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Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Mercenaries

A ruthless bunch of mercenaries, they were.

The Sniper. Agreed, he couldn't send out multiple bullets at the same time, neither did he use ammunition strong enough to kill an elephant. But he was the most basic of them all: he shot in abundance and never missed, he took out everyone he aimed at.

The Treble. He had this triple-barrel device, using which he could shoot three bullets at once. Mind you, he wasn't as accurate as The Sniper, but the triple bullets could take care of three targets at once, which made him doubly as effective (assuming he would miss one out of three).

The Bomber. The pilot who bombed all and sundry with stunning accuracy, bringing down the toughest of targets with mindless brutality.

The Siege. The anti-structure guy. While the others specialised in human targets, The Siege brought down buildings at an astonishing rate; he had an assortment of weapons, often the rather archaic ballistae or cannons. Typically, he was the first if a stronghold needed to be attacked.

The Kamikaze. It was sheer coincidence that he was not needed before today. He was the ultimate answer when everyone else had failed. However, the others had been so clinically efficient that he was not needed at all. Of course, their camaraderie was so strong that the other four had gone to unbelievable extents to protect their colleague.

Between them, they had formed the most formidable quintuplet in the history of armed combat. Each one had their own specialised domain; and between them they represented a power matched by none.

***

Today had turned out to be different, of course. As always, they had kept an eye on the formidable castle for weeks. They had penetrated into the castle, disguised as laymen, living off scraps; but as they had maintained low profiles, their eyes had remained alert, looking for every possible weakness of the castle that was famous for its impregnability.

They had planned well. The sheer toughness of the opponent demanded an incredible amount of planning, and they were up to the task. When the guards tended to doze off in the small hours of the morning, The Sniper would climb up the walls and place himself at the turrets. The Treble would attack the guards at the main gate at close range, taking out three at a time, as The Siege would bring the gate down. The Bomber would circle the sky, blasting out various strategic points. And of course, The Kamikaze would remain ready to deal the final blow - the blow that has never been necessary in any of their previous missions.

***

Except, things started to get wrong. Horribly wrong. They had no idea that the number of visible guards was not what they had estimated. The fifty-odd guards suddenly became about three times the number; they had seemed oddly prepared for the sudden attack. Several heavily armed and armoured guards had remained in ambush, and sprang into motion as soon as The Treble had attacked. He was captured.

The Siege's weapons were lethal, and he had dealt a couple of severe blows on the gate. But the potency of the siege weapons also meant that they were heavy, and when fifty-odd guards charged at him at an alarming pace, he could not escape quickly enough.

The Bomber was brought down quickly by the already alarmed anti-aircraft troop of the castle. His parachute didn't take him far enough, and he was fell captive in the hands of the group of guards that had waited for his descend in slow motion. It was an easy job.

The Sniper, sensing danger, had tried to remain inconspicuous. He had shot down a couple of guards, but amidst all the pandemonium, his existence had gone largely unnoticed. However, his shadow on the castle wall, thanks to the full moon, gave away his location. Guards were sent up, and though he had put up a brave resistance, it was only a matter of time.

The four were dragged to the Great Hall in chains and cuffs. They knew that they would be tortured now, and  every effort would be made to extract information out of them. They knew that all of them would die, and it would be a death as slow and painful as they, or anyone else, had ever imagined.

The Kamikaze, disguised as one of The Emperor's henchmen, looked at them rather passively, taking utmost care to avoid their eyes. He, too, like the others, had realised that their time had come. He took long strides, and with both his mates and The Emperor of the Castle in close vicinity, triggered off the bomb.

***

No pain. No smoke. No haze. No sound. No odour of gunpowder. Sheer emptiness.

Was this what afterlife was like? A weird emptiness, with no floor to set foot on, no sky to look up to, a dazzling mindless seamless whiteness? Was that all?

And then the man came into view. He should possibly have looked like a fierce warrior of many tussles; he resembled an rather docile accountant instead.

