Thursday, February 28, 2013


Tucked away in a cul de sac at the tail end of a posh residential street in south Delhi, shimmers a magic portal. The gate to this world is always locked but a twisty side gate allows the intrepid to enter while a mustachioed guardian looks on through sleepy half closed eyes. At his feet lies a fawn bitch, just as sleepy with a litter of puppies attached to her swollen teats. I step over the dozy family and follow the dirt trail into this new world.

Red with rust and who knows if a little dried blood, wire fencing on both sides of the trail, close, meticulous and sharp, keeps all but the thickest skinned and desperate from invading this little island. A few more steps and the noise and smoke of the city leave you, like reluctant hangers on who know that they aren’t allowed any further.

Walk on further, and like a seductive temptress, the winding trail and green vistas draw you close. The winter sun seems a little brighter, the air a little sweeter and the songs, carried by a wind that seems to revel in this new found freedom, bring back memories of a Delhi whose gardens had birds once.

As the trail curves around the edge of a cliff , a startled mongoose darts across the opening and disappears in the brush. Beyond me yawns a valley, carved not by the gentle hands of all knowing nature, but by the myopic hunger of bull dozers and excavators that had once mined and ravaged this land down to its very bones. Here stand the high ridges of the ancient Aravallis, weather beaten guardians of Delhi, that had deterred invaders in the past and still strive to keep the heat and dust of the Thar from flooding the city and the rain clouds from going too far away. Mindless mining though had left this region pock marked and gasping for breath. Native flora and fauna had been decimated and driven off and an uncaring invader, prospos is julifera, better known by its notorious nom de plume – vilayati keekar had flourished on this denuded landscape. This tree, though greening the ground on the surface, does little to provide nourishment to the native fauna and instead acidifies the soil and degrades it. Barren and left for dead, this land was grabbed by settlers. Ramshackle shelters and slums rose on these grounds and litter and feces dotted the pockmarked grounds that had once been home to deer and partridge and had once nourished the city with oxygen rich air.

But that was nearly a decade ago. Two formidable institutions – Delhi University’s Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems (CEMDE) and Delhi Development Authority joined callused hands and decided to do something about restoring dignity and if possible a bit of the old charm to this ravished landscape.

It was not going to be easy. Mission near impossible, you’d think. But an unassuming man with a soft voice that masked steely determination and indefatigable reserves of enthusiasm and patience has today almost achieved the impossible. Aravalli Biodiversity Park, nestled between South Delhi’s urban environs in Vasant Vihar and the airport has been resurrected and is today a veritable paradise. The mining pits have a cloak of green, and the birds have returned. Last week, a morning’s birding expedition led by Dr Aisha Sultana, field biologist with Aravalli Biodiversity Park, identified nearly a hundred species of avifauna. And recent surveys have revealed the presence of more than 200 species of birds in the park. A stunning turnaround from the terrible low of thirty odd bird species that had managed to survive the mutilation of the landscape.

So what went into recreating this little Eden? I asked the man who made it all possible – Dr M Shah Hussain, Scientist-in-charge at the Aravalli Biodiversity Park. Having cut his teeth on the recreation of the Yamuna Biodiversity Park and kept his promise to his mentor, Professor CR Babu, Director CEMDE, of giving Delhi “a mini Bharatpur” in the Yamuna basin, Dr Hussain took on the challenge of restoring the Delhi ridge to its original splendor.

This was no easy task. Each floral species that had originally sprouted on these lands when untouched by the hand of man was painstakingly identified and planted. Then they had to be protected from the elements. Encroachers, both animal and human had to be evacuated and all 692 acres of the designated park area secured. After eight long years of restoration the park has begun to acquire the look and feel of the scrub and deciduous forest that it used to be.

As I walked along the trail with Dr Hussain, he marked out species after floral species and highlighted the role that each played in the restoration process. Not only did the park, unlike other parks in the city, provide green cover but is also instrumental in refilling ground aquifers and maintaining the water table. Based on a self-sustaining natural model, the symbiotic relationship established between floral and faunal species will ensure that the park will continue to flourish “..with increasingly minimal economic support” said Dr Hussain. “Not only does this natural model neutralize pollution levels… restores the water table… but traps many micro fauna that can trigger diseases”.

At that point Dr Hussain stopped and his eyes scanned the bushes. “Nilgai!”, he whispered as he peered into a thicket nearby. I couldn’t see anything but I followed his gaze and soon enough a female, a mahogany red vision of delicate grace sauntered into view. It looked into my eyes, evaluated its options and then decided we weren’t really a threat and settled down to a good chew.

