Tuesday, March 06, 2012

You don't say

In this month's issue of The Caravan, I looked at the regulations that have led to unprecedented levels of self-censorship on modern Indian television. As channels grow more reluctant of causing offense, their list of what causes offense enters the realm of parody.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012


This is an incredible comic. (via @mantaraycomics)

Kapil Sibal's super amazing plan to boost social science research that will change everything and lead to more enlightened policy, etc.

Giving them awards.

(Poetry, tablets, taming the internet, and now this. Seriously, is there any problem Sibal can't solve?)

Rights for votes

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Eric Bellman reports on developing countries demanding more rights for their overseas laborers.
The millions who go abroad to take jobs as domestic workers - mostly women employed as maids, but also including such traditionally male jobs gardeners and cooks - are a crucial source of foreign currency back home, and are emerging as an important vote bank.
Read the full story here.

Obituaries deserve better

The first paragraph of Mumbai Mirror's remembrance of Sharada Dwivedi:
It is rather ironical that writer-historian-author of several books on Mumbai, who was instrumental in forming the Kala Ghoda Art District, passed away on February 6 - that time of the year when the city is abuzz with its annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival.
It is indeed fascinating to see the dizzying number of books Dwivedi wrote on Mumbai's myriad aspects.
I read obituaries as much for the dead as for life in the writing. In this case, I can't help but feel Dwivedi deserved a better piece. The reporting swings in to her life and out with a quote to sum up the things she did. Quotes are easy. They're fast. But they can only do so much.

An obituary is a story of a life - even a normal one - with a beginning, a rich middle, and an end. It takes readers along, telling them of who this person really was, what they did, who they liked, what they hated, and perhaps even why they will be remembered. But this piece does nothing of the sort. The city's best newspaper could have given its finest chronicler a better sendoff.

Monday, February 06, 2012

How can I invest in Rohit Shetty?

I just realized that Rohit Shetty has directed five movies in four years. And if all his announced projects come to fruition, he will have eight movies in six by the end of next year.

Shetty doesn't just make money, he does it faster than anyone else.

Not as global as kabaddi

In one devastating paragraph, Sambit Bal tells you why cricket isn't a global game:
Only notionally is cricket a global game. It is a mainstream sport only in ten countries. Of these, nearly half can't generate enough resources by themselves to even pay their own operating costs. Only three cricket boards can genuinely call themselves profitable. And one of them generates nearly three-fourths of all global revenue. Even at the peak of America's superpowerdom in global politics, the scales were not remotely as lopsided.
Connoisseurs of kabaddi will no doubt point out that with 16 participant nations, their world cup is bigger than our world cup.

Ps. Sambit's piece was provoked by the Woolf/PWC governance review of the ICC.

What liberty should be

Like me, a lot of you probably haven't heard about the Whitney v California case from 1927. I just stumbled up on the case, and can't help but envy the society that benefits from it. The judgement is a dream, for it defines free speech in all its fullness, and treats it as the thing from which all other things grow.
Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that, in its government, the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end, and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness, and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law -- the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.

Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears. To justify suppression of free speech, there must be reasonable ground to fear that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced. There must be reasonable ground to believe that the danger apprehended is imminent. There must be reasonable ground to believe that the evil to be prevented is a serious one. Every denunciation of existing law tends in some measure to increase the probability that there will be violation of it. Condonation of a breach enhances the probability. Expressions of approval add to the probability. Propagation of the criminal state of mind by teaching syndicalism increases it. Advocacy of law-breaking heightens it still further. But even advocacy of violation, however reprehensible morally, is not a justification for denying free speech where the advocacy falls short of incitement and there is nothing to indicate that the advocacy would be immediately acted on. The wide difference between advocacy and incitement, between preparation and attempt, between assembling and conspiracy, must be borne in mind. In order to support a finding of clear and present danger, it must be shown either that immediate serious violence was to be expected or was advocated, or that the past conduct furnished reason to believe that such advocacy was then contemplated.

It was some coincidence that as I read this, this news came in:
Facebook, Google fall in line, remove content
Maybe it isn't a coincidence anymore, given that our liberties dwindle everyday under the wooly notion of a greater good.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The man with no name

It's been interesting to see how people refer to Shirish Kunder. Many identified him by name, of course, but a noticeable number didn't. Our biggest English paper referred to him as Farah Khan's husband, while Sucheta Dalal called him "someone or the other". But the hands down, best damn descriptor of all time goes to India Today, who pretty much described him this way (although to be fair, they were aiming for fig leaf anonymity): "the choreographer-cum-director's editor-turned-filmmaker husband".

