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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

A lungi, a movie and a haircut - happy birthday!

Last Friday was my birthday.

Now a birthday is a day that most people use to either reflect or celebrate. Some in India even go to a place of worship or, alternatively, have some sort of prayer session in the privacy of their homes. At the very least, many make it a point to wake up early that day – in the belief (or should that be hope?) that it will set a precedent for the next 364 days.

I must confess that last Friday I belonged to that minority to which none of the above apply. I woke up at 9.00 a.m – and had my mother not wished me a happy birthday, with a look that I had, with years of experience, managed to interpret as suggesting at least mild disapproval, I might well have lazed around in bed for a while longer. Somehow, 9.00 a.m didn't seem too late an hour to wake up.

After breakfast and coffee, I had to work out my schedule for the rest of the morning. I say morning, because the afternoon and evening would be consumed by office work. I was working European hours – which meant my working day would start at 12.30. I had about three hours to kill.

Reading the paper would take up close to an hour. Not that the content deserved this kind of respect, but the realisation that I was travelling to Europe in a couple of days, and that for an extended period of time, suddenly made me want to practically devour the papers, for the smallest bits of news.

I decided to put the remaining time to good use and not just while it away. One’s last few days and hours in India are always precious. There always seems to be so much to do, and so little time to do it in.

Since I was leaving in a couple of days, I decided to have my customary pre-departure haircut that morning. I quite like to support my hyper-local saloon in Bangalore. It's not a particularly sophisticated place – for twenty-five rupees one should not expect Taj-style hairdressing - but the guys who work there do make an effort to keep it clean. And, in all the years that I've been frequenting the place, I've never had any cause for complaint.

Now, the custom – at least where I come from - is to wash one’s clothes thoroughly after a haircut. This, I believe, is for hygienic reasons. Anyway, with Bangalore’s weather at that time being about as sunny as New Jersey in mid-Jan, I decided that any clothes I'd wash that day wouldn't probably make it through a drying - and ironing - experience in time for my return flight on Sunday. And I didn't want to leave any clothes behind in Bangalore.

So I decided to go to the saloon in a lungi (a striped one!) that I was planning to leave in Bangalore anyway. I'd never gone to the saloon in a lungi before – and I must admit I wasn't totally comfortable with the idea. A lungi needs a little more caution than trousers, but it seemed the practical thing to do. So I told myself “what the heck, let’s just do it!” and set off.

It must have been a distance of two to three hundred meters, no more, but it felt like I was swimming the English channel. I saw a number of raised eyebrows – or maybe I was imagining some of them. I was suddenly very conscious of the way I walked, acutely aware that the lungi was all that stood between me and respectability.

I was relieved when I reached the saloon in one piece. The guy greeted me with his usual warm nod. I nodded back, hopefully as warmly. Despite several encounters over the years, our communication had not progressed beyond this nod. This guy was Telugu. Probably all Telugu guys who do not end up as software engineers or doctors in the US - or real estate agents in India from the Reddy community - end up opening hairdressing saloons.

Anyway this guy’s domain expertise was in Telugu and Kannada, mine is English, Hindi and some Tamil. The Telugu I know does not go beyond “Reddy garu, cheppandi”, “randi”, “ikkade petko” and “manch neeru kavaali” – none of which, those of you who know Telugu will agree, are particularly useful expressions to be deployed in a hairdressing saloon.

I noticed that the saloon had upgraded itself since my last visit some months ago. I found that the wash basin area had been renovated, the furniture had been replaced - heck, even the Filmfare edition was of July 2007 (Very disappointing. I was hoping to read some 2005 news. Where do I go now? Maybe I should try the dentist, I thought).

As usual, the TV was set at its loudest possible volume. And as usual, it was playing a Telugu movie. The hero was reasonably rotund with a round face, big moustache and curly hair. The heroine was reasonably rotund with a round face. No big moustache or curly hair but she had more make-up on, than Lakme can produce in a day. I thought their faces looked familiar, but in the South Indian film industry you could spend your lifetime using these descriptions to try to identify the specific hero or heroine.

I gave up trying to do so. Instead, since I was waiting anyway, I thought I'd try to follow the story. (I had lost interest in the available issue of the Filmfare magazine as soon as I discovered it was a July 2007 edition. I'd have much rather read the 2005 issue, if only to derive pleasure from seeing how wrong predictions turned out in the two years since. How this movie, which was supposed to be “different”, bombed so badly that nobody recalls the name anymore. How relationships of 2005, projected as lifetime relationships, have come a cropper in 2007. I know it sounds mean but when one is waiting, at the hairdresser’s or at the dentist’s, one can be excused such perverse pleasures).

Back to the point. Or rather the movie. So this rr and r-faced hero and the rr and r-faced heroine (with massive m-u) go around trees singing a song, and making all sorts of lovey-dovey sounds at each other. The song wasn't a particularly bad one - I quite liked the tune though I did not understand the lyrics. Then the hero comes to the heroine’s home to request the heroine’s father for his daughter’s hand. The father is wearing a long, silken, flowing gown (?) – the type that Rahman has worn in countless Hindi movies of the 60s and 70s. I could make out that the hero came from a poor background. Without understanding a word of the dialogue, I could make out that the father insults the hero, the hero pledges his love for the heroine, the father isn't convinced he offers the hero some money, the hero refuses it and walks away. He then sings a sad song as he kicks the earth under his feet. Back in her plush bungalow, the heroine weeps inconsolably. The father is unmoved.

Memories of a 1960s/70s Hindi film that I'd seen not so long ago came to mind. The father offering the hero a suitcase full of cash, and the hero walking away. This formula has been played out in so many Indian movies, whether with cash or with a "blank" cheque, probably in every Indian language, that I cannot imagine this storyline being of any help to anybody here to try to now identify the movie. Especially since the descriptions of the hero and heroine were not particularly zoom-worthy either.