It was a beautiful moment. A forest reborn, its natural flora re-establishing old associations with the earth, her old wounds healed, and animals large and small fulfilling their designated roles in nature.

“This is a true forest pyramid”, said the modest Dr Hussain, without a hint of much deserved pride. “It is a model for forest officials and town planners for reclaiming mining areas. Once ready it will not only provide aesthetics… a pollution free environment… but it also opens avenues for eco-tourism”.

We walked back, past a flock of peahens, out on a matronly stroll in the afternoon sun and made our way towards the pride of the park – an open air butterfly conservatory. What was once a barren mine pit is a green basin today with hundreds of species of floral blossoms blooming like broken bits of rainbow strewn on the ground. And flitting about amongst the pollen and the petals were butterflies.

Dr Hussain pointed one out that had settled on a blade of grass nearest to us – “…that’s the Plain Tiger!” he said, and I could see how the tawny wings of the dainty insect dotted with black and white got them their name. The park was now home to more than 90 species of butterflies. The restoration process is still far from complete though, warns Dr. Hussain. Delicately poised, the park is still vulnerable to excesses from uncontrolled excursions by thoughtless visitors. “This is a reserve forest…” and joggers and people playing loud music disturb the animals in their habitat. Dr Hussain laments the fact that he has had to endure the sight of dogs tearing apart a peacock, our national bird.

Once the park is ready and the wheels of nature have been well and truly set in motion, the Aravalli Biodiversity Park will become far more resilient and independent. But it is essential that we citizens, as both beneficiaries and stakeholders in the health of this park act responsibly and conscientiously in our relationship with this environmental jewel that is in, and in many ways is, the heart of this city.

The city owes people like Dr Hussain and his team and the institutions that made this experiment possible and successful a debt of gratitude. And perhaps the best way to thank them all would be celebrate the park’s presence in our city and our lives by honouring the laws of nature, within and without the park’s boundaries.


Thursday, February 21, 2013


The big boys are here. Australia is back in India to try and reclaim lost ground and glory. From the look of things, they are well on their way. And, what of India?

The former mace holders of the number one spot in Test cricket have had their once proud noses rubbed in the green in England, smashed in on the sun baked acres Down Under and finally chopped and buried in the dust bowls of the subcontinent. Will this series help Dhoni’s boys grow a new proboscis this spring? Will India win back the Border-Gavaskar trophy and a bit of pride? The point is, it might. But that should be small consolation for a team and a nation aspiring to win back the crown.

The Proteas are the ones wearing it today, and wearing it well, one would say. They are dismembering the resurgent Pakistanis in their backyard with punch and panache that would have done the champion teams of old proud. And I don’t see this team wresting a series from them on current form, at home or away.

The English are next in line and they have already told us what I was meaning to say. Basically, fat chance! Australia is coming in without two of their best who have ridden off into the sunset, and without that precocious new talent who threatens to blow batsmen away soon as he can get his back to hold him up – the sensational Pat Cummins. And yet, I feel they will have the upper hand in the series against India unless… And more on that shortly. For now, back to the list.

Pakistan is getting comfortable up there with the big guns at number four. And they have the nucleus of a side that could emerge as a serious threat to the current podium finishers. They almost gave India a drubbing in the ODIs with their razor edged bowling attack and left the ‘Men in Blue’ bleeding. In the relatively more encouraging environs of a Test match, it doesn’t take much to imagine how wafer thin the current Indian line-up would look against the swing and bounce of Umar Gul, Junaid Khan and the beanpole from Burewala, Mohammed Irfan.

So is the current Indian team going to shake up the ICC rankings in a hurry? If you ask me, it looks highly unlikely. Ok, though I wouldn’t be able to say if the Aussie pacemen would be able to run through the Indian batting on Indian wickets often enough because they are rather new to the conditions, I will go out on a limb here and say that India does not have the fire power to dismiss the Australians twice over more than once in the four match series unless… and here is the unless I was speaking of earlier… unless, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and maybe Shami Ahmed emerge as new and potent forces at this level or, and this is even more unlikely, Ishant Sharma rediscovers his pace and aggression. As for the rest of the attack, it is useful at best.

Cricketing greatness, especially at the Test match level, is possible only if a lot of things fall in place. And greatness isn’t about holding on to a ranking for a few months or even a year or so. Greatness, in Test cricket, is about creating and leaving behind a legacy for generations all over the world to aspire to. It is about dominating the game for a decade or more.