I can't stop laughing.

(The India Today spot goes to Krishn Kaushik: @krishnkaushik)

Caravan reportage: Mark Mascarenhas

The February 2012 issue of The Caravan contains my first story for the magazine. In it I take a look back at Mark Mascarenhas, Indian cricket's first superstar agent, who also ushered in a new understanding of how undervalued the sport was. I had done part of the reporting four years ago; the bit that contains anecdotes from his childhood. But the rest of it was reported and written in nine manic days earlier this month, and then edited over a few sleep-deprived nights. The only thing that helped me keep it together was working with Mr. Shainin, whose editing is sensational.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Times of India is too big for details

Indranil Basu’s front page Times of India story on the discontent in Indian cricket makes me cringe. Here’s is a bloated rumor masquerading as a major sports story. Just take a look at the headline, for christ’s sake. “Dhoni may be sacked as Test captain”. So the reporter isn’t sure. Or maybe he’s sure that the board isn’t sure.

Parts of it read as if a cricket administrator wrote the stuff. “While senior players, including VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid, have clarified that they are not retiring from cricket as yet, it doesn’t mean that both, or either, will be selected for Tests again.” Who said that? The Times can be frugal with details, but here they’re stingy with anonymity too. So I don’t know if one board member is thinking this, or if lots of them are. A little later, Basu writes, “It is also being said that if Yuvraj Singh gets fit, he will be an ‘automatic choice’”. Nowhere does Basu indicate that he questioned those doing the saying about what they were smoking. He thinks it’s not important to tell us how he knows that Sehwag’s feeling left out under Dhoni. And he certainly doesn’t explain which particular cricket bosses think Sehwag should be given a chance. Okay, fine, don’t give us that. At least tell me how many people feel that way.

At one point in his story, Basu decides to toss away dispassion and distance entirely, and writes, “However, what is disturbing is the talk of ‘an ego clash’ between Dhoni and Sehwag”. I can’t make up my mind over whether Basu’s editorializing or being savaged by the Times’ light-touch copy-editors. Maybe he’s just being a mouthpiece, because this is what comes next: “It’s said that this affected Dhoni’s captaincy and he couldn’t assert his authority with Sehwag and a few others.”

Basu may have done the hard yards, and perhaps everything he wrote may still turn out to be true. But he forgets that to present all these voices without attribution, even if those voices are anonymous, is just beyond stupid.

This story, and others like it, just serve as a reminder that the only reason I let this collection of half-truths pretending to be a newspaper into my home is because I’m working on my sift-through-garbage-to-find-one-fact skills.

Ps. I just read the last part of the story online. It is an editorial.

A fan's note on Indian cricket

I don’t remember when exactly I began to have this fear, but the specter of an Indian team shorn of its extraordinary fortune (there’s no other way to describe how so many great batsmen turned up at the same time) numbed my pleasure as a fan for a long time. For many years this team achieved less than it was capable of, and so, if it won when it wasn’t supposed to, I believed that things had come together for one long moment. But a losing team that starts winning is a strange thing: many of its fans celebrate, but some, like me, are left deeply uneasy. Not much has changed, so how did we start winning?

When I look back now, I see the comfort we found in constant underachievement. We were anchored to our failures, of which we were very aware. They hung around, reminding us of what needed to be done before we could set sail. But we slipped away by choosing the lubrication of good fortune over the struggle of creation. Well, here we are, finally run aground on a reef of We-told-you-so’s.

Now that our luck has left us, I feel oddly reassured. What remains is not actions but words that expose the hollowness of this team’s spirit. It is built on revenge, on the mistaken belief that they will show us, and we will be converts once more. They talk in the abstraction of numbers, they remind us of the good times, they tell us we need to stand behind them. There has been hubris, not humility; they speak not of remedying themselves but of doctoring pitches. Here they are, cold, frightened, and utterly lost. Orphans.

And from afar, from the man in exile, come solutions the length of an SMS. This, that, that too, and don’t forget this. Obvious solutions, old solutions - all put forward half a decade ago, and then discarded by him. He did not see luck as an opportunity to buy more time and create his own. Instead, he set about taking control and creating wealth. But those values were on paper, and ultimately they hinge on how the sport is played. Which he largely ignored. The funny money paid for those crazy Indian broadcast deals? Those weren’t for Indian cricket, they were for Indian cricket’s superstars. Now some of India’s greatest batsmen will leave and what happens next should be fun.

