Monday, 4 June 2018

A Magic Trick In Cambridge, UK

Are you watching closely?

It is a misty Sunday morning in the year 2014, but as with all affairs pertaining to Cambridge - does it really matter?

At the fringes of Market Hill, a street magician is summoning the middling early morning crowd. The air is rife with summons interspersed with limericks, quips and some impromptu songs. Under the shadow of the antediluvian Church of St. Mary the Great, a motley of seduction techniques are being used to lure the mildly interested mob.

Of course, in addition to the little bag of tricks, it is vital that every showman exudes some charm, some allure to captivate the audience. But street artists, in particular, perform for an audience that has neither prematurely paid for the performance nor set out of their homes with the intention of watching a show that day. An audience that is waiting, hoping rather, for a lull in captivation to walk away.

It is imperative the artist vociferously snatches their evanescent attention away from their premeditated agenda for the day. Imperative that they desperately fetter it, incarcerate it within the permeating aura of their showmanship. Yet, the nature of this business dictates that even if they managed to suspend the audience on tenterhooks till the final act, the top hat that would get passed around would only jingle if the audience had change to spare.

It is the law of the jungle where the strong survive.

Having finished his summons for an audience, the busker has now put on his top hat. The show is ready to begin.

In line with Christopher Priest's prestidigitation maxims, the magician holds up an ordinary object - his hands in this instance. In a bid to provide substance to this act, your undying belief in the normalcy of his hands is crucial. He turns them to reveal the apparent emptiness of his palms to further solidify this belief. With a final tug at his cuffs, he reveals his wrists to cement the bond of trust we have just created. The audience is now bound with conviction - his hands hold no secrets.

He then proceeds to drape a black cloth over one hand.

A little count to three and the cloth is unveiled.

A fluttering white dove perched on the tip of his finger.

"If you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder. Then you... then you got to see something really special. You really don't know? It was... it was the looks on their faces."

The looks on their faces.

It is time to reveal to you, the reader of this piece, a little parallelism. This little anecdote of the busker under the shadow of the Great St. Mary was not just arbitrary literary theatrics. There is more to this street magician that concerns Cambridge, why because, and I must insist you believe me, this street magician and the town of Cambridge are one and the same.

Unaware of my participation in wizardry of unimaginable proportions, I was subject to a year-long magic trick.

Initially, the town too came at me with fingers splayed, asking me to inspect the quasi-ordinary elements of its serenity.

With a turn of its hands and twinkling smile, it prodded me to view it from all facets to further solidify my belief that there is nothing more to it.

With a final tweak of its cuffs and a fleeting wink, it seemingly bared down to its roots, deceptively goading me into confirmation that all that I saw was unaltered, normal and ultimately, real.

But it wasn't.

Kings College Cambridge UK

* * *

"We are in King's Cross station, you say? I think that if you decided not to go back, you would be able to... let's say... board a train."

Allow me now, as I do, to infuse a bit of context to this wistful panegyric. 

Despite the prevalent theme of this piece, I must confess I first stepped out of Cambridge railway station with the resolute intention of hating the town. 

How could I not? Despite consciously deciding to uproot my student life after sophomore year in Manchester, I tried to evade accountability for my own, well-reasoned decisions. So I channelled that energy into my personification of this town. This was aided and abetted by my unfamiliarity with residency in a small, county town, having spent my adolescence in the bustling metropolis of Dubai and late teens in the vibrancy of Manchester.

I was fuelled by a belief that after having experienced the most cherished year of my life surrounded by friendship, fame, love, happiness and success there was no way it could be outdone. 

So I decided to visit the other side. 

Cambridge had taken life, as I knew it, away from me. I chose to give up comfort and happiness and boarded my train at King's Cross - a train that would take me on.

I feel it is important to provide you with the right context - this piece, after all, is my personal account of Cambridge. Not the Cambridge you know from the Internet, on celluloid or from hearsay. The town that I saw and lived in. 

The Cambridge that I whole-heartedly resented with my very first step.

And, more than all, a strangeness in the mind,
A feeling that I was not for that hour,
Not for that place. 
But wherefore be cast down?

* * *

The Bridge of Sighs Cambridge St Johns College

The Bridge of Sighs at St. John's College was often visited by Queen Victoria, who loved it more than anything else in the town. It was there when twice in history students dangled cars from its arches. When Stephen Hawking swayed with Jane Wilde on a May Ball, it was there. It is alleged to have gotten its name from the countless, weighted sighs of all the students grudgingly traipsing towards exams, lectures or meetings with their tutors.

I, however, did not add to that ghoulish collection of academic despair as I never got a chance to walk through the Bridge of Sighs.

In fact, my first sighting of it was on my last day in C town, a year from the day I first stepped through the archway at the railway station. You see, unlike most accounts of this magical place, mine isn't one of the infamous university it houses. While the confines of living in a university town ensure that you are never really cut off from its ominous presence, I was still an outsider to this renowned echelon of academia. 

An echelon of academia that could be viewed in all its glory at The Backs, which featured the rear of many prominent colleges including the infamous King's College and Trinity College. Here, punters, anglers and picnickers are subject to the emblematic Gothic English architecture that drives the summer tourism.

At the Great Gate of Trinity College, you will find an endangered Flower of Kent cultivar that is named 'Newton's Apple Tree'. Touted to be grafted from the very same tree that purportedly stemmed the birth of the universal laws of gravitation. A spawn of the original at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire, now serving as a reticent gatekeeper of Trinity College - in the rooms of which Isaac Newton once resided.

Before I moved to my permanent residence overlooking Cambridge Railway station, where every morning I was woken by the rumble of trains taking the daily workers into the heart of London, I first hung my hat at the front of the 'The Backs', not too far from Newton's Apple Tree at the oldest college in the university.

Around Peterhouse, as with most things in Cambridge, there hung a heavy weight of history. Of students, mentors, treaties, bishops, religion, discord and nobility. Of honour and customs, of chivalry and principles.

The hands of the magician, splayed for the world to see.

