Thursday, June 23, 2011


Andy Roberts loves fishing. When he has the time, he likes drifting out in his small boat to catch something at the end of his fishing line. So this weekend when he spoke about the Indian fast bowlers touring the Caribbean and called Munaf Patel, who picked up 8 wickets in three ODIs, a spinner, he wheeled in a catch with more teeth than he had bargained for. The cricketing world was divided along the seam of the speed versus efficiency debate. Roberts was criticising Munaf for his lack of speed but there were those who stood up in defence of Munaf and said 'So what if the Ikhar express had now become a passenger train? It still got the job done, didn't it?'

So was Roberts just trying to get under Munaf's skin before the Tests? I would say unlikely. Give the man some credit. In the 1970s, even in the face of racial taunts by opposing captains, Andy Roberts, who then was at the height of his powers, still chose to stay silent and let the ball do all the talking.

Perhaps all the great man wanted to say was that line and length with gentle medium paced seamers, no matter how economical or efficient, can't compare with raw pace when it comes to blasting away the opposition. And he is right.... However, fast bowling isn't about matches or wickets alone and is in some ways a phenomenon greater than the game itself. More on that later but before that, here's a rerun from the archives of a crash course on fast bowling concepts which'll set the stage for the debate to come.

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 armored warrior 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 flaw, 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.


Thursday, June 16, 2011


No, no whatever it is you are thinking, this is not about what you’re thinking. This is an unashamed elitist rant about me, and you fine people who happen to be like me, at least as far as inches go. Brothers, I know I speak for all of us when I say this that it doesn’t matter what the world thinks or says about us for we know we have what it takes to stand amongst men and say ‘Yes, I am man enough!’

This is for all those men who dared to look down on us because their overenthusiastic genes gave them a few inches to spare. And this goes out to all those women who sneered down the tapered tip of their noses at us and said “… oh, I thought you would be taller.”

Let me start from where it all began. After being cooped up in an all boys monastery for the first eight years of school life, I finally grew wings and managed to hop and strut my way into a co-ed environment. I had hoped for a bit of Riverdale high and moments stolen from pages stolen from a cousin’s dog-eared Mills and Boon. But my first day in class knocked the wind right out of my sails as my hopes sank without so much as a glug or two. It was my first day in class and I remember feeling like Sachin Tendulkar might in the LA Lakers locker room. I was 5ft 2 inches at 13 and everybody around me was taller, way taller. It was one thing to be looking up to the boys hulking a foot or so above my head but what cruel length of twisted fate had ordained that I was to be a head shorter than all the pretty girls too.

I realized that day that inches mattered.

Everyday I would will myself to grow taller. To match the boys was a dream too far to dream so I settled for the girls. I hung on to prayers, branches, doors and hope and lo and behold, I began to wake up a little taller everyday. I caught up with the tallest of the pretty ones and the shortest of big boys. A few years rolled by while I was growing fast and a quick calculation told me I had two years to go before my bones fused and two measly inches or so to go before I hit the magic 6 ft mark. It was inevitable. It was ordained. It was meant to be… or so I thought. I eased my foot off the ‘wishing-for-more’ pedal because now I knew that destiny would take over. Unfortunately, my bones did the same and destiny forgot to keep her word. The inches that were meant to be mine lost their way and fell into some undeserving sod’s lap while a few straggling centimeters still managed to find their way to their rightful owner, leaving me feeling like I was almost there but still not home.

So you and I, we realized we weren’t going to be six feet tall. So what is the first thing we do? We look for someone to blame... I could’ve blamed my parents but then it’s their genes that’s gotten me this far so there would have to be someone else.

