Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Waffling around

I wrote this piece for Mint to coincide with the Boxing Day Test today. Two ideas: balls haven't changed much over the course of the game; second, these measures to have day-night Tests and pink balls and whatnot are just diversions from where cricket might actually be headed - the league format.

Go beyond repackaging

India is due to start its cricket campaign against Australia today. Test cricket’s audience has dropped for years. Could day-night Tests be the answer?

They could be a brilliant spectacle and will attract a larger audience, as Cricket Australia officials recently explained. The opposition from cricketers and most media has been intense. The fear: Test cricket is about to lose its sanctity by being tied to commercial needs.

But is it? For years, Tests, as we know them, have evolved from even, balanced competitions to encounters where batsmen celebrate on flat pitches. Bats have evolved, bouncers have been checked, but the science of cricket balls, around which the game revolves, has not advanced beyond minute tinkering. This, in effect, makes it a batsman’s game, with the bowler severely disadvantaged (Is there any other sport where the balance between contestants is so unequal?).

Whether due to boring encounters or other choices on television and in life, people have steadily trickled away from Test cricket. One-day cricket, while still popular in India, is saturated elsewhere. Cricket’s response to this has been Twenty20, and we all know how that’s gone. But cricket is headed somewhere else, somewhere obvious, and these innovations seem like bells and whistles. A prototype of its future lies in leagues such as the Indian Cricket League (ICL) and Indian Premier League (IPL).

When players aren’t represented by countries, the market gets to work. It chooses players from everywhere, whether a Canadian batting talent or a freakish leg-spinner from Chad. Where the player comes from becomes irrelevant because he isn’t held back by the limitations of his national side. Had market forces been at work, a very capable bunch of Zimbabweans and Kenyans would have had extended careers and more games to play. And would anyone recommend Brian Lara continue playing for West Indies instead of a Galacticos equivalent? Would there be no takers for Mark Ramprakash? It would also be ruthless. Great players in poor form would be dropped with fewer reservations.

Right now, all cricket is doing in the name of progress is playing with uniform colours, and timing and scheduling—apart from Twenty20, which has so far been as much a bowler’s game as a batsman’s.

Administrators hold on to their territories with a vice grip, ignoring the fact that cricket’s growth requires something more meaningful than playing in Disneyland or Abu Dhabi. Unless local talents are involved extensively, cricket, as it is now run, remains open to the whimsies of local administrations and political imbroglios, such as the Zimbabwe situation. Private leagues remove regionalism. They actually make things fairer.

Zee’s ICL venture was less than successful, but it set in motion a concept Lalit Modi had only spoken about for a while. The IPL was a reaction to this threat, but it was inevitable. The cricketing world is only so big. And its largest audience, India, finds its attention drawn to more diverse things every day. Cricket could survive without changing, and probably remain healthy, but it cannot grow without proliferating and entering the vocabulary of newer, more diverse, audiences.

If day-night Tests take off, we’d do well to remember that it’s only a repackaging served to the same audiences. Compared with where cricket could be, it’s actually quite traditional.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Garbage Unlimited

Vic Marks, in the Guardian:

"On this tour only Alastair Cook scored more Test runs but Bell has received the most criticism. So he must be a good player. The problem is that he has seldom changed the course of a match throughout his Test career. One consolation for Bell: they used to say the same about Sachin Tendulkar."

With a few nifty jabs, Marks manages to appear sympathetic to Bell while relating him to Tendulkar's predicament without being offensive to either. He's being thoroughly dishonest, and very slithery about it. "They used to say..."? Oh, come on.

Marks' piece, by the way, isn't a particularly good bit of writing. The chief criticism about Tendulkar is that he hasn't won enough matches for India single-handed. This is what I think Marks actually means. Even then, the assumption is simply incorrect. The image of the hero in sport is of a single person battling or blazing away to victory, etc. Is this what Marks subscribes to? When we talk of a batsman winning it, in our minds he has finished the job or nearly completed it. This involves the batsman being present in the second innings, where Tendulkar has been less good (avg: 42.98) than in first innings, where he averages 61.75. Surely Marks knows that to define a batsman by his being there at the end is to shortchange him considerably. What about the set-up, which Tendulkar has done many times? Or snatching the initiative, which is a characteristic attributed to men such as Gilchrist and Sehwag now, and Tendulkar earlier? Statsguru shows us that Tendulkar was often in the middle of India's larger first-innings scores, and often the only person between a decent score and a bad one.

What about presence and averting embarassment? Tendulkar, at a time, made a difference by simply being there.

In first innings where no one else scored a hundred, Tendulkar averages 121.63. The average team score is 322.75. This is against meaningful opposition. Dravid, in comparison, averages 179.83. The avg team score for Dravid's sole-hundred innings is 456.

But take a look at this. In each of these innings (there are six in all), each of Dravid's ten teammates have averaged: 23.3, 20.8, 22.8, 24.7. 30.1, 26.1.

In Tendulkar's eight innings, this is what his mates have averaged: 13.5, 10.7, 22.6, 10.5, 34.8, 17.3, 20.3, 16.9. (Where does Bell fit in here?)

The extras scene is revealing too. In Dravid's case, there are nearly 30 extras per innings added to the Indian total, which tells me the bowlers weren't exactly all there to begin with, or that Dravid drove them to distraction. In Tendulkar's case, the fielding side would concede less than 18 runs on average, which tells us that bowlers kept things quite tight.

