Sunday, March 25, 2007

Indian... and macho!

I was in an elevator in Moscow when I realised that Indians, collectively, can’t really lay claim to a lot of athletic pride. I was struck then by this sudden epiphany when, as the doors opened, in walked two pairs of legs, reminding me of a ‘dippy’ song about mile long legs. I craned my neck toward the display screen and saw two smiling faces looking down at me. I managed a weak privet!. In the light-years that it took for their voices to reach me, they managed to explain that they were part of a Dutch school group on holiday. Hoping to sound a mite charming, I asked them if every ninth grader in Holland happened to be as tall? Just at that moment, the doors opened on to the lobby and in walked a forest of knees and shins. A walk through the Californian redwoods wouldn’t have made me feel any smaller than I did that day, as I made my way past waist lines and hem lines and a gaggle of consonants. At just about an inch (ok, maybe a little more...) shy off six feet, I would’ve assumed that I wouldn’t feel short anywhere, least of all, next to a bunch of school girls. But there I was, in a hotel in Europe, feeling like a Lilliputian in Brobdingnag. If I was a little East-African, I could’ve told myself that they might be tall but they sure can’t run like us. if I was a little oriental, I could’ve told myself that they could be 7 feet tall in the cradle, but they sure can’t break boards or punch and kick like us. But what does an Indian do? The only thing we seem to have been consistently good at is poking around a leather-bound sphere with a willow-blade, and that isn’t a very reassuring thought in a world where, for the majority, cricket happens to be an irritating little insect that often gets crushed underfoot. But despair not, fellow Indians, for a short chat with a senior citizen from any part India will reveal that there was a time, not all too long ago, when politicians were revered within, and Indian muscle was revered without.

In 1888, in Amritsar, Punjab was born a boy who went on to become a legend. The little boy, Ghulam Mohammed, showed early promise when at the age of 10, he competed successfully against many champion wrestlers in a ‘strongman’ competition in Jodhpur. Within a decade from then, he had become a champion wrestler who would take on all comers and defeat them with ease. His only real opponent was Raheem Buksh Sultani Wala, a 6’9” tall giant who he finally defeated after their first match had ended in a draw. Having attained the title of ‘Rustam-e-Hind’, Champion of India, Ghulam Mohammed, who now went by the name of Gama pahelwan, went looking for challenges beyond our shores and defeated the greatest and the strongest from all over the world including Polish-American World Champion Stanislaus Zbysko.

So fearsome was his reputation that some of the greatest wrestlers and fighters of all time, World Champion Frank Gotch, the ‘Russian Lion’ – George Hackenschmidt and Japanese Judo Champion – Taro Miyake refused to fight him even when Gama challenged them and offered a substantial sum as prize money if they could beat him. And he did it all while standing no taller than, Allah be praised, a well muscled, 5’7”. Gama, the darling of undivided India retired undefeated and moved to Lahore, Pakistan. And there he died in 1963, a forgotten man. His mantle was picked up by his nephews and a strapping young man from Punjab called Dara Singh, who became a star in the wrestling ring who too would’ve been forgotten if not for his stint in films and his portrayal of ‘Hanuman’ in Ramanand Sagar’s television epic – Ramayan.

In the 50s and 60s, Indian wrestlers were ruling the roost in Asian and Commonwealth games. Khashaba D. Jadhav won a bantamweight bronze in 1952 Helsinki Olympics. But predictably enough, Jadhav too died a poor, broken man. Wrestling at the time was perhaps the most popular sport in the country. Dangals (wrestling tournaments), the backbone of the sport have been popular for centuries and yet the sport languishes. I really believe that each sport should build its own roads into the future and the onus lies on the athletes and administrators to ensure a future for themselves and their sport instead of blaming cricket for hogging the limelight. In a baseball and K-1 mad country like Japan, Sumo wrestling still survives not only as a traditional relic on life-support but a celebrated athletic and cultural phenomenon which attracts international participation. It might require creative effort to follow suit but it’ll be worth it, for the next time you walk amongst those steeples on two legs in a quaint European town, the spirit of the Great Gama will walk ahead of you…..


Sunday, March 18, 2007

The short life and wonderful times of archie jackson

Archibald Jackson was the only Australian cricketer who died during the infamous Bodyline series in 1933. Archie Jackson was only 23 years old, and engaged to be married when he died. Those were strange times. It all began in 1930 when England was hosting the battle for the Ashes and the great Donald Bradman scored 974 runs at a mind boggling average of 139.14 to wrest the series from the Englishmen. For the return series in Australia in 1932-33, the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) appointed a ‘gentleman’ cricketer by the name of Douglas Jardine to captain England. Jardine, a Mumbai born Scotsman, though not in the team during the 1930 Ashes series, had keenly studied the rise of the phenomenon called Bradman. He was an intensely competitive cricketer with an astute understanding of the game and had devised a plan called ‘leg theory’ to stall the Aussie juggernaut.

