Thursday, May 27, 2010


My recent columns might suggest that I have become a bit of a grave-hugger but fear not dear reader, it is but chance and coincidence that this piece follows the one that went before. But here’s a letter that I just had to deliver…

To the Nobel Committee (And whoever else cares to listen)

Dear people of the Prize, greetings from the land of the dead…

I’ve been dead for long… one month and seventy four years to the day, to be precise. And yet, not a day slips by when I don’t toss and turn whatever remains of me in my grave… for I just can’t RIP.

Homes, towns, barracks and borders rest in easy peace because of me, and yet I know no peace… for here I lie, all forgotten in my grave.

I concede I was no statesman, no diplomat of name, who flew around the world, brokering war and peace. I admit I was no evangelical do-gooder trying to heal the world nor fought for the rights of those wronged, and yet I feel that the “the world’s most prestigious prize” – the Nobel Peace Prize could’ve been mine.

You sneer and snigger and wonder why I, Max Von Stephanitz, a veterinary student and a mere captain in the king’s cavalry, ought to be rewarded thus for the fact that I bred a dog… but my word, what a dog!

Rural Germany of that time had a variety of intelligent canines, some herding sheep, others protecting homes. While each had its strengths, I wondered if I could blend all these qualities to create a super dog. With my experience in veterinary sciences I set about the task of unifying these varied breeds and creating what came to be known as the Deutscher Schaferhund or The German Shepherd Dog - a task that in terms of vision and difficulty rivaled Bismarck’s attempts to unify Germany.

Once the breed had been created, it was a picture of beauty and strength, and loyalty, devotion and intelligence that was supreme amongst the canine race. The first registered GSD was a dog called Hektor (later renamed Horand) and he epitomised all these qualities. The GSD was a companion and a colleague that shepherds were glad to have by their side.

However with the Industrial Revolution, the sheep and their pastures disappeared and even this great super dog started losing relevance in the rapidly developing industrial economy of Germany. It was at that point that I realised that the GSD, with its versatile intelligence and tremendous physical capabilities, could be just as much of a trusted ally in the city. And so, I recommended the breed to the local police force. Here the breed’s ‘kampftrieb’, its desire and ability to be protective of those and that it considered its own and that acute ability to use its nose and have the steadfast courage to follow the scent to the ends of the earth made the GSD into an instant hit. Police stations around the country wanted them.

I was thrilled with the success of my dogs. But a dark cloud loomed over Europe. The First World War erupted in the summer of 1914 and yet, even this unfortunate event couldn’t blight the glory of the GSD. The dog was an able comrade for soldiers in battle, as a sentry, as a search and rescue dog who sought and saved wounded soldiers and as a brave messenger who let neither bullet nor shrapnel deter it from its mission. And before you point a finger at me for seeking a ‘Peace Prize’ for creating a war weapon, keep in mind that the GSD was committed to saving lives not taking them… a canine version of the Red-Cross.

Like Bob, for instance… Germans Shepherds won numerous gallantry awards but even amongst them, Bob was special. During the war, many wounded soldiers would’ve bled to death or of their wounds if Bob hadn’t found them in the dead of night. Red Cross volunteers would search through the night but they could never be sure that they had rescued all from amongst the corpses. That’s when Bob would be pressed into action and this big German Shepherd, regardless of the soldier’s nationality, would find the wounded that the volunteers had missed, thus saving countless lives.

The GSD won fans across nations and enemy lines. And soon it became the most popular breed in the world. I was elated and I died a happy man.

From my final resting place, I observed the rise and rise of the GSD. It has busted crime by capturing drug smugglers; become eyes for the blind and ears for the deaf and given them freedom and independence; protected homes and people from violent crime; kept our streets safe by sniffing out criminals and acting as a deterrent; rescued sleeping families from poisonous gasses and fires; saved lives and limbs of men women and children from Afghanistan to Angola by detecting bombs, explosives and landmines around the world, making our world a safer place for you and your children and rescued people buried rubble.

