My recent articles

In the hope that this will make me write more often here, and in the hope that this blog still has some readers, here are some recent articles by me,

on Indian hockey’s dominance in the 1920s and ’30s (on Scroll.in);

on the history of Olympic opening ceremonies (on Scroll.in); and

on the joys of watching great athletes in the evening of their careers (on thREAD, the blog page of the Hindu).

Memories of a Magician *

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Review of Akshay Manwani, Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet (Noida: HarperCollins, 2013).

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If, like me, you are a fan of the Hindi film songs of the ’50s and ’60s, you will be familiar with Sahir Ludhianvi’s (1921-1980) verses in films like Phir Subah Hogi, Pyaasa and Hum Dono. If, like me, you’ve had no formal introduction to Urdu poetry but admire it nevertheless, you must long have wanted to know more about the social and literary milieu that gave rise to lyricists like Sahir. For such readers as well as for connoisseurs, Akshay Manwani’s engaging biography is a most welcome offering.

Sahir worked in a film industry full of talented lyricists with literary pedigree, such as Shakeel Badayuni, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shailendra and Kaifi Azmi. Nevertheless, Manwani suggests, he stood out among his peers for a number of reasons. His strong personality, artistic integrity, and formidable literary reputation meant he was never content to be a mere churner-out of lyrics for particular film situations. He was that rare lyricist who was often allowed to write his verses before the music was composed. He did much of his best work with music directors like Roshan, Ravi and Khayyam, whose elegant but simple compositions allowed his lyrics to take centre stage. Sahir’s deeply held vision of human equality found its way into his poems and film songs alike (as witness his critique of the Taj Mahal as a monument to love: ‘Ek shehenshah ne daulat ka sahaara lekar/ Hum gareebon ki mohabbat ka udaya hai mazaak.’) He was versatile too, moving at will across the many-hued spectrum between Persianised Urdu and the Sanskrit-based Hindi dialects.

Like any good biography, this book attempts to illuminate Sahir’s art in the context of his life. Sahir was born Abdul Hayee in Ludhiana in 1921, the son of Chaudhry Fazl Mohammed, and brought up in his maternal uncle’s home. His mother had left the Chaudhry, by most accounts a dissolute zamindar, and was locked in a long custody battle with him. Manwani’s narrative paints a vivid picture of Abdul in these years: his painful relationship with his father and his turn to communism in an act of symbolic patricide; his growing love for the poetry of Faiz, Josh Malihabadi and Iqbal (it was in a verse by the last of these that he found his own nom de plume, ‘Sahir’, or ‘magician’); his incomplete college career in Ludhiana and Lahore, possibly owing to his political activism; and his defining literary achievement—Talkhiyaan, a collection of poems published when he was all of twenty-three. In this early part of the book, Manwani (as he acknowledges in his Introduction) relies heavily on secondary sources in Urdu, but much of the story will be new to readers in English.

The latter half of the book concentrates on Sahir’s work after his move to Bombay in 1948. In many ways the centrepiece of this section (and of Sahir’s film career) is Guru Dutt’s iconic Pyaasa (1957). The story of an idealistic poet who only finds a publisher and fame when he is believed to be dead, it was the perfect context for Sahir’s personality to express itself. Manwani does an excellent job of analysing the range of themes and styles explored by Sahir in this album—from the lightness of ‘Jaane kya tune kahi’ to the wistful fatalism of ‘Jaane woh kaise log the’; from the anguish at society’s treatment of women in ‘Jinhein naaz hai Hind par’ to the bitter denunciation of an inhuman and materialistic world in ‘Woh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye’. There are some fascinating passages (aided by well chosen photographs) that show the centrality of the words to Pyaasa’s success through the evolving publicity for the movie, each new poster giving Sahir more prominent billing than the last. Some even had entire stanzas in Roman letters, advertising, for instance, ‘The Song that has Stirred a Nation!’ In subsequent years Sahir produced further gems, forging a productive relationship with filmmakers B.R. and Yash Chopra, but his output fell away somewhat by the 1970s (the title of one of the chapters captures this well: ‘Good but Only Kabhi Kabhie’).

