Sunday, October 28, 2007

True Colours!

All this brouhaha over racial taunts directed at Andrew Symonds deserves a perspective. So let me tell you about something that happened not very long ago that changed my perspective on racism. I was watching a cricket match in a packed stadium in one of the world’s greatest cities. Sitting close to the boundary, I had a good view of the fielding side. After some overs, one of the fielders was sent to man the ropes right where I was sitting. As soon as the fielder reached the fence, some of the spectators started jumping and whooping like gibbons, and in a disgusting display of brazen racism, started taunting him for the colour of his skin. At the time, this cricketer was one of the brightest young stars in international cricket. His name: Vinod Kambli. And the city which embarrassed itself thus was not one full of ‘white’ Australians or ‘black’ West Indians but a city as proud of its inclusive heritage as it is of its modern cosmopolitan present – the city I call home – the city of New Delhi.

This was the early 90s, when South Africa was emerging from the shadow of apartheid and India, once herself a colony and a victim of racial discrimination, was at the forefront, leading the diplomatic battle for the rights of those oppressed for their colour. But the truth is that we are a far cry from the pluralistic society we pretend to be. With a double century in his third test, the flamboyant Kambli should’ve been treated like a star. Instead, all he was treated to were chants of ‘kalu!’ and ‘Kala Bandar!’. What is worse is that Kambli did not seem surprised. Perhaps he had come to expect this cruel treatment from his countrymen. At one point, when the heckling reached a crescendo, he turned back and looked at us, our eyes met and he smiled a sad smile. At that moment I was mortified. I felt terrible that he might think I was as much a party to this shameful picketing as the idiots around me and I was too young, too helpless to stop them. As he looked away, I turned and walked away from the stadium. It was the first time I had witnessed a man being insulted for his colour and it changed my perspective on our people.

Some years later, having applied for a visa to a country that had been plagued by illegal Indian immigrants, I was interviewed and asked a question that seemed to insinuate that being an Indian, I too was likely to stay back illegally. I might have read too much into a fairly regular question but it singed my soul and I restrained myself with great difficulty. That day, while walking out with the visa, I thought of Kambli again, for while I was fuming just because my integrity as a person and as an Indian had been questioned by a foreigner, how must poor Kambli have felt for being insulted thus in his own country, by his own people. And there’s more. Last year, I was on a bus that was going from Washington D.C. to New York and I struck up a conversation with the driver. After beating around Bush for a while, I asked Jacques, a Haitian American, if he ever faced discrimination in America. Jacques stunned me when he said that while there is a certain degree of discrimination between Anglo Saxons, Hispanics, African refugees and African Americans, the group that he faced the highest degree of racial putdowns from were Indians – not American Indians, but Indian-Americans. I shouldn’t’ve been surprised though and nor should Andrew Symonds be. I mean come on, we are a people who, going by the matrimonial columns and websites, don’t believe that the fair sex deserves a partner unless she really is ‘very fair’ and we are a people amongst whom I have seen grandparents discriminating between grandchildren on the basis of colour. We are racists. Period.

The film Chak De India illustrated yet another aspect of racial discrimination and cultural corruption when it highlighted the manner in which we treat Indians from the North East. I’ve had students from Nagaland and Mizoram who have recounted experiences which convinced me that if it had happened to me, I would’ve found it impossible to believe that this really is my country. Racial xenophobia and discrimination is an intrinsic part of our collective psyche and instead of brushing it under the carpet as the Indian media seeks to do, by pointing fingers at the admittedly far more often guilty Australians, we need to identify our cultural faultlines and rebuild the institutions that create them – our schools and our families.

The slip stream

Much about melanin

Sledging isn’t a new fad. It has always been a part of the ‘gentleman’s game’ and racial slurs too have occasionally raised their ugly heads. Of the various racial issues in cricket, a classic straw in the scrubs is that of Basil D’Oliviera who was an unfortunate victim of sporting conspiracies. A ‘coloured’ South African, he was barred from playing for his home nation. He migrated to England in 1960 and played for them after becoming a British citizen. Basil performed creditably for his adopted country, but discrimination shadowed him again when he was dropped from the squad touring South Africa because South African Prime Minister Vorster had made it clear that he was unwelcome. Injuries however forced his inclusion and Basil was offered money to make himself unavailable for the tour which eventually fell through and led to South Africa’s suspension from international sport.