Central to his plan was a small wiry man who was at that time the fastest bowler in the world – Harold Larwood. Larwood, a coal miner from Nuncargate, unlike Jardine, came from a working class background. On one occasion, he bled from the nose during a morning’s game after having worked all night in the collieries of Annesley. Undaunted, young Harold had gone on to take a hat-trick in that match. While Jardine, many believed, played cricket with a sense of colonial snobbery and pride, Larwood was a passionate professional for whom cricket was his only way out of the mines. These two men became the central figures of the series which came to be known as Bodyline. The term was coined by an Aussie journalist to describe a method of attack where a battery of fast bowlers, led by Larwood, would aim a series of short pitched deliveries at the body with a predominantly leg-side field. Chins were cut, knuckles broken and skulls cracked open. The crowds were furious. Jardine and Larwood were mocked and abused, and were even offered police protection. But Jardine’s plans were undeniably successful, for the Don was only scoring half as many runs. He still retained a more than respectable series average of 56.57 but compared to his career average, and especially his staggering average of the previous series, the Don had finally been caught fending off the backfoot.

Archie Jackson though, was far away from the action. In the previous series, he had scored a valuable 73 as he partnered Bradman in a 243-run stand, and in 1928-29, Archie had scored 164 runs on debut at the age of 19. At the time, and through out his brief career, Archie was spoken of in the same breath as the great Don himself. Many considered him as great a batsman, none less so than the man who was rated by Bradman himself as the greatest fast bowler he ever faced – Larwood. Larwood had tremendous respect and admiration for young Archie, ever since the moment when Archie, on 97 on debut, cracked a lightning fast delivery from Larwood to the fence to bring up his hundred. Larwood and Archie became the best of friends and the toughest of competitors. The great bowler respected Archie because even on nightmarish pitches, Archie would take a beating without flinching and more often than not gave back as good as he got. But this time, Archie was’t there. Larwood, like an angry god in heaven was sending down thunder and lightning while Archie was dying of tuberculosis in a hospital bed in Brisbane. An artist with the bat, Archie was loved for his respectful and sporting behaviour on the field. Always a kind word for a ball well bowled, or a catch well taken, even if it happened to get him out, Archie had friends in both teams but dearest among them was the much maligned Larwood. As the crowds in Brisbane bayed for Larwood’s blood, 23-year-old Archie was preparing to say goodbye to it all, but there was one last thing he had to do before he died.

During the fourth day of the Brisbane Test, Larwood received a telegram “Congratulations. Magnificent bowling. Good luck – all matches, Archie Jackson.” Hours later, Archie passed away. Australia forgave Larwood and accepted him as their own, and a few years later Larwood made Australia his home. The telegram remained one of Larwood’s prized possessions till the day he died in 1995, aged 90. The World Cup is here and Mathew Vaughn is making a film about Bodyline called ‘The Bloody Ashes’. But as the battle rages, let’s not forget the lessons from Archie’s life – its just a game, played not for a cup or an urn, but to find friends and share love in return.


Sunday, March 11, 2007

Dead fish float

There are two ways of dealing with the dreaded ‘writer’s block’: one, look at it the way Michelangelo might have looked upon a block of marble and wondered about the possibilities that lay within and two, do what Ernest Hemingway did – shoot yourself, or if conditions aren’t as dire – go fishing. Karvar is a ‘fish-market’. Not a mere figure of speech, but a living, salt-air breathing fish market with some still-living, some still-breathing fish and tons, and tons, and tons of just-dead fish. And that’s where I went fishing… for a story. It all began the night before, while I was relaxing in a shack by a private beach in Goa. With the silver shimmer of the moonlit waters breaking against the shore, and gentle strains of a Konkani ballad surfing on the waves, this place was just what the brochures promised it would be, till I saw the menu card. Listed somewhere between Goan prawn curry and Portuguese pork curry were the words – shark xacuti. I was surprised to see the words written in bold because while shark xacuti has traditionally been on the Goan menu for ages, most shark populations around the world have suffered heavy losses and many have been accorded protection by local governments.

Sharks don’t have the regal bearing of a big cat, the cuddly charm of a bear cub or the almost human expression of a mountain gorilla. For aeons, they’ve been hated as fearsome man-eaters and Hollywood didn’t help with its near demonic representation of this supreme predator in popular classics like Jaws. Generally speaking, the shark is perhaps the most detested and the most dreaded of creatures, just a few notches ahead of a certain world leader whose name rhymes with ‘tush’ and another who, if certain conspiracy theories are to be believed, has apparently ‘been laden’ with more than he can claim credit for. (I know it’s bit of an overkill, but hey, everybody is doing it). Species like the legendary Great White are notorious for their savagery but they are no more vile or dangerous than any predator at the apex of its food chain – much like a tiger in the jungle. The fact that they command a realm that we still can’t control adds an aura of mysterious invincibility to the creature but the simple truth is that New Yorkers, according to the NYC health department, bite more people than sharks do every year and that too because they (the sharks, that is) confuse people with other prey species. In fact, the only way a shark has of figuring out whether something is worth eating or not is by mouthing it and that is what explains a large number of shark attack survivors. You see, if a 21 feet long shark, that weighs in excess of a 1,000 kgs, wants to kill an unarmed human diver or surfer, it will, and the only reason why many survive (almost 90%) is because usually the shark realises that what it has in its mouth was not what it thought it to be. Marine eco-systems, as well as the fishermen who fish in them, need the shark to keep these waters, and by extension, the fishing industry, healthy. And yet, people who can’t stand the sight of a mangy little puppy shivering in the cold wouldn’t usually care two hoots for a cold-blooded shark.