The book is backed by painstaking research. Manwani has diligently tracked down and interviewed surviving friends, colleagues and acquaintances of the poet. He exhibits a deep understanding of Sahir’s oeuvre, comparing and contrasting his works (literary poems as well as film lyrics) from different periods on a similar theme, noting the choice of vocabulary and the use of natural imagery, identifying the places where the poet’s personal experiences shine through (as in the song ‘Tu mere saath rahega munne’ in Trishul; Sahir remained single and lived with his mother throughout). But it is also a balanced book that doesn’t shy away from discussing Sahir’s less attractive personality traits, his mostly unrealised loves (including his difficult-to-categorise relationship with the Punjabi writer Amrita Pritam), or the inherent ‘contradictions’ in his life. A chapter is dedicated to these contradictions: Sahir as communist dreamer on the one hand and affluent denizen of filmdom on the other; as a critic of organised religion who wrote moving devotional songs; as a generous man who loved company, but, after a few drinks, criticised his own friends freely. This is not peculiar to Sahir—a competent biographer will always uncover contradictions within his or her subject—but Manwani is notably deft and even-handed in his presentation of the multiple faces of Sahir.

If there is a noticeable weakness in this book, it is that the author has not been able to (or not chosen to) analyse Sahir’s correspondence—usually an important source when writing the lives of subjects from the pre-internet era. As a result, we only ever hear Sahir’s voice (outside of his poetry) second-hand, through the reminiscences of his friends and associates. A few stylistic infelicities also let the book down slightly. The overlong quotes from secondary sources and from Sahir’s poems, transliterated into Roman characters and followed by translations (where a stanza or two would have done the trick), is one of these. The translations sometimes seem patchy—literal renderings in some cases, imprecise paraphrases in others—although one can’t be too critical on this count, for few writers in English today would even attempt the task. Tighter editing would have helped in the occasional places where Manwani’s otherwise competent prose falters.

In his Introduction, Manwani points out the scarcity of critical biographies of all but the most famous contributors to Hindi film. His own volume is a solid effort at addressing that gap.


* This review first appeared in Pragati (Vol.2, No. 2, October 2014), the magazine of the Economics, Politics and Social Sciences students’ interest group at IIM Kozhikode.

Shaabaash! The Find of the Season

As the Indian team’s fortunes have first dipped and then soared in the home Test series against England and Australia, India’s younger generation—Pujara, Vijay, Jadeja, Ashwin—has received praise from all quarters. Yet one substantial addition to the world of Indian cricket has gone unremarked, if not quite unnoticed: the new-age Hindi commentary on Star Sports.

What the Indo-Pak team of broadcasters has to offer is markedly different from the Hindi commentary we’ve been used to over the years. Where once a high-flown, officious-sounding vocabulary was pressed into service to describe the ebbs and flows of the game, we now have an all-embracing hodgepodge of colloquial and Sanskritised Hindi, Urdu, and, frequently, English. To what extent Hindi and Urdu are separate languages is a matter of academic debate; but to be reminded that there once existed a syncretic Hindustani, you need only listen to Navjot Sidhu on air with Rameez Raja, or Kapil Dev with Wasim Akram. In each case, one member of the pair is, to his mind, speaking Hindi while the other is speaking Urdu; yet their vocabulary tends to merge. So you have Rameez Raja referring to sense as buddhi and strength as shakti; Kapil Dev preferring zehen over mann for the mind, describing a top-drawer stroke as aalaa and an assured one as having been played itminaan se. When the batsman scores a couple, the runs are arjit or mukammal (collected/completed), depending on who’s speaking.

Expert commentators like Ganguly and Laxman, on the other hand, treat grammar as optional and aren’t shy to lapse into English for whole phrases or sentences (understandably for a Bengali and a Telugu inducted into the Hindi commentariat on the strength of their cricketing experience). Even the others are happy to mix languages, as witness Akram on an Indian spinner in the middle of a dominant spell: ‘Jadeja fire pe hain!’ While I’m normally a bit of a pedant as far as language is concerned, I’m fascinated by this experiment. There’s a less stuck-up atmosphere in this setup than when commentators used artificial-sounding coinages such as sakaaraatmak daud (positive running between the wickets), kshetrarakshak (fielder) and rakshaatmak stroke (defensive stroke), despite the creativity involved in those translations. Sanjay Manjrekar’s early-season quip (about manovaigyanik dabaav being the one necessary phrase in the aspiring Hindi commentator’s repertoire) seems rapidly to have gone out of date.

This is not to say that there are no flaws in Hindi commentary’s new avatar. There is clearly a tendency among some of the commentators to abandon neutrality for chest-thumping patriotism, presumably on the theory that most viewers must be Indian. This is a disservice to fair-minded viewers who want to see an intriguing contest where the skills of both sides are on display. At other times a somewhat patronising tone is adopted—while explaining something fairly elementary, such as the LBW rule—which possibly betrays an assumption that the viewers of the Hindi channel are less well informed than their English-speaking counterparts. Yet, all things considered, I think that the new Hindi commentary works. It is accessible; it doesn’t take itself too seriously; it probably has a wide reach; and for me, it’s a godsend in those not infrequent instances when the English commentary becomes so formulaic and predictable that I feel I’m watching a recorded match rather than a live one.