It seemed that the creeping ivies, rusted plaques, peeling coat of arms and creaking staircases were just by-products of a legacy that dated back to 1284.


Once again, does it really matter?

No other place could be more befitting for Professor Stephen Hawking to explore his thesis on time. A few minutes north from Peterhouse, he had inaugurated the Corpus Clock. With no clock hands or numerals, the clock tracks time with a metal creature named the Chronophage turning concentric gold plates to count down. The Chronopage, which translates to Time Eater in Greek, seems to sadistically revel in its ingestion of each second, its eyes lit with the arrogance of its gluttony.

The clock, however, is only accurate every fifth minute. The phases in between are mingled with functional aberrations that seemingly represent the irregularity of life.

Yet, despite time being eaten up, consumed whole second by second to never return, Cambridge doesn't seem perturbed.

For men would come and men would go, but this town will live on forever, eternal in the inescapable continuity of time.

* * *

It is well documented that Parker's Piece bore witness to a feast of grand proportions. In 1838, over 15,000 guests gathered at the 25-acre green common to celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria. Yet, as I dawdle along one of the only two diagonal paths that dissect this ground, I could easily be back in 1838, adrift in the continuity of time. Back there amongst the revelry and grandiosity of the nineteenth century, drinking away to the merriment of a new monarch. Save for the trundling traffic on the roads at the perimeter, the sight I see with my eyes could well be a portrait from a previous century. 

Parker's Piece has two diagonal footpaths connecting opposite corners. At the centre, the only point where the two paths intersect, lies one large solitary cast-iron lamppost. The only major source of light on this colossal ground. 

I approach it bemusedly while questioning the anomaly. As I step closer, certain inscriptions and murals start to get coherent. The base of this solitary lamppost seems to be cyphered with graffiti.

Another masterpiece, by the creatures of the night. 

There seems to be a line of text, right at the base around which the rest of graffiti seems to circle. I'm now close enough to decipher the words that seem to have influenced the nightcrawlers to express their creativity. What I read makes me stop dead, at the centre of Parker's Piece. 

Painted in white, in crude and hurried longhand, at the point where the only two paths connect at the base of the solitary lamppost, are the words 'Reality Checkpoint'.

Are you watching closely?

A little turn of the magician's hands.

Stubbornly repainted over the years whenever the city council attempted to expunge it, the real meaning remains contentious. The most popular one is that it serves as a checkpoint of the real world for all the students living in the fantasy of their university campus. Beyond this point, reality would poke the bubble of obliviousness that engulfs these students, for they were to venture into the moors of Cambridgeshire, no longer under the protective shield of their alma mater.

All of this a trance, an illusion.

* * *

The Lombardy Poplar trees are an incredible sight.

I'm pretty sure you would have come across them in some capacity in your adventures, and if you haven't I would insist you try and see them for yourself. They seem haughtily impervious to the world around them, and immensely disinterested in this young man staring at them over a fence, silently astray in intrigue at the sight of Coe Fen, a sprawling meadowland to the east of River Cam.

But I am not here to mislead you - the world harbours multiple spectacular natural reserves that effortlessly eclipse this unimportant, and in all honesty - quite an ordinary fen. For a botany aficionado, even the Cambridge Botanic Gardens would easily be a greater outing than a visit to the Coe Fen.

But I like what I see.

Easily surpassing 50 feet in height (a four-storey building?), the noble Poplars stand as mute, unflinching sentinels guarding the beauty of this fen. Apart from the rustle of leaves and the sporadic rumble of a lone car on the Fen Causeway, there are only whispers in the wind. Even though I'm aware I'm hardly a mile from the city centre, the Coe Fen is an abstract gateway into my childhood idea of a British countryside.

As if awakened, summoned, roused, constrained, 
I looked for universal things; perused 
the common countenance of earth and sky

This is the countryside I used to read about in books, nestled in the cement cocoons of my urban cities. From delving through volumes of literature by Enid Blyton and Ruskin Bond that asked me to embrace the rustic fantasy to here and now, helplessly beset by the inescapability of its entrancing actuality.

A final tweak of the cuffs and a fleeting wink.

It is tempting to lose yourself in this enchantment, to never worry about those mundane, unimportant problems of daily city life. The whispers in the wind have now taken the shape of a hand. It seems to shimmer with mischief, and with a beckon, it asks you to step forth into the foliage. Step forth, and let it caress your soul. 

The distant rumble of a car and the trance is lifted.

I'm aware that this newfound bucolic lust will not last. As a man bred in towering metropolises, this was just a fling, a hiatus, a discontinuity. Yet, the actuality of my roots could not take away the circumstances that led me to this fence, overlooking the silent sentinels of nature.

Somehow, I had made it to the imaginary countrysides of my childhood.  

Somehow, I was here, alone, on this fairy work of Earth.

* * *

The stream mysterious glides beneath
Green as a dream and deep as death

Of the River Cam, which incidentally borrowed its name from the town (and not the other way round), I will not say much as it is omnipresent in everything I have talked of so far. It has serenely carried the punters along the Backs, trickled with impish merriment under the Bridge of Sighs and flowed in subdued reverence at the Coe Fen. The river has been with us, right from the start.

"See, sacrifice, that's the price of a good trick."

Despite my determination to detest this town, Cambridge never fought back. It seemed happy to goad me further. Happy to throw me further into the discomfort of lifestyle extremities. It wanted me to feel out of place. Me, a child of the skyscrapers, a stickler for the grind, prodigal son of the future against the might of the past. 

In making me believe everything I thought it was and how it raged against my style was absolutely true. That I didn't belong on those cobbled paths, on the vacant emptiness of Castle Hill and in the serenity of a country town that had been there since the Iron Age.

That it was an illusion against the reality of my life. A draped black cloth, and a fluttering white dove.

Now you're looking for the secret.

In hindsight, years later, a seedling thought. A thought that starts to congeal, take shape in the vestiges of nostalgia. Having returned to my metropolises, I have come back to my supposed actuality but I am accosted with a certain restlessness. It probes me to look deep into my preferred world and see the cracks that start to appear. The fraudulence of urban societies is starting to come to the fore.