Here’s what we have. We are left with a team, or the remains of a team, that has fewer spinners than England does. Putting it mildly, we now regard Harbhajan Singh with something like fondness. The board talks about avoiding whitewashes. Dravid says there is no hurry to decide on his retirement. Laxman says nothing. Sachin waits, and we wait with him. This is as it was. These are the failures we were anchored to a decade ago. And here they are again. Except that the greatest batting lineup ever is now behind us, as is the finest Indian spinner.

The promise of this team lies in men who haven’t announced themselves yet. So I know I will wait for them to come along, as they have always done, and remind us that Indian cricket is alive once more. But again, and I have to keep reminding myself of this, it will be our fortune that takes us forward.

This time, though, the specter of good fortune deserting us can be some other fan’s private nightmare. I’ve seen this once; it’s all I can take, frankly.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Beautiful words from a beautiful book

"When you write a book, you willingly step into the public arena, no longer reporter but being reported upon, no longer jotting down notes on the debate but joining in it. You should welcome to conflict with journalists, scholars, critics, and others who will read your work and challenge your version of reality with their own. That kind of disputation is healthy for a society and it will keep your talents sharp. Never be afraid to defend the vision of the world that you have committed to the page. But make sure you can defend it, because every charlatan in our midst undermines the credibility of us all."

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The half-way point

Bear with me a moment. I'm trying to explore the nature of something.

I've found that when it comes to memories, there is an inevitable point when what you know and what you feel and what you feel about what you felt back then all come together to create the perfect storm of nostalgia. This is long after the actual event. This often happens naturally, but can also be forced out of myself by creating the conditions necessary for a deep longing. It's been a while since she died, but I recall my mother when I enter the room she died in. I recreate the last sounds that came out of her, pull out the look on the doctor's face when he stopped pumping her heart, and then my sister making a phone call I could never have made.

The idea is not to mourn, or grieve, but to remember. And not just remember a moment, but a moment filled with feeling.

But there comes a half-way point when the bubbling in the water starts to subside before it cools and, finally, becomes still. My instinct then is to remember what I can dispassionately, and fall back on photographs, videos, and the recollections of other people. Through these things I can reconstruct, in a Frankensteinian way, the life of people I knew. This happens after the half-way point.

At this stage, truly unreliable narratives are formed. The kind that can't always be verified because they could be true, or just might not.

Just thinking aloud.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Dubai-returns

To me, a memory is a story whose cast and lines change imperceptibly with each recollection. Seen from other angles, memories become a kind of hazy witness report. Put together, they overlap to form some kind of truth. Three years ago, in a fit of nostalgia, I began to write a long, flawed memory of our life in Dubai. It is by no means accurate, but I had hoped to capture what I remember of this family before it became entirely fiction. This urge to record was always there, but it became more urgent when an uncle threw out a trove of old letters, photographs and documents because he needed the trunk for storage. I suddenly realized how much I wanted to read those letters, and see those photographs.

(A note. This was meant to be much longer, but I reasoned that a series of stories would allow me to delve into this history in greater detail, so I chopped it off abruptly.)


Not long after its independence, my elders landed on Dubai’s shores. They came by ship, one after another, heeding the trunk calls from other relatives in the desert. Come here, life is good here, get a job here. Here was the place to be. Between here and where they were, this was not a difficult choice to make. The Seventies were swinging elsewhere, and leaving India couldn’t have been easier. So they came, as others from India and its neighbors had, without a job, their confidence built on the rickety rumors of better prospects. They came with eight dollars in cargo class (because that is what India allowed them to carry outside) stopped at Karachi a while, and arrived here, unbathed and unshaved, five days later.

On arrival they walked to their new home under a burning sun. Word would spread. Another one had arrived. That evening the clan would converge, happy to have grown in number. I was not there then, but they would have danced, as they always did. Their arms jolting rhythmically and convulsing bodies following, their eyes closed, forefingers up, as if to say ‘bear with this for a minute’; the dance of men who could not groove. Wives and sisters, newly acquainted, sat on carpets with the air conditioning turned up, and talked about things the men had no time for.

Photographs show them before the wrinkles appeared, before the desert took its due. They look beautiful in their saris and pants, with the lady from Bombay in her short hair, and the new entrant from Indore in plaits, her eyes wide open. In hindsight, those years were lean but uncomplicated. Decades later, when they finally had the money they wanted, the simplicity would be gone.