Only truly great teams can do that. Remember Don Bradman’s invincibility in the 1930s-40s, Peter May’s Englishmen in the 1950s, the Sir Frank Worrell and Richie Benaud led West Indies and Australia and their monumental rivalry in the 60s, and then came Ian Chappell’s near dirty dozen who hustled and muscled their way through most of the 70s and in waylaying him and his team, inspired a bruised and battered Clive Lloyd and a bunch of extremely athletic and talented entertainers to become the demonic force that dominated world cricket from the late 1970s right up to the mid 1990s. Then the mantle passed on to the Australians till about 2010. And now the scepter is adrift again, flirting with a few suitors but yet to fall in love again. South Africa though seem the strongest and the boldest of those at the dance. And India for now, results against Australia notwithstanding, would be lucky to get a second look. And here’s why…

Great Test teams need a few essentials. A solid, if not great, opening pair; at least two top or middle order batsmen, who would rank in the history of the game as all-time greats; it would be nice if the team had an all rounder who had the respect of the opposition; a match winning spinner would be wonderful but what a team cannot even pretend to be great without is a pair of fast bowlers who are all-time greats.

All the above mentioned teams had these combinations in some measure or the other. You could say that Clive Lloyd’s and Ian Chappell’s teams did not have a spinner worth remembering (sorry Ashley Mallet, those fingers tweak words better than Kookaburras), but like I said, spinners in the great teams of the past and the future, are wonderful, but not a necessity. Th at is simply because a spinner’s ability to force the issue is a little limited simply because he depends far more than the fast bowler on conditions, to ply his trade effectively. Secondly, a spinner’s effectiveness, and I mean that in his role as strike bowler and not stock bowler on flat belters, wanes as batsmen around the world become more familiar with his craft . Ajantha Mendis, and why even Harbhajan Singh, would be cases in point. Bishen Singh Bedi and Shane Warne would be amongst the exceptions to that rule because while one was magical with flight, the other gave it a rip like none other in the history of the game.

So when you look at South Africa, here’s what you get. A soon to be all-time great batsman in Hashim Amla, a solid opening batsman in Graeme Smith, an exceptional all round cricketer in AB de Villiers and perhaps the greatest cricketer of our times – Jacques Kallis.

So far, India doesn’t stack up to poorly against them. Forget form, but Virender Sehwag is still one of cricket’s great match winners. Virat Kohli is going to be a stalwart of his times too, and I say that not on current record, or for those shots he plays so well, but for the way he thinks about the game and Vivianesque pride in his batting. And while Mahendra Singh Dhoni might not have AB’s batting credentials, he is surely a more than useful all round cricketer. Then there’s Cheteshwar Pujara whose career so far has established that his pedigree is unquestionable.

And for as long as we have that ageless champion, Sachin Tendulkar in our ranks, why should we give anything away to Kallis’ gigantic stature.

And that leaves us with what no great team can do without – twin heavy artillery units that will do the demolition job, relentlessly, unfailingly, come rain or shine, on mud-pits, dust bowls and green tops alike. Just one wouldn’t do, for while one bowler could run through a side every now and then, pick up a bunch of wickets over a long career too, but he could never dominate sides consistently enough on his own to win series after series singlehandedly. Remember Richard Hadlee?

In Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander, South Africa has two match winning bowlers who repeatedly run through sides and will surely finish as pacemen who will rank amongst the greatest in the history of the game. And then there’s Morne Morkel who is about just as good as any in world cricket today. And, what about India? Well, forget now, India has never really had an all time great bowler, fast or otherwise.

Yes, we’ve had Anil Kumble and Kapil Dev who have taken more than a thousand wickets between them. But wickets only mean that they have been marginally more penetrative, more consistent and relatively fitter than those who have shared the ball with them. These stats alone do not suggest domination or match-winning ability.

For that you would have to look at bowling averages and wickets taken per match (within the confines of a given era). Great bowlers of the modern era, those that have dominated sides consistently have an average that hovers around less than 25 (ie they concede less than 25 runs for every wicket taken) and their strike rate hovers around less than 55 (ie they take a wicket every 55 balls or sooner).

India’s greatest, Kapil Dev and Kumble have an average of around 29.6 and a strike rate of 63 or more. Current mainstays Harbhajan and Zaheer have an average of about 32 and a strike rate of 68.1 and 59.7 respectively. The current crop fares even worse.

To keep things in perspective, the world’s best demolition units, Lillee-Thompson, Marshall-Garner, Mcgrath-Lee have an average of around 23 and strike rates averaging out at about 50. And Dale Steyn, for the record strikes every 41 deliveries at 22.68 a piece while Vernon Philander is weighing in with an average of 16.81(admittedly over a mere 16 Tests) and picking a wicket every 35 balls.