Driven by the omnipresent wizardry in the Cambridge, that in the process of seducing me with caressing hands, seems to have surreptitiously embedded an abstraction, a thought.

A thought latched onto my soul that this, around me, is the discontinuity. 

There, my reality.

I was the Dreamer, they the Dream.

* * *

If you liked what you read then do help me by sharing this on social media platforms of your choosing (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, G+, Reddit I ain't picky). We're all artists somewhere, in some field, and this is just my form of art that would truly find expression if more people get the inclination to read it. (not too dissimilar to the street magician whose top hat goes around empty even if his act was appreciated with claps)

You can like this blog's Facebook page here, follow the Twitter feed here, follow me personally on Twitter here, like the Instagram post here or upvote this piece on Reddit here.

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*Poetry excerpts taken from The Prelude by William Wordsworth and The Old Vicarage by Rupert Brookes

Monday, 30 April 2018

A City's Soul In Deira, Dubai

Dhows In Deira Creek Dubai

"If you can't find it in Deira, you will never find it."

So impregnable was the belief of the merchants of Deira, at the booming hub of trade in the Gulf that dissecting its legitimacy would have been deemed purely absurd, if not sacrilegious.

Even today, in 2018, it is nearly impossible to not find your goal in the hustling souqs of Deira. It was only natural then to finally succumb to the tenets of trading yore. I had to immerse myself in the frenzy to involuntarily seek answers to questions I've had for Dubai since time immemorial.

Involuntarily since these answers could not simply be found with just one vendor in the souq - no goal-driven odyssey into Deira would ever yield what I sought. That was the blinkered blunder of my past; an unfortunate fallibility of my youth, and I was bound to correct it. In hindsight, as I finally type this out to you, it must've been the reckless abandon of a result to this quest that ironically did the trick.

They say if you can't find it in Deira, you will never find it.

It took some time, and I can't point exactly when, but I found it.

Having grown up in and with Dubai in my adolescence, I often struggled with a sense of detachment with 'my city', if I could take the privilege of calling it my own. But I didn't know why. It was an adolescent's want for something he couldn't understand, additionally disconcerting because couldn't put a finger to it. Dubai in the late 2000s was the place to be: the pearl of the United Arab Emirates, led by a prescient dynasty that had a vision to truly make it a globally significant city.

You were living the expat's dream.

With it came the perks of being in a technologically progressive and increasingly diversified environment that would be ideal for easily impressionable adolescents. However, the 'would's and the 'could's remained elusive and ephemeral. In stark contrast thrived this aforementioned sense of detachment which, while vague and perplexingly untraceable, was still undeniably and irrefutably real.

I found it hard to appreciate things that I watched grow, step by step, in gradual transitions (I'm pretty sure erudite psychologists would have some research material that would be able to justify the reasoning in these sentiments). As my school bus whizzed past the under-construction Burj Khalifa (then known as Burj Dubai), I watched it ascend towards the skies, storey on storey, week by week, so much so that the emphatic impression that world's tallest building should leave in a child's mind was lost by the time it was unveiled to the rest of the world.

I was there when the Dubai Mall, Jumeirah Beach Residence and even Downtown Dubai were just ambitious projects on erstwhile barren land. As an unfortunate aficionado of stories, context and history, it seemed that I was growing in a city that was growing with me and there was not much history to explore. There was not much history to read.

I was a part of the history being written.

* * *

Deira Spice Souk in Dubai

The origin of Deira can be traced to 1841 when a smallpox epidemic coerced inhabitants out of Bur Dubai (represent!) and across the Creek. The geographical advantages of Dubai coupled with the lowering of trade tax brackets by the Emir resulted in the development of a community of merchants, primarily from Persia (now Iran). Religious and fiscal disputes in Bastak resulted in a mass exodus of traders migrating to the Arabian Gulf, and they took with them not just their skills but also multiple facets of the Persian culture, language and architecture.

Today, the badgirs or 'windcatchers' of Persia loom over the streets in Deira, heirlooms of a significant transposition of cultures. The migrants would later model their own little neighbourhood aptly named after their hometown in the heart of Bur Dubai: Al Bastakiya.

The origin of the name 'Deira', however, is under contention. While some believe it stems from 'دار' (dar) which means 'house', others dispute it refers to the contour of the land around the Creek, having taken its roots from 'استدارة' (aistidara) or 'roundness'.

Even amongst the proponents of the 'roundness' radix are some that believe the roundness refers instead to the circular nature of the trading business, of which Deira was a frenzied hub in the Gulf. It seems that bona fide facts on this matter shall now never be found, having been set irrevocably adrift in the streets of the souqs.

But Deira itself is not yet adrift. Despite having plunged significantly in importance in the last two decades, it is still here. As I aimlessly amble into the Spice Souk, Asif Khan from Afghanistan lures me and tries to ensconce me in a world where life without any of his products would be unbearable. Yet I'm not the only one - he is seen greeting tourists in Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Pashto and Dari.

It's not often you meet men who speak so many languages, but none too well (apart from their local dialect).

Spice Souk in Deira Dubai

His linguistic skills were sufficient to do the job I must admit, as I feign interest in his kaleidoscopic sacks of multi-hued spices. It takes him a while to open up beyond his practised sales monologue, but I manage to crack into the subterfuge with one of my fondest and only icebreakers: cricket (the other being Bollywood)

(embarrassing, I know)

It took a mutual admiration for Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Rehman's hypnotic bowling for him to break into his first genuine smile in our discourse, the beauty of which was undeterred by a decade of plastic smiles. He is eager, almost insistent, to show me his learnings in writing the Arabic alphabets. I let him scribble the words 'Sulphur - Skin Allergy' into my notebook, which seems to give him blatant joy and a suppressed sense of achievement.

