Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Ashes Story

 The Ashes series can define your whole career as an Australian player or an English player.

- Shane Warne 

The Australian Ashes squad, 1892.

There are some sporting rivalries that go beyond the realm of the sport and the sportsmen. They take a place in posterity. England-Argentina in soccer, for example. Maradona's one genius head, and one godly work, gave it an altogether different meaning. Remember Mexico '86?

Then there was Bjorn Borg and McEnroe fighting it out on French clay and English grass. Fans sighed. The rockstar Borg had females bating. The headband and sweaty forearms had them swooning all over. McEnroe had a temper and personality. Contrasting styles, great tennis for fans. The aficionados called the rivalry 'Fire and Ice'.

India- Pakistan in cricket has had its moments. But, it is marred by politics. The rivalry, as I see it, is more political than sporting. For a reason or the other, cricket often takes a backseat. The pressure shows on players and it affects their performance.

Then there is the mother of them all – The Ashes. Tradition, stories, enmity, folklore, you name it. 

On the eve of the 1992 World Cup final held in Australia, Australian Cricket Board (ACB) threw a dinner party for the finalists England and Pakistan that was also graced by a host of dignitaries other than cricketers.   God knows what got into the mind of the organizers as they impersonated the Queen through a renowned Australian comedian Gerry Connolly. In what has become a famous walk out, Ian Botham, arguably England’s greatest cricketer and all-rounder, stormed out of the party, visibly angry and scathing out at the Australian press. 
“I’m very proud of my history and culture. You guys wouldn’t know about it obviously, you’ve none of it,” yelled Beefy. The jibe, directed to hit where it hurts the most, underscores the intensity of the uneasy relationship and hardcore rivalry between the two cricketing nations.

There is something there when these two countries meet. On a first day of the first test at Edgbaston or Brisbane, the atmosphere is electric, the spectators are charged, the buzz is in the air. Everything else is secondary; cricket is all that matters. A bouncer is hurled, a hook is returned, a menacing glare follows. The Barmy army sings ‘The Ashes are coming home’. The Aussie sledging is raised to a new level.

The coveted tiny urn for which the two countries rough it out carries the weight of a century and more; of sweat and squabs; of long sea voyages in the early 20th century; of Bodyline and Jardine; of Bradman and Jim Laker; of Botham at Headingley and Warne at Old Trafford. 

The story goes back a century and a quarter. In a mock obituary carried by a British newspaper in 1877 after Australia’s victory at The Oval, it stated that the English cricket died, body will be cremated and the ashes will be taken to Australia. And the legend of The Ashes was thus born.

The avowed foes have met in many epic battles since. When the English steamship docked on Australian shores in the winter of 1932-33, the press was all over the unstoppable Don Bradman who had averaged 130 in the previous Ashes. England were under pressure. However, Douglas Jardine, their captain, born in the British Raj of India had a plan. His tactics included Larwood, who is said to have never bowled a wide in his career, to bowl fast on the rib cage, with seven fielders on the leg side. It worked; England regained The Ashes. Wisden calls it the most unpleasant series. On one occasion, Australian captain Bill Woodfull was left down on the ground after being struck just above the heart by a Larwood bouncer. The Australian crowd booed. That wouldn’t change much in the cold and calculating Jardine. Moments later, he called out to Larwood  - "Well bowled Harold" - and set the fielders again in the hated Bodyline formation. Police had to be deployed on the boundary. The Australian captain next day retorted angrily: “There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket and the other is not.”
How zealously the Aussie spectators had started hating Jardine is underlined by a small incident that happened when the England captain was at the crease during the fifth test at Sydney, England about to complete a 4-1 series win. When the play stopped for a drinks break, Australian captain was about to hand over a bottle of water to Jardine when a spectator yelled out to him: “Don’t give the bastard a drink. Let him die of thirst.” Even the stoic Jardine enjoyed that little moment and recalled later that “it was one of the few humourous remarks which we were privileged to hear on this tour.”

At the height of Vietnam War in the 60s, a young US marine James Stockdale was captured by the Viet Cong and sent to the infamous Hanoi torture centre. He was interrogated, beaten and tortured. Stockdale spent 7 years in the prison. He could have easily avoided abuse by cozying up to his tormentors somewhat. An occasional anti-American statement and they would have treated him like any other ordinary inmate. Yet it never crossed his mind. He willingly gave himself up. As he later explained, it was the only way he could maintain self-respect. He didn’t do it for the love of his country. Nor was it about the war. It was purely about not breaking down inside. He did it solely for himself.  Sometimes, I wonder how many English and Australian players think this way when it comes to Ashes: of not breaking down, for there is so much at stake for both England and Australia. A part of that credit must also go to the writers, who have woven remarkable stories around The Ashes. Cricket is one of those few sports that give scope for prolific writing and the likes of Neville Cardus, CLR James, Mike Coward, Peter Roebuck have given it a gourmet treatment for the reading aficionados.

My first brush with The Ashes was in ’93 when Allan Border’s side routed an insipid England led by the Groucho mustachioed Graham Gooch. England, in those days of misery, were used to frequently changing their playing XI (in the previous Ashes of ’89, English selectors led by Ted Dexter had used as many as 29 players throughout the series).
From that bright summer of Kashmir, the romanticism of Ashes stuck to me forever. With the internet still a good decade away, those days the only means of keeping track of the series was through Times of India sports page, which would arrive in the afternoons, and the weekly Sportstar magazine that I read with great enthusiasm - the tour diaries of Mike Coward in particular.

