Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Right man, Wright time

Tehelka, 24 September, 2006

The recurring themes that turn up every so often in John Wright’s Indian Summers — the realisation that a desk job is dour, the lure and the challenges of cricket, the demands on patience made by an often confounding country — bolster this story about the country’s first foreign cricket coach. “[In India, you see] much that is admirable and uplifting: the emphasis on family, the humility, the spirituality, the grace and dignity in the face of hardship,” he writes. “These were the people you wanted to do well for and who deserved a team which shed blood, sweat and tears.”

Wright coached India for five years, overseeing and, with Sourav Ganguly, forging a transformation from the sedentary tea-and-biscuit days of previous decades to ones of toil and success when it mattered. His book captures what it took to effect change in an environment of strong opposition from an entrenched system. “The nature of the system meant that survival was the number one priority,” he writes, “so it was little wonder it produced cricketers who tended to play for themselves.” He could not change it from the ground up, as he desired, but he tried persuading people who mattered to do things differently instead. Persuasion, he realised, could vary from a soft word to grabbing someone’s collar. Making his way through the subtleties of Indian cricket, Wright finds that his status as an outsider affords him a certain leeway. “During my last season, Viru said to me that speaking your mind in India was not easy because emotions got involved. ‘We can’t say it like you do, John... If you speak your mind and upset someone in India, he can take it to his heart and it can remain with him for a long time.’”

Wright’s account of his India years is similar in many ways to a travelogue, with its wonder-struck descriptions of the cricketing landscape, the characters central to its story, and how the country grew for him in personal meaning. His tenure begins with a series of mishaps which become commonplace once he settles down. He understands selection procedure only when his players explain it. “When I raised the issue at a selection meeting,” he says, “I got blank stares.” He is bemused by the crazy scheduling. His friend Raj Singh Dungarpur advises him to be patient, and the words hold him in good stead. Over time he understands that everybody is held hostage to everybody else. “Looking back on it, I tend to think we were all prisoners of the system, even Dalmiya… I know for a fact that many coaches and former and current players want to do things differently, but they too are prisoners of a system they can’t crack from within and don’t know where to begin.”

This focus is often turned inwards, and the story of his personal growth is as captivating as are the accounts of his dealings with the players, for whom he feels great empathy. “Getting dropped is horrible, but it’s even worse when you’re a big-name player and an established figure in the team... You think it’s a bullshit call, but there’s nothing you can do about it.” One chapter, in which he tracks his cricketers’ path to the international game, is a telling study of the hard life before the recognition. In explaining the lives and choices of the cricketers he lived with for half a decade, a large portion is also dedicated to why some lose their head when success comes.

Indian Summers explores modern India as few other cricket books have. The usual stories, the ones that grab the headlines, are all here, but the picture’s bigger. Wright understands how much the sport means to the country, and explains it as justly as he can. In hindsight, every moment that brought controversy was part of an ongoing process to leave the comfortable past behind, change mindsets and override the huge role politics play. In the centre of it all is Wright, who grew to take uninvited ex-players and BCCI gaffes in his stride, and who has left us with a book that is revealing about both cricket and the country it is played in.

Postcards by guided missile

Tehelka, September 30, 2006

Bill Bryson wrote his latest book after promising his wife that he would stay at home. He had also promised his publisher that this book would be entertaining. And personally, he missed being funny. So here then is The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir that’s likely to make his wife, his publisher, and his regulars rather chuffed.

Bryson has made a delightful career out of stumbling from one place to another. His books have spoken of the looniness of solitary travel, which is filled with strange characters and strange journeys. In a way, Bryson’s traveling life has been similar to his childhood. The book is a solid retelling of absolutely everything from his childhood, like a diary maintained from preschool with the perspective of an adult.

Bryson’s first book, The Lost Continent, written after his father’s death, was about how life had changed in small America since he was young. This one is about how things were, and what his relationship with Des Moines, Iowa, was all about. He grew up in the 50s and 60s, a time that was “fearful, thrilling, interesting, instructive, eye-popping, lustful, eager, troubled, untroubled, confused, serene.” Incidentally, “it was all those things for America too.” The tone that this book starts with is unlike the slightly sour one in his first: “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”

Des Moines, it turns out, wasn’t half bad for a boy. The town had strange characters – and many things seem stranger looking back when you’re grown up – made even stranger by the fact that it was a strange time for America. Bomb drills required children to brace themselves under a desk. “I remember being profoundly amazed,” Bryson writes, “that anyone would suppose that a little wooden desk would provide a safe haven…Once I realized that no one was watching, I elected not to take part. I already knew how to get under a desk and was confident that this was not a skill that would ever need refreshing. Anyway, what were the chances that the Soviets would bomb Des Moines? I mean, come on.”

