Sunday, 29 January 2017

Of Federer and Nadal; of Sport and Us

There were 13 players on the field. But one stood out. And he knew it. There was a swagger to his walk, poise in his posture and his entire demeanour was of a man who knew there were a million eyes on him; who not merely was aware of and acknowledged it, but also courted the attention, craved for it and feeded of it. As the ball soared off his bat, 50,000 rose off their chairs in unison; but even before the triumphal act was concluded, the smiles were wiped off their faces and there was tension in their eyes. The fielder settled under the ball; it was to be a regulation catch. But, was it to be? The floodlights shone down upon him, almost sinister in their intensity, but that did not matter; he has done this a thousand times before. What mattered though was the thousands of eyes boring into him, the unnatural silence, the searing hostility of strangers, the expectations of teammates and most of all the stature of the man of whose bat the ball has soared from and was now hurtling down towards him. The fielder dropped the catch. The mighty Eden Gardens, as only it can, erupted in a cacophony of noise, a naked expression of violence but also an exquisite display of camaraderie. Among thousands, the fielder stood alone. Kohli smirked and resumed his batting.     

And so this then is the nature of sport. Not merely a contest between bat and ball or even a battle between two great players. Of course, it is all of that, but then it is also so much more. It is the fan who makes the sport, who gives it meaning, nourishes it with context and adorns it with significance. A fan is not just a passive spectator, but an active participant, who is not just influenced by the action on the field but also is an influencer of it. And it is also why, the men’s final of the Australian Open today, between Roger Federer, arguably the greatest Tennis player of all time and Rafael Nadal, perhaps the strongest counter to this argument, is so very special. It is a critical chapter in the stories of Federer and Nadal but it is also a special chapter in our story; for each of us.

Federer’s story began in earnest on a cold blustery July evening in Wimbledon in 2001. Then, all of 19 years, Federer announced himself to the world in spectacular fashion, defeating Pete Sampras in the fourth round. It was an astonishing achievement. Sampras, by then, was widely acknowledged as an all-time great and he had 13 grand slam titles to his name, more than any other player till then. He was gunning for his 5th straight Wimbledon title, and his 8th Wimbledon title overall, again, unparalleled achievements in the history of the game. This one title could be his claim to immortality. Federer by contrast, till then, never had progressed beyond the first round. But, as so often happens in sport, it is the seemingly innocuous battles such as these that later assume epochal significance. This was one of them. But what was so striking though, was not just the result, but the beauty of the performance, and the promise that it held. It was apparent to all those who witnessed it, that it was no flash in the pan, but greater things were to come, for a long time after. The great Sampras himself, even as he was smarting under the pain of unexpected defeat, seemed to have recognized something of himself in Federer. He was effusive in his praise and had this to say of the young contender; “There are a lot of young guys coming up but Roger is a bit extra-special. He has a great all-round game, like me doesn't get too emotional and you have to give him a great deal of credit.” Despite this, few would have had the clairvoyance to predict the sheer scale of Federer’s future achievements.  In fact, Federer promptly crashed out in the next round, losing to the local hero, albeit, a perennial under-achiever, Tim Henman, and it took Federer a further 8 attempts to finally win a grand slam. The rest as they say is history, but in this case, happily, an incomplete one with more tantalizing chapters promised.

This is one of the greatest joys of sporting fandom. To recognize the spark in a young talent and to hope for great things. The investment gives a handsome return, when the player not just fulfils the immense promise that he has shown but goes on to far exceed it. As we live the fairy tale vicariously, the bonds of affection and adoration that we form with the player often prove to be just as strong if not even stronger, than the bondage of family that destiny has bestowed upon us or the bonds of choice that we forge with friends and lovers. They become a part of our story, a fraction of our lives and a fact of our very existence and identity. For some, it was Tiger Woods, for some others, Sachin Tendulkar and for many more, it was Roger Federer.

And yet greatness can never exist in isolation. For greatness is a relative term, feeding not off the mediocrity of others, but being nourished by the excellence of opponents, by the determination of challengers and by the bloody-mindedness of rivals. And thus enters Rafael Nadal. It was his 19th Birthday. He was playing in his first French open. He had steamrolled his opponents in a display of exhilarating tennis and today found himself in the Semi-Finals. But across the net was a certain Roger Federer. By now, Federer had become a seasoned pro and claims of greatness sat lightly on his shoulders. He had already won 7 grand slam titles, was victorious in his last three and only needed the French Open to complete the elusive set. This was to be the tournament when the claims of ‘Greatest Ever’ were to graduate from being mere whispers to an undisputed fact. Roger Federer wanted to win this and was going to win this. Nobody could stop him, least of all, a 19 year Spaniard playing his first French open. Nadal won. And Nadal won his next match. The King of Spain, Juan Carlos, reached down from the front of the president’s box and clasped Nadal in a fierce hug. It was almost as if he was anointing his subject as the ‘King of Clay’. This is another of the great joys of sport; this affront to fate, snub to destiny; the shock and awe of a monumental upset. In his next 9 attempts, Nadal would go on to win the French Open a further 8 times, thwarted once only by a cruel injury. King of Clay, he was.

Federer, hailing from the border town of Basel, a prominent cultural centre in Switzerland, is all class and grace. Nadal, in stark contrast, is from the holiday island of Mallorca, off the coast of Spain, and with his cut-off piratical trousers, sleeveless shirts and long black hair might as well have walked straight off the beach into the centre-court. While Federer eased past his opponents, Nadal destroyed them and while Federer serenaded his genius, Nadal displayed his determination. Federer was hard not to love, Nadal was difficult to like. While we rushed to embrace the genius of Federer, we grudged Nadal his greatness. Even as Nadal began to accumulate fans of his own, many preferred to ignore him and some chose even to hate and ridicule him. Federer was the timeless champion, Nadal was to be the eternal number two. Until that match.