For all it signifies, Dubai remains a small city. Along the way, its planners were galvanized by the idea of a greater destiny. The first attempts at greatness were classical: the world’s longest cake, the world’s biggest clock. Sharjah, the emirate next door, had the world’s third-largest fountain. These were diligently reported in the Khaleej Times, our local paper. Supportive letters were sent to the editor. Relatives gathered every week to discuss these achievements in earnestness. If anyone missed these drunken meetings, as an uncle who ran a photo store did, he would be heckled by the mob. “Note-chaap,” they would say to his face. Money-printer. And then rib his sons who had stayed behind.

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. It was entirely plausible. Only fifteen years ago there had been nothing here but houses in the sand and a creek. Now there were malls and central air conditioning. Even then, it was implausible. The idiot had drunk too much. They would continue discussions over Amstel and Planters cheese balls. It was not a place or a time for introspection. One arbitrary 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, giant islands were built off shore, and the Burj shone like a jewel in the Dubai skyline. But I missed this breathless growth. In 1996 I left to start my own life. 

Breathless activity has its downsides. Where I used to live is now unsympathetically called old Dubai. Twenty years old and it’s known as old Dubai. The beating 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 modern Dubai, a place like it existed only in Sim City 2000.

But downtown came later. This was a quiet town once, before the desert was swept back. At the time, a single low aerial snap could capture every building in town. A creek slunk through its center, splitting the population in two; Deira with its electronics stores on one side, and Bur Dubai’s south Asian textile shops on the other. The place couldn’t have been closer to heaven for immigrants from India, of whom there were multitudes. They lived a life radically different from anything their own countries could afford. Dubai offered wealth and familiar food and entertainment. Of course rules had to be followed, the first among them being unofficial - that the Arab always took preference over all else. It was a wisdom that held true, as people learnt from the unfortunate experiences of others. Deportations and jail terms were common. But such were the benefits of staying in line and keeping your head down that the city, at least as the papers reported it, experienced virtually no incident or crime.

Back home in India, people argued that they lived in a democracy. In Hindi movies the term ‘Dubai-return’ was coined to describe a peculiar comically stylish breed of sunglass-wearing Indian. The city came to be renowned as the den of smugglers and thieves whose motive was to destabilize India. Those were na├»ve times, although the truth is that the Indians who stayed behind lived an unforgiving life. There was violence and corruption and taxes and an uncooperative bureaucratic regime and a list of wrongs as lengthy as history.

The view in Dubai was of course different. To them, the freedoms of an authoritarian country were not as taxing as those of the democracy left behind. Naturally dissent was unacceptable, but they were here for work and the good life, not trouble. It did not matter whether internationally wanted men moved among them for the city was content and promised lasting peace. And peace was kept, despite the immigrant population consisting largely of Indians and Pakistanis afflicted by Partition’s festering wounds. Their recent history had brimmed with injustices that often boiled over into wars, but the immigrants here had long ago decided that nationalism did not buy a new car. Besides, Dubai offered only one chance.

They took that chance to build businesses that thrived for decades. Movie theaters and drive-ins, jewelry stores, supermarkets, photo studios, music stores, restaurants – the small businesses sprouted everywhere, making it like a sanitized version of home. This happened by strength in numbers. The photo studio I sat at was bracketed by an Indian fast food restaurant and a tailoring shop – one run by a sikh, the other by a South Indian. Down the street small and identical music stores did business, and flourished. Which was befuddling, because everyone sold the same video and audio cassettes. Indian textiles flooded the market. Hindi was adopted by Arabs, and they spoke a broken version of it: “Ek minute. Hum aati.” The Indian hand was everywhere. And so, given the evidence of their culture flourishing, each day convinced the immigrants further that the land was their own, even if they couldn’t buy it.

Perhaps they overestimated their supposed stake, because one morning the exodus began. The day’s papers mentioned a new ruling that forced workers below a certain income to leave Dubai immediately. As days went by the reports of departures nurtured an old insecurity. Our family meetings were more politically inclined. ‘Who knows what they’ll come up with next?’ some would ask in anger. It was true. Rulings came with no prior warning, and had a nasty way of forcing upheaval upon large swathes of the population. The children, my cousins, who had so far been unaware of the impact of new legislation, were now old enough to latch on to catchphrases. “Who knows what they’ll come up with next,” a cousin parroted and was immediately shushed up. My parents would wait until the last guest had left before holding me to never repeat conversations at home. The reigning Indian policy of no confrontation had worked for them, and they wished for us too to become invisible in some ways. The local populace, we understood, had to be respected and feared. An Arab was always - always - connected to someone who could alter the course of your life. Proof of this was not required. When enough people speak about a thing, it becomes true. Dubai was not the kind of place where you learnt from your own mistakes.