Anyway, my turn came and I sat in the hot seat. The hero now burst into another Telugu song. This seemed to be a happy song – which seemed a bit odd. That the hero should be singing happy songs so soon when film-making protocol demands that that the suffering/pining phase should last at least one hour , was unusual. Maybe, in this day and age, even film-making has gone T20, I thought. Nobody can sit through one hour of pining anymore.

These thoughts were rudely disturbed by the realization that my man had decided to animatedly join in. I must admit that it was a pretty catchy song. It must have been a big hit amongst knowledgeable audiences (which obviously included one Telugu hairdresser in Bangalore).

That his voice would not exactly win him any Sa Re Ga Ma awards was immediately obvious to me, even if it wasn't to him. But I could live with that. After all I have to live with the likes of Himesh Reshammiya too in today’s world. No, this realization was not panic-worthy enough as much as the realization that I had a razor, almost grazing my ear, being waved around like an orchestra composer’s wand to the tune of some admittedly catchy music.

Ears are not the most respected of organs and with Reshammiya and his ilk dominating the music scene in India at the moment, the respect for ears must have fallen in recent times. Having said that, I had expected to be one year more on my birthday, not one ear less.

After what seemed like eternity, the song ended – and the razor thankfully returned to a more static position. My man had been completely oblivious to my condition. He now continued to work on the rest of my hair, clicking his scissors with an uneasy exuberance - uneasy for me, I mean. I prayed that another animated song would not break out any moment – and thankfully for the rest of my hot seat experience, except for some angry dialogues between father and prospective son-in-law, some more sobbing from the heroine (I wonder whether the m-u got wiped out in all that sobbing) and some fight scenes where the hero took on twenty men at one time, there was no reason for my man to wave that razor around. After fifteen-odd minutes, it was done. I offered him his twenty-five. He said thirty, I gave him thirty-five. He nodded warmly, I nodded (I hope as warmly). I wondered - did he notice the sweat on my forehead? I should thank him for that!

I made my way back home, holding on to my lungi, avoiding gazes from all and sundry and went straight for a hot bath. With the tune of that Telugu song still ringing in my ears. Boy, was it catchy!

So friends, that is how I spent my birthday morning.

And yes, one more thing. Before my next trip to the guy, I have to brush up on my Telugu. This is just getting too dangerous to be funny anymore.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Children of a lesser God ?

This piece was written on 6th August 2006. The war in Lebanon had been raging for almost a month. Pictures of the war were being streamed into our living rooms every minute. Some of us can remain detached. Some cannot. I must confess to getting rather despondent at that time.

At such times, I write. Write whatever comes to my mind. Write for myself - not for anybody else. It gives me some peace of mind. No, that is not right - not peace of mind, just some psychological relief.

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I am a disturbed person.

As the war in the Middle East rages on, the rest of the world tries to conduct its business in as normal a manner as possible. To be able to do so, requires a tremendous ability to distance oneself from events that one cannot control or influence. For the pictures streaming in on one’s home TV or on the internet (which is becoming as much of a medium, if not a more potent one, to share live pictures and opinion) make it very difficult to stay disengaged.

Those focussed on their own lives, and on the immediate world around them, will not have an issue at all. They realize that world events, especially wars and natural disasters, happen all the time. And as long as this does not touch them, they see no point in wasting time getting involved.

Sometimes I wish I could be indifferent too. Or just take it in my stride. If there is a war going on in Lebanon, why does it bother ME so much ? I don’t live there. None of the persons particularly dear to me in my life live in Lebanon or Israel, or even Syria for that matter.

Yet I am extremely disturbed by the war that has been raging there for close to a month now. It is not just the horrific pictures. From years of watching pictures of war on TV, I cannot remember images other than those of destruction, bloodshed, weeping family members and vows of revenge. And of course the mandatory military press briefing. That is the face of war that the public at large sees.

It is obviously not quite the same as actually being in a war-zone. Wondering when that next rocket is going to fall and how far from you that will be. Wondering whether you should move to another place (maybe a bunker close by) or stay put. Wondering how long the supplies you have will last you and your family and whether you should go for a replenishment trip. And if so, when.

The smallest of travails seems to have risk associated with it – something that those of us, sitting in the comfort of our living rooms, do not have to put up with. We just have to put up with the images we see on TV. And even that we do not have to – there are always the entertainment channels to switch to.

After all, it is somebody else’s war. It is somebody else’s nightmare. It is somebody else’s fate. We cannot espouse every cause in the world, nor can we help our own cause by getting involved. There is the political machinery of each country and established international institutions like the United Nations which have the political framework and the military apparatus to tackle war – it is their job to do so.

Indeed it is. We, the common people, have no role to play. We may have an opinion but it counts for zilch.

Maybe I just need to accept this. That my opinion counts for nothing. If I had wanted to be able to influence global events, perhaps I should have entered public life. Even then it would have been a very long shot to be able to make a difference but at least I would have been in the right profession. From where I am today, I feel I cannot even influence things happening in my own backyard, let alone things happening halfway around the world.

Somebody once said something about the pen being mightier than the sword. I think it was Rabindranath Tagore. Maybe that is an option. To be able to express oneself so powerfully and to be able to communicate with the masses and the powers-that-be , with just the power of the pen.

With the proliferation of communication means nowadays, it should be easy, sitting in one’s own drawing room, to be able to get one’s message across. A lot of people do this – and some, quite effectively too. My challenge is that I lack the self-confidence to put my views out there and to be able to engage in debate on them. I cannot argue on history, on what happened thousands of years ago around the time of Christ, what happened on the formation of Israel, what UN resolutions have or have not been issued since then to attempt to keep peace in the region.

