Thursday, April 28, 2011


Rosa’s eyes… they are hazel brown, and deep. They stared unblinkingly into mine and there was something primal and brazen in that stare. The smooth touch of her skin sent a nervous rush up my spine as her sinuous form undulated in my arms. I felt her weight on me. She was stronger than I had imagined. My breath grew heavy and awkward…

We were close enough to kiss and for a moment we searched for answers in each other’s eyes, almost daring the other to take the next step. And then she flicked out her tongue and waved it in my face. Almost on an impulse, I did the same. For the briefest of moments one brushed ever so lightly against the other. “Aah… mouth to mouth!,” screamed a voice on the public address system.

In parts of rural Thailand, snake-pits are about as common as dentures in an old-age home. So here I was driving up a mountain in Chiang Mai when I happened to see a big cardboard sign that said “Dance of death with the King!” As soon as I pulled up, I was greeted by a rather squat Thai lady with hair dyed so blonde that it would not have looked out of place on Boris Becker’s eyebrows. She sang out a welcome and then grabbed my arm and tugged. I waited for a moment and the shock to pass and then allowed her to drag me in to see the treasures that the snake park had to off er. We went past the thatched ticket counter and a counter selling snake-skin shoes, bags and trinkets and then there we were, in front of an empty snake pit. “Show start fifteen minute”, sang the lady, and beamed a happy-gappy grin. I wondered where the stars of the show might be. As if on cue, I heard a faint hiss and then the rustling of scales against concrete.

I looked around and for the first time noticed the row of fine-mesh cages behind the seats. The hissing and the rustling grew louder and I followed the sound to the first cage just in time to see the tail end of a snake disappear into the mouth of another. The King was at lunch.

King cobras eat other snakes, both venomous and non-venomous ones. The King didn’t bother to make eye contact and chewed on the tail like Dirty Harry might on gum, and slithered back into a corner. I drift ed towards some of the other cages. There were Siamese cobras in the next one, then a python and then another king cobra. In the far end was a tank full of dirty brown water and I could see a dark shape at the bottom. “Take out! Take out!,” sang the blonde woman from behind the public address system. I looked away from the tank and quickly took my hands out of my pockets. I looked at her trying to understand what she might have meant. “You take out?” she repeated. The intonation suggested a question and I showed my hands. “No, no… you take out Pi-ping... take out water?” she asked again. Hmm… Pi-ping taking out water… I wondered where this was going. I just managed a confused shake of the head. The lady pushed the table and microphone aside and waddled up to where I was standing. Then she pointed at the dark shape in the water and said, “Pi-ping take out water, you want?” Ah, it was Pi-ping in the water. Although I was still a little unsure about whether the lady wanted me to take Pi-ping out of the water or whether it was Pi-ping who wanted to take out water, or was it that she wondered if I wanted Pi-ping’s water, but I decided to go for it. I rolled up my sleeves and lunged in the water. Halfway down, I realised that a misunderstanding now could be rather painful, perhaps even fatal, and so I asked the lady even as I felt Pi-ping’s leathery skin if Pi-ping happened to have a venomous bite. The lady smiled and shook her head. “No Pi-ping very gentle”, she said. And sure enough Pi-ping was as docile as a house cat. I later learnt that Pi-ping is an ‘elephant trunk snake’, also known as the Javan Wart Snake, called so because of the snake’s rough leathery skin.

“Showtime!,” screamed the lady on the mike, and I went and took my seat at the edge of the snake pit. There were a handful of Australians who had come in for the show. I took out my camera and was about to take a few test shots when a little Thai boy, in an oversized tee-shirt that ran all the way to his knees, patted me on the shoulder and then dropped something black and bristly in my hand. I looked down and saw a rather large black Malayan forest scorpion, with its hound’s tail sting poised for what could be an excruciating introduction. And crawling on its back were two baby scorpions. My wife would never agree, but I tell you dear reader, those little baby scorpions are some of the cutest creepy-crawlies you could ever see.