The Quintuplet looked at each other. Was this man going to decide their destiny in this unknown realm? This man? He doesn't even seem to have lifted a weapon of any kind.

He had a name tag of sorts, they noticed. C Gupta, it said.

"I'm The Keeper of your records. Or of everyone's records, for that matter."

They kept quiet.

"You have sinned. You have murdered innocents for money. Had I had my way, I would have ensured you have had to pay for this. However, you're fortunate. The Authorities think they would give you another chance."

More blank stares.

"Apparently, they have decided to go by abilities rather than past actions, which should not have been the case. To add to that, they're also in a soup. They're under attack. And as it had turned out, their defense has turned out to be futile."

The Five stared at each other, and then again at Gupta.

"They need your help. If you succeed, you shall be granted entry into the heavens to listen to the dulcet tunes of the harp and watch the nymphs dance. You might also be granted ambrosia, if you perform really well. If you fail, you will possibly end up being slow-cooked in pots by my men", said Gupta, as his mouth twitched into the most singular of smiles.

"However, there is a catch. I really do not want you to succeed, you see. And while I cannot overrule my authorities' decision to send you to war, I can always have my way in certain aspects."

"Of course, you shall remain The Sniper, The Treble, The Bomber, The Siege and The Kamikaze. You shall all retain your specific abilities. That's a part of the order. But there is nothing mentioned about the form that you'd assume," Gupta smiled again.

"What should I make you? Leeches? Nah, the opponents might not notice you - and moreover, you shall have the ability to suck their blood. Earthworms? No, you might hide under the soil. What then?"

"Then a thought crossed my mind. What can be more helpless than a minuscule flightless bird? Too small to run away, no wings to fly and large enough to be noticed. Just in case they do not notice you, I've decided to paint you in the brightest of colours."

Poof!

***

The five wingless birds walked towards the battlefield. They had a plan chalked out. They had to win this, they knew. The Porcines could be defeated, they knew. They found a medium-sized Y-shaped stick on end of the battlefield, and huddled around it. They needed some practice.

The Authorities, who went by a collective name called Rovio, had for some reason decided to call this mission Poached Eggs.


This work of fiction actually demands a dedication: to those three people who had brought Angry Birds into my life on a bright July day in 2011, and changed my life forever. Thank you, Amrita, Arjun and Sneha.

Monday, August 22, 2011

History and History

I've always liked reading history. I've always hated preparing for history tests.

History tests used to be a nightmare. I hated the way we used to be taught history: mug up the names (which almost invariably included a suffix, whether II or XVI, or were as imposing as Mohammad bin Ikhtiyar-ud-Din Bakhtiyar Khilji - yes, I know I got that one wrong again); obscure years; exactly why Jahangir and Shah Jahan were capable rulers, despite being sandwiched between two of the greatest emperors the country has ever produced; and how pornography had triggered off the Battle of Buxar. Okay, I made up the last one.

It was not the subjects: it was the way we were taught to memorise all that mindlessly.

Of late I've found out something that's even worse: teaching history. It has taken me about two decades and an examination candidate of a girl to find out exactly why my history teachers were always in a mood more sore than the others.

Trust me, it takes immense patience to teach a seven-year-old the implications of Swadeshi, Boycott, Non-Cooperation, Civil Disobedience and Quit India Movement. It takes an incredible amount of patience to keep your cool when she invariably blurts out that Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan was born on 15th August 1947, and hence the date that is celebrated as Teachers' Day all over India.

It made me nostalgic as well, I admit: incredibly nostalgic: I remember botching up my own history exams, one after the other, and managing to scrape through with something merely honourable in the Board Exams. But then, everyone knows I'm a hypocrite, so I kept losing my temper from the morning.

I'd rather be honest. I am not pretentious. And unlike some people, I won't always agree that fatherhood is a bliss: it comes mostly with joyous memories, but there are some horrible downs. And yesterday was one of those days when I was on the brink of losing it.

