Of fans & fanatics, and being loud 'n' proud

Fervent enthusiasm in sports and politics is nothing new. Religion was the original activity of choice for displaying fanatical interest. The dictionary defines the word fanatic as ‘a person with obsessive interest in and enthusiasm for a particular activity.’ The Latin root for fanatic is fanum – temple – which explains the original association of the word with religious passion.

There are silent fanatics who keep their firmly held positions to themselves. There is also a proud display of such enthusiasm, evident in fan behaviour during major events. Lately, a similar type of behaviour is noticeable in other pursuits. People used to be enthusiasts, amateurs, dilettantes, and aficionados and casually pursued hobbies and time-pass activities without much fanfare and publicity. Not anymore. There is zeal and enthusiasm in all such dabbling.

Moreover, this is not silent fervour. Here is an intense pride about having this focus. And this pride about the pursuit is expressed so fervently that just the pursuit and interest are made out to be an achievement in themselves and become a distinguishing personality trait. I know someone zealously proud of his affection for, and interest in, Indian classical music. Any actual achievement and competence in the field of interest seems secondary.

This recent rise in ‘fervent dilettantism’ has multiple causes that include an increase in disposable income, and the rise of social media. The first allows for a substantial investment in pursuing non-income-generating activities. The second enables broadcasting one’s activities and satisfies the desire to stand out.

Playwright and scholar Purushottam Laxman Deshpande – affectionately known as PL in English and PuLa in Marathi – described similar behaviour in his satirical essay on the characteristics of Punekars, the inhabitants of Pune.

In his 1990 essay, which succinctly and hilariously dissects the Maharashtrian identity and the differences between citizens of Mumbai, Pune, and Nagpur (Mumbaikars, Punekars, Nagpurkars), PL jokes that one trait that sets Punekars apart is their fiery pride for their city and aspects of Pune life. He further observes that the point of pride need not only be consequential facts, such as Pune’s association with Shivaji, or its link with leaders such as Lokmanya Tilak. There is legitimate pride even for seemingly mundane aspects, such as the number of the local community’s Ganesh idols in the immersion procession line during Ganesh Chaturthi.Besides the inherent satisfaction of having this point of pride, such self-regard serves another purpose and enables another Punekar characteristic – as noted by PL, the ability to debate and challenge any topic and point of view. For example, taking pride in ‘indigenous’ games to question and criticise the importance shown to cricket. Or, to take pride in Gopal Agarkar as a reformer and freedom fighter during the birth celebration of Tilak or Mohandas Gandhi.

Despite such passionate differences about myriad topics, Punekars have skilfully managed a long history of peaceful existence. This Pune mindset will be in much demand, as there is growth in groups interested in – proudly interested in – a wide variety of activities, such as photography, model railroads, single malt, antiques, etcetera etcetera.

Pune was the administrative centre of the Maratha empire. At its zenith, it covered a large part of modern India – from Punjab to some parts of Tamil Nadu, and from Rajasthan to Odisha. (Yet another matter for Punekars to be fiercely proud of.)

Modern trends, however, have done more to disperse this Pune trait across India – and the world – than the Maratha empire’s far-reaching geographical conquest. While satirising this Punekar attribute in the 1990s, PL never imagined it would be this widely held one day. Should this universalisation of fervent pride fill the Punekar in me with, well, pride? Or, should I lament the loss of a distinguishing Pune trait becoming oh-so-commonplace?


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