Sita Sings the Blues on Facebook

From Sita Sings the Blues

From Sita Sings the Blues

On my way out the door, two links:

Sita Sings the Blues — on which more later; for now, enjoy in full. [A Wired interview; an NYT story; Roger Ebert’s review]

And the Ramayana on Facebook.

Later, peoples.

The WTF quotient

Thanks to Rahul Bhatia of Open magazine and the Green Channel blog my WTF quota for the day has been met. This is the opening gambit:

Twenty years ago, give or take a month, The Satanic Verses was banned in India. Over the course of this month, there will be no dearth of writing on the ban of books, but on this anniversary, the real tragedy is not that book bans are still alive in the country but that there is a diminishment of the kind of literary ambition the book represents. Today you would be hard put to find Indian fiction in English that anybody would want banned.

It’s the kind of rant that begs a response. And it got its needings courtesy another friend, Chandrahas Choudhury [Scroll down to the comments].

PS: Got some work to do off-site. See you guys tomorrow.

The Lost Reader

The Lost Symbol

The Lost Symbol

So on my way home last night I picked up a clutch of books, among them Dan Brown’s latest — which, when the literary police weren’t looking, managed to slip out from behind the chain link fence, evade 24/7 surveillance by closed circuit cameras, and hop onto the bookshelf at the Odyssey outlet in Chembur’s K Star Mall, which earlier in the day had endured a fake police drill and real panic.

Read a few pages late last night, and a few more during the commute to work this morning, and got bored — to the point where I actually put it aside for later and started on something else.

Apparently I’m not the only one: in Mint, Samanth Subramaniam is unimpressed; ditto Robert Wiersma in National Post. From the latter:

The Da Vinci Code has sold an estimated 80 million copies in more than forty languages; critically, however, it is generally — though not universally — reviled (and if the critical response isn’t negative enough, you should spend some time on-line in book and writers’ forums, where mention of Brown is usually accompanied, one assumes, by the sound of spitting.)

The critical response is understandable, but misguided. By most accepted critical yardsticks, Brown’s work is lacking: his prose is workmanlike, at best; his characterizations are crepe-paper thin; his dialogue (if one can refer to earnestly delivered lectures as such) is stilted and unnatural; and his plot developments stretch credibility to the breaking point.

What the standard critical approach fails to take into account, however, is that none of these things actually matter.

It is wrongheaded to analyze Dan Brown’s fiction using the same indices one would use on a new book by Alice Munro; each work requires examination on its own terms. The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons earned their legions of readers because Brown does what he sets out to do very well: the novels are story machines, whose main purpose is to wrap readers within the narrative and push them through it.

The phrase “page-turner” has never applied to a novel so well as it does to the works of Dan Brown. Few readers would find themselves sacrificing sleep to find out what happens next in a Michael Ondaatje novel, say, in the same way that few Dan Brown readers are concerned about the quality of his prose.

WashPost's Monica Hesse and David Montgomery

WashPost's Monica Hesse and David Montgomery

The New York Times reckons it’s a good page-turner, even while it gets a bit snarky about Brown’s craft, or lack thereof.

Also, the author uses so many italics that even brilliant experts wind up sounding like teenage girls. And Mr. Brown would face an interesting creative challenge if the phrases “What the hell

…?,” “Who the hell … ?” and “Why the hell … ?” were made unavailable to him. The surprises here are so fast and furious that those phrases get quite the workout.

Then again, Mr. Brown’s excitable, hyperbolic tone is one the guilty pleasures of his books.

The Washington Times suggests the book is like a roller-coaster ride: thrilling, entertaining, over. And its rival, the Washington Post, chooses Brownian motion over Brownian logic.

The Washington Post deputed two reporters to a symbol hunt; elsewhere — be warned, this is one big spoiler — the Guardian gets someone to actually ‘live read’ the thing.

One of these days I’ll get down to reading the rest of this thing, if only to be able to nod intelligently the next time bar talk turns to the book. And, “what the hell”, maybe I’ll live-Tweet the process.

John Crace 'live-reads' Dan Brown's latest

John Crace 'live-reads' Dan Brown's latest

Doing the split

For discussion and debate: Srinivas Bhogle, Harsha’s geeky statistically inclined elder brother, does a riff on what in ODI-reformist circles is now being called the Sachin Plan.

I’m personally all for sensible reform, but am not so sure the Plan will serve the purpose. For instance, Srinivas points out that the boredom of the middle overs phase will be eliminated. I’m not convinced.

What will happen IMHO is that boredom — otherwise known as the accumulation phase — will be split into two halves, because the nature of the contest does not change simply because you divide it down the middle. The overall objective remains as before: You have 50 overs, and 10 wickets, to try and score more runs than the opposition. Whether you get those 50 overs in one job lot or spread over two ‘innings’, that objective does not change.

Hence, neither will the approach. Teams will still look to maximize run-scoring during the first 10 overs. If they are going really good, they’ll call for a batting PP overs 10-15. If not, they’ll look to consolidate once the restrictions are off, using placement and running as the main scoring options [the part we find 'boring'].

