Sunday, May 19, 2024

Second. Best.


Arsenal Manager, Mikel Arteta, on Miracles

Sunday, 19th May, 2024, 16:00 hrs. Indian Standard Time

I am firmly on the spectator side of sports. The physical co-ordination required to direct a bat/ball/racquet like entity while simultaneously twisting/running/jumping has always eluded me. Never particularly angry/frustrated at the player(s) when my chosen player/team fails to win, I know that however poorly they played, they were better than I would have been in the same situation.

Good thing then that I support Arsenal. A North London football club in the Premier League, they seem to float among the elite names of the footballing world without quite making it. In a few hours time, 10 months of an amazing football season by the club is (probably) going to end without a trophy.  Much to the joy of fellow armchair fans of more 'winning-est' clubs, not for the first time. 

Isn't sport, playing or watching, all about winning? A mostly controlled experience of sharpening that competitive edge without slashing around wildly? Looking around, the evidence seems to point in that direction. Unlike me, there are many for whom the primary return from the investment of watching 'their team' on TV is the second-hand joy of their victory or the venting of unfiltered frustrations at their loss.

I make no claims to be completely above such feelings. I cannot recommend losing or mediocrity. At this point, if my total time sunk into watching and cheering for Arsenal were a person, he would be above the legal drinking age of 21 - with only one major season-end occasion for cheer in all that while. I WANT them to win and their success IS my success in that magic mix of marketing, circumstance and choice which professional sport leagues around the world thrive on.

But somewhere tied in with my inability to stitch a series of good passes together is a philosophical acceptance that such is the nature of sport. I feel that sport is a wonderful stand-in for life, where bravery, rising to the occasion and comebacks from the edge of disaster feature frequently but it is important to acknowledge that it is still only a stand-in. While the sportsperson has the additional responsibility of making fans happy or face their judgement in a public arena while in pursuit of personal dreams, being seen and cheered is part of the draw in today's age.

In a near perfect season from August 2023, this young Arsenal team has solidly glided and gritted its way through only to be bettered by the finest of margins by an even better Manchester City team. Arsenal's current manager Mikel Arteta is upbeat and cheerful even now because he knows that in a game where 22 well-trained professionals duel with a sphere, space and gravity, certainties and miracles co-exist. As a distant observer whose only effort is in watching, if the guy in the midst of it all can take it in his stride, so can I.

In real life, the race targets and prizes may vary but we must all run. Sports competitions offer a low(er) consequence re-run of the same. There are rules and limitations aplenty - heroes, villains, fate and redemption. The smoothness of Arsenal's play in the Arsene Wenger years had drawn me in and though the glimpses of genius have been few and far between since, they have been enough for me. As my life and career ran along in parallel streams and eddies, the constant grace of this footballing team gave me a useful alter-ego.

I watch and cheer for this team, drawing on memories of Bergkamp and Henry, sympathizing with Fabregas and Ozil and wishing the best for Saka and Rice with the smile of the art professor Wenger floating all through. In the end, sports offers an infinite sea of stories with their own trajectories. There is no right story or wrong story, only a highly subjective 'your story' where the personal maps with the unscripted nature of the playing arena, projecting meaning and inspiration. In picking Arsenal's story, through all its glorious uncertainties and glimmers of hope, I have picked mine.


Saturday, May 4, 2024

Inspirational Horror


It is possible to supremely appreciative by looking solely at the scale of what was achieved by Hamida Begum but simultaneously recoil in shock at how it ended. Today's Google Doodle shero has enough to engage both those sentiments []. All the more reason why it should be featured on the starting screen of many an Indian Internet surfer.

Hamida Begum, a wrestling predecessor to the Phogats and the Maliks, has an incredible story to tell given the times and the society that she grew up in []. The accusations of match-fixing reek of the typical attitude of a patriarchal society unable to adjust to the possibility of equal ability, even for a single 'outlier' individual. The reason for her disappearance from the halls of fame is too terrifying not to be true and is best read at the link above without any summarization here. Nothing surprising in what happened because even decades after, such incidents demonstrating deep-set insecurity and malevolent control-seeking when men and women interact continue to feature in the news today.