The bottom line therefore is that if I choose to go the “power of the pen” route, I do not have enough content to be able to make a meaningful case for my argument. (To be honest, I doubt that a case can anyway be won on content in this highly-emotional, highly-disputable and fuzzy issue). I do not have a choice of going any other route because I have no political influence whatsoever.

On top of this, I feel that this war, whenever it officially ends, is only a precursor for bigger wars to come because the battle lines have been drawn so clearly now – and in blood – that rapprochement, always a difficult objective, is now going to be almost impossible to establish. Co-existence, for long a difficult but still viable mission and vision, now seems to be a million miles away.

And, I am not able to distance myself from this subject. It may sound stupid but I am just not able to look away from those scenes or switch off the TV or change the channel. For the truth is what it is – and does not disappear by one's choosing to ignore it.

This is our world - these are our children who are dying due to politics and war. What have they done wrong ? I don't care whether they are Israeli or Lebanese. Jew, Muslim or Christian. Try explaining to these innocent souls about UN resolutions. Are they children of a lesser God ?

Like I said at the start of this piece, I am a disturbed person. Small wonder.

Nights at the Opera

Having spent a lifetime perfecting the art of appearing to be interested in the finer aspects of art and culture - including a monthly visit to the opera which made even visits to the dentist seem pleasurable - I decided that enough was enough. Not only was this making a serious dent in my pocket, I found myself, even after half a dozen visits, completely unable to appreciate any of the supposed subtleties of this form of culture. I never managed to understand the variations from bass to baritone to tenor to soprano, though I tried hard. Honest, I did.

Adding to my misery was the realization that the timings of the opera often seriously clashed with day-night cricket and football, making me the only possible sports lover in the world sitting in a room full of culture geeks on a Friday evening when I could be sitting in front of the telly, beer in hand, perversely watching Australia dish it out to England in the one game and Brazil do likewise to England in the other.

In fact, so desperate had my desire to enjoy the small pleasures that I hold sacred in life become, that I even toyed with the idea of carrying with me into the concert hall, hopefully unnoticed, a transistor radio to at least catch, if only sneakily and occasionally, the commentary of the games that I was destined to miss. It would be no substitute for the fully stretched-out, lazy couch-potato opportunity but, hey, it was still better than nothing.

But, for all my craving, this remained no more than an idea, partly due to an entirely unrewarded sense of sensitivity for fellow opera-goers but more due to a fear that this might result in thrusting me prominently in an unfavourable light with the one for whom I was going through all this torture in the first place, should she catch me in my moment of indiscretion. No sir, if a charade had to be carried out, it had to be carried out to perfection, however tempting other options may be.

After six-and-a-quarter opera sufferings, I could take it no more. (The quarter, for those interested, was when I managed to feign jetlag and oil out of one of these occasions when it was less than an hour into its horrendous glory. I had just arrived from New York that morning and, although I felt perfectly fine, it would have been criminal to have allowed this great opportunity to use this mother-of-all-excuses for serious avoidance to go waste).

I asked myself – is this the basis of our relationship ? Granted that she is worth every bit of opera suffering but I could not help feeling that surely there was something wrong about the situation. The fact that she had not shown the slightest interest in anything that I was interested in – and then I am talking cricket and football in particular – did not escape me. Whenever I had brought up the subject, she had conveniently managed to flutter her eyes and talk about the next art exhibition coming to town or a visit to Christie’s. No, not the slightest interest in my interests.

And here I was, pandering to her every request like a lapdog, completely devoid of any sense of self-esteem. What would be next ? A ballet-dance trial ? Or a high-society costume party ?

I cringed. The truth, painful though it was, had hit me all of a sudden. I knew where I belonged. And more importantly, knew where I did not.

The phone rang.

“Don’t forget to pick me up at 6.30 sharp. We need to be there by 7.00 and I do not want to be there a minute late”.

“Who is on tonight ?” I still feigned interest, though I could not care less.

“Frittoli”.

“Sounds like a nice Italian dish”. I murmured under my breath.

“What ?”

“Nothing. Listen, can you excuse me for tonight ? Something’s come up”.

“Cancel it. You know this is our opera night - and you also know how I feel about this”.

“Yes, I guess you are right”.

“Good. 6.30 then”. She was about to hang up.

“Hang on. You are right – I know how you feel about opera. Pity you don’t know how I feel about cricket.” I could not believe I was saying this. I do not know from where I mustered the strength to say this but I knew I had to put an end to this madness.

Silence.

“You know what ? There’s this neo-realism exhibition that everybody’s talking about. I think we should definitely go there next Wednesday. It is on only for three days”.

“Wednesday is European Cup football. Sorry, no can do”.

Silence.

“What are you saying ?”

“Listen, I like you a lot. But let’s face it – we live in different worlds. My world is cricket and football. Yours is operas and art exhibitions. Unless there is an exhibition on high-society cricket, I doubt we will find ourselves together in one place, both enjoying ourselves.”

“Ok, 6.30 then”.

“Fine”. I sighed - it was worth a try anyway.

And that, my friends, is how I got to hear and hear of Barbara Fritolli. And Sonia Ganassi. And Michele Pertusi.

And yes, I too wish they were pasta dishes.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The genesis of war

It is when I am in a Wordsworthian "vacant or pensive mood" and do not, unfortunately, have the serenity of watching daffodils out of my living-room window that my mind begins to dwell on subjects, abstract at a personal level, but close enough to my heart to occupy meaningful mind-space.

One such subject is war - often glamorised by the victors (as if there are any). As Israel-Lebanon commemorate the passing of one year since the Lebanese war - and lives continue to be lost in Iraq every day - and there is not the slightest signs of any quelling of the voices of mistrust and jingoism around the globe - I return to a piece I wrote a while ago.

