Wednesday, November 30, 2005

On the run

This appeared in the issue of Time Out Mumbai dated December 2-15, again credited to Haroun Kamal.

When we last spoke to Sairaj Bahutule, then Mumbai’s captain, the Ranji Trophy semifinals were close at hand and the mood was optimistic. The team was unbeaten, batsmen were in good form, and they were tipped to win, as Mumbai are expected to every year. Dominance, form, history. How much do they really guarantee? Punjab snuck past them.

A few things changed since then. Bahutule left for Maharashtra. Chandrakant Pandit, the coach, just plain left. The newspapers went to town. The subject is not up for discussion, Bahutule says now, there’s no need for controversy. So we talk about Mumbai’s last season, its history, and the future.

“In seven league games we played exceptional cricket,” he says about the campaign. “I think it’s just one of those things. But the guys had applied themselves and I think it’s one of those years when some things are not meant to be.”

Railways, a group of players unfamiliar with luxury, eventually won the title. In the days that followed, they said that their big incentive was a better life. So what incentive did Mumbai need to achieve success? “Mumbai cricket has started the gradation system, which is very good,” Bahutule says. “I’m sure it’ll boost the players’ morale. A lot of talented players are still there and I’m sure they’re going to push themselves and get into winning ways. It’s just that we didn’t win last year. Otherwise out of three years we won two. So it’s not a bad record at all.”

One of these young guys, he says, is Vinit Indulkar. At 20, he scored nearly 500 runs last season, his first one. “He did very well in the league stage, and didn’t get runs in the semis, but obviously that’s just one odd game. He’s a steady guy, a level-headed fellow, works very hard, is focused on what he wants to do. He’s got a good future.” Good enough to wear blue? “I think so. I believe he will.”

Mumbai no longer produces stars as it once did, and no longer wins big as it once did. Has Mumbai’s grasp, on the Ranji Trophy especially, slipped? He pauses momentarily. “To be honest I don’t think it has slipped at all. It’s just that certain performances, like a batsman getting 1200 runs, have not been happening. 1200 runs is an exceptional performance and selectors at the higher level cannot ignore it. Our guys have been getting 600 or 700 runs, which is good, but not exceptional. So that’s where we have been lacking and certain other states’ guys have been faring exceptionally well.”

Vinod Kambli’s absence made a difference. Hair, attitude, the whole package; you miss the runs, you miss his presence. When he plays, the difference in morale is palpable. Bahutule says this is true of the international players. “Even when Ajit plays for the team, the morale of the team just goes up. Basically the guys feel, ‘all the international stars have come in’, so they push themselves a little bit harder. All the youngsters try and learn a few things.” And when these guys retire? Then what? “Whatever these guys [the veterans] tell them, they have to register in a way that they take it along for the next ten years and give the same [advice] to the youngsters who are going to come after them. That’s been the thing with Mumbai cricket. The guys who go off leave their experiences and memories behind, and it’s up to the youngsters to take up the attitude and move forward.”

When he takes the field for Maharashtra, Mumbai, who have played him for 14 seasons, will have begun comprehending life after Bahutule. It should not affect the team, he says, for this has been a strength consistently. Players come, players go, but the focus remains the same. “I started off under Vengsarkar, Manjrekar and then Sachin, so all the players who have played for Mumbai have been very aggressive, very focused and have been motivating cricketers. They had an aim: to play for the country.”

A sleight of mind

The trouble with magic, I was telling a friend, is that people look for it extensively at great personal cost. Magic in their lives, magic at work, in love. Magic, that extraordinary word, is responsible for the good and the above average not coming through, because people wait for the exceptional, the one that makes hearts explode with an inexplicable happiness. But then there is only one Brian Lara, a single Sachin Tendulkar; magic is scarce. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be magic.

Looking for magic is a bit like looking for romance in travels. Not romantic love, but the romantic notions of travel. Both – looking for magic and traveling – set out into new territory seeking magic, but it is the traveler who is more likely to understand first that magic is occasional and that there is little sense in waiting for it. The journey itself is so tiring, and the experiences so varied, that he is resigned to the fact that magic may not come along, but regardless of this the travel must continue because of everything else it provides.

