Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Touch of Colour

When the world outside is mostly covered in a white blanket and there are no loudspeakers spewing Hindi film songs, Holi is hardly discernible from any other day. So when every joint in my body was sore from shoveling snow on the drive and this bright red cardinal flew onto a snow-covered bush in my backyard, the touch of colour actually seemed comforting to the eyes. He gave me the excuse to take a much-needed break and seemed to indicate that although the world seemed bleak and white at the moment, elsewhere spring had arrived with the festival of colours and it couldn't be far behind in these parts. Mother Nature had started dressing up under the white sheets.

I wish all my readers a very happy and colourful Holi!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Master and I

On a winter day about 21 years ago, I was passing a lazy afternoon with a book in my maternal uncle's house while my uncle was watching a cricket match on TV. I was a child who didn't follow cricket, so I wasn't even aware who was playing. Suddenly, as I looked up from my book for an instant, something caught my eye. One of the fielders wore a thick wad of bandage on his nose. "Who is he and what's wrong with him?" I asked my uncle. "He is a new kid in the Indian team - he is called Sachin Tendulkar. He got hit on the nose by a delivery," he replied.

In the subsequent years I started following cricket, and that kid became the most valuable player in the Indian team. He was always the subject of hot debate among my elders of course - regarding whether he was better than Sunil Gavaskar or not, and usually Gavaskar won hands down. He was compared to many of his contemporaries - Inzamam-ul Haq, Brian Lara, Graeme Hick, and Sanjay Manjrekar and in later years, Mark Waugh, Michael Bevan, Ricky Ponting, Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. At times he was judged inferior to some of them. He himself never got involved in any of these silly contests, of course. He always did his job and let his bat do the talking.

Year after year Tendulkar single-handedly bore the burden of a billion dreams. I watched India lose match after match as soon as a frustrated and impatient Sachin threw away his wicket. The critics never stopped talking - Tendulkar was no good. He wasn't a match winner. He never did well in second innings of test matches. He never performed well in county cricket. He didn't have the temperament of Lara, the killer instinct of Jayasurya, the leadership qualities of Steve Waugh. Sachin was never perturbed by these comparisons. The best bowlers in the world thought they had discovered his weaknesses, and were suitably punished for the audacity of thinking so. Nobody knows this better than the Australian bowlers of the Sharjah Series of 1998: some of their careers were prematurely ended by this little man. Then Shane Warne confessed having nightmares of Sachin and Don Bradman told his wife that this guy reminds him of his younger years, and suddenly the world started taking note.

Still, that was 12 years ago. Tendulkar was 24 then. If someone had said Tendulkar would still be the best batsman in the world some 12 years later, even his greatest fans would probably have laughed in his face.

In the past decade as the "new kid" became one of the oldest members of the team, he attained many milestones. Highest run scorer in ODIs, highest run scorer in tests, maximum number of centuries in both forms of the game. He dragged the Indian team to the World Cup finals in 2003 - a feat which won him the man of the series award, but could not remove the stamp of non-match-winner. What good was he, if he could not win the world cup for India? Why didn't he have a triple century in tests? Why no double centuries in ODIs? The expectations seemed to be rising. Many people wanted him to retire. He had back problems, hand problems, he was out of form, and if Ganguly and Dravid could be forced to quit, why not him?

I, in the meantime, had stopped following cricket. The primary reason was, of course, that I had joined my job and moved to Hyderabad and I had not bought a TV because I did not have the time to watch it. Also, the dirty politics of Greg Chappel, the humiliating expulsion Saurav Ganguly and India's dismal performance in subsequent matches, including the 2007 World Cup did not help. The explosion in the number of matches and the coming of T-20 was the last nail - I lost all interest in cricket after that.

During the last one and a half years in the US, I have only followed cricket through online news reports. Although I wasn't very regular in updating myself on the latest developments, one thing was becoming clear: there was nobody else like Sachin. Neither in India, and nor in any other team. There had been nobody like Sachin in many, many years and there would probably be nobody like him afterwards. He was in a league of his own - all those contemporary players who had been compared with him and occasionally been deemed superior had long retired. Tendulkar, on the other hand, was not only playing better than anyone else in the world, but he was playing better than he himself ever did before. His fitness level was better than many of the younger players, and opposition bowlers still spent hours watching his batting videos to find his weaknesses, only to discover their own on the field. Modifying a statement that Rahul Dravid used for Saurav Ganguly, it could be said, "First there is God, and then there is Sachin Tendulkar." The word “God” here obviously refers to a certain Australian with a batting average of 99.94.

So, yesterday's double century doesn't prove anything new about the Master Blaster. He didn't need to score the first 200 in an ODI innings to prove that he is the best ODI batsman ever. He did not need it to prove that he had better temperament than Lara, more killer instinct than Saeed Anwar. He did not need the record of 25 fours in an innings to prove that he is a better batsman than Inzamam or Jayasurya. This 200 will not silence the critics either. They will still ask for the 2011 world Cup, a 300 in tests, or perhaps a 400. This celebrated innings hardly changes anything for Sachin.

Only, after almost five long years, I am starting to feel that I am missing something by not watching cricket. Many years from now, if I wish to hold a younger generation audience in awe telling them that I was ancient enough to have actually seen Sachin Tendulkar bat, I would be unable to narrate a lot of stories about how history was rewritten during the best years of his career.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Alien Feeling

There are two kinds of bloggers in the world – habitual and inspired. The first kinds can blog about anything, anytime. The second kind blogger, however, needs a real inspiring idea before he can hit the keyboard. As my regular (sigh!) readers will know, I belong to this latter category. I can hardly blog about a subject that does not inspire me to write and much less so when my mind is occupied with something else (which I don’t want to blog about). That is the primary reason why I never put up a post since that endless night in Helsinki. Initially I was homesick, and then got buried up to my neck in work. Also, whatever leisure time I got, I devoted to photography. Finally, after almost a month, a foot-high snowfall and the absence of a girlfriend on Valentine’s Day that is also a weekend has given me the much needed time for to type out a blog post.

