Saturday, May 22, 2010

Get a life


This is for those great "patriots" who picked a scuffle with Indian cricketers at a West Indian pub. "We came all this way to watch you play and you let our country down", they said to a group of players who very undeservedly were looking to party after being humiliatingly knocked out of the competition. A lot of people I know supported the "patriots" wholeheartedly. 'A beating is what will bring them back to their senses' seemed to be the word of advice freely thrown around.

Yes, the majority of the current Indian cricket team is woefully unfit, grossly overpaid and unnecessarily hyped. But we tend to easily forget who put them there in that unsavoury place. These are players who like you and me started off in the same dusty cricket grounds probably with a flimsy bat and a rubber ball. However the difference between us and them is that they stuck to their dream of playing in the national colours, not content merely to watch cricket on TV but to be the cricket on TV. When they made it to where they wanted to be, the spotlight fell on them with all the attendant pitfalls. As a nation, we are all collectively guilty of watching and playing only cricket and advertisers aren't such dimwits that they wouldn't notice the overwhelming bias. They know where to spend their money.

While national hockey teams slept on airport floors, cricketers moved around in limousines & relished a plush existence in 5 star hotels. The struggle to make it to the national level, no matter what the sport is, is no joke, but the stark difference between cricket and the others once you get there is tragic. But does that really give us the right to bash our cricketers up for under-performance, especially since they did not force us to watch cricket at gun-point? It is we, of our own free will, who watch them and cheer for them. Given the continuous focus on them, can we really blame them for accepting the buckets of cash thrown their way to endorse a world of products, devoted followers by the millions that they have? Even if a quarter of its people who spend hours and days watching cricket turned their focus to Indian athletics or other field/court sports, India wouldn't have to be content with the shame of winning only a handful of medals at every Olympics and be ranked 132 in soccer by FIFA.

Swear at them, curse them, hate them with all vehemence for letting your hopes and the hopes of a nation down - but all from within the confines of your living room. Watching sport would be a meaningless activity if it were not the passions it stirs. Everyone wants to be on the side of a winning cause but it does help to accept that we are not talking of robots taking the field here. All the best laid plans and the most intense training regimes may come to nought exactly at the moment the first ball is bowled or the first shot is sent flying out of the ground. There are a lot of mental factors at play and no matter how many times you may have been in that situation, every game is a new game as anyone who has ever participated in a nail-biter of a terrace cricket match will testify. The joys of victory are as exhilarating, as is suicidally depressing the spectre of defeat.

Things happen to people, both great and detestable, when under the glare of live cameras and when within hearing range of thousands of roaring fans. Say what you will, but you have to give each and every player that concession for human failure. Just because you bought a ticket to watch them, or missed dinner and India lost the match due to that dropped catch or poor over hardly qualifies you to give an actual black eye to the guilty party or be gleeful that somebody was moronic enough to try doing that. Anger and bitterness are fully justified in the case of fans watching from a distance but not its physical or verbal manifestation when face to face with the actual player. The players are not performing monkeys or video-game characters who operate by pressing A or B buttons or various combinations to perform the appropriate action at exactly the right time. They are out there on the field, with at least the capability of doing something which the fans could not do themselves in a lifetime (Yeah! I know many Indian cricket fans would like to joke that they can field and bowl better than Ravindra Jadeja on current form but all of them know the reality) and that reason alone disqualifies the fans from the moral right to personally confront the players. Harbhajan Singh might still be the right authority to lambast the 'famed' Indian batting line-up for he did show on the Barbados ground that he could handle the Aussie pacers better than them, but not the over-enthusiastic fan who only chugs beer on the boundary ropes jiggling his pot-belly which might one day give Yuvraj Singh's a run for his money.

Which brings me to the subject of Yuvraj Singh. Wasn't it only 2007, just 3 years ago, when we were all agog at his magnificent 6 sixes in an over and then his battering of the Aussies in the semis to such an extent that the Kangaroos couldn't figure out where to hide? Even if he now has to field at mid-on instead of at point indicating his decline from an once excellent fielder and even if he has to grow a beard to conceal his double-chin, it is up to the selectors to drop him from the team and not a fan's prerogative to drop a beer bottle on his head. Whatever may be his 'lifestyle' problems, if he can regain his original form while out of the playing 11, there is nothing in the world which can prevent his rightful re-entry into the team given the magic he has in his hands. In the meantime, if people are looking to rough him up, it can only cause him further physical injury, not to mention severely dent his confidence levels. No bowler, batsman or fielder is going to perform better if the constant threat of being manhandled by a mob of irate fans hangs like a sword above him.