Anyway, I meander. I could keep looking at stats all day but there's other work to be done. So Mr Marks, in a nutshell, the damn comparison's all wrong. I'd love to go on but I'd go bankrupt if I kept this up. Thank you for wasting half my day because of one half-wit paragraph.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The fiction in travel writing

Given a chance, a travel writer is capable of misreading entire cultures. But this genre of writing is not journalism, and so the rigorous standards of journalism do not apply. You only have the writer’s piece as proof. Ask anyone what they expect of travel writing and you will receive many answers, but most will demand accuracy and an interesting story. But is travel writing seriously read for its accuracy? I don’t think so. To be a travel writer is to allow yourself to be taken in by the stream of events around you, like a twig in a river of raging currents. You speed by actual happenings, capturing only their echoes. Try this: sit in a speeding vehicle and, staring at one spot ahead of you, describe the countryside. This is what writing about a place can be like.

Our times require precise information quickly, and travel writing unfortunately cannot be entirely accurate nor on demand. The result would be equivalent to: “8.15am: Woke up. Brushed teeth.” It is a loose form of non-fiction and fiction: It is likely, in an extreme case, to contain imaginary incidents and conversations that could have happened. These things are difficult to verify for all you have is the writer’s word. We know this and, as we do with all single sources, accept their word with a little skepticism. The instinct to not be fooled is strong in many of us, but I suspect deep down we’re wired to like good tales. That is what travel writing is, and will remain at its height. It cannot influence international events, and cannot change the course of history anymore. Once, people who brought news of foreign lands were, in all likelihood, travel writers. There is no need for them anymore. Reporters specialize, travel writers generalize. This is Paul Theroux from The Great Railway Bazaar:

The Singhalese…turned on the fan, sat on one of his crates, and began eating a stinking meal out of a piece of newspaper – the smell of his rotten onions and mildewed rice was to stay in the compartment for the remainder of the journey.
A fact-checker for the New Yorker would have quite a task with this: Was he Singhalese, did he turn on the fan, was he on a crate, did it stink, were the onions rotten, was the rice mildewed, and did the smell really stay for the rest of the journey? I lived with a Korean in New York who stank up the fridge, but the smell was offensive only to me. He ate his food without fuss.

This is Camilo Jose Cela, in Journey to the Alcarria:

The girls are young, very young; but they already seem to have in their eyes that special patient sorrow that one sees in hired animals, dragged hither and yon by bad luck and evil intentions.
This is precisely the kind of matter that suits travel or fiction. A journalist or historian looking for the feeling of the times will find value in the sentence.

William Dalrymple’s books contain the right kind of dialogue in the right kind of places. From an “unshaven, shambolic and friendly” tailor in In Xanadu:

“We live here under an undeclared apartheid.”
The last lines of the book, featuring a Chinese communist party official:

He grunted something in Mongol. Then he translated it for us: “Bonkers,” he said. “English people, Very, very bonkers.”
This is unreal. The comments are perfectly placed, the words strikingly lucid. There’s no reason to doubt Dalrymple’s conversational skills, but who can ascertain whether these things were really said to him, or whether these are recollections of broken conversations which, when remembered, the mind makes complete?

And yet there is an audience for this stuff because good travel writing takes you somewhere, as good fiction does. The truth cannot be completely sacrificed, but it can be subverted to make the story better. This is not to excuse writers who aren’t truthful. I have my doubts about a number of travel writers. But given the distance from editors, and the fact that travel is a very personal experience, it is possible to bend the truth. It’s why we don’t take travel writing seriously anymore. Our perceptions of it have changed. We don't want it to inform, just evoke. The genre has found a new place for itself.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sisyphus - right arm fast-medium

The gods have got nothing on today's cricket administrators. First, the free hits. Then cancel reverse-swing. At the same time, refuse to change the ball's dimensions, which would allow it to bounce or swing more. Now, day-night Tests.

Do bowlers need a union?

Numb to niceness

To drive in Mumbai is to become numb to niceness. From the first hesitant laps onwards, drivers quickly learn that it is better to snatch from others, for others will snatch from you too. If you choose to not snatch, it is assumed that you have parked the car. But this niceness, when it arrives, is so strange and unfamiliar that drivers will be momentarily stunned. The giver is preening; his magnanimous gesture elevates him beyond the classless masses. The recepient is taken aback by this generosity. How should he react? Is it some kind of trick? Today a recepient stood still, even as this driver furiously gestured to him to come forward and complete his U-turn - that the offer was genuine. He didn't buy in to the niceness. He inched forward with trepidation, wondering when I'd fuse my car with his. I waited. He waited. He came forward and stopped. I waved at him. His girlfriend looked at my fender with fear. He looked concerned. Two blocked lanes of cars began to honk. He advanced and stopped, still unable to believe his destiny. I gave up and drove by. No more generosity. It slows down everything.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bearable happiness

There are some kinds of happiness I can deal with, and others I can't. My own happiness is easy to comprehend. The happiness of others is another case. This isn't against people being happy; I'm all for the joyous. This is about the kind of happy state that leaves me completely clueless, and I wonder what the hell's going on. I'll sketch out the meaning for you. When a happiness can't be related to, or there is a fundamental disconnect between the reason for joy and the response, it's confusing.

A kid with connections

Freaking hell.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Delhi nights

Everything is dark at six. People have returned home, industries have shut down for the day. The cold pricks my knuckles and neck. I inhale something sharp and odorless. Bombay's air carries a hint of where it came from. This stuff is cold and unfamiliar. I like Khan Market because there is human activity. Somewhere inside there are warm bookshops, elsewhere there is steam rising from dinner. A bright place in what is otherwise a damn quiet place. Is it any wonder that everyone's trying to be part of one club or another in this city?