In the following winter, with enough time to kill during the winter school break, my cousin brought some VHS cassettes from his Delhi trip for me, sensing my love for the game. Two of those cassettes included ‘That Man Botham’ and ‘Richie Benaud Presents’. One of the most visible memories from it remains Richie Benaud, in his typical soft tone, speaking about the 1974/75 Ashes played in Australia. Those were the times when young people around the world had started experimenting with LSD, free sex and personal freedom. Shackles were breaking. Students rose up in Paris one morning with placards of revolution. Cricket, the game of nobles was finding its hippie fad too, ready to break the norms. Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, when they ran fast, sending bullets down to the batsmen at the other end, were egged on by the aggressive Aussie spectators. Cricket was no more a gentleman’s game!  And Australia were led by a certain Ian Chappell who believed in granting the opposition no quarter. He played tough cricket and led from the front.

Those days, any footage from Australia used to be a rarity. I remember being totally mesmerized by the whole atmosphere. Sunny Australian summers, sun kissed bodies, bouncy pitches, good coverage and sea gulls, plus some great aggressive cricket.

Tony Greig fends off a Thomson snorter, Gabba 1974
John Edrich is brought down by a Lillee bouncer

BBC correspondent, Christopher Jenkins on 1974/75 Ashes.

Usually, fast bowling is associated with West Indian quicks of the 70s and the 80s, that famous pace battery. However, the pioneers were Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, and 74/75 Ashes was their baby. Their fast bowling was frighteningly quick and England by the end of it were bruised and battered - both physically and psychologically. Lilliee and Thomson took 25 and 33 wickets respectively. ‘I thought  stuff that stiff upper lip crap. Let’s see how stiff it is when it’s split’, Jeff Thomson had said in a post-match press conference. England were so plagued by injuries that they needed reinforcements from England - one of them the 41 year old Colin Cowdrey. In what may be called a futile exercise in the midst of a bloody war, Cowdrey’s inclusion had little impact on the series. Australia trounced England 3-1. Post series, writer and historian Gideon Haigh wrote about the fearsome duo. “Lillee and Thomson remain a combination to conjure with, as sinister in England as Burke and Hare, or Bismarck and Tirpitz.” 

With Packer’s circus taking over the game in the late 70s, cricket in England was losing its popularity, until that man Botham propped up in one English summer, producing a feat that remains unparalleled. Not surprisingly, the ’81 Ashes came to be known as the Botham’s Ashes. The ‘81 story is stuff of legends and plots that seems like a carefully crafted Erich Segal fiction.

England, captained by a young 24-year old Botham, were 1-0 down when the third test at Headingley began. Beefy relinquished his captaincy after the second test. His form had dropped and according to David Gower when Beefy was out for naught in the second test at Lord's, almost sealing his fate as captain, even a hair strand dropping would have broken the silence that descended in the England dressing room. English cricket had plummeted to a low. Mike Brearley, the 38-year old professor of philosophy, was appointed as the captain for the third test. England’s fortunes however didn’t seem to be turning. They were annihilated in the first innings and asked to follow on. At 130/7 with still some hundred runs short of making Aussies bat again, in a remarkable turnaround and back to the walls blitzkrieg, Botham and Graham Dilley added 130 odd for the 8th wicket. Bouncers from Lillee and co. were smashed by the mercurial Botham to all corners on a cold July English afternoon with utter disdain. But even after such spectacular display, all Australia required was 130 to win on the final day. By now clouds had given way to bright luminous sunshine. When Australia looked well on course at 56/1, Mike Brearley in one stroke of brilliant astuteness changed Bob Willis' end and asked him to bowl down the hill. Result: Australia bowled out for 111. England had fashioned one of the most remarkable come-from-behind victories in cricketing history. 

With the momentum and impetus well rooted with the English, they went on to win the next test at Edgbaston where Australia, yet again, failed to chase a low target. For now it was Botham's turn to light up the magic with the red cherry. In a hostile spell of fast bowling, Beefy returned with figures of 5 for 1 and England went on to win the test by 29 runs.

In the fifth test at Old Trafford, Botham hit a sparkling century. Studded with marvelous square drives and swaggered hooks, the flamboyant all-rounder brought the Manchester crowd to its feet with a quicker than run-a-ball century. England won the test by 103 runs. The final test at The Oval was a draw and England regained The Ashes.

The 1981 Ashes gave Britain its first sporting hero since Bobby Charlton in Ian Terence Botham. Australian captain Kim Hughes’ remarks post series perhaps described their frustration aptly: “This series will be remembered in a hundred years. Unfortunately!”

Beefy’s popularity skyrocketed to the extent that he was called as the fifth Beatle. It wasn’t just his game, but his looks and his exploits off the field too that often kept him in the news. On one occasion, it is said that Beefy made such passionate love to a Barbadian Miss World that the goddamn bed cracked - perhaps, only in some carnal justice. This escapade became folklore and made its way into many Beefy stories.

Ian Botham on that June 1981 Headingley afternoon.
Bob Willis hits Rod Marsh on the head, Headingley '81.
Iconic moment. Mike Brearley tosses the ball to Bob Willis

In the subsequent years, England maintained its dominance. However, the famous ’89 series when Allan Border’s side, dismissed by the English press as the weakest to have toured England, was to change it. England led by David Gower lost The Ashes 4-0. After the series ended, Allan Border explained how he, very clearly, asked his side not to be friendly with the opposition. Gower called Border’s behaviour strange. They were good friends off the field, however, cometh the test  match, at toss, Border would just shake hands with a glum face, without exchanging any pleasantries, and run back to the pavilion. This was a mind game and a preparation to own the rivals and it seemed to work. Such gamesmanship!