In the world of sports, and most other arenas, for that matter, the only race that should matter is the one against time. Incidents like the one involving Symonds, Mc Grath’s apalling outburst in the West Indies, Lehman’s ugly words against Sri Lanka and Darrell Hair being prohibited from officiating should remain the exceptions that prove the rule.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Idiot’s guide to Durga Puja

“Shona! Otho shona Buduuu…!!” I was hoping she’d stop, but you know how mothers are. It must not have been a minute after four in the morning, and she kept at it till I woke up, all bleary eyed, to the strains of a mesmeric voice chanting on the radio. That happened when I was four, and it happened again today morning, 27-years later, just as it has, on this very day of the Bengali calendar for all the intervening years (and mom, you better keep at it for decades to come).

This invocation to Goddess Durga - Mahalaya, was my introduction to that grand Bong affair called ‘Durga Pujo’. And since that day to this, autumn leaves, the voice of Bhadra and the beats of the dhak, herald the coming of the Goddess, and while I’m not much of a Bengali, nor an idolater, there is a certain magic in the air that touches the core of my being when I see the ‘pandals’ go up. It is impossible to remain untouched by the festive fervour, especially if one has been brought up in that infamous Bengali ghetto in North India called Chittaranjan Park, and I, for one, rejoice in it. It is the only time of the year when I feel connected with the Bong bit in my roots, and wallow in the nostalgia of Puja shopping, pandal hopping, and seasonal community dating.

Let me explain the last bit (these are rare insights into the psyche of the ‘Probasi Bangali’, so both non Bengalis and non Probasis pay heed). You see, my parents and many of my friends’, victims of a strange Anglo-banglo colonial hangover, insisted on sending us to these terrible institutions called ‘Boys only convents’. Now in an environment where for most of the year, the only unrelated, teenaged, female you can sit next to happens to be your principal’s matronly Labrador, things do get a little desperate. So, come puja time, my friends and I would try and join one of the ‘jatra’ (theatre) or ‘orchestra’ (music bands) groups that would hold auditions and rehearsals in preparation for the stage shows during Durga Puja, in the hope of discovering the joys of conversing with at least one female teenager who wasn’t a relative or a dog. Such voyages of discovery often lasted till dashami (Dussehra) and then, thanks to a misplaced sense of propriety, hit the sand bank… till it was time for ‘rehearsals’ again.

With these and other such happy associations to celebrate, there isn’t an event in the year that I look forward to more than Durga Puja, and for the same reasons, I hate dashami and it’s sense of closure. On dashami, the idol is removed from the pandal for bhashaan (immersion) and taken in an open vehicle in a long procession, like a carnival parade, where the celebrations are perhaps wildest, and then immersed in a local waterbody, a symbolic return of Shakti to nature. But I find the sudden calm of an empty pandal absolutely heartbreaking. A Durga Puja pandal is that rare platform where long lost friends meet once a year, where families distributed over colonies and continents reunite, and for a brief period of four days, are a family again, and where socially starved boys and girls get a crash course in the lessons of life. But every dashami, the fairy tale comes to an abrupt end, and no, not everybody in this happy multitude gets to live happily ever after. I’ve seen young couples celebrate a puja together and then separate, as the romance refuses to sink deeper, and seen couples much older, wrenched apart by the Grim Reaper. And yet, after every bhashaan, the revellers return to the now barren pandal, and stand, heads bowed, as if mourning the dead, waiting for the priest to bless all with ‘Shantir jal’ (waters of peace), and hope that they could live in peace and prosperity until it is time for the Goddess to return.

But you don’t have to be Bengali to be touched by the magic and romance of Durga Puja. Ask my friend, a Columban, a Christian, who met the first non canine teenaged female of his life at one of these pandals, fell in love, and after consistently meeting the same girl for four days every year for about 15 long years, got sick of waiting the whole year and married her instead... and his is not the only story. Durga Puja, like most great celebrations of the world, is about celebrating life and love, and neither your language, nor your god, ought to stop you from joining us in this celebration… so hope to see you at a pandal this puja…

The slip stream

The chronology of mythology

Durga Puja is celebrated to worship the Goddess of power and beauty and the victory of good over evil. According to Hindu mythology, Mahishasura, the king of asuras was granted immortality, plundered the world and ruthlessly killed people. Terrorised by his tyranny, the gods sought help from Lord Shiva, Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu, the divine trinity whose combined energies gave birth to Devi Durga – the 10 armed personification of Shakti. Born in the ashram of sage Kattyana, Durga was worshipped by him for nine days after which she set forth to destroy Mahishasura on dashami when a fierce battle finally brought an end to Mahishasura and his demonic perversions. Originally, Durga Puja was celebrated in spring but according to legend, when Lord Rama invoked the Goddess in autumn before venturing out to kill Ravana, consequently, the autumnal (sharodia) Puja celebrations became more popular. Since then, Sharodia Durga Puja has become the biggest Hindu festival in Eastern and Central India while in other parts of India, the celebrations acquire their own hue.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

