Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Life isn't fair, no sir!

It was a typical long recess in our school. Freed from the restricting confines of the classroom after nearly half a day, the school was abuzz with activity. One hour of cricket, talk and more cricket was to follow as particularly tempting tiffin boxes were flash raided and the ordinary ones were gulped down in as less morsels as possible. Running circles in incoherent joy was the norm, such was the great pleasure at this mid-day pressure release.

Part of the running brigade was Tushar, a junior who was racing in happy abandon behind his friend through the corridor. Everyone else who wasn't involved in purposefully physical unnecessary activities stood at the sidelines munching away at their tiffins before they too had their hands free to do something wild & shrug off the class induced heaviness on their minds. It wasn't unusual for someone to join in the fun uninvited so did Tushar's friend, another junior whose name I forget. He stuck out a leg from behind a classroom door for the speeding duo at exactly the moment which was required to cause the most spectacular bone-crunching tumble I've seen in my 25 years on this planet. I don't think that he intended Tushar to put up such a show but boy, did Tushar fly that day and almost cartwheeled to a tremendously comic fall! The corridor howled with laughter and the building shook with the reverbations of mirth.

The laughter lasted exactly for the time it took for Tushar to gather his embarassed self off the floor. Then there was silence as everyone saw that he had so obviously not taken this fall in the slightest of good humour. His face was dark with anger and he was no Tiny Tim as far as school kids in the 7th standard go. He was a big, hefty guy quite opposite to the size of the braveheart who had brought his downfall. He stalked up to the leg poker who now looked like he had seen his own death and was gulping down his last few mouthfuls of air. Tushar seized him by the collar and now the crowd closed in expecting to see a live murder so soon after an excellent show of slapstick humour.

However the commotion and thunderous laughter post Tushar's fall had drawn the attention of our class teacher, Kalpana Miss (the very improbable scenario of a teacher hanging around the classrooms during the LONG recess came true that day) who pierced through the crowd at the exact moment Tushar had laid his hands on his tripper's collar. She walked right upto Tushar and without any hint of hesitation gave him a resounding slap on the face admonishing him "Very proud of your big muscles, huh? Terrorizing kids smaller than you physically! Shame on you. Now get out of here." Needless to say, she was totally unaware of the events that had preceded this particular case of 'bullying'.

Tushar of course was in no state to explain. The most dazed expression inhabited his face as he stumbled away zombie-like with one hand nursing his cheek, not helped at all by his hurting legs. He could've very well stood and fought his defence but life's utter cold-heartedness had totally robbed him of any response. He just couldn't comprehend this level of inequity and chose wisely to bail out of this situation rather than to prolong his agony. As Kalpana Miss walked off to the staffroom for her lunch, no one spoke up in Tushar's defence. All of us were too busy rolling on the floor in stomach wrenching, gut splitting laughter!

Change seems suspiciously possible

I am of the long line of cynics who said that he won only because he was the better choice when compared to the ancient McCain who had shed the last bit of his reformist Republican skin by choosing Palin as his running mate. I still feel that he has promised too much or rather the people's expectations out of him are too much. His detractors will laugh at every one of his failures in thinly veiled racism. His supporters will find that his long road to recovery is indeed very very long, much farther than the euphoria of his historic election win will carry them.

Yet when the President of the most gung-ho unapologetic nation on the face of the earth clarifies that "America is not at war with Islam!", it means the world to a lot of people. The millions of Muslims who are leading their normal lives away from the stagnation of terrorist camps, crude Sharia law, oppression of women all of which have unfortunately become the dominant image of Islam now have concrete proof that a significant power in the world sees the truth. They are glad that at least some important people in the non-Islamic world understand their dilemma and are ready to seperate them from the other nonsense that happens in the name of their religion. 

Obama says he wants peace between India and Pakistan but only when he swings a bat with the mercurial Brian Lara, does it become a much more believable statement. A casual analogy of Lara as the Michael Jordan of cricket is not too far off the mark indicating that he has more than a passing interest in the matter. The President of a country which historically hasn't looked beyond its self-contained world of Hollywood, cable TV and football (The kind that the rest of the world doesn't care about) taking a crack at something that is so un-American, is a paradigm shift towards making America more sensitive to the world around it.