Asif rues the months of heat, where he would have to sweat more and still earn less due to the seasonality of low business. In fact from his experience of twelve years of hollering in the souq, he feels the crowds have surprisingly started to thin. I find this slightly incredulous, as in my estimations the markets are quite crowded for a blazing, stifling Sunday morning, which happens to be the first day of the week in the UAE.

But Asif doesn't agree.

It's not that Dubai is no more a tourism haven, it's just that people now have more places to go.

As the metropolis moves further down south along the sheltered opulence of the Sheikh Zayed road, Deira settles itself into oblivion. Despite the alleged depleting volume of buyers, life still goes on and the curtains on the circus of trade are never drawn. As the spotlight shifts to the future, a certain darkness has started to descend in Deira, but yet it stays stubbornly mired in interminability, covertly watchful of its relics of the past.

Museum of Poet Al Oqaili in Deira Dubai

One of these relics, nestled in midst of the crooked streets in close proximity to Heritage House, is the museum of the late poet Mubarak bin Al Oqaili. In the walls that housed a 'majlis' frequented by people of thought, science, literature and nobility can also be found excerpts from his poetry, amongst which are these lines from the poem 'Ask The Night':

I complain my grief to God, as I have no supporter for my sadness except my tears and unhappiness
Ask the night whether I have slept and whether my body got rest after your abandonment

I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It seems that Deira does hide some stories from the past.

Do you see it?

One of the reasons I was transfixed by my explorations in London and Manchester was the inherent and inescapable depth. There was context in the alleys - murmurs of ballads of the past that if you looked hard enough and strained your ears hard enough you would see it and hear it.

You would start to feel it.

The fresh garlands at the memorials to fallen warriors, the vitriolic graffiti by the creatures of the night, the impromptu acts of busking, the embellishments of the present and the scars of the past.

These things to me, I must confess, gave a city its soul.

Deira Clocktower Dubai

In the chaotic electronics bazaar of Naif, you will find a homage to the sales practices of yesteryear. In an age of technology, limited and preferably avoidable human communication and virtual advertisements, in Deira you would still sell and seek things the old-fashioned way.

But not all areas are entirely outmoded. Of all things, the Gold Souk stands as the one bizarre juxtaposition of antiquated and modern selling styles. The wooden arches that screen the aisle don't complement the elegantly furnished and minimalistic interiors of several showrooms where all that glitters is indeed gold. It seems the archaic arches in this market shield it not just from the relentless sun, but also the seasonal plagues of low business.

I guess gold never goes out of fashion.

In contrast further east, bereft of attention, resides the Dubai Clocktower. Rebuilt and restored on a couple of occasions, it once served as an emblem of Dubai, a marker of its entry point on road. In commensurate deficit of attention a few miles away lies the Memorial Fountain, an obelisk-like guardian of Union metro station.

Sitting at Union Park, you can spot all iconic buildings along the Deira side of the Creek that were once glorious monuments. The convex National Bank of Dubai, the globe adorned Etisalat tower, the triangular Dubai Chamber of Commerce and the cylindrical Rolex towers. A contorted assortment of geometrical shapes that were once the original Dubai skyline.

Now relics of a forgotten era.

A gust of wind, and a swirl of leaves.

Dubai Creek Deira Skyline

Even though it has remained stoic amidst the flurry of development, Deira too will one day have to change. It would need to keep up with the pace of a global city. I turn back to squint at the Memorial Fountain, serene in its oblivious stupor. Daily, thousands of commuters throng past it with a cursory glance at best, lost in the vicissitudes and transience of daily life and their fate.

Even though I doubt it will, for the sake of this city's lineage, Deira must endure.

The droplets at the fountain now glisten with reflected sunlight. The sun has start to set in, and on, Deira. I don't think the beauty, relevance and historical significance of Deira could've been highlighted earlier. My revelations are not the by-products of a decade of blissful ignorance. Deira needed the glass spires of Downtown, sprawling beaches of JBR, gastronomic delicacies of City Walk and the monstrous scale of the Dubai Mall to carve its own individuality. To distinctly establish a preserved vestige of history.

Without them it would have no legacy.

I was out there trying to find the essence of my city, somewhere in the midst of the crowd where for long traders have found what they were looking for. At last, I had found it - a culmination of an adolescent's want for something he couldn't understand and an adult's search for something he couldn't have.

I had finally found my city's soul, right there, in heart of Deira.

Memorial Fountain Union Square Deira Dubai

* * *

If you liked what you read then do help me by sharing this on social media platforms of your choosing (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, G+, Reddit I ain't picky). We're all artists somewhere, in some field, and this is just my form of art that would truly find expression if more people get the inclination to read it.

You can like this blog's Facebook page here, follow the Twitter feed here, follow me personally on Twitter here or upvote this piece on Reddit here.

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Friday, 30 March 2018

Sandpaper Gate 2018: Playing Cricket The Contemptible Australian Way

Sandpaper Gate Cricket Australia

These are the kind of events that stick with people. Not Steve Smith's purported Bradman-esque Ashes season, not David Warner's scintillating knocks, not Nathan Lyon's deceptive flights and dips.

These are the kind of events that will stick with these people and their legacies, interminably label them, and parasitically besmirch the highlights of their careers. A small asterisk hinged to their career graph. 

An asterisk that spells out 'calculative cheats'.

Asterisks that can be testified by Mohammed Azharuddin and the late Hansie Kronje, who are not regarded in modern times as highly successful captains of their era. Vilified into oblivion by national ignominy, even a couple of decades later history is now indifferent, if not slightly disapproving of them but never reverential. 

These are the kind of labels that define teams, their styles and tactics for the years to come. South Africa, to date, have struggled with the sobriquets of 'chokers' despite the origins firmly rooted in the late 90s. High-profile teams often struggle to shed their monikers, Pakistan and India have consistently lived with the labels of bowling and batting heavy teams despite the influx of players with opposing skills.

However, whether this incident will truly define Australian cricket a decade later is hard to foretell, as their lineage, and that of the game of cricket itself, is much deeper than one colossal blunder. They will have to ride out the taunts for now, endure the implications that come along and probably helplessly self-destruct until a fresh wave of talent is brought in to wipe off the disgraced smears of the past. 