Bryson’s town in the fifties was arrested by progress and visions of the future, as was the rest of America. Neighbours proudly exhibited their latest television, toilets were cleaned not just by water but with a solid burst of radiation, and the post office promised to deliver mail by guided missile. But the place was puritanical too. Deviant sex, which in those days was anything other than straight sex, was illegal. The church especially, Bryson writes, was in on it. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese declared that sex outside marriage promoted Communism. “Quite how a shag in the haymow helped the relentless march of Marxism was never specified, but it hardly mattered. The point was that once an action was deemed to promote Communism, you knew you were never going to get anywhere near it.”

The anecdotes with which Bryson describes his life and times are made richer by his details and exaggerations: “…he treated me to the hanging spit trick… it wasn’t even like spit – at least not like human spit.” It was “a mossy green with little streaks of red blood in it and, unless my memory is playing tricks, two very small grey feathers protruding at the sides. It was so big and shiny that I could see my reflection in it, distorted, as in an M.C. Escher drawing.” There are memories of his father, a sports writer who demonstrated isometrics in airplanes and saved money by visiting dentists who didn’t use novocaine, and his mother, who sent him to school in his sister’s Capri pants.

After A Short History of Nearly Everything, and four years since his last travel book, this is Bryson’s return to humor and everyday happenings. It is by no means deep, or as insightful as his last one, but as he maintains on page 33: “So this is a book about not very much: about being small and getting larger slowly.”

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Meeting Sanjay B Jumaani

This was published in Tehelka, September 15 2006

Sanjay Jumani’s had been a middling life. At 17, he began working because it was nice to work. He left college incomplete, underdone, and became a distributor for an alcohol company. He got married. Special things happened to others around him while he worked, slept, worked, slept. The pay was barely enough to finance a trip to the hospital if someone fell sick. Meanwhile, after his own run of poor luck, his father, Bansilal Jumaani, made a profession out of predicting things. It started slowly, with a simple suggestion to Manmohan Desai: work with Amitabh Bachchan because your numbers match. Three decades later a friend, Farhad Nathani, tested him for a year to predict the fate of films due to be released. He was impressed by Bansilal’s accuracy and introduced him to Rakesh Roshan, the movie director. Roshan was warned that ‘Kaho Na Pyar Hai’ would not work. The numbers were not good. Two ‘a’s to the title could make it a bigger movie than the blockbuster of the time, Dil to Paagal Hai. Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai was massive.

Six years later, I visited Sanjay’s office in Mahim. Scrapbooks with clippings of repetitive interviews, of predictions made and prophecies fulfilled lie on a curved glass coffee table. Vineet Jain, the Godrej family, and the Birlas consult him. So does Sharad Pawar. (Why?) On a sofa sit a collector and his wife, poring over an analysis of their fortune, and what they can do to alter it. A number of small statuettes of a number of big gods sit in a glass cabinet. Above them is a single signed picture of Rahul Dravid. There’s no indication of the number behind his jersey, though it’s likely to be 19. He used to adorn No. 5 until a couple of years ago, and look what happened since. One plus nine equals ten. One plus zero equals one. Ones take command. The walls are coloured blue and yellow. Is it a luck thing? How much can you do to insure luck? What if you did everything that numerology, astrology and feng shui said was right, and put it all together? The receptionist waves to get my attention. He’s ready, she says.

After seventeen years of moderate luck, in 2001, Sanjay Jumani gave in to his wife, Jhernna S Jumaani (a “germologist” who runs a company called ‘Gemz Bonnd’, according to her business card), and changed his name. “I’d tried everything else, now I thought I would try this too,” he says. By now Bansilal had acquired limited fame in high society, but kept his opinions guarded. Sanjay approached him for a change. “My name added up to a number that meant struggle.” Within five months, he says, he became inclined to the “occult science” of numerology. Friends were not encouraging, but he took his chance. Some broke ranks and now consult him.

It’s easy to see the effect Sanjay B Jumaani and his father have had on the landscape. They’ve made the job of a sub-editor hell. Is it Shergill, or Sheirgill? Kya ye pyar hai, ya kya ye pyaar hai? “Are you aware that 90% of all successful serials today have misspelt titles?” he asks. Later he suggests: “Your name… not good. Add your father’s initial. Add a ‘y’ to your last name.” Rahul A. Bhatiya. We wear our names casually because they’re as sure as daylight. Fudge mine a bit here or there and I suddenly understand the fright an eclipse causes.