As far as his policies go, I am an eternal cynic so there is absolutely no chance of me turning into a raging 'Oba'maniac, but here is one case where I wouldn't mind being forced to eat my words.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tribal truths

Sometime in summer 2008, there was a West Bengal tribal handicrafts fair being held near the newly opened exhibition grounds off the Park Circus bypass. My aunt had asked me if I wanted to tag along. It was a Saturday afternoon and there was actually nothing else to do. On reaching the venue, as expected there were hundreds of visibly excited females running around from stall to stall and their visibly depressed male companion (boyfriends/husbands/brothers/nephews) dragging their feet behind them carrying the tons of items already bought. 

All the usual tribal handicrafts that I had previously seen only displayed in drawing rooms and inside showcases were on display by the dozen.  Tribal art works at a primal level, that delves far deeper than the apparent simplicity of the artwork at its surface. Does a good piece of art have to have multiple interpretations and layers or can the grin of a semi-human statue contain more meaning than the most intricately detailed paintings? Do the stick figures that cavort in a group dance on a quilt really need flesh and bone detailing to convey their mood? I ended up buying for myself a black stone paperweight adorned with a boldly illustrated butterfly and a bronze mask which was oddly reminiscent of the Green Goblin's mask in the Spiderman movie. The mask still hangs with an indecipherable expression above my study table in Calcutta while the paperweight keeps (or at least used to keep) my daily paper from flying off in the late evening Ganga breeze. I look at them and forge a link with long lost ancestors whose lifestyle and skills are still retained by these rapidly dwindling tribal cultures. A doomed culture it is from the outset when less is more and beauty lies in brightly hued innocence.

The Duke

It's not something that would haunt most people's dreams but it does mine. This weekend I saw it again emerging out onto Route 44 on it's way back from Boston. An orange beast of fabled power and striking aggression, it dwells in the industrial town of Raynham where I have been going to work for the past 10 months. Yet it's been 10 months I've seen it last but my awe of it remains the same. Multiple winner of the extreme Paris-Dakar desert rally and the most graphic illustration of the words "DREAM BIKE" if there ever was one. 

It's like the beautiful woman whose single glimpse makes your day yet unlike a woman it is laughable to link words like 'delicacy' or 'grace' to it. It is a raw creature of nature, of unbridled power the hunger for which can only be satiated by getting astride it. It's a modern day miracle, and despite there being motorcycles much more powerful and more exclusive than it, it's the one machine I'd take on the biggest odds to possess. The object of my deepest machine-linked obsessions, it's the KTM Super Duke in orange. No, I don't think any other colour would do!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Graveyard hopping

This Saturday as I marched along the Freedom Trail through Boston, we came across 3 ancient graveyards. Though things might get creepy there in the dead of night, in daytime I find graveyards to be really beautiful places especially old ones like these. The weathered head stones mourning people who have departed this world so long ago that these stones are the only link that they have with the living world. Some of the stones are cracked or leaning at impossible angles indicating that their time to return to their maker has come too. The inscriptions on some of them are eroded to the point of being ghosts, spirits of the commemorative words that were once engraved on them.

A particularly striking graveyard on the Trail is the Copp's Hill Burying Ground, nestled on a steep hill slope overlooking the river and neighbouring Charlestown. It was a bright afternoon and the cheer and the sunniness seemed to have spread amongst all that were exploring the graveyard, mostly tourists like us. So this is where it all  ends, said the agnostic bits of our inner selves. From the earth we were born and to the earth shall we return.

What say, Mr. Nicholson?

In the first scene of "The Departed", Frank Costello (played by Jack Nicholson) the Irish mafia kingpin in Boston goes

"20 years after an Irishman couldn't get a f****n' job in this country, we had the Presidency. May he rest in peace! That's what the ni****s don't realize. If I've got something against 'em, the black chappies it's this. No one gives it to you, you have to take it!"

He was referring to the long line of Irish-in-origin US Presidents beginning with Andrew Johnson that achieved it's grandest success with JFK. The Irish rose rapidly in status from unwanted refugees in the mid 1840s to being one of the most influential communities in the USA. His hint was at making a grab for power, almost force it at gunpoint. In contrast, the African-American community really started getting their due rights in the late 1960s thanks to the Gandhian tactics of Martin Luther King. Forty years later, we have the first Black President and a largely peaceful USA which has voted him to power. So what that it did take 40 years instead of 20, but didn't this turn out way better for everybody involved?


