We are almost there! Let’s cross the finish line together!

A year ago, 80 of you believed in our dream. With your support, we have finished 80% of the film. This is the final push and it’s an all-or-nothing crowdfunding campaign. We have to raise 5 lakh rupees (~$7000) in 45 days to complete the documentary. Please donate (now!) and share. Join us as we go Riding on a Sunbeam!

Here is the crowdfunding link:

I am Riding on a Sunbeam

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We are almost there! Let’s cross the finish line together!

A year ago, 80 of you believed in our dream. With your support, we have finished 80% of the film. This is the final push and it’s an all-or-nothing crowdfunding campaign. We have to raise 5 lakh rupees (~$7000) in 45 days to complete the documentary. Please donate (now!) and share. Join us as we go Riding on a Sunbeam!

Here is the crowdfunding link:

https://www.wishberry.in/campaign/riding-sunbeam/

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Beyond Ridiculous: Palestinian, Indian, Portuguese, Spainsh

The Mumbai – Abu Dhabi flight was quite uneventful. As usual, it was delayed. When I am traveling, something has to get delayed. The young Indian girl sitting next to me didn’t seem interested in small talk and I was a bit sleepy as well. But the Abu Dhabi – Sao Paulo flight is turning out to be awesome. As soon as I take my seat, the guy next to me asks me ‘Hind?’ From his accent, I can tell that he is from somewhere in the Middle East. Who else in the world calls Indians ‘Hind’ anymore?

But what ensues is a comedy of errors at first and an exhilarating experience as time goes by. This guy barely speaks English. When I say ‘Yes’ to Hind, I ask him where he is from. He says ‘Filistine.’ Alright! That is interesting. How often do you sit next to a Palestinian guy in a flight? And we are gonna be together for 15 hours. But wait, what about the language barrier? He solves it for me in no time. Without even asking for it, he tells me that he is flying to Sao Paulo and then going to Santa Catarina…in Portuguese! As soon as he says ‘Agora, Sao Paulo.’ I feel a little better. I can talk to this guy in Spanish.

Having spent three-four months in Latin America now, I can fake a lot of things. And Spanish is one of them. So, I immediately ask him ‘Por que?’ When an Arabic guy who speaks broken Portuguese is talking to an Indian guy who speaks broken Spanish, it has to be beyond ridiculous, but a lot of fun as well. He points to his ring finger, and says something like ‘Aana…Santa Catarina.’ My interpretation of that is that his fiancée or wife is a Brazilian girl named Aana and he is going there to visit her. Even before saying anything in return, I am jealous of this guy having a Brazilian fiancée! And then, he volunteers some more information. By writing numbers with his hand on the seat-back screen, he tells me that Abu Dhabi to Sao Paulo is 15 hours (‘horas’ in Portuguese and Spanish) and Santa Catarina is 1:30 hours from Sao Paulo. With a flying action by his hand, he also tells me that because of FIFA, ‘no possible.’ So, with a hand gesture of driving a car, he says it would be six hours instead of one and a half hours to go from Sao Paulo to Santa Catarina.
It is a good segway for me to tell him that I am going to Brazil for FIFA. He immediately launches into ‘Sao Paulo, Curitiba, Salvador…’ I get his drift. I tell him ‘Solo Sao Paulo, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte y Rio.’ Silence!

I have rarely met Palestinian travelers and I am now curious to know whether he is half Brazilian or something like that. But how do I ask that complicated question? I try to ask him whether he is going to Brazil for the first time. ‘Primera ves a Brazil?’ I try to use my basic Spanish, hoping that it would sound something similar in Portuguese and he would get it. But it falls flat. I even use my index finger to ask whether it is his first time. But he says ‘No’ and draws 15 again on the screen to indicate that it is going to take 15 hours. Hmmm…so I change my tack and ask him ‘Antes…visitaste Brazil?’ I discover that ‘Antes’ (or before) translates well from Spanish to Portuguese. He immediately gets it and says ‘No, no. Brazil…’ and makes the same gesture I made, indicating that it is his first time. It is followed by laughter from both sides. If someone sitting behind us is listening, he is probably wondering what is so funny about it. But we are just enjoying the fact that we can communicate to each other in a bizarre, twisted way!

However, his answer deepens the mystery. If he has never been to Brazil, he perhaps has no Brazilian roots. Is his mom or dad Brazilian and moved to Palestine? Are they activist types? Those questions are way too complicated. But when I ask him where in Palestine he is from, he says ‘Ramallah.’ I guess he understands ‘where.’ He keeps dropping the word ‘Aana’ all the time, which makes me think that he really loves this Brazilian girl. Once again, he volunteers more information about himself. He starts describing what he does. He does the car gesture again and I ask him ‘Mechanic?’ He says ‘No.’ He makes a headphone gesture for sound, makes some more gestures that indicate speakers on the roof and on the window of the flight. He also mentions other electronic systems in the car. I get it. He handles car electronics. Good going. So, I ask him ‘Brazil visa?’ ‘Ahhhh…..’ he says immediately and pulls out his passport. He flips to the page on which he has the Brazilian visa and makes me read the lines that say that the Brazilian girl is his wife (‘esposa’ on his visa) and that is how he got the visa. It is so much easier to pull out passports to describe things.