Jerome K. Jerome’s Uncle Podger in Hindi

The passage translated here is an extract from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (now in the public domain), and often appears on its own under the title ‘Uncle Podger Hangs a Picture’. The source used here is http://www.gasl.org/refbib/Jerome__3_Men.pdf (pages 26-29).

Draft translation from the English by Aparajith Ramnath, September 2012.*

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अंकल पॉड्जर ने तस्वीर लटकाई

 

लेखक: जेरोम के. जेरोम

अनुवाद: अपराजित रामनाथ

आपने ज़िंदगी में किसी घर के अंदर ऐसा हंगामा नहीं देखा होगा जो तब मचता था, जब मेरे अंकल पॉड्जर किसी काम को अपने हाथों में लेते थे | ढाँचेवाले के यहाँ से आयी हुई कोई तस्वीर भोजन कक्ष में खड़ी होती, जब तक कोई उसे दीवार पर न लटकाता; आँट पॉड्जर पूछतीं कि इसके साथ क्या किया जाए, और अंकल पॉड्जर कहते: “अरे, उसे मुझ पर छोड़ दो | तुम लोगों में से कोई उसकी चिंता मत करो | वो सब मैं कर लूँगा |”

फिर वे अपना कोट उतारकर शुरू हो जाते | छोकरी को छः पेनी की कीलें खरीदने भेजते, फिर लड़कों में से किसी एक को उसके पीछे दौड़ाते, उसे यह बताने कि किस नाप की कील चाहिए; और वहाँ से वे धीरे-धीरे आगे बढ़ते, और सारे परिवार को काम में लगा देते |

“अब तू जाके मेरा हथौड़ा ले आ, विल,” वे चिल्लाते; “और तू पटरी ले आ, टॉम; और मुझे सीढ़ी की ज़रूरत पड़ेगी, और फिर एक कुर्सी भी पास हो तो अच्छा होगा; और जिम! तू मिस्टर गौगल्स के यहाँ जाकर उनसे कहना, ‘पिताजी की शुभकामनाएँ, और वे आशा करते हैं कि आपका पैर अब ठीक है; और क्या आप उन्हें अपना स्पिरिट-लेवल उधार पर देंगे?’ और मरिया, तुम कहीं मत जाओ, क्योंकि मेरे लिए बत्ती पकड़कर रखनेवाला कोई चाहिए; और जब छोकरी वापस आएगी, उसे फिर रस्सी लेने बाहर जाना होगा; और टॉम! — अरे, कहाँ है टॉम? — टॉम, तू इधर आ; तुझे नीचे से तस्वीर देनी होगी |”

फिर वे तस्वीर को उठाते, उसे गिरा देते, वह ढाँचे से निकल आती, अंकल शीशे को बचाने की कोशिश करते, और उन्हें घाव लगता; और वे अपने रूमाल की तलाश में कमरे में इधर-उधर फुदकते | उन्हें रूमाल नहीं मिलता, क्योंकि वह कोट की जेब में था, जिसे वे उतार चुके थे, और उन्हें पता नहीं था कि उन्होंने कोट को कहाँ रखा है, और सारा परिवार अब उनके औज़ारों की तलाश छोड़कर उनके कोट को खोजने लगता; और अंकल यहाँ-वहाँ भटकते हुए उनके काम में बाधा डालते |

“पूरे घर में किसी को पता नहीं कि मेरा कोट कहाँ है? ऐसा झुण्ड मैंने सारी जिंदगी में नहीं देखा है, कसम खाकर कहता हूँ | छः लोग! — और एक कोट नहीं ढूँढ सकते जिसे उतारे हुए पाँच मिनट भी नहीं हुए! मैं तो कहता हूँ — ”

फिर वे उठते, पाते कि वे खुद कोट पर बैठे हुए थे, और चिल्लाते:

“अच्छा, अब खोजना छोड़ दो! मैंने खुद उसे ढूँढ लिया है | तुम लोगों से कोई चीज़ ढूँढ निकलवाने से बेहतर है कि बिल्ली से पूछूँ |”