By comparison, our new spearhead Ishant Sharma has an average of about 38 and an onerous strike rate of 68.6. Our great new hopes R Ashwin and Umesh Yadav have an average languishing at around 32 but Umesh has an encouraging strike rate of a wicket every 46 deliveries.

And there lies our hope of attaining true greatness as a cricketing nation.


Thursday, February 14, 2013


What is this I hear? Word’s afoot that the IOC (International Olympic Committte) is all set to plant a patent leather boot on wrestling’s proud and broad backside. Just isn’t fair if you ask me. Just as we got so good at field hockey that our dribbling had left both audiences and competition with eyeballs going giddier than pin balls, they changed the game by waving in artificial surfaces. Then they waited long enough for Mary Kom to get a little long in the tooth and slow down a bit before introducing women’s boxing to the games.

For years India’s celebrated wrestlers would beat allcomers in dirt pit matches but without the resources to procure enough wrestling mats, wouldn’t be able to muster enough speed to match opponents on modern mats and lose both pride and points. And just when a new wave Indian pehelwans seem to be on the verge of global domination, the sport of wrestling is being shown the door at the highest sporting platform in the world – the Olympics. Just doesn’t seem fair.

And it isn’t just the land of the Great Gama, Gobar Goho and Sushil Kumar that is crying foul. Of Uzbekistan’s five golds at the Olympics, four were in wrestling. Of Azerbeijan’s six, four went to the big guys in singlets. Even a regional powerhouse like Iran owes 39 of its 60 medals at the games to her pehelwans. And grapplers won the most powerful Olympic nation in history, the United States of America, the highest number of medals in the games after athletics and aquatics.

The ancient Olympics, the games that inspired the modern sporting extravaganza, was basically about foot races, a chariot race, wrestling matches and boxing. The legendary Milo of Croton owes his legends to his Olympic victories in the wrestling pit. To take wrestling out of the Olympics is to take the soul out of the games. If the IOC replaces wrestling with Baseball or Taolu Wushu, they might as well stop calling the games the Olympics (after Olympia in Greece) and start calling it the Mount Rushmore games or the The Great Wall games.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for adding new disciplines to the games. New disciplines like sport climbing and karate would be great for both the spirit and the spectacle of the great games. But why drop wrestling, a sport that both in popular culture and ancient art pretty much represents the games? And it is a discipline whose highest honour, its greatest pinnacle, is an Olympic medal. Removing such a discipline from the games would take away the dreams of thousands of young wrestlers from Tehran and Iowa to Baku and Hissar, and turn away thousands more from taking to the mat. And what about the millions of amateur wrestling fans for whom catching Olympic wrestling matches on the tube is highlight of their Olympic experience?

Instead, if the IOC really wants to shock the world and drop a sport that would get noticed, instead of something obscure and little known like Modern Pentathalon, it should perhaps drop soccer from the list.

To begin with, Olympic soccer, with its rather queer format and restrictions, is not even a pale shadow of the real thing. The quality of skills and stars on display wouldn’t match club football, regional tournaments or the World Cup. With its huge infrastructure requirements, soccer almost needs a parallel venue and set up. And last but not the least, Olympic soccer is a very poor reflection of the real world. If we are talking football and you come across rankings where Canada ranks way ahead of Brazil, Germany and the Netherlands, know that we are either at the Olympics or you’ve got that list upside-down.

The Olympic committee says it dropped wrestling from the proposed list for the 2020 games based on ‘apparent popularity’, television ratings, policy against doping and globalised spread of the sport, amongst other things. Th at, just between you and me, is just plain ridiculous and a whole bunch of words I am not supposed to write. The IOC obviously needs to become a little more transparent and democratic about its means and methods.

The wrestling world, fans, federations and athletes, will react as it best can. But this should also serve as a wakeup call for the sport. Wrestling, given its past and potential could do far more to popularise the sport. It has relied too long on its various derivatives to stay relevant for a large section of people. Pro-wrestling for fans from around the world, folk wrestling for traditionalists and collegiate wrestling for career athletes keeps the heat off amateur wrestling federations and the need to modernize or innovate.

How much cooler would the sport become if they would ditch those singlets which haven’t changed since KD Jadhav stepped out of one and design something which Reebok or Adidas wouldn’t be embarrassed about having their name emblazoned across. And organising tournaments around the world where top seeded wrestlers go up against each other for points and trophies much like in pro-tennis with its ATP points and Grand Slams would really be very exciting. Additionally, this would allow fans to associate with and recognise not just the country but the individual wrestler, his style and method and his personality. Every sport needs spectator interest, champions and characters to grow and flourish, find fans and become commercially viable, for associations, athletes and sponsors.