While it is difficult to be completely celebratory once aware of the full life arc of Hamida Begum, the fact that she existed and is remembered offers some redemption. The journey she set out on may have been cut short brutally but like the proverbial first step of a long long trip, the importance of it cannot be overlooked.


Saturday, April 27, 2024


Countdowns are a useful way to build up tension. Even if it is not a space rocket preparing for launch after years of mathematics and physics nerds adding up numbers. After every Timeout in the Indian Premier League twice every innings, the entire stadium shouts along to the dwindling numbers in expectation of something extraordinary to happen. Usually it is the fall of a wicket with the batsman’s flow, whatever little of it was accomplished in the 6-8 overs before the commercial needs of the sport stepped in, completely destroyed. Ordinary lives need some sprinkling of hope and the reset offered by the beginning or end of a countdown is just that. The anticipation towards the New Year, the official worldwide one, beginning at 12:01 on 1st January is another such event - created more out of denial of boredom than dreams of drastic change.

Getting AI James Joyce to rewrite the same:

Countdowns, my dear reader, those ephemeral markers in the grand tapestry of existence, weave their silent magic. Not merely for the celestial behemoths—those rockets, their fiery trajectories etched by the ink of equations and the fervor of physicists. No, no! Even within the amphitheater of cricket, where the crowd’s roar mingles with the dwindling numerals, a drama unfolds. The batsman, that fleeting maestro of willow and leather, dances upon the precipice. His rhythm, painstakingly spun over six to eight overs, shatters like glass against the commercial tide. Ordinary lives, oh how they yearn! They crave the sprinkle of hope, the reset button pressed at the cusp of beginnings or the brink of endings. And behold, the global New Year, its arrival marked at 12:01 on the first day of January, emerges not from grandiose dreams but from the quiet rebellion against monotony.


Friday, April 12, 2024

Anda-Curry and Silent Killers

23-Jun-2023, Friday

The crowd gathered at the corner of Lane No. 4 and 5 was an indication that something was afoot. On my way to my anda-curry dinner, it was a situation I would have usually ignored but my neighbour indicated that the hullabaloo was about a snake. The recent rains, the first of the monsoon, meant that it would be the pretty and non-venomous checkered keelback that had the public's attention. Except that it wasn't.

The alternating stripes of black and white curled behind a tile meant that it was the common krait that I was seeing. Considered to be one of the most dangerous snakes in the country, here was a venomous celebrity that I was seeing for the first time in my life. Giving it the minute of appropriate awe, I made a call in the experts. As luck would have it, one of them was at the gym and the other in the shower. Third time lucky, I got through and brought Bittupan in.

The sacks of capture were porous and the sticks of restraint makeshift but the operation of making the snake reconsider its secure position behind the tile and the hedge began. It almost led to disaster for Coco chained to the gate as the reptile made a lunge in his direction, to escape from us it must be added. To my surprise, I lunged towards it with my stick and pinned its head down. The needed reaction of making the snake reverse direction was achieved but in retrospect, it was rather amateur of me to do that. No doubt that it was fuelled by my concern for the chained dog but it was not backed by any actual expertise in handling snakes, let alone venomous ones.

I survived the attempt and the snake found the sack. Put into another sack, it was finally secure from us and us secure from its painless fatal bite. In the darkness of the forest, we opened the sacks again and watched as the creature emerged stunned, shocked by the short journey from our society enclosed in aataa packet and a gunny sack. A few groggy seconds later, it glided away towards the security of the trees for another night of hunting, saved on this instance from violent retribution for just being a snake. On my part, anda-curry at the mess tasted notably of achievement, if only temporarily.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Of 'Maus' and Men


If ever in doubt about how serious a graphic novel can be, pick up a copy of Art Spiegelman's "The Complete Maus". There have been many other visual creations which had much more profanity, violence and explicit acts (so-called adult content) and there will be many more such but none will be able to match the desperate darkness of this straightforwardly told tale of mice, pigs and cats. If the thought of reading yet another Holocaust story induces eye-rolls, still give it a thought because this portrayal of its madness is unlike anything else.