And that someone else happened to be Paul Newman. That man, God bless his soul, I was told, was as gorgeous as they come, and a particular favourite of an ‘English teacher’ who was a particular favourite of ours. And if he was good enough for her, he sure was good enough for me. Now I must have been pushing 5’9’’ around that time and while flipping through the last few pages of a stray Time, I came across a snippet that mentioned that good old Paul too was about 5’9’’ and just there and then, my resolve slackened. In that moment when I began to accept that medium needn’t mean mediocre lay not only the root of my failure to reach ‘great heights’ but also the realisation that nearly 6 ft and yet not quite there was still a great place to be... After sifting through the star dust that brightens pages in glossies, screens in theatres and nubile dreams on balmy nights, one can’t help but conclude that their is something undeniably attractive about this matrix of feet and inches that start around 5’9’’ and stop just short of 6 ft - a golden bridge if you will that straddles two worlds- one where be the short and not so tall, who are forever battling the prejudices and subtle taunts of the world, from high school through to the grave. Often as a reaction they end up trying too hard to make up for the lack of inches, like a Hitler or a Napoleon. Not quite the stuff of dreams, dry or not, wouldn’t you say? And at the other end of the bridge are the blessed Brobdingnagians who stand head and shoulders above the rest of us. Not a world that should have much to complain about you’d say, but at the cost of howling like the fox who declared that the grapes are sour, you’ve got to admit that we all know the type that drags his personality around in a coffin made of his extra inches.

So it is left to us who make up this ‘golden mean’ (philosophically speaking the desirable and ideal middle ground between two extremes) to show the world how to wear our inches with a flourish. You obviously realise that it isn’t just sheer chance that year after year the men that make it to the top of the heap as the most desirable of their kind happen to be those that man this bridge between two worlds. From Paul Newman to Richard Gere and Michael Jackson to Mel Gibson and right down to George Clooney and Johnny Depp and yes, a Hrithik Roshan (and I would shove in Brad Pitt and Vin Diesel in the bargain for though their profiles list them at 6 feet nothing, do you seriously want me to believe that any self respecting PR manager would desist from bumping up their client’s height by at least a meagre inch if not more), they are all up there because their inches foretold it.

But then I went to Denmark on holiday and felt like I was back in school again. One sunny Saturday in Copenhagen while I saw the city brush past me, I felt yet again like Tom Thumb. The Danes must be amongst the tallest of races in the world. Every other guy seemed to be 6’4’’ or more and now and then I would see some guy walking around with his head lost in the clouds. And this time I had no hopes of growing any taller either. Late evening as I sat by an outdoor cafe and saw a bunch of drunken revelers tumble past, a rather disturbing thought began to bother me. What if I got into a brawl with one of these giants? Would I have any chance of putting up a fight if I had to defend myself or my family and friends from these guys?

Well I needn’t have bothered on two counts. Firstly, even when drunk, Danes tend to be rather polite and well behaved. And secondly, contrary to popular perception, heights in excess of 6 ft are hardly ever an advantage in a fight.

Yet again, it is the ‘golden mean’ that shines brightest for the best fighters in the world. The invincible Rocky Marciano who never lost a fight after battling towering giants like Joe Louis, the devastating Mike Tyson who repeatedly brought fighters like the 6’ 5’’ in Frank Bruno to their knees before dropping them on their backsides and the greatest MMA( Mixed Martial Arts) fighter in the history of the sport, Fedor Emelianenko are all invincible warriors that hovered around but never made it to the 6ft mark, and aren’t they glad they didn’t. Why, even the best of the Navy Seals, who incidentally brought down the 6’4’’ Osama, are just about 5’10’’ tall.

I’m beginning to think that the goddess that gives out genetic goodies must’ve kissed us right on the mouth for us from the mean to have been blessed with such a delicate balance of abilities and inches and this enormous genetic potential. I may not have done squat with it but the point is, I could have...

Last but not the least, I’m rather convinced that every avatar and every messiah, from Krishna to Christ and a few others I’m too much of a wimp to mention, must also have been about as tall for had they been exceptionally tall or short, the scriptures would’ve mentioned it. The fact that they didn’t would more than suggest that here too, it must’ve been the golden mean at work.

I rest my case.

So I must leave you with the thought that if you happen to be male and anywhere between 5’9’’ and 5’11’’ and some and if you aren’t making history, then you aren’t doing much.

As for the rest of the world on either side of the bridge, what do I say.... ‘eat your heart out’, I guess....


