A Game of Polo with a Headless Goat

Emma Levine

Read July 2004

Note: This book is not for the sqeamish. However much the author may attempt to dispel stereotypes, many readers will simply not be comfortable even contemplating dog-fighting or cock-fighting, say, and that's some of what this book covers. With that disclaimer in place, I will proceed to review non-judgmentally.

Emma Levine is an adventurous woman who wrote a passionate book about cricket in unusual places on the Indian subcontinent. In the course of her travels, she became interested in other, more indigenous sports in the area. This is her account of them.

This book is part travelogue and part account of sports, and is sadly the poorer for being neither one and, in particular, not more of the latter. Too often, accounts of her trip interfere with her description of a sporting activity; and you sometimes get the sense she's traveling to keep score, not to truly digest the sports she encounters, ready to move on once she's seen a bit of the action. It's a pity, too, that she isn't better at describing sports, or that she doesn't care more about the scoring systems she encounters. Or that her book wasn't more carefully edited. Or...

But enough complaining. You can't help but admire her tenacity, patience and plain passion for her travels. She ranges freely from Anatolia across the Five 'Stan's (as Western writers like to refer to the formerly-Soviet central Asian countries) to southern and, more impressively, the often inaccessible far-eastern reaches of India. Even more amazingly, she does this while apparently remaining a vegetarian. And while some of the sports she encounters are fairly plain, others are intriguing and some even beautiful. Virtually none of them will ever feature in Sports Illustrated.

One serious problem with her travelogue format is that she doesn't better unify sports across countries. Not surprisingly, she finds many variations of the same sport in different places (ranging from wrestling to various demonstrations of horseback prowess). But by organizing the book temporally, she only weakly identifies these cross-cutting sports and does a poor job of comparing them.

One other thing that might disturb a reader is Levine's utter non-judgmentalism. She sometimes takes a swipe at societies that leave women downtrodden, but manages to maintain contact with some of the harshest fundamentalist societies of recent times with nary a comment. For one thing, I prefer books that don't aren't shrill, so Levine's attitude suited me fine. Besides, I wonder if Levine really doesn't mind -- if someone more judgmental would have tolerated what she did on her travels.

Overall, this is a report of a heroic effort that archives sports that may slowly disappear, like languages, before global onslaughts. We should be grateful to Levine for archiving them while they last.