Normally, any writing tends to get dated and loses its relevance and sting over a period of time. It is a sad and sobering reflection of the power (if that is the right word to use) of war that it enjoys perennial currency.

So when I picked up this piece that I had written exactly a year ago (mentally troubled as I was during the Lebanese conflict), I found that, sadly, nothing much has changed. The one positive development in the last twelve months is the brokered peace in Northern Ireland - one that I hope will be sustained. The key ingredient for any brokered peace is trust, and while I am cautiously optimistic about the situation, it is early days yet.

Anyway, onto my piece - as it was written on 18th July 2006.

Since time immemorial, man has been fighting man. Over land, over religion, over women (for example, Helen of Troy and Rani Padmini of mediaeval India).

One of my ex-bosses, a cynical man if ever there was one - an Italian by origin, a Welshman by birth, an Englishman by upbringing and a Dutchman by domicile – once made one of the most startling comments I have heard about war and peace. In his inimitable style, he said “Peace is just an interlude between two wars. It is man’s biggest folly that he believes he can live in uninterrupted peace”.

He was a cynical person, so let us not take this statement too seriously. But he was also very well-read – especially on world history and politics and could discuss, in great detail, events that triggered off and occurred during the Greek, Roman, Persian wars before Christ. He could just as well analyse the Crusades, wars that happened during the “dark ages”, wars fought in Europe for the last five hundred years (almost every country fought with every other country and the map of Europe has been changing every century), wars fought in Japan and China, down to the most recent wars of the last few decades.

I was amazed at his knowledge. He would be able to analyze cause-and-effect and the spillover effects of various wars. For example, Russia pulled out of Afghanistan finally in 1989 – and immediately the Kashmir issue, which had been dormant for many years, suddenly raised its ugly head again with kidnappings and increased violence in that region. Could it be that suddenly there was a huge availability of arms in Afghanistan (most of them provided by America by the way), there was a generation whose only skill was to fight – and suddenly there was a vacuum when their primary cause for fighting died out ? So, hey, suddenly “the liberation of Kashmir” becomes a welcome cause for this passionate, restless soldier community.

I still believe he was exaggerating when he made that comment. But sometimes you have to exaggerate, for effect. He had me for sure completely shocked by his statement. That statement was made sometime in 1997 or so but it has remained etched in my memory. I have thought a lot about it in the years since.

War is a complex subject and to try to analyze it purely factually would be to do grave injustice to the many non-quantifiable factors that play their role in the creation of circumstances that lead to a war or to the war itself.

I am a simple man and I try to figure out, for my own simple mind, why people fight with each other. And I come to the following conclusions.

Greed. This is the single biggest reason why people fight with each other. Whether you are arguing with your neighbour over what exactly constitutes your fence boundary with him, or you are eyeing that weak country that you could “grab” hold of, it amounts to greed. In previous millennia, it was very common for emperors to expand their territories by marching into others’ territories and forcing submission by war if necessary. Reason : acquisition of more wealth, lands, slaves.

While the flavour of such expansionist ideas did change over the centuries, the concept continued till at least the end of the First World War. The powers of the world then (many of whom by then had whetted their appetite for political expansion) suddenly tried to appear more civil and set up the “League of Nations” – a first, rather hurried effort to try to bring “world order” into place.

Mr. Adolf Hitler, who had not only missed out on all the fun of land-grabbing but also felt that the final whistle had been blown at a wrong time for his country (Germany lost huge terrority to France when the Versailles Treaty was signed after World War I ), decided to give it one more try. It did not work for him. The biggest villain of the twentieth century was, to put it simply, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just a century or two earlier, and he would have been remembered as an inspiring leader. Now he was consigned to be remembered as the man who cost the world a few million lives.

Coming back to my point – the biggest reason for war is, in my opinion, greed. Greed for more power, more land, more wealth.

Supply-Demand imbalance. This to me is another major reason for war. As long as there is plenty of supply of any commodity, mankind will be relatively at peace. I say “relatively” because there are still those greedy elements who, inspite of having more than their requirement, will not spare anything for the more needy. But, by and large, surplus supply of any asset is not something that one often complains about.

When there is a shortage, that is when there is definitely stress – and struggle. Whether it is a shortage of jobs, or land – tensions mount. Where there are haves and have-nots in one society, and there are extremes between these two, there is always a chance of civil war. There may be other mitigating factors for this but if the institutions of that society are not strong enough (for example, if the power is not derived through democratic means), the exposure level of that society is high. The most recent example we have of this is Nepal. One may argue that there were other reasons for the Nepalese tensions but in my simple mind, it comes down to haves and have-nots and the imbalance in the power equation.

Make no mistake - the war in the Middle East (in and around Israel) is not just a war about ideologies, although this is used very effectively to rally forces to your cause. It is also a war about limited resources, land, jobs, water – everything that you fight for in those regions. And then, the difference in religious ideologies just takes the conflict to a different level altogether.

So, would an economically developed Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon be able to live in peace together ? I would love to say yes but that is where I would be very naïve in not recognizing that third demon of all wars – religion.

Many are the wars that have been fought over religion. This is very ironic considering every faith professes peace as one of its primary teachings. But, whether it is the Crusades fought over centuries, or wars fought in Bosnia and Chechnya, they have had religious differences as their driving force.

There are other reasons for war too. Anything that divides people can cause war if the circumstances build up to such a flashpoint. In Rwanda and Burundi, the war between Hutus and Tutsis in the 1990s which killed millions, was one fought on ethnic differences. If you delve deeper, you will find that even here, the root cause is the more dominant ones – supply/demand imbalance and to some extent, greed for power. The Hutus were the original settlers in Rwanda and tilled the land. The Tutsis were a nomadic tribe whose main occupation was cattle-herding. As they got more economically dominant to the soil-tilling Hutus, they began ruling the Hutus, though they were in a minority. The Hutus began losing more and more of their land, though they outnumbered the Tutsis. The stage for a grand civil war was set and it was a disaster just waiting to happen. The world could only watch as the atrocities mounted every day and people died by the millions.