और जब उनकी उँगली बाँधने में आधा घंटा गुज़र चुका था, एक नया शीशा लाया गया था, जब औज़ार, और सीढ़ी, और कुर्सी, और मोमबत्ती लाए गए थे, वे फिर से शुरू हो जाते, और सारा परिवार, लड़की और नौकरानी सहित, मदद करने की तैयारी में अर्धवृत्त के आकार में खड़ा हो जाता | दो लोगों को कुर्सी पकड़ना पड़ता, कोई तीसरा अंकल की उस पर चढ़ने में मदद करता और उन्हें वहाँ थामे रखता, चौथा उन्हें कील देता, और पाँचवा उन्हें हथौड़ा दिलाता, और वे कील को हाथ में लेते, और उसे गिरा देते |

“देखा!” अंकल आहत स्वर में कहते, “अब कील भी गयी |”

और हम सब को घुटनों पर उसके लिए रेंगना पड़ता, जबकि अंकल कुर्सी पर खड़े हुए घुरघुराते और पूछते कि क्या उन्हें सारी शाम ऐसे ही खड़ा रहना पड़ेगा?

आखिर कील मिल ही जाती, लेकिन तब तक वे हथौड़े को खो बैठे होते |

“हथौड़ा कहाँ है? हथौड़े के साथ क्या किया मैंने? हे भगवान! सात लोग हो तुम, वहाँ मुँह बाये खड़े हो, और तुम्हें पता नहीं कि मैंने हथौड़े के साथ क्या किया!”

हम उन्हें हथौड़ा ढूँढकर देते, उतने में उन्हें वह निशान नज़र नहीं आता जो उन्होंने दीवार पर उस जगह बनाया था जहाँ कील ठोकनी थी, और हम सब एक-एक करके कुर्सी पर उनके बगल में चढ़ खड़े होते, उस निशान को ढूँढने; और हम उसे अलग-अलग जगहों पर पाते, और अंकल हमें एक के बाद एक बेवकूफ़ कहते, और नीचे उतरने को कहते | और वे पटरी लेते, फिर से नापते, और कहते कि कोने से ३१ और ३/८ इंच चाहिए, और अपने मन में हिसाब करने की कोशिश करते, और पागल हो जाते |

और हम सब मन में हिसाब करने की कोशिश करते, और अलग-अलग नतीजों पर पहुँचते, और एक दूसरे की हँसी उड़ाते | और उस हलचल में हम सब मूल अंक को भूल जाते, और अंकल पॉड्जर को फिर से नापना पड़ता |

इस बार वे धागे के टुकड़े का प्रयोग करते, और उस निर्णायक पल में, जब बूढ़ा कुर्सी पर पैंतालीस डिग्री के कोण पर झुके हुए एक ऐसी जगह पहुँचने की कोशिश कर रहा होता जो उसकी पहुँच से तीन इंच बाहर था, धागा फिसल जाता, और बूढ़ा पियानो के ऊपर सरक जाता, और उसके सर और शरीर के अचानक एक साथ सभी स्वरों पर लगने से एक उम्दा  संगीतात्मक आवाज़ निकलती |

और आँट मरिया कहतीं कि वे बच्चों को ऐसी असभ्य भाषा सुनने नहीं देंगी |

अंत में अंकल पॉड्जर सही जगह को फिर से निर्धारित करते, और दाँये हाथ से कील की नोक को वहाँ लगाते, और हथौड़े को दाँये हाथ में लेते | और फिर पहली ठोक के साथ अपने अंगूठे को ताड़ते, और चिल्लाकर हथौड़े को गिरा देते, किसी और के पाँव के अंगूठे पर |

आँट मरिया मंद स्वर में कहतीं कि वे आशा करती हैं कि अगली बार अंकल पहले ही खबर कर देंगे कि वे दीवार में कील ठोकने जा रहे हैं, ताकि आँट एक हफ्ते के लिए अपने माईके जाने का बंदोबस्त कर सके |

“उफ़! तुम औरत लोग, हर चीज़ का इतना बतंगड़ बनाते हो,” अंकल पॉड्जर जवाब देते, अपने आप को उठाते हुए | “क्यों, मुझे तो इस तरह का छोटा काम करना पसंद है |”

और फिर वे एक और बार प्रयास करते, और दूसरी ठोक पर पूरी कील प्लास्टर के अंदर चली जाती, और उसके पीछे आधा हथौड़ा भी, और अंकल पॉड्जर दीवार से मानो इतनी ज़ोर से जाकर टकराते कि उनकी नाक चपटी हो जाये |

फिर हमें पटरी और धागा को फिर से ढूँढना पड़ता, और नया छेद डाला जाता; और लगभग आधी रात को तस्वीर दीवार पर लटकाई जाती — बहुत ही टेढ़ी और असुरक्षित; आस पास के कई गज तक दीवार ऐसी लगती जैसे किसी ने उसे पाँचे से थपथपाया हो; और सभी लोग बिल्कुल थके हुए और दयनीय नज़र आते — सिवा अंकल पॉड्जर के |

“ये लो,” वे कहते, कुर्सी से उतरते हुए ठीक नौकरानी के पाँव के घट्टों को अपने पाँव से कुचलते, खुद के रचाए हुए गड़बड़ का स्पष्ट गर्व के साथ अवलोकन करते और कहते, “क्यों, कई लोग तो ऐसे छोटे काम के लिए बाहर से आदमी बुला लेते !”