Meanwhile, the first of the wranglers entered the pit with a pair of cobras. Music played and then he teased and goaded the snakes while they raised their hoods and ‘danced’. Then they fooled around with a pair of rat snakes. Each of the wranglers would finish off his performance with a ‘kiss’ and the blonde one would look at the audience with an expression that said ‘have you ever seen a happier threesome?’ and go “Aaaah!... Mouth to mouth!”

Then they brought out Rosa, the reticulated python, and took her around and asked if anybody from the audience wanted to hold her. No one did, and since I didn’t want to hurt Rosa’s feelings, I volunteered. At 15 feet, young Rosa’s pretty small for a reticulated python. These snakes, the longest in the world, oft en grow to be nine metres or more in length. But boy she was a handful already.

Anyway, it was now time for the grand finale. Superstar wrangler ‘Lek’ sauntered in with a huge snake on a ‘snake-prod’. It had olive green scales and its eyes reminded me of an eagle’s. It must have been about three metres long. This was what I had come to see. The king cobra!

Lek had an assistant with him, just like matadors would in a bull-fight. Whenever Lek would get cornered by the snake, the assistant would distract the snake and help Lek get out of the situation. I was on my knees outside the ring, taking pictures when the King raised its hood. And suddenly from taking pictures at floor level, I realised I was now pointing the camera way above my head. The King had raised its hood more than four feet off the ground. I was awestruck, and so must have Lek been for he froze as the snake launched itself in the general direction of his crotch. He was wearing loose track pants and jumped out of the way at the very last moment. But the snake still got one of its fangs into the fabric while the assistant tried to draw him away. A collective gasp went round the snake pit and there was a stunned silence. The audience knew this wasn’t a part of the plan. And perhaps to give the shaken Lek a break as well as prove that the snake still had his poison glands intact, the assistant with the help of the other wranglers subdued the snake. Then, with its head in his hands, he brought it around in front of the audience and then made it bite down onto a glass container with a soft cap. We could see those fangs and those glands squirting surprisingly large amounts of golden yellow liquid death into the container. Those drops of neurotoxic venom were potent enough to kill all 22 of us in the audience. Lek was lucky, very lucky.

But Lek wasn’t done yet. It was now time for his signature move. Like a bullfighter drawing his saber for a final thrust, Lek squared off against the angry snake. He didn’t have a cape so he used his hands to keep the cobra transfixed onto a target and then as the two moved towards each other, with grace to match the matador’s pirouette before his final thrust into the hump of the charging bull, Lek reached over the snake’s hood and kissed it even as the snake looked on, as if spell bound. The audience erupted and Lek took a bow.

The show was over. The King was back in the bag.

The finale was a splendid display of skill and courage and I was glad I got to see it. Unlike the bull-fights in Spain, the snakes aren’t harmed. Not until they are made into hand-bags anyway. And yet it just didn’t seem right to poke and prod these magnificent creatures for the sake of entertainment. I can’t make up my mind about this one. Snake wranglers like Lek are an invaluable asset in the race to create more anti-venom than there are victims. And anti-venom can only be made from the venom of live snakes. So, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation here. If wranglers are good, then why are snake charmers bad? And if charmers are bad, why are such snake shows any better?

Well, that’s an issue I’ll save for next week but until then, tread carefully, lest you be no lucky Lek…


Thursday, April 14, 2011


By the age of nine, I had been witness to my parents being asked to take me out of school; by then I had also attempted to run away from home, twice; and to add insult to injury, I had been caught ripping car monograms and had seen the insides of a police station before blowing out 10 candles on my birthday cake.

I have supportive parents and some very good friends, who did their best to hold me high but the education system of the time had swallowed me whole and then it spat me out like a bite of rotten wretchedness. Year after year, my report card would say that I was hopeless at math, terrible at chemistry and uninterested in physics. My teachers would push the dreaded document under my nose with an expression that seemed to sway violently between a deep sense of disgust and resignation. I was always at the top of the class when it came to languages or history but I didn’t know it then. No one told me. It didn’t matter…

They told me I was a loser. I believed them.