I want to tell him that I have been to his part of the world. So, I pull out my passport and flip to the pages that have stamps for Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. I also mention to him that I have been to Burj al Barajna, one of the earliest Palestinian refugee camps in the heart of Beirut that was set up in 1948. He responds with a long ‘Ahhhhh,’ but still points to the Israeli stamp and asks ‘Why?’ I tell him ‘Old Jerusalem. Al-Aqsa.’ He understands it right away.

But by pulling out my passport, I have dug myself a grave. He points to the main page of the passport and asks me again ‘Hind?’ He is wondering why I have a US passport if I am from India. Holy cow! How am I going to explain that to him? Luckily, he gives me a start. He asks me ‘Baba Amriki? Mother Amriki?’ Negative, but it’s good to know that he understands Baba and mama. In fact, it is strange that the Marathi language has borrowed the word ‘baba’ directly from Arabic! But let us not dwell on that. I try hard to explain to him that I was born in the US, but my parents are Indian. I fail…miserably. So, I pull out my cellphone, start drafting an email and write down that in 1979, baba and mama were in the US. And blah blah blah. He gets it right away.

And then, he asks me what I do. Can it get any worse? Getting the term ‘neuroscience’ across when both are speaking their third – or fourth – languages is like your worst nightmare coming true. I have now drifted so far away from neuroscience that I should probably choose a profession that is simpler to explain. But neuroscience is still the first thing that comes to my mind when someone asks me what I do.

With a series of hand gestures pointing to my head, I once again fail spectacularly to convey that I study the brain. Then I use the word ‘doctor’ and he gets it. I immediately tell him that it is one level lower. He asks ‘nurse?’ and I am not sure whether to laugh or cry. How the hell do I explain research? I say x-ray, MRI machine and he asks ‘Macina?’ I just nod. I do something related to brain machines. That is good enough. Then he starts telling me how his brother, who is 34 years of age, has had a head injury and is not doing well. I ask him how old he is and he says he is only 23. With a big gap between my hands, I ask him 34? 23? Grande! (Big gap). He gets it right away. He says that his dad has two wives and he has six brothers. In Islam, he tells me, they are allowed to have four. To pull his leg, I ask him ‘So, what about you? Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela?’ And he laughs out loud. He starts with ‘Aana’ again, points to his ring and says ‘Mi amore. Wahid (or one in Arabic).’

I do the customary one to ten in Arabic that I learned while traveling and that makes him happy. He then points to the passport and says ‘US passport…good’ and tells me that with the Palestinian passport, he is only allowed to enter Jordania or Jordan. He also says that he is going to Brazil now to get a Brazilian passport. With that passport, he is free to go anywhere in the world! USA, France, Switzerland, Hindustan.

He tries to explain how he met the Brazilian girl. If I understand it right, she visited Palestine a few years ago through an NGO. They then kept in touch through email for 5 years. She then came back to marry him and, in a way, gave him his ticket to freedom!

I want to know a lot more about him, but I am also exhausted and need to catch up on sleep. Trying to have a conversation in your fourth language is a ‘brain drain.’ As I close my eyes, it makes me wonder: This guy is on a one-way, 15 hour journey to Brazil and won’t be back until he gets his Brazilian citizenship. I am on this long flight just to go see how countries I have nothing to do with play football, a game I am not particularly good at. Two journeys that are beyond ridiculous lead to a twisted, humorous conversation that is beyond ridiculous. But we manage to talk. We manage to satisfy that innate human urge to communicate. To exchange information!

Toward the end of our conversation, I realize that ‘Aana’ cannot be his wife’s name. He has been using it for things totally unrelated to her. It means something like ‘me’ or ‘mine’ in Arabic. That means that for most of the time that I was talking to him, I was making some assumptions about his wife that were also beyond ridiculous!

To top it all, I am writing this article sitting right next to him, confident that he cannot read a word of what I am writing. This, my friends, is life on the road!

For the football fans, here is another article on Rediff.com:

http://www.rediff.com/sports/slide-show/slide-show-1-football-world-cup-brazil-vs-chile-up-in-the-air/20140629.htm

Categories: Brazil, English, Language, Travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

What if Cricket Married Football?

Commentators are as much a part of the sport as the players and coaches. In the pre-television era, they used to paint the whole picture for the listener. With the advent of live TV and endless slow motion replays, their task is not as daunting anymore. Still, they are the ones that build the excitement before the match, analyze plays, break down strategies and spoon feed them to us viewers. Die-hard fans of sports might feel like they do not need the commentators to understand the game, but imagine how boring a football match would be if the only thing you could hear is the screaming crowd or the annoying vuvuzelas.

When it comes to football commentary, nobody even comes close to the Latin Americans. Certain emotions have no language barrier. There are times when I switch to Spanish commentary just to feel the passion of the commentators. When their home team is on a counter attack, it is fun sometimes to close your eyes and just listen to the commentator’s pitch rising progressively to hit a crescendo of a ‘Gooooooooooool.’ It sounds as if the person screaming at the top of his lungs has found a pot of gold.

Since football is not as popular in India as some of the other sports, Indian broadcasters have a hard time attracting the best and the brightest of football commentators. For the 2014 World Cup, they started with a handful of disastrous ‘experts’ before settling for some former players and analysts who know a thing or two about football. They seem to be doing a reasonable job of analyzing the goals, offensive moves, defensive blunders and, overall, helping spectators understand the intricacies of the game. They may not have their distinctive style or the experience to make the match come alive. That is probably why the broadcaster is sticking to the European commentators during the action. However, Sunil Chhetri and Co. are doing a respectable job at half-time and after the match.