As for the final bit, the ultimate excuse for beating cricketers to a pulp, the supposed damage to the "pride of the nation". Where is the pride of the nation when there is a need to take on the eve-teasers of your mohalla? Where is the pride of the nation when corrupt municipalities siphon crores of rupees in broad daylight while roads stay broken, garbage stays un-picked and uninterrupted power supply is a theoretical concept? Where is the pride of the nation when thousands of fellow citizens are perishing in a civil war in rural India between the thieving 'haves' and the violent 'have-nots'? Where is the pride of the nation when it is being torn apart by religious fundamentalism, casteism and regionalism, and absolutely no one in the public sphere is man enough to speak up, examine both sides of the story and seek a peaceful solution for fear of the voters' backlash? No, we would much rather protest our captain Dhoni's 'inexplicable' support for a young Jadeja and paint the walls of his house black as it is the easier thing to do. Everything else preceding that requires a lot of patience and is actually of consequence to the future of India. Everything else preceding requires a lot of personal courage putting life and limb on the line as the 'enemies of the nation' you take on there are much more dangerous than the average Indian fast bowler (who can't even get a yorker in the right place) out for a drink with his equally harmless buddies. Everything else is where we see volunteers for the cause of the nation vanish into thin air. Cricket is at best a diversion from the real issues plaguing "the pride of the nation" and it would serve us all well indeed to keep that in mind.

Yes, I hated the Indian cricket team for losing like they did in this World Cup. It made me mouth unmentionable things about their pasts, presents and futures all day long but at one point I had to stop because it is just a game and they are just normal persons with vastly superior cricketing abilities. There are way more important things to worry and crib about in daily life than to spend hours plotting the assassination of batsmen who can't play the short ball. Winning does matter the most but defeat has its own invaluable lessons to teach. So, Mr. Indian-fan-who-tore-Ashish-Nehra's-shirt-in-a-bar-brawl (False hero for countless other equally ridiculous Indian cricket fans), get a life! If you are a real patriot, just wait for the 2011 World Cup, put on your India T-shirt no matter who is in the playing XI and go "Indiaaaa, Indiaaa, Clap, Clap.... Indiaaaa, Indiaaa". Pray like you have done a million times before that Dhoni's boys will rise to the chant and the occasion.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Adios, Senora Gomez


The potential advantages of my being able to speak Spanish first struck me when many a time on the crowded streets of Manhattan or Boston, I was hailed over by a lost looking face and greeted with a flurry of words in a language that made absolutely no sense to me. The soul desperately in need of help would take it for granted that I was a Latino without needing to confirm that. Snatches of the word storm blowing my way would indicate to me that he/she was asking me how to get to a particular address and that he/she was greatly relieved to have found someone with whom they could speak in their mother tongue. But being gifted with the road-sense of a 2 year old and my grasp on Spanish being restricted to "No enteyendo Espanol!"[I don't understand Spanish!], I was only of as much help to them as the next manhole cover. But being frequently mistaken for a Latino presented some really tantalising possibilities. "Hmmm... interesting. Very interesting!" I thought to myself helped also by the fact that I have alway wanted to visit Peru, Argentina and the Easter Islands on my own.

So I set my mind (like an arrow headed to the bull's eye) to learning rudimentary conversational Spanish on a priority basis and bought myself a "Learn-it-yourself" Spanish language kit. Naturally then, more than 8 months came and went away after that momentous day before I finally mustered the will to open the CD pack and put the first CD into my computer. And the funny part is that from the first CD onwards, it seems to convey a highly pessimistic impression of how conversations with Spanish speaking women would go and the practice lines in the CDs are indeed a hilarious exercise in self-'fool'fillment (in other words making yourself sound like a fool). It almost seems like that the teachers of Spanish are sobering down your high flying expectations from a conversation in Spanish.