*Edited on 19 Sep 2012. Thanks to Mrs Rachna Narayanan for proofreading the earlier version.

The ATP Comes to Chennai – and Stays

More than twenty years ago, my father would wake me up at the crack of dawn to take me to tennis practice at the Muthukrishnan Memorial Tennis Centre near Valluvar Kottam, while he himself played on a set of sandy courts at the edge of a large open ground in the same neighbourhood. Who could have imagined then that the denizens of Chennai would one day watch, at the very parched spot where my father was playing amateur doubles, the likes of Becker, Rafter, Kafelnikov, Paes, Bhupathi, Moya and Nadal?

Chennai’s annual ATP tournament is now a permanent fixture, one that we have come to take for granted. A decade ago it was a novelty, a treat to be devoured with incredulous glee. Having begun life in Delhi, the tournament had quickly shifted to Chennai, finding a long-term home at the newly-built SDAT stadium in Nungambakkam. It was then sponsored by a cigarette brand, and on the narrow residential streets of Lake Area you could see, alongside the spectators queuing for tickets, anti-smoking demonstrators holding placards. In the early days the excitement among the crowds was palpable, especially when a superstar first arrived in Nungambakkam in the shape of Boris Becker, who played in one of the early editions. I had never expected to see my childhood hero play live, and now here he was, before my eyes, playing barely a couple of kilometres from our home. Becker was at the fag end of his career, and lost early on in the tournament to an unknown Frenchman named Gerard Solves. As the three-time Wimbledon champ’s car pulled out of the complex later on, fans thronged the railings of the spiral walkways leading off the Centre Court stands to ground level, reluctant to let him out of their sight.

Other international players elicited interest too. Pat Rafter won the tournament in his pony-tail-sporting days, while Ivo Karlovic, pushing seven feet, was known to Chennai fans some years before he reached the second week of Wimbledon. Yevgeny Kafelnikov flew in – and out, a few days later – in his private jet. But the spectators really came into their own when India’s most successful doubles pairing first blossomed on the courts of Nungambakkam. ‘Aska lakadi gummava, Bhupathi enna summava?’ wags (and I don’t mean WAGs) in the crowd would chant. If they lost a point, it was ‘Leander, don’t meander! Bhupathi, try homoeopathy!’ The pair’s tournament win in Chennai became the platform for their successful Grand Slam career, including their dream run in 1999, when they reached the finals of all four ‘majors’.

Over the years, the tournament has been shifted from April to January to beat the Chennai heat; its name has changed along with its sponsors, first to Tata Open and now Aircel Chennai Open; and it has attracted its fair share of famous regulars – Carlos Moya kept coming back for a whole decade. Announcers with fancy accents might call it the ‘Che-naaai Open’ and some of the green seats close to court level might be home to an assortment of high-society types, but on the whole the fans have remained resolutely carefree. It is almost as though the stands and crowds from a cricket match had been tacked on to a tennis court. While the spectators at Wimbledon wear sunscreen, eat £2 strawberries and drink £6 Pimms and lemonade, in Chennai you’re more likely to catch a whiff of the cinema-theatre smell of veg puff and samosa, and you will still get the occasional freebie from a company launching a new soft drink. More stalls have sprung up on the strip of grass adjoining the outer courts, and a large screen there shows the action on Centre Court. The grounds continue to wear a relaxed look, and occasionally the larger-than-life players stroll surreally close to the public. My mother once got an autograph from Paradorn Srichaphan – she didn’t recognise him, but thought he looked like a ‘chamathu paiyan’ (good boy).