Sport produces brilliance often; an outrageous catch, an extraordinary save or a thrilling dunk. But only rarely, does it elevate itself to divine heights. It happened on the evening of the 6th of July, 2008, on the centre court, in Wimbledon, London. Two men, who were at the peak of their prowess were playing to secure their legacy. And as the match progressed, it became apparent to all those fortunate enough to witness it, that here was something very very special in the making. One magnificent shot followed another, and extraordinary rallies became the normal. Even as Nadal made us aware of angles that we knew not existed, Federer unfurled his one handed backhands, coating the ball with his genius. And as the evening wore on, and as darkness began to set in, it almost seemed as if even the gods had risen from their slumber to witness divinity. These were not two players playing against each other, but two performers putting on a flawless synchronous performance and in the process taking the game into unchartered territories. The match was scheduled to start at two in the afternoon and finally ended at 9.15 in the night in near darkness. The match time of 4 hours and 48 minutes was interrupted by two rain breaks, almost as if, the gods themselves could not bear to witness such sustained excellence of the highest calibre. In the end it did not matter, for the match transcended time and space and will remain an eternal classic. That day was coated with gold dust and the memories will continue to burn brightly for a long time. Nadal won the match but there were no losers. And the players themselves knew as much; as the pride in their performance was overwhelmed by the respect towards the opponent’s grit and skill.

Nine years have passed since that match, but there have been only two more grand slam finals since between the two; until today. In the meanwhile, age seemed to have caught up with Federer. And as his performance has slipped, measured by his lofty standards, calls for his retirement have grown louder over time. For us fans, who had been pampered with genius so far could not accept Federer’s mortality. It little mattered to us that Federer still managed to reach the semis and finals consistently. For us, anything less than a victory was a failure. But the man himself battled on, never losing his grace, and not once, abandoning his innate dignity. For he played on because he loved the game. And he played on because he believed. Believed that he could lift a grand slam trophy yet again. For it is that belief that makes them the champions they are. And so he played on.

Meanwhile, as Federer looked a spent force, Nadal looked all set to overhaul Federer’s achievements. But curiously enough, the fall of Federer seemed to have affected Nadal more than any of us. After 2010, Nadal won only one other grand slam outside of the French Open. But in a way, it is perhaps not that curious, not that strange. For these two defined each other. The rivalry got the best out of them and we lapped it up greedily. And so without Federer to push him, Nadal wasn’t the same anymore. He too fought on though, for after all, determination built over a lifetime can be a hard habit to give up.

6 years after their last meet in a grand slam final, we have gotten used to it. We still miss it of course but we have made peace with it. In the meanwhile, new heroes have emerged, and new rivalries have taken shape. And yet, deep down, we knew it was not the same; it was never going to be the same. In this Australian open, even as Federer and Nadal negotiated their way through the early rounds, we dared not hope. We were cynical; we had been let down far too often over the past few years. And so even as Djokovic exited early, we refused to acknowledge the magical possibility. There were others dangers lurking, like Wawrinka and Murray, and we will not give them the chance to break our hearts again. And so today, as they faced off against each other in the final, we were almost caught by surprise.

But the sheer improbability of this has made it all the more special. For a few hours, we have been able to forget our troubles and abandon our worries. We have been transported back in time. And what a treat this has been. Anything less than a five setter would have been an anti-climax. And this match has been anything but that. The familiarity has ironically only increased the suspense and the intimacy has only sharpened the thrill. The drop shots of Federer have been just as delectable as ever and the returns of Nadal just as brutal. The 5th set was truly worth the stature of the players involved and the enormity of the occasion. And you could see it on their faces, how much it meant to each of them. Today, we have been treated to the best of Federer, we have been treated to the best of Nadal, and to the best of Tennis and Sport itself.

Federer might have won this match but that doesn’t mean a thing really. They have been greats for long now and will remain greats for long to come. Their rivalry has defined them, elevated tennis and enhanced our lives. This match though, is not just about Federer or Nadal; it is also about each of us. We have been part of their journey and stakeholders in their rivalry. And this was our reward. If today proves to be the exclamation mark at the end of a glorious chapter in Tennis, we have played our part in it.       

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Jayalalitha is dead. Sexism in Indian politics is alive.

Yesterday, an astute politician and a popular leader, Jayalalitha passed away. There has been a spontaneous outpouring of genuine grief and deep dismay among most Tamilians. 

By all accounts, Jayalalitha had led an extraordinary life. From becoming a film heroine at the age of 16 to being a chief minister at the time of her death, much of Jayalalitha’s journey had been larger than life. She had had to display exemplary courage and tremendous willpower to defeat formidable foes, surmount numerous obstacles and beat impossible odds. Each time she was deemed vanquished, she rose like a phoenix from the ashes, stronger than ever before. And yet many of us are puzzled by her popularity, uncomfortable with the devotion shown to her and scornful of what we consider as the mindless sycophancy that reigns around her.

The underlying source of all this thinly disguised distaste is our deep-rooted and firmly entrenched belief in the inferiority of the woman. In plainer words: sexism and patriarchy. And so we circulate memes making fun of Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee. We cackle at the sartorial choices (Pink salwars) of Mayawati and roll our eyes at the ‘theatrics’ of Mamata Banerjee. We project our women leaders as stupid, illiterate, irrational, despotic drama queens scheming their way to power. With a smirk and a shrug, we proclaim “Little wonder that no one wants to marry them. Who would be able to tolerate their antics?” But it is actually no wonder that they end up looking as remote and bitter women.

And when I repeatedly use the word ‘we’, I refer to the smug, educated class of Indians to which I belong. The ‘illiterate masses’ of India seem to be far wiser. It is they who voted Indira Gandhi to power. It is they who gave Sonia Gandhi a resounding mandate in 2004. It is they who ensured that three of our chief ministers were women. We of course chose to sneer and forward memes on whatsapp.