A rather perverse reason for war, and one that is not realized very often, is the sheer availability of means. We keep talking about motive – but any good detective story will tell you that motive and means are both required for a successful murder to be committed. All the above reasons are about motive – but if there are no means for war at all, there is a chance that a disagreement will not blow up into a full-scale war. But if the means are also readily available – as in my earlier example about the situation in Afghanistan after the Russian retreat – then the situation gets that much more explosive.

As I said earlier, war is a complex subject. There is rarely just one reason for it, often one reason feeds another. Greed for power or land, often creates a supply-demand imbalance.

So, now that I have had my theoretical say on what I believe is the genesis of war, do I have solutions ? At least theoretical ones ? I daresay I do.

As with my holistic approach to try to explain to myself why people go to war, my solutions too are only holistic. Unless one side in a war is so overwhelmingly dominant as to completely exterminate the other side and its ideology – that too, for generations to come, I fear that violence will only serve up more violence. Unfortunately, modern weapons of warfare are not confined to just one side in a war and that makes the likelihood, scale and duration of a war far more frightening than ever before.

But, if my assessment of the root causes of war is even reasonably accurate, would it not help to at least try to mitigate conditions that create war-like circumstances ? For one, reduce the supply-demand imbalance. Share more resources instead of the “I want it all” approach.

I know that a suggestion to reduce means will directly hit at the supply capability of the not insignificant global armaments industry. After all, in peacetime, production goes on and stockpile only accumulates dust. I have always been a bit wary of sincerity in various “arms reduction treaties” between warring factions – but where there is a will for warfare – and a means - there is, frighteningly enough, almost always a way.

So work on the will AND on the means – and you will working on the root causes of war.

And hopefully, my erudite ex-boss, for all his knowledge of every war that has ever been fought by humanity, will be proven wrong about that “war and peace” observation.

I know, for all his wisdom and ego, he would love to be wrong on this one.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Where the sport is without smear

One of the poems I read as a young schoolboy was Rabindranath Tagore's :

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

This is a very well-known poem. I am sure many Indians would have read it. This poem has always stuck in my mind. There is something pure and powerful about it - there is a cry, a yearning, a prayer, an exhortation.

I started using this to write my own version, directed at the Indian cricket team :
Where the kick is on the rear, and the pleasure is in the cry
Where, in the pain, is the glee

But then I stopped. Enough is enough. Yes, they let me and a billion others down. But there is no point playing that record again and again. All I can say is that I hope some good will come even of this pathetic performance. See, Rahul Dravid is not the only one who keeps looking for positives.

But then my mind went on to a far more serious matter. One that has far graver consequences for this wonderful sport called cricket.

Ever since the Woolmer incident, I have been disturbed. More than just disturbed - I have been distraught. I have been passionately following the game for almost 33 years - and never ever has my love for the game been shaken as much as in the last week. Even the match-fixing scandals of 1999, disgusting and stomach-churning though they were, did not manage to keep me away from the game for long. I was back because I believed that the game could not be held hostage by the actions of a few misguided persons.

Today, eight years later, I am shaken again - and this time the depths are unfathomable. Somebody has been murdered in cold blood - how much worse can it get ?

The investigations are still on - there are many stories doing the rounds. I do not want to speculate on the motive or anything to do with this ghastly and sad-beyond-description deed. I will just follow the investigation revelations closely - and hope that justice is done. Right now, my thoughts go out to the family and close friends of Mr. Woolmer. He paid for his passion for the game with his life.

What game ? One that all of us enjoy almost every single day. One that allows us to laugh, cry, scream, rant - share with our friends and other loved ones the joy of following this wonderful sport.

But the murkier side of the sport has caught up now. It threatens to no longer be the sport that billions of followers around the world (including myself) yearn for it to be. First and foremost, a sport. Competitive - of course, but still just sport.

Borrowing from Tagore's beautiful poem, I am penning some of my own thoughts here about the game I loved, love and desperately want to continue to love.

Where the sport is without smear and no one need die
Where fun is key
Where the game has not been prostituted by the commerce of money
Where performance comes out from the depths of passion
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the simple joy of team effort has not lost its way into the colder realm of personal gain
Where the mind is led forward by the spirit of collective purpose and sportsmanship

Into that heaven of awareness, my Father, let my sport (once again) awake

Amen.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A trip down nostalgia lane - Prudential World Cup 1975

It must be counted as a blessing that the World Cup comes around only once in four years. There is plenty of cricket, especially limited-overs cricket, to fill this four-year interval. If the evidence of the recent CWB triangular series is anything to go by, any series with more than six or seven games becomes too much of an ask for the audience to follow and, but for the dramatic turnaround in results towards the end of the series, most of the games leading to the finals were consigned to history almost as soon as they were done and dusted.

The World Cup, coming as it does once in four years, thankfully has no such attention concerns to worry about. Much like the Olympics and the football World Cup, far bigger sporting events around the world, the cricket World Cup has the ability to leave you with memories for a lifetime.

My first memories of any cricket World Cup are incidentally memories of the very first one – the Prudential Cup of 1975. As I have mentioned elsewhere this first edition has a special place in my heart. I was not yet in my teens then – and that meant my images of cricket and cricketers had a touch of dreaminess about them. Not a little due to my circumstances in those 70s.

I had no TV spouting cricket images at me – all I had was the sports page of the daily newspaper (more specifically, The Statesman, Calcutta edition). And the reigning sports magazine of the day, Sportsweek (edited by Khalid Ansari) with its sister publication, the World of Cricket (also known as WOC).