The early frenzy appears to have abated somewhat in recent years, perhaps due in part to the surfeit of entertainment options and big-name events that have become available in the city: IPL matches, celebrity appearances, ever-larger air-conditioned malls. But it is still a special experience to sit high up in the stands, looking down at the floodlit court as the sea breeze blows across the stadium. The average fan may be somewhat deficient in such niceties as not talking between serves, but the chatter is always fascinating. A couple of years ago, I sat watching a first-round match between Janko Tipsarevic, the Dostoevsky-reading Serbian, and Spain’s Carlos Moya, by some distance the crowd favourite. In the row behind us a pair of teenaged boys dissected the game, mostly in Tamil. One of them was aggressively supporting Moya, while his friend was quietly tipping in Tipsarevic’s direction. As Tipsarevic began to dictate terms, the first boy said in dismay: ‘The naayi is hitting well, da. It’s hitting really well, da!’ Quick serves were greeted with ‘Rocket ra!’ Moya, the boys felt, lacked ‘placement’: ‘He’s getting into position, he’s doing everything, but he’s not placing the ball.’ The commentary carried on during points. Flat, line-hugging forehands were met with ‘Addra sakke!’ or ‘Besh!’ Effective shots from the Serbian elicited shouts of ‘Oh dash! Oh oh dash!’

Next week the stands will fill up once more. Will Somdev Devvarman’s dream run of 2009 be replicated by an Indian – by Devvarman himself or perhaps by Yuki Bhambri? Or will the best non-Federer Swiss in tennis, Stan Wawrinka, retain the trophy? Whatever happens, there’ll be no shortage of addra sakes ringing out in the stands.

Cricket bats: too heavy!

A short version of this article appeared under the title ‘Need to Prune Thickness of Bats’ in the New Indian Express, 25.10.2011, page 14.

The ICC has just made a batch of rule changes in cricket, addressing Powerplays, runners, obstruction of the field and suchlike. Bully for them, but there’s one other section of the rules I wish they’d had a look at. I’m talking about the weight and thickness of cricket bats.

I know I’m only pointing out the obvious when I say the tools of the trade have become massive in recent years, but I was reminded of the full import of it recently when I was watching the Champions League T20 semi-finals on TV, as first David Warner and then Chris Gayle acquainted the cricket ball with all sections of the stadium’s roof.

I wish to take nothing away from these men’s obvious talent or the hours of ‘range-hitting’ practice they must have put in. But this supposedly thrilling, pulsating exhibition of modern-day cricket left me cold. Something is surely wrong when mishits and shots hit from unbalanced positions sail not just over the boundary rope but several rows into the stands. The wily spinner who has induced a leading edge, the hardworking pacer who has made the batsman hurry into a pull must feel extremely hard done by.

John Arlott once famously described a Clive Lloyd pull as ‘the stroke of a man knocking a thistle top off with a walking stick.’ Had the celebrated commentator watched Lloyd’s compatriot at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, he’d have been put in mind not of thistle tops and walking sticks but of fortress gates and battering rams. And with good reason. During the broadcast an interesting clip was shown from a pre-match practice session. It showed Warner going over to Gayle, chatting with him, one friendly competitor to another, and clasping his hand. He then tried to lift Gayle’s bat, miming his astonishment as he realised how heavy it was. Now Warner is no stripling, and from all accounts wields a chunky piece of willow himself, so this one must have been pretty substantial.

I remember reading one of those ‘weird but true’ stories in a cricket book when I was a boy. Apparently a batsman in the days of yore –- possibly sometime in the nineteenth century –- turned up for a match with a bat as wide as the stumps, and proceeded to position it exactly in front of them in a quite literal exhibition of stonewalling. The cartoon accompanying the story showed some exasperated fielders approaching the pitch with knives to whittle the bat down to a decent size.

Since then, of course, rules have been framed to limit the width of the cricket bat – but not, it appears, its thickness. As far as I can make out from the MCC’s rather complex laws of the game (available at lords.org), there’s a maximum length for the cricket bat (38 inches) and a maximum width (4.25 inches), but no maximum thickness and no maximum weight (Law 6, Appendix E). How can this be the case when the ball is of a standard size and weight?

Bats have certainly evolved in the direction of heftiness. Tendulkar, no slogger, has graduated from the thin bat (in the days of the Power label) to his current muscle-flexers. Even Rahul Dravid’s bat, one of the thinner ones around, is noticeably thicker than his preferred blade at the time of his Test debut. But in the absence of any clear regulation, bats are becoming more and more like Hanuman’s mace (this was especially true of the Mongoose -– it is perhaps no coincidence that some of Matt Hayden’s CSK teammates nicknamed him ‘Namakkal Anjaneyar’, in a reference to the giant Hanuman statue in Namakkal).

It is all very well to say that the game is evolving, that players and spectators must keep up with it. But it does not evolve of its own accord: the cricket establishment must take responsibility for the direction in which it changes. Tennis saw it fit to make the balls fluffier and heavier in the Nineties when it was felt that the game was becoming too boring, the points too short. Cricket is now introducing new balls from either end in ODIs, and several other innovations have been touted as making the contest between bat and ball more even. For that reason, and to preserve the aesthetic value of the game, perhaps it is time to make a more fundamental change. It’s time to prune the bats.

