Thursday, November 24, 2011


My hall of heroes has been awfully noisy for the last few months. Champions who inspired me through thought and deed have been keeling over like eager pins in a bowling alley. And on the 19th of November, another titan rolled over to forever rest in peace. This is my second elegy in two weeks and I surely hope I don’t need to write any more of these for some time to come. The name of this unassuming man once shook up an empire. His friends called him ‘Dolly’, but history would remember him as the man at the centre of the D’Oliveira affair.

His name – Basil D’Oliveira.

He had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for a while now and I had written a story about him during India’s tour of South Africa. I reproduce sections from that story to remind you about a remarkable life that simmered with passion and a quiet dignity that humbled one of the cruelest regimes in history.

To tell you his story, let me take you to the time when he lay in bed, cold and dead, his eyes closed to the world for good. But if those eyes could talk to you still, they would have told you tales of all they saw…

For what they saw when they were young was a world full of hate and fear. Do you see that world now, a world far removed from here and now, many miles and many years away, in Cape Town, South Africa? You see a road and some kids playing cricket in the heat and dust of the afternoon. They’re playing hard, with enthusiasm, but you doubt they have the skills, except for the tall lad with a bat in the middle, whacking the ball to all corners with ease. Suddenly, you hear angry sirens… the game stops. The kids freeze, and once they know the direction of the approaching police car, the kids run in the opposite direction. The white policemen run after the dark-skinned little urchins, but they escape. It’s apartheid time in South Africa. “Coloured” kids go to jail for playing on the streets.

Anyway, you follow the kids on their run, especially the tall one with the eyes you know, as they run through streets and lanes, past hovels and slums, until one of the younger ones calls out to the tall one “Basil! Basil!! I think we’re safe now…” The tall one slows down, looks back at him, runs to him and puts an arm around him…the two friends are tired, but they’re happy…to be free, free to run and play. They look at each other and laugh, and laugh till they cry…

Basil grew to become quite the star in the local matches amongst non-whites (once hitting 46 in an eight-ball over), but he couldn’t ever hope to play for South Africa. Born into an Indian-Portuguese family in South Africa, he wasn’t allowed to play with white South Africans because the minority white government felt that it was beneath “white dignity” to mix with people of Indian or African origin. But as little Bas’ talents blossomed, so did his dreams. He was loved by his people for his brave and explosive batting, his tall hits and taller scores, and he’d like me to add, his steady, often inspired medium-fast bowling. But he’d grown too big for his ‘coloured’ boots. He wanted to play Test cricket. He’d watch the great white South African cricketers playing in the big stadium, and from his little segregated corner in the stands, wish he was there on the field, playing with them. He made up his mind to try the impossible. If his homeland wouldn’t have him then he’d try and play for the game’s homeland – England. Basil had a friend he trusted. A man he believed had a heart as bright and bold as that golden voice of his BBC commentator, John Arlott, a household name in every Commonwealth home with a radio. During the 1950s Basil was already on the wrong side of 25. Time was running out and he knew he was reaching for the moon, but he had to try. Arlott didn’t know of Basil when he received a letter from him that spoke of his dreams. But the story of a gift ed boy trapped by the colour of his skin touched a chord in his heart. Arlott wrote back, and thus the two exchanged letters and hope until two years passed. Then it began to wane. Basil was grateful for Arlott’s support, but he knew it was too late. He was too old now… Then out of the blue came a letter from Arlott. He’d persuaded an English club to hire Basil as a professional. The pay was meagre, but at last Basil would play as a professional.