At the 25 over mark, the one thing that will happen is that the other team will come in, and we’ll get 10 overs of preliminary fireworks, before that team moves into consolidation phase. At the end of 25 overs of the second team’s innings, team one comes back with the bat — and does what? Exactly what it would do in the 26th over of a conventional ODI: look to score runs with least possible risk, while conserving wickets for the big push in the final ten overs. [That is to say, overs 15-25 of Team 2, innings one, will be followed by overs 26-40 of Team 1, innings two, and both teams during that phase will in most cases bat conservatively, just like they are doing now].

On the pro side, the split will negate to some extent the role the toss plays in determining the result; it will also to some extent negate the dew factor [only to an extent, because the dew factor typically gets worse as the night lengthens, so the bowling side in the third innings will be somewhat better off than the bowling side in the fourth innings]. Another thing it could do is produce more results in rain-affected games.

Currently, we often have the situation of one team starting out, batting 40-some overs before the rain comes down, and team two either finding an artificially tweaked target in a lesser number of overs, or not getting a bat at all. In the split formula, two 25-over innings would have been completed in the time we now take to complete one innings, so if teams are aware of rain on the horizon, they’ll likely look to go flat out through their first innings, looking to win on the score at that point if the second half of the game is rained out.

Srinivas says the split format could produce interesting tactical and strategic changes. Let’s hear hypotheticals from you.

State of fear

The last time there was so much of a fuss over the “future of the game” was when Chris Gayle in one of his typically nonchalant riffs seemed to suggest that Test cricket should die — the emphasis on ‘seemed’, because that is not what he actually said.

There is a world of difference between saying ‘Test cricket should die’ and ‘I wouldn’t be sad if Test cricket died’ — but that difference was lost in the ensuing furor, with Andrew Strauss leaping to the defense of Tests, various past worthies from the West Indies ‘slamming’ Gayle for his remarks and demanding his head, or at least his captain’s armband, on a platter, and the commentariat writing reams about how Gayle’s statement could be the thin end of a dangerous wedge that could split the cricket world wide open.

Fear is the key

Fear is the key

A character in the Michael Crichton novel State of Fear moots the theory that it is in the

The Culture of Fear

The Culture of Fear

interest of the political class, the scientific/academic establishment and the media to keep people in a state of permanent fear of something or the other. A similar idea drives Barry Glassner’s non-fiction work The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of The Wrong Things.

It certainly seems to be in the interest of the cricket establishment and the media to stoke some fear or other — the imminent demise of the ‘game as we know it’ being the top of the pops. The establishment quaked with this ‘fear’ [and the media recorded every quake] when ODIs began to get popular — and the arguments then were, there is much money to be made [and India, horrors, is the one making it] in ODIs — so, oh, woe betide Tests.

And then, of course, the administration reacted to its own fear by trimming the number of Tests in its global schedule and squeezing in bilateral and multi-lateral ODIs wherever it could, producing a world championship in the format, and then producing an interim ICC Championship as well.

Fear makes you do strange things.

Now, ironically, the same establishment is in a pother about the future of — ODIs and Tests!

The latest to catch a ‘grave’ dose of the fear infection is Stuart Clark:

“What scares me the most is where does it leave the game if people just go chasing large sums of money for a bit of hit-and-giggle,” Clark said. “I think we as players all owe it to Test cricket to try and keep it afloat.

Reminds me of late 1995, when a bunch of us quit our jobs with the ‘traditional’ media to join the yet to be formed Rediff. Friends reacted with shock. ‘What’s wrong with you? You want to give up journalism?!’ Clark, in similar fashion, contrasts ‘the game’ [uttered reverently, to mean Tests] with ‘hit and giggle’ to mean T20s — and to think that a decade ago, that is what they were calling one day cricket. Here’s Clark again:

“I know the administration is working hard at it, but I personally hold grave fears for where the game is heading. But while tournaments like the Champions League are very lucrative, I’d personally like to think at this stage the players at New South Wales would prefer to play for Australia.”

Ah yes, well, as someone said in the comments field of one of my posts yesterday, thank god there are still top players prepared to put country and honor — and even family — above filthy lucre. Like Michael Clarke. Like, so. And on page two of the same article, there is this little nugget about the now fear-raddled Stuart Clark:

Stuart Clark ($US250,000 reserve) almost pulled out this week but remains a starter, according to his manager Richard Errington. “We were thinking, ‘Why bother,’ but the BCCI said, ‘No, we want you there.’ Whether he gets picked up or not, we don’t know. If we do, fantastic, if we don’t, Stuey will be starting his law degree,” he said.

Tag line of the story: Stuart Clark, even at a low reserve price, didn’t attract a single bid at the February 2009 auction. Andrew Flintoff, a day after turning freelance, is already being courted — in Clark’s home country. [Brief digression: Andrew Flintoff might be well served, financially, by his agent — he is the best judge of that. But Flintoff might seriously want to consider getting himself a new press agent — someone who doesn’t make his principal a laughing stock each time he opens his mouth. The other day there was the bit about turning freelance so he could experience different cultures; today there is this bit about refusing the England contract so he can bungee jump. For god’s sake: Just say Flintoff refused the binding tie of a central contract because with his body deteriorating, he cannot last the grind any more and needs to be able to pick and chose, and also because with his use by date approaching, he needs to maximize his earnings. That statement would be unexceptional. It also will have the advantage of being the truth.]