A rickshaw driver asks where and the extortion begins. It is late, roads are empty, so who cares how much? On the way there are beautiful parks without people. Intricate and firmly shut gates. Clean and high walls. Beggars ask only once.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Excuse the mess

Sorry about the way all this looks. It'll be fixed soon.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Rest is Rubbish

After much haranguing, Landmark finally gave up and got me a copy of Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, a delightful book about 20th century classical music. The first few pages have been pure oxygen. The language is so light and lyrical. I've needed this. My daily reading has otherwise constituted of sentences such as:

"The Central Government may specify penalties to be imposed, including suspension or revocation of licence, permission or registration, for violation of various terms and conditions as may be specified under section 3, subject to the condition that amount of a pecuniary penalty shall not exceed one crore rupees..."

Yet again The New Yorker and its writers come to my rescue. I truly dread reality in the form of government documents.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Falling out of love with a love song

When I first heard Mitwa, on the Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna album, I listened to it over and over again to understand why it was so haunting. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy had last constructed songs so meaningful many years ago with Dil Chahta Hai, so this was a seriously welcome return to music that lasted. The song's opening, a delicate strum, wasn't new for the instrument - you hear beautiful guitar openings so often these days, few more evocative than Thakshak's Khamosh Raat - but the rise and fall in key as a musician barely plucked at strings slowly and deliberately, conveyed the message that matters of love can indeed be quite delicate. A female chorus rose then, singing in the voice of angels, "Love will find a way..."

I understood this much later, for upon hearing this song for the very first time, the words that registered in my head were, "Love me. Find a way..." I fell for these words more than the song, taking them to be a lover's plea to choose her over the other until a hunger had been sated. Frankly, it was magnificent. It was one man's wife telling another man to love her, and she didn't care how he did it. Alas, this impression of the lyrics was crushed one morning, and I was left with "love will find a way...", which is good advice for those without a plan, but not very encouraging for the realistic.

Update: Wife says "until a hunger had been sated" reads like a terrible line from M&B. I am inclined to agree, as all good husbands do.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Pearl, Kaplan, Packer, Wright, and Khaitan

Earlier today I watched A Mighty Heart, sharing an entire hall with eight others. I walked away a little shaken, for I had a back story to Daniel Pearl's drive to uncover links between the ISI and Al-Qaeda. As I have, anyone who has ever read The Journalist and the Terrorist, Robert Sam Anson's moving story in the August Vanity Fair issue the year Pearl was murdered is unlikely to forget. We learn that Pearl may have been spurred on by the irrational motivation journalists use to justify their doings. That his stories not making it to the front page may have added to it.

I came home and stared at my books, at Lawrence Wright's Looming Tower, at The Assassins Gate by George Packer, and remembered Robert D Kaplan's book where he hung out with militants. It's hard to describe the feeling. Not just an overwhelming sadness, or an admiration for what these guys do. A bit of a mix, you know? Ashish Khaitan has great courage, but the Tehelka investigation for me lacked something more lasting, something that carries on week after week, pummeling the rioters and instigators. Something that explains in detail what happened and when, and all the characters involved. Above all, something that has balance.

I'm afraid this has been one big ramble, but I guess what I'm trying to say is this: when you put your life at risk as a journalist, do you seek instant sensation, or do you, in your own little way, change the world you live in? Pearl, had he succeeded, would have certainly made it the the first page in a different way, by proving what people will say they already knew. But it would have changed people's positions slightly, now that they had proof. Khaitan has a wife and child too, and he probably knew of the danger he was and still is in. The outcome of his investigation has had its effect, but now what? Now what?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Secret Dubai

From Secret Dubai, a very serious blog about life in the UAE.

"Hooray! Streets in the sandlands are finally getting names. No more endless driving around obscure areas of Jumeirah 2 looking for 19c street, only to realise that you actually need 19c street in Umm Seqeim 3, and it leads off 2 and 4b street before the junction with 12.75q street, rather than 19a street, which is actually somewhere in Al Quoz.

Does this mean streets will finally get interesting, evocative names? Such as "Old Camel Street", "Red Desert Road", "Palm Oasis Avenue" and "Stinking Fish Lane, Karama"? Or will we be stuck with several thousand more "Sheikh Ibn bin Khalid bin Al Waleed bin Talal Al Ziyad al Zayed"-type roads, all mispelt in every possible configuration on every map and road sign, with the result that most people end up in Abu Dhabi before they finally find anywhere?"

Ps. Also provided elsewhere on the blog, a UAE press release generator.

Why, Dubai?

This, in the New York Times:

"The authorities not only discouraged Alex from pressing charges, he, his family and French diplomats say; they raised the possibility of charging him with criminal homosexual activity, and neglected for weeks to inform him or his parents that one of his attackers had tested H.I.V. positive while in prison four years earlier."
And this, a corresponding report in the Dubai-based Khaleej Times:

"The Dubai Court of First Instance yesterday started the trial hearings of three UAE nationals, I.M. (15), A.A. (35), and A.G. (19), who allegedly kidnapped and raped a 15-year-old boy and French national, APC, in July this year.

The victim and his friend had left a beach café in Dubai to find a taxi. However, I.M. who was in the vicinity and who knew the victim greeted him and offered them a ide. After about 15 minutes, I.M. called the two other suspects who told the victim they have to go to some other place before they will drop him. They then drove towards Ibn Batutta mall.