The CD lessons are purely audio based as they first run through frequently used phrases and short sentences making you memorize them by repeating them. This is followed by an actual conversation where there are deep long pauses between two consecutive lines where you can practice what needs to be said a number of times before the CD recording itself tells you what the right response is so that they can be compared.

There's one long one-sided practice conversation where the guy (played by me :P) goes on-and-on in Spanish spouting:
"Buenos dias, Senorita! (Good morning, miss!)
Como esta usted?(How are you?)
Soy el Senor Jones. (I am Mr. Jones.)
Soy de Chickago. (I am from Chicago.)"
Presumably due to the confusion writ on her virtual face, the next question which the CD asks me to put to her is:
"Usted entiende? (Do you understand?)"
Pat comes the recorded reply to this in a female voice from the CD leaving me a.k.a Senor Jones high and dry:
"No, entiendo un poco de Espanyol. Soi de Northe Americana. Soi de Los Ankhilis. Adios, Senor Jones! (No, I understand very little Spanish. I am an American from Los Angeles. Goodbye, Mr. Jones!)"

But halfway through this beginner's course in Spanish, the mock conversation which really takes the cake for me is this one.

Senor Jones (a.k.a Me guided by the CD's cue voice in English) : "Buonas tardes! (Good afternoon!)
Female recorded voice: "Buonas tardes, Senor! (Good afternoon, Mister) Como esta usted? (How are you?)"
Senor Jones: "No muy bien. No avlo ee no entiendo Espanol. (Not very fine. I can't speak nor understand Spanish)
Female recorded voice (in a reassuring tone): "No no senor, usted entiende ee avlo Espanol muy bien! (No, no Mister. You understand and speak Spanish very well!)"
Senor Jones: "Gracias! Ah, ess usted la Senorita Gomez? (Thanks! So, are you Miss Gomez?)"
Female recorded voice ( now in a rather scandalized tone): "No, no soi la Senorita Gomez. Soi la Senora Gomez. (No, I am not Miss Gomez. I am Mrs. Gomez.)"
At this point in time and imaginary situation, I did not need the CD to tell me what needed to be said from Senor Jones' i.e. my end but the CD advice did confirm what I already had said...
"Adios, Senora Gomez!"

And that was exactly where Chapter 4 of my Spanish learning CDs ended. I squirm at the thought of what further embarrassments lie ahead for me as I move to the Chapters 5, 6, 7 and 8!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Scoot


We are moving base. From a town I had lived in for the entire 15 year span of my school life to a place which always meant home for Mom and Dad but for me until recently had meant only a destination we headed to during our summer holidays at school. 3 years of working in Calcutta has given me a certain degree of familiarity with the city but home for me had always meant the little town of Bharuch in south Gujarat. Amongst the many things that will have to left behind as we re-adjust to a life in a big city will be a very dear possession which unfortunately no one in our family has any use left for.

Thankfully for me and my teenage years, Preity Zinta and Sania Mirza had not started advertising for the TVS Scooty yet, thereby saving lots of scrawny teenage guys like me who zipped around on it by the thousands from great embarrassment. I won't lie. I still positively adore the tiny little 59cc engine that the TVS Scooty originally came with when my parents bought me one in 2001 and the light frame body with tiny wheels which made screaming through stopped rush hour traffic a breeze. But I can surely say that if the 'Scooty = Girl Power' slogan were around when I was 16 years old, I would have begged, borrowed and stolen to make my folks buy me a motorcycle instead. But leaving hypothetical bad memories aside, let's jump to some real nostalgic ones. For us, the only real Scooty ad was the one with the Eagles song "Take it easy" in the background as a guy tried to teach his lady love how to ride the two wheeler.

The first time I saw the blue variant of the Scooty at the showroom where my parents had taken me, I knew I had to get that shade and that shade only. Co-incidentally my present Bajaj Pulsar 180 is almost exactly the same shade. Scootys were already a dime a dozen in our school parking lot with Santosh's (The original Scooty guy of our batch) grey pioneer and then Sidharth's white one. Blue was the way to go and though I had ridden pillion quite a few times, I hadn't made the progression to the driver's seat yet. Dad took charge and rode the brand new machine all the way home as I sat all excited behind.