Politics is the strongest bastion of the male species. It is through politics that the woman is controlled and subjugated. And so the key to power is fiercely guarded and any incursion by a woman is vehemently opposed. It took Indira Gandhi with Nehru for a father and Gandhi as a surname to finally storm the bastion. Even then, she was made the prime minister because of the arrogant sexist assumption that she would remain a ‘goongi gudiya’ (puppet) in the hands of older men. When she went on to assert her independence and led India to victory over Pakistan, she was lauded as the ‘only man in her cabinet’. Such is the role that patriarchal symbolism plays in Indian politics.   

Not everyone has the advantage of a surname and the luxury of a lineage. And thus, the Mayawatis, the Jayalalithas and the Mamata Banerjees are ridiculed and insulted. In her early political career, Jayalalitha was subjected to numerous lewd insults and even hair pulling. In the assembly, the so-called temple of democracy, she was almost disrobed. And so she had to re-brand herself as Amma. She had to de-womanize and de-sexualize herself by wrapping herself in layers of clothing and denying herself any jewellery. This was the only way she could survive, the only way she could protect her dignity and the only she could access power. And for this we call her remote, bitter and a despot. Similarly, both Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati had to undergo this process of desexualisation by branding themselves as ‘Didi’ and ‘Behenji’ respectively. And Mayawati of course had to bear the additional onerous burden of being a dalit.

This post is not to suggest that women leaders are immune to wrong doing or that they are more efficient or less corrupt than male politicians. Women leaders are of course vulnerable to all the trappings of power that their male counterparts succumb to. It is only a plea, asking you to judge them as you would any other politician and not hold them to higher standards. It is only to highlight the struggles that they have faced and the heroic battles that they have waged; to highlight the enormity of their achievements and the magnitude of their accomplishments. They don’t ask for your sympathy, but at least spare them your contempt.

This post is also not about criticizing or shaming the educated class. It is a request to identify and acknowledge the latent sexism still entrenched in our psyche. I do not claim that sexism prevails only among the educated class or that it is only prevalent in India. Far from it. It is merely a passionate plea, asking you to use the advantage of education to eliminate sexism and not promote it.

Each of us thinks that it is the others and not we who are sexist. But it is not just their malice and violence that breeds sexism and sustains patriarchy, it is also our scorn and indifference. Those memes are not funny and neither are they not harmful.  

p.s: When the statues of Jayalalitha are erected across Tamilnadu, as they inevitably will, for once, I will cherish and celebrate idolatry; because for years to come, young girls will have someone to inspire them, someone who was not just a mother and a sister, pious and chaste, but an independent woman who took on the might of patriarchy and the power of sexism. 

Sunday, 6 November 2016

The Ascent to Sandakphu

IndiaHikes - Sandakphu
Man originated somewhere deep in the jungles of Ethiopia. And then, he walked, and walked, and walked; to become, arguably, the most dominant species in the history of the planet. Walking then, is the most natural thing in the world, and as old as the hills themselves. And yet, today, walking is an archaism. We live in the era of Uber and Amazon, of the remote and the elevator; all designed to not just make walking unnecessary but also unfashionable.

Trekking then, inhabits this curious corner of contradiction, natural and unnatural at the very same time. For the first time trekker, this contradiction is all the more magnified; accustomed as he is, to the warm comforts of luxury travel, the lure and excitement of trekking is nonetheless elementary, almost primal even.

As the first timer treks, flat terrain is his friend, all so familiar and so very comforting; if at all, monotony is the only damper. The descent is a trickier beast, with dangers potentially lurking behind every corner and cunning pitfalls never too far away. Complacency here, can be a rather expensive mistake. And yet, it is fair to say that, caution, rather than exertion, is the chief concern.
The soul of trekking though resides in the ascent. The urge to scale peaks and conquer challenges strikes at the most central chord of human spirit.

The 27 of us, a rather motley group of trekkers, stood there, collectively contemplating the final ascent to Sandakphu. Sandakphu, to us, was the promised land, having lured us from different parts of the country and having given us a common goal and purpose. For that one week, we were to be a family, sharing the same concerns, combating the same challenges, and most importantly, having a common aspiration.

After one final sip of water, I stood up, slung the rucksack over the shoulders, tightened the straps, and took a hard good luck at our destination, far and high up in the mountains. And so I began the ascent, one step at a time. Very soon, I began to pull away. 12,000 feet above the sea level is not an easy place to be trekking in. The air is thinner, the temperature colder and each and every exertion requires extra effort.

As I zigzagged across the torturous mountain trail, one step up at a time, everything else began to fade away. It was no more about the enchanting scenery, no more about the elusive red panda and no more even about the 26 others. It was all about me, myself and the mountains. The mountains asked for greater discipline, deeper resolve and stronger will. I responded. Taking deep breaths and short steps, I placed one foot after the other, with the green bamboo staff, having become an extension of myself, a third limb in fact. The monotony, rather than being belittling, became exhilarating. The distance of the destination and the steepness of the ascent ceased to matter. It was all about that one moment, that one next step and that one next breath. Pain itself became the greatest motivation and exhaustion the greatest strength. And so I surrendered myself to the mountain and became one with it. The destination now did not seem that far away.

But alas, the mountains are cruel friends, and do not grant access all that easily. Even as the steps accumulated, the pain became sharper and the exhaustion greater. I stumbled and the rhythm was broken. I was no more one with the mountain. I looked up now and the destination seemed forbiddingly far and the path impossibly steep. The resolve began to break and the mountains seemed to have won. But yet, I had one last trick up my sleeve; companionship. When all seems lost, humans fall back upon their one greatest strength, the other human beings. Solidarity is the greatest and the defining character of humanity.

