Friday, December 28, 2018

Quick Fix

Reading through an Outlook article by Qaiser Mohammad Alion, the positives from the story are hard to ignore. The rise of medal winning ace shooters from western UP is a trend to be appreciated and encouraged. Some of them, like 16-year-old Saurabh Chaudhary who had previously broken the world record for the 10m air pistol on his way to the gold at the Junior World Cup, continue to redefine the limits.

Professional shooting is a sport which requires intense discipline, focus and investment. The entry of these teenagers into the sport was eased partially by training academies set up by pioneering shooters from the region. It also helped that many of them came from families with a long tradition of gun-owning and hunting (legal until 1972), with the sport channeling energy which could otherwise be spent on generating the wrong kind of headlines. All good... it would seem.

But for a niggling worry, an ember of concern kept alive by coach Neetu Sheoran's quote "...One welcome social change brought about by this is that incidents of eve-tea­sing have come down". 

Eve-teasing - a criminally misleading euphemism for sexual harassment - is a harrowing reality in many parts of conservative and patriarchal India. The cinematic justice in a young girl, long oppressed and sidelined, discovering confidence through the barrel of a gun is an alluring story-line, even though routinely recycled as a theme in many a film around the world. In our country, where systems are malfunctional to the point of non-existence and justice (if not denied outright) is always delayed, a solution of any nature is worthy of celebration, isn't it?

The glamour of the gun, unfortunately, cuts both ways. If the ability to handle a gun is what it takes to ensure protection, what of those who are not skilled likewise? In the face of life's many stresses, who's to say that wielders will not be too quick to make irredeemable decisions? 

Shooting as a competitive sport has much to offer its practitioners but suggesting the gun, as a key to solving far knottier issues, is hardly sage advice.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Prehistoric Halwa

You won't find me singing praises of the "simple" days of childhood anytime soon. I remember, in far too much detail, that phase of my life when the world was a very limited place, buffeted between expectations of those who thought that they had life figured out a.k.a adults and the confused dreams of the one who hadn't seen enough of it to counter them effectively a.k.a me. All the same, it has to be admitted that friend circles were definitely smaller and so was the list of things that you liked - 'simple' if you choose to call it so.

Dinosaurs were on that small list for me. These were days before Jurassic Park brought them to jelly quaking, kitchen stalking cinematic life. Across the street from our little house with a little garden lived Gupta Aunty and her two sons, Pratik and Akshat - the centre and the boundaries of my social sphere then. Dinosaurs roamed their house through the stacks of hard bound, half as tall and twice as heavy as me Encyclopedia of Something or the Other whose colourful photographs and fast facts informed me of fabulous beasts like the palm tree shaming brachiosaurus or the rhino gone wrong stegosaurus. Quite unlike Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes, I found the leaf munching oddities much more fascinating than the toothy T-Rexes and Velociraptors who also stalked those pages. It may also have been something to do with the diet I was on when in the Gupta Brothers' company.

Growing up in a Bengali household, I already had enough deep fried, unhealthy, tasty food items to look forward to but crossing the street meant some vegetarian specials unlikely to be found at home. The fantastic ghee soaked lighter than air rotis with a dry subji were top drawer stuff but as far optimal use of ghee was concerned, the pinnacle was Gupta Aunty's Gajar ka Halwa. Ghee as pure as the driven snow, carrots stolen from the garden of heaven and sugar from unfulfilled childhood fantasies combined to produce this sweet dish par excellence. I did share a lot of common ground with the brothers including blind fandom of Amitabh's superhero movie "Ajooba" and a tendency to challenge each other to "Punjab", a childish mispronunciation of the noble sport of panja a.k.a arm wrestling but I must honestly admit that the Gajar ka Halwa did not hurt the cause of our lifelong friendship.

Childhood, simple or not, did present some interesting possibilities. Beyond a gate and up a flight of stairs past another roared magnificent monsters and confections of my dreams.

Monday, March 19, 2018


B-Team (PC: NDTV)
The opposition was Bangladesh, not Sri Lanka. The occasion was the final of the tri-nation Nidahas Trophy, not the Cricket World Cup.

Even as Dinesh Kartik, DK as his cool moniker goes, hit a six off the last ball of a tremendously exciting match to win it, healing (at least partially) the scar left by Javed Miandad on the Indian cricket fan’s psyche, I couldn’t help being reminded of the parallel stories of the two Indian cricket team wicketkeepers.

M. S. Dhoni, his contemporary and modern-day legend had had such a different trajectory, flat and fast to wicketkeeper batsman greatness. Announcing his radical hairstyle and swashbuckling batting to the world via that mother of all cricket battles, an India tour of Pakistan, he kept moving from honour to honour – Captain of India, 2007 T20 World Cup, Champions Trophy and finally that winning six in the 2011 Cricket World Cup.

During the same time, from around 2004, DK also happened to be in the running. In any other Indian cricket team from any other era, DK would have been a shoo-in. But fate cruelly made him a talented wicketkeeper batsman in the age of Dhoni.