To begin with, there is the author Art Spiegelman's personal trauma borne out of his father's strangeness. In a happy place in a happy time far away from the events, years and lands that scarred his father, it is difficult to comprehend the experiences that made him this way. Not being able to do so renders a distance between father and son which is a different kind of torture and perpetuation of sadness. Even as his father delves into the horrors of his memories, the son's sympathy for him is tempered with the practical realities of handling his Dad's insufferable behavioural quirks. The son understands (now) where they are coming from, that still does not make them easy to put up with.

That by itself is the genius of "Maus". It humanizes through allegories of animals, bats for understanding despite tremendous imperfections of the victim(s) and perpetrator(s). It tells of how easy it is to be manipulated to hate and how we understand this periodically only to forget it once again. Experiences of the desperation to survive whilst ensuring the same for those closest to you and the terror of failing to do so in the face of industrialized in-humaneness would have been too much to take if not told in the form of a 'comic book'. It offers the reader a
thin veneer of a story of fantastical talking animals to hang on to, all the while knowing that the skeletons underneath are cold hard facts. Even so, "Maus" is not for the faint-hearted.

Wars burn throughout the globe again - Russia-Ukraine, Israel-Palestine, Iran-Pakistan to name a few. A rising crescendo of identity politics based on race, ancestry, geography and/or religion encircles it with determination and speed. Innumerable are the number of occasions where history has shown the inevitable failures and tragedies that this leads to. Yet the illusion that all the ills of "I/we" can be blamed by fixing "You/them" continues to sell like hot cakes. In any circumstances, "Maus" is not a joyful read but always a necessary one.



Thursday, June 29, 2023

A Trip WIP

29th June 2023

About 6 years into a major career switch, my journey can be summarized as below.

Writing and a wish to take it up on a professional basis did not happen on a whim. To me, making this transition was a logical next step. I am a writer. In retrospect, I have always been.

I must stress that I did not move out of engineering because I hated it. It is just that I liked writing more. I continue to be fond of engineering, the many talented colleagues, and amazing friends that it brought my way. I am also immensely grateful for the cross-cultural professional experiences, on-the-spot problem solving opportunities and the financial stability that it offered me in the midst of my daydreams of pursuing “something else”. All my travel around India, the USA, Canada, and Cambodia, not to mention the complete transformation and deep-seated confidence that (often solo) travel brings, I owe completely to my 11-year engineering stint (2006-2017).

Along the way, my national writing competition wins with the Indian Express (2008), Outlook Traveller (2017), and the Wildlife Institute of India (2017) gave me a little self-belief that I might be able to make a fist of it if I were to try to write for a living. Turns out that I was able to talk myself into taking that leap of faith.

I began with an editorial internship in May 2018 at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun where I was tasked to co-edit (with Dr. Sonali Ghosh and Ms. Prerna Bindra) an anthology of nature writing “Wild Treasures”. By the time it saw publication in April 2019, it had given me opportunities to read through the best of naturalists and wordsmiths on nature spanning 200 years. Their words on wild places in the Asia Pacific were a fair reminder of how much work remained if I were to REALLY call myself a writer. Coming across my “Wild Treasures” parked next to Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens” at a local bookstore assured me that I had at least taken that tiniest of first steps.

From August to December 2018, I was privileged to work as Program Manager, Outreach, for the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bangalore, a pioneering conservation organization undergoing a rebuilding phase at that point of time. With their legacy of historic conservation initiatives and a small driven team projecting a start-up vibe, those few months were packed with intense activity with my role spanning press releases for scientific papers; building up social media presence and their website from scratch; book launches; donation drives all the way to managing the nuts and bolts of office infrastructure as needed by our beautiful bungalow turned office.

In January 2019, I was back at the foothills of the Himalayas as the 30-km motorcycle ride that separated the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun from the greatest mountain range in the world drew me back. As I found myself in the role of World Heritage Assistant (March 2019 – Present) at the UNESCO Category 2 Centre for World Natural Heritage Management, it was time for a deeper immersion into the world of heritage which while editing “Wild Treasures” I had already dipped my toes into.