Visitors consult Sanjay in an small office whose walls are painted blue. Bansilal died in May (a diabetic, he had predicted his death this year), and Sanjay, now 37, sits behind his desk, surrounded by things that make him happy. On his desk, under the glass surface above the wood panel, there are sheets that tell you that the 26th is an evil day, and they list the disasters that have taken place on the day in various months. “People come to me mainly for financial advice, but it’s always insecurity,” he says. “Those who are doing well want to do better, those on top want to stay there. Those who aren’t doing well have huge dreams and ambitions.” What use does Sharad Pawar have for numerology? He smiles brightly and then turns serious. “I can’t talk about it.”

Sanjay made his father’s business grow. Roshan introduced the family to Ekta Kapoor, and together they altered hindi. Sanjay wrote about his father’s success in Mid Day, and the Times of India followed up on September 11, 2001. Things changed then. Word spread, and celebrities from cricket, movies, and television stopped by for help. Tushaar Kapoor became a much happier Tusshar, says a testimony on the Jumaani website. Tusshar, however, philosophized in a newspaper that there had been no great success, but that’s okay, life’s like that.

Is it possible to change a person’s destiny by altering a name? “I don’t have to give you more instances, but look at Reema Lamba, who struggled for six years. She changed her name to Malika Sherawat. The body and face were the same. People didn’t see that with Reema Lamba? She’s a number six now. Suddenly she got Khwaish, she got Murder. Could she have dreamt of being a sex siren then?” Sanjay is steadfast in the belief that his science works. He points out to the blue walls around him. “They make me more positive.” They are the colour of his planets. Numbers govern his life, and he sees nothing unusual in that. “I started my show ‘Boley Sitaare’ on my lucky date, and it was a hit.” I asked how he dealt with inevitable numbers, like 8 o’clock. “Minutes aren’t important in numerology.”

It’s debatable whether astrology could flounder in India. There are forums on the internet related to astrology where visitors desperately sound out the hopeless day they were born on, and the hopeless name they were born with. “There’s something else that’s important apart from the right numbers,” Sanjay says. “Hard work, timing, and the proper direction.” All along, a receptionist kept coming in with news of other appointments. He seemed to be having a busy day. “I see three people everyday for various things. Only recently have I stopped working on Sundays. I used to work for eight to ten hours with my sales job, but now I work for 12 to 14. Just because you can add an alphabet to make life easier doesn’t mean you should work less hard.”

Sanjay begins everyday normally, with no regard to the numbers on his alarm clock. He drops his son to school before going for a morning walk with friends, who help him “throw out the negative energies that develop through the day with his clients.” Once in a while, when a date that adds to number eight brings with it an earthquake, his friends call to discuss the event. “My friends believe in this, and it’s not because of my convincing powers. They’ve seen my life change 3000% after I changed my name.” Numerology changed one big thing for him: earlier, he says, he had ten or twenty relatives, but now he has over 2000 of them, and each and every one wants to know the future.

Because he has immersed himself in numbers, they have taken root completely. Where we see an IBM or an Imran, he, like Keanu Reeves in a black trenchcoat, sees a stream of numbers. “Sometimes it’s so bad that I find myself calculating the words ‘no exit’.” It’s why companies come by to see if their names are okay, and if the colour of their logo is okay too. Colour plays a big role in things. “You’re wearing a shirt and pant. I’m wearing that too, but they’re my lucky colours.” His shirt was white with large pink circles. “The chair you’re sitting on is a lucky colour too. (Blue.)”

This science doesn’t seem rational. It doesn’t even seem like science. I asked him about non-believers. “I don’t have enough time for believers, so where does having time for non-believers come in? I was a non-believer myself. Why worry about them? I can talk to them and influence them through my television and radio program. If they don’t believe it, that’s fine, because it’s their belief.” What about changing a name? Given how inevitability is an intrinsic part of religion in India, wasn’t it like messing with fate? “What’s wrong with trying to change fate? When you get up at six in the morning you’re trying to change fate. Why not get up at ten and nine?” Yes, I protested, but it wasn’t like changing a name. This felt more and more like a playground spat. “Look, it’s a precaution. When you do yoga, it’s a precaution for your health. You’re changing fate. So does that mean you shouldn’t do it? These are catalysts. They help things get better.”

To survive life and live in it happily, Sanjay recommends that people learn numerology and see a numerologist. These days people come by with new babies. “I think it’s a very healthy practice,” he says. “Instead of struggling for 33 years like me and then changing… I would have not had to struggle for 17 years of my sales job if my name had been on a good number.”