Of course there was radio – thank God for that. The unforgettable radio commentary of the day helped me conjure images of the action as it happened. But for the most part, it was left to my imagination to provide the moving images of a Vishy square-cut, a Gavaskar straight-drive or the armer delivery from Bedi flighted across the batsman. Any commentator can only do so much.

I am afraid I am digressing here but I cannot help thinking of how things have changed – so much for the better. Television ? Probably in the cities of India (which excluded me), that too black-and-white. And most decidedly Doordarshan.

Internet ? Inter-what ?

Those of you who have spent their entire early life without TV or Internet (and have had to scrounge for news, pictures and statistics) will be able to relate to my experiences above. For the rest (which I am sure is the far larger number), my apologies if I sound like somebody from another planet.

Coming back to the first World Cup of 1975. Whether it was my limited access to information in those days or the absence of much trumpeting about the tournament, I cannot say for sure, but I most certainly do not recall much hype around the event. Excitement yes, hype no. All I remember is this was to be the first cricket World Cup ever (sponsored by Prudential Insurance in England and therefore called the Prudential World Cup). For the next few weeks I would be totally bowled over by this event and the sports pages of the Statesman (I think there were only two in those days, maybe a World Cup special third page) would be devoured in a manner one would associate more with a famished urchin having his first meal in a week.

There were only eight teams taking part. South Africa was still facing the apartheid ban and that meant the six Test-playing nations (West Indies, Australia, India, Pakistan, England and New Zealand) would play for the Cup, together with two “associate” teams, East Africa (comprising players from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) and Sri Lanka (then not accorded international cricket-playing nation status).

For the record, I did not have any particular expectations from India for this World Cup. It was all a bit new at that time. That there was a World Cup happening – and all world cricketers would be playing at the same time – was enough to keep me hooked to every single match. Except for the East African and to some extent Sri Lankan players, every other name was a reasonably familiar one. And the thought of having Thommo/Lillee bowling to Lloyd/Kallicharran on the same day that the Hadlee brothers would be bowling to Sunny and Vishy a few miles away was a mesmerizing one. I know it sounds silly now but I was not used to so much cricket action at one time.

In the context of the mood at that time, that India did not even make it to the second round hardly mattered. That they got mauled by England in the opening game was hardly a surprise. The Indian players had very little experience of limited-overs international cricket - and it showed. Besides, one can only suspect that for some of the players, the memories of that depressing, demoralizing, emotionally-scarring tour of just the previous year may not have been completely erased from their minds. For me and most Indians, it was a case of déjà vu – Dennis Amiss against India, another big hundred ! India’s reply to 334/4 was 132/3 – and this in 60 overs ! I was listening to the commentary – but there was no sinking feeling during the game. My premonition about India in England, having its roots firmly in the 42 all out experience of a year earlier, had ensured that the sinking feeling would manifest itself well before the start of the game. Amiss and co. were only giving the coffin of my hopes a decent burial.

The next Indian game was about as farcical as they come. As if rising from the grave, and avenging the insult at the hands of England, India put down an East African side with a ruthlessness that I wish they had shown against their quality opposition just a few days earlier. Bishen Bedi’s figures are worthy of framing for posterity : 12-8-6-1. As Gavaskar and Engineer completed a ten-wicket win for India by knocking off the required runs without any problem whatsoever, it gave India something to celebrate – and hope too. All that stood between India and a semi-final spot was New Zealand. (England had beaten New Zealand in the league game so it was either India or New Zealand for a semi-final spot).

I remember that game against New Zealand very well. It is in games like this that you tend to get most disappointed. Not just because these are crunch games, but because you feel your side is good enough to put one across and clinch a win.

But when you are playing New Zealand, and you have managed to put up only 230 on the board, you need to get Glenn Turner out early. He was the Dennis Amiss of that New Zealand side, at least as far as India was concerned. It was a reasonably close game – but I always knew that as long as Turner was not dismissed, India would not win the game.

So that was the end of the road for India. Venkataraghavan’s captaincy had this to show – a thrashing from England, a farcical win against East Africa, a poor showing against New Zealand. Result : a first-round exit.

East Africa, duly thrashed by New Zealand and England, ensured that these two teams qualified for the semi-finals.

The games in the other group were closer games. Australia beat Pakistan – thanks to that man Dennis Lillee and you could not help feeling sorry for Sri Lanka as they were destroyed by the West Indies.

But the match of the tournament, at least before the finals, was the West Indies-Pakistan game. Pakistan had the upper hand throughout – they had scored a very respectable 266 and had West Indies on their knees on 203 for 9. And then something went terribly wrong for Pakistan. They could just not finish it off. Deryck Murray, the wicketkeeper and No.11 Andy Roberts, just hung in there – and, to everybody’s disbelief, 4 balls into the last over, they managed to knock off that winning run to send Pakistan to a shock defeat – and effectively knocked them out of the World Cup. Their last game against Sri Lanka was rendered inconsequential.

The last league game between Australia and the West Indies was also rendered inconsequential but is best remembered for one thing – a blistering Kallicharran attack on Dennis Lillee. In the course of his 78 off 83, he had a sequence of 27 off 10 (44414604) – something not particularly uncommon in today’s world but unheard of in those days.

The semi-final line-up was England up against the “old enemy” Australia while the West Indies took on New Zealand.

The England-Australia game was another classic – drama of the highest order. One man, little-known Australian swing bowler, Gary Gilmour, suddenly burst onto the scene with what must be considered the best all-round performance in a World Cup game, probably ever. He ripped apart the England batting with figures of 12-6-14-6 as England were shot out for just 93. But even that was not enough of a performance because before he knew it he was coming in to bat with Australia 39/6. It was very much England’s game at that moment but nothing could go wrong with Gilmour on that day. He was cool, collected – and with a run-a-ball rate (not that the run-rate mattered), he ensured that Australia got home with no further loss. Australia 94/6 and on their way to the finals.

