A history lesson

A history lessonAs anyone who has played any sport at the highest level knows, the difference between winning and losing is measured in millimetres. When in the zone, those millimetres just happen to favour you.

It is entirely natural for each one of us to often use his/her own personal and direct experience as the central reference point to make a little sense of this complicated world. Today’s column is about one such trivial incident in my life, which happened a long, long time ago, 30 years to the day to be precise. Why do I consider the incident worth discussing publicly now when, for all these years, I have never ever discussed it with anybody, even privately (except with the one other person who was directly involved and that too just once, very briefly, shortly after the incident and largely for a technical reason)?

Bear with me till the end. It is a simple tale and my hope is that by then I will succeed in getting across to you all those thought provoking, wider and more general implications of the story responsible both for keeping fresh all these years my memory of the incident, and yet my silence about it.

The appropriate starting point is the hint I dropped in the last phrase of the opening paragraph. In the UK, there is what is called the ‘30 year rule’ (with other civilised countries having their own laws governing such matters, which leaves me wondering what the relevant law is here). Under the rule, sensitive government papers (such as cabinet discussions) are kept secret for 30 years before being placed in the public domain. It is a sensible and practical rule. It encourages open and fearless debate by decision makers (on what could possibly be incendiary and explosive issues) by offering protection from public anger that could produce political chaos or end political careers, and yet public passion spent after a decent interval allows historians and future generations sombre access to the true facts, to weigh up as they will dispassionately.

Thirty years ago, in October 1981, I was in New York as part of the Pakistan team playing in the World Bridge Championship. It was the first time a team from South-East Asia had qualified for the final stages, and I have little doubt that any Mumbai or Las Vegas bookie, if asked then, would not have offered odds of at least 50-1 (with good justification, I add) against us winning. Nonetheless, as the championship progressed, we totally surprised both the pundits and ourselves by resoundingly outplaying many fancied teams to reach the finals.

In the finals, we faced one of the two superpowers of the bridge world: the US. Once again, we confounded all the experts by more than holding our own to lead at the halfway stage (though, ultimately, the Americans beat us comfortably). What could explain such startling success? Was it just beginners luck? Or, unknown to the tiny but closely knit bridge fraternity, we really were players of the highest class that it should take note of?

The gathered experts who commented and wrote about the game had, by now, grudgingly decided upon the latter — it made for good copy. Of course, we had the services of the irrepressible and flamboyant Zia Mahmood, dubbed by them as “a one-man army”, who was very soon to become an acknowledged international star. But bridge is very much a team game, where everyone must pull his or her full weight. Was there substantial evidence to support the thesis that our success was no flash in the pan?

Apparently, there was. It was provided by a sensational deal early in the final, involving my partner and myself, where our team gained heavily (for those who know their bridge, while the American pair languished in the game, our partnership bid and made a grand slam). The deal was minutely analysed, written up and widely reported. Our bidding was praised as a brilliant textbook example of some basic match strategy. Indeed, the deal has become such a staple of bridge literature and history that, even today, I see it featured occasionally in syndicated bridge columns in some newspaper or the other.

Was all that analysis correct and the praise justified? Ah! Thereby hangs today’s tale. But, before I come to that, let me give you my own honest appraisal (made quietly then, and still valid) of our success. Yes, Zia and his partner made a substantial contribution. But more than that was the self-confidence that comes from having nothing to lose or to prove, which allowed us to play fearlessly and freely. Finally, we were just ‘in the zone’. The colourful way of describing it was as one of those rare and serendipitous days we could do no wrong. As anyone who has played any sport at the highest level knows, the difference between winning and losing is measured in millimetres. When in the zone those millimetres just happen to favour you: “Let Hercules himself do what he may, the cat shall mew and dog have his day.”

Back to the deal and time to reveal, after 30 years, the truth about it. All that expert analysis was so much hogwash. Far from brilliant partnership bidding and understanding, the partner and I were hopelessly at cross-purposes. We were simply outrageously lucky to end up landing on our feet.Why then did I not, at the time (or later), reveal the sordid truth and keep quiet, especially as even when I write, my mischievous instincts delight in exposing humbug? What were my motives? Were they to not embarrass my partner and those journalist friends and commentators? Were they to not take away anything from our team’s moment of glory?

Whatever my motives (and, without revealing them, I am still entirely satisfied they were — on balance — entirely unselfish and honourable), it is the wider implications of my actions (moral and otherwise) that I want you to ponder. In its own tiny little way, a bit of false history was handed down to future generations. Has each one of us not probably been involved in a similar historical (though trivial) distortion of some sort? How much of the history we read is riddled with falsity, consciously and unconsciously, manufactured for a purpose? Modern, civilised and self-confident nations now routinely re-research and rewrite their history. When will we learn to do the same?

“History,” wrote the eminent Marxist historian E H Carr, “is the story of success.” True. But it is also the story of spectacular failure. It was a cold and grey morning the day after the finals, as the wife and I waited at Kennedy Airport to catch a flight home. On an impulse, I turned to her and suggested she go buy a copy of that morning’s Herald Tribune where she would probably find me featured in the bridge column on the back page. She did and, sure enough, I was not wrong.

For, reported there was the deal that was the turning point of the finals. I made an opening lead that was to prove disastrous. Had I made the only other logical lead, it would have been a spectacularly successful one, perhaps changing the fortunes of the match. I still think — given all the available evidence on the table — that I made the best choice.Do the wrong thing and be lauded, do the right thing and be branded a failure. Is that not, in miniature, a repeating phenomenon in human endeavour and history? – Dailytimes – Munir Attaullah