Thursday, June 9, 2011


This story is not really about him, and yet, call me indulgent but I can’t help but tell you a little bit about Socrates before we start. Socrates is my pet schizophrenic pig. On most days he is happy being a dull boar, rooting for truffles and other trifles, chasing sows and bullying dogs. But every now and then, when something momentous happens, like when an Osama gets shot or a Tiger gets caught or, Heaven forbid, if he ever catches me lingering a little longer than I should around the ham and bacon footlongs on the menu at our favourite ‘Subway’ before ordering our usual paneer tikka sandwiches, something snaps deep inside Socrates and he withdraws into a melancholic reflective shell.

Now when Socrates gets like that you’ve got to be careful because that’s when he starts talking. Yes that’s right... He’s a talking pig. Maybe it’s my fault that in an inspired moment I thought of naming him aft er the ‘grandfather of thought’ but Socrates takes the living up to the name bit a little too seriously.

In fact there are times that he talks about all that’s wrong with the world so much and for so long that I think we might both be happier if he was bacon. Now pray don’t let him read that and let me tell you about what happened this Sunday. It was World Environment Day and I was reading out the news to him (He doesn’t read on Sundays... I read for him. That’s how we do our quality time bit), and when I got to the point about an article celebrating the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and how it had empowered disenfranchised forest folk, giving a new lease of life and opportunity to the forest as well its denizens, both human and animal, I heard Socrates snort. His eyes had that distant flinty look... Ho hum, he was going into another of his ‘let’s sulk till we talk this out’ modes.

There’s only one thing to be done when Socrates gets like that, so I dropped the newspaper and off we went for a walk in the woods.

Once there, we made our way up to Socrates’ favourite spot... A high cliff that overlooked the tree tops. Nature’s penthouse if you will, and once there, Socrates looked away at the horizon deep in thought. I waited for him to talk and then I got tired of waiting. I poked him where I imagined his ribs might be and asked him if he wanted to talk...

Socrates kept staring into the horizon and then he startled me when he spoke... (It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known him... It doesn’t matter if you expect it... he will always make you skip a beat when he starts talking). But this time it wasn’t the fact that he spoke but the thought that shocked me. He said ‘we should have rights too. We need a voice... We need to vote too!’ I don’t know which was wider. My eyes or my mouth, and then I must’ve sniggered but the expression didn’t go down too well with Socrates. He turned away with a look that rested somewhere between derision and pity… The look you might reserve for a dirty little kid with a runny nose begging at a traffic intersection.

A few minutes of awkward silence followed and then he turned and asked ‘what’s so funny? Is this such an improbable idea?’ Well it was time for some cold hard truths. “Socrates, you are a pig! The only recognition you could ever hope for is a satisfied burp aft er you’ve been eaten. You don’t matter beyond the plate. You don’t have rights. Neither state nor faith allows you any. What you and I have is weird and strange... This is not normal. You are not normal... pigs get eaten, not voting rights. You’ve been reading too much of George Orwell, Socrates... I don’t know why you refuse to believe me when I tell you that the emperor of France wasn’t Napoleon the pig.”

Socrates seemed to consider it for a while and then said, “You might have a point there. So let’s not talk about us creatures of the kitchen. But what about those that have rights? The tigers and elephants in the forests... The eagles and the sea gulls, the birds and the bees... The state offers them protection, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t they have rights? Shouldn’t they have a voice?”

But we have laws protecting their rights. We can’t kill them. We can’t eat them. Heck, we can’t even cut a branch from a tree in a protected forest. Those are better odds for survival than you might get in any city, wouldn’t you say?