Imagine how football would be with our legendary cricket analysts sitting in the commentary box or Café Rio! Our cricket crazy nation has the ability to make or break a commentator’s career. We were so enamoued by Geoff Boycott’s accent and schoolteacher’s penchant for admonishing players that we gave him a second career. We all cleared our throats with Tony Greig when Tendulkar unleashed his Desert Storm on Australia. We fell in love with Harsha Bhogle – a guy who has never played cricket professionally – and made him a commentary superstar. Every time we have felt like getting some technical insights, Richie Benaud, Sunil Gavaskar and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan have helped us out.

But we have not been kind to everyone. The successful commentators have had to earn their stripes. Kapil Dev’s deliveries on the field were a treat to watch, but his delivery from the commentary box was quickly taken out of the attack. The less we say about Navjot Singh Sidhu, the better it is. But there is one person who has gone way past his shelf life and somehow still manages to survive in the commentary box. Not just survive, but thrive. If John Abraham can become a football expert by making the film Goal and Gaurav Kapoor can call himself an analyst for, well, being able to speak English, this person deserves a chance to try his hand at football commentary. A shot at it, if you will.

During the pitch report before the football match, he would have said “This is a great football track. Don’t be surprised if you see a few goals scored today. Get ready for a humdinger.”
As the Brazilians and Mexicans were playing out a pulsating draw, he would have said “Brazil needs Neymar to score.”

When the Swiss were down 0-5 against the French, he would have said “What the Swiss need now is goals at regular intervals.”

As Messi hit the 91st minute blinder against Iran to win them the match, he would have screamed “That came off his left foot like a tracer bullet!”

When Messi hit two goals against Nigeria, he would have said “Messi is playing the role of a sheet anchor.”

As Christiano Ronaldo was waging a lonely battle upfront against the United States, he would have said “What Portugal needs now is a partnership.”

When Philip Lahm and Co. was struggling to find a winner against Ghana, he would have said “Germany needs a captain’s knock from him.”

Watching the Portuguese score the equalizer in the last minute against the United States, he would have said “The match is equally poised.”

Cricket weds football? That sort of commentary sounds like a marriage from hell. If that ever happens, it might be worth giving Suarez a second career. Now that he is staring at a ban for at least 10 to 20 matches, if not for life, perhaps he can share the commentary box with our legend and add some ‘bite’ to such banalities.

For those who are following the FIFA World Cup closely, here are some articles I have written recently for Rediff.com, an Indian news portal:

1) The Spain-Netherlands match:

http://www.rediff.com/sports/slide-show/slide-show-1-football-world-cup-spain-netherlands-revenge-by-the-orange-mauktik-kulkarni-robben-van-persie/20140616.htm

2) Resurgence of Colombia:

http://www.rediff.com/sports/slide-show/slide-show-1-football-world-cup-in-colombia-forgetting-pablo-escobar/20140620.htm

3) Review of football action so far:

http://www.rediff.com/sports/report/slide-show-1-football-world-cup-fever-klose-ronaldo-surarez-messi-mauktik-kulkarni/20140623.htm

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Beautiful Game

Football, footy, fútbol, footer, soccer. Call it whatever you want. This game truly lives up to its description of being The Beautiful Game. Compared to some other sports, it may not promise a lot of ‘action.’ You will rarely watch a match in which more than five goals are scored. But that is besides the point. The beauty of the game doesn’t come from the score line. It comes from the simplicity of the sport and the elegance with which it is played. It is so simple that it probably has the least amount of rules of any organized sport. You can practically explain everything about the sport on a piece of paper or the back of an envelope. Two 45-minute halves, the game does not stop, you can’t use your hands, goalkeepers can use their hands if it is kicked by an opponent, off-side rule, only 3 substitutions allowed, penalty kicks to decide the game after extra time, no rough play; let’s play! And spectators don’t go there to watch a flurry of goals. They go there to appreciate the extreme physical fitness of the players, their peripheral vision, their teamwork, their superior ball handling abilities and, above all, their ability to fall, rise from the ashes and compete again.

It doesn’t even require any fancy equipment or protective gear, which is the real secret of its popularity around the world. Four stones, a ball and you are good to go! The origins of the game are hotly disputed, but there is the European style, based on discipline, short passes and dominating possession. There is the African style, which is based on lightning speed, flair and counter attacks. And then, there is the Latin American style. Often called the Mecca or the spiritual home of this beautiful game, Latin America holds most of the world cups played till now. The dribbling skills, trick plays, sharp angles, long-winded screams of ‘Goooooooool’ by the commentators; it is a heavenly spectacle to watch Latin Americans play football. Like Federer playing tennis, Tendulkar mauling bowling attacks or Lin Dan squashing opponents in badminton, Latin Americans own football.

Within Latin America, it goes without saying that Brazil is the Big Daddy of the sport. It has given the game legends like Pele, Socrates, Romario, Ronaldino, Rivaldo and Ronaldo, with Neymar already knocking on the door. Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, my generation was baptized in the church of Maradona. But even the most die-hard fans of the blue stripes will admit, albeit grudgingly, that there is some magic in those yellow and green jerseys. Brazilian football is ballet, samba, salsa and tango – all happening at the same time. So, if the world cup is being held in Brazil and you are a die-hard fan of football, how can you miss it?