And so I drew upon this companionship. It was three of us now, ahead of all the others. All three of us were battling the same challenges, buckling under the weight of the backpack and the greater weight of the mountain. Even as our individual resolve began to fail, our collective resolve came to the rescue. We spoke hardly a word among ourselves, but for that short while, we were one, united by pain and ambition alike. We walked together and rested together. As one began to tire, the other took up the lead, silently motivating the other two. I was once again back into the rhythm and zone, but this time, there were three tiny set of steps being taken, three set of breaths and three wills fighting together.

And so finally, the challenge (never the mountain), was conquered. What couldn’t be achieved alone, was achieved together. We had earned the majestic view of the Kanchenjunga and the Everest that beheld us. And also, we had earned the respect of ourselves, of each other and perhaps hopefully the respect of the mountains themselves. The friendship forged may or may not last, even the memory might begin to fade with the cruel, inexorable passage of time, but the experience shared and earned will remain on, even if deep within. 

Lastly, never did Maggi taste better, with our feet up, three spoons in a bowl, and the mountains looking, benignly now, down upon us. We could afford to smile and smile we did.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhay: In search of a name through rural Bengal.

A name is your very identity. And yet, you do not have the power to choose it and most often do not have the power either to change it. Does a name really matter? Are our destinies shaped in any measure by the name we are given? Do we imbibe anything of those who we are named after? If yes, do we also imbibe something of those, who we were named after, were named after in the first place? I do not know and let’s admit it, neither do you. What I do know however is that, for long now, I have been doused by curiosity to know more about this man, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhay. In my IIM Calcutta interview, my name struck a chord with the Bengali professor and we had a pleasant conversation on culture. On my first day in campus, as I was being handed the keys to the hostel room, the sombre security man, upon noticing my name, looked up, broke into an unexpected smile, and insisted that I visited Sarat Chandra Kuthi, across the Hugli. And so it was almost inevitable that I would one day visit this place.

I wondered then, who I should make this little trip with; before realizing that some things are meant to be done alone, and this was one of them. And so I set off by a rickety old bus to Howrah station. No matter how many times you have been there, as you step down onto the subway, the first sight of the multitude of humanity sweeping past, overwhelms you for an instant. It was no different this time. I maneuvered past this mighty horde and made my way to the ticket counter. After much misunderstanding and mutual frustration, I finally wrote down ‘Deulti’ to make the man at the ticket counter understand my destination. He sniggered and taught me how the name was pronounced. So much for my Bengali roots. The ticket was priced a paltry Rs 15 for a distance of 50 km. The Indian Railways is a truly amazing institution.

And so I boarded the Howrah-Midnapore local. Kolkata is a unique city, in that, the filth and squalor of its slums gives way to pristine greenery within almost 15 minutes of the train leaving Howrah. A train journey in India, especially in the Non-Ac compartments is seldom boring and this proved no different. I got down at Deulti station. It was 12 noon and the sun was blazing hot, nevertheless, I fired up my GPS and set off on my 5 km trek to Deulti.

This was Bengal as I had not seen before. Far away from the bustling streets of Kolkata, and even the highways of interior Bengal, this was a mere walking track passing through paddy fields and brick kilns. Like so much of rural India, this too was sadly impoverished land. While the paddy fields themselves were rich with produce, the houses were shabby and the kids scrawny. Still, it was a pleasant walk as it was interspersed with water bodies and coconut trees. Goats and ducks, dogs and cows staked just as much claim on the pathways as human beings. As I sweated it out under the harsh sun, the sight of an ice-cream vendor provoked great relief. It was only after I had finished greedily gobbling up the mango flavoured Rs 2 Ice-Cream, did I think about the hygienic implications. But well, I figured that all those kids were doing just fine, and anyways the immunity system does need a bit of working over every once in a while. Further, it did evoke some great memories of childhood. Ice-Cream is truly the greatest invention of mankind! Another interesting observation was that the Bengali men really seemed proud of their bods; but then again, shirtless is probably the most sensible option in the sweltering heat. There were also a few shrines dotting the road. One was particularly interesting, a suitably fierce looking Kali Mata standing on Lord Shiva. It did seem scandalous and I wonder what the story really is. The women of Bengal always amaze and impress me greatly. This might seem normal and unremarkable to the Bengalis but a woman sitting in the front seat of a shared auto is not a common sight in other parts of India. Even here, amidst the villages, the women raced past in their Hero cycles, sometimes with the men-folk riding pillion, with great abandon and confidence.

After an enjoyable one hour walk, I reached my destination around 1 pm. Only to find it locked. Disappointed and somewhat panicky, I’ve asked around and was relieved to be told that it would open at about 4 pm. Still, I had over three hours to kill and I wondered what I would do. It was then that I spotted the river in the distance. There were paddy fields though to manoeuvre before I could make my way to the river bank. Well they were not going to stop me and after getting my jeans suitably muddy and my sandals adequately damaged, I found myself on the river bank. It was a pretty sight with the water sparkling and the river bank having coconut trees among the paddy fields. After my little adventure, I decided it was time for rest and so I spread a newspaper and settled down to read the ‘English Passengers’. It was a most enjoyable few hours, filled as it was with rare solitude, only ants, egrets and cows proving a distraction every once in a while. In the distance, far into the shallow river, a couple were spending what seemed some quality time, happy to be far away and to be lost in their own world. The book itself was most interesting, with the wild Tasmanian landscape and the boisterous London streets proving to be a delicious contrast to my peaceful and gentle surroundings.