Evening was when my sister showed up, much more excited than me and informed me that she knew how to ride it as she had already done so a couple of times on her classmate's vehicle. Not only that she also convinced me to sit behind her to prove her point. Big mistake! Within seconds of starting within the compounds of our flat buildings itself, she managed to graze my knee against a solidly parked Enfield which looked in no mood to give way to a puny Scooty. From then on I decided that if anything, I would learn to ride the thing all by myself rather than put myself in harm's way thanks to my erratic teacher. If my sister still wanted to crash our spanking new Scooty, she was free to do so but she could very well do it without the benefit of having her brother play an accident victim in that disaster too.

A few days of riding the back alleys gave me the confidence I needed to venture onto the roads. The first trip I made was to Santosh's place and I still remember my terribly aching hands at the end of the short trip, one which my Scooty would make a gazillion times later but by which time I had figured out that the secret of riding any vehicle comfortably was literally "taking it easy" handling it like an ally, like an extra body part and not gingerly as if it were a live bomb or something on those lines.

Since that day, the blue Scooty has been an integral part of so many memorable snippets of that period of life. Three guys (on a couple of occasions even 4) making its little engine groan under all that weight as it still bravely chugged along carrying us returning from an after-school cricket match, located on the NH-8 highway in the middle of nowhere as our school was. The GNFC ground evening commute was where my Scooty and other's would work on a first come-first serve basis (almost like a cab but without receiving any fare) to any friend/friends who had just seen us drive up and was/were not eager to make the long walk from the gate to the lawns where the stumps being carried were to be set up. The drive into school on winter mornings through the open highway was an exercise in physical endurance, as the very tip of my nose would be freezing yet there would be no let up on the buzzing 60-65 kmph speed which in those days seemed decent enough. There were the late night trips to the highway side dhaba Nyay Mandir as a sudden munchies attack got to us as a group and the ganging up in front of the Relax/Relief/Shalimar halls as we all bought tickets and laughed in chorus at the Hindi dubbing of whichever Hollywood monster/disaster movie we had bought tickets to.

Then there were the evening buddy get-togethers in front of the Anni paan-shop near Hotel Shital, as all of us watched with bated breath for the few hot girls of JP college about whom word had spread around. They never ever did come that way down the thoroughfare to the railway station but that still didn't stop us from waiting in vain. That we were engrossed in all kinds of guy talk any which way helped prolong our stay at the aforementioned Anni's even with the lack of supposed 'greenery'. Once in a while, the rain would catch us out by its sudden arrival but the dash back home riding through the waves of showers and the puddles was always rejuvenating no matter what may have been the preceding mood.

The best trips made by my Scooty were to the Narmada bridge on the highway in the evening as we would drive up the wrong side and park our two-wheelers at the very beginning of the bridge. Then our group of buddies would walk all the way to the middle of the long bridge down the footpath to where there was always water of the river flowing below it irrespective of the season. The heavy traffic of loaded trucks and buses kept vibrating the bridge in such a violent way that we feared that one day the bridge might just snap. The difficulties of lighting a cigarette in the unrelenting gusty breeze from the Narmada would be overcome with great difficulty but that still didn't prevent the river breeze from smoking away half of our cigarettes. We would look down into the dancing patterns of the incessantly moving waters leaning over the parapets in the fading light as we discussed the latest developments in our individual lives looking out for someone to slip up, say more than he intended to and then collectively take up his case.

I may not even get a chance to say goodbye to my first motorized ride, a little engine with a big heart. By the time I get back to Gujarat to wrap up our assets there, my reliable two stroke powered friend might already be in somebody else's possession. Like many a dearly loved object from my past, it too will only reside in the sunny portions of my memory for all the good times that I shared with it. On some days, there was no better way to boost my mood than to twist that little throttle and hear the little fella' sing all of its 59 cc out loud as it rushed forward putting in a genuine effort to speed up.

Those days and that image of the TVS Scooty are long gone, but I have no real reason for prolonged sadness even though these days there are a number of things which I just can't identify with. That's because I have got an emergency plan in place after recent traumatic events. A couple of days ago, as I was dragging myself on foot to the local bazaar, I saw a girl zoom past me on a full fledged motorbike! So launching a Scooty in baby pink wasn't enough, now you want to prettify motorcycles too? I have decided that I will buy a gun and keep it oiled & ready. The day I see the advertisement "Bajaj Pulsar - Definitely female", I'll go right ahead and shoot myself in the head!