Karvar, five kilometres across the border into Karnataka is where the ‘catch’ from trawlers along the south Goa coastline is traded. Local fisherfolk, mostly Konkani women, trade in a babelesque babble while my driver Rajendra, who doubles up as guide and interpreter shows me around. I was told that shark pups are quite a common catch in these waters and sometimes they might even land a big one. Rajendra insists that he once saw a 15 foot monster. Either my alien presence had made them wary or maybe it had been a bad night’s fishing but I only saw one mutilated shark pup – perhaps a white-tip, about 37 inches long. In 2001, India had extended a blanket ban on shark hunting but wilted under pressure from the fisheries lobby and de-listed all but 9 species from the protected species category. Incidentally, although it is prized by both locals and tourists for its meat, most sharks in Indian waters are hunted for their fins which are exported into East Asian countries where shark fin soup is a delicacy.

Though the shark fin industry is worth millions of dollars in exports, it’s obvious that sharks are more valuable alive than dead to fishermen because it is they who keep other marine populations healthy. And if the shark watching industry could be kick started in earnest, like in South Africa and Australia, the benefits would far outstrip the shark’s current contribution to the national and local economy. So next time you’re about to order a plate of xacuti or worse, some shark fin soup (see slip stream), think again…


Sunday, March 4, 2007

Unlawful thoughts

Arguing with a lawyer, I’ve realised, is like competing in a tree-climbing time-trial against an orangutan. Well, perhaps not unlike many, I too enjoy the occasional bout of ridiculous self-humiliation. And recently, as there are far more lawyers in my immediate vicinity than orangutans or trees, I merrily took on one of the former in an interesting debate. Be forewarned, however, that a lawyer, especially the portentous Portia type, is a far more formidable opponent outside a courtroom than inside.

Barely a week ago, I was driving to Bareilly to attend a wedding reception with the bride, the groom, a bevy of wonderful friends and my dear wife in tow. After the usual enthusiasm and chatter that accompanies the start of a journey had settled down, the car cabin became rather quiet. Heads lolled and swayed to rhythms dictated by NH24 and Lobo, while I struggled to stay awake at the wheel. At a certain point between Gajraula and Bareilly, I began conversing with a friend of the bride’s who happened to be a practising lawyer. It began on a fairly cordial note but as we veered toward the legality of morality, our stances and our jaws hardened.

My learned friend (isn’t that what they like being called in the movies) insisted that morality was separate from the law but the same as culture and therefore all that a socio-religious framework within a community upheld to be correct and right, was and whatever it did not, was not. However the same need not find legal endorsement. “For instance”, she said, “bearing a child out of wedlock runs against the grain of our socio-religious consciousness and is therefore immoral and wrong, though it might not be an offence from a legal perspective. But the same might find acceptance in the West and therefore is moral and right within that set-up”. She also went on to state that morals were subject to an individual’s conscience and therefore the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of a given situation were governed only by two factors – the prevailing culture around the situation and the individuals conscientious response within that framework.

I, on the other hand countered that rights and wrongs weren’t subject to cultures or religion but were universal. Correctness is subject to consequence and therefore, the consequence of one’s actions determined the correctness of that action. But consequence is subject to purpose and only when an ideal purpose is determined can the ideal consequence of an action be ascertained. For example, the purpose of ‘life’ is to grow and evolve, and human civilisation, being a minute component of this life-force ought to be governed by the same principle. Thus, every human action that furthers and supports the evolution and growth of life, on a physiological, intellectual, spiritual and a social plane is good and right and every action that does not, is not. And it doesn’t matter whether it is the genocide in Darfur or the barbarity of Khairlanji that finds local and communal sanction, they’re both crimes against ‘life’, as have been various culturally accepted practices like honour killings, sati and witch hunts. The same ought to hold true for the jihads of our times and every war on terror that apparently counters it.

I was just getting warmed up, when the decibel levels in the car prompted the other occupants to wake up. One by one, they all defected toward our learned friend except for my wife who chose to abstain with a dignified smile and a loving look, and the bride, who was too sleepy and too happy to care. The long reach and reinforced voice of the law and her battery of well-wishers prevailed. I gave in before I could give voice, but in your court, dear reader, I rest my case.

While I might pretend to be an armchair philosopher like almost every other Bengali, I’m pretty sure our friend-in-law would only consider herself an articulate and well informed pragmatist. Neither is a qualified expert but I hope the above account will encourage fellow philosophers to build a paradigm that’ll bring them that much closer to deciding whether ‘Bushes’ are meant to be beaten on or around or if fossil fuels are fuelling our lives or our pyres. But next time you’re in the mood for a challenge, I suggest you look for a tree and an orangutan . . . you might have better luck. Cheerio!