Christopher Langan had started talking in sentences in his sixth month. He could read at four and at 14 he had read his way past a tome as forbidding and doleful as Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica. Inside his rather large head throbs a brain with the intellectual might of Samson. Ever since his childhood, Langan has been smashing IQ (IntelligenceQuotient) tests and he oft en scores ‘off the charts’, which means most IQ tests aren’t equipped to test such stratospheric levels of intelligence. He would crack language tests and math problems with equal ease and got ‘a perfect SAT score’.

To give you a sense of perspective, while most of us would be lucky to score about a 100 in an IQ test, Albert Einstein, the man who remains the intellectual standard for the human race had an IQ of about 150. And Christopher Langan with an IQ of 195 or thereabouts announced himself to the world as the smartest man of our times.

He was marked for greatness and he knew it.

Vincent didn’t need to be told he was a loser. He knew it. He had failed at everything he ever tried.

Whenever Vincent fell in love, he was spurned and rejected with disdain. It was his lot to be scorned and despised as an abomination by every woman he confessed his love to. When he tried to be a teacher, he failed. When he tried to be a preacher, he failed. And when he went to study art, Vincent was turned down yet again.

But, in his heart raged a passion that wouldn’t be denied. Eventually, Vincent gave in and started painting. Flames and forests, and flowers and trees, they all burst forth onto the canvas with a repressed fury. And yet the world around him refused to notice.

Depressed and alone, Vincent Van Gogh shot himself. He was 37. He died of his wounds, unrecognised and unknown.

Years after school, I find myself in a class room again. But this time, my flesh isn’t crawling under my skin. This time, while walking into the classroom, instead of feeling like a French nobleman, brought bound and gagged to the guillotine, past an angry crowd of partisans, I feel like a matador entering the bull ring. The task is daunting, but I feel prepared. The audience was expectant and appreciative. I was nervous but I was excited. I was teaching a class, about the CALL (The role of Creativity Attitude Logic and Language in communication) and the class I was teaching was a class of teachers. I had come a long way from those unhappy days in school. Forgive me if I sound smug or pompous but it really isn’t the idea, I’m only trying to paint a contrast. The point is how did I get to be where I was? How did a boy earmarked for failure end up as a man whose thoughts might matter to a whole bunch of his peers who were all rather successful professionals with scholastic records far more impressive than mine?

Well, I got here thanks to an opportunity that was almost thrust my way right after school. I had always wanted to be a cricketer and that’s all I thought I was good for, but then fate conspired with circumstance and I found myself in a B-school class room attending an integrated BBA programme.

I did not expect much, either of myself or from the programme. And yet, as the days rolled by, I felt that for all these years I had been trying to fit in, like paint trapped inside a bottle. But here, for the first time, I felt that there was faith, and there was freedom. Our teachers encouraged us to discover our true nature through the framework of a curriculum that covered the length and breadth of human achievement and helped us appreciate not just our innate uniqueness but also gave us the independence to help us find ways and means of expressing that uniqueness in a manner that created social, and therefore commercial, value.

No longer was I paint cooped up in a bottle. I had been liberated, splashed out on canvas and free to be what I wanted to be, whether it be the rays of the rising sun or the mane of a prancing horse.

It was here that I learnt that it didn’t matter if I wasn’t a genius at cracking convergent (a test of logical sift ing and arriving at the one correct answer, like solving most mathematical tests and most school-level question papers) problems. I could generate equal levels of social value, and interest, if I could be good at solving divergent (a test of creative comprehension, expression and integration, like for instance developing an advertising campaign) problems instead.

I owe a big debt of gratitude to the institution and the idea of business education that introduced me to the possibilities and the potential that lie within all of us, and for the realisation that each of us indeed is a diamond in the rough.