Tell me Committee, aren’t these achievements comparable even to an alarmist IPCC, a two week old American President, a scam riddled UN or the contributions of leaders with blood on their hands like Kissinger and Arafat. And just in case you are considering, I know that you don’t dole out posthumous prizes. But you see I’m not asking for it for myself. You could give it to the SV(Society for the GSD). It would mean a lot to the people and their dogs who took man’s best friend and made it better…

Until then I’ll haunt these halls, watching you as you anoint others and suffering silently in my grave, along with those thousands of GSDs who died violent deaths so that you may live and know peace…

From a forgotten grave in Dresden…


Thursday, May 20, 2010


In the heart of Kolkata, in bustling Park Street, there lies a magic portal. I had been looking for it since day-break and now, I’d finally found it. I walked towards the iron gates and pushed. Creaking on its hinges, it swung open to reveal a leafy boulevard. I looked up at the board, ‘South Park Street Cemetery’ it said. Yes, I had reached the right place!

Now graveyards aren’t meant to be the ‘right place’, unless of course it’s the ‘right time’. But these graves are unique, for they tell stories. If you go there with an open heart and look and listen carefully, just as much with that racing heart of yours as you do with your eyes and ears, you will hear the graves whisper. At first you’ll think it’s the birds in the trees or the ones on the palms. You’ll see the silver tipped grass rustling in the wind and you’ll think it is they who called out your name… but when you sit down under the tall Gulmohar in the centre of the graveyard, amidst little red flowers strewn at its foot, you realise it’s the graves that are talking, telling you tales of love and lust, of battles won and lives lost, of passions that blazed and withered in the humid heat of Calcutta under the Raj.

Outside the cemetery, Kolkata is a city in a rush, jogging and jostling with time and destiny, struggling to keep pace with millions of dreams, but inside the cemetery lies a different Calcutta. Here, the drone and chatter of the city are forgotten, for once you enter, a tranquil peace descends on the soul, where you hear nothing but the twitter of birds and the sound of the wind teasing the leaves. It is then that the graves start talking, first to each other, of good times and hard and then to you, painting pictures of a time long gone…

You see the yard dotted with graves of children, from a few months old to a few years, and you see a time where life was hard. You see little babies crying in their cots, struck by cholera or dysentery, rabies or fever, killers all. And you see the last light of life ebbing out of their sad blue eyes. You see the dust and the flies as they settle on parched lips and you hear the cry of distraught mothers.

Then you hear a voice, sweet and lilting, from that tall pyramid-like tomb and you walk up to it as it whispers its tale. Here lies Elizabeth Jane Barwell, a name that brought a smile to many a man’s lips, both brown and white. She was the most beautiful thing to have danced the balls in the halls of the Raj. She married the brave Richard Barwell, a man who took on the famous Lt. General Clavering in a duel. Barwell wanted to marry Clavering’s daughter but Clavering perhaps didn’t like the idea and the two faced-off with pistols. Fortunately, both missed. Following the duel, Barwell gave up his suit for Ms. Clavering and married the gorgeous Elizabeth instead. A lucky miss, twice over, some would say. Incidentally, Sir Clavering too lies in this very graveyard.

There was one voice that I was looking for, a quaint figure that I couldn’t find amongst the many that lay there… andsince the voices spoke of their own free will, there was no one I could call out to. I wandered amongst the tombs looking, and suddenly there it was… it had to be the one. With temple spires etched on its walls and a temple-dome on top, this had to be the tomb of the ‘Hindoo Stuart’. Maj. General Charles Stuart lured me when I met him on the pages of William Dalrymple’s “White Mughuls” and I had to say hello. He was born a Christian in faraway Ireland but fell in love with India when he came here as a soldier. He bathed in the Ganges and adorned his home with idols of Hindu deities. He extolled the virtues of Hinduism to all who’d care to listen and sang paeans in the praise of the sari and how it fl attered a woman’s form so much more than the western gown. He was an Indophile long before the idea of India. Hindoo Stuart’s tomb speaks as eloquently of his love for all things Indian today, as it did nearly 200 years ago.

As I walked away from the graves, I heard the murmurs fade and through the leafy branches, I turned to see the mausoleums and pavilions one last time. In the gathering gloom, along the perimeter wall, I saw one last picture taking shape… pall bearers carrying a coffin, with mourners following in their wake, with lanterns casting long shadows on the grounds. It was a sad lonely picture and yet so evocative of that time.