The other semi-final held no such drama as it went on predictable lines. The West Indians were just too good for New Zealand and, with the help of another sparkling Kallicharran innings, also made their way comfortably to the finals.

So there it was – the match-up for the final that probably made the most sense. Australia vs the West Indies. Two star-studded sides – and it was anybody’s guess how the final would go.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The West Indian captain, Clive Lloyd had till then had a relatively quiet World Cup, quiet by his potentially destructive standards. But if he had to pick one innings to let himself explode, he could not have picked a better or more important one. The stage, the occasion must have all contributed to the significance of the moment for the captain as, with veteran Rohan Kanhai playing an ideal foil, he played an innings of the highest quality to get the West Indies to 291 – a fairly imposing score.

That Australia got close is due largely to their last-wicket pair of Lillee and Thomson, probably one of the best fast bowling combinations ever but hardly known for their batting. They who put on a nerve-wracking 41 runs for the last wicket – and it was only a run-out that saw them fall short of victory just when they had it in their sights. Years later, when I saw an interview of Thomson on BBC, he referred to that game and said that that run-out really hurt because they had come so close that he thought they had done the difficult bit and just needed to finish it off.

That Australia did not end up holding the Cup is down to largely one man. Viv Richards. No, it was not his batting that made a difference. Then, he was not the legend he was to become in later years. What many do not know is that in the first few years of his career (till I think he was affected by injury), Viv Richards was one of the best fielders in the world. As he showed the Australians on that day in June 1975. He effected three run-outs – opener Alan Turner (who was batting very well on 40) and the two batsmen that Australia would have depended on the most - the Chappell brothers, Ian and Greg.

It was a memorable final – in fact, it was a memorable tournament. And a huge success. The World Cup, for all the initial doubts about its viability, was there to stay.

For me personally, that World Cup was not just about a tournament but about the atmosphere, the times that were then prevalent. I have many sweet memories of cricket in those days and I guess the World Cup of 1975 just encapsulates many of those memories for me. Maybe this is what makes it so special for me. The only comparable one personally for me is the 1983 one – but that is for different reasons altogether !

I am sure each person has his favourite World Cup edition – and I will not be surprised if for many it is the one that is the first edition that they followed in their lives.

Whatever it is, each World Cup has enriched our cricketing experiences. Let us hope this one, the first being hosted in the Caribbean, is a resounding success and further adds to our rich reservoir of memories.

For players may come and players may go but these memories go on for ever.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The excitement's building up !

It is World Cup time again – and, as one would expect, the mania is sweeping the cricket world.

It is the hottest subject of discussion, squads (now announced by all participating countries) are being animatedly discussed and, as we get closer to the actual event, we can bet that betting on team and individual performances will only increase. Unfortunately, it is a reflection of the times that injuries are as much a routine headline item nowadays as the game itself.

Not a day goes by without an interview with either a coach or a player. Players who have made it to the squad talk about the excitement they feel. And players who have not, understandably more muted, wish their team-mates good luck. Players of yesteryear, now self-professed experts on everything ranging from selection to strategy, talk about what needs to happen to bring home the World Cup.

All in all, this is a great time to be a cricket fan. For many, disillusionment may be just round the corner but the journey is often as much a source of enjoyment as the destination itself.

Those of us who are true fans of this game (and that pretty much includes everybody reading this, I would expect) will know what I am talking about. The game of cricket, with its twists and turns, with its pitch conditions and weather dependencies, with its Hawkeye and consequent umpiring debates, with its economy-rates and strike-rates, lends itself very naturally to all sorts of analyses. One can rest assured that every form of analysis will be carried out in the next few weeks. Thanks to the internet, online reporting and blogging, this has become that much easier.

It is probably safe to say that World Cup fever would be highest amongst that most emotional breed of cricket fans - South Asians. Or to put it more accurately, reflecting today’s increasingly visible presence of South Asians worldwide, fans of South Asian origin wherever located on the globe. This bunch, bred on a recipe of cricket from a very early stage in their lives (in some cases, possibly as a substitute for a harder-to-obtain material need in life known as “food”)) can be counted upon to follow each game, especially those involving their home teams, ball-by-ball – with further pre- and post-match analyses.

The World Cup is being played in the Caribbean – which, if I am not mistaken, means late night viewing in South Asia, going well into the wee hours of the morning (especially if you include highlights and post-match analyses). Add to this the sleeplessness you anyway have when your team has had a bad game (or excitement when your team has had a good one) and it is a safe bet that there will be several red-eyed South Asians at work or school the next morning.

The media will do its bit to keep everybody hooked to it. The World Cup comes around once in four years and, while there are countless limited-overs tournaments played every year, everybody knows that this is the big one. Even those of us who swear by Test cricket as being the “purest” version of the game make an exception for this one tournament. World Cup performances are remembered and passed on from generation to generation – and true to style, get more legendary status as time rolls on.

I still remember the first day of the first World Cup (Prudential World Cup) of 1975 when England opener Dennis Amiss massacred the Indian bowling (poor Karsan Ghavri the most hapless bowler of them all) and Indian opener Sunil Gavaskar retaliated with a defiant, if somewhat snail-like and inadequate by galaxies, reply on India’s behalf. It was the same day that Glenn Turner, that under-rated New Zealand opener tore apart the East African attack (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda then played as East Africa) a few miles away.

It feels like yesterday. The World Cup may not have had its most auspicious opening game but, as the tournament went on, the games got better and better, closer and closer (it does not get much closer than that remarkable West Indies-Pakistan game) and by the time the semis came along – and Aussie mystery man Gary Gilmour did his magic – the tournament had caught on with the public.