Socrates (I oft en think of calling him Socky, Ratty or just plain.. er.. Cocky, but he refuses to respond. He doesn’t like nicknames) wasn’t impressed. “You and I, we both know that what you said is far from the truth. If laws were enough to protect the forests and those that stay in them, why would a Sariska have lost its tigers and then even while the whole country is up in arms about it, Panna’s tigers also get poached and eaten. Where were your laws then? Surguja’ s virgin forests were supposed to be safe and inviolate – a designated elephant sanctuary. But you know what happens if the government is the only one vested with the power and the responsibility of protecting the tigers and their forests? The day the government feels that the coal lying in the womb of this forest is more important, read worth more money or more votes, these forests would lose their protected status and would be ripped open. Roads would run through the once pristine jungle like open scars. The remaining woodland would be classified as a ‘degraded forest’ and sold off in blocks to the timber Mafia. And the animals, some driven by starvation would enter villages in search of sustenance and would kill before they are killed. Others would get poached by desperate forest dwellers who themselves have been thrown out of a home that was once theirs and that’s all that’ll be left of it – a barren wasteland, the bones of the dead and a bunch of poor fugitives trying to escape the law and their destiny. The only beneficiaries would be a handful of government and forest officials and private contractors. This is all that would remain of these forests for the government is a trustee unencumbered by stakeholders or a sense of responsibility or accountability.”

The swine had made a fine point. So what do we do? I asked. “The environment would always come second best in any tussle as long as it remains a world without stakeholders or a voice. As long as the animals and the trees are left without a voice or a vote, the government would pay mere lip service while we watch and exploit and plunder when our backs are turned.

It is time that like the FRA, we had a Rights of Wildlife Act that allowed the animals to choose their representative too. You’ve got to let them vote. The NGOs could scream themselves hoarse but they can’t do a thing to stop the government or the poachers. They couldn’t stop the killings in Sariska or Panna. For all of Greenpeace’s posturing, whales are still being killed in all the seas. Drift nets are still decimating dolphins and there isn’t a thing anybody can do about it... The future can’t depend on handouts from the present. It needs to have a voice today, in the present. And without rights, without votes, our wild heritage can only survive so long on charity.”

While Socrates waxed eloquent, my thoughts turned to the tales of heretics who had been burnt at the stake. I was worried that his listeners might be tempted to burn him at the stake even if they agreed with him. His views might taste better aft er that, they might argue. I looked around to see if anybody had heard us.

Voting rights for animals? Who had ever heard of such a thing? As far as heresies go, this was right up there with the sun being at the centre of the solar system and the earth being round.

Ashamed to think that I might be taking my pig a little too seriously, I whispered to Socrates, “Even if what you say might have theoretical logic, how would a wild elephant vote? And how would it know who to vote for? You are going crazy. I should have you put down the day you went beyond a grunt you know...”

Socrates smiled. I swear he did... a cute piggy smile too. And then he said... “Of course, wild animals can’t vote but they know what’s good for them. And so do the rest of us, for whatever’s good for this planet is good for them too. And each forest, grassland and mountain, and almost every species has had its champions who are fighting tooth and nail to protect what they have dedicated themselves to... it’s their cause, our cause, your cause. Some like Diane Fossey have even laid their lives on the line and lost it for the cause. Give people like them the right to vote for us and choose for us. They’ll never let me or even you down. A hundred votes or a thousand or even ten thousand, the numbers for each could vary and we could debate about that. But it is irrefutable that you need to empower your wild heritage with more than just laws and the kindness of a few to battle greed of some and indifference of the rest.

As for us kitchen creatures, there would be a revolution one day like the one in Animal Farm and that day justice will be done. You don’t worry though, for I’ll tell the soldiers of the revolution that you are a good man. Almost as good as any pig. I know your wife and your parents would agree. We’ll be good to you.

Go ahead, don’t believe me. You might laugh now just like a white slave owner, less than 150 years ago, might have laughed if a black slave had told him that one of his children would one day become the President of his owner’s children. He might have even suffered a few lashes for being so impudent, but when the wheels of time turn, justice is always done, isn’t it? Think about it...snort!”

Socrates, having made his point, was done talking.