It is an institution and an education system that needs to understand people and their greatest motivations, and therefore it is only natural for such a system to identify that it doesn’t matter if we aren’t blessed with exceptionally high IQs. What we really need to live fulfilling, prosperous and happy lives is a high dose of EQ (Emotional Quotient) instead. Read that as the ability to relate to and understand our own selves as much as the ability to understand the feelings and motivations of others. To live such a fulfilling life, you would also need what Malcolm Gladwell and Robert Sternberg call ‘practical intelligence’ – the ability to read situations and emotions and to act in a manner that would elicit a desired response. It is the ability to build a bridge between your thoughts and ideas and the world’s ability to value and appreciate them.

However, unlike IQ, practical intelligence isn’t a genetic gift . And nor does it imply that just because you have a high IQ, you would automatically also be good with practical intelligence. In fact, practical intelligence is a consequence of culture, upbringing and education. The family is the best source of practical intelligence but what’ll come a close second is a B-school education that invests in you with lots of faith, focus and freedom. Unfortunately, Vincent Van Gogh never had such an education and neither did Christopher Langan. Which is why in spite of his obvious genius, Van Gogh failed to inspire or impact lives while he was around while Langan, his amazing intellect notwithstanding, has been unable to find acceptance or an opportunity and nor does he seem to have the ability to reach out and share his genius with the world.

Today Christopher Langan, the world’s smartest man, after dropping out of college and spending his adult years working as a construction worker and as a bouncer in a bar, spends his time on a ramshackle horse ranch. He gets invited on reality shows as an intellectual oddity and that is the extent of his impact on our world. It’s a crying shame and an unfortunate irony that lesser mortals like us have been able to maximize our limited talents and share them with those around us, creating our own little waves and ripples on the shared surface of our lives while those with gifts far greater than ours have been living lives frustrated by their sky-high IQs trapped inside their limited practical intelligence.

Now if only someone could get Chris Langan some faith and freedom and a B-school education.


Thursday, April 7, 2011


While celebrating the World Cup win on the streets of Delhi last Saturday, I was suddenly reminded of a day from very long ago. It must have been about a couple of years after India had won the World Cup in 1983 when a favourite uncle of mine, an amateur cricketer who used to knock the ball around for Hindu College, came over to our house and saw me beaming with pride at an archival centerfold image of Kapil Dev holding the World Cup high in one of the first ever issues of Sportstar that I ever bought. He looked at it for a while and said that whenever he saw that image it reminded him of a story… a story which at the time I found rather strange. It was a story from the Ramayana, the story of Bali and Sugriva.

Bali, the invincible lord of the vaanar sena was immensely powerful. Warriors great and small would bow in reverence as the great one would stride into their presence with his mighty mace resting on those massive shoulders that seemed to span the breadth of the earth. Bali’s younger brother Sugriva, though able and strong in his own right, was in awe of his elder brother’s prowess. Bali ruled Kishkindha with Sugriva by his side. Sugriva, though a devoted brother, might forget himself for a moment and think what it might like to be king, but the sheer presence of the indomitable force of Bali would bake his dreams like dewdrops on the desert sands in the afternoon sun.

But one day, a demon challenged Bali to a fight and as Bali gave chase, the rakshasa retreated inside a cave. Sugriva tried to stop Bali but the great and impetuous warrior followed his quarry inside the cave while Sugriva waited outside. Gripped by fear and anxiety, he waited for a sign. The sounds of battle reached his ears and then a deafening silence followed. And then there was blood, streaming out like an angry tongue from the mouth of the cave. His mind, clouded by horror, sorrow and fear, and what only a cynic might call the slightest trace of ambition, was convinced that the blood was his brother’s and Bali must have met his end. With a heavy heart, Sugriva blocked the entrance to the cave with a massive boulder, ostensibly to keep the demon in, and ran back to Kishkindha.