This story though, this will stick. In the absoluteness of history, of fact, and the capriciousness of fate. 

It will stick into the image of Australian cricket - a style of cricket that is as fascinating as it is dishonourable. 

Fascinating as it truly highlights the mental strengths of opponents - the Australians have often waged a battle of skill and mind. While they boast an arsenal of incredible cricketing talent backed by a pedigree dripping with cricketing royalty, on the ground they don't just compete with cricket. It is not enough to have an impeccable batting technique, as they will chip at it not with pace or spin but with insinuations, provocative taunts and mental disintegration. 

Another spice in the feast of cricket for the average cricket zealot. 

Dishonourable because playing cricket the Australian way is resorting to vile, distasteful and often disrespectful tactics, unneeded in international sport where players play to ultimately test their physical skills. A 'bully' persona that every player has to adopt, or the stringently imposed ideology that they have to 'hunt in packs'. 

A chess game in motion in every game with team Australia, where the battle on the field is ultimately governed by the tenacity of the mind.

It is time for their move. The clock starts its count, but they are well prepared. Watching the Australians on the cricket field is as intriguing as it is infuriating. They demonstrate the exact attributes of a playground bully - they stride out with premeditated tactics of picking on the weak links of a player or a team, chalk out a fictional, ambiguous and internally flexible line for profanity and then launch a cerebral attack of obscenity.

This is their move. A calculated and distasteful move unleashed remorselessly. They tap the clock and cross their arms. It is now time for their unwilling, unprepared and unassuming opponent to respond. It seems however, that these players are no longer playing personas. The facade of character work seems to have melted, as you start to spot sadistic pleasure in the goading of opponents. 

Tendrils of their character work, Venom-like, starting to envelop their sense of morality, logic and reasoning. 

Tick, tock.

Then they wait - wait for a player not used to this style of play to break open, lose control and unleash the fetters of restraint. Needling him, further instigating the imminent. The clock ticks towards an inevitability. A player who didn't plan for this volley of loathsome comments and would eventually cross the fictitious and self-serving 'line'.  

In background they sit hunched, drooling over the prospects, ready to pounce at the end of it all.

Cricket Australia Sledging Michael Clarke Peter Siddle

A player finally relents, and the Australians gather round for stage two of their street theatre.

They viciously pounce on this moment of weakness, whine about it and take it to the higher authorities. The infuriating, annoying brats that sparked the fires yet never got their hands burnt. 

The history books have examples aplenty. The infamous Monkeygate where Andrew Symonds swore at Harbhajan Singh, interpreted his alleged Indian swear as a racial slur and filed a complaint. Glenn McGrath once asked Ramnaresh Sarwan what specific portions of Brian Lara's anatomy tasted like, and immediately held up a victim card when Sarwan asked him to ask his wife. Darren Lehmann openly asked spectators in Australia to dig into Stuart Broad and make him go home weeping, yet claimed a spectator sledging his team's biggest loudmouth last week South Africa was completely disgraceful. Warner decided to enact the McGrath-Sarwan incident with Quinton de Kock this month, and ensured he played his part to the end perfectly, including the victim card for his final act.

Merv Hughes, meanwhile, deserves an article of his own.

The Australian line and the Australian way ignores profanity directed at Lara, Sarwan, Harbhajan, De Kock, Broad and the countless others who are pulled into their mire of hypocrisy but conveniently stretches to ensconce Symonds, McGrath, Warner, their families, their pets, the people of their neighbourhood and even their local mailman. 

A line of control of convenience. With each successful foray, they gain in confidence. Stuart Broad is treated as a cheat for not walking - a practice majority of the batsman succumb to, the moral grounds of which are still debatable. In their eyes Broad overshadows the honourable showmanship of Greg and Trevor Chappell underarming their way into national ignominy.

A growing, self-sustaining confidence that allows them to apologise if caught and simply move on. Harbhajan warrants a suspension, but Lehmann can blatantly racially abuse the Sri Lankans. Steve Smith can look up to the dressing room for DRS opinions, yet call it a 'brainfade' the one instance he was caught - rubbishing claims that it had been happening for a while. 

The examples, as aforementioned, are aplenty.

The honest truth is, ball-tampering is not a new offence and not career threatening. Steve Smith might well never be captain again, or he might just be re-appointed after a possible debacle at World Cup 2019. 

These are the kind of events that stick, but Australians might just move on. The Australian way is to play dirty and apologise later, and with time the apologies gain more merit. One incident is not enough to affect a century-long tradition of playing style. For their infatuation with playing the victim card, ironically they are now truly the victims of their own personas - the ravenous tendrils of the characters they created have engulfed their morality, reasoning and plain logic. New players are expected to sledge, and veterans are expected to whine - or they would be considered too soft to play international cricket the Australian way.

To play international cricket the despicable, contemptible Australian way. 

Shane Warne Marlon Samuels Cricket Fight

* * *

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Saturday, 20 January 2018

Agra: A Teardrop On The Cheek Of Time

A leisurely stroll in Agra would show you blatant abandon, national ostracism and general indifference. Dilapidated kothis (villas), pothole-ridden, cow-dung infested streets, a conspicuous absence of any sort of infrastructure and an unquestionable maxim that cows and pigs have priority on roads and trivial entities like cars and pedestrians must adjust around them.

Even if you look carefully, you will see no residues of former Mughal affluence in this prevalent desert of destitution. But there is an aura to this city, ethereal and inaudible whispers in the air if you will, that seem to murmur ballads of the past.

Of great kings and their begums, of love and war, of ascension and conquest, of the richness of life and the inescapability of death.

With this collection of short stories, I must attempt, once again, to embark on the Indian Quest. Having tried to put in words (and spectacularly failed in the process) my odyssey in East India last year, I must try again not for the elusive outcome, but for the cathartic process. That I will not be able to do justice to India is solid and immutable fact, but I shall feel much lighter and significantly happier having invited you into the concoction of emotions I feel each time I step into this miraculous world.