Socrates and I went back to staring at that line in the distance where a flaming row of gulmohars kissed the clouds as they slipped away beyond the horizon. Socrates seemed to be at peace but I kept thinking if this hog’s hopes were as good as his grunt. Wonder what you might make of it…


Thursday, June 2, 2011


The young man seemed to be in a hurry. It was late afternoon on Valentine’s Day, and looking at the young man hurrying away from the bus stand, one would have thought he was just another college kid late for a date. It was only if you walked up real close to him as he rushed past you that you would have caught the glimmer of cold steel in his eyes. Shocked, you might have wondered if it was hate that you saw in those eyes until you saw the furrowed brow, the clenched jaws and the Adam’s apple bobbing up and down and the Adam’s apple bobbing up and down and it was then that you knew it was hate and doubt streaked with fear and anger. You walked on, lost in thought of where and whys of the look in those eyes when suddenly your feet freeze. The ground below your feet shakes and shudders and in front of your eyes, a little further away to the right, you see the ball of fire explode. A split second later you hear the deafening roar of doom followed by the sound of glass shattering, car alarms screaming and the loud leaping of your heart. And then come the screams, of shock and disbelief, and of agony and anguish… Stunned, you wonder which way to go, what to do, and then on an impulse you turn to look at the young man who just walked past you… and you see him walking away from you. He was easy to find, the only moving figure on a street where every other person was rooted to the ground, numbed by the shock of the moment. Soon, that man is lost in the lanes of the city…

Shamsuddin had done as he was told. He had ‘delivered the package’ as instructed and then walked away from the ‘site’ without looking back or making eye contact with anybody. It wasn’t easy. He knew that every person he was walking past might soon be walking his last. There were men, women and children. Poor vegetable vendors were haggling with middle-class homemakers. Within minutes this would all be gone. Shamsuddin knew it and it wasn’t an easy thing to know…

He knew his way around here though. It was the route he took on his way back from school. He had been a good student… one of the very best in all Coimbatore, his mother used to say. He had wanted to become a police officer. But it was a dream that turned bad and bitter for Shamsuddin.

Five years ago, on this very street, while a fifteen year-old Shamsuddin was on his way back from school, a police van blocked his path and rough hands bundled him into the vehicle and he was taken away to the police station to be questioned for crimes he had never committed.

Tortured, beaten and then released only to be arrested again and again, Shamsuddin had entered the police station a broken boy but emerged from it a hardened man. Memories of the humiliation he suffered made it easy for him to walk away from the death and devastation that he knew was about to ensue that fateful Valentine’s Day in Coimbatore in 1998. He knew that the only crime he had committed until then was to be a Muslim. But today he would change all that… finally his voice would be heard

Shamsuddin, now in his mid 30s and serving time, was arrested in the aftermath of the Coimbatore blasts, this time for a crime he had committed. His story was told to me by one of the India’s best and brightest – a man who retired recently from one of the top seats in India’s premier investigative agency and was at the time in charge of the investigations that followed the serial blasts in Coimbatore.

On the 14th of February, 1998, a series of 13 bombs exploded in the prosperous southern Indian city of Coimbatore, killing 46 people and injuring and maiming more than 200 and destroying property worth many crores. A Muslim organisation, Al Umma, was found responsible for the carnage and immediately banned. The Tamil Nadu police apprehended a number of Umma activists and tried to get them to talk. But nothing worked, not even third degree methods. It was at this stage that the investigative officer in our story took over the reins of the investigation. His methods shocked the establishment. He disallowed the use of force and torture during investigations and instead tried to talk to the accused. People like Shamsuddin were spoken to with dignity and respect. He must have touched a chord with them for it was then that they started talking… many like Shamsuddin and even SA Basha, the head of Al Umma, shed unhappy tears and opened their hearts to the officer. They spoke of hurt and anger, of repression and regret and a need to be heard. The officer recounted how Basha had told him, “Had we been heard, our concerns addressed, maybe things wouldn’t have come to such a pass.”

This story however, is not an attempt to vindicate the crimes of Shamsuddin and Basha and others like them who have unleashed lethal violence on unsuspecting innocents to right their own wrongs or even give voice to their own pain through the agonized cries of their victims.

Nay, this tale from Coimbatore is but a mere allegory to that law of history and nature that W.H. Auden once warned us of when he wrote: “I and the public know, what all school children learn/Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.” And if that be so, then perhaps from Belzebub to Basha, the very nature of evil stems from a sense of alienation and injustice. Until we address the pain and the anguish of those who are hurting, we could kill every Osama and hang every Kasab and yet Evil would remain an undying immortal…