For the monogamous ignoramus

Dear reader, you hold in your hands the anniversary issue of The Sunday Indian. It’s been a year of sharing commiserations over dying deadlines, celebrations over your letters to a demanding editor, and wiping blood, off editorial meeting tables with crumpled copies of rival magazines, shed to ensure that you get the very best. For your fidelity, you deserve more than mere thanks, and so here you have it - insights to keep happy and alive that most cherished anniversary of all – the wedding anniversary. Why, you ask, am I in a position to unravel such deep, dark truths? Well, for one, I happen to be one of those rare men who voluntarily walked under a wedding bower as soon as I legally could, against wishes and advice, without having any pressing need, if you catch my drift, other than love, to do so. More importantly, both my wife and I have managed to get by for about a decade now without having to call upon kitchen implements, in-laws, neighbours or lawyers to mediate. And anyway, if we as a civilisation, had no qualms about asking groups as diverse as celibate priests and promiscuous prostitutes about marital advice, why should yours truly be any less worthy?

Researchers claim that the phenomenon most damaging to a monogamous relationship is infidelity. These researchers, most of them Americans, insist that about 60% of all men and about 40% of all women are adulterous. If you look at the relationships around you, you’ll notice that though the figures, like most things American, might be slightly bloated, they aren’t too far off the mark. In fact, the venerable Desmond Morris has said that almost every adult male commits adultery with his eyes every day. (Don’t worry honey, I’m just the exception that proves this rule). Now, it is normal in such circumstances to go about clucking like self righteous hens and blame the partner that strayed, and since I’m without any personal experience in the matter (honest!), I’ll stop short of defending it. But here’s a thought – what keeps a loving relationship together is love, and just because one gets into a socio-legal contract called marriage, is it fair to expect and demand love and fidelity as if they were mere clauses in the contract. Love is a natural reaction to mutual emotional needs being satisfied, and if the ‘infidel’ is guilty of taking his unmet emotional needs beyond the pair bond, isn’t the other partner at least as guilty for not fulfilling those needs?

A related vice, possessive jealousy, is another silent relationship slayer. In the early days of our relationship, I used to be intensely possessive. While in college together, I would stick to the love of my life like a limpet, forever fearful that in my absence she might learn to love another. She only had to look at a fellow student and smile for me to fly into a rage, convinced, that in being politely attentive to the attentions of another, she had wronged and betrayed me. Looking back, I wonder why she chose to put up with my pathetic behaviour, but I’m glad she did. With time, I began to realise that possessive jealousy is not as much about the friendly classmate, or about the way the object of my affection might react to him but about ‘me’, and my own insecurities. I realised, somewhere deep down, I felt I wasn’t good enough for her and perhaps those she came in contact with were, in some respect or the other, better than me – more suitable suitors. My solution: I took an honest look at myself, figured out what about me was even remotely likeable and then committed myself to becoming better, nicer, the best I could be. Finally, I was secure in the knowledge that I was the best bargain that life could’ve offered her. If you are in the same boat, this is your oar. But let me warn you, the cliché, about getting to the top being easier than staying there, is an absolute axiom here. You and your relationships, dear reader, are always a ‘work-in-progress’; so awake, arise and stop not ever, for the goal shifts as soon as you’ve reached it.

My final anniversary advice dear reader is that you should never let yourself or your partner feel that you are married to each other. Do all that you have to because you want to, not because you have to. Stay together because of love, not marriage, and you’ll stay together forever. Gotta go now… it’s a Sunday and I have to clean the toilets… hate the job, but I love the boss....

The row over the. . vow

‘Marriage’ has been around for thousands of years. It is often regarded as the foundation of pre-historic man’s attempt to make himself social and civilised. Almost every culture known to man has marriage in one form or another woven into its fabric - a remarkably stable force in the evolution of the modern man. Now, however marriage is in trouble—in the West at least. There people have started questioning the inherent compromises and adjustments that one has to make for the marriage to be successful. As a result, the divorce rate in most of these countries has gone over 50%, with as many as six out of 10 marriages being plagued with extra-marital affairs.

As the population growth rates in some of these countries have declined sharply—some have even gone into negatives—experts have started believing that the common person is no longer willing to carry the ‘baggage’ that being married entails. Over here in India, however, marriage is still beyond reproach. The number of marriages taking place keeps increasing year after year, and in terms of weddings, bigger is better. So place your bets and hope for the best.