While English cricket in the 90s fell from one low to another, Australia produced some champion players in that era, with Shane Warne’s first Ashes delivery called as the ball of the century. That classic leg spinner’s dismissal: ball pitching outside leg and clipping the left bail. How that ball missed the girth of an oversized Mike Gatting is still beyond me. But it was another addition to The Ashes tales.

Warne's ball of the century, Old Trafford, 1993.

In a cutthroat battle like this, very minute details can catch astronomical proportions. Ask Nasser Hussain. There have been volumes written on his decision to ask Australia to bat, after winning the toss at Gabba in 2002. Scorecard at the end of 1st day read: Australia 364/2. Derek Pringle, former England medium pacer and now a well-known broadcaster wrote: “In earlier times, inserting the opposition and seeing them finish the day on 364/2 would have been enough for a captain to summon his faithful hound, light a last cigarette and load a single bullet into the revolver.”

While there have been a number of Ashes series that are remembered for the quality of cricket and the intensity with which they were played, the 2005 Ashes stands out as nothing before or after it – perhaps aptly viewed as the greatest Ashes of all time. Apart from top notch cricket and closely fought battles, it was so unpredictable and tense with innumerable moments of drama and suspense. It was also an anticlimax in that nobody expected England to even draw the series, let alone win it. England were so used to humiliation at the hands of the Aussie invincible over the last decade and a half that nobody in England or Australia, or anywhere else on planet Earth where The Ashes was followed, gave England any chance. But then, what we witnessed was an unexpected treat. There is always something special about the underdog turning the tables on the mightier opposition.

From 1986-87 onwards until this series, England couldn’t manage a single series win, most of the times rolled over by the Aussie juggernaut. But not now! A determined England side led by Michael Vaughan was intent on breaking this long string of defeats and break it did. It was a great team effort by the English, but two superstars, Kevin Petersen and Andrew Flintoff shone brighter than the rest and taking the attack to the opposition beat the mighty Aussies at their own game. The 2005 Ashes changed the subsequent results that used to be so heavily lopsided in favour of Australia over the last fifteen years. England went on to win the 2009, 2010-11, 2013 and 2015 Ashes. 

The Ashes were coming back after 18 long years. The triumphant English side at The Oval 2005.

In moments of my procrastination, which by the way are frequent, I picture my best experiences. A ten-year cruise through Caribbean or backpacking in the tropical forests of Brazil or drive in a 1965 Chevy through the ochre landscape of south Spain or an Ashes test at Lord’s.  And if a dazzling fairy like the ones in Aesop fables asks me to choose one from this wish list, I would hands down choose the last one.

Artists go to Italy to pay homage to the great masters like Raphael and Michelangelo, as pilgrims go to Jerusalem and Mecca, or students in the middle ages went to pontiffs and chief seats of learning where science and philosophy had made a mark. Orientalists in 18th and 19th centuries travelled far in search of exotic east. I think the romanticism of a puritan Ashes fan belongs to such mystical realms.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Nehru - a revisit.

Jawahar Lal Nehru- a revisit

I’m making a clear disclosure at the beginning of this writing: this is not a view of Jawahar Lal Nehru, India’s first prime minister from a myopic field of Kashmiri political scene or conflict per se. The world unfortunately, as we view, does not run around Kashmir. Pandit Nehru had its flaws but in the current fad of running him down, I find it imperative for us to look back at JLN in a comprehensive manner.

On a personal level, which is from where I would like to begin, my love affair with Nehruvian ideas was passed onto me by Abba -- my late grandfather. A liberal-Nehruvian- socialist whose crucial injunctions in my growing up years had a profound effect on how I saw the world around me.

Pandit Nehru has many critics and rightly so. He was no saint. He erred. One of the biggest blots on his political sleeve is the dismissal of an elected communist government in Kerala in 1959. The precedence for devisive politics in free India was set during his times. History commits ironies. In numbers.

Pandit Nehru was regarded as coming of aristocratic lineage, and often many parliamentarians like Ram Manohar Lohia, who coined the term ‘Ghoongi  Gudia‘ for his daughter Mrs Gandhi, and whose sole fame in life remained in running down Pandit Nehru, once shouted in the parliament, ‘The Nehrus claim to be aristocratic, I can prove that the Prime Minister’s grandfather was a chaprasi in Mughal Court. Jawahar Lal Nehru in his typical atoned manner retorted back, ‘I’m glad the Hon’ble Member has at last accepted what I have been trying to tell him for so many years- that I am a man of the people!’ And that he certainly was.

Here was man who after completing his education in Trinity College Cambridge England returned to India. The seat of power was something that young Jawahar had no need to work hard for, after all his father Moti Lal Nehru was a top Congress leader. However, Pandit Nehru not only shunned the privilege aristocracy, but also the Saville Row suits and Victorian crockery, replaced dutifully with Khadi and handmade earthen pots at Anand Bhavan, Nehru’s mansion at Allahabad, a house which before his arrival glittered under garden parties and overflowing scotch. He convinced his father MotiLal Nehru to walk on his path. Over next two decades JNL embarked on a journey that was nothing less than as an act of ‘self-making’, and ‘nation building’ capping in his book The Discovery of India, which he wrote while in prison. JLN made himself an Indian by travelling across the length and breadth of India, appalled at the poverty of his countrymen, their helplessness, their misery;  in turn replaying in his mind the India of his dreams that we envisioned along with his dramatic journey, sometimes looking pensively at a far downtrodden village through the window of his train. One of his long-time aide V.K Menon thought JLN was a radical activist, happy fighting for a cause; more than a politician. It was these principles of khadi, satyagraha, swadesh which he learned from his mentor MK Gandhi that laid the foundation stone of India’s freedom struggle.