The theory of cooperation and respect was tested during the first Gulf War, when the city swarmed with marines. I’d spend time with my uncle at his photo studio in Bur Dubai where a cash register swallowed green bills with a frequency unimaginable to us. The volume of work had overwhelmed the small staff. He needed an extra hand. I’d help with feeding the negative into the processor, cutting it in to strips and slipping them into plastic sheaths. Then the photos would come out of the machine, one every half minute or so, with these alien white faces doing strange things. They were big and had blond hair and freckles. They dressed differently, and wore shirts untucked. Sometimes they were bare-chested. Sometimes the women wore almost nothing. My uncle would look at every picture, replacing bad prints with a reprint, not stopping to linger on any one a little longer. He betrayed no curiosity. Racy pictures were destined, like all others, for a drawer under the register filled with envelopes marked for customers. I think back now, remembering his glasses perched half-way up his broad nose under his thick Sindhi eyebrows, skipping through these prints quickly. The faster he did this, the more he earned.
Ever so often a local walked in to the crowded shop. Experience had taught them that Arabs will get attention, so nothing need be said or demanded. My uncle stopped what he was doing and would speak with him directly, bypassing the customers who arrived before. The others waited testily, but said nothing. Americans looked at things differently.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The pianist

The pianist, a quiet man from Washington, contemplated what he would do after he gave up what he was born to do. Greying, slowing, he no longer relegated tasks to the future, when he would be greyer, slower. He was born to old parents who gave him the opportunity to be still and read, and through these books he learned that men a thousand years ago were no different from those today. In time, after he was alone a long while, and after his professional ambitions began to fade, he saw the dreams his passions had obscured. The pianist took to travel, looking for answers to questions that were never clear. He traversed the quietest parts of this country, moving between places where people found enlightenment, hoping to be inspired. There had been no inspiration so far, only a faint realization that his life was enviable, even as it came to a close. Men who helped him get around told him so, and he began to see the walls that separated these men from the lives they could lead. The force of this desire made him reconsider what he was doing, and how he was doing it.

But there's still the future to think of, he said, lighting up a cigarette on a musty morning in Goa. There are things he wants to do, but these are tempered by things he has to do. Right now, he has to play the piano.

Then he shrugged, and smiled, and did what men a thousand years ago did: he filed the dilemma for later.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why they left

Last Sunday, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, Samanth Subramanian, and I caught up.

As an aside, one of the things I'm irrationally proud of - don't ask why - is that Samanth edited the first article of my professional writing life. He had been at Cricinfo a while, and I was three days old there. He went through it at the speed the web demands, adding a word here, removing one there, rejigging a couple of paragraphs, before reaching the last line. Here he paused, reading it again and again, before writing this over it in one thirty-second burst:

Farhat's dismissal brought Inzamam-ul-Haq to the crease, and he scored a quickfire 25 in his 300th one-day international to set the tone for the late-innings savagery. Youhana's 53-ball 64 and Razzaq's 34 off just 16 balls merely drove the nails more thunderously into the coffin of this depleted New Zealand outfit.

I don't remember what I had written, but the way he wrote these lines did. After he was done, he felt compelled to say something about good beginnings and satisfying endings. This was my first taste of the uncluttered thinking that added to Cricinfo's aura. In time I'd come to learn of Tim de Lisle's legendary stylebook - 'colour is good', I think he wrote - why adjectives were discouraged, and other things I can't remember, but which live on in the writing style of nearly everyone who moved on from Cricinfo (except for Rahul Bhattacharya, who came and went with his own style).