**

The television was on mute. Through the corner of the eye, while busy getting infuriated at messed-up historical dates, Dhoni didn't look too confident, and soon had soon edged one from Anderson. Out came Mishra. Still no sign of Gambhir, though the screen showed him sitting in the dressing-room in complete cricket attire, complete with a helmet.

But Mishra hung around. Hit some fours. And Dravid went on. And on. And on. And got his hundred. His 35th. One that took him past (take your time to read the names again) Gavaskar and Lara. Somewhere they showed that Dravid became the only batsman to have faced five thousand overs in test cricket. Not deliveries. Overs. And he went on.

5.30. Mishra had lofted the last ball before lunch for an outrageous six. Watched the replay. Telly switched off (accompanied by the irritating switch-off tune that Samsung thinks is cute).

***

We had shifted to science: the dental structure of herbivores, the nests of weaverbirds and the benefits of loamy soil. This was more of a comfort zone for both of us. At least it doesn't involve dates. Or names.

***

Mishra falls. Gambhir comes out, all groggy. Puts a dead bat at everything. He seems either very determined or very robotic. Given that he has had concussions the previous day, I make a rather intelligent guess.

Gambhir falls. RP Singh makes merry. Plays some cool strokes. Gets out trying to leave a ball. Sreesanth continues his inherent cuteness by driving one straight to a fielder with Dravid around.

***

Birds have a streamlined body that helps them fly. Down feathers keep a bird's body warm, so newborn birds have a lot of them. Crows perch. Herons wade.

Plants breathe through stomata. They use chlorophyll to make food on their own, something that animals cannot do. The process is called photosynthesis.

Things are improving. History is bad. Science isn't. Parenting isn't that hard, either.

***

We follow-on. Out comes Dravid again. Bats till tea.

***

A friend, The Great Cricket Data Person, texts me about Hutton: about how he had carried his bat, his team had followed on, and had come out to open the batting again. I knew I had to obtain the list. I just had to.

It was tea. She was revising history. I had to pounce upon Cricinfo.

PLAYER            TEAM AGE SCORE TEAM VS  SEASON   2ND INNS
BERNARD TANCRED   SA    23   26*   47 AUS 1888-89    3
BILLY ZULCH       SA    33   43*  103 ENG 1909-10   14
LEN HUTTON        ENG   34  202*  344 WI  1950       2
FRANK WORRELL     WI    32  191*  372 ENG 1957      16
SIDATH WETTIMUNY  SL    26   63*  144 NZ  1982-83    7
DESMOND HAYNES    WI    35   75*  176 ENG 1991      43
RAHUL DRAVID      IND   38  146*  300 ENG 2011      13


Mind you, no one did this at his age. Or while being 0-3 down, mentally dead and buried, written off, mocked at, well, you know what I mean. Or while batting for India. Or with me in a sour mood.

***

The day changed. 5th September comes back as Teachers' Day, and 15th August 1947 is reinstated to its original status. And I loved being a father once again. What the hell was I thinking?

And History, Cricket and Rahul Dravid, I love you. I love you all. And I love you all the most when you combine, like you had done yesterday.

***

PS: Dravid didn't really contribute a second time. And when he left The Oval finally, it was due to a third umpire's glitch. He had managed to lift my mood somehow. And when Tendulkar and Mishra left at stumps, somehow I managed to lift it further by watching Manhattan till goodness-knows-when.This, I guess, added even more to a really good mood - even beyond Fardeen Khan's capacity to ruin it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Me, the rioter

I typically abstain from writing multiple blog posts in a single day, but the moment Apoorva showed me this, I knew I had to do this.

I have always thought - what if I had been a rioter? What would I have done? Would I have burned down houses? Killed mercilessly? Taken children away from their parents? Plundered?

Nah. Had I been a rioter, this is the most I have had done. I'm sure of this. Or maybe something as docile.

video

Tumse achchha kaun hai?