However, APC whose suspicions were aroused called 999. I.M. and the two other accused who heard him talking to the police snatched the mobile phone and abused and threatened the French teenager. The three accused then drove to a deserted area in Al Barsha and APC’s friend to step out. They then threatened APC at knife-point and raped him.

Later, I.M. called his cousin to come to help pull out the car that had got stuck in loose sand. APC was to hide inside the car and not to raise any kind of alarm. APC was later dropped near the Beach Hotel in Jumeirah and immediately called his friend to inform him of what had happened.

During yesterday court hearing the Public Prosecution requested the court to sentence all three suspects to death. However, all three accused have pleaded not guilty on both counts of kidnapping and rape."

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Half tickets and lousy movies

Patrons of movie theatres who have seen what I have seen in recent times must also wish what I have wished in recent times: screw the whole ticketing system, and lets pay for the movie half that we want to watch.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Hitchens and a soldier

On the 15th of January last, he was on patrol and noticed that the Humvee
in front of him was not properly "up-armored" against I.E.D.'s. He insisted on
changing places and taking a lead position in his own Humvee, and was shortly
afterward hit by an enormous buried mine that packed a charge of some 1,500
pounds of high explosive. Yes, that's right. He, and the three other American
soldiers and Iraqi interpreter who perished with him, went to war with the army
we had. It's some consolation to John and Linda Daily, and to Mark's brother and
two sisters, and to his widow (who had been married to him for just 18 months)
to know that he couldn't have felt anything.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


A few months ago I unwrapped one of those four-in-one dvds loaded with feature-length anime movies. I had heard of none of the movies before, but among them were Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service, which turned out to be fine movies by a director named Hayao Miyazaki. People familiar with anime know that Miyazaki has been around for over two decades, but I didn't, and Spirited Away, the first movie I watched on that DVD, was an experience I'm not sure I've shaken off. His movies are about worlds only a step away from our own, with soundtracks that you can't help but feel you know a version of. In Spirited Away, Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl, and her parents stumble upon ruins after taking a wrong turn. They walk through the abandoned building into bright sunshine and green meadows, and a deserted carnival where steam rises from food that has only just been prepared. Have the carnival's visitors scampered, or are they yet to arrive? And who prepared all the food?

There are beautiful empty landscapes where nothing happens for ages, and scenes that invoke dreams; a train glides silently across the surface of an endless calm blue sea without a ripple. It's a haunting shot, and it's one of many here. I've replayed the scene many times in my head, and the happy feeling it gives me is inexplicable. I feel I've seen it and felt it somewhere before, but there's something incomplete about the thought. It's like knowing the answer to a question you can't remember.

"But what about the rest of it?"

In Paprika, which I picked up in Dubai recently, a scientific experiment has unexpected effects on people undergoing it, making some of them delusional and believers in their immortality, while others find their dreams and reality merging. A cop troubled by incomplete dreams takes up the case to find out why ordinary citizens with normal mental histories either run out of high-rise windows or go on unprovoked hitting sprees, or else suddenly begin to talk in the gibberish language of dreams. The man's dream remains the same - he's chasing someone he can't see, and the man eventually gets away, but not before he kills someone. The ground beneath his feet warps and a voice echoes through the dream, "But what about the rest of it?" He wakes up in a sweat.

In reviews Paprika has been likened to the Matrix trilogy, and many say that it isn't even the director's best work. Does it matter? The noisy soundtrack where instruments clash with each other, the nonsensical visuals that are too busy to be identifiable, the disjointed dialogue - they all combine to create the experience of a dream that has come to life. It takes on the meaning of cinema, literally, when a dream crashes through the screen in a cinema hall. Paprika isn't just about dreams, but their various interpretations.

But what about the rest of it? The line loops through the movie, and everytime the cop hears it he is in despair. Later we find out why, and it makes perfect sense. But the funny thing is, it stays with me. Yes indeed, what about the rest of it? What about the rest of what you're working on? What about the rest of a career? What comes next?

It's a question we've all asked of ourselves at one time or another, in one form or another.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Ninja Gaiden Sigma

See image.

I have to tell myself that this is only a video game, that death has no meaning. But the phantom fish who swarm around nibbling at me make it difficult, as well as the fiends intent on slicing me open. I could stand here and fight, or unleash explosive arrows as I jump over their heads. There are too many ways to do this, to kill. Am I a one-man army? At times, yes. But sometimes I feel absolutely inadequate. My enemies have their laser cannons and copters that drop large bombs from the sky. Ther legions include ninjas, armoured guards, super-constructed soldiers with machine guns for arms, large tanks, ghosts, bats, beasts with blazing hair, beetles that pin me to the ground and eat, and various forms of the devil. As for me, well, I have a selection of swords, and something that looks like a large oar. Regardless, a tutorial explains that square, square, triangle, triangle, triangle unleashes the Kick of Thunder or something like it, but the battle is thick with things of murderous intent and there's really no distinction between any button. Press them all, press anything, and see what happens. If it becomes tougher, and the enemies are more numerous, press the buttons harder. Something has to happen. But it's hard to see because bodies are flying every which way and nothing makes sense. There are explosions, monsters flying at me and then sent the other way, fireballs that knock me down but I'm up instantly. One electric sweep could do them in, and a final series of furious cut-thrust-and-kick moves kills the rest. They evaporate, leaving little traces of energy to be absorbed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A notion of Dubai

Now, when I think about my own memories, and how different they are from the reportage of visitors from that country, it occurs to me that I’ve held on to a strange notion of my desert home. Back then, the city could not be described as fast, or modern, although purposeful people hurried in cars and the latest things were available. I wonder now: Was it even a city then? The world there was a small place, and I believed that even if everyone didn’t know everyone else, they soon would. Wasn’t that how we played cricket with a different group of boys from the same colony when friends did not turn up? By the end of the game we made plans for the next day.