Basil was delirious and his family and friends were so happy for him. In his dreams they saw their hopes of dignity and acceptance taking flight. But those dreams had come with clipped wings, only to flutter and shatter on the hard, cold floor. Basil didn’t have the money to pay for his way to England. But help walked in, in different hues. Friends, both brown and black, wrote letters and raised funds, and then Gerald Innes, a white South African cricketer, heard Basil’s story and put together a team of ‘whites’. They played a match, defying apartheid laws and its brutal police action, to raise funds for Basil’s journey. Years later, whenever Basil would be asked to add his voice to the crescendo against ‘the white man’s tyranny’, his memory of Innes walking amongst the spectators with a pail in his hands, raising funds for his cause, would always soften his stance. In England, it was a quiet start for the boy from the streets, walking behind his mates, looking for ‘coloured-only entrances and toilets’, but soon his great talent and greater hunger saw him take the leagues by storm. In five years, he’d become a British citizen, and perhaps because he’d lied about his age on arrival, was selected to play for England in 1966. He was 34 (or, more likely, 38). The old light in his eyes must have glistened for a while, for he must have shed a silent tear in prayer and joy that day… And then runs, dozens, scores and hundreds more flowed from his blade, and Basil scanned the horizon. England was due to tour South Africa and he was in form. This was the day he was waiting for, when he’d return to the land of his birth with so much to prove. It was a moment that he and his people had been waiting for.

But then the unthinkable happened. Basil lost his touch. It was 1968 and the Australians were touring. Basil was dropped after the first match. Four Tests later, they’d announce the team for South Africa. Basil was worried. Meanwhile, South Africa’s Prime Minister, one-time Nazi sympathiser, BJ Vorster was also worried. Not co-incidentally, Basil had been approached by a South African tobacco magnate to coach ‘non-white’ South Africans for more money that he’d ever seen. The ‘catch’ – he’d have to make himself ‘unavailable’ for the tour. Basil was tempted. He could secure his family’s future if he accepted… But, what of his dreams? And all those people waiting back home to see ‘Bas’, the ‘coloured’ Test cricketer? Though not in the team, Basil refused and hoped for a miracle.

It was the final ‘Test’ at the Oval and batsman Roger Prideaux fell ill. Meanwhile, Basil had turned out brilliantly in a county game and was picked for the final match. When Basil walked out to bat, he knew he was battling not just Aussie bowlers and the pressure of a comeback but also battling the South African government that wanted him to fail, as well as the weight of the expectations of every man of colour around the world. Basil scratched the pitch with the toe of his bat and took guard for far more than his team that day and slammed158 iron-willed runs that took England to victory, like in a fairy tale. What could stop his inclusion for the tour now? But alas, something did. The selectors were informed that the South African government won’t allow a player of ‘colour’. However, the English selectors maintained that, “Bas had been dropped on ‘cricketing grounds only’”. The nation erupted in support for Basil. But Basil felt betrayed by his adopted nation and maintained a stoic dignified silence even as the storm blew and grew. Then, as luck would have it, Cartwright, a bowler, was injured and Basil was recalled to the tour-team. But before a bemused Basil could join the team, Vorster exploded in Bloemfontein, calling the English team a team of “the anti-apartheid movement.”

Now the English couldn’t drop him and Vorster wouldn’t have him, and so the tour was cancelled. Bas felt sorry for his English team mates, and for himself, but most of all for his people back home. His integrity and proud dignity in the face of such rejection and betrayal stood out in stark contrast to the terrible racial bigotry in South Africa and the English sporting establishment’s tacit support. The West having hitherto turned a blind eye to South Africa’s excesses was now disgusted and embarrassed; it began to sever ties with South Africa. Within a year of refusing Basil, South Africa had become the pariah of the world, shunned and abhorred for its inhuman policies. If not for Basil D’Oliveira, the shy Indian boy from the Cape, who knows when, if ever, the world would’ve noticed, and who knows how much longer South Africa would’ve taken to become the great rainbow nation it is today.

So you might not have met, and you might not have known, but we all still owe old Bas for pushing the world in the right direction all those years ago. Nothing quite as dramatic as the story of the other Indian in South Africa who got thrown out of a train, but significant nevertheless… So do say a little prayer for him, for the world needs a Dolly, even if good old Dolly has no need for it anymore. God bless you, Bas!