The Fauna of our Flat

I’m beginning to think that life in a flat in the heart of a bustling city is not necessarily a life divorced from nature. The trees around our home have, over the years, been the source of plenty of visiting birds and animals.

At noon today, just as the current returned after its daily hour off and the fan came on, two crows just outside my window began to caw in unison. I can’t say if they have an in-built clock, or whether a gust of wind from the fan in my room somehow made its way out. The crows sat on their perches, beaks slightly open as if in mild surprise, little tufts of black on their heads, glancing suspiciously from side to side. A while later they had hopped on to an adjoining branch, and were joined by one or two of their brethren, looking now like a group of acquaintances lounging in the reading room of a gentlemen’s club. Then all of a sudden they seemed to be talking at the tops of their voices, and they flew off together.

On a lower branch sat a pigeon, mostly grey, but with a slight hint of shiny blue at its neck. Its red-rimmed eye was like a bead, looking more like a decoration than an instrument of sight. The pigeon began scratching the side of its neck with its beak, now its tail, now under its right wing. For the most part it sat peacefully, its bright orange claws curled around the surface of the branch.

Continue reading The Fauna of our Flat

Chennai Summers: A Refresher Course

There’s a large Corporation playground next door to us, about 200m x 100m. Now this can be a bit of a nuisance, because your elders are bound to muse from time to time that it’s probably there to be used for some exercise. After many little hints (including some rather direct references to my paunch at recent family get-togethers), I decided to give it a go. After all I was playing cricket in the nets not that long ago  (although admittedly that doesn’t involve much locomotion). But I forgot that this was summer in Chennai, a season whose full glory I had escaped for the past several years.

I managed one round around the ground, and there was a hammering in my chest. I walked the second round, and felt I might live after all. I jogged the third, wheezing and staggering home through the gate with my last breath. ‘I felt terribly out of shape,’ I told a friend later (if those IPL chaps can be interviewed after every run, why can’t I?). ‘That’s because you are,’ he replied helpfully. Very well. But I insist that the heat played its part.

It’s the time of year when the temperature crosses forty regularly, and the sun’s beating down in all seriousness by eight and positively hammering down by ten. Air conditioners huff and puff and drip water by the puddleful on the outside. Piles of yellow mangoes on the streets tempt you, but with all those reports you don’t know which of them have been ripened with the help of sulphur fumes, so you’re better off sticking to the green ones that are still on the trees. (There’s one such tree outside our third-floor apartment window. As kids we’d pick up the raw mangoes that fell off it and eat them with salt. By a stroke of genius, the compound wall had been built so that the trunk was wedged right in it, thereby providing us endless entertaining arguments with the neighbours, who insisted the tree was theirs. Mending Wall and all that, but no chance of any Frost in Chennai.)

Then there’s the load-shedding, which isn’t nearly as bad as it seems at first — provided it’s done at scheduled times. So those who are at home sit fanless, AC-less and listless from two to three in the afternoon. Those of us who have the good fortune to work by ourselves can read and write through the night. That way you can experience the coolest part of the day, between around four-thirty and five-thirty, as the sky begins to lighten, the crows begin to caw, and the coconut trees stand in the quiet that precedes the six o’ clock sound of water pumps and half-filled plastic buckets. It also has the added advantage of making you feel too tired and sleepy by dawn to consider going on that jog around the park. So you can stay awake just long enough to hear the start of the hundred and one cricket matches taking place inside it, pick up the newspaper and the milk packets from outside the door (assuming a wandering cat hasn’t torn the latter open), and go to sleep.

Midnight Polyglot

कल रात मैं ट्यूब पर घर लौट रहा था तो अचानक ट्रेन पर तीन आदमी चढ़े, जिनमें से एक कुछ पचास- साठ साल का हुआ होगा, और बाकी दो युवा थे. पहले व्यक्ति दिखने में अंग्रेज थे लेकिन बोल हिंदी में रहे थे, बड़ी दिलचस्पी से और चेहरे पे बड़ी दिलदार मुस्कान के साथ.

‘आप लोग कहाँ से हैं, बांगलादेश से?’

‘नहीं, इंडिया से.’

‘अच्छा, इंडिया में कहाँ से?’

‘कलकत्ता.’