I was twelve when we found bigger and better accommodation. The kitchen was nearly as large as our previous living room. I knew then that this clearly meant progress. But it also meant that a generation’s worth of friends had been left behind. We were twenty minutes away, but with that move, Dubai had grown in size. We all felt it, and reached out even more to the large family that had left India together. There would be drinking and Sindhi dancing, which is very different from the accepted idea of dance, with men huddled on one side and women on the other, and their kids up to no good elsewhere in the apartment. This was where the latest government ruling was discussed, analyzed and applied in theory. It always affected somebody.

But there was something else – every now and then, a cousin would down a few drinks and claim to have seen the blueprint for Dubai’s growth. It involved breathtaking road layouts and supreme architecture. It was a great conversation stopper. For a moment the family would pause to consider how plausible this was. Only fifteen years ago there had been nothing here but sand and a creek. Even then, implausible. The idiot had drunk too much. The family was a mob with drinks and snacks with each other’s company at home. I wonder how they saw themselves in this world. Indians were, after all, second-grade citizens, and one little ruling by the royal family would have meant we’d be back in Indore. So the future, for many people, was of course filled with unknowns, but it held no promise, only the dread of tomorrow. They otherwise earned and lived well, better than they would have elsewhere, but many of them lived from day to day.

The cousin would not tell us how he knew. You only need to see a picture of modern Dubai to know he was right. There will be trains in the sky, it will be a city of skyscrapers and huge attractions and ten million visitors each year. You could see pictures of the same place, year by year from 1972, and understand that this advance was inevitable. But in 1990, which falls halfway between 1972 and 2007, we had simply no idea. Dubai was Dubai, it stood for nothing else. People made money there, but that was all. It would be a decade before it was compared with Monaco, and giant islands were built off shore, and American universities opened branches here. In 1996 I left to start my own life, and saw what was to follow only briefly.

You feel a little let down by relentless progress. Breathless activity allows no time to reflect. It barely lets you feel an achievement fully. It goes against what Dubai now stands for – onwards, upwards. Where I used to live is now called old Dubai. Seventeen years old and it’s known as old Dubai. The heart of the city has shifted twenty kilometers outward, and so planned was the approach that for a while the city had a downtown filled with cranes and construction workers and not a finished building in sight. Before Dubai, a place like Dubai existed only in Sim City 2000.

The feeling that Dubai had moved on lasted a few years. Then, quite recently, a visiting cousin mentioned the spate of robberies and murders. Another spoke of seeing beggars for the first time. The city had poverty, it had crime, labor unrest, the traffic situation was incredibly bad – these were real problems and the newspapers were reporting them. This, ten or even five years ago, was unthinkable. They didn’t exist. Zero-crime place, we told everybody. But what to tell them now? That it is a city with real problems? In a funny way, this is rather satisfying. The city has overtaken everybody, its planners included, and is now something else. Now the fun begins. Now concerts will be chaotic, now social norms will change, now its pristine image will lose some shine, now classes of people will be more distinct and there will be markets for each of them. It will produce art and literature and all kinds of creativity. This is immensely exciting. It'll be a real city.

I’m heading there on Thursday for two weeks to do nothing in particular, and for the first time in a long while, I’m excited about being home. I’ll be blogging regularly from there with observations on the city, which I know like no other.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I've left Mint (not The Mint, as it has inexplicably come to be known), after nine months on the job. Last November, a good three months before the newspaper's launch date - a date we did not know of then - I took up the offer to become a media correspondent for this newspaper. The promise, and the lure, was that our analysis and story length would distinguish us, and that we would not be normal. If we were a channel, normal would allude to television in general. But with newspapers, it had to be Economic Times. The endeavor was worthy enough, the editors were good, and hierarchy would not be a problem. I hopped on, glad to be in the middle of the kind of competition that now expected journalists to keep their dignity, and which sent salaries soaring.

As our launch approached, the competitors geared up. 'We want feature stories, we want feature stories,' one employee mimicked his editor in the presence of a friend who he knew worked here. Leave was apparently cancelled, strings were pulled, the machine rumbled in anticipation. And then, very quietly, Mint appeared. I recall the morning of its launch when, in my own private excitement, I wiped one newsstand off all Mint's copies. The walked around the mostly empty train compartment, scanning people at every station to see if anyone was reading it.

If everyone was like me, we wouldn't have had an issue the next day. It was spent in a trance, smiling at nothing in particular. The Mumbai bureau had the happy air of a man who has silently detonated something. "What next, Mr Tata?" What a headline!

Among journalism's many merits is that once a job is done, it is done. It is a profession in which the footsoldiers find it difficult to take work home. They revel in this aspect of it. Indeed, their job is to report, not always to question. There is no time for questions. Many people are clearly meant for this.

So here I am, writing from a net cafe in Chennai, bloody homesick, speaking a language I cannot understand. One eye is on the limited budget behind me for this project, the other on the possibilities. The feeling never changes - there's always some fear and some degree of elation. I reckon it's the promise of asking questions you've never asked before that's at the heart of past adventures, and the same can be said of this.

I'll be blogging a lot more now, perhaps with a theme in mind.

Federer's uterus

The kid, who was standing next to his mother, was maybe thirteen, with a
Dutch-boy haircut and braces, and, as Federer took his bows, the boy called out,
“I love you, Roger! I want to have your baby! I wish you had a uterus!”