European leagues are great to follow. Like the American football in the U.S., European football leagues keep you engaged in the sport and give people something to talk about every week. It is a great system to groom new talent. But ask Beckenbauer or Beckham or Ibrahimovic or Bale and they will all agree that the world cup is the real deal. Over the years, it has provided scripts that even Bollywood – with all its action and melodrama – would call surreal. Maradona scored a goal with ‘The Hand of God’ against England, only to follow it up with the best goal of the century. And Argentina won the world cup in 1986, only to lose the opening match of the next world cup to the unheralded Cameroon. After a dominant performance to reach the finals, when Brazil was tipped to add another trophy to their cabinet, mercurial Zidane came out of nowhere to score two goals in the 1998 final to stun the entire world. And then, as if the football gods wanted to balance out that virtuoso performance, Zidane indulged in the infamous head-butt in the 2002 final to end the French dream of back-to-back world cups. Even the best photographer couldn’t have come up with that million-dollar photograph of Zidane leaving the field – burying his head in his shoulders – walking past the shining world cup trophy.

For most of the world cups, there has always been a favorite that has dominated the airwaves during the build-up. The 2014 edition seems to be quite different. The defending champions and Spanish superstars still command a lot of respect and money. Iniesta, Xavi and Fabregas controlling the midfield, Pique and Busquets handling defense and Torres and Costa as finishers still sound extremely intimidating. But can they defy age to win another trophy for Spain? Germany, the team that has made it to the last four of the world cup every time since 1966, has Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Ozil and Khedira on their rosters. But can they break the jinx this year? Or would they go down as chokers once again? With van Persie and Robben, can the Dutch redeem themselves after the shameful final performance of the 2010 finals? Will the Argentinean ‘fantastic four’ of Messi, de Maria, Aguaro and Higuain score enough goals to compensate for a weak defense? Or will the defensive powerhouse of Italy ride on the flashy forward Balotelli’s fortunes to beat the odds? Will the host country manage to pull out another trick from its hat with Silva, Paulino, Dani Alves and Neymar? Or would it be a Dark Horse team like Belgium, Colombia or Uruguay?

There are charismatic individuals that might inspire their teams to overachieve as well. Everyone wants to see Christiano Ronaldo, arguably the best player in the world, take Portugal out of the Group of Death and deep into the tournament. Can Didier Drogba take Ivory Coast on a Cinderella run? Or is Eto’o going to bring Cameroon back to the limelight? Ghana broke everyone’s heart last time around when luck deserted them in the quarter final. Will we see an African team in the last four this time?

No matter who wins the ultimate prize, there is an intriguing Indian subplot to the Brazil world cup. In 1950, the last time Brazil hosted the world cup, India qualified for the tournament, only to be disqualified because they insisted on playing barefoot. Would this Brazil world cup generate enough buzz in India and inspire the youth to throw away their cricket bats and pump up that football gathering dust behind the door? Well, waking up at 1:30 in the night and watching the matches live would be a good start! Grab your coffee mug and VAMOS!

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From the Promised Land to La-La Land

Since I landed here in June last year, everything in India has been in ‘calm before the storm’ mode.  All the ideas in the social, economic, educational or any other sphere of life have been put on hold due to the impending Central Government elections.  Everyone wants to see which way India is headed after the elections before they make their next move.

That calm before the storm was disturbed one December evening when the results of the Delhi state assembly started pouring in.  Nobody had given the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Arvind Kejriwal a chance.  But the party came in a close second in the 70-member assembly.  Kejriwal, who had gone from being a formidable force in the India Against Corruption (IAC) campaign in 2011/12 to being a daily mud-slinger, had managed to resurrect himself.  All of a sudden, media were highlighting the vibrancy of the Indian democracy by gloating over the fact that a one-year-old political ‘start-up’ had managed to virtually wipe out Congress, the oldest political party of India, from the Delhi state assembly.

Everyday Indians, who are by equal measures politically shrewd and jaded, suddenly found a messiah in Kejriwal.  Even cynics like me started hoping against hope that this experiment might succeed.  After all, in a loud, boisterous and hopelessly fragmented electorate of India that runs on corruption, money and deeply entrenched interests, how often does an upstart like AAP even get a chance to demonstrate its governance skills?  I would have liked it if they had gone straight back to the Delhi voters and asked for a clear majority.  However, in spite of their late decision to shake hands with the Devil they had vanquished, I was willing to be the optimistic bystander and see how far they go.

And then, all hell broke loose.  Other than a handful of populist measures and giving power back in the hands of people through ‘Mohalla Sabhas,’ AAP hadn’t articulated any consistent philosophy of governance.  Lofty idealism and wishful thinking.  It was a bit of both.  There is the American constitution, which puts almost all of its trust in its presumably rational citizenry.  And then there is AAP, which tried to combine that with extremely intrusive social and economic measures without realizing the irony inherent in the approach.  Even before they could trumpet the benefits of their water and power policies to the thousands of Delhi residents, Somnath Bharti and Rakhi Birla, two of AAPs ministers, tried to take the law in their own hands by barging into the homes of alleged lawbreakers.  Mr. Bharti is a lawyer and Ms. Birla has a Masters in Mass Communication, but apparently nobody had told them the difference between a lawmaker and a law enforcement agent.