I haven’t traveled much but the mention of a journey has, for the longest time, set off the imaginative machinery in my head. The romance of travel existed only when the travels were imaginary, the magic existed only because I created it. When the time arrived to physically do it, the endless packing, moving, seeking, avoiding, refusing, catching, clutching, listening, talking, there were only traces of magic, but the experience left me richer, as if perseverance was rewarded with a country revealing itself to me. The more I dug, the more it would give me. Skimming the surface and waiting for the romance of far-off places meant ignoring what lay beneath. Romance didn’t stand a chance.

Magic is no doubt seductive. It whispers in an ear and disappears and, in an instant, you know what the world could be like for you. But reality, I think, though lacking daily magic, has something potent too. It offers experience and learning with no pretensions or deceptions. Life, as it is, is provided as proof that there is more to life than simply magic.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The plain dealings of the Bharwad

A week ago I visited the Little Rann of Kutch. Several tribes lived around the desert: Rabari, Mir, Bharwad, Koli. Some stood out more than others. Rabari women, for instance, were beautiful, and the Bharwad men seemed to be in their finest clothes day after day.

One day while driving through the Dasada village, I spotted two Bharwad men holding hands as they ambled along. They were dressed in white, wore turbans, and jewelry dangled off their head, neck, ears, wrists, and around their waist. The waistbelt was interesting. Held together by silver link chains, old coins with profiles of King George and Empress Victoria dangled at regular intervals. Watching me, a guide spoke up.

"They have to wear this. It is important."

"What, this waistbelt with the coins? Then how come the others aren't wearing it?" I asked him, wondering if forgetting to wear one resulted in unpleasant things.

"No, no. They have to wear jewelry. Like ladies," he said, and settled into his seat.

This seemed to make sense to him, and I'm sure it was clear, but I imagined right then a gay tribe.

"Look, are they trying to be like ladies?"

"Yes, but not like ladies. They have to wear jewels to attract ladies. In September they stand below an umbrella and ladies will maybe go more to whoever has more jewelry. They go and stand under the man's umbrella and - foosh! - their marriage is over."

"They are married?"

"Yes, their marriage is over."

Blimey. Right then I was surprised by the simplicity of it all. No talk of magic and connections, or angst about family ties. Just like that the deal was done. The shiniest man was the most attractive. What a wonderful culture, I thought, and glazed over into a mellow mood.

Back in the city, it doesn't seem all that quaint anymore. People dress well, people earn money, and they attract a mate. The difference is it's a little more obvious in the village. But there is one other crucial difference. Since women don't know how Bharwad weddings are done, you can invite them under your umbrella. While they think about chivalry or whether you're just being slimy, you can snigger knowing that you've just got married.

Winters in DUMBO

Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, beside the East River in southern Brooklyn, is known to the wayfarer as DUMBO, or that new place where the arty people live. It is also where Al Pacino was pulled over in Scent of a Woman. A walk down the streets here is a stroll through history. The buildings we walk between were warehouses once. Corrugated cardboard was invented in DUMBO, and inns and horse stables were common here. It is now said to be the new East Village – a hip place where the coffee is exorbitantly priced, and yoghurts are available in several exotic flavors.

Over a few winters, I watched it change from a private enclave into something larger, more moneyed, and decidedly commercial; this was, after all, in keeping with its past. The year was 1999, and my professor, Michele Washington, sought an apprentice, while I, a student, was in need of a job. We shook hands and smiled, and I was struck by the considerable thrill of personalizing the relationship between teacher and student. We did not discuss money, instead she advised me on how to find my way to her office. I did not know that business was done this way among a few in DUMBO.

The first time I visited the place, a biting breeze blew through narrow lanes over cobbled roads from the East River and up the slope I descended. The street ended at the Manhattan Bridge, an extraordinary sight. Along it, tall brick buildings were set into neat blocks. These were the Empire Stores, large buildings that stored imported goods when the place was an important port. In the 70s they were declared protected structures. Now they are lofts, studios, and office space.