तब बुज़ुर्ग को मैं भी नज़र आया. मैं देख सकता था की वे अनुमान लगाना चाहते थे कि मैं भी भारतीय हूँ या नहीं. तब घोषणा सुनाई दी कि ट्रेन १२.२० तक रुकी रहेगी. मेरी तरफ़ देखते हुए उन्होंने बड़े आश्चर्य-भरी आवाज़ में कहा, ‘बारह बीस!’ मुझे समय का अंदाजा नहीं था; लगा कि अब शायद १२.०० या १२.१० बजे होंगे. तो मैंने भी भौं ज़रा चढ़ाकर कहा, ‘बारह बीस?’

ठीक उसी पल दरवाज़े बंद हुए और ट्रेन चलने लगी. उनके चेहरे पे राहत भरी मुस्कान फैल गई. ‘आह, मुझे लगा हम आधे घंटे तक यहीं पड़े रहेंगे.’ अब मुझे भी वार्तालाप में शामिल कर दिया गया. उन्होंने पुछा कि मैं कहाँ का हूँ. मेरे ‘चेन्नई का’ कहने पर उन्हें पहले चंडीगढ़ सुनाई दिया, फिर मैंने समझाया. वे कहने लगे कि वे कभी चेन्नई तक नहीं गए लेकिन दक्षिण में बीजापुर तक गए हैं. लगभग चार साल महाराष्ट्र और गुजरात के शहरों और गाँवों में घूम चुके हैं. मेरे पूछने पर कहा कि गुजराती और मराठी भी थोड़ा बोल लेते हैं, और नागरी लिपि भी जानते हैं. भाषा-प्रवाह उनकी काफी तेज़ थी, और लहजा काफी अच्छा था, हालांकि तनिक सी विदेशी झनकार मौजूद ज़रूर थी. बंगाली लड़कों कि ओर मुढ़कर पूछने लगे कि यहाँ क्या करते हैं.

‘पढ़ते हैं.’

‘अच्छा, क्या पढ़ते हैं?’

‘कंप्यूटर साईंस.’

‘हाँ, आजकल भारतीय लोग वही पढ़ते हैं ना. मुझे लगता है जब तक दुनिया में कंप्यूटर होगा हम आज़ाद नहीं होंगे. अब हर तरफ़ इन्टरनेट है. किसी कंपनी से पूछो आप क्या करते हैं, तो कहते है इन्टरनेट पे साईट है, उस पर देख लीजिये.’

लडकों ने उनसे पुछा कि वे कहाँ से हैं.

‘आपको क्या लगता है?’

‘लगते तो यहीं के हैं.’

‘पहले आपने सोचा हुआ होगा ना, कि यह गोरा कैसे हिंदी बोल रहा है.’

कुछ-कुछ संकुचित स्वर में: ‘आप वैसे गोरे ही दिखते हैं.’

‘गोरा ही तो हूँ!’ यह कहकर जोर से हंसने लगे. मैं उनकी भावना समझ सकता था. मुझे भी काफी मज़ा आता है जब जर्मन लोग मुझे उनकी भाषा बोलते हुए पाकर हैरान होते हैं – इसके बावजूद कि मैं इतना अच्छा नहीं बोल पाता हूँ जितना ये व्यक्ति हिंदी बोल रहे थे.

इतने में उनका स्टेशन आया. उठते हुए उनहोंने कहा, ‘वैसे आज कल कहते नहीं हैं, लेकिन …’ — यहाँ जोर देते हुए — ‘शुभ रात्रि!’

More Lipograms: Mythology without the ‘E’ – 1

Krishna gulps down milk and yoghurt, burfi, malaai,
Much of it not his, oh, no, nor of his family;
Still Krishna grows chubby, as also you can
If you can filch, and charm your way out of any jam.
His grin (impish, mocking, but also disarming),
Affords him this luxury, among a myriad of things.
.
What do you do with him, who’s so out of hand,
So stubborn; who’ll follow no command?
Today Yashoda finds him frolicking,
Frolicking, burrowing through mounds of sand,
Clawing at it, throwing fistfuls at his chum:
A roguish child who’s having his fun.
.
But what’s this now? Yashoda panics,
As Krishna, with a glint almost manic
Stuffs sand in his mouth, chomping and crunching.
‘Stop that!’ shouts Yashoda, loud and rasping.
‘What’s that in your mouth, young rascal?
Show your ma now – now, this instant.’
.
Still grinning, Krishna drops his jaw.
In his mouth is all that God has wrought.
Plants, animals, humans; plains, mountains, sky;
Colours and odours, music and cacophony;
Mathura, Vrindavan, Krishna, Yashoda.
Yashoda bows: ‘Now I know you, my Lord.’