The New Yorker's new US Open blog is terrific, full of analysis, history, personal recollections, and what Cricinfo calls roving reportage.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Taking sidhu seriously

NDTV has a credibility problem. It's most apparent on their inane cricket show when Sidhu leans forward, closes his eyes, raises a hand or two, and his lips part. The drama begins even before the words emerge, and he knows it. Last Sunday, Sidhu reached out through the cameras, stressing to people that the cricketers who left the BCCI did it for money. Since he is the channel's go-to guy, their in-house spokesperson on cricket, it's fair to assume the channel agrees with his excited views.

But the man's an empty shell, carried this way and that by the stronger wave that moment. This hurts NDTV, but they believe it's a hurt they can bear. They get the theatre they want at the expense of truth, and so they raise him, this magnet for attention, and by association lend his other endeavours a certain approval. I can't wait for the day he blows up.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Atul Gawande's Better

My review of Atul Gawande's latest medical book appeared in Lounge on May 14.

An inexact science

The one science we expect certainty from, in which doubt would ideally have no place, is as likely to be applied with solid judgment as with a feeling, a guess, or an ordinary whim. This is medicine, practiced by people whose failings include arrogance, insecurity, and not washing their hands clean. And it is to this flawed, inconsistent, and yet often amazing world that people hand their bodies over in Atul Gawande’s books.

Gawande’s first book, Complications, arose from true incidents during his training in general surgery. It explained why students operated on patients, why doctors switched off suddenly and, in a famous chapter, why one man’s enormous hunger refused to subside. The idea that medicine had layers rich with complications was brought alive in these stories, where narrative storytelling was buttressed by facts and clinical observations. People want progress in clearly defined terms, Gawande wrote then, “but of course it rarely is. Every new treatment has gaping unknowns – for both patients and society – and it can be hard to decide what to do about them.” Medicine’s usual state was uncertainty, and this is what made being a patient or a doctor so difficult.

In the five years since his last book, Gawande has, in his job as a general surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, focused on reducing surgical injuries and improving the quality of care. It is the dominant theme of his latest book, Better, which begins with a chapter on why few medical staff wash their hands, and concludes with an essay on doing things better.

Gawande highlights the simple, yet astonishing, fact that while there are big budgets and incessant demands for new innovations in medicine, doing existing things well, which saves more lives sooner, is an underutilized concept. But it is possible to be better, he says, and it does not take genius. “It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.”

Gawande takes up diligence in a chapter based in India, where he watches a collection of doctors and volunteers attempt to limit a poliovirus (one word, Sanjukta) outbreak. He describes it as an unambitious, relentless, and somewhat limited goal, but transforms its very meaning by setting it against the outbreak. Only by being relentless can an impossible task be achieved. And yet he remains wary of the impressive declarations by global do-gooders. “International organizations are fond of grand-sounding pledges to rid the planet of this or that menace. They nearly always fail, however. The world is too vast and too various to submit to dictates from on high.”

The grand announcements overlook what Gawande is all too familiar with: the complexities that arise from individual choices at the ground level. So varied are their choices and the effects that follow. In one episode in Complications, Gawande draws a ‘decision tree’ with possible outcomes to a surgical procedure. Like in any other profession, he writes, decisions in medical science compound themselves. When he accounts for all possible outcomes, “my tree looked more like a bush”.

Given the complications involved, how much should a surgeon make? The question is put to Gawande after his training is complete, and he quickly understands that his salary is not connected with his abilities. It involves frequent run-ins with insurance agents, doing very un-doctorlike things. He calls for an overhaul of the American healthcare system. (For the record, though, the average salary for general surgeons is $264,375.) In India, where the problems are systemic, he instead focuses on individual drive and dedication, and describes how physicians and surgeons have adapted to the lack of proper medical equipment, and have invented, in some cases, surgical operations thought impossible.

Gawande’s writings have appeared in The New Yorker and on Slate, as well as in medical journals. By his own account, his writings are more important to him, and it is remarkable to note that he began writing relatively late. His language is direct, often delicately balanced, and pretty persuasive. The episodes read as thrillers would, with periods of action interrupted by interludes of data and context. They conclude mostly with the problem resolved, a life saved, and therefore, a happy ending. This is a surgeon writing, but the words could just as well have been from a writer who explores the medical profession as a new world filled with flawed but frequently dazzling things.

I'll leave you with a few pieces I've enjoyed. This one's on how we age now. I particularly enjoyed the one on how much medical practitioners should earn, and there's always more fun stuff to read at Slate.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Writers in a dream

We're in a quaint bookshop, and David Remnick is behind the cash counter. He's reading something. On either side before the register are two square pillars with shelves attached. They're filled with books I've never seen before. R, the wife, browses through cookbooks with faint interest. But this is something else, with books I've never heard of, and I jump them. The spine on one hardcover looks familiar. It's edited by Remnick, and part of the series which includes "Wonderful Town" and "Fierce Pajamas". He looks up as I pull it out, smiles, and returns to his work. It's an anthology of flight, and it's got Calvin Trillin! Gopnik! Remnick! And for whatever reason, Atul Gawande! There's a slot on my shelf at home right next to the other books from the series. It'll be a squeeze, but this will fit. I turn to R, and she asks, "Another book?" Yes, but it's a New Yorker.