Thursday, November 17, 2011


In the cold inky blue of a frosty Beijing night, the Red Theatre stands out like a bright red flame emitting warmth and light. On a night like this even without the pre-booked ticket in my pocket, The Red Theatre would’ve called out to me like the open arms of a long lost lover in city full of strangers. I hurried across the road, through the gates and up the cold wet steps of the theatre and entered a world draped in red and ochre.

The Red Theatre is famous for showcasing traditional Chinese performing arts like kung fu, but I would be lying if I said I had expected the theatre and the performance to be world class in terms of quality. To begin with, the theatre had this officious communist-sounding name, which by the way, was a huge improvement on the rather oxymoronish Chongwen Worker’s Cultural Palace Theatre; a name it went by before Mao’s (Zedong) China became Yao’s (Ming, the former iconic NBA star) China. And secondly, Chinese production values have always emphasized quantity over quality.

But having said that, I did expect the very highest standards of ‘performance kung fu’ even if the platform was going to be loud and kitschy. But boy, was I wrong. The auditorium was well appointed and the stage impressed with its scale but nothing had prepared me for the brilliance of ‘The Legend of Kung Fu’.

I sat mesmerized as I saw the sublime blend of music and martial arts weave together a magical tapestry that told the tale of a young boy at the Shaolin temple and how he found enlightenment through kung fu. Halfway through the show, my neighbor, a fellow Indian, shook his head and said “isn’t it sad that we have nothing like this in India. Our classical music and dance is all fine but nothing compares to the virile vigour of a martial tradition. Our national character would have been different if we had a proud martial culture rooted in our history like the Chinese..” I nodded in agreement but I was too distracted for a conversation. My whole being was funneled into the mystical world on stage - beams of light, blue yellow and red, dancing in circles around the stage, catching the actors, skilled martial artists all, in shades of light and shadow - as the story unraveled its seductive charms.

Suddenly a little boy appeared, not on stage, like I first thought, but like a vision in my head. That little boy danced with the lights and the music for a while and then the stage faded while palm trees appeared around a lake where the child jumped in and began to swim across it. Once on the other side, he pushed his long dark hair away from his eyes, removed his tunic and wrung the water out. It is then that I realized that the boy wasn’t Chinese but Indian.

A voice…! The child looked up. Someone was calling out to him. I followed his gaze and saw a bunch of soldiers from another time, carrying shields and javelins. I wondered if these were friends or foes, but then I saw the child smile and run towards them. Ah, friends! This boy seemed to be a prince of some sort and this was some ancient kingdom by the Malabar Coast. The stage had faded completely as I got immersed in this story in my head.

The boy grew up nursing a keen interest in the ways of war as well as the scriptures of his chosen faith – Buddhism. He was the son of a king and he had the best teachers in the land instructing him on both paths which seemed to converge in his heart as he pursued their truths. He found that the way of the warrior, one who dedicated his life to the pursuit of excellence in his chosen martial art and then forged his will in the furnace of war for truth and justice found the same sense of enlightenment as those who meditated on the teachings of the Buddha and the scriptures for years in seclusion, and often sooner.

The boy was named Bodhitara. And as his understanding of the truth grew, so did his resolve to share it with the world and help them find the same peace that he had found. As the third son of his father, he was not bound by the same responsibilities that chained his elder brothers to the throne and so he left his kingdom, Kanchipuram, in modern day Tamil Nadu and became a wandering monk who spent his days sharing the light with the world.

Bodhitara was now known as Bodhidharma and he travelled across the length of India and then found himself on a vessel that was sailing east and after battling storms and pirates it dropped anchor in a Malaysian harbor. Bodhitara did not stay here for long and moved north towards China. However, he did linger long enough to leave behind his martial teachings which metamorphosed into the Malaysian martial art of Silat.