Finally, I got up and made my way to the ‘Sarat Chandra Kuthi’. Mercifully, this time, it was unlocked and I was welcomed by a scowling caretaker, who looked not a day less than 70 years. Undeterred, I went about exploring the house. It was by no means very large but had a very impressive fa├žade and I later learnt that it was built in the Burmese style. The caretaker, initially so taciturn, proved to be surprisingly loquacious, when I told him I came to the place all the way from Hyderabad because I was named after the great man. He gave me a guided tour of the place. Though the man knew no Hindi and spoke only Bengali, I could often make out the gist of what he was saying. The rooms were sparsely furnished but they were preserved well and the place seemed to exude a curious vitality. It was not hard to imagine the place once throbbing with vitality, the now cobwebbed Charka being spun religiously or the writing desk being used by Sarat Chandra to pen down one of his numerous classics. In fact, the caretaker informed that freedom fighters used to meet here often as Sarat Chandra was then the president of the Howrah branch of the Indian National Congress. Also, it seemed that, from the window of his writing room, the beautiful Rupnarayan River could be seen flowing by; little wonder then that his writing was so inspired. Now, however, the river has changed its course, and only the paddy fields are visible from the window, no less beautiful nonetheless. After thoroughly seeping in the history of the place, it was finally time to leave. Though, not before, posing with the statue of Sarat Chandra. I overcame my embarrassment and requested a local to take the picture. Though he acquiesced readily, he was rather perplexed when I fished out my college nameplate from the bag and posed with it. It read ‘Sarath’.

By now, it was 5 pm and I was tired and in a hurry to get back to college. It being evening, there were a lot more people around and some stared curiously. I marched on steadily though and reached Deulti station in good time. I was looking forward to a relaxing journey back but alas it was not to be. Unlike in the morning, the train was packed to the rafters and it was a miserable two hours journey. It was a jolt back to reality and normalcy and I had to get down at every station to let other passengers disembark and embark, though it seemed that there were always more people getting on rather than getting off.  

It was back to the yellow taxis of Calcutta and the beautiful lakes of Joka. The entire day had cost me a total of 146 Rupees but I was left richer with some memories and a deeper connect with my name.

Thank You Sarat Chandra Chattopadhay.  

The Yellow Taxi and the Howrah Bridge: Two icons of Calcutta
A great multitude of humanity sweeping past

Brick Kiln
Which way to choose? Both look promising!
A water bodies exuding charm and mystery
They own the road too.
The fierce Kali Mata standing on Lord Shiva


The Spider seemed keen to explore my bag
The shimmering Rupnarayan River

Getting a vantage position: As only a monkey can!

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Sporting Immortality: Tendulkar's 6 off Akthar, Centurion, 2003 World Cup

Sport is meant to be a celebration of life, an embodiment of the ideal and the representation of the best in man. Stripped of fancy words and trite pretensions, Sport is but a contest between individuals; a contest to be faster, a contest to be higher, and a contest to be stronger; simply, a contest to be better.

In cricket, the contest is between bat and ball; between the batsman and the bowler! A battle for supremacy.
35 yards. 
In Mumbai, you can fit about 40 families into a space of 35*35 yards. Shoaib Akthar’s run up is 35 yards long. The batsman is a further 22 yards away. At that distance, the previous delivery is merely a memory and the coming delivery an expectation. 
Shoaib Akthar starts his run up. Head down. Hair trailing. Then, he picks up pace. The trot becomes a run. He starts to look up, the hair is flying now. The image begins to blur. The crowd is on its feet. It’s a crescendo of noise. He’s not that far away now. The batsman awaits. He is alive, more alive than he will ever be. The memory and the expectation begins to fuse. It is curdling into reality now. The bat is no more a piece of wood; it is less of a weapon and more of a shield; ridiculously inadequate it might be, but a shield nonetheless. The helmet is not an ornament; it stands between a leather ball of 160 grams being hurled at 160 km/h and the human skull. The pads, the gloves, the arm guards, the abdomen guard, the thigh guards, the chest guard and the elbow guards; they all are ready for battle. Shoaib Akthar approaches the crease. At full speed. Hair flying. It is a side-on action. The left arm reaches out to the sky. The right hand holds the ball, poised to deliver. The left foot lands thunderously on the crease, the right foot an impossible distance away. The body is being stretched to its absolute limit. The blood is pounding and adrenaline pumping; the heart, nerve and sinew all function as one. The human body is not designed to do this. Shoaib Akthar bowls as fast as no human ever had and probably ever can. Shoaib Akthar then delivers the ball. There is a whirlwind of action, the hands, the feet and above all the ball move at an impossible speed.

There is the briefest of intervals. A moment in time; no more. The bowler has played his part. The ball has to travel 22 yards before the batsman can essay his response. A ball travelling at 160 kilometres an hour. It takes less than half a second; less than a heart-beat and a little more than an eye-blink.

Tendulkar is no God. Rather; he is a devotee. A devotee of Cricket. And like all devotees, he has his rituals. After each delivery, a small walk towards the square leg umpire. A shake of the head; almost as if to shake off the memory of the previous ball and to concentrate on the next one. He walks back to the crease. Gets into his stance. Adjusts his crotch; rather awkwardly. Looks up. Taps the bat. Stands still. Taps the bat once again. Now, it is a sight to behold; a sight to thrill the hearts of millions. If there is poetry in motion, this is art in stillness. Perfect balance, true composure and an absolutely still head. As the ball is released, there is now the slightest of forward presses, a subtle, almost indiscernible, shifting of the weight. The bat is poised to do battle, to pander to the whims of the genius wielding it.