The result was an international career spent waiting on the margins, for injuries and opportunities. In nearly every sporadic chance given to DK, he made a good fist of it. However, as soon as Dhoni returned, fit and available, it was DK’s turn once again to be back-up. With skills and reputation like Dhoni’s available, it was hard to contest this DK-Dhoni swap.

The hard-nosed might say that that’s just professional sport with no room for sentimentality… DK just wasn’t the best option. In opposition, the anti-Dhoni camp would say that Dhoni used his BCCI connections to hang on for much later past his expiry date.

I tend to disagree with both camps.

As a devout supporter of the 90s Indian cricket team and of present day Arsene Wenger guided Arsenal, I feel that this reliance on statistical performances and expiry dates for professional sportsmen is only half the story – the boring mechanical half of the story.

Sport is about the human element for me - the quirky, the stylish and the unpredictable. One bad series, one bad match, one bad decision is all it takes to instantly reduce would-be legends to highly visible public failures. Being someone committedly bad at most sports, who makes at least 2-3 critical errors per rare appearance on a sporting field, I tend to be more forgiving.

If sportsmen were to make zero mistakes, they’d be programmable robots and in effect, we would be watching a simulation. But they are not and that’s what makes watching them so enthralling. The pressure, the emotion and the heartbreak – it is a mind manipulating live drama of a level that no script could ever hope to achieve. No wonder that tens of thousands spend their lives trying to break into to the top levels of sport and billions more hitch their dreams of glory onto their chosen heroes.

Sportsmen like DK or Wriddhiman Saha, both forever second fiddle to Dhoni, occupy a special place.

They are not promising talent who did not make it due to lack of discipline, nor are they guilty of letting things slip once they had a glimpse of the peak. They are destined to be at the most torturous point of all – where they have been judged, by circumstances and in particular opinions, to be very very good, just not the best.

That is what makes nights like yesterday's very special. With the truest of smiles lighting up his face in the post-match interview, DK acknowledged that the Indian cricket team was currently a very tough place to retain a position in and added “I am happy to be where I am”. A team of mostly second choice sportsmen, there only because the big boys needed a break, coming through to win in the grandest of fashions.

Last night was not about the biggest stage and the bad-dest opposition. Last night was about all those sportsmen who would have made it to the big league of fame but for a little twist of fate. Last night was about them declaring “Look. Given the chance, I can do it too.”

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Hardly Insignificant

Hope. Compromise. Failure.

Arvind Kejriwal embodies all three and in 95 minutes of an extraordinary documentary, Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla let the camera tell it like it is.

In retrospect, what Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) managed was nothing novel. In the make-believe world of Indian commercial movies, it happens all the time. Though the real India is one of the most corrupt nations on earth at every level, in our movies it is always a happy ending. The corrupt system chokes the good guy, who then takes on it and after many trials and tribulations, wins.

That someone would be mad enough to attempt this in real life and make it happen was what took us by surprise.

Irrespective of what side of the political spectrum you fall on, do watch this documentary.

“An Insignificant Man” (AIA) will not change your opinion of who Kejriwal is nor does it try to. 

At the same time, you can plunge head-on into the teething problems of a new political outfit in a crazy democracy like India.

The folks at VICE have done us the courtesy of sharing it for free (YouTube link here) while ensuring that at least some income has been generated for its makers.

As Kejriwal and team cross that shaky bridge from activism to active politics, the camera ruthlessly reveals the discomfort and exposes the now-required hypocrisy. Immediately after a combative interview with an Aaj Tak journalist, Kejriwal is shown in deep study of his lowermost shirt button, his on-camera bravado now bogus and his awkwardness very real. In one riveting section, Kejriwal is taken to task by his volunteers for abandoning his ‘volunteers will choose who will get tickets, not me’ stance for a very dictatorial ‘I am the only one without an agenda so I make the final call’.

AIA is strewn with moments of cinematic gold like that where the practical world combats idealism and noble intentions are quietly buried. The impact of the scenes is only doubled when you remind yourself that this is not a story, this is real life!

Also visible in full measure, is the optimism people still leftover in people, despite decades of corruption, oppression and all-round hopelessness. That people still believed in the possibility of an honest political party is a credit to both Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the common man’s naivete, if you want to call it that.

If what I have written so far makes the documentary sound like a hit job on Arvind Kejriwal, my apologies.

Kejriwal is definitely the star of AIA and the deep faith that people have reposed in him has also been given due emphasis. But to not highlight Kejriwal’s and AAP’s deviations from the ‘high ground’ would have been dishonest of this brilliant documentary and it takes special care not to do so.

AIA does a great job of capturing Arvind’s surging popularity, specifically in the 2011-2014 period when for the long-fooled public, he was the messiah. Making issues like corruption, water and power central to his manifesto instead of the usual communal/patriotic pitches of the mainstream parties, he really carves up a special place for himself and his party.