Pinaki Prasad Mitra was one of my favourite teachers in school. He was your mathematics teachers right out of the textbook: an uncanny resemblance with Professor Shonku; an obsession with mathematics; a remarkable absent-mindedness; a certain dislike for little children (for the simple reason that they did not know calculus); one of those people who, despite being a remarkably brilliant scholar, chose to teach in a school that was not reputed for paying a high salary; and someone who, when robbed of his limited savings by a deceiving promoter, paid regular visits to the crook in prison with a lunch: আহা রে, জেলের খাবার খেয়ে থাকবে কীভাবে? (how can one survive on prison food?).

He was also one for anecdotes. One of them went like this:
I was in college when I first watched Brahmachari. I was sitting open-mouthed in the theatre through the entire movie; and in the climax, when Shammi Kapoor drove his motorcycle UP the stairways, I asked myself, "what am I doing, wasting my time studying differential equations?" I went on to watch Brahmachari many more times.
This was no mean statement, coming from a person who gave had given his life to the rather high-profile realm of calculus.

***

If I needed to look for an antithesis of my professor, I did not need to look a lot beyond my family: my father was as non-academic as you can get (mind you, he had managed to become a Mechanical Engineer from Jadavpur University), and simply breathed Bollywood. He never gets tired speaking of how Rajkumar and Sangam had released on the same date at Priya and Menoka (I keep on forgetting which one had released in which); and how he had tried Rajkumar first, and when the tickets were all sold out, he went for Sangam. Mind you, this meant standing in two queues, waiting for the counter to open, on the same day.

The interesting bit is that whenever he narrates the story to me, he doesn't mention what Sangam was like (other than the fact that it was so long that there were two intervals); he doesn't mention the boredom of standing in long queues; what he does emphasise on are - (i) he had preferred Rajkumar over the much-hyped Sangam; (ii) it was Rajkumar that was sold out, and (iii) he had watched Rajkumar soon after.

Mind you, he had watched Junglee seven times. And all Shammi Kapoor movies that had ever existed. Most of them, if you take the music away, were pretty boring: Shammi Kapoor was inevitably the heir of a rich family that owned the famous double-staircase haveli; he almost always found a not-so-rich woman, mostly in the mountains. And they got married. Of course, there were a few with different plots (An Evening in Paris and Teesri Manzil immediately come to mind); but they were generally similar.

And yet, people loved him. Despite all those commonplace movies, there emerged a star. He wasn't a Dilip Kumar; he never had a classic like a Pyaasa or an Awara or a Gunga Jumna or a Guide. Okayish movies with awesome music was his forte. He would probably had had an average career, but for Mohammad Rafi and Shankar Jaikishan.

But then, he had something that no one else had: charisma. His mannerisms, his style, his body language, his flair, his vitality, his incredible energy had carried him through the fierce competition in the 1960s. There were better actors. But there was no better hero in the decade. The magic he had created was deep enough to outlast Dilip, Raj and Dev in the test of time: just look at the Youtube videos posted on Facebook today, and you'd know.

And today, like everyone else, I feel that a slice of my adolescence has been taken away as well. And yet, I refuse to be sad, since being sad is simply being non-Shammi. Live. Shout. Dance. Make merry. But don't sulk. At least not today.

***

Of course, like everyone, I have my favourite Shammi song as well: not the MOST popular, but you cannot help imitating the zaraa paas aao bit; especially if you're a teenager, watching Rangoli on a Sunday morning and trying his best at some uncharacteristic dance and echoing the song in the most non-melodious of voices:
I'd have loved to say RIP Shammi Kapoor. But Shammi Kapoor can never rest in peace. For that matter, Shammi Kapoor can never rest. Had he rested, he'd not have been Shammi Kapoor.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The second milestone

I had managed to time my 100th post with a milestone, and had planned the 2,000th test as the milestone to time my 200th post with. However, my laziness made sure that it wasn't well-timed enough.