There's another thing. There's a book I want, a book on playing the guitar. It's the best book there ever was on the subject, and like all other best books on their subjects, this one is a lesson in how to write well. I call for help finding the book. A man emerges from behind the pillar. Julian Barnes listens patiently, and says that the store has it. He returns a while later, dusting it off. He says that the store keeps guitars, would I like to have a look? They're beautiful. I want one, but it seems a little selfish so I buy it for R, and give her the book too. In my mind it's like giving your wife a Playstation for her birthday. It will eventually come around.

Maybe I'm reading too much of the New Yorker these days.

Monday, June 25, 2007


The Wall Street Journal guesses why the third parts of three big franchises fared less than well:

May's big blockbuster "threequels" -- "Spider-Man 3," "Shrek the Third" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" -- are all expected to fall short of the last installments in those series at the domestic box office... The domestic performance of the films may be a sign that audiences are growing fatigued with overly familiar offerings.
I've got a theory: it's not the familiarity, it's the lack of newness.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Review: India's Unending Journey, by Mark Tully

This piece appears in Mint's Lounge today.

Mark Tully explores the nature of his spiritual beliefs in his latest book, in which India lies at the centre. In India’s Unending Journey, Tully advises readers to believe in doubt. He writes that uncertainty, the middle road, and doubt contain no absolutes and so are effective in balancing extremes. He espouses humility as a way of living in peace. To wander from this path would mean shutting the door on truth.

For this Tully seeks religious figures and accomplished academic experts who explain religion, culture, and economics – the issues that keep modern India occupied. He encourages readers to understand India’s journey because it “is the journey of us all, towards a future in which we must draw deeply upon our spiritual and material resources, and strive to find a balance in the face of uncertainty”.

Balance is everything to Tully. Recollecting his school days in a chapter titled ‘Marlborough: An education in absolutes’, he says that humility counted for very little. “Rather,” he writes about his education there, “it taught me that life was all about striving to be ‘a damn fine fellow’ and lift myself up without help from anybody else.” It bothers him that academic and athletic successes were attributed to effort, and did not take into account God-given gifts, circumstance, and earlier education. Entrenched in reason, Marlborough did not encourage questioning, Tully writes. This deviation from the Bible’s definition of a life lived well – “to ‘humble myself in the sight of the Lord’, or to be confident that ‘He shall lift you up’ ” – clouded his thoughts for years after school. Men are never truly independent, he implies, and to deny the existence of a creator or ‘sustainer’ is to give too much importance to human success alone.

The writer’s opinions on balance lead him to conclude from a friendly conversation that the pursuit of success leads people to do anything:

“Rich boys think they can do anything they like. They have absolutely no humility.’
‘Isn’t this part of the whole modern business of worshipping success?’ I wondered. ‘Because their fathers are revered for being rich and successful, the boys think they have the right to do whatever they like?’
‘You know,’ Richard sighed, ‘I think it also comes back to what we have often talked about in the past – competition and the school going in for this unwholesome encouragement of success.’”

The book is littered with similar instances of unsuspecting causes welded to effects by Tully. His quest for balance leads him up familiar avenues – disparity in wealth, the hollowness of consumerism, and even gyms versus yoga – but the arguments are unconvincing. Tully visits a Dalit familiar to him in Uttar Pradesh who is as rooted in poverty as he was ten years ago, and concludes: “Advocates of growth as the panacea for countries like India maintain that the wealth generated will trickle down to the poor, but it was quite clear that little or no wealth had trickled into the pocket of Budh Ram…” The existence of poverty is seen as a failing of capitalism. Yet, only a few paragraphs later, Budh Ram explains how government schemes meant to help the poor are misused.

There are passages of superb journalism, among them an encounter with Dr. Manmohan Singh, which lasts two paragraphs. He explains the prime minister’s challenge in making capitalism work for India, “introducing reform gradually; taking a step, watching and waiting, before taking the next step, in the same way that trade in the rupee has gradually been liberalized”. Note the breaks in the sentence, with each comma depicting a decision but not an ending.

Tully’s tone in this book is gentle, wise, and is filled with empathy for his subjects. His connection with this country is visibly strong, and he seeks to understand the things that drive its. His voice encourages conciliation and mediation, and is one of peace. But what does this mean? Ending a chapter on globalization, his writing exudes his message of peace, that the middle path is the best path of all – most chapters end on a somewhat similar note – but it is the nature of the middle path that it sometimes leaves us less close to a resolution than a firm stand would: “So…how can globalization be made to work? The answers may lie in keeping the correct balance between decision made at the global and the national levels, in strengthening the international organizations, in ensuring that the market doesn’t lead us by the nose, and in keeping the role of the market and the government in balance.” What will a reader looking for answers derive from the approach prescribed?

Laxman's song

Laxman Sivaramakrishnan owes his employment to an insatiable hunger. It accepts both taste and tasteless, colorful and drab, and inventive as well as ordinary. If it was not for today and this time, the richness of his voice would remain unknown, unless his sense of commentary took a sudden swerve skywards. But that is unlikely to happen, so the voice alone is to be marveled.

Is there anybody in sports broadcasting with a voice as melodious as Laxman’s? The man makes great shots out of normal ones, but he sings along and this is the difference. It is the way he employs it, conjuring from deep within the voice of a presenter on fight night in Nevada, a cartoon character, or perhaps only what he considers a parody of commentary. At times it seems he is reading aloud from a play manuscript he has only just come by. Sometimes he internalizes the manuscript but tries too hard. Whatever it is, there is nobody better at it.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Old people

It's like they've zapped all the old people, a friend recently said of Andheri, where I live. It's somewhat true. Where are they? It's an unsettling thought. Older people - the sight of them - gives a place age, as if it has been there for a while, as if what it is built on is strong and lasting. Here there is the furious activity associated with making money, but there is nobody to say "we've seen this before". Of course they're around somewhere, doing something. But they're not outdoors, on the streets, where they can be. This place unsettles me. I'll be old someday. Will that be it, then?