Pandit Nehru all his life was non-communal. His disdain for religion was well known. In the aftermath of gory partition killings, a horrified Nehru wrote, ‘There is a limit to brutality and that limit has been crossed. As long as I am alive India will not become a Hindu State. The very idea of a theocratic state is not only medieval but also stupid.’ Nehru resolved to preserve the secular credentials of India all his life. Once his Marxist friend Andre Malraux, the famous French novelist who fought in Spanish civil war asked him what his greatest challenge is since Independence, Nehru replied, ‘Creating a secular state in a religious country.’ The present call for cow vigilantism is not new. The demand stood always by right wing Hindu party Bhartiya Jan Sangh. But Nehru withstood to the pressure. He rejected all demands for a ban on cow slaughter saying he would rather resign than give in to this futile, silly and ridiculous demand. The India of 21st century Modi has come a long way- not necessarily in the right direction!

Nehru very tactfully played the card of non-alignment at the zenith of cold war, refusing to be a part of any bloc. Henry Kissinger writes in his book World Order- ‘The essence of this strategy was that it allowed India to draw support from both Cold War camps- securing military aid through Soviet bloc, while courting American development assistance and moral support. It was a wise course for an emerging nation. Rather than being a poor secondary ally, as a free agent India could exercise a much wider reaching influence.’ The policy paid its dividends during the ’71 war, when Pakistan as an American ally, was kept waiting for the elusive 7th fleet. As history goes, the American military aid never arrived and Pakistan lost its east forever. The repercussion of Bangladesh war is to this day felt, especially in Kashmir. 

Levying the blame of dynasty politics and nepotism on Nehru has become a national pastime for Indians. The facts however are contrary to it. There is no evidence to prove that Nehru was grooming his daughter to succeed him as prime minister. In fact well before his death he drafted back Lal Bahadur Shastri into government and was very clear with his deteriorating health that he should be his worthy successor. Indira Gandhi once regretfully said, ‘My father never spoke to me about government affairs. Never.’ As a patriarch Nehru was keen to keep her influence only till Teen Murti affairs. Perhaps, he had a fatherly sense of her authoritarian way of leading, which he disapproved.  Something which almost brought down the Indian democracy in ’75 emergency.

The demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and ensuing communal violence perhaps tainted India’s secular credentials beyond repair, rocking its secular foundations and liberal Nehruvian ideas, however, if one goes few decades back, a similar tragedy was averted in 1951, when India was barely finding its feet, in Somnath, when Nehru disapproved of the temple’s reconstruction, well aware of the anteposition it could set, and in very plain terms calling it dangerous revivalism of Hinduism. He ultimately agreed to it but ensured that money for reconstruction would not come from government exchequer. He was clear that state must not meddle in religious affairs.

There is no absolutely no doubt that Jawahar Lal Nehru was twentieth centuries greatest statesman, who dared to dream that the newly born Indian state, in its midnight tryst with destiny, touches the highest democratic standards of the world. Did he succeed or fail? 70 years are too less to judge it yet. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Europe- Travelogue- Part I, Italy.

There is a thing about European cities. A certain sound. I observed it in almost all cities that I visited on my backpacking trip. An echo that rebounds from stunning arty architectural structures. The imprint of renaissance arts is felt almost all over Europe.

 I began my trip from Rome; after a stopover at Frankfurt- the gateway to Europe. Frankfurt is a sprawling airport; endless. Almost all major flights from Asia, passing over to US, Scandinavian and Canada, stop at Frankfurt. Changing my flight at Frankfurt, after I had a cup of hot cappuccino- I absolutely adore the smell at airport cafes, it just fills my senses of upcoming adventures; I was on board to Rome. It is said Rome is always sunny in its azure skies. The breathtakingly blue skies welcomed me too as I hit Rome early in the morning. I checked into my Air BnB accommodation, choosing a place near Roma Centrale- Rome’s major train and metro station. From here the Colosseum and Roman Forum were on walking distance. My first places to visit in Rome.

 The construction of Colosseum began in AD 72 and was inaugurated in AD 80 by Emperor Titus, with a hundred days of festivities. For about 5 centuries on the occasion of anniversaries and military victories, the emperors spent vast resources on staging magnificent spectacles for citizens. The Gladiator combats were banned in the 5th century but combats with wild animals are recorded as late as till 12th century. It is quite remarkable to envisage what must have been the scene during the days of its pomp. Now what was lying before my eyes was a mural sketch of that era. I tried breathing some of its air. Tried imagining myself as one of the spectators back then, cheering the Gladiators. I met an old local Roman, who was aimlessly walking around the Forum. We got talking.