News of the king Bali’s death shook the city and the nobles suggested that Sugriva should be made the king. The reign of a great king was supposedly over. There was a new king now. And as he wore that crown on his head, he held it high for in that moment there was both pride and glory. But in his heart he would have known that the crown was too heavy for his head; that he was a mere pretender to the throne and no match for the one whose crown fate had snatched and placed on Sugriva’s head instead.

And soon enough, Bali returned. He had vanquished his nemesis only to find his way home blocked by a boulder placed by his brother who he thought had taken both his wife and his throne. Sugriva tried to explain but Bali’s wrath was too fierce and fists too strong. Sugriva’s resistance and his pleas crumpled like a leaf in a flame and he barely managed to escape, scarred and scorched, with a few of his trusted friends. Stripped of his throne, his crown, his queen and his pride, Sugriva the accidental king was king no more but a mere fugitive, cursing his fate and cowering in fear of the king whose crown he had dared to wear…

In 1983, when West Indies lost the World Cup final to India, like Bali, they were seething with rage. They had been denied a crown that was rightfully theirs by a quirk of fate and a brilliant catch. That winter, they entered the lair of the new champions and blew away the Indians. The new World Cup winners were beaten five to nothing in the one-dayers and three-nil in Tests. The pretenders had been put in their place and the real champions with their explosive batsmen and demonic bowlers had announced to the world that the era of West Indian dominance was far from over.

By narrating that story, I don’t mean to pull down the old masters. My generation owes Kapil’s Devils a debt of gratitude for infusing us with pride and self belief. And while that victory at Lord’s may not have been the final nail in the coffin of West Indies’ supremacy on the cricket field, but it may have well been the first. But ‘uncle’ had a point. No matter how good or gift ed were the India team of the time, world beaters they weren’t. In the 80s, at best, India were second best by a country mile. In fact, except for Australia’s last three victories and the first two by the West Indies, none of the World Cup victories of the past really heralded a new world order.

But this time when Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men in blue made the World Cup their own in Mumbai last Saturday, it was a definite sign that seemed to announce that modern day cricket was experiencing the charge of its ‘Third Reich’. If the 70s and 80s saw the stadiums of the world being ruled by the Calypso Kings from the islands, then from the mid 90s onwards and right up to 2010, it was the reign of the imperious Aussies that left the rest of the cricketing world fighting over left overs in its wake. And now, the crown of this World Cup victory sits not on a head that is uneasy with the weight of its glory like Sugriva’s but on one that was anointed for such glory, many years ago in the spring of 2001 on a hot and blustery afternoon in Kolkata.

Ever since that day, India had been hacking away at the halo of invincibility that seemed to surround the men in gold and green from Down Under. Just the way the Australians were the first ones to score a few knockdowns against the West Indies in the early and mid 90s before deposing them and assuming the mantle of World Champions, so too have the Indians struck repeated body blows in their duels with the Aussies all through the first decade of 21st century before knocking them down for the count more than once since the tri-series in 2008 and at the World Cup. The count down has started and the Aussies are still on the ropes.

And if you’d excuse a round of gloating, this seems like a good time to remind you dear reader that just before the World Cup, I had gone out on a shaky limb and written that all the signs suggest that India would win the World Cup, and before you claim “so did I!”, I had also said we would win it batting second. So with that, if I now have your attention, and dare I add, a whiff of grudging respect, let me stick my neck out and predict that Mahi’s boys in blue are now going to seal their claim to the crown of the world by knocking the Australians out in their backyard this December. And in that victory will lie the seeds of eternal greatness for this team, for the lessons from that tour will lay the foundation for India’s campaign in 2015.

Staggered World Cup wins are for pretenders. The real champions win a string of them and this time India is no Sugriva but a veritable Indra, destined to rule the gods of the game for a fair while to come. In the next issue I will dwell for a while on the ‘hows’, and for some doubting Clarkes and Johnsons, on the ‘whys’ too, but until then, let’s stand shoulder to shoulder and raise a teetotaler’s toast to the team and drink our fill from this cup of joy.