about our obsession with lists.

"Anand is one of 6 players in history to break the 2800 mark on the FIDE rating list, and in April 2007 at the age of 37, he became the world number one for the first time. He was at the top of the world rankings five out of six times, from April 2007 to July 2008, holding the number-one ranking for a total of 15 months. "


And there are many more examples like the above, both for Sachin as well for Anand. They are masters of their games, brilliant exponents of their craft, who have created many magical moments in the flow of play, and have provided countless moments of pleasure for millions of people who follow their games -  is that not enough?


Why do we need lists?


Or is it just symptom of a larger reality? The fact that we are not comfortable with our place in the scheme of things unless placed in relation to someone else?  Or that we refuse to get into the flow of things, some part of us always holding back, trying to calculate where this effort will place us?  Do we enjoy the process of doing things for their own sake, and let the results follow whatever they may be; or do we let our enjoyment itself get colored by the various lists we create in our minds? Life is multi-dimensional, and perhaps the only way to enjoy it is to immerse ourselves in the experience, and experience the whole in the moment. Why do we want to divide the whole into various parts, and look at each part in isolation and in relation to someone or something else? Why does our sense of achievement come from slicing experience into small little pieces, ranking ourselves on each piece, and comparing ourselves with others, and our experiences with what we think others are experiencing? Does our obsession with lists have something do with all this? After all, what we want our heroes to do and what we celebrate as achievements are nothing but reflections of what we are.

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