 He was a tour guide. What he told me was fascinating. In the days of its glory in Colosseum, the spectacle used to begin early in the morning. During the lunch interval, executions and besties took place; the condemned, naked and unarmed, faced wild beasts, which would eventually tear them to pieces. During the interval there were performances by jugglers, magicians and acrobats. Finally Gladiator combats (munera) were held in the afternoon. The participants in these combats were usually prisoners of war, slaves and some free men seeking fame and fortune. The games were often financed by politicians who hoped to curry favor with public, but the intellectuals saw these spectacles as a means of swaying public from real issues and as a cause of spiritual decadence.   

I sometimes think a city chooses me, rather than I choosing it. It is no accident that propels people like me to Rome. Rome is the cradle of previous births. You can read here on the walls where Raphael and da Vinci lived. Rome was existing since 700 years, when its most famous emperor Augustus took throne in 27 BC. According to a legend Rome was founded by twins Romulus and Remus, raised by a she-wolf. Over the centuries, Rome’s wealth had drawn people across the empire, creating a population of around 1 million, one of the largest urban population in the pre-industrial world. Yet the physical appearance of the city belied the military and political might of its ruling class. Rome was an urban sprawl grown without long term planning.
Under Augustus however there began a gradual development into a city worthy of world empire. The Rome of today has huge etch of the Augustus era.
The Roman Forum, the civic centre of the greatest city is an accretion of centuries of buildings. Laying in the shadow of the Capitoline hill, the Forum is flanked by basilicas (great halls for judicial business), political buildings and temples.

I loved walking on the streets of Rome. There is a sense of serenity in this ancient city that is not hard to miss. While modernity has its imprints, but Rome largely has retained its flavour. I spent my days in Rome visiting museums, bookstores, Vatican city, eating tasty crisp pizzas on many of its open restaurants; stopping over a corner bend and getting absolutely lost in the street music played by nearby musician: flutes, saxophone, guitar. Rome is delightful in that sense. A treasure for someone like me who loves lazing around aimlessly. I found many of my tribe in this city. Rome also is famous for stately gorgeous Piazzas (city centres). One of the most famous being Piazza Navona. There were artists all around, musicians, travellers, revellers. Rome accepts everything and gives you back a part of its own soul. I carry it along with me, now, always.

Rest of my backpacking trip in Italy included Napoli and Pompeii in south and Florence in north. For Napoli and Pompeii, I took a super-fast Trenitalia train from Rome. Napoli is a shoddy city more than anything; over populous, with residential building stacked over one another, hardly any air to breathe. There are tiny labyrinth lanes, with clothes left for drying from almost all windows. However, my reason to be in south Italy was to visit Pompeii, a major city during the glory of Roman empire.

From Napoli, Pompeii is an hour’s drive. The end of this great city in AD 69 was so sudden that it probably has no equal in history. The volcanic eruption on Mount Vesuvius, surrounding this city, completely destroyed it. The surprised Pompeiians had little idea what hit them, as the volcanic crystals showered on them for 2 days with the ash covering the city later. Perhaps, a reason why most of the city could be excavated; the volcanic molten preventing decay. There are charred bread crumbs, onions, other vegetables that were excavated by the archaeologists!

From one of the shops at the main Stabiana, coins were found in the baker’s oven. The owner perhaps had left them there, after the eruption, in hope of return. It took me over five hours to see the ruins of this once magnificent city; giving me endless memories to savor. I visited what is world’s first known Amphi theatre at Pompeii. The theatre held gladiator games with a capacity of twenty thousand people. Pink Floyd played here in 1974. There is a small memorabilia built in memory of that concert. Hair on my forearms prickled when I walked through the dark gallery; walls playing Echoes.

“Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air
And deep beneath the rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves
The echo of a distant tide
Comes willowing across the sand
And everything is green and submarine.”

What is most remarkable about Pompeii is how the structures, at least most of the main casa’s- belonging to wealthy Pompeiians, have retained their glory. Murals on walls inside the houses are still visible. I walked inside these houses, feeling the walls with my hands. There was one very distinct memory that stayed with me. After being dead like a tired horse, I dropped my backpack and leaned against a wall, in one of the Pompeiian houses. It was a two storied cassa- with a beautiful garden in the centre. I must have stayed silent for a long long time, breathing the Pompeiian air. Few leaves flickered under a mild breeze coming from the Amalfi coast. A cricket bird chirped. It was the sort of moment for which in the hindsight when I lookback, I feel my purpose of life is achieved. Traveling across as a solo traveller, sitting here in a remote south Italian city, in ruins, with absolutely no one that I know- in complete wilderness of my thoughts. Alone. Yet connected to the larger purpose. It is the understanding of the difference between journey and goal; the awareness of the truth that the goal of life is the living of it. I was woken up by a fellow traveller, who perhaps saw me sitting quietly in a corner. He quipped in a rather hush manner, ‘mate, its beautiful here.’