The suspicious death of Santosh Koli, a popular grassroots level MLA candidate for his party and its impact on her co-revolutionaries is also very poignantly captured. It leaves one thinking whether it is really worth the trouble standing up to the powers-that-be. We are lucky that someone somewhere always does, leaving us to enjoy the benefits of their sacrifice.

The sheer disregard and disrespect that the BJP and the Congress had for AAP, which gradually turns into fear and very soon sets up them for spectacular electoral defeat - is the most rousing arc of the story. The reality of electoral promises and processes cause AAP to re-calibrate their mission in ways they had vehemently opposed in the past, right down to allying with the same party they had thrown out of power.

It is possible to do the impossible but as it turns out, impossible is only a variant of the possible, not the polar opposite of it.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Eaters of the Old

It’s not like we haven’t been insulted before. Yet some insults sting more than most.

It appears that some folks in China, says the Guardian, call us ken lao zu which loosely translates to “the generation that eats their parents”.

As a card-carrying member of that generation otherwise known as Millenials — I quit my standard secure job as an engineer to pursue my passion and am presently writing this from home… my parents’ home to be precise — that insult really hit home.

Lazy, self-indulgent, ambitious beyond our talents — all the perceived failings of our generation tied together in one grand put-down. One which must be replied to.

In the classic tradition of a debate, dear Chinese Millennial bashers, let me begin with what the prior generations are right about.

Right about the Internet in general and social media in particular flooding Millenial lives with generic 'night sky background, inspirational quote foreground' images.

Right about the fact that being different is such a fad in our generation now that even different is another form of mainstream by now.

Right about the You Live Only Once (YOLO) philosophy, that you accuse us of inventing and implementing, causing a noticeable ripple on the surface of surety.

Now for what may not be exactly right.

Beginning with the origins of YOLO. Making the most of the moment, be it the risky thrill of a skydive or the LOL hilarity of a cat meme are shallow, short term stimulations which suggest classic Millenial, don’t they? Say hello to Horace, a real toga wearing Roman poet from 2000 years ago. He first asked humanity to “Carpe diem” i.e. seize the day. Here we are, finally following up, on his wise old words albeit with a funkier interpretation.

Classic Latin and classic Millenial are not as far apart as you would think.

Then there’s our constant urge to be different, which may seem faddish to those who came before, but it is only because at this point, it is quite feasible to be so. Ideas spring lightning quick and near instant advice is easy to get. So, it is entirely possible for more engineers to make a living as full time artists and that more illustrators digitally design their wildest dreams. 

Millenials are not out to promote anarchy and instability. It’s just that it is a relatively good time to be chasing unconventional dreams and therefore more YOLO-ness.

This chase in itself is a common reason to be dismissive of the Millenials. Who do they think they are? Art, engineering or any other skill take at least a lifetime of effort to master, if not two or three. What would 140-character authors and filter-ish photographers know of the struggle and sacrifice required to get there?

This is where, dear Chinese Millenial denouncers, it is necessary to separate the hidden from the hyped.

Remember how Millenials are supposed to be careless mavericks? A 2017 Deloitte survey of Millenials revealed that 70% of them preferred secure full-time employment. Don’t go merely by the grand boasts of our social media personality.

The real us is someone fairly reasonable and quite sensible.

How about me then? Am I not the quintessential vampiric Millenial feeding off my parents?

Well, I must clarify that I put in 11 years of 11-hour workdays at my steady engineering job before taking up an interest of mine and in which no doubt, I will have to put in a lot more. I continue paying the bills around here, especially the Internet, as my home also happens to be my office.

Just because I am chasing my dream, it don’t mean that I am doing it with my eyes closed or at someone else’s expense.

Lumping Millennials into one pre-defined template is another fallacy. The earliest Millenials are already 37. On the other end, there are Millenials who just touched 23. Older Millenials like me clearly remember childhood sans the Internet and prefer that the camera be used for purposes other than taking pictures of one’s own face. Within the supposedly same generation, experiences and memories changed drastically.

But I do think that I speak for all Millenials when I say that we, the core consumers and producers of memes and viral videos and cheap celebrity antics, are very cynically aware of how virtual life differs from the real — of the time sucked away from important tasks, of the desperate tactics employed for Likes and of the fakeness of projected perfection.

Dear Millenial rebukers, as it was for every generation including yours, our behaviour has only been shaped by their times. Just because we didn’t prioritize stability and settling down as much as you, it don’t mean that those things are irrelevant. It so happened that we were dazzled by alternatives and continue to pursue them. Sure, it may seem that 30 is the deadline to turn ‘serious’ but recall that once upon a time, that age was 20.

Believe me, we too worry and care. We worry about the epidemic of fake news, the vitriol of online hate and what the neighbours would think.

In fact, today I ran into a senior neighbour of mine, for the first time since I quit my regular job. When he asked “How’s the job?”, being entirely truthful about my new 'job' would take some explaining. I went with “You know… just the usual!” instead.