The final was a magnificent game in itself, every bit fitting of a World Cup final. Clive Lloyd was majestic, Rohan Kanhai signed off with a polished half-century , Viv Richards – then yet to become the legend of later years – sparkled in the field, effecting some crucial run-outs and the last-wicket Australian pair of Lillee and Thommo, better known for their bowling partnerships, fought hard and inched close to the West Indian score, only to have their dreams shattered by, what seemed to be the most fitting manner of dismissal of the day – a run-out.

Like I have said earlier, it feels like yesterday. And it was all of 32 years ago. This inaugural edition of the World Cup will always have a special place in my heart. It was played in times that would be unrecognizable today, media coverage was nothing like it is today, the game itself was different - for example batsmen had no helmets to protect themselves - even the number of overs played was 60 compared to today’s 50. Maybe part of my nostalgia is derived from the fact that I was not even in my teens then – so I had a very different, more innocent, view of the game then than I have now.

Since then, there have been seven World Cup tournaments. Different players, different venues, different rules, different strategies, lots of expectations, some disappointments. Several memorable moments – each World Cup has just added to the memories and the excitement of being a cricket fan.

I cannot wait for this ninth edition. Whichever team wins it finally, whichever captain holds that Cup, one thing we can be assured of – lots and lots of fun and excitement.

If Rahul Dravid and his team-mates hold that Cup on the 28th of April, I will obviously be a very happy man but, in any case, it is for the fun of following the game that we come together and I would like to just wish all the teams the best of luck and say “may the best team win”.

Bring it on.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Tumble, bumble, familiar stumble

When 26 from 36 with 5 wickets in hand becomes 11 from 6 with 2, the batting side would seem to have got itself into a situation. When that side is India, you somehow get the sinking feeling that the situation is heading in one and only one direction - and that is antarctical.

I am in no mood to discuss the details of today’s game. It is pointless to discuss what went wrong for India and where. Was it the captaincy ? Was it the bowling at the death ? Was it the batting that failed to accelerate sufficiently enough to put the result beyond doubt ? Was it the fielding that looked as sharp as an elephant’s foot ? Was it because some key players were unavailable for the game ? Was it that Sri Lanka raised its game when it mattered and India could not ? Or was it just a combination of these ?

I do not know and I do not care. Every time there is a poor performance, there always seems to be an explanation of some sort for it from the team management. Like the Indian public will now be happy that the defeat has been explained, so things will be better from that moment onwards. Like the team management itself really believes whatever it is dishing out after every game as a matter of routine and conformity with media requirements.

All I know is that India had no business, NO BUSINESS, losing this game from the position it was in. That Sri Lanka stepped things up after some initial wayward bowling, that their fielding throughout was outstanding is something you have to expect from any non-minnow side. So let us not appear to be surprised by this performance by Sri Lanka.

Some suggest that these matches are just “trial” matches for evaluating players’ preparedness for the World Cup and therefore should not have much credence attached to them. I cannot entirely agree with this. While individual players may be shuffled around, finally the eleven players who make it to the field are expected to collectively demonstrate their resolve to WIN. And if India points to the absence of Yuvraj, Zaheer and Agarkar, Sri Lanka can point to the absence of Murali and Vaas for this contest. There is no point talking about individual players – let us not even go there.

As is so often the case with Indian defeats, it is not the defeat itself that is so frustrating. It is the manner of defeat that makes the Indian cricket fan feel really let down. That the Indian cricket team (or should that be the BCCI team ?) manages, time and again, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory is something that the Indian public has got so much inured to that it would seem to have made even the Indian management blasé in their post-match discussions.

Judging by the comments from the team captain today, I could not help getting the feeling that Rahul Dravid’s comments after the game were full of platitudes and, to put it bluntly, a whole load of unrefined manure. I have a huge amount of respect for Rahul Dravid the batsman (and I have said this many times) but Rahul Dravid the captain still seems to me to have way too many question marks about him to convince me about his suitability for the role.

Here are some examples of his post-match comments today.

"We just didn't really chase well, in the sense that we kept losing wickets at regular intervals. We needed one of our set batsmen to go on and get a big score and finish the game off but we just couldn't achieve that today and it is a good lesson for us."
How many times have we heard this sort of comment ? Does it really help ? Has the Indian team EVER learnt from any defeat ?

“They fielded really well. I don't think we fielded that badly. Our outfielding was pretty good today. Some of their throwing from the deep was pretty exceptional and some of the catches towards the end there were really good. Those catches probably turned it for them at the end."
Sorry Mr. Dravid but either your standards have dropped dramatically or you are in denial.

"I wouldn't say we were complacent”.
On this comment, I am totally with you, Mr. Dravid. The team was not complacent today – it was plain incompetent.

“If one batsman can go on and get a big score, he generally ends up on the winning side”.
How’s this for a comment, Mr. Dravid ? “If one team scores more than the other team, that team (Duckworth-Lewis situations excepted) is generally the winner.”

And on Sehwag, this is what Mr. Dravid had to say :
“He batted quite well for the period he was there. I am sure he will be disappointed with the shot that he played. But he looked okay till then. It's just a question of him now trying to get that big score. Today was a good opportunity to do that, set the pace and stay and bat till the end but he got out. But he looked okay till then”.
Ever thought of joining politics, Mr. Dravid ? Or perhaps we should raise that fence a little more so that it becomes just a bit difficult to sit on it ?

This one match may not matter in the grand scheme of things. In the eternal search for those straws to clutch, one can only say that perhaps a reality check, so close to the World Cup, may not be such a bad thing after all. One can only hope that, come the World Cup, the Indian team (or should that be the BCCI team ?) raises its game to a level that when games get close, they close the game.

On the evidence of today’s game, I wouldn’t hold my breath.