The long and winding road


The other day I was in conversation with my uncle who had been to England on a training assignment early in his career way back in 1966 when Indian companies were not sending plane loads of engineers out to their client locations. He was given the option (one which I guess no one gets nowadays) to choose between a plane journey and a 14 day voyage on a ship and as any right thinking adventure seeker would blindly pick, he picked the ship. A smile lit his face as he spoke of finding the breakfast tables on the first morning empty after they had set out from Bombay port as everyone else apart from the crew and him were terribly sea-sick. The movie theatres on board, the live music at the restaurants, the card tables, the colourful personalities of his co-passengers and the luxury class rooms that all aboard the ship were given a tour of - leapt to life even as he spoke of them with genuine wonder, a joy to return to even after all those years. The first stop was brightly lit Aden in Yemen, where the city never slept welcoming tourists hopping off landing ships at the oddest hours in the night. From there onto Port Said in the magical country of Egypt and then past the Rock of Gibraltar and a few other halts as the massive ship coursed through vast stretches of endless ocean with ease and poise. The icing on the cake for my uncle was to watch the FIFA World Cup final of 1966 in which England beat West Germany for the only WC win of their much-hyped soccer team till date.

Contrast that to my on-site trip to Boston from Calcutta. Ship?? Are you kidding me? A Lufthansa flight plonks me in 8 straight hours to Frankfurt, Germany the country which manufactures my favourite objects of desire, beautiful, powerful cars with alarming regularity. I had 11 hours to kill at the airport but my dreams of putting a foot outside the airport into the birthplace of Porsche, Mercedes, BMW and Audi were put to rest by the airport security who said that post 9/11, visitor visas to exit the airport were at a premium. So I whiled away my time by walking around the insanely boring but huge shopping mall inside the airport before going off to sleep on an accommodating bench like a homeless man. Groggy eyed, I got up and boarded the connecting Lufthansa flight to Logan airport, Boston and was there in another 7-8 hours flat. The only countries in between I ever saw were on the personal entertainment screens on the respective seats where an animated plane charted our course across a world map as we crossed some delectable locations and countries. Nevertheless, I kept straining my neck at the window seats of both my flights (personal requested for it too) hoping to catch some defining glimpse of the country we were flying over. Frankly speaking my poor eyesight not withstanding, from that high up, it's quite difficult to make things out. So there I was, having travelled halfway across the world from the sweltering heat of a Calcutta summer to the welcoming warmth of a Boston summer without the faintest idea of how things changed in between.

How is it that the people of old had so much time to spare? To stand on the open deck and gaze towards the setting sun on an infinite expanse of water while the sea breeze blustered all around past the gently swaying ship. These were not people out on a holiday, they were people on a mission, to get somewhere and then do some work. Yet they could find time to take the slow route, find the confidence that the world was not going to fall apart in their absence while they savoured every single bend in the road and every story that can only be pulled out of the wonderful magic box called travel. Maybe I will take a ship when sent out on my next foreign assignment or more realistically, I think I am going to take some time off and build myself a time machine!

The visitor


Another interesting story plucked right out of the Sunday morning newspaper (See link below).

The campus of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun was designed so that it could be as natural a habitat as possible for the local fauna. The boundary between the forests of the Shivalik foothills where the Institute is based and the Institute itself is present only in theory, it can very much be described as an extension of the jungle, an ideal world for a wildlife researcher you would think. Walking through the campus, would be like walking through a lab doing practicals for these scientists who would pause to note the occasional colourful bird or a timid deer. The real question looming over them now is whether the campus is really a campus any longer now that a creature at the top of the food chain, a big carnivore on whose list of potential prey come the human researchers wandering through their 'campus' has come a visiting. Yes, there is a resident leopard on campus and that is quite an unnerving thought if you were returning alone after working late in one of the lab buildings, no matter how much a wildlife lover you might be.