Along the way, Bodhidharma met kings and philosophers, learning and sharing, teaching and training all he knew of the way of peace and the way of war. And then he reached that famous Buddhist monastery in the mountains called Shaolin. But Bodhidharma, now known as Damo in China, was disappointed. The monks in the monastery were in poor physical and mental condition and their weak bodies just couldn’t handle the rigours of sustained meditative practices and nor could they defend themselves against the bandits who often raided the temple.

Damo went into a cave and stared at a wall to meditate on the problem. And it is said he meditated for many years. If you go to Shaolin today, they will show you the cave where Damo meditated. At one point, he felt his eyelids go heavy with sleep and so he cut them off and flung them to the ground. Where his eyelids fell, so runs the Chinese legend, sprang up a little plant whose leaves, when brewed, helped the monks stay awake through their austerities. Today, they call it tea.

When Damo found his answers, he went to the monks and taught them techniques to strengthen their bodies against disease and dacoits. Some of those teachings were inscribed in an immortal classic, versions of which survive to this day – The Muscle/Tendon changing classic or Yijin Jing. And these teachings that Damo brought with him all the way from India’s southern tip were the pillars that held up the Saholin Temple through wars and famines and floods and fires and laid the foundation of Shaolin Kung fu and qigong.

“Rise son, and honour the teachings of Damo…”, said the old master on stage, and mention of Damo’s name brought me back to performers on stage. The master continued, “… and as you honour his path, you will find the way to enlightenment.”It’s a sad irony that ‘Damo’s way’ became the way for a land far away from his own, but in his homeland, the twin arts of Kalaripayattu and Marma Vidhya (the art of striking the vital points), in which he trained with such passion to become the warrior ascetic, have been languishing, forgotten and forlorn, like an old senile grandfather left to die in a corner of the family courtyard.

About 155 years after Damo was born, sometime in the sixth century A.D., a minister from the Chinese Emperor’s court was returning from his travels and chanced upon Damo on the Pamir range that separates China from Central Asia and asked the revered sage where he might be going, to which the sage replied he was headed home. Then the minister noticed that Damo was walking bare feet and was holding a sandal in his hand. When the minister asked him why, he replied “you’ll know when you get back to court.”

Once there, the minister told Emperor Wei about his meeting. The Emperor was shocked when he heard that for Damo had died three years ago. Damo had been buried behind the monastery in Shaolin but when they reached his grave it was empty except for one sandal.

If only Damo could have brought Kalaripayattu and Marma Vidya back from the dead the way he himself returned from his grave, perhaps my neighbour wouldn’t have been lamenting the absence of a martial tradition in India.

The curtains came down on the show and we stood up and gave the performers a standing ovation. But I left the theatre with a gaping wound in my heart, regretting the fact that we had squandered with apathy and neglect the very riches that have enriched our neighbours so…


Thursday, November 10, 2011


Every time I open my book of heroes, a gust of wind blows a leaf away. And swirling with it into the great blue beyond disappears another life well lived, another inspired moment, another story that tells you that mortal though you be, these winds will carry your story on their lips into eternity if only you have the courage to dare.... To care.....!

This week, i’m interrupting ‘The Dragon’s Den Diaries’ to pay my dues to an inspirational light that shall flicker no more. Join me if you care.....

I was born the year he retired and so for a long time he did not show up on the radar of my adolescence. Then I watched a prize fighter in cricket whites smash the bejesus out of Kapil Dev and co. Until then I had eyes and heart for only two cricketers. Fast bowlers both, from across the border, one a proud pathan named Imran Khan and the other his left armed protege, Wasim Akram.. I thought batsmen were wimps to hide behind helmets and chest pads while these long haired warriors unleashed thunderbolts and lightning like gods from the heavens. I had no time for willow wielders until one day I saw this powerfully built dark Hercules swat those thunderbolts off his nose and into the stands with the arrogance of lion at a dog show and I sat up and took notice. They called him Vivian Smokin’ Joe Richards. But why’d they call him Smokin’ Joe? I learnt they called him that after a heavyweight boxer called Joe Frazier, a man Richards admired and in him, more than any other cricketer, found his true inspiration . And why did they call him that? Well Joe Frazier was a relentless fighter who used to steam in at his opponent. But more importantly, the two smokin Joes had another thing in common. They were giant-slayers in a land of giants. Both of them were less than six feet tall, taking on opponents who were much bigger and taller and yet they had the power and the panache to remain standing even as they knocked the stuffing out of their rivals. While Richards took guard against big tall fast bowlers during his career and left them cowering in fear with his onslaught, Joe Frazier at 5’10” was rather small for a heavy weight boxer. And yet, he stood toe to toe with some of the most formidable men to ever step into a ring, and more oft en than not, emerged triumphant.