I am also aware that Agra itself is not unique in evoking these emotions - you would probably feel similar sentiments in your own regions in India. For that, once again the Quest is your own - I can only be true to my own roots.

In the shadow of the Taj Mahal lies one of the former Mughal capitals of India. In that I found a story to be told, a city's soul to be explored and so I set out.

Taj Mahal Agra India

* * *

I am in the midst of being buffeted by platoons of curries, fried pakodas, barfis, laddoos, pethas, pedas and numerous other delicacies. It seems they are destined for my plate, right from the bubbling-hot-oil-filled cauldron they are raised from, dripping with the glee (and ghee) of taking another victim hostage to the realm of obesity.

In walks another distant relative, his hands pinned to his back as he surveys me. His eyes rake in my features, trying to formulate an assumption of my personality with my appearance. To compare with his database of stereotypical thoughts on 'these foreign kids'.

"Aur hero? Tu jaanta hai ki nahi jaanta hai?" ("You know or you don't know?")

"Ji, jaanta hoon." ("Yes, I know")

"Kya jaanta hai?" ("What do you know?")

He had last seen me when I was a teenage boy in school. Today I return to his house an adult. His conclusions at the end of his visual and oral scan are ambiguous, but somehow it meant that it was an occasion for stuffing me with even more food. With an incisive snap of his fingers, he motioned to his cook to juggernaut more edibles into my plate.

I raise my hands in protest. 

"Aur hero? Tu jaanta hai ki nahi jaanta hai?"

"Ji, jaanta hoon."

"Kya jaanta hai?"

It's like the last conversation never happened. I was stuck in this endless cycle of existential ignorance interspersed with familial affection. In Agra, have you really eaten if you haven't eaten it the right way?

Having been reprimanded multiple times, I ensured my thali had a dry sabzi and two curries. But have you really eaten if you didn't begin with a roasted papad, warmed up with a pakoda and ended the meal with an Agra ka petha or a jalebi?

If, by chance, you were to remember that entire sequence what if you forget to try the assortment of pickles? What about the home-made yoghurt and butter?

Why then, young man, you must start your meal all over again because you haven't eaten it the right way!

As I'm being stuffed with laddoos by loving aunts, I am also succumbed by a growing fascination with the value people here put on not just the food, but also the process of eating food. The hurried meals I wolf down on a normal day, usually as an afterthought as I watch a movie, Youtube video or indulge in a conversation stand in stark, discomfiting contrast.

I think I truly ate a meal after ages when my beloved relative paused his fascinating origin story midway when the food arrived and said:

"This story can wait, let us now enjoy the food."

Itmad-ud-Daulah Agra India

* * *

"Sirf aapke parivaar ne Raj Babbar ko support kiya tha." ("Only your family had supported Raj Babbar")

One fine afternoon, we were paid a surprise visit by a local politician. He walked in barking orders to a faceless sycophant on his phone with exaggerated jerks of his head and hands that were consciously trained to display power.

A lifetime's practice of an exhibition of authority.

Gold-rimmed spectacles, a richly tailored suit and a gold watch to display an abundance of wealth. He had come to buy our house, and in turn he gave me a priceless demonstration of sales expertise.

The theatrics were incredible; the script was well planned. The entrance, the attire, the dialogues and climax. A well-structured thespian narrative, coupled with some assertions of power and social status. He had done his research on our entire family, our work, social circle and political affiliations. He warmed up by describing how well he knew many of our relatives. A little bit of caressing craftily injected with some needling. Some probing into his possible contenders, and a hurried exit after setting his price. No time for analysis, justifications or bargaining.

Emails, property websites and laptops aren't the norm here. In such a setting, the people you know, the words you say and the impression you make matters. The art of oration, the art of subtlety, the art of persuasion and the art of assertion. Nuances that are often hidden and left underdeveloped in this new age of digital communication, aided by GIFs and emoticons.

Yet right there in a significantly underdeveloped town, I found some of the most soft-skills-proficient humans. Every decision we made, every word we spoke and every person we associated with contributed to a legacy that would stay alive as long as this city did.

Akbar Tomb Agra India

* * *

I am looking at Virat Kohli.

Of course, I spend 70% of an average day looking at Virat Kohli in various forms, but right now there seems to be an abstruse disconnect between me and my fanaticism. Kohli is all around me, decked in glistening sherwanis, kurtas and draped like royalty. A floor below him, massive portraits of Anushka Sharma hang over groups of women narrowing down the one lehenga that would somehow denote their social status at a one-day event where people would be too fixated on the food anyway.

This Manyavar store is a reflection of modernism. Simplistic interiors, suave salesmen, elegantly minimalistic attires with heavy price tags.

An Apple store of Indian wear.

Yet the massive glass windows behind the salesman show me a line of paupers, some missing limbs, some their eyes, clattering their stone bowls on the pavement in search for alms.

I'm not here to preach for poverty - it exists and I don't expect the rich to not live like the rich because it does. The contrast, however, is quite poetic - especially in Agra where the crumbling city houses some immensely wealthy people. People often write stories of the 'dark underbelly' of booming metropolises like Mumbai or Dubai, but I feel in the case of Agra it would be the rich underbelly - the abundance of wealth lying hidden under the sprawling visage of a poor city in a poor country.

Maybe it is just the love for extravagance - the societal norm to spend a higher percentage of your salary on expensive watches, clothes and big villas. Maybe they earn less but live large with no eye for the future.


Agra Fort India

* * *

"Sir, I had the honour of driving Mr. Amrish Puri for a week."

I'm absolutely fascinated by this incredible man driving this Ola cab. A blue turban, a grand white moustache twisted and twirled so that the ends point up and a benign, joyful face. This Sikh man, or Sardarji, seemed to never lose his smile - even in the moments his mouth was busy narrating his life story, the traces of an infectious smile would linger in his eyes.