Obelisks, pavilions and urns reach out to the skies, speaking to the heavens of those they hold, while mausoleums and tombs sit coyly under bowers of flaming hibiscuses and mango trees, holding secrets of those that lie within, close to their stony breasts. As I left, I saw these words by Walter Savage Landor, the fiery English poet and writer, inscribed at the foot of a tall spire, the tomb of 20-year-old Rose Aylmer. “Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes/ May weep, but never see/ A night of memories and of sighs/ I consecrate to thee.” Rose Aylmer, Landor’s friend’s daughter and his beloved, died of cholera when she came to India, and their unrequited love still resonates in the winds that blow here.

If you come to Kolkata you might want to enter this portal to the past, for here history lives and wanders amongst the dead…


Thursday, May 13, 2010


Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” is a popular book but as I read the back cover, I wondered, with all due respect, if it’d be anything more than mere sentimental rumination… a dying man’s last words… a desperate attempt to defy death and live, even if only through his book. But I was wrong. The book’s breezy, reflective, touching without ever approaching sentimentality, and above all, it gleams bright with passion and a profound thoughts. Maybe you’ve read this book already and if so, you’d know what I have to share, so go ahead, turn the page… I won’t feel bad for you’ve already read something far better than what I might have to offer today… but if you haven’t, stay with me for a while. This isn’t a book review but an attempt to share the great wisdom in those pages, born of the knowledge that our time is limited, very limited.

Randy Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2006. It’s not that this cancer can’t be defeated, but you definitely shouldn’t bet on the odds. Randy, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon was given a maximum of six months “of good health”. Randy was 46 -years- old, with a beautiful wife and three adorable children, the youngest barely a year old. He just wasn’t ready to check out just yet. There was so much left to do. But now, he wouldn’t be there. He wanted his kids to know him, to remember him and above all to understand him, but he didn’t know how to leave behind a legacy that mattered, at least to his children.

Around that time, Carnegie Mellon invited Randy to speak as a part of the “Last Lecture” series at the University. Andy recognised the prophetic nature of the title and how it could be his way of leaving behind a legacy for his children (the lectures were videotaped), doing what he loved doing - teaching. Therefore, despite his medical condition, the considerable demands on his extremely limited time which was never going to be enough to set things in order for his family in the event of his passing and his weakened state following chemotherapy, Randy agreed. That lecture (it’s on YouTube) was also the foundation for the book and here’s why it seems to make so much sense to hear a dying man talk… for in the arms of death, life assumes new meaning. Here are a few highlights from the book…

The man in the convertible: After being diagnosed with cancer, Randy happened to receive an email from Robbee, a colleague. She’d written about this guy she happened to be driving behind the other day. It was a beautiful day and this man was in his convertible, his arm resting on the driver’s window, his fingers drumming up a rhythm in tune with the car-radio. With the wind in his hair and the music in his ears, this man seemed truly happy, soaking in the beauty of this gorgeous moment in time. Robbee followed the convertible round the corner and was shocked to see that the man in the convertible with that contented smile on his lips was Randy himself, her dying colleague. “You can never know how much that glimpse of you made my day, reminding me what life’s all about” she’d said.

At another point in the book, before heading out with his wife Jai for his quarterly post surgery check-up to see if the cancer had returned, Randy and his wife went to a water park. After a few rides, Randy held Jai and had said, “even if the results are bad tomorrow, I want you to know that it feels great to be here today, alive with you. Whatever the scans, I’m not going to die… the next day, or the day after that. So today, right now… this is a wonderful day.” Soda in the backseat: At another point in the book, Randy speaks of his sister’s children. Chris and Laura loved Uncle Randy. When Randy bought his convertible, he picked up the kids, both under 10 at the time, for a drive. Their mother warned the kids about not making a mess in the car. And what did Uncle Randy do? While mamma spoke, he opened a can of Soda and poured it all along the cloth seats in the rear. That was his way of saying that his nephew and his niece, people he loved, were far more important than his brand new car. The kids wouldn’t dirty it on purpose but now they could at least be themselves.