Three words that strike fear in to the heart of this journalist

Track ongoing developments.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Why I love Stardust

Two lines from an interview:

Interviewer: What's your take on one-night stands?
Gul Panag: It depends on where you stand.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Mystery from the deep

When a road is dug up, and left in that very state for months, two questions arise: when will it be re-laid, and why is it taking so long? Had we a single road on which to linger, perhaps an answer would be easy to find. This place, though, has no easy answers. Everywhere something is being dug up, like competing excavation projects, slowing down time. Why this happens is shrouded in mystery, but for a hunch: The digs involve pipes and cables. What else could they be? To speed up a service or one medium of transportation, another must be brought to a grinding halt. This is a city of limited bandwidth.

I have to know this strange thing built under Bombay, the thing below tearing up the land above as the price of renewal.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

300 guys

Some time ago I came by 300, a Frank Miller graphic novel with a
striking cover. The starkness of the book's colour palette seemed to me
to balance the absence of words. It is of course what graphic novels
do, but I was struck then by how little dialogue was needed to depict
war. As 300 Spartans held back Asia's relentless hordes, this book
plunged into the war, weaving between its characters like a movie
camera in a battlefield. Part of the book's mastery was in its power to
suggest something - a slash or a thrust - and have us imagine the
violent follow through. So words counted for little in this novel even
though the book itself was a retelling of the battle. It was classy war

With this in mind, I braced myself in seat K2 of a dark hall yesterday,
armed with popcorn and a coke. The theatre brimmed with a horde of
young men, some clearly years away from admittance to an 'A' certified
movie. They came prepared like spectators at the Colliseum. The first
moments, where a baby is dangled over a ravine containing skeletons of
other babies, hint at what's to follow. They put in place a tenuous
prehistory to what is the main event. What this director, Zack Snyder,
really wants to show you is that main event. He's as eager for war as
the Spartans are. Every so often his characters assault women, jump
into orgies, and consult a fetching oracle. I like comic books, and
enjoy the stereotype of the fan they play up to ("likes muscular
bodies, big guns, large hybrid beasts and spandex") but this was too
heavyhanded for my taste. These incidents are held by a slender thread,
and just as they are on the verge of snapping, on comes another battle.

The war scenes by themselves are surreal in their effect, as the
director changes angles, colour, and slows down the pace before raising
the tempo again. There are two particularly delicious fights inspired
by video games. One is when a Spartan breaks out of his cordon and cuts
through a rush of enemies with his sword and deflects others with his
shield. The camera runs with him at the screen's centre, making him and
his enemies two-dimensional. Gamers will know what that's about. The
other fight is a trick we've witnessed in kung-fu flicks as well as the
second Matrix movie, but here we know they're fighting a losing battle,
that this bravery has its price - two Spartans, back-to-back, overcome
dozens coming at them from every conceivable angle, materialising out
of the mist. I'm in the market for this movie's conceptual art.

A few hours later I couldn't help but wonder: its weakest moments were
its overwrought dialogue. In this manner, I though, it continued to
evolve the language of earlier Arnold and Stallone guy movies, of
comebacks and dramatic declarations interspersed with the universal
language of guns and bombs. Then came Gladiator and its close relation,
The Mummy. After which came Kingdom of Heaven, Alexander, and Troy, all
in a short span. Now this. Of all the things it could have become, it
chose to be a guy movie.

8:00? 8:25? 8:40? Find a flick in no time
with the Yahoo! Search movie showtime shortcut.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


You could dress up in light bulbs, but they'll pretend they haven't seen you. They'll look the other way. Put a hand out and see. They rocket by you, taking it with them on their way to Ghatkopar or Film City or some other distant place. Skeeters.

Oh, the scorn! If they acknowledge you, forget telling them where you want to go - ask them where they'd like to go. Then you'll see that rare thing: a happy rickshaw driver. Anywhere, his face will say, as long as it's far away. Go to hell, then.

If it isn't you, there's always somebody else who'll travel to the distant edges of the suburb. Huge demand for his kind outside the train station at 7pm.

I travel late for the fun. A few hours later I get off the train at a near empty station, walk down past the drunk and the newspaper vendor closing shop, and step outside to just stand between a whole lot of them. They're sitting there, revving their engines, turning on radios, strutting around like male pigeons. They look hopeful. They look like touts.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

All in it together

The ride home is long for this time of the night. Again, traffic. Does it affect the city in installments? One day, here, at noon. Another day, there, at midnight. A wrong corner turned and that's where you are stuck for the next hour, surrounded by the same cars with the same desperate drivers. How to get out of this? Which lane is faster - this one or the middle? But they end up going nowhere. It becomes apparent that no one will make way. Some abandon their cars and walk by, tapping windows and scraping doors as they go, unaware that those left are now abandoned too.

There we sit in sadness. Inside a metal case with a gray smog lurking outside the window. How could it be that so many people are here at this hour? Had they decided to wait until the rush hour was over before they left for home? They make me miserable, just as I make them unhappy. Why are they here now? They talk to each other, at peace with this mess. There's one, singing with the radio, I think. They've given up completely. Time could be fought for, with a swerve here and a few honks there, but it's just too late in the day for this. Being normal can wait till tomorrow.