And the problem lies in the fact is that the solution is not simply a 'tranquilize animal - transport it as far off as possible' here as it might have been for say the campus of IIT Powai in Bombay which also has a reputation for hosting leopards once in a blue moon. This is an Institute designed to promote and study the co-existence of man and nature, to prevent man-animal conflict. Transporting the leopard away from its home range would be an open mockery of the Institute's stated aims probably causing it great distress and bringing it into possibly deadly conflict with another leopard whose territory it would find itself in yet the researchers are having second thoughts about a leopard hanging around in such close proximity to their children's playgrounds. There is an abundance of natural prey within the campus & nearabouts and lots of habitat so in theory, the leopard should never have to have any run-ins with humans, shy creatures that most wild creatures are but the fact is that this is an animal that can easily drag a full grown man into the depths of the forest in the blink of a eye. And these big cats do have a reputation for quiet efficiency.

The opinion on campus about how to deal with the 'problem' [for some of them at least] is understandably divided. Out on a forest trip, the researchers have no reasons to complain about the potential threat to their lives as they are in a state of mental readiness and have an appropriate plan of action. What they do not want is to come across a leopard while they are dressed in their shorts and T-shirt out on their morning jog. Still a few are brave enough to advocate that their feline visitor be allowed to keep his home shared though it may be with a lot of humans. The lion-hearts plan to "alter their schedule to avoid conflict with a large carnivore". They consider it a privilege to be able to share their campus with a leopard, a childhood dream come true and an ultimate test of their learning.

What a wild and wonderful love that is - the respect for the animal's grace, power and beauty overcoming a natural in-born fear of being hunted! Some would say the scientists are putting too much faith into an animal's normal behaviour pattern & their field knowledge and if the leopard does violate that pattern causing a fatality, no one is really going to take it to court. I could almost agree except that I am really caught in two minds about the potential thrills and possible spills of being in such a situation were I a full fledged wildlife professional and capable of taking sufficient precautionary measures. On one hand, after a day's hard work, there are the simple pleasures of hearing beautiful song-birds sing as the sun went down; on the other hand there is the option of feeling that daily thrill down the spine on the humdrum daily commute home, of somebody who might be watching nonchalantly; relaxed, sprawled out high on a rock or a tree; somebody with glowering eyes, lethal speed and very sharp teeth.

La tarde

There are times and locations where an Air Conditioner just does not seem appropriate to the scheme of things. The whirr of an overworked ceiling fan has its special charm simply because of the visual impression it creates of putting effort into its assigned task of keeping you cool. Especially as the depressingly humid summer heat of Calcutta begins to squeeze rivers of sweat out of you post 9:00 AM. That is normally the time when the big windows which seem to be standard fixtures in any house that is more than 40 years old swing shut and the curtains are pulled past them. Outside the sun is scowling down on all those who dare to or need to take on it in the perennially overcrowded roads of Calcutta. Inside the room however, it is already cool and quiet. In fact, the papered windows and the drawn curtains make it necessary for the tube-lights in the room need to be switched on at that time in the morning.

Every other window and door, all of which are potential accomplices of the steam bath in progress outside are promptly shut offering them not even the slightest chance to play any part in any thermal coup. The house is old, its walls are thick and its ceiling is high. Step beyond its gated, green but largely unkempt garden and the reality of the weather will slowly bake you into a steamy meat cake. But the house protects all its inhabitants to the best of its ability while they reside within its watchful gaze, and the house bears the brunt of the sun's anger at not being able to get to those who seek its shelter. This Sunday afternoon will just be another day on the job for it, the protector and the preserver of many, from the wrath of an Indian summer.

For the residents of the house too, it would be just another Sunday afternoon. They'd complain of the 'extreme' heat knowing fully well that the really extreme heat was the ferocious beast that roamed the streets at that hour. They'd have their lunch together and slowly melt away to their respective rooms to lose themselves in a book or to gather around a movie playing on TV and then to give in to the inevitable on days like these when stepping out is always going to remain a unfulfilled mad thought.

The Spanish words for 'the day' are 'el dia' - the 'el' indicating that the 'dia' (day) is masculine in nature. The Spanish words for 'the afternoon' are not surprisingly are 'la tarde' - the 'la' indicating the femininity of the noun 'tarde' which means afternoon. No matter what book you may be reading, no matter what edge-of-the-seat thriller you might be watching, she will surely come: to seduce you, to lure you and to finally put you to sleep, such that you are dead to the world for all practical purposes, until the sun goes down a few notches and it's safe to look on it again. In all the darkened rooms of old houses on every summer afternoon, 'La tarde' lives, stalking and hunting, without fear and without mercy.