Friday, 19 August 2016

India at Rio Olympics 2016: No Country For Non-Cricketers


This article, this fleeting interest in any sport not spelled with the letters c, r, i, k, e and t, and all this hullabaloo is just an August thing, so enjoy this joyride while it lasts folks, 'cause the biggest, boldest and most exhilarating IPL will soon be upon us, live on Star Sports!

In the vast, documented history of the Olympics, India has won a total of 28 medals. That puts us below Ethiopia and Estonia, slightly above Latvia and on par with Michael Phelps. More importantly, it puts us quite a few spots above Pakistan (10 medals), so ha, in your face! Let us quickly revel in past glory and establish our sporting credentials by listing five athletes off the top of our heads who have won Olympic medals. Go on then, treat this mental exercise like a riddle forwarded to you on WhatsApp - list five Indian athletes who have won a piece of metal attached to a ribbon at the Olympics.

As a diehard cricket fanatic, this is far from me patronising anyone - I took a long time to complete my own proposed mental exercise, albeit aided and abetted at times by Google. I recalled Abhinav Bindra because he was briefly in the ephemeral limelight again. Had I asked myself this question a year back, I would've confused him for 'Avinash Bindra' - as did Mr. Suresh Kalmadi, chief of the Indian Olympics Association at the time Mr. Bindra won his gold. Avinash Bindra (© Suresh Kalmadi) has often spoken up against India's indifference towards all sports not cricket, and the fact that he managed to become the world champion with the assistance of a well-off family, private indoor shooting range and exceptional coaches should astonish no one.

If the provision of training facilities and coaches could help manufacture more Avinash Bindras (© Suresh Kalmadi), surely the most logical step would be to go out there and provide it? Not only do we do things differently in aiding the training of our athletes (by differently I mean horrendously idiotically), we also send a team of world-class officials (with business class tickets) at the actual global competitions for providing 'support' - much of which involves them barging into restricted zones, bombarding athletes with selfies (as you do) and desultory debauchery.

But anyway, in the mundane realm of inane conjecture, this is just in - Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma might be vacationing in Goa next summer!

I remembered Sushil Kumar, the undisputed beast, mainly because he was caught up in the mire of controversy with rival Narsingh Yadav this entire year. I remembered Vijender Singh, because I personally met the estimable legend this year, invited him to inaugurate an event I was organising and also watched him decimate his opponent at Manchester Arena. I was asked to bring as many people as I can, in order to provide some moral support for one of the greatest boxers India has produced. Free entry to witness the greatest, and we toiled to get spectators in the UK.

In the summer of 2014, when India toured England, people lined up in hotels for hours just to get a glimpse of Shikhar Dhawan or Ishant Sharma. I would know - I was considering joining them.


I am no one to question the existing infrastructure of sports management in India - unqualified, oblivious and benighted millennial that I might be. However, the acute connection between my remembrance of Olympic medalists and some news article/personal memory/viral meme implores me to dig into the root of the problem. Channels do air badminton matches - but how many watch them? Papers do publish features on athletics - but how many read them? In this day and age of impressions and ratings, can we blame Star Sports for airing highlights of Mumbai Indians vs. Royal Challengers Bangalore repeatedly when a recap of Vijender's bouts would garner less than half those ratings?

Are we invested enough in sports to incite the growth of awareness, evoke the will to amend the infrastructure and either a) demote cricketers to a general athlete status or b) deify all athletes to demigod status? Sure, the downright rejection of Shobha De's condescending existence and celebration of doggedness in effort and participation in this particular month is a good step, but correct me if I'm wrong, the persistence in adulation for the other 47 months till the next Olympics is what would promulgate the awareness we all seek, wouldn't it? I don't follow football or basketball at all, yet I could name several members of most high-profile teams. This awareness was created solely due to the invested interest of the world into those sports, which invariably reach those not interested as well. Why then, did it take a random patriotic video of a South Indian actor for me to discover Pullela Gopichand and Deepika Padukone for the venerated Prakash Padukone?

Remember how for a few months the world was incredibly solicitous about the detrimental effects of ALS (not in any case because there was an opportunity to upload a funny video and get attention on social media) and now no one gives a shit? That's how I feel every time I chance upon articles that detail India's indifference to Olympic sports - articles that only circulate in Olympic season. I bet you 10 bucks we'll forget how to spell Dipa Karmakar by the time MS Dhoni's epic biopic hits theatres worldwide. Not so sure about old men, but at the moment we're definitely no country for non-cricketers.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Master of all Nations, Citizen of None: The Life of a Gulf NRI

Fa'ar al qarya wa fa'ar al madinah
The city mouse and the village mouse. 