Then memories raced back to a students' mess room with Arvind, BLN, Apoorva and some other guys baptising this rookie to the legacy that goes by the name of Treasure Hunt, ISI Kolkata. And, well, nothing but this image seemed appropriate for this post:
Thanks everyone for helping me make it to my 200th. It's been a wonderful journey with you all.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Playing cricket

It was ten minutes to tea. I was putting my daughter to sleep after telling her a couple of made-up stories. I was checking the score on my cellphone, and for whatever reason they weren't updating after 65.5 overs.

Then Somnath called. Somewhat bizarre, I thought. What might have prompted a call? What could have happened in that last ball? I mean, a pathetic long-hop hit for a six or something - but surely he wasn't calling for that? And why wasn't Cricinfo updating the score?

To quote Cricinfo, this was the case:
Oh dear, what's going on here? Morgan flicked it to deep square, where Praveen made a comical attempt at saving the ball, it looked funny but he actually did cut it off. The fielder thought it was four but it wasn't, the England batsmen thought it was four and by the time the throw came back in the batsmen were out their crease thinking it was tea. Off came the bails and now India are appealing for a run out! It could be out, should be even? That's pretty careless of the batsmen but had the umpires called tea? This Test has had everything, what can the umpires do here?


I saw the replays. I got furious at Ganguly's criticisms of Dhoni during the tea-interval. Of course Bell was out. Of course he was. Why was Ganguly, of all people, criticising Dhoni, who was already under severe blows by the British media?

Then the unthinkable happened. Bell walked out to bat. Apparently Flower and Strauss had walked up to the Indian dressing room, and had asked Dhoni to withdraw his decision (Diptakirti had pointed out that had Ganguly been the captain, he'd have made them wait forever outside the dressing room), and Dhoni had consented.

My initial reaction was that of anger. We had toiled hard for two sessions and could not dislodge Bell. When we had finally managed to get him, how can he let him off this easily? We had not done anything illegal, so why undo it? It shall possibly cost us the test, the series, and bigger than everything, the hard-earned no. 1 spot.

But when the anger subsided, I realised. I suppose my initial anger can be forgiven: after all, it took Dhoni all of the tea-interval to realise the act as well.

The past decade was ruled by a bunch of very competitive cricketers from Australia. They were competitive, they were professional, they were ruthless. They were, in the opinion of many, one of the best sides the world has ever seen, if not the best. They were an awesome pack.

We are a lesser team. We're not big fish - it's just a case of a smaller pond. But, unlike them, we are aware of the responsibilities of being the number one side in the world. We do realise that there are things more important than winning: it's not only about winning matches; it's also about acting as role models to the world.

We have potentially lost a test, the series and the number one slot (maybe we might be able to salvage one or two of them, but it seems quite improbable). What we have managed to do, however, is help cricket emerge as the undisputed champion in the global sport supremacy.

We might have got Bell out. It would have been legal, of course. But it would not have been cricket, you see. And that's what it's all about, isn't it? When you feign an injury and claim a foul, no one says "it's not football". We cricket-lovers have always drooled over the aspects of the queen of sports that makes her reign over other lesser sports.

I had decided to choose cricket as the sport of my passion over two and a half decades back. And have fallen more and more in love, ever since. Moments like these reconfirm my decision. I have chosen the best sport possible, and there's no doubt about that.

England shall win the test. Cricket shall win the world. Yet again.

We're not the best no. 1 side that there was. But we've behaved like one. Thanks MSD, for making me seriously proud of you twice in the span of four months. Thanks for playing cricket.

***

And just in case you think he has been soft, how many of you would have the balls to do what he has done, with the test, series and rank at stake, knowing fully that the media would tear him apart if things go wrong as a result? It takes immense heart to do whatever is right; more so if the other option seems really easy and favourable to do.

But then, the easier option wouldn't have been cricket, right?


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