India and Pakistan are twins separated at birth. This bitter but irrevocable relationship serves to amplify the animosity and to escalate the enmity; to magnify the madness and to reinforce the rivalry. It was always a fractious relationship. Within two months of the two nations gaining independence in August of 1947, the two infantile nations were at each other throats, fighting over that most cursed of heavens, Kashmir. Kashmir was once again the reason for the 1965 war. This was the largest tank battle since World War II. And then in 1971, the stupidest of ideas came to its logical and inevitable conclusion. East Pakistan and West Pakistan were separated by thousands of kilometres of enemy land. The idea was monumental in its sheer stupidity. Finally, it happened. India played its role and Pakistan was broken into two. The miracle was that it ever managed to last so long. Bangladesh was born. Pakistan seethed with rage and bristled with humiliation, vowing eternal revenge.
It was 1999. 28 years had passed since the last Indo-Pakistan war. It was the longest spell of peace that this part of the world had seen since 1947. But all was not well, certainly not. In these 28 years, these two proud nations had beefed up their military might manifold. Most alarmingly, both these nations had acquired nuclear weapons. No two enemy countries sharing a land border ever had nuclear weapons. Now, both India and Pakistan, had nuclear weapons. It was catastrophe in the making.

And then Kargil happened. As the battle raged on in the rarefied altitudes of the magnificent Himalayas, the world held its breath. Humanity was at stake. World War III was no longer in the realms of apocalyptic predictions; it was a distinct possibility. At long last, sanity prevailed. Pakistan withdrew. India triumphed. And the war ended.

This was Pakistan’s 4th defeat in as many wars. The humiliation was unbearable. But it was on the cricket field that Pakistan found redemption. They were the superior team. With four needed off the last ball, Javed Miandad counted the fielders on the field and then proceeded to render them irrelevant, as he swung a glorious six off Chetan Sharma to leave India weeping and disconsolate. The scars did not heal for a long time. They were the more glamorous team. They produced fast bowlers of the highest pedigree. Exponents of extreme pace and reverse swing, they could swing the ball corners at impossible pace. Shoaib Akthar was only the latest product in a lineage that included Sarfaraz Khan, Imran Khan, Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram; but he was the fastest of them all. It was only in the late 90’s with the mastery of Tendulkar at its disposal, that India started to fight back but it was still advantage Pakistan.

And so the India Pakistan match of the 2003 World Cup inched closer. After the Kargil war, India and Pakistan had played all of seven ODI’s over a period of four years. Pakistan won five of those. Sachin Tendulkar had only one score of above 50 in these 7 matches and never once won the Man of the Match. But this was bigger than all of them. This was the World Cup. India had never lost to Pakistan in a World Cup thus far. The memories of the Kargil was still fresh and the memories of the Miandad Six still lingered.

India’s world cup campaign started disastrously. The signs were ominous. Just before the World Cup, India suffered a humiliating 5-2 loss over New Zealand. In the 1st match of the World Cup against lowly Netherlands, India batting 1st couldn’t complete its quota of 50 overs folding for 204 before scrapping through for a victory. In the next match against Australia, the crisis assumed proportions of a catastrophe. India was bowled out for a measly 125 before Australia romped home in an imperious manner, reaching the target in a little over 20 overs and with 9 wickets to spare. The morale was at an all-time low. The campaign had derailed even before it had started. The Indian fan, fickle at the best of times, let loose his ire. Houses of players were attacked and effigies burnt. Tendulkar, the statesman in the team appealed for calm and sanity. It seemed to work. He then proceeded to inspire his team. In the 1st five matches, he top-scored in four of them and scored a half century in the other. While victories against the African nations of Zimbabwe and Namibia were only expected, the rousing victory against England gave India a new found confidence. There was a spring in their step and swagger to their walk now. Ganguly had just introduced the team huddle and the team spirit and camaraderie was palpable.

But the next match was against Pakistan. On the auspicious day of Maha Shivaratri. This was the final before the final. All that came before would count for little. Victory and defeat would make heroes and villains respectively. Defeat will not be entertained, will not be tolerated and will not be forgiven. The build up to the match had been immense. In both the countries. But no one had to face more pressure than Tendulkar. He was India’s talisman and destiny’s favourite child. It was to him that India looked up to. To deliver victory and provide salvation, to restore pride and to keep the flag flying high. The weight of a billion on his diminutive shoulders. No one let him forget the match. Least of all, Shoaib Akthar. He had already hurled an open challenge to Tendulkar and had provoked the genius. From months before the match, from acquaintances to room boys, everyone wished him luck but they also demanded victory. The pressure would have broken smaller men. But this was Sachin Tendulkar.

This was Centurion in South Africa. The Cricket World Cup, 2003. The stadium was packed to the rafters. The noise was deafening, and the atmosphere electrifying. Flags waving, fans screaming and chaos all around. The stakes are high, almost impossibly high.

Pakistan won the toss and chose to bat. The task had just got tougher. Chasing in a high pressure World Cup match is never easy. Pakistan scored an imposing 273 runs led by a masterful century from Saeed Anwar. There had only ever been two higher successful chases in World Cup history thus far. India had never done this before. If there was pressure before, it had reached boiling point now. Tendulkar and Sehwag walked out to a cacophony of noise. Sehwag usually takes 1st strike. This time, Tendulkar insists that he will face the first ball. Too much is at stake and he wants to lead from the front. 13 runs had come off the 1st nine balls.

And then Shoaib Akthar bowled and Tendulkar exploded.

The ball is fast, very, very fast; as expected. But it is also short; and wide. Tendulkar bursts into action. The right foot moves back and across. The front foot moves forward ever so slightly and plants itself pointing to covers. The bat begins to describe its graceful but ultimately brutal arc. The hands extend outward to meet the ball. And as they do so, Tendulkar begins to extend like a coiled spring. As the ball meets the bat, inevitably the dead centre of it, the hands are stretched to their maximum limit and the back foot is in the air; the entire weight of Tendulkar rests solely on his front toes. The head is now facing point, almost telling the ball where to go. And as the bat completes its swing and the ball begins its momentous journey, Tendulkar rises clean off his feet and lands ever so gently back. The ball soars magnificently into the air. Shoaib Akthar, Sachin Tendulkar, the Wicket Keeper and the fielders, the thousands of spectators at the ground and the millions watching on television track the trajectory of the ball, holding their collective breath. The third man begins a half-hearted, futile chase in order to catch it; only to realize and surrender to the obvious. The ball deposits itself into the stands, a dozen rows beyond. The crowd erupts, commentators scream and the umpire raises both his hands. A statement had been made.