My next stop in Italy was Florence — a quaint little city in North Italy. I checked into a hostel here. Hostels are cheap and allow you to mix with travellers of different countries. In my case I couldn’t have asked for more; they had an all-weather swimming pool and sauna bath. My tired limbs cried for it. Of course, my reason to be in Florence was to see the Michelangelo museum, where his most famous art work David stood. David is Michelangelo's most famous and celebrated art work. He began work on it in 1501 AD. Scholars believe that David is here represented after his victory over Goliath, the sling on David's shoulder is used to bring Goliath down. Thus emphasizing that David did not use any brute force, but his intelligence and innocence, to gain victory. It took Michelangelo four years to make David, grinding it from a slab of marble. When completed, the art work was carried on a carriage throughout the city, with people marvelling at it, finally finding its place at a central Piazza in the heart of Florence, where it stood for many many years. He had his critics though. It is said when Michelangelo was finishing David, the town mayor came to have a look. Michelangelo had put a canvas around David, so that no one could watch him work. The canvas scaffolding gave away and the Mayor had a look at David. Putting up the show of the art connoisseur, Mayor pointed out the nose was too thick, though from his vantage point it was impossible to judge the thickness of nose! Ever the smart he was, Michelangelo climbed up the scaffold, grabbing a hammer and pretended at chiseling the nose. ‘How’s it now Mr Mayor,’ he shouted from the top. He had not touched the sculpture, of course. “Now, it’s much better,” exclaimed the mayor. “Now you’ve put life into it.” The stupidity of some critics has stayed along years.

I went back to my room. Had another round of swim and slept early. Next day morning, I had to catch my train to Zurich. I was traveling to the land of Yash Chopra!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Jaffna Street- book review.

Jaffna Street is essentially unsettling. Not because it talks about the horrors that war brings upon its causalities, but because it is neither a testimony nor a polemic. It’s very easy and convenient to take sides, when you talk about conflicts; but that’s not what literature is meant for. To tell stories as they are require a certain amount of grasp at things; on the ground. Khalid not only had his ears to the ground, being born and brought up in downtown Srinagar, what substantially was the hot seat of an armed revolution that began in late ’89, but he also his heart in place. Jaffna Street is written with tremendous panache. It’s like the famous designer from Italy Enrico Coveri taking to word-smithery. Detailing is to the point, editing crisp, without really dragging ever.

From the political evolution of the 1980s generation coming of age and seeking to lay their claim on the 1931  ethno-religious political project, their flights across the LoC into the arms training camps and their encounters with idealistic  long forgotten pioneers of the insurgency. From the story of a survivor of the Jammu pogrom in 1947 to the unknown  political face of Meerakh Shah, the celebrated mystic,  From the travails of an NC worker who suffers bereavement in state inflicted violence and in the end dies a violent death, the  bakra diehard Fayaz whose life is totally altered because of his devotion to the Mirwaiz family and its politics,  Khalid suffers no biases,everything is exhaustively dealt upon even the long dead prophesier of Safakadal whose utterances still provoke messianic undercurrents in that area.

The part about the student gangs and professional gangsters, existing in the 70s and 80s of Srinagar, seemed to me like watching Sergio Leone’s epic gangster movie Once Upon a Time in America. The brazen use of knuckledusters, shootings, substance abuse and the introduction of word Mandrax in our daily vernacular. The fierce rivalry between the Gaw Kadal- Batmalyun gang on one side and the Dalgate gang on other, throws up characters like the eccentric James Wood’s Max in the movie did. ‘M’ as he is referred in anomaly in the book, fits the bill perfectly. Fond of extravagance, gadgets and high life, M treads on a path full of danger. Growing up in a marginalized family, in a city-side ghetto, M rises up on ladder of crime, carving a niche amongst wise guys. If M is ambitious and boisterous, then there is a De Niro like Noodles Mac too- the old gang leader of the City Side boys gang, who though later on, given an opportunity, after stint in insurgency and prison refused to dabble in politics, admonishing the loathed separatist politics. Mac in his days may have been ruthless with his Kukri and chains, but he carries a conscience. There was a certain air about those guys, of that generation. Men of honour. It is something any downtowner can tell you. I’d my share of my cousins too, from this generation; driving their Yamaha’s, adorning their walls with George Michael posters, sporting aviators, wooing girls. For me they were John Rambo clones. How I wished to be like them, like any fan would.

There are moments where the book absolutely lights up. Story of Nazir Gaash, the Marxist of Safa Kadal remains my favorite part of the book. The part is dealt with tremendous maturity by the author. A nonconformist, Nazir Gaash’s self searching forays early in his life takes him to Buddhism. Unable to satiate his existential crisis, Gaash’s intellectual pursuits, piqued by a curious mind, take him to the world of Marx and Western philosophy. The author mentions how his own intellectual growth took shape on Gaash’s shopfront, appropriately named Edible Link, where he would often engage in the world of ideas. The city could still bear a nihilist son. But all this changed at the throes of the war. People like Gaash wisely kept to themselves, for the bullet had no respect for ideas. His sphere of Sartre and Kant was somehow washed down Jhelum.

It must have been around 2ish in the morning, when I was reading Gaash’s story. I closed the book on my chest and kept gazing at the chandelier on top of my head. I don’t know for how long was in this state. The abject absurdity of life and a long abyss that we look through occupied my mind, with Gaash’s convictions and intellectual odysseys at the back of it. I don’t know what beckoned my wife. She woke up from her sleep, turned the lights on at the corner of our hall, where I’ve my library and where I usually read. She jolted me. It was quite a moment, in the introspection of a man and the world he saw largely at. Lost in the oblivion. The existential desertion. And the larger futility of life.

The story of Ijaz,  son of a artisan, fondly called Ija: a well behaved, soft spoken boy, is very poignant. Though it’s short but it pierces one like a bullet. Buoyed by the calls for arms revolution, Ijaz like host of others disappeared in the summer of 1990. He had joined a group that was going to cross the LOC for arms training. Contaminated water had made Ijaz sick. Dehydrated and feverish he couldn’t continue with the rest of the guys and was abandoned in the forest. Ijaz didn’t die of enemy bullets. He was a consumption of war. A mere statistics in the end. A number. And that’s the misery and the truth of a war. Khalid has narrated it, as it is, which is not only brave but also a far cry from the beaten victim card played by us.

