Wisdom for India from the Yogi of Nonsensical Wit

Yogi Berra's one-liners should be required reading for Indians confused by the policies of this government and the antics of their ministers.

Yogi Berra’s one-liners should be required reading for Indians confused by the policies of this government and the antics of their ministers

Yogi Berra in 2009. Credit: Wikimedia

Yogi Berra in 2009. Credit: Wikimedia

Yogi Berra died early this Wednesday morning, leaving his countless acolytes bereft. His name will ring few bells in India, in temples or in homes. He was not an Indian god-man, playing fast and loose with disciples, he was an American who, half a century back, played baseball for the New York Yankees, and played it divinely well, as one of its immortals, a god, not a godling. Indians and Americans don’t follow the same sports, of course, one of the reasons it has been so hard to take the next steps in the strategic partnership. The only baseball player Indians may have read about is Joe DiMaggio, because he was married to Marilyn Monroe, because Hemingway’s Old Man thought of “the great DiMaggio” as he fought the fish, because Philip Marlowe followed his hitting streak in “Farewell, My Lovely”.

But otherwise baseball mystifies Indians as much as India baffles Americans. On one of his forays to the UN General Assembly, Jawaharlal Nehru was intrigued by a television broadcast of a game the New York Yankees were playing, went to Yankee Stadium the next day, where, lucky man, he would have seen Yogi Berra in the flesh, and stood up with everyone else there for what is called the “seventh inning stretch”, which is a way of showing support for the home team. Interviewed on CBS soon thereafter, Nehru was asked if this meant he was a Yankee fan and replied, “How many times do I have to tell this country I’m non-aligned?”

Yogi Berra played with the great DiMaggio on the dynastic Yankee teams of that era, a legend in his own right, but he passed into American folklore because of his weird gift for saying the most unusual things, some of them straight malapropisms, some oxymorons in their purest form, wise foolery, others paradoxes almost Zen in their oddity, others still daft but gnomic. He was the American metaphysical. Some of his sayings are now part of international English, used by millions who have never heard of the man who coined them. “It ain’t over till it’s over” is one of them, and for the millions who loved him, in the United States and elsewhere, it is a shame, even at 90, that it is now over. Though, as the quintessential metaphysical wrote, “When thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more”.

Yogi Berra in 1953. Credit: Wikimedia

Yogi Berra in 1953. Credit: Wikimedia

He got his nickname from a friend with whom he watched a movie which had a yogi in it.   His friend thought Berra looked like the yogi when he sat cross-legged as he waited to come in to bat, and so an American icon came to have a name loaded with alien cultural freight, which should appeal to an Indian government that has cajoled the UN and the world to adopt a Day of Yoga. Yogi Berra died the year this came about and the dragooned contortions started. It’s almost as if this was the last straw for him, when his uniqueness was made commonplace. Or, as he might have said but did not, get off the bandwagon when everyone’s jumping on.

He inspired a cartoon character, almost as popular as he was, though to their shame Hanna-Barbera, creators of Yogi Bear, claimed that the name was a coincidence when Yogi Berra sued them for defamation. It was good that he withdrew his suit, because he was not litigious, just a loveable teddy-bear of a man, and the bear was an apt alter ego.

If Indians were a bit more interested in baseball, they would have marketed the rudraksha in the US as the Yoga Berry, and made a killing. The RSS and VHP might look askance at someone of Italian origin, which is anathema, but as against that, Yogi Berra had no Kashmiri connections, apart from his inadvertent punditry.

Re-reading the most pithy Yogi-isms in the tributes now flooding the internet, it struck me with the force of a maple bat connecting cleanly with a ball of cowhide that they should be required reading for Indians confused by the policies of this government and the antics of their ministers. Only the earthy, nonsensical profundity of Yogi Berra makes sense of what otherwise appears senseless. So here goes:

Why our economic policy isn’t working –

  • If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else
  • A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.
  • Slump? I ain’t in no slump. … I just ain’t hitting.
  • We made too many wrong mistakes.
  • The future ain’t what it used to be.

Why our education policy isn’t working either –

  • Pair off in threes.
  • Baseball Education is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.
  • I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopaedia. Let them walk to school like I did.
  • In baseball education, you don’t know nothing.
  • I usually take a two-hour nap from 1 to 4.

Or our food policy –

  • Take it with a grin of salt.

Why tourists aren’t pouring into Incredible India!

  • Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.
  • If people don’t come to the ballpark, how’re you gonna stop them?
  • It’s not the heat, it’s the humility.
  • It gets late early out there.

And why our Pakistan policy isn’t going anywhere either –

  • When you come to a fork in the road take it.
  • It’s déjà vu all over again!

Or our National Security policy

  • You can’t think and hit at the same time.
  • He hits from both sides of the plate. He’s amphibious.
  • You can observe a lot by watching.

The lesson of the 1965 war

  • We were overwhelming underdogs.
  • You wouldn’t have won if we’d beaten you.

Mantras for our Ministers

  • If you ask me anything I don’t know, I’m not going to answer.
  • I really didn’t say everything I said.

And lessons for the future

  • Never answer an anonymous letter.
  • If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.
  • Always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise they won’t go to yours.

Satyabrata Pal is a former Indian diplomat. He served as India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, and as a member of the National Human Rights Commission

Featured image credit: Yogi Berra by Stephen Holland