And the subject is not, as the title may suggest to some, about spending Valentine’s Day alone in New York. It is about my India visit.

The American government calls us aliens – resident or non-resident as the case may be. I always found the term mildly offensive, because no permanent resident of this planet would like to be reminded that Americans find them strange enough to be from another world. However, the full implication of the term hit me during the winter holidays when I landed in India and found myself a greater alien there than in this country.

The first thing that seemed extraordinary to me at the Indira Gandhi International Airport was of course the most ordinary of things – the crowd. The last six airports that I had visited were Heathrow, Newark, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, JFK and Helsinki, and although these included some of the biggest and busiest airports in the world, New Delhi gave a whole new meaning to the word “busy.” Who cares whether the number of flights operating from there is just a fraction of the traffic handled by Heathrow or JFK? All that I thought as I pushed my cart through the airport was, “Really, are there so many people in the world?” Something else also seemed very, very odd, and somewhat unnerving after sixteen months in the US: the airport was full of security men flaunting AK-47s. It was a grim reminder that India was fighting the real “war against terror” every day, despite what people across the world may be thinking post 9/11.

It was a relief to be able to switch to Hindi while talking to customs officials, security men and domestic airline clerks without having to prick up my ears trying to catch their accent. This was especially good because I realized to my horror that some people were unable to catch my English accent the first time. Soon I landed in Kolkata and came out of the airport, and it was here I saw the next thing that makes India look so alien to Americans.

Dust. Lots of it.

I am not talking of dirt. I am not even talking of dirty places. The dust that I am referring to is the fine powder that covers everything in sight from cars to tree leaves. It is this very coating that gives off the wonderful smell when the first raindrops come down after a dry spell, so I am not really complaining. Only that I had grown so accustomed to a dust-free world that it all seemed very strange. I also realized why photos taken in Europe and America were so brightly coloured; I suspect it is their policy of keeping all patches of earth covered either with grass or with mulch that prevents the creation of dust. On a related note, I was very surprised to see the amount of haze in the Kolkata air on my subsequent visits to the city during the following month. The sky is almost never blue, and visibility is usually less than two miles on a clear day. In New York City the visibility is almost always ten miles and the sky is pristine. Even though New York is one of the most brilliantly lit places on the planet, one can see more stars in the sky than can be seen in Kolkata these days. Does Kolkata have more cars or more people than New York? I don’t think so! Probably the diesel-burning buses overcrowding the city have something to do with it- I can’t tell for sure- but I would surely like to see my favourite city getting a cleaner sky.
Talking of buses, I must say I was most pleasantly surprised by some changes taking place in Kolkata and one of them was introduction of imported buses. For a person who spent his B.E. years commuting on leaky and dented tin boxes on wheels also known as buses of route 215A, it was a jaw-dropping sight to behold a shiny glass-covered 215A with low footboards, switch operated doors (which are always open) and moving LED displays announcing the destination roll by. Now only if the political activists of Kolkata can be persuaded against burning off these buses on bandh days, we shall have a very modern fleet within a few years, and that would probably take care of the pollution problem to a large extent. Also, the metro rail expansion work is progressing quite fast and Salt Lake is almost unrecognizable now with flyovers and overhead railway lines coming up everywhere. When I said I felt like an alien in my own city, it was not only because I had developed an “NRI air” but also because my city had changed so much in the last year and a half.

As for the NRI air, this time I could guess what goes through the average Americans’ minds when they try to navigate Indian roads, and if I have to describe it in one word, I would use the word “terror.” Even for a person like me who has grown up in UP and spent a year and a half in Hyderabad where the lack of any rule is the only steady traffic rule, sixteen months in the US were enough to erase a significant portion of essential-for-survival skills right off my brain. While it would be an exaggeration to say I was terrified of going out on the streets, I was definitely confused. Apart from the left-or-right dilemma, I kept stopping for traffic lights where there were none, waiting for all vehicles to stop before crossing the street (which made crossing even small streets an indefinitely long process) and getting scared whenever I caught a glimpse of an approaching cow. I was never the brave type, but growing up in Allahabad had at least ensured that I could walk calmly by a passing cow or buffalo without feeling the irresistible urge to cross over to the other side of the road. This time, however, I found myself yielding to that urge often. This added to the chaos as crossing the road was a dreaded exercise as mentioned before, and it further confused me regarding which direction the cars were going in. Apparently, my brain did not have a problem adjusting to the different on-off states of light switches, but as far as left and right side of the road are concerned, I am a big mess. I wonder how I’m going to learn driving. If someone saw me walking on the road in this manner and assumed I was showing off some of my NRI air, I don’t really blame them.

And thus I spent a month in India, feeling alien in my own city, enjoying the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that I have grown up with, and yet subconsciously overjoyed that in some aspects, these sights and sounds were giving way to a more Americanized version. I knew that in a few weeks’ time, I would be back in my fixed routine in Newark, where every day was predictable and survival was much easier. But I also knew that I will eventually be going back to live in India once I am done with my studies here, and all that dust and cows and unruly traffic could never make my country seem worse than the sanitized land where I stay. The captain of the Atrium in the movie WALL-E said, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live!” I myself couldn’t have put it better. For me, there is only one country to live, and that is India.