I found the office, a quaint graphic design studio in an abandoned warehouse, and worked there for a few years. Other tenants would stop by. Down the corridor was a wood craftsman who carved tables and cabinets with delightful care. Above, the proprietor of a web business worked several hours everyday and stepped into the next room, home, for sleep. We designed identities for them. They did things for us. This, in a sense, was what DUMBO was about. It was a familiar community of artists and small businesses, of people who stopped on the street to chat, who visited for coffee on a cold evening. It was a comfortable enclave. Of course it grew. Galleries sprung up, prices went up, everything went up. Undersized studio apartments overlooking the river and Manhattan sold for $600,000. A store dedicated to healthy eating was overrun every evening by painters, designers, and those who liked banana yoghurt.

In a few winters the glitz began to show. Building entrances were widened and made more alluring. The area began to revel in its bohemian skin. Artists were forced out by costs, but DUMBO once again grew prominent. The people on streets were more varied, but its pace remained constant. With the Manhattan Bridge as their wallpaper, Manhattan the view, and its graffiti like paintings, it had become a place to be in.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The world underground

With a roar and a blast of air, the G train appears, pushing the housewives, pushers, and loons away from the platform. In minds across the station there is someone behind, patiently waiting for the right moment to hurl them under a train. Who wants to be the next day’s headline?

The subway is a frightening place. The stairways are often lonely, the slightest shuffle echoes eerily across empty platforms, train windows are bulletproof but have holes shot through, when an oncoming train's lights penetrate through the dark tunnel before it appears it looks beastly, and there are drunk travellers muttering to themselves. As a student there, I traveled underground. There was no other choice. Buses were too slow. The train was the popular, if feared, vehicle of transport. ‘Rule one for the subway is,’ Paul Theroux wrote, ‘don’t ride the subway if you don’t have to.’ Since hailing a cab was a luxury to be enjoyed only in the distant future, students rode the subway because they had to.

The universe of the subway and that of above are separated at the station’s entrance. Some New Yorkers have never traveled here, having heard stories as if it were a foreign place. Even foreigners who have not tread in America offer a word of caution about the subway. It may seem presumptuous, but the stories are somewhat true. The rats are huge. Commuters are routinely mugged. It is safer to travel in groups and blend in with locals. It is advisable to never get lost. Being lost could mean the difference between Manhattan and the Bronx. It is a big difference.

And yet one must travel by these trains. New York has its sights and clubs and museums and shopping, but where else does one see a system that runs parallel to the one above? Both live uneasily beside, and rely on, each other. It is another face of a many-faced city.

Anything but a drag race

The locals steered their Landcruisers with a bent foot as they lay back in the front seat and thundered down wide roads. Perhaps it was madness or daring. But back then, we observed Arab boys with the deference due to champion drivers. From childhood, it seemed, they were forever speeding on one set of wheels or another, racing each other, doing wheelies, splitting traffic as they peddled down the center of roads. The Arab’s inner speed demon is cultivated carefully, and is more demonic than most others. He graduates from cycles to motorized buggies that require no license, and then probably to his first car. For staying alive till the next decade, it seems, his reward is something bigger, with more horsepower. He is not lacking for idols: Dubai has rally champions and its Victory team has been a comprehensive speedboat winner. It has even raised a competition that runs parallel to Formula One. This city is a prancing horse at heart.

And then there are the drag races. I had first heard of them through a whisper, as news was often spread then. Now, well now is different. In Umm al-Qaiwain, a few hours’ drive from Dubai, is a drag race operation that was once illegal but now conducted openly. Here large numbers of Arabs gain and lose expensive cars. There are many, many cars. Fancy German automobiles, the Nissan Maxima, Japanese off-roaders. The supply is endless because the money is endless. The sons of the wealthy and influential make appearances here regularly, and boost the currency in these transactions. There are stories about these events being backed by powerful families, and the cars themselves encouraged by nitrous oxide. But at the heart of everything lies the race. Find a way to visit one. Here you find a few things that drive Dubai: speed, power, and money.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Doing the Konkan coast

In the low season, a beach town is a strange place. The skies are mostly gray, water laps at your feet besides pattering upon your head. Hotels are deserted and disconcertingly, there’s no one to pitch you a sale. The touts flutter to crowds, and at this time the town has few guests. Alibag was like that. So were Ganpatipule, Murud, Gokarna and Revdanda.

