05 May 2020

The virtues of risk-free generosity

The first book of the Asterix series that I read was ‘Asterix and the Olympic Games.’ That was the beginning of a life long fascination with the work of Goscinny and Uderzo. I have my favorites and of course there are moments that are more memorable than others, but right now I am thinking of the last frame of this book.

All the stories end with a banquet with the bard Cacofonix gagged and tied up to prevent him from singing. Alls well that ends well, essentially. They village (we know and love so well) are celebrating the return of the heroes and Asterix’s famous victory. The druid Getafix notices that Asterix hasn’t brought his palm of victory. Asterix explains that he gave it to someone who needed it more, Gluteus Maximus, a Roman soldier who desperately wanted to win and please Julius Caesar.

Not all trophies and medals are transferable. Well, they are, but only unofficially. Gautham Gambhir once passed a Man of the Match award (4th ODI vs Sri Lanka in 2009 where he scored 150 to secure an unlikely win for India) to Virat Kohli (who also scored a century). It was Gambhir’s way of encouraging a highly talented young player.

Some say it’s sportsmanship, but I am not really sure. There have been occasions when a captain has called back a batsman given out caught in the slips after the particular fielder confided that he wasn’t really sure if he had caught it clean. That’s sportsmanship for it upholds the best spirits of the game and theoretically could cost the game for ‘the sportsman.’

A nice gesture it is, however, because it’s rare. People don’t really stop to ask themselves, ‘does someone needs this more than I do?’ Gambhir had to do it in front of the television cameras. Asterix, a fictional character, was made to do it quietly by his creators. Well, if he made a song and dance about it or if someone saw, it wouldn’t have the intended effect. Caesar wouldn’t have made Gluteus a centurion and his boss Veriambitius a tribune.

Now Virat could have declined. Goscinny and Uderzo could have made Gluteus refuse too. Let’s not get into the ethics of accepting here. Sometimes, such things are not important. Here’s a story.

It happened at the end of a chess tournament for veterans. There was a clear winner. The runner up had scored less than him but more than the two people who tied for third place. Now in chess tournaments most ties can be broken. There are multiple tie-break formulas which are informed to participants beforehand. So there was an official third, fourth, fifth and so on. There was some trophy too, less impressive than what the winner and runner-up took home.

It wasn’t an important tournament. The prizes were modest. And the players essentially played because they loved the game and wanted to have fun with people they had played competitive chess decades before. The person who lost out on the tie-break was, however, distraught. It meant a lot to him. He had traveled a fair distance to take part. He had been a good player but not a great one. He had never been among the strongest at any time of his career. 

‘You take this home. It will make your children happy.’

Offered with heart. Received with surprise and gratitude. Let’s not go into the morality of things here, about deceiving children. Let’s just call it white lies. Let’s focus on what’s best and not the worst in people. Like how Angelo Matthews, as captain, played dot ball after dot ball just so his partner, Dinesh Chandimal could get his maiden ODI century. Murali, from the dressing room, was visibly livid. Matthews was duly castigated for putting victory at risk. And yet, there’s something good about noticing someone needing something and (as in this case) making it possible for him to get it. 

Not sportsmanship, strictly speaking. Risk-free generosity, one might call it (Gambhir could afford to forego, it was close to impossible that Sri Lanka would lose and Asterix didn't need validation in the form of a palm of victory, let’s not forget). Makes a memory, though.