Is there more that can be done for wrestling? Of course! The world celebrated the glories of Muhammad Ali, Don Brad man, Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Fedor Emelianenko and Pele for standing atop their chosen sport with near invincibility for so long. And yet it hasn’t heard of Aleksandr Karlein, a giant on the mat who dominated Greco-Roman wrestling for a decade and a half.

The wrestling body has been guilty of unimaginative handling and perhaps not doing enough to add a modern dimension to the sport. The Olympic omission should jerk the powers that be into thinking on their feet and taking steps to make the sport more appealing for a global audience and carving personalities out of those anonymous chiseled men in tights. And while we are at it, could we please make the rules, like for the tie-break for instance, a little more dynamic and viewer friendly?

The Olympics without wrestling is a bit like a wedding without a bride. It works for some, but it just isn’t what it’s always been; beautiful still for those involved but not what most of us want it to be, and in some respects, what it is meant to be.

So 2020 or not, wrestling will have to, eventually, return to the Olympic fold. Meanwhile, those in whose hands the sport’s future lies should get busy with carving an identity for the sport that is self reliant, like tennis, football, basketball and athletics. After all, for most serious athletes, what happens once in four years can be the cherry atop the cake, not the entire cake. The Olympics are an event, not a career. The wrestling body owes it to the sport, the wrestlers, the fans and history to make the sport what it can be, what it was always meant to be and now that they have been ‘suplexed’ onto their broad behinds, it is time for them to get back up and push against the clock or to go down in history as the men (and women) who let wrestling go down, and out…


Thursday, February 7, 2013


What right do you have to take away my right to bring women – people I have known as friends, family, lovers, teachers, a country and maybe even as God – to life on my canvas, with my vision as the brush and my blood and sweat for paint?

What right do you have to take away my right to write of confessions and guilt, perceived or real; of . my gods, false or true; or of my beliefs, agreeable or not? They are mine, to share and defend, to honour or offend.

What right do you have to take away my right to put together a tale on film or mail that tells what I know is true and good? It is my tale, my truth and my belief in our good.

Mere shadows on screens and paper on print, they are no demons to fear, nor gods to revere, just my world for you to share… if you care…

I want you to see all that I do. Tell me you like it. Or maybe you hate it - an encounter you rue. That is ok, for it is your right to criticize and condemn what abominates or hurts. Shun it, lampoon it, scoff at it for all I care. Tell the world it isn’t worth their time from every rooftop in everywhere. That is your right as much as it is mine, for from those very same rooftops, I too have my soul to bare.

No, I don’t hate you. I like you in fact. Like Jacob and the angel, we too have our own age-old pact.

If the wondrous world is the whisk that churns this buttery soul, separating beauty and glory from the dull, the dreary and the mundane, then you, my savage critic, are the earthen pot that keeps this beauty and glory together, from spilling over and losing myself on dirty sullied ground.

Turn away from my words and wounds, and if you must, urge the world not to stare, but leave me my voice; don’t choke me with fear, that wouldn’t be right. That wouldn’t be fair.

I could go wrong. I will give you that. We are Lotharios given to seducing the senses, and syphilis be damned.

The hands could grow veined and old but the soul is young and brash, my passions wild and strong. They keep me warm and fed through hungry nights that are dark and long. They are the light, the way, the guiding star, but it is I, I blame, if I follow that light into dark alleys where I do not belong.

Open a window, tell me I’m lost. But don’t block my path, my freedom to roam. For how else would I learn to find my way home?

Sometimes I wonder if you really are sincere. Is your hurt felt, or do you feign injury? Do you fling burning barbs in hate and fear, or do you pull me down so you could a little taller appear?
Hounded by these questions are the ghosts of Souza and Husain in another world, an  the fans of Haasan in this; tormented too are a Salman, a Nasrin and three nameless girls as the ever-quiet moderate majority stares unwittingly into this claustrophobic bottomless abyss.

But I blame you not for your excesses as you too must excuse mine, it is the government that must protect your right to dissent as it must my right to call my god a name, or wear on my shirt his sign.

My noble critic, I absolve you of your sins, or like a river without banks of law, you can’t help but flood my world with your whims. I look to you, yes you, my man in ‘the house’, who took my taxes and my vote to bring me my rights, to fight my fights, to keep me safe on angry days and fiery nights.

Don’t wash your hands yet again, O Pontius fair. Don’t crucify justice and hang my free tongue on a nail up there. This nation shall one day learn to read and then your time will be done. The adventurer and the puritan shall coexist, but your impotent greed will come undone.

I wait for a day when we’ll truly be free; of prejudice, bullies, bigotry and other petty demons; when with the love of knowledge and the knowledge of love, we shall all the above overcome.