The fact that one of the raids was based on neighbors’ complaints against an alleged sex-and-drugs racket run by Ugandans (and other Africans) was already proving to be a foreign relations headache for the Central Government.  As if that was not enough, Kejriwal went on a reputed news show and claimed (paraphrasing him) ‘These people (meaning Africans) consume drugs and rape others’ and ‘The women who were forced to go to the hospital (without a warrant) only underwent urine tests, but they didn’t undergo a blood test.’  Shouldn’t the well-educated supporters of AAP be shocked by the fact that the Chief Minister was spreading lies and implicitly condoning the act of forcing the women to take urine tests without a warrant?  Somnath Bharti went a step further.  In his vigilante zeal, he released a handful of videos to ‘prove’ that Africans indulge in drug trading.  I am no expert on illegal drug trading in India, but did anyone in the AAP government tell him that such acts smack of racism?  What was he trying to suggest?  That Africans are the only people in India indulging in drug trafficking? Or that all the Africans living in India are drug dealers? Either way, it was appaling, to say the least.

Kejriwal was lucky that he got a face-saver from Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung in the ensuing street protests.  But he didn’t learn his lesson.  Instead of reading the rulebook and trying to fight the system from within by following the rules, he decided to go for broke in trying to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill.  I am no constitutional expert.  However, a quick reading of opinions of legal luminaries would have told Kejriwal that Delhi was established as a different kind of state for several reasons.  Nobody was arguing that it was the best possible way to establish that state and several of the provisions can be challenged all the way to the Supreme Court.  In a way, the status of the state of Delhi is akin to Washington D.C., the capital region of the United States of America, where D.C. residents openly lament ‘taxation without representation.’  But that doesn’t mean that D.C. residents disrupt daily life on a regular basis or that the D.C. administration resigns over every single issue.  They are still fighting the cause of D.C. residents by being well within the boundaries of the constitution.

On the other hand, without even trying the constitutional channels to challenge the unique status of Delhi, Kejriwal started blaming all and sundry for the possibility that he may not get what he wants.  He might have gotten addicted to power already and might have started dreaming about a bigger role on the national stage.  And hence, it was probably a convenient way for him to get himself out of the daily grind of running a government to focus exclusively on the national election campaign.  Whatever his motives, it makes me ask him ‘How old are you?’

As a democracy, India is perplexing as well as awe-inspiring.  Through the tremendous hard work of some visionaries and a few strokes of sheer luck, India has come a long way in making sure that the most critical democratic institutions are fairly deep rooted in this mind bogglingly diverse country.  No matter what your views are about Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel, Ambedkar and a few others, these people would go toe-to-toe with the Founding Fathers of the United States in terms of their vision for India.  Arvind Kejriwal probably had a shot at being named alongside these luminaries.  After seeing his antics for 49 days, I am not so sure anymore. 

If state elections in Delhi are held tomorrow, AAP might win with a clear majority. But I hope Arvind Kejriwal doesn’t become the next Prime Minister of India. Not with his current frame of mind and understanding of the Indian constitution. Greece was the first country to experiment with direct democracy.  If Kejriwal doesn’t learn to respect Indian democratic institutions and the constitution, his demise will probably be the greatest Greek tragedy in the world’s largest democracy.

Categories: Arvind Kejriwal, India, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The irrational mind

And so it is, the end of an era. It’s been a while since I have had a chance to sit down and write anything. Life has been so busy for the past couple of months that I haven’t even had a moment to sit back and take stock of my feelings. But over the last week, I have felt them building up, slowly but steadily. And today is the day of catharsis. In India, it can’t be anything other than Sachin’s impending retirement. Sachin, SRT, Tendlya, Tendulkar, Master Blaster, Little Master – whatever you call him affectionately – will never bat for India in cricket again.

Any kind of sport or art is an evolutionary paradox. How does dancing or opera singing help in human survival? What does being good at tennis or football have to do with reproduction? Sure, artists and sportspersons probably sleep with more partners than an Average Joe. But the role of their endeavors in the advancement of the human species is questionable, at best. As a female friend of mine once noted wryly about basketball, it is a bunch of people putting a man-made ball into a man-made hole a million times.

And yet, as a society, we spend millions of dollars on arts and sports. Being good at any form of art obviously demonstrates creative thinking, dexterity, or a sense of balance that is a cut above everyone else. Being a top athlete entails physical superiority, mental toughness, a sense of anticipation, and a host of other attributes that arguably establish genetic superiority. For spectators, a virtuoso art performance can bring happiness or reduce stress levels. And sports, after all, act as surrogates for war. A physical, yet non-lethal way of establishing superiority over other tribes or nations. But every once in a while, a Pavarotti comes along and gives you goose bumps. Michael Jackson walks up to the stage and the girls in the front rows faint. Jordan leaps to dunk the ball and you stop breathing. And Sachin walks back to the pavilion, probably for the last time in his life, and a nation starts weeping. Maybe not tears down the cheeks, but on a Friday morning, a country of a billion people sets aside all its work and doesn’t blink its misty eyes until he disappears in the pavilion.