Khalid has spoken a language unknown to those who read about Kashmir conflict. He is not only brazenly honest but also bitter. Bitter at the mediocrity surrounding us, which we unfortunately and shamelessly celebrate too often.

A quarter and a century ago, writer David Bellos says he was talking to a French friend 
about paucity of literary material on the Algerian War, accusing France of voluntary 
amnesia. He reached to his shelf, pulled down a tattered paperback, and said without any 
words: There was a literature of the Algerian War, and here it is. The book was Daniel 
Anselme’s La Permission. Jaffna Street is right up there.

The review appeared in two leading daily's.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Bourgeois Question And a Summer in Kashmir.

As the saying goes, it is always easier to fight for one's principles than to live up to them. In Anurag Kashyap’s film Gulaal, which I regard as one of the finest movies ever to have been made in Indian cinema, the rebel leader Dukkey Bana in his fiery speeches urges the Rajputana bourgeoisie that unless they empty their treasures, shed blood for the cause, freedom is a far off reality.

I'm fresh from Kashmir, so I allow myself to take some liberties. Being skeptical is certainly one of them. More than anyone, I kept questioning myself. Truth be told, I’ve never taken part in any Azadi procession, except way back in the spring of ’90, when almost entire Srinagar was on roads, leading a march to UN office at Sonwar. It was a surreal experience. Sitting atop on the shoulders of my elder cousins, I shouted, ‘Hum kya Chahte Azadi.’ That spring of ’90 had some other touch. In me that seed of Azadi was sown I’m sure on that bright spring Kashmir day. Why did we lose it then? Where did we fail? Why couldn’t we nourish it?

Coming back to 2016, this whole month, while I was on my vacation, and state imposed all sorts of restrictions, I managed to sneak a look at social media few times. The last time I checked, visibly irritated, I logged out soon. The glaring difference between what's on the ground and what's on social media disgusted me. Two lakh people took part in Burhan’s funeral, someone else quips deviously, 4 lakh did in Sheikh Abdullah’s. Remember, there were only 11 people on Karl Marx’s funeral.

One of my friends had checked-in at a restaurant in Delhi; Kheyn Chen or something of that sorts. Poor guy was rebuked. People are dying and you're dining. Fair enough. But the affluent class are having their tummies satiated with Maaz and Koker every day. Why then this tendency to turn suddenly into an activist on social media?

The supply has not stopped one single day. Early mornings, late evenings, domestic helps in our part of the forsaken Valley would go out and buy all such luxuries. I, for one, tasted some of the freshest vegetables in K in a long, long time. On early morning, with the grass still wet in our lawn, freshly plucked vegetables were being sold from Piaggio pick-ups. Elderly, mostly retired government officers (Ex-Engineers, Commissioners, HODs) in their snow white prayer caps, would flock together on a curve or a nook inside our lanes, discussing Rajnath Singh's latest blurb. They would quietly retrieve into their homes after another few minutes of meaningless discussion.

Moving on, everyone I met had only one thing to ask/ advice. When are you going back? Why did you come here at the first place? There is nothing left here. Beta, leave Kashmir as soon as possible.
It’s almost as if we have handed over the reins of Tehreek into the hands of few who decided to stay back. Keep the flame of Azadi alive, so to speak, while I secure mine and my children’s future.

The larger point that I’m trying to make is that in the many hues of narratives that Kashmir throws up, we are conveniently silent about this one: the bourgeois have to come out of their comfortable zones and join the call of Azadi. Against the will of the people India cannot hold Kashmir forever. May be not today, not tomorrow but one day India would have to leave Kashmir. We only have to read history. Replete with struggles against mighty powers, the will of the people always wins. In the French decolonization of Algeria, where a civil war was actually fought between the pro-Algerian colonists and the pro-freedom sections of society, the battle lines were clear. At the height of cold war, who would have imagined Russia’s disintegration? However, for us to realize this reality, it’s not just the proletariats who have to fight the battle. The Bourgeois must take part, and in a sustained manner.

Quoting the rebellious Dukkey again in Gulaal, 'Ager tum log aise he bachchon ko videsh bhejte rahe, tou mai krantikari kya Kashmir se laon?' He obviously would not know, we have already left K.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Babam ve Oglum

In the long summers of my childhood, like Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, I was convinced that life was beginning over again with the summer. Each year. Over and again. The summers were long, in our neck of the woods, so long that they stretched out our lives. Every little possibility marched into the long shadows that our vacations threw. Games flared up suddenly; cousin sleepovers, hopscotch, the fingertips tried touching the skies, endless mirth grew louder with the crickets of August. I threw myself open to new adventures, while long days, never changing, grew heavy with endless possibilities.

I had heard tales of other voyages, out beyond the ends of the town, high up into the clouds. As a boy I had gone up so high, like a balloon that grows smaller and vanishes suddenly into the blues, beyond any sight. There were towns up there, so they said; white cloud towns, with tapering tops. Up there, beyond the blue, there were rivers and streams, birds with rainbow colored tails; cities of snow. Stories I believed in. Cities I believe existed. A world that was mine.

What happened then, eh?

Let’s say life hasn’t been so smooth lately. A major health scare, that luckily wasn’t one, got me thinking at many levels. Like many of those who bear the brunt of this capitalist lifestyle: earning, spending, earning more and spending more, forever running a race that literally seems to have no destination. I’m many times lost in the maze of it. The abject futility of the exercise had fatigued me to all ends. A sense of despair loomed at large.