These were the first words of Arabic I studied, back in April of 2005 where this story begins. It begins then because that was when I moved to Dubai, from the serene city of Muscat, Oman. Along with the numerous difficulties of getting life as you know it uprooted, that year marked the beginning of my eternal quest for an identity.

I'm an Indian, born and bred at heart, with a lineage that hails from the historic city of Agra, most popularly known as the home of one of India's most widely cited structures, the Agra ka paagalkhaana. Of course, there's also this marble thingy, but now I'm just showing off. As a kid born and bred in Muscat who was surrounded by Indian food, theatres, literature and people, it was my posh escapade from the reality of my roots.


But as I matured, I started nurturing a morsel of pride in the fact that I have a link to Agra - the former capital of India, the nucleus of Mughal opulence, home to an ancient wonder and currently a very neglected city. It enthrals me like a story left unfinished. I belong there, on that bench in front of the Taj, that has seen me pose for a picture once every five years. I belong there like many of my Gulf comrades who still consider themselves true denizens of Kochi, Chennai or Mumbai. We're guests here, so it's important we acknowledge a home somewhere, even if it doesn't acknowledge us.

Such is the world of NRIs in the Gulf - we're all Indians at heart because unlike our brothers and sisters who migrated to USA, UK, Singapore or Africa, there are no exotic species that harbour hybrids of Indian ethnicities in the Gulf. There is no equivalent to a British Asian (BBCDs, laugh it up) - we eat Indian delicacies, speak with an Indian accent, live an Indian life and associate with a sense of identity more Indian than Arab, yet somehow, in the eyes of the privileged Indians living in India, we have not truly made it in life because we 'don't know what it's like to live in India.'

We're nowhere. We're nobodies. Too sophisticated and disillusioned to live in our homeland, yet never given enough to safely call the Gulf our home. We could've been here for 25 years, yet one tiny gaffe or a slight bit of misfortune and we would be heading back to where we came from.

But here's the cardinal complication - what if there's nowhere I actually came from? I can't really be lost, because (as some metal fans would agree) how can I be lost if I've got nowhere to go?


I often mused that my life revolved around multiple Ms - I was born in Muscat, unleashed my raging, turbulent youth in the streets of Mankhool, tamed that beast in Manchester to return, now, to the desolate Motor City (not the one Eminem's from, unfortunately). Dubai made me tussle with my identity the most, hungover as I was with the loss of serenity and my last few dregs of childhood that I had left behind in Oman. I blamed Dubai for it, vilified it and raged against it. Those were, after all, the wild and uncouth days of my youth. The ominous skyscrapers, artificial ski slopes and factitious marinas that lured tourists like humans to Pokemons screamed superficiality to me. I was a misplaced medieval romantic incarcerated in one of the world's most modern cities.

How could I, ravenous wanderer down the trails of history, appreciate the beauty of the redoubtable Burj Dubai Khalifa, when I watched it being constructed floor by floor, week after week as my bus whizzed past it on my way to high school? I've seen nothing but sand where the Dubai Marina boasts of some late-night cruises today, felt nothing but scorching and relentless heat at the spot where the Ski Dubai beguiles tourists and seen nothing but the vast, unyielding sea where the Palm Jumeirah sleeps today.

How can I be appreciative of the history, when I was a part of the history?

So I fulminated against it. An embodiment of jingoism, I sprinted down the streets of Mankhool screaming my lungs out, with the tricolour painted all over my face, when MS Dhoni smacked a ball out of Wankhede and the Indians came alive for a night. I used to boisterously sing Maa Tujhe Salaam on August 15th and January 26th each year as I walked about. I would wake up early to watch the Republic Day parade live from start to finish, and sleep late or not at all to support India's world cup exploits Down Under in 2015. Patriotism denoted by cricket fanaticism is a simplification of the emotions really, but it matters among Indians and also shut up, I'm a sell-out.

If everything happens for a reason, I'd like to know two things a) who controls this everything and b) what if I don't like the reason and don't want to sacrifice everything for it?

"Where are you from?"

"Where do you think?"

That's my response to the question fundamental to starting a conversation. It's not me being a smart-ass or posturing an enigmatic image - I am whatever you say I am. I agree with those authentic Indians when they say I need to live in India to understand that word, agree with those that say there isn't an ounce of me that's truly Arab (if the ability to fake Arabic speaking skills, love for falafel and the talent for screaming 'yaallah habibiiii' doesn't count), agree with those that say UK isn't the right place for me and mildly scoff at the one guy who once said I'm a citizen of the world.

I scoff at you, random guy with good intentions, because I've lived enough lifestyles to be a master of all nations but freaking hell, I'm a citizen of none. I guess I shall always remain somewhere between the city mouse and the village mouse, but never enough to be either one.