There was a lesson in it for me. Recently, we’d bought a car and my wife and I had taken my eight-year-old nephew and his friends for a drive. Now in trying to peer out through the sun-roof, the kids inadvertently stood on the seats and as I saw them mark the beige seats with their muddy shoes, for a split second I’d wanted to stop them, but I didn’t have the heart to. But the stained seats continued to rankle long after, until I read this book… ‘things, no matter how precious are not people, and it is people who are important… who matter’. I hope to remember that… always. When the lecture ended, Randy hugged his wife and she whispered in his ears “Please don’t die.” But Randy did die. On 25th July 2008, Randy Pausch, 47, nine months after his “Last Lecture” that continues to inspire and educate millions, passed away.

Thank you for the “Last Lecture” Randy… still clapping for you!


Thursday, May 6, 2010


Dummy, in this context, would mean you, fair maiden, and you, pretty one, though you be neither fair nor a maiden, and those countless other women, and not a few happy men, whose hearts skip a few beats and then gallop away into a rising crescendo when they sit in front of the TV and see the sculpted contours of a Shane Bond or a Brett Lee tearing away like a wild Camargue stallion until it reaches the wicket. Here the stallion, in mid-stride, transforms himself into a Nureyev, balanced on one leg, the opposite arm thrown heavenwards, where for a split second he is the very picture of poise and grace…. but that moment lasts no more and the ballet dancer that was a stallion, is now transformed yet again into a thunder god who hurls the little red cherry in his hand like a bolt of lightning, powered by an explosion of muscle, sinew and passion… That red cherry, like a comet with a fiery tail torpedoes through the air and before that armoredwarrior wielding a club of a bat at the other end of the battle zone can move, the ball crashes into his castle, sending his stumps cartwheeling into splintered bits, like a picket fence shattered by a cannon ball.

The Indians are batting, braving the barrage. You join the family in its prayers as the Indian batters duck between drives, and yet in secret, a part of you betrays its admiration for the fast bowler – that lethal but extremely rare creature that stalks the vast oval greens of planet cricket. You find the spectacle of this tornado in cricketing tights blowing away all who stand in his way awe-inspiring, his primal force seductive. And you wonder why, oh why, does your heart beat so when these fast men, from the legendary Imran Khan (did I hear you sigh, dummy?) to the devastating Dale Steyn, charge in?

Well dummy, you are not alone. An elevated heart rate is a universal syndrome when the fast men take the stage. A fast bowler, unlike a batsman or a spinner, is not a creature of skill and toil, his craft honed to perfection over hours burnt in the sun, but a rare force of nature. The network and circuitry of tissue and tendon that he was born with is like a nest of coiled cobras waiting to strike. His muscles explode faster and with greater force than other lesser mortals and neither time on a treadmill nor beefing up with barbells will ever fill in what god left out. So a genuine fast bowler, one that can bowl at speeds that will make most stock cars illegal is a rare privilege. Since the beginning of time on a cricket field, when a burly bearded man called Alfred Shaw bowled the first ball in the history, the fast bowler has always stood apart: a giant misfit, like King Kong in New York, an awesome primordial force that inspires fear and respect that disrupts order, that almost demands to be tamed and chained, for if left to prosper, it will surely destroy all, perhaps even itself. Come to think of it, if a Shoaib Akhtar or a Jeff Thompson were to have the consistency, mental acumen, discipline and longevity of a Sachin Tendulkar or a Sunil Gavaskar, watching a day of cricket would have been about as much fun as watching Christians and lions at the Colosseum – bloody, brutal and worst of all, predictable, terribly one-sided and eventually boring affairs.

Thus, for the sake of good drama, this great force of nature, the all conquering fast bowler is always born with a tragic fl aw, like the tragic heroes of yore, from Othello to Oedipus, they all have their Achilles’ heel. Some like Shoaib and Tait lose their minds, while others like Ian Bishop, Waqar Younis and Brett Lee never seemed to stay out of a hospital bed long enough to finish the job. Granted, that when fit and strong, there isn’t a finer or more fearsome sight than a fast bowler at full tilt, but like an earthquake or a tsunami, these ‘phenoms’ ebb and flow only once every few moons, thus ensuring that life for lesser mortals is merely disrupted and not destroyed.

Fast bowlers, irrespective of whether you are a cricket fan or not, will tug at those ancient chords in us that tie us to the beast within and during the Twenty-20 World Cup, if you happen to catch one of these powerful creatures exploding on a cricket field, savour the moment without guilt, for who knows when you’ll see another one at his best again.