Moral of the story: Those who can, earn; those who can’t, express ‘grave fear’. Bonus moral because I’m feeling generous today: Not everyone can turn freelance, because not everyone has this undefined but very real ‘It’ factor to command the kind of remuneration that makes freelancing worthwhile [why do you suppose even good journalists prefer the security of a steady job to the uncertainties of writing freelance?]

Michael Atherton makes a similar argument in his piece in the Times:

To describe Flintoff as cricket’s first freelance cricketer is a nonsense: Flintoff is doing what generations have done before him, players such as Sir Garfield Sobers, who played for West Indies when international cricket was less demanding than now, but then plied his trade for Nottinghamshire and South Australia, and whoever else would pay him to do so, outside his international commitments. Cricket grew initially as a gambling game, the best players little more than hired hands for gambling gentlemen.

Flintoff’s position is only noteworthy now because it flies against the trend in recent years, which has been for cricketers to tie themselves exclusively to their national boards in return for decent remuneration and extracurricular benefits denied to earlier generations. It is unlikely, though, that Flintoff’s move in a different direction will encourage others to do the same, despite the whisperings from the Professional Cricketers’ Association, which is agitating for a greater role at the expense of a governing body that it deems to be incompetent.

After all, there are few cricketers in Flintoff’s position. Flintoff is not unique, but there are precious few with the reputation already made, the financial clout and the personality to gamble on going it alone. Reputations are still made in international sport, not franchise-based domestic tournaments, and sponsors demand the exposure that is driven by international-based competition. His move does not herald the era of the freelance mercenary, moving magnet-like to whichever franchise pays the most.

In passing, note Atherton’s point underlined in the clip above, ref the recent trend of cricketers to tie themselves to the national boards in return for security. The supplementary point is, a player offered a central contract had no choice, not really: He could either sign, and enjoy a fairly decent wage even if during the period of his contract he wasn’t playing at a high enough level to be picked for the team, or he could sit on the outside looking in, and hoping to get the odd game because the salaried players weren’t good enough.

What has changed now is that players — those who bring high skill and the X factor — have a choice. And that is what is throwing the establishment into a state of fear — a fear of its economic ecosystem being damaged, which it tries to pass off as a more altruistic fear for the ‘future of the game’. [While on this, a story from my archives: the Wall Street Journal on the rise of the ‘rabble’.]

In a post on the subject of Flintoff and ‘the future of the game’ yesterday, I was making the point that much of this ‘crisis’ owes to an administration that refuses to rationalize its international calendar, to give meaning and context to its playing schedule. Here, on a similar theme, is Grame Smith:

“I don’t think you can blame the individual, but it’s an interesting time for cricket, and interesting to see where it goes now,” Smith told Cricinfo. “The crucial aspect is the decisions the leadership makes in the future. The ICC needs to give cricket a good direction, and crucial to that is how they look at the Future Tours Programme, because the decisions they make around that are going to be so important for the future of the game.”

And:

“With the greatest respect, the seven ODIs taking place in England at the moment are more for financial benefit than meaningful cricket,” he said. “People want to see strength for strength, they want to see international sides trying their best in competitive tours. I mean, the Ashes was great to watch, it was competitive down to the last Test match, and speaking for myself as a cricketer, that’s how you want to see all cricket being played.

“But all these meaningless tours just sap your body, especially when you are playing away from home for a long time,” he added. “I think the ICC needs to really look at the format going forward, and really take control of the international game.”

Happiness is…

…an unending interview with Viru Sehwag.

I’d thought, while posting on the first part yesterday, that even Sehwag would be hard put to top that effort. Boy, was I wrong — part two, today, is a laugh a minute then think for two roller coaster ride through Viru’s weird and wonderful world.

To isolate one gem from a diadem is to do the interviewee a disservice, but still: I read through this with a broadening smile, and at one point burst out laughing. This one:

What about being in the zone? Tendulkar said that what people call the zone, he calls the subconscious mind. “… All you need to do is look at the ball and play and the body is going to react. The concentration is such that you don’t think of anything else.” What’s your definition of being in the zone?

I have asked him many times what the zone is. He tells me that’s when “I see nothing except the ball”. I ask how that is possible. I have never felt something like that. I have asked Rahul Dravid the same thing. He says sometimes when he is in really good form, he sees only the ball – and not the sightscreen, the non-striker, the umpire or who is bowling, he just sees only the ball. But I have never entered that zone even if I’ve scored triple-centuries twice. Maybe I will enter that zone they talk about in future.

Only a Sehwag could have tossed in that reference to his triple centuries with such a precisely calibrated mix of insouciance and self-deprecation. And only a Sehwag would remain blissfully unaware that the zone is his natural state where, for the others, it is something to aspire to and occasionally attain.