But there was one cowardly giant that Joe found impossible knock out. He fought till his breath lasted and he fought hard and true. But on the 7th of November, the once mighty Frazier was knocked out cold by a contender he couldn’t see. Liver cancer snuffed out Smokin Joe’s light and there would be no rematch this time.

Joe’s legacy, much like his personality, simmers under the surface. He didn’t fight for the black man’s pride the way Ali did. Nor did he have the wit and charm and focussed humanitarian spirit of a George Foreman. What Frazier did instead was inspire with his courage and passion. Born into near poverty in a racially charged environment, young Joe fought for dignity and pride long before he started fighting for money. And yes, he fought for the love of the game. For why else would he spend his afternoons at an abattoir where he once worked, practising his punches and pummelling butchered carcasses while his colleagues rested. And of course he fought for us, the little guys. No matter how big your opponent, watching Joe lashing out at the big guys helped us believe we were no less, even if the inches be so....

The Joe Frazier story, beyond the trilogy of Ali fights and the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ was one that revealed itself to me in patches, first as the icon for an icon and then in dogeared books and grainy black and white videos. But in every story I read, and in every picture I saw, I saw a man who seemed to fear no one and love every one. That’s an epitaph few would complain about....

Rest in peace Smokin Joe for your stories will forever be blowing in the wind.....


Thursday, November 3, 2011


It had been a long day. Grey and near freezing, there were a million needles flying with every gust of the cold old winds that whistle their way through thousand-year-old ramparts and shiny new towers jostling for space in this ancient city that has flourished and floundered and flourished again in the shadow of the Great Wall. This was day one in Beijing. Dusk was settling in and darkness fell with a sudden eagerness that surprised me as I wandered around the hotel. Cloudy and windy, and ensconced in a bluegrey smog since I had landed, Beijing hadn’t really opened her doors and pulled me in. It was more like she kept me waiting at the door, cold and lonely, out on the threshold, to see how much I wanted her. I wasn’t in the mood for trials of love though and I just slumped down on my seat, comfortable, but homesick, wishing I was somewhere else, where the sun didn’t need ‘the people’s permission’ to shine. The bus drove past the proud yet scarred heart of the city – Tiananmen Square. The vista dwarfs our own Rajpath the way Yao Ming would dwarf Tendulkar. And the place makes you feel differently too. While an India Gate tries to look good and impress like a handsome and hopeful kid on prom night, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is like a dominating patriarch, grand and powerful, generous when so disposed, yet forbidding when not. ‘I have a lot to give’, the square seems to say, with the massive monuments to ‘the people’ all around the square and Chairman Mao’s mausoleum, glittering in the corner of my eye, smaller, but far more distinct than the massive sprawling structures around it, with a golden star anointing its crown, but ‘you better behave yourself ’ it says, with a deep soft rumble, ‘or you might not like what I give’, it warns. I was impressed, but it didn’t feel any less lonely. I wandered some more and saw the cold streets and pavements empty themselves of shoppers and drifters. The roads were still busy though with people rushing home from work. I wondered as I wandered, what might be a good way to spend an evening in a city where no one knows me, where few can understand me; and where I have a lot of time, a little money and the unfamiliar feeling of having nowhere to be... And then I saw it, a building with a bright red grid facade and a bold neon sign, ‘The Red Theatre’. And across the top half of the facade was the towering cut out of a bald man looking like he wanted to sit down, but someone had taken his chair away. He didn’t seem too happy about it either. It was the cut out of a Shaolin monk doing tie ma bu or horse stance – a signature Shaolin Kung Fu, hard yet meditative, stance that denotes power, endurance, calmness and balance. I’m a sucker for macho moves. In that sense, I haven’t yet grown out of my teens and so in the warm glow of the lights from the Red Theatre, my mood brightened up and I rushed to the ticket counter. It was a full house. I would have to wait for the next show. That would take another 90 minutes, but with some time to burn, I hopped onto a bus and thought of taking in more of the sights of Beijing before returning for the show. The bus, like the rest of the city, was as slick and modern. Except for the people to remind me, this could have been any first world capital city. Actually that’s being unfair. Very few first world cities, Berlin is the only one from the list of great cities that comes to mind, that compares with the scale, history and stately grandeur mixed with modern development and opulence. Most other first world capitals would struggle to encompass the range of extremes that is Beijing.