Sunday, October 7, 2007

There is hope in hell!

Nonsense! All this talk of Twenty20 being a sport for pretty young twenty some-things in tights (I meant the Aussies, not the cheer leaders), to borrow a phrase from a man whose only connection with the number 20 today would be the number of strands he hides under his bowler (it’s the hat, silly!), is ‘utter roobish!’

The all conquering Indian team might have an average age of 24, but that can’t take away from the fact that the highest run scorer in the tournament is a hulking, super strong, super fit 36 year old called Matt Hayden; the top wicket taker till the semi-finals was the 32-year-old Stuart Clarke; the fastest and only bowler with a hat-trick in the format was a 31 year old flash of greased lightning called Brett Lee and the man who almost took the ‘cup’ away from parched Indian lips was the 33 year old Misbah ul Haque. The point is, youth, in practically every sense and spirit of the word, is a function of fitness, not age.

Now all of you who are still not 30, stop sniggering and keep reading, because you’ll get there before you know it. And fellow 30 year olds, realise, that the 30s is the glorious decade of synergy where mind and body peak in unison and it is the things we do in this decade that determine our future biological and social success and longevity. I know what you are thinking – the trousers don’t fit, you are still wondering where Samantha Fox might’ve disappeared, and worse than the kids calling you ‘uncle’ is the realisation that the grizzled ‘auto-wallahs’ you once addressed as uncle, today call you ‘bhai-sahab’. You have no idea when that six-pack became a barrel, and when you traded in that gym membership for a leisurely night walk – to help with the digestion. If that is where you stand in life and find my assertions hard to believe, let me tell you about another man in his 30s.

Born in Illinois, this man led a fairly active life during his early youth. But somewhere along the way, our hero let go of his fitness lifestyle. He packed on the pounds and became terribly overweight– more than a 100 slobby kgs at 5’9”. At this juncture in his life, he thought of joining the army and showed up for his physical entrance exam for the 10th Mountain Division. One of the most basic preliminary tests to qualify was a two mile run. Joe, for that’s what our hero is named, set off from the starting line with a host of other aspirants and while the runners kept up a steady pace, our embarrassingly unfit misfit fell further behind. ‘Young’ Joe gasped and flapped, stumbled and staggered and finally collapsed in a jiggly-wiggly rotund heap, literally miles before the finishing line as the other runners disappeared over the horizon. Ashamed and disgusted with himself, Joe swore he would turn back the clock as he spat out the sand.

Some years later, on a cold December day in Potomac, Maryland USA, a not so young Joe, now in his 30s, ran 10 miles, cycled across another 100, walked and hiked over 15 more, swam, skied and rowed his way across another 28; then followed that up with ‘4000 reps of calisthenics and crunches’ and lifted a cumulative total of 50,160 lbs to successfully complete Guinness’ 24-Hour Fitness Challenge to emerge as the ‘World’s Fittest Man’. If you leaf through the pages of a Guinness Book of Records, you’ll see the name of Joe Decker adorning that title.

That was in the year 2000. Since that day, Decker had been featured in some of the world’s most popular publications like GQ, People and The Washington Post as a beacon of health and fitness in an ageing and obese world. Today, Decker is a celebrated personal trainer, and you might catch him endorsing fitness products on television. But he experiences his greatest high when he competes at some of the toughest foot races in the world and announces, ‘If I can, anybody can!’

So, fellow 30 something year olds (and don’t feel excluded, dear Sachin and Sourav), don’t you believe them when they say that you are too old for anything, least of all, T20 cricket. Enough of the high-fives around the television. Pull up your socks, tuck that chest of yours – that has slipped a few inches – inside that track pant and start running… your life.

How old is 30?

Come on, 30 isn’t really a time when we need to worry about ageing and its effects. Right? Wrong! The 30’s is a tricky period - a time in life when we refuse to acknowledge that our bodies are any different from when we were in our 20s.The signs are all there –the slight graying of the side burns, the layers gathering around the mid-riff, the gentle wheeze that accompanies our trudge up a flight of stairs – but we refuse to see them. The truth is that with each passing year during this treacherous time, our metabolism slows down and we start losing lean muscle mass. And if we don’t do anything about it, one day, we’ll just wake up to see a fat, old stranger in the mirror.

However the truth is that it is possible to be super fit in one’s 30s and 40s, but it does take regular exercise, a clean diet and a little more time and care than what might’ve been the case in our 20s or teens. Having said that, I must reiterate that great shape and excellent health is an achievable goal at any age.