In the process of shaping, promoting, and implementing the UNESCO World Heritage Convention as the Centre is required to do, I found myself at the wonderful intersection of history, conservation, politics, psychology, and communication that the field of heritage conservation represents. “What is heritage?” (valuable enough passed down to the next generation) is not a simple question as follow-up subjective questions of who defines value and how many others agree follow. Why indeed must anything be saved at all? Everything from a school assembly song to millennia old ruins spread across hundreds of square kilometres can fall under the ambit of heritage, as can snowy mountains distantly seen and the deepest seas never swum alongside their denizens – all valuable in their own manner and subject to the same grindstone of change that bears down on us all.

In pursuit of answers, I have had the chance to co-parent an inaugural MSc in Heritage Conservation & Management as Assistant Course Director, walk the forests of Mt. Fuji learning of the nature-culture continuum as it exists in Japan, cruise the narrower channels of the Sundarbans in search of the creature that Bon Bibi protects us from in that transient world of sea and land, work with forest department staff of some of the most stunning wildscapes training and learning from them. From wildlife biologists and community researchers with whom I share a wild and wonderful campus with, I now know of cicadas that sound like gunning Yamaha engines and elephants that may (or may not) be secretly using a beach island in the depths of the blue Andaman Sea.

Not to sugarcoat the challenges, conservation (or heritage conservation) seems to be an incessantly uphill and lonely struggle for those who are in it for the long run. Years of dedicated record keeping and meticulous science often lead to blunt bureaucratic denials and political exclusion. Forests long loved and taboo mountains worshipped can still vanish in a snap. That makes passion for the objects of study an almost non-negotiable necessity. In the face of shrinking funds, unstable career tracks and casually thrown accusations of “impracticality”, it is only the truly dedicated that can soldier on, side-stepping cynicism, and frequently embracing compromise as conservation makes you do.

That said, the ceaseless energy that permeates life infects many that walk this road. The chance to wander least trodden trails swapping stories, as the gears of the brain whir merging all manner of skills – technical, soft, and expedient – to craft a solution that works in these most challenging of circumstances is the incentive that keeps on giving. Still rather new to this world, the possibility of answer(s) being out there waiting to be found is what drives me on. As a person with a deep interest in communication, I find it irresistible that every artifact in this wonderfully under-explored field, from a map of the world to the structure of a fig flower, has a story to tell.


The Stranger - Not A Review

Image generated by Microsoft Designer
Image generated by Microsoft Designer

29-Jun-2023, Thursday

French-Algerian writer Albert Camus' "The Stranger" first featured in my world in a conversation with Ma a long time ago where she mentioned of a novella where the protagonist's refusal to grieve for his mother's passing lends to extrapolated assumptions from the same. I started reading it only in the aftermath of her passing away and its bleak logical outlook of the world failed to strike a chord with me, especially at a time when I was feeling emotions most keenly. Halfway through the book, at the point where the protagonist is arrested after shooting a man dead (for no particular reason, it must be added), I gave the book a pause.

The second half of the 77-page book I resumed yesterday and ran through it in an evening's worth of effort. The courtroom process and our guilty narrator's passionate disinterest in the same are exquisitely captured as are the visual details narrated that only a person least bothered with all the human chatter around him can observe. In a way, "The Stranger" forms the antithesis of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" where the main character of Rodion Raskolnikov is wracked by guilt and slowly disintegrates mentally. 

That I still relate strongly to Dostoevsky's projection of the world, as bleak as Camus' if not more, is possibly an indicator where I fall on the socialist-individualist spectrum. Dostoevsky's protagonist is (eventually) very concerned with the repercussions of his crime within a larger moral universe while Camus makes his narrator fume (in an intellectual manner) only about society's glee in punishing him for his differentness, for his casual battle against conformance. While Raskolnikov comes to terms with the fact that he is not above the rules at all, the Stranger waits for the guillotine confident that the due proceedings are only simply prosecuting his refusal to comply.