While a part of me always encourages to question, yet I began wondering if these are essentially armatures for my aphorisms and philosophical aides. Free standing baubles? I carried on nevertheless, carrying the weight on my back. Unable to make any sense of it. I would wake up each morning, sluggish and heavy headed. A weariness - like sadness, I would plunge into sleep every night. I could feel darkness ripening within me; unwittingly I kept losing myself.

A good positive mind set has the powers to turn tables, let alone fortunes- that old slick lady who knocks on our doors often. While I wasn’t exactly worried about my own self, I’ve never bothered to take proper care of myself, but here I wasn’t thinking about myself. I was no longer what I was. I was a husband now. A father to a son, who believed and lived in that world, where some years back I glided.

In truth life is impossible. People deceive. Friends leave. Love fails. Job bores. Good news is all this can be changed; if we accept it.

One evening wiping the morose sweat globs from my brow, I suddenly glanced at my son. He was busy as usual in his impishness; talking endlessly to himself, creating non-existing characters in his mind, talking to them, making up stories. Trying to explain to me how his day went by. I just pulled myself from where I was trapped, and I looked at all this; this whole scene as an outsider. For few seconds, I kept looking at my son continuously. And everything cleared out. The haze cleared up. The curtains drifted apart. Walls disappeared. The sky was blue. Again. A sunny strip of road had long shadows sprawled over it, a small white cloud hang up in the middle, just when my son stood up at the window and shouted in his twisted words, ‘Baba aeroplane’, flying like a carpet. The empty sky was so blue, so richly and thick blue, that it seemed a thing I ought to feel. Like my son.  

Children are best teachers, as the saying goes. On that one evening, my two year old taught me a lesson: Your mind is the sum of the whole world.  

P.S: The title is inspired from a Turkish movie- My Father, My Son.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Free Man ~ Aman Sethi

If you hover in the air around Bara Tooti Chowk, Sadar Bazar, Pahargunj, Azad Market on a Alladin Carpet, straight out of an Arabian Night spaceship and point your finger on one of the thousands, millions of Delhiite denizens, scurrying for space beneath; some pedaling on their rickshaws- transporting over-weight passengers from New Delhi railway station, ploddering, exhausting last bit of their muscle energy, at times standing tall on their rickshaw pedals, to thrust it forward with force; occasionally spitting pink gutka with equal burden on the road below. 

Or you turn left and put your finger on this beedi smoking, reed thin laborer standing at a junction below Daryaganj flyover, amidst a gaggle of laborers, perhaps looking for work. Slightly drowsy, may be from last nights excessive drinking. 

Or you may look far ahead below where a govt. hospital stands. Weak, dispirited patients; angry, confused, cursy' attendants, all waiting in mincing patience. A lull of gloom is suspended in the air around; some of it lingering on these faces, from a long long time. 

It seems Aman Sethi was up on one of such Alladin Carpets, where he chose to pick amongst the million Delhiite, stone broke under privileged non-native dweller. In this story he has a name: Ashraf. 

Aman Sethi’s, ‘A Free Man’ is a drama-less memoir written in exquisite style. Never once did I feel out of sync with the story. He held me there, with him and Ashraf. I finished the book in 2 days, in the middle of the week. 

There is something Delhi can give you- a sense of azadi, freedom from past, says Ashraf in his own blasé style to Aman in one of the many interviews, that Aman conducts over a period of few years, following Ashraf, chronicling his story with method and empathy. There are two types of people here: those who pull the trigger and those who survive the shootout. In a very non-philosophical tone, Ashraf states a very basic fact of living and settling down in the city. For those who come to Delhi from neighboring UP, Bihar and Jharkhand in search of unbound wealth. 

The story is written in times when Delhi was surging towards this monstrous metropolitan that it has turned into now. With growth, comes desolation. A glass ware built on the ruins of poor. With Common Wealth games scheduled in 2010, the Delhi Municipal Corporation went on a spree of demolishing unregistered settlements. The violent displacement of slum dwellers around Sanjay Amar Colony was hardly given coverage by the national press who described the process as necessary for urban renewal. The working class once more crucified at the altar of crony capitalism. How it affected an entire population is where Aman Sethi’s story comes alive. 

While the basis of the story may be grim, but, Sethi doesn’t fail to see the humor that visibly exists in these dungeons. 

Hope, perhaps, is what binds these countless marginalized to a city oppressive to their right to live with dignity; quite brilliantly exemplified in Rehaan’s story- one of Ashraf’s accomplice, who on one afternoon under the shade of a Gulmohar tree, while sipping chai, reveals emphatically his dream business, that could turn him wealthy overnight.  The business starts with buying a goat, from where he would switch to rearing pigs and extracting sugar, from a sugarcane distillery. When everything seemed to be worked out, Rehaaan regrets that it isn’t possible because his father is a devout Muslim, and would not allow him a mere mention of pigs in his presence. The plan crashes down under its own weight. The wacky irony in the whole narration is brilliant. 

Aman Sethi's debut book is not about triumph or making it big, rising through the ranks- a rags to riches story.  No its not. It is just a story that he picked from many countless alleys, crossings, heaving markets, deathlike willy-nilly plastered hospitals with rickety benches and stenchy' bed sheets, where each grain of thick summer air holds death and despair in it.