At Alibag, the mood was contemplative, and the sounds were muted. This is what one saw: bored horses standing by, tied to rocks, while their runners viewed the rare visitor with undisguised disinterest. A few dots, people, bobbed in the sea. Stretches of beach were occupied by only dog and crow. Hotels otherwise used to activity are quiet, taking a breather, before the season begins. And this is otherwise a weekend retreat. Even the Kolaba fort, floating nearby in the sea, was made inaccessible by a rough tide. So with history and colour both unavailable, a day here was enough.

This was an unpleasant start to a Konkan beach trail. It hinted that squelchy beaches and deserted towns lay ahead. The reason for setting off then seems foolish now, but here it is: some choose to walk in a garden, some choose to walk down the Konkan coast. Also, one does not find ruined Portuguese forts in the neighborhood park.

An hour’s ride south of Alibag, past open fields, an area of dense vegetation appears. Trees curve over the brown road from either side, and homes are camouflaged by a barrier of green. There are no sounds but the bus’. This is Chaul. Not too far from here, down a winding road that turns into a sparse market, and then beyond it, is Revdanda. There is a beach here, clean and quiet, unoccupied, with a view of the hilltop Korlai fort in the distance. Behind the beach, beside the Kundalika river, is an abandoned Portuguese fort overrun by vegetation. The roof of St. Francis Zavier’s Chapel has fallen in, and its walls are caked in moss and creepers. A large stone slab lies at the entrance, with a seal and a message carved on it. A story describes how a visiting Portuguese historian came by it, knelt to brush the moss off with a toothbrush and, upon reading the message, fell back in delight, scarcely believing its value.

It is now a sleepy town; so sleepy that during afternoons the town’s police force is found asleep on benches and desks in the station. Nothing happens here. On average, a solitary crime is reported every month.

Then, normal service resumed. The bleak sights of Alibag played themselves over and over, beach after beach. Murud-Janjira was uninhabited except for a horse-cart and five fishermen untangling their nets. The tanga-waala offered a ride and the harried story of the off-season for people whose lives depend on seasons.

At Ganpatipule the sun shone on the quiet temple town and its vague myth. Its streets were empty, its inhabitants were at home, and visitors were a few months away. Inside the luxurious temple glittery ceremonies were conducted with noise and dedication; outside there were religious reference books on sale. Here a priest sidled up and announced that a circuit of the hill behind the temple would bring wishes to life. Atop the slippery moss-covered hill, at the end of the circuit, another temple hand declared the exacting round incomplete unless a monetary donation was made. Below it was a glorious white beach and a roaring black sea. Both were empty.

A hop across Goa (too done, too done) to Gokarna proved futile. Along the way, animal skulls were placed on thin wooden sticks in the middle of fields. Adding to the overall strangeness, faceless scarecrows launched off rooftops, arms raised to the sky. A road was washed away. And boy, it rained. Drops pattered relentlessly on the eardrums of Gokarna. When things go wrong, in hindsight the omens are everywhere. Rains had swallowed the beaches. By this time rains had swallowed Bombay, too.

Misery had begun to sink in. Of being on the road alone, of waking up in desolate beach towns. I pined for a traffic jam. Traveling here in the low season was to know a particular kind of helplessness: like attending a circus without performers, animals, and the band. Where were the people? There is such extreme solitude that it is disquieting.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Hello and all

This appeared in the latest issue of Time Out Mumbai. It's written by Haroun Kamal, a combination of two characters. Actually three, because they're me. It's a preview for the upcoming match in Mumbai.