"Sir, I was very scared of meeting him. He had this image of an angry and rude man because of all his roles. When I went to pick him, sir, I bowed down and told him I was his driver and would go get the car. Sir, you will be surprised - a man of his stature looked at me with great respect, put his arm around me and said 'Kaka, gaadi kidhar hai? Hum chal ke jaayenge' (Where is the car? We will walk to it)"

I was quite embarrassed to be continually referred to as 'sir' by this sixty-year-old man, but this is the money-driven societal hierarchy so deeply ingrained in India, so much deeper than any other country I have visited. A pecking order that makes grown, aged men bow and salute me because I happen to be born in a richer family than them.

The dehumanising of a nation, one money bill at a time.

If I could, I would listen to the stories of Sardarji all night. He went on to describe how Amrish Puri would give way to women and children despite the need for hustle in his busy schedule. He then launched into the story of his escape during the 1984 Sikh Massacre, a story that ended with him driving a car for, non-stop, nearly forty-eight hours. He averaged 14 hours a day driving his Ola itself, and yet it seemed nothing could slay the smile.

"Sardarji, didn't you get tired of driving after all these years and incidents?"

"Tired of driving? No way, driving is my passion, sir!"

John Hessing Tomb Agra India

* * *

The Taj Mahal, despite the songs, myths and facts, remains one of the many and probably the biggest paradox for a writer - the apex of this uncontrollable urge to express the assimilation of emotions you feel, yet as I sit down to tell you I find myself increasingly handicapped with each word.

A most perplexing catch-22, I must say.

In this instant I must pay homage to the late Robin Williams, who said it right in Good Will Hunting - no novels, scriptures or pictures could do justice to the beauty of the Sistine Chapel. You need stand there, be there, breath in the smell and gaze up and really see that beautiful ceiling. To really see it. To really be there.

To become one with the Taj Mahal.

A symmetrical marble mausoleum built by Shah Jahan, grandson of Akbar The Great, in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal - a story of love, death and everything that comes with a duet between the two.

A spectacle of Mughal creation, a wonder of the modern world.

You would feel having one of the seven wonders of the world would mean something. Agra as a city could have a thriving economy just from the tourism Taj Mahal generates. Yet, the tourist money is fragmented and broken between the rickshaw drivers that take you to the Taj and the freelancing tour guides that badger you with their linguistic skills, having learnt perfect English, Mandarin, Italian or Russian in order to win some meals for the day.

You would also pay the guy below the marble plinth to look after your shoes, and you would also pay the freelance photographers to print polaroids of you. At the end of the experience you would've spent at least a thousand rupees, yet not one person to whom portions of the money went would wake up to a better tomorrow.

Wouldn't it be better if the government streamlined the entire process, hired all the photographers, guides, rickshaws, shoe-guardians and charged a fixed all-inclusive ticket to the tourist? All these vendors would have a stable job, there would no false advertisement to loot the tourists and the economy would categorically reflect the benefits of having the damned Taj Mahal in your city.

Not just the Taj Mahal, but you would also glean the benefits of having the Agra Fort, the Tomb of Akbar The Great, the Tomb of I'timad-ud-Daulah and the hidden, future wonder-of-the-world the Temple of Dayalbagh - all miraculous attractions which up to this point are unknown to the world of being housed in Agra.

Anyway, as an NRI who hasn't permanently lived in India what do I know right?

I shall take your leave, draw curtains on this vexing monologue of glutted emotions, with two common fables that linger with the Taj Mahal:

- While the architecture in itself is worth the wonder, not much is spoken of the processes involved in creating this towering structure in an age with no industrial cranes or technology. In fact, accounts have been made of the creation of a 15-km long ramp for elephants to lug blocks of marble to the construction site. According to another legend, the scaffolding itself was so massive that by the end of the construction, having depleted the royal coffers in the process, Shah Jahan had no more funds to get rid of it. Upon consultation with his trusted wazirs, he declared that all the bricks in the scaffolding were free for the general public.

The massive scaffolding vanished overnight!

- Another legend associated with the origins of Taj Mahal was that Shah Jahan planned a black Taj Mahal for himself, which would be situated across the Yamuna looking at the white one.

Lovers forever immortalised in wondrous marble mausoleums.

Yet, probably given the cost of constructing one, and the decades it took to construct along with his ill-fated illness and subsequent house arrest, this vision never came to be. Today his tomb lies right next to the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal in the Taj Mahal, and there they shall rest together until the end of time.

Two diamonds in the teardrop on the cheek of time.

Taj Mahal Sunset Yamuna Agra India

* * *

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Saturday, 11 November 2017

Why I Feel Virat Kohli, And Not Sachin Tendulkar, Is Indian Cricket's Biggest Inspiration

Sachin Tendulkar never inspired me.

When I started getting into cricket at the age of 9, Sachin was already a nationwide phenomenon.  Cricket fans at the turn of the century were witness to the birth of a contagious, ill-fated cult of personality. Sachin had become omnipresent in Indian pop culture. He could make a nation exult with a pristine straight drive, or make them weep with an early dismissal.

To scrounge some of cricket commentators' favourite buzzwords - by the age of 30 he wasn't a 'rising star', 'talented cricketer' or 'wily veteran'. He wasn't just an exceptional batsman. He wasn't a heavily lauded athlete. Nor was he just a popular celebrity.

Sachin Tendulkar was a phenomenon.

Over the years as my fascination with, and understanding of, the game evolved so did my reverence for him. Yet, for all his incredulous feats, he never inspired me. There is a fundamental, oft-ignored problem with god-given talent - you could only be born with it.

Sachin could never be compared, emulated or replicated. Sachin had broken a national record with Vinod Kambli at an age where other kids were struggling to ride a bicycle. It just seemed too easy - a feeling aided and abetted by the blatant nonchalance with which he describes his freakish knocks in his autobiography Playing It My Way. He made his test debut at the age of 16 and had surpassed most records well before he was on the brink of retiring. Cricketers like him were meant to be prized and even, if I may take the liberty to claim, worshipped.