The upper cut for six effectively sealed the fate of the match. The rest is history.

Tendulkar’s upper cut six off Shoaib Akthar was India’s Miandad moment. After Miandad’s fateful six, India had won only 21 off the next 63 matches till the match in Centurion. After Tendulkar’s six in Centurion, India managed to win 22 of the next 42 matches against Pakistan. More importantly, the psychological advantage had shifted decisively to India. Pakistan never seemed to be able to win an important match against India after that.  

It was but one moment; beautiful and profound, but also ethereal and ephemeral; glorious but all too transient. However, it was no mere contest between bat and ball, nor between batsman and bowler. It had the full weight of history behind it.

I am not suggesting for a moment that all these thoughts were going through Tendulkar’s mind as he played that immortal shot. That would be a fantastical proposition. In fact, for moments of sporting brilliance, the mind often has to be blank, focused solely on the task at hand. Bat against Ball; Batsman against Bowler. It appeared that as Tendulkar played that shot, he was guided more by adrenaline and intuition rather than by any strategy or wilful intent.

And yet, without exception, all great sporting moments in history are defined by the context they are contained in. Politics not only provides that context but also nurtures it so that they are forever steeped in immortality. Jesse Owens, in the 1936 Berlin Olympics of Hitler’s Germany, not only broke world records but shattered the hateful narrative of Hitler’s Aryan supremacy. Similarly, USA’s loss to USSR, in the Men’s basketball final in the Munich Olympics, its 1st loss since the sport began Olympic play in 1936, assumed Olympian proportions due to the cold war that was being played out between USA and USSR. ‘The Blood in the Water’ match between Hungary and USSR assumed significance as it was played against the background of the 1956 Hungarian revolution.

And so that Tendulkar six off Shoaib Akthar, that sent a billion into a joyful frenzy, in itself, a mere contest between bat and ball; attained sporting immortality.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Reservation in the age of Meritocracy

Note: This was written for a 3 minutes speech which was to be given as a part of my Management Communication class here in IIM-Clacutta. Well, that didn't go too well but I thought it might deserve a place here, so there you go.

Meritocracy is the foundation upon which modern human civilization is built. Countries and societies which have nurtured and promoted meritocracy have prospered, and the United States of America is a prime example of this. Meritocracy is a philosophy which holds that power should be vested in individuals exclusively according to merit. Reap what you sow! And who can argue against that?

And yet we as a nation not only argue against meritocracy but spend considerable effort in undermining, sabotaging and suppressing it in every way possible. We as a nation have replaced meritocracy with mediocrity. 68 years after Nehru celebrated India’s tryst with destiny at the Lal Qila, we continue to pander to the masses, to play to the galleries and to woo the vote bank.
Half of you, who are sitting here, ask yourself if you deserve to be here. Half of you, sitting here, ask yourself if you have not robbed a more worthy student of a place in this hallowed institute. Ask yourself, if deep down in your hearts you do not know that this is not right.

Reservation is a curse inflicted upon this country. After all meritocracy is king. Is it not?
What is meritocracy? How do you define it? Who defines it? I got 99.78 percentile and I did not make it to IIM-A but he got only 97.89 and he made it to IIM-A. How unfair? How very unfair? Of course it is not unfair that you were born to the privileged, while he was discriminated against all his life. Of course, it is not unfair that you got the best education possible, while he studied in a dismal government school. Of course, it is not unfair that you even dream in English while for him English is a nightmare.

I know how I am here. I am not here because I am the most intelligent. Far from it. I am not here because I have the most passion; even farther from it, and if you think I am here because I am the most hard working, you couldn’t be more wrong even if you tried. I am here because I was lucky. Lucky to be born to the right parents, lucky to be born in the right place and most importantly lucky to be born in the right caste.

Privilege makes one go blind. It makes a hypocrite of all of us. How easy it is to watch ‘How I met your mother’ and become Americanized, the great United States of America, and forget and ignore the village 100 km away from you. How very easy. Do you realize the extent to which a tribal faces discrimination? 65% of tribal girls drop out of school before turning 14. A backward class girl has to walk miles to fetch water because all the wells are in the upper caste localities and there goes her chance at education. A Muslim is denied housing in a posh locality and all of you know that the best schools are in those localities. Did you know that 95% of the students in Delhi Public School are from the upper castes?

Why do you think there is under representation of minorities in every walk of life? You all understand that the law of Normal Distribution is real and should hold. Discrimination is real. And before you say that reservation should be based on economic parameters and not caste, understand that its primary aim is to eradicate social discrimination. Tackling economic disparity is only incidental. Caste based discrimination is a disease. Caste based reservation is the medicine. And as long as the disease persists, so should the medicine.

So next time you crib saying about lack of meritocracy saying that you got XYZ marks and he got only ABC but still he made it to PQR institute, remember that meritocracy does not exist. Meritocracy is like the Himalayan Yeti, it is like the Lochness Monster of Scotland. Meritocracy is an illusion; it is a myth, a lie, sheer utopia, mere wishful thinking. It is only a chimera.

Sure, life ain’t fair. In fact, life is a bitch! Learn to deal with it!   