Letting go

Haroun Kamal

We were young then and so we never saw it coming. All we knew was that South Africa were the team to beat in one-dayers because they played the game in a supreme style called ‘total cricket’. It was so clinical and so very effective, no one, even experts at home, knew what to do. Maybe individual brilliance, maybe bad umpiring, maybe others would catch up. But they were such a long way ahead. They had an effective captain – a popular born-again Christian, no less – their fielding was exemplary, and the bowling was in tip-top condition. When they played India, everyone prayed a little harder.

In two years, from 1995 to 96, South Africa met India in seven matches before the Titan Cup final at Wankhede Stadium. If we restricted them to 223, they kept us to 209. If they batted first, India’s chase was futile. No use. Forget about it. Even Tendulkar played the game at the pace they set. Then, on one particularly sweaty November evening, we beat them in a match that counted. It was the final of the Titan Cup. Tickets were sold out, there was the usual murmur over the seats allocated to clubs, India had just scraped past Australia to qualify, the Man was in form and, amid all this, something told us yet again that it was India’s day. So squeezed together tightly on sagging wood benches, we watched as the afternoon began with Sanjay Manjrekar scratching about in his last game, a little while later it was all Tendulkar, and then Anil Kumble ran away with the stumps at night. Wankhede exploded in a burst of giddy cheer, and for a few days the mood was distinctly post-coital.

Then we won a rollicking Test series, and ended the 59-day tour by winning the hastily-constructed Mohinder Amarnath benefit match – an official one-dayer – at the Wankhede. The last game was an excess; the visitors were disillusioned and pined for home, and Cronje vented his anger on a local official. That, nine years ago, was the last time the two met in a one-dayer at Wankhede. That last game, part of neither a series nor of significance, was forgotten for four years until it returned to memory with such force, that it is unlikely to be taken for granted.

In 2000, South Africa were back, and better prepared. India, distracted by captaincy problems, were soundly beaten at home for the first time in thirteen years. A week after the victory, Cronje spoke to a man named Sanjeev Chawla. The Delhi crime branch tapped phone lines and overheard as promises of runs and wickets and low scores and cash were exchanged. We now know matches were altered. We know Cronje accepted money. We realise many people were involved. Match-fixing is not accepted, but the idea that it exists, is. The cynic within acknowledges that it is always likely. That is what the revelations of that year did. They woke up those who didn’t know better.

When Cronje finally confessed, specific matches were mentioned. The benefit match in Bombay came under the scanner. Before the game, Cronje had made his team an offer. Gary Kirsten, a senior member of the side, described the moment in his book. “’We have been offered a lot of money to throw a game,’ he said. I swear you could have heard a pin drop at that moment. Nobody moved a muscle. In retrospect I think I had gone into instant shock. I listened but it was out of respect for the captain and a strange fascination with what he was saying rather than any intention to carry out instructions. I knew within a few seconds I could not be involved ... but I listened… He mentioned a couple of times it would be worth 60 or 70 thousand rand each.”

Cronje was sacked, barred from the game and cast out publicly. Shaun Pollock, who became vice captain after Kirsten stepped down from the post in 1998 without explanation, became captain. When Cronje died, Pollock dedicated a victory to his predecessor. The next captain was the 22-year old Graeme Smith, who was less involved. “I never met Hansie Cronje. I never played with him or against him. He was a good leader but in the end he tarnished the game.” Step by step, captain by captain, South African cricket was detaching itself from the effect Cronje had, and ensuring that a new leader emerged from his huge shadow.

Five years is a long time. Since then India have caught up with South African methods, especially in matters of training. Since then one coach has come and gone, and the next has already made his mark. Since then people gained interest in the game, lost it, and recently regained it. There is a new captain who bats like a dream. His counterpart, Graeme Smith leads a team that has had some success. The focus is likely to be on cricket, but perhaps that is unlikely as well, because a couple of weeks is also a long time and anything could happen. Television rights, board elections, backroom politics. All this we can deal with. But it is the silent thing, the unspoken issue, that we will try to forget when South Africa arrive without Herschelle Gibbs and Nicky Boje, who investigators would like to question for what happened back then. And because of this absence, while both teams look ahead, the past clings on, unwilling to let go.