Blogger on a break

Right, folks, I’m off for a bit — some travel ahead of me, to deal with family-related issues. I’ll be gone tomorrow through July 4; will try and get one episode of Bhimsen in on Monday, but outside of that, blogging resumes next weekend.

Be well, all — see you when I get back.

Potty about the potty

He also reportedly autographed the toilet he used on a visit to local politician and Hindu nationalist firebrand Bal Thackeray, who invited him to the city. Thackeray is said to still proudly point out the signed loo.

In a statement, Thackeray, now 83, recalled Jackson’s dancing. “How many people can dance that way? You’d break your neck… He represents certain values in America that India should not have qualms in accepting,” he said.

For your WTF files. Incidentally — anyone care to ask Thackeray to spell out those American values MJ represents that we should accept? Didn’t someone say there’s no fool like an… forgot what I was going to say.

The perverse perfection of tyranny

We are participants in the sense that we are moral observers in this morass where we may also have our sympathies, clear notions of who is right and right, which side is more correct than the other. But ultimately we are not, nor can we be, soldiers—that is a condition that lies on the other side of a very clear boundary line, at least in my mind.

But back to Saddam’s Iraq, the Iraq of Kamel Sachet’s life, which Steavenson explores so searchingly in this book. The thing about the citizens —really, they were subjects, not citizens—of Saddam’s Iraq is that they were both victims and victimizers. Saddam had forced them to be. There is an analogy in my mind with the sickening story of that Austrian man who raped his daughter and then kept her, and then their many offspring, locked in a basement for twenty-four years. In other words, Saddam brutalized his own people at will, and he also forced them to sleep with him and to kill one another and to stay silent about it all.

This was the perverse perfection of his tyranny. He created a society of victims, a society that, toward the end, lived in order to exalt him for victimizing them and to laud him for keeping them as his hostages. He created