I often dream of being a world traveller writing about places exotic and mundane. Join the "Travellers Century Club" (i.e people who have travelled to 100 or more countries), learn multiple foreign languages and be a citizen of the world so to speak - all components of the same delusion. However even in my dreams, a little nudge of reality mocks me when I think of two serious shortcomings of mine which seem nowhere close to resolution.

One would have to be my total failure at being a "foodie". If magazine articles and general job descriptions are anything to go by, having good gastronomic sense helps a lot in filling up half the length of any travel article. It'd be so tough to get a job paying me for travel given my general preference for water over Chardonnay and hot dogs over finely tuned gourmet fare. That practically knocks me out of competition for any 'civilized' country if you couple my abominable table manners and etiquette to my lack of appreciation for cooking finesse. Food is such an essential part of any travelogue and a very unique characteristic of any new location. Plus it is so difficult to retain the names and contents of exotic fare on the rare occasion that I have sampled them. In my short stay in the USA, I've sampled Vietnamese, Italian and Latin-American cuisine thanks to positive influences from my company but when it comes to recalling the names of the dishes it's like gazing into thick fog! And I couldn't really take on Jungle Jim assignments too, much as I'd love them. That's because my completely urban upbringing would leave me helpless and prone to death by starvation if left in the lap of Nature. Apparently, a lot of work remains to be done in this department. 

A much bigger grouse is my astoundingly bad road sense! I don't whether it is genetic (Credit to my mom) or to the fact that I've spent the formative years of my life in small towns with only one central road. All I can say is that it is hugely inadequate and that is the main reason I prefer to travel alone on my footloose adventures; so that I can circle the same path 3 times before realizing it is the same path! The names of streets in the USA with it's clearly marked corners have a very short range, being Lincoln, Washington, Cedar, Pleasant etc yet I have to put up an Herculean effort to remember these names (in the correct order that I had crossed them) when walking around. Once after 3 months working in Calcutta, I thought I had suddenly developed great road sense and was all confident and cocky. Later I'd find out that my direction markers were giant advertising billboards and every time they changed, it'd be a whole new city for me again! Heaven help me and my future travel magazine employer if I were in a city in Japan with all the signs in the local language, their incredibly difficult names and no English speakers around. I'd be stuck there forever and they'd probably have to sent a "Search and rescue" squad to help this reporter find his way back to his hotel.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


I have been off watching cricket for a number of years now. The days of following every match and tournament are long gone. But today in a cricket stadium in South Africa, an event so out of the blue has occurred that I have to write about it.

Of all the cricketers in the world, Rahul Dravid has won the Man of the Match in a 20-20 match. For all those unfamiliar with the sport of cricket, it's the equivalent of Beethoven winning the MTV Music Awards Rap Album of the Year. I am quite thrilled about this unexpected event even though I couldn't watch the match between the Rajasthan Royals and the Bangalore Royal Challengers (Dravid's team) being posted here in the cricket ignorant country of the USA. Another old tiger roared today in the form of Anil Kumble, but it was definitely Dravid's day!

Dravid has never been my favourite player in terms of watching him play but there is no denying the Wall of support that he has been for the Indian cricket team. Always a team man to the core, his impeccable technique may be a drag to watch sometimes but God knows there is no member more essential to a team's composition than a monolithic shock absorber like Dravid. Some critics tend to jeer at him for not being able to win games on his own but then that's foolish because you're forgetting his brilliant match winning 233 in Adelaide 2004 and countless other occasions especially on foreign soil when he was really the Wall between victory and defeat. He is one of the rare players who displays a street fighter's grit at the batting crease yet is a quiet, soft spoken man off the field unlike most others who play similar roles as his.  

But 20-20? The extreme form of cricket where balls spent more time outside the boundary ropes than inside and the blind slog is actually the most effective shot! Dravid's game of perfection and patience has its calling but little did I expect him to pull this stunt off in the rapid-fire version of cricket. This may just be a one off event but it's nice to see hard-workers like him get rewarded. Flamboyance may not be his thing but he has quietly worked his way through mindless criticism and undeserved hatred (post Ganguly's removal as captain) to establish himself. It's tough to find appreciation for textbook batting techniques in the midst of dazzling colleagues like Ganguly, Tendulkar, Laxman and Yuvraj but I feel that Dravid never really sought that. He is trained and focussed on his job to be "The Wall", the final soldier sword drawn to hold his ground before the castle falls. It's quite heartening to see such men get some attention going their way at least once in a while, unasked for but definitely not undeserved.