I am not a devotee of the God of cricket to the extent that I would not find flaws in him. Professionally, Fannie de Villiers always had his number. Tendulkar clearly dominated Shane Warne throughout his career, but McGrath always enjoyed a slight upper hand in test matches. In the famous ball tampering controversy, it is impossible to imagine that he felt the need to cheat, but he was clearly doing something unusual with the ball. As a finisher of matches, he is not in the league of Dhoni. Even personally, when he was gifted a Ferrari by Fiat, he apparently requested the Indian government to waive the hefty customs duty on it. When Fiat stepped in to kill the controversy by agreeing to pay the customs duty on his behalf, he could have come forward and paid it himself. When it comes to cricket, the game he so loves and respects, he has rarely weighed in – like a statesman would – on the match-fixing or other controversies of the day.

But what these observations lack is context. The statistics speak for themselves. They call them lies, damn lies, and statistics; except when we are talking about sports! That’s not the whole story, though. He set his standards pretty high through incredible consistency over a span of 24 years. After the first few years, though, those standards took a life of their own. A billion people started expecting, and the opposing teams started fearing, centuries from him every time he would come out to bat. Still, he managed to carry the weight of all those expectations effortlessly with his boyish charm. His commitment to the game and his legendary work ethic made his fans bestow superhuman abilities on him. But instead of all the fame and love, the only thing he seemed completely focused on was the next ball. That’s it.

Others came and went. The other day, I read that Sachin debuted with Salil Ankola. That guy, a fast bowler, left cricket, tried his hand at acting, and faded out of public memory before he could even enter public consciousness. His contemporaries that Sachin is sometimes compared to – Lara and Ponting – debuted after him and retired before him. Rahul Dravid, another contemporary legend-turned-commentator, who was putting things in perspective on TV, had a 16-year international career; a full 8 years less than Sachin. Sachin joined a bad team in which he used to be the savior and is leaving a team of kids behind who all grew up idolizing him. Metaphorically, at least, he made this team happen. If I don’t have the team I deserve, I’ll inspire an entire generation and win the World Cup with that generation. That is why, when India won the World Cup in 2011, instead of picking up the captain on their shoulders during the lap of honor, they picked up Sachin Tendulkar. That is why, even after getting the bad news that he had cancer, Yuvraj Singh carried on, became the Man of the Tournament in the World Cup, and dedicated it to Sachin. Words fail to congratulate you on a career well-executed. You may not have been the statesman. You may have been shy or tight-lipped. That was ok. We just never wanted you to stop playing.

And yet, none of that explains why every mother wants a son like him. Or every kid wants a father like him. Or everyone my age would love to have a brother or a friend like him. Given his studied silence about his personal life and lack of any scandals in it, we really don’t know much about him. But we never want him to go away. If my dad would make a mistake in recalling his score from the previous day, my mom used to correct him. My dad, an oncologist who has maintained a stoic face through the demise of several friends and family members, cried when he walked away for the last time. And I had misty eyes in a not-so-crowded coffee shop. Please don’t go! Please don’t go! But like your ailing grandmother, or your first love, he walks away for the last time. For a moment, he turns around, raises his helmet and his bat to acknowledge the standing ovation, and flashes a wistful smile. You wonder whether he is trying to hold back his tears. He just turns around, puts his head down, and walks up the stairs to the dressing room, with a piece of your heart secure in him.

The Little Master

The Little Master

Categories: Cricket, Dhoni, India, Tendulkar | Tags: , , , , | 8 Comments

May Hinglish be immortal!

Now that the crowd funding blitz is over, I can move that post back a little bit. Sure, there are hundreds of things that need to be sorted out before we embark on the documentary shoot (By the way, I just fixed the YouTube video in the last post). But what’s backpacking without some uncertainty? If you cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, it’s not backpacking anymore. So, I’ll procrastinate a bit and catch up on some writing to talk about one of my favorite topics: Language!

There are a million languages in India. Well, not literally! But we have 20-odd official languages here; all of them beautiful in their own ways. Bengali is like Brazilian Portuguese. It is such a sweet language that I don’t know if you can use it to fight with anyone. Punjabi is like Spanish. It has the oomph and romance and charm and some phrases like ‘Oy, chak de fatte!’ that remind me of ‘Cabron!’ in Spanish. You cannot translate it. Marathi is probably like French. A beautiful language, no doubt, with incredibly rich literature, cinema, and a theater culture. But Marathi speakers tend to be laid-back, philosophical, prefer endless debates over action, and seem to have a misplaced sense of pride in their language. Then there is Tamil (and other Southern Indian languages). A touch harsher on your ears compared to the Northern Indian language family and is like the present-day Russian. The Russians still want to be considered a superpower and want others to learn their language. But, sadly, the world has moved on. Tamil people didn’t like the fact that Hindi was chosen as the national language of post-independence India and still don’t like to speak in Hindi. Oh well! It’s been about sixty-five years now and even Hindi speakers have moved on to Hinglish! Sanskrit reminds me of German. Very rule driven with virtually no room for confusion. You memorize the rules and you’re done. No room for mispronouncing words, either. Urdu? Not officially an Indian language, but easily the most beautiful of the subcontinental languages. Urdu can only remind me of Urdu!

In spite of this buffet of languages to choose from, the language of choice in India seems to be English. The British are long gone, but just like their bureaucracy, their language lives on. In true Indian tradition, we have managed to Indianize it to create Hinglish. When I was traveling around the world, I noticed a lot of people saying ‘Oh you Indians, you are all good at English.’ And I had to correct them all the time with ‘You know, I don’t know the official stats, but I think only about 10-15% of Indians speak English. It’s just that 10% of India is slightly more people than all of Germany! And almost all the Indians you meet are probably from that 10%.’