But ten days after I joined, Samanth left and, by dint of being present, I became a full employee. I was thankful for the job, but didn't really bother finding out why he left. In the years since then, while I worked there, I knew that Chandrahas left to explore a wider world, while Amit wanted to focus on blogging. It's difficult to explain how seismic this was. Sure, we talked about how there were more distractions for Indians today, and yes, a casual survey did tell us that football was more popular in city schools than cricket, and that is why people were stepping away from the game. These reasons explained dwindling audiences, they explained falling ratings. But now, when I think about it, these were probably things we felt by ourselves. That the more frequent games became, the lesser was the anticipation. The more they marketed each game, the less we listened to the personal rhythms that connect sport lovers spread over continents. Cricket thrived, and still does, but I'd argue that it is no longer the medium for its writers' passions that it once was. Siddhartha Vidyanathan continues to write about the sport beautifully, but he does this outside the fold. No Zimbabwe versus Bangladesh matches for him. Rahul has turned to exploring quieter worlds. Amit, who brings scary intensity to everything he does, now challenges himself in other ways.

All this is connected to Sunday. When the discussion veered to cricket writing, Samanth said he left because - and I'm phrasing this very loosely - he didn't want to hate the game. Now, writing this, I realize he felt it change before most of us did. Like the writers who came after him, he left it because he loved the idea of it too much. It would be funny if it wasn't true.

Why this post, why now? I guess I'm grappling with something new - the idea that writing seriously in India requires sacrifice and a degree of risk-taking. Looking at Cricinfo and its writers helps. They put themselves in a new place because they couldn't completely believe in the old one. I can't think of a better reason to leap.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The phantom leap

Eight days short of six years ago, when there was time for internal dialogue, I wrote this. Many things have changed since, but the conflicts present in the last paragraph have remained. There have been growing responsibilities, and a greater awareness of the consequences of each choice. And yet the conflicts don't go away. Even after six years of learning, of working toward something, of hopefully becoming a slightly better writer. That phantom leap still lingers, waiting for me to decide. Each choice is brave and yet cowardly; the secure path leads to a warm life, and the one I haven't taken could be miserable.

But I live and breathe my stories in a way I can't explain. Not to you, or my bosses, or my family, or even myself. The last story I explored and wrote with passion - even if it doesn't come across - was the longest I had ever written and, I asked myself after a month: "Still not one comment?" The story took three weeks to research, and a week to write. Then came another story, about the Oscar Library, which I wrote because I had to fill a weekly deadline. I wrote it in an hour. I spent the next two days in a terrible funk, because it was terrible. And I'm still surprised how many people liked it.

So at what point does one take that leap? I'm still grappling with it. When I wrote 25, 35, 45, I genuinely didn't know how life would turn out. At 31, the answer is no clearer, but the choices, and their consequences, certainly are.

I guess knowing how you're going to be screwed is a kind of progress.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The spirit of inquiry

Reading The Emperor of All Maladies today, I came by a passage whose sentiment I found familiar .

"Basic research," [Vannevar] Bush wrote, "is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws. This general knowledge provides the means of answering a large number of important practical problems, though it may not give a complete specific answer to any one of them...."

Bush argued that the the spirit of inquiry was central to scientific progress, and that "programmatic" science, which favoured a regimented, goal-based approach, would stifle innovation.

But as I mentioned, Bush's words felt familiar because writing often felt like this. Especially at the start, and especially at times like now, when I want to stop doing whatever I'm doing and focus on defining my present limits. These boundaries keep changing, and with these boundaries the 'laws' change too. The "general knowledge" it results in is of the personal kind; I discover a little more about myself. These discoveries, in turn, take me someplace else. When the spirit of inquiry is alive, we chart new territory.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Airtel and me, the media.

It was a pretty calm and unexciting day when the phone rang, as it always did, quite suddenly.

Voice: Hello. I'm calling from IMRB on behalf of Airtel broadband to check customer satisfaction. Could you spare five minutes of your time to answer some questions?

Me: Yes!

(Background: My broadband had been behaving like MTNL's dialup for three months. I would call regularly to complain, and they would respond that an engineer had come by and everything was wonderful. It was like Middle Eastern propaganda. I nearly forgot what a 4mbps connection looked like. Just the other day a guy at the call center blew up at me for being unprofessional when I called the connection "shit". His awesome response: "The shit connection, sir, is because we have server trouble." Server trouble is like the Indian online version of dog ate my homework. Big-ass faceless entity that's safe to shake a fist at. Like a picture of god.)

Voice: Is any member of your family in the media?

Me: Yes.

Voice: Who?

Me: Me.


Voice: Thank you for your time. We're not looking for feedback from the media today.

And then she hung up to go find some non-media person. Today it's us media folk. Next come the bloggers. Then the ones on Twitter.

You know where this is headed.

Voice: Sorry sir, Airtel broadband's not looking for customer feedback from anyone using the internet.