Worshipped as a fleeting flash of celestial brilliance that might never be glimpsed again; Sachin was unsurpassable.

Sachin was god.

* * *

The Sydney Cricket Ground was ready for a spectacle.

It was the second semi-final of the 2015 World Cup, in the wake of one of the greatest knockout matches in World Cup history between New Zealand and South Africa. Australia had put on a massive score, yet such scores had shed the accompanying intimidation by 2015. India, a self-professed chasing side, had successfully conquered similar targets multiple times by then, led by the supreme master of chases himself.

The stage was set for an iconic chase, and in walked Virat Kohli to a thunderous ovation.

A burst of pace, some inordinate bounce, an aggressive heave and the world was hushed into overbearing, mind-numbingly engulfing silence as Kohli top-edged a bouncer from Mitchell Johnson. The master of all chases, the saviour of Indian cricket had fallen prey to his own idiosyncrasies.

Seven months later, Kohli was to be found facing South Africa at home, after a poor limited overs cricket season. He hadn't crossed a score of 50 in ODI cricket since the World Cup. A pernicious concoction of frustration and desperation was conspicuous in each dismissal.

In the sweltering heat and humidity of Chepauk, Kohli ran and cramped his way past 90. South Africa, often the notorious chokers, sought to choke him in the 90s - hoping to get a few silent overs in the death as Kohli neared his long-awaited century.

A trap Sachin often fell prey to.

The plans were set: spinners would bowl tight lines with long on and long off. Kohli would need to take singles to ensure a century, by which time South Africa would've ensured overs 40-45 were reasonably quiet.

The spinner bowls his line, but the batsman steps out and lofts the ball straight towards long on. There seems to be a trace of disdain in the shot as if to question the gall of the opposition to formulate a specific plan against the creator of the shot. There are a couple of seconds where the batsman watches tentatively as the fielder raises his hands for a catch. But the ball has just a bit more flight, spurted probably by the fragments of disdain it was smacked with to scrape over long on's fingers for a six.

Virat Kohli flings his arms wide and flexes for the crowd.

As I watched it unfold, on a laptop screen in a university lecture hall (as you do), I knew it then. This has never been, and will never be, the story of miraculous ability.

It is a story of evolution.

Virat Kohli Flex South Africa Indian Cricket

Kohli's autobiography, by his own admission, would start with the tale of a chubby teenager who used to love adding extra butter on his aloo parathas. A kid who used to stock up on chips and chocolates before every cricket match and ensured he wouldn't be disturbed as he gaped open-mouthed at the heroics of a miraculous man, transfixed by the transience of the magic.

In fact when he finally burst onto the scene, despite being touted as a talented 'rising star', he was never lauded as the man with god-given ability. Those sobriquets were taken by Rohit Sharma, a man who could, or so they claimed, time the ball with both eyes closed.

In a recent interview, Gaurav Kapoor mentioned that Rohit seems to have an extra second to time the ball. Kohli corrects him with 'a second and a half' with a slightly envious, slightly frustrated sigh. It seems that he is perpetually at war - he stands alone in the centre of an ancient duel arena. As he gazes up at the jeering crowd of naysayers, a resounding gong is heard signalling the entrance of his opponent and longstanding nemesis. A crescendo of drum beats, a distant piercing war cry, and the veil is pulled back, revealing his archenemy.

He does not see Jimmy Anderson swinging deliveries away from him. Nor does he see a visual representation of the nation's expectations.

At the opposite end of the arena, ready to lock horns in a fatal battle, he sees himself.

Virat Kohli fights an unceasing battle against his own expectations every day. Regardless of the runs against his name in a match, every dismissal is met with a ruthless volley of common Delhi curses - an intrinsic rage that was probably the manifest of battling the politically oppressive and brutally competitive scene of Delhi cricket.

With this rage spawns hunger. A perpetual, frenzied hunger for winning, scoring runs and improving. A man better than the one yesterday. A hunger so incessant, that it would need divine skills to satiate.

But Virat Kohli never had god-given ability. He was, and still is, like you and me. In his youth he doted obsessively over his cricket heroes. Like you and me. In his early days he gained notoriety for cursing on the field, indulging in revelry off it and adopting every fashion trend in the country. Like you and me. Despite his laurels in ODIs, his place in the Test format was often questioned. As he matured, so did we. Despite his under-19 feats, he still seemed like an above-average individual in his chosen field in life. Just like you and me.

Even his initial IPL performances almost got him dropped from RCB. This is the story of a man who got hit multiple times, and tried to learn from it. The fact that he has built an immortal legacy today is a testament to his hard-work, commitment and drive. In a sport which has seen many potent sportsmen fall prey to indiscipline, complacency, corruption and greed he stands out as a man who has built, Dravid-like, a legacy purely on commitment.

Sachin was never the fittest athlete, but he didn't need to be. At times, it felt (unintentionally, I'm sure) that Sachin was bit detached from the bigger picture. Particularly in his later years, a milestone would bog him down despite the match situation. It would be ignorant, near disrespectful even, to assume that Sachin or Rohit did not put efforts to sustain their magic. But the value of persistence and discipline in comparison to the value in the sustenance of existing skills is up in the air, and I choose the former. Is this why we value a rags-to-riches story more than that of a millionaire who multiplied his wealth?

* * * 

In 2014, I was at the Oval when Kohli edged to the slips. Many cricketers have waned once their shortcomings have been exposed. With each edge it seemed Kohli was losing sense of his own game. A few months later, he took a stance a foot outside his crease to Mitchell Johnson and stroked his way to a career-defining series.

After a series Down Under, in his first Asia Cup match in the subcontinent he pushed too hard on a sluggish pitch against Bangladesh, after having acquainted himself to the pacy pitches of Australia. A rare duck, and in the next match he played the ball later than anyone else to be the only one to combat a formidable Pakistani pace attack.

He wasn't born the best batsman in the world, but he just might have evolved into one today and there is nothing more inspirational than that.

As Virat Kohli has grown, so have we.

* * *

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