Having spent three months or so in India now, I think the percentage of people speaking proper English is even lower. The irony of discussing the beauty of Indian languages in English is not lost on me. But when I meet fellow Indians, I at least start the conversation in Hindi or Marathi. After 12-13 years in the US, I am kind of tired of speaking in English all the time. Plus, English is not my favorite language. Sure, it’s easy to learn and flexible. At the same time, I think it lacks charm or seductiveness. But in India, English, er, Hinglish is the language of prestige; the language of the elite! Sprinkled with all sorts of Indian mannerisms, it’s a language in its own league. If you speak Hindi (or any other regional Indian language), you can understand exactly what they are trying to say. But if you are an outsider – a British, Aussie, Kiwi, or a Yankee – you will invariably end up asking ‘Pardon me?’ or ‘Huh?’ or ‘I’m sorry!’ or ‘Say what now?’ So, here is a sampling of my favorite Hinglish quotes from the past few months:

“You have been there, no?”
Indian’s response: “Yes, several times.”
Outsider’s response: “You mean to say ‘yes’? Or ‘no’?”

“We went to Switzerland. What scenery, yaar!”
Indian’s response: “Wow! I’m so jealous!”
Outsider’s response: “What scenery? Would you mind elaborating a bit? And what is this ‘yaar’ business?”

“Can you put on that light switch?”
Indian’s response: “It’s not dark yet.”
Outsider’s response: “No, I prefer clothes.”

“I was standing right there only.”
Indian’s response: “Oh yaar, don’t know how I didn’t see you there.”
Outsider’s response: “You mean to say that you can actually stand in two places at the same time and still chose just one? That’s so modest of you! How the hell do you do it? Yoga? Meditation?”

“Kindly revert back.”
Indian’s response: “Let me finish this and I’ll get back to you right away.”
Outsider’s response: “I’m not in the mood to revert back. How about just reverting? And who cares if I do it kindly or violently? It’s none of your business.”

“Where where we went and who all we met!”
Indian’s response: “Looks like it was a pretty busy day for you.”
Outsider’s response: “I’m all ears!”

“She’s doing some timepass, nuh? Let’s go join her”
Indian’s response: “I’ll see you guys in five minutes.”
Outsider’s response: “I’m not sure what it is, but I think I’ll pass.”

“He was putting some fight on her.”
Indian’s response: “So, did he get lucky?”
Outsider’s response: “Is ‘fight’ some new kind of make-up that I haven’t heard of? Maybe I’m missing something here.”

“Where do you stay?”
Indian’s response: “On M.G. Road.”
Outsider’s response: “I think I have overstayed a bit and it can qualify as living now.”

“Shit!”
Indian’s response: “Shit!”
Outsider’s response: “Did you just say that? I thought we were in a business meeting.”

“That he will have to do in any case. I’ll see how he doesn’t do it.”
Indian response: “I just hope you’re not setting yourself up for disappointment.”
Outsider response: “Here is a Flipkart.com coupon worth 500/-. Why don’t you buy a Webster’s dictionary and start afresh?”

PS: Samantha Jo Fitzsimons, the female protagonist of our upcoming documentary with national-award-winning director Brahmanand Singh, has started a crowd-funding campaign of her own. Please check out the YouTube promo and contribute if you can. With your help, we can make it happen!

http://igg.me/at/ridingonasunbeam/x/3858038

And feel free to join the Facebook group to follow the documentary project ‘Riding on a Sunbeam':

https://www.facebook.com/groups/118658161641320/

Categories: Culture, English, Grammar, Hinglish, India, Indian Languages, Language, linguaphile, Marathi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Voila! Making a documentary.

And finally, I am getting an opportunity to switch media to share the joys of traveling. After moving back to India, I got in touch with a national-award-winning documentary director named Brahmanand Singh. It is pretty uncommon in India for people to pack their bags and travel solo in South America on a motorcycle for 8000 kilometers. Or to buy a round-the-world ticket and spend a year going to all corners of the world. Brahmanand saw a story in it that needs to be told…to the youth of India.

There is a palpable reserve of energy among the Indian youth, which has nowhere to go. Over time, it gets eaten up by the forces of nature. Aging, rigid cultural norms, societal expectations, herd mentality; you name it. With this documentary, we will try to convince them – and youth around the world – that the plunge into the unknown is not always easy, but there is always something beautiful waiting for you at the end of it. The key is to learn to enjoy the free fall.

Our plan is to travel through India for 3-to-4 weeks to highlight the contradictions of life in India and that will certainly excite the backpacking crowd looking to do off-the-beaten-path adventures. The overarching idea is to use travel as a metaphor to embrace the uncertainty, let the waves of time take you where they want to go, and bring the kind of excitement to life that a 9-to-5 job can never bring.

Given Brahmanand’s reputation and credentials, I am sure the documentary will be done professionally. The adventures we will capture? As a reader of this blog, you can make your own judgment about what kinds of crazy, insightful, or downright stupid situations we will get into!

Here is the YouTube video:

And yes, feel free to share it with your family and friends by reblogging, e-mailing, or through social media. We have already gotten some investors and a UK-based travel company has pledged logistical support for the trip. But we need some more support from you. Let’s see where this new adventure takes me.