We drove past the diplomatic enclave of the capital and the brilliantly lit golden facade of the Beijing Hotel, perhaps the city’s oldest and definitely one of the world’s grandest, at least on the face of it, just took one’s breath away. I must have been looking at the hotel with a lot of longing for I stood up from my seat for a better view when I heard a voice under my armpit ‘vewee nice but vewee vewee expensive!’ I followed the sound under my armpit to its owner and saw a young lad in his mid 20s, or could have 7-8 years either way and I might not have known any better, shaking his head at me. I smiled and nodded. And then I went back to looking at the hotel as it floated past my window. ‘You ken see Tiananmen Square and even little Forbidden City from hotel’, the boy volunteered. So I asked the lad if anybody could get rooms in the Beijing Hotel or did one have to be a diplomat to be allowed access? ‘Why not? Ken have...If money, ken have room...’ My thoughts wandered to the Ashoka Hotel in Delhi, which would qualify as The Beijing’s Indian counterpart and that’s where I realised that while both India and China have had similar beginnings, the Chinese leadership has always sought one thing with dogged determination that Indians at the helm can never be accused of having too much of, and that is a fist full of pride. The difference between these two states, if you ask me, and my teachers would tell you that you really shouldn’t, but if you still had this manic urge to go ahead and ask, I’d say that beyond the complications of a functional democracy and the virtues of a planned economy, beyond the distractions of a free society and the constrictions of focused growth, the primary difference between these two nations lies in the value these nations and generations of their leaders have attached to pride, in their national identity and in their legacy. I am not saying that one is better or worse, just saying it like I see it. So that’s my two-bit insight as far as our comparative economic cultures are concerned.

I was lost in one of the toilets of the Ashoka when I heard the self-appointed guide under my armpit exclaim ‘tha iss the Forbiiiiden Ciiiityyy’. And in the evening light I saw the hulking silhouette of the once forbidden city rise above the traditional slanting roofs of the old quarters of Beijing. In the darkening gloom, the Forbidden City wasn’t little by any means but did look very forbidding indeed. Home to China’s emperors for more than 500 years, these palace grounds were off limits for most commoners and death was sure to follow anyone who wandered uninvited within its walls. Today, thousands flock within these long dead walls, hoping to snatch a glimpse of what it must have been like to walk within these hallowed walls as a designated god, with a world beyond that is all mine for as far as the eye can spy, with queens in the palaces and concubines in the pleasure chambers, life must have been rather busy indeed for China’s rulers. But more forbidden tales for later. For now, I had a show to catch... And a show that would remind me of home, for reasons both good and bad.

I had reached the Red Theatre in time to catch my show, and while I waited for the curtains to rise, there was a polite announcement in accent-free English.... ‘Wait a while, please be nice!’