The retrospective glow of righteousness has affected the memory of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, distinguished by the victories of the American runner Jesse Owens, a black man with whom Adolf Hitler, hoping to use the games to showcase Nazi German superiority, allegedly refused to shake hands. Yet Owens claimed in later years that the real snub had come from his own president, the notoriously racist Franklin D. Roosevelt, who did not send even a “congratulatory telegram".

Another great subaltern team in those games came from India. Its hockey team, which defeated Germany 8-1 in the final, was made up of a diverse crew of men, with “Aryan, Dravidian and Mongolian features", as Mirza Nasiruddin Masood, a member of the team, wrote later. “What a variety in appearance! And still greater by far in thoughts, habits, temperament and general outlook on life."

This team, a living rebuke to white supremacism, was part of an Indian contingent that did not make the raised-arm salute to the Führer at the opening ceremony. Yet in his ambitious and stylish new history of Indian sport, Ronojoy Sen states that we have no evidence that the refusal to salute Hitler was in any way a planned move, no matter what we might like to believe.

In a 20th century marked both by political despair and democratic idealism, the idea took root that the sporting arena was a place where individuals and communities could look empires and autocracies in the eye, and sometimes spit in that eye. In fact, Sen’s book demonstrates, the truth is that sport is, at best, only incidentally subversive.

uses and consequences of India’s recent history in other games, notably hockey, football and wrestling.

It is a difficult task to weave the stories of these disparate pursuits into one narrative. But Sen does not simply move us backwards and forwards in time following the teams and players who distinguished these sports. Nation At Play does many difficult things at once. It considers what sport looked like in ancient India, what it shaped up to be in its most formative period of colonial occupation and early independence, and the modern business of broadcast sport.

Sen writes briskly and clearly; he has good arguments for why cricket achieved pre-eminence, including a lovely explanation of how radio commentary may have contributed to its popularity. The book also pays careful attention to the byzantine regional and administrative divisions that are unique to each game, and dictate the shape and character of how it is played and viewed here.

The book is as authoritative as it is readable, a kind of highly specialized version of India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha, whom Sen quotes liberally here. Its focus on the intertwining of sport and nation, however, is also why it cannot help but be a kind of winner’s history, which turns out to really be how certain sports survived and thrived under despots and plutocrats. Beginning in the late 19th century, the growth of cricket in Bombay and football in Calcutta both owe much to the imperial character of these presidency towns; elsewhere, the non-British patrons of sport were almost all princes and potentates, hoping to enlarge their role in the imperial order.

The great reversals and perpetual suspense of what actually happens on field keep the story ticking, of course—the great Mohun Bagan victory of 1911 over a British team is a case in point. As many as eight players of the winning 11 were from East Bengal, a fact that is, in retrospect, thrillingly poignant. Yet, as I learnt from Sen’s book, the glow of achievement did little to change the circumstances of the victorious Bagan players; one of them, Kanu Roy, even went on to become an imperial official noted for the cruelty with which he treated suspected nationalists.

The Mohun Bagan team with their 1911 IFA Shield trophy.
The Mohun Bagan team with their 1911 IFA Shield trophy.

The British were fond of disapproving assessments of the native Indian character as sedentary and unsuited to athletics. The racism discredits itself—but there is, all in all, little to counter the fact that as a sporting nation, India’s successes have been few, or hollow. Novelist Mukul Kesavan’s blurb for the book describes India’s story as that of a “failed love affair" with sport. I couldn’t help but remember B.R. Ambedkar’s caustic assessment that democracy was the topsoil on an Indian earth that was “essentially undemocratic".

I wonder what he would have made of the observations of the writer Rahul Bhattacharya, whom Sen quotes towards the end of his history: of cricket and children falling on the eye like a flick book, “with their passing strokes and passing shouts. In the east in lungis and crocheted caps, they are playing upon rough-hewn paddy fields. In the arid Maharashtrian interior, they are baking with the red mud. Against the Himalayas, they are swinging their bats in a meadow, cheeks glowing, eyes keen, mouths animated."

It is an incomplete image, but a beautiful one. Like democracy, sport’s capacity for social inclusion and its ability to expand the imagination are part of its power. Its history is marked by its failures, true; but that same history reminds us that how we use it matters more than whether we were inherently made for it or not.

Supriya Nair is an editor at The Caravan.