Friday, 11 December 2015

Yuvraj Singh - The Merchant of Dreams

Published on Sportscafe

I had a dream. I was playing Cricket and since it was a dream, I was invariably batting. The bowler runs in and I whack him for a 100 metres 6 over mid-wicket. The ball is lost and they bring out a new one. That felt good. The bowler runs in again, and this time, the flick of the wrist sends it soaring over square leg. 2 in 2! Ha! Bring it on, I Say! I target the off-side now; cream it over cover. 3 in 3!
I am not just feeling good anymore; I am feeling great. The bowler though is not feeling all that well. He is trembling in fear. He switches sides; fat, lot of good that will do him! It is a filthy full toss outside off, and I just help it over back ward point. 4 in 4! I am invincible, I can do anything now. I am almost bored by now. Decide to get back to leg side again. Flick it over backward square leg this time. 6! 5 in 5! I am Super Man! No one can stop me. This is inevitable now. Pure academic interest. Only one thing can happen. I launch it into the orbit! 6 off 6! 6 off 6! I am on the top of the world.
Except it wasn’t a dream; it was all too real. Except, it wasn’t any team; it was the Indian Cricket National Team. Except, it wasn’t any other match, it was the 1st ever 20-20 World Cup Final. Except, it wasn’t just any other bowler, it was Stuart Broad, who can bowl at 150 km/h. And the batsman, ladies and gentlemen, was Yuvraj Singh. Yuvraj Singh - The Merchant of Dreams.

Cricket has taught me many a geographic lesson. This was one of them. Yuvraj Singh first burst on to the scenes in Nairobi, Kenya. 18 Year old Yuvraj Singh, playing his debut tournament, carves a magnificent 84 runs, at more than run-a-ball, against the rampaging Aussies, containing the likes of McGrath, Lee and Gillespie. Not many that have seen that innings have forgotten it. As a Sports Fan, there is something particularly satisfying in spotting a special talent. And when you turn out to be right, and the player goes on to achieve bigger things, that satisfaction is all the more special.

Yuvraj Singh went on to achieve bigger things. He was instrumental in 2 World Cup triumphs for India. He was one of India’s greatest match winner. Along with Mohammed Kaif, he played a starring role in India’s greatest ODI chase, winning us the Natwest Trophy in London. He has secured his place as one of India’s greatest ever ODI player.

And yet, for all his achievements, many are left wondering, if Yuvraj Singh did indeed fulfil his enormous potential. Talent is a fickle friend. Yuvraj Singh was blessed with talent; he was cursed with an over-abundance of it. It wasn’t enough that he was a great ODI player; why ever didn’t he make a mark in tests? It wasn’t enough that he was our biggest match winner; why ever didn’t he become a successful captain? It wasn’t enough that he was a great player; why ever didn’t he become a legend? Yuvraj Singh’s talent was so palpable, so obvious, so very abundant, that great things were predicted for him. At the age of 19, he was tipped to be a future Indian Captain by the pundits. He was to be India’s answer to Gary Sobers. He was to be the left handed successor to Tendulkar. If the expectations are so astronomically high, unless your name happens to be Sachin Tendulkar, you invariably fall short. Yuvraj Singh was no exception.

Yograj Singh played 1 solitary test match for India and all of 6 ODI’s. He scored a total of 6 runs in Tests and 1 in ODI’s; picked up 1 wicket in Tests and 4 in ODI’s. He never played for India again. And as it so often happens; what he couldn’t achieve, he wanted his son to achieve. He would live his dreams through the exploits of his son. Little wonder then that Yuvraj Singh turned out to be a merchant of dreams. Little wonder then, that Yuvraj Singh suffered from the burden of expectation all his life.

In a team of super stars, Yuvraj Singh was the most human of all. His flaws were evident, his struggles obvious, and his vulnerability was laid out for all to see. In many ways, Yuvraj Singh was the antithesis of MS Dhoni. MS Dhoni made his debut 4 years after Yuvraj Singh. Many would argue that he had of Yuvraj Singh’s natural talent. Yet he would go on to become India’s most successful ODI and Test Captain and arguably the biggest name in World Cricket of his times. While MS Dhoni hid his emotions to the world behind an exterior of cool, Yuvraj wore his on his sleeve. 
And so it is easy to take his achievements for granted and focus on his shortcomings and limitations. Make no mistake, Yuvraj Singh’s career is a glorious one. His contribution to Cricket goes beyond numbers and trophies. Yuvraj Singh when in full flow was a sight to behold. As you watch his bat describe a graceful 360o arc and effortlessly send the ball soaring into the orbit, it is hard not to experience pure joy. As he faced off Stuart Broad in that immortal over, the bat seemed to a mere instrument for his imagination, the bowler almost his ally, complicit in the making of something beautiful. For all his talent, Yuvraj Singh never failed to give anything less than 100%. He wore his emotions on his sleeve and took visible pride in playing for the country. A world with Yuvraj Singh was better than a world without Yuvraj Singh.

The 2011 World Cup was Yuvraj Singh’s destiny. He didn’t know it then, but Yuvraj was battling cancer through the tournament. Poor form had dogged him for a while then before the tournament had started. For maybe once in his life, the expectations on him were not all that great. But Yuvraj Singh finally decided to embrace his destiny. He scored runs, picked up wickets and took great catches. As he swept the floor with his bat, in pure naked display of raw emotion, it was hard not to get goose-bumps. He gifted his hero a World Cup and in doing so gifted the nation a memory.

He hasn’t been the same since that World Cup. The magic seems to have deserted him. He continues to struggle to find a place in the team. But Yuvraj Singh, even, if he is not pick up his bat again, will remain a hero, a winner. If Yuvraj Singh asks, as Lara had famously done after his retirement, ‘Have I entertained you?’, the answer would be a resounding ‘Yes!’. Yuvraj Singh made Cricket sexy. Yuvraj Singh made kids dream, Yuvraj Singh turned adults into kids for a brief while. Yuvraj Singh is the merchant of dreams, peddler of joy and the agent of hope. Happy Birthday Yuvraj Singh!