Categories: Brahmanand Singh, Crowdfunding, Culture, Documentary, Film, India, National award, Travel, Travel documentary | 6 Comments

Gotta love sweet taste of India – The land of Chotus, Rajus, Bosses, and Sirjis

There are 1.2 billion people in India and at least half of them are male. It is safe to say that in spite of the rich tradition of digging out interesting names from Indian mythology for their kids, every Indian male is either a Chotu, Raju, Boss, or a Sirji. Not just Sir, but Sirji.

After thirteen long years overseas, chasing all kinds of things, I have moved back to India. I left this country in 2000, just when the IT and telecom revolution was gaining a foothold in India. And I am happy to say that things have changed a lot in India. It is tempting to say that the more things change, the more they look the same, but here are some anecdotes from my first month of re-learning India.

I landed in India just a couple of days before the arrival of monsoon, the 3-4 month rainy season. I was riding a rickshaw in Pune and the road was riddled with potholes. The driver noticed a huge pool of water in front of us and slowed down, but the guy coming from the other side, riding a big SUV, didn’t slow down and splashed muddy water all over us. Within a few hundred meters, it happened again. I was trying to protect my wallet and cellphone, but the driver was not bothered. He calmly cleared his windshield with his manual wiper. The Indian rickshaw (or tuk-tuk) is probably the only motorized vehicle in the world that is still manufactured with manually operated wipers. Welcome to India!

I walked into the local office of the biggest Indian bank (by far) to figure out why my ATM card and checkbook hadn’t shown up. The guy showed me all the paperwork he had done, gave me an 800 number, a new concept in India (at least for me), and asked me to inquire about the status of the application. I called them up and they said they could not locate my application in the system! The 800 guy asked me to contact the local branch and send the information again.

Things got more interesting when I asked about the status of my checkbook application. I wanted it shipped to an address different than the one that was on file. I e-mailed them the new address, but it never showed up. When I asked the bank guy, he repeated the address he had entered into the system. Sure enough, they had omitted the name of the building from the address, one of the most important parts of it. When I asked why it was eliminated, he said it wasn’t fitting in the online application form.

At some level, given the size of this bank, it is astonishing that they have computerized the whole system. It is doubly astonishing since it is a nationalized bank, which had virtually no incentive to keep customers happy until a decade ago. But now those pesky private banks have entered the market and they have to keep up with the competition…and the rest of the world.

So, this teller I was talking to had to put his thumb on a fingerprint scanner to access my account information. While he was reading out the address to me, another customer coolly walked past me, went to the other side of the window, and started staring at the computer screen. As I was correcting the shipping address by dictating it again to him, this random dude looked at me and told me in the local language that the teller takes a lot of short-cuts when working. I wasn’t sure whether I should be happy or sad about this whole situation. Should I be happy that computerization and fingerprint scanners have made banking more secure? Should I be sad that a key part of the shipping address was eliminated without asking me? Should I join this random dude and laugh at the teller’s shoddy work? Or should I be sad that, in spite of installing fingerprint scanners, this random dude is staring at all my bank account information while pointing out the teller’s incompetence? In India, privacy is still an alien concept and everything is everybody’s business.

Then again, a lot of things have been computerized. More so than this nationalized, largest Indian bank, computerization of the Indian Railway ticketing system should qualify as the eighth wonder of the world. The Indian Railway system is as vast as, if not bigger than, the Chinese train network. And given the number of crisscrossing train tracks, a touch more complicated. But they have somehow managed to put the entire booking system online. And now, they have even started train bookings through SMS. The Chinese system is nowhere near that. I still had to go to the train station and stand in line to book all my train tickets in China. Kudos to Indian software engineers!

But this train network is perpetually playing catch-up. There is never enough room for everyone. Train tickets get booked two months in advance. Almost as soon as they are available. Local metros are even worse. Mumbai, the city I have to reluctantly call my home for a few months, is the worst in terms of public transportation. Sure, there are lots of buses and trains and a lot of them run roughly on time. That doesn’t mean there are enough of them to go around. The rush hours, which last 2-3 hours in the mornings and evenings, are not meant for the fainthearted. You walk in and walk out touching and smelling fellow commuters’ sweaty elbows, hair, armpits, legs, and pretty much every other body part.

I was talking to another rickshaw driver about the inauguration date of a new metro line to ease some of the traffic and commuter congestion. With a voice dripping with sarcasm, he said “They have just started trial runs. People still have to die. If it opens to public without people dying, they will think that something is amiss.” Human life in India doesn’t have a whole lotta value…still.

This one takes the cake: I was visiting my hometown and I was driving with my family to visit an old family friend’s house for dinner. We stopped by to pick up some sweets at one of the best stores in town. My dad pointed at a few of the sweets on display and asked the vendor if he could mix them all up and make it 250 grams. While the vendor was packing it, my dad noticed a swarm of ants (pretty big ones) at the bottom of the display rack. He pointed them out to the vendor while he was pulling out our sweets from the same rack. The vendor said “Yeah, it’s that baalushaahi (a type of Indian sweet) that always attracts ants.” My dad, the vendor, and another guy behind the counter all nodded in agreement. Even my dad, a doctor who has spent 15-odd years in the United States, didn’t find anything wrong with the levels for hygiene in the store. We packed our sweets, had dinner at our family friend’s house, and all had the sweets. This is how you build a strong stomach. Gotta love…sweet taste of India!

Categories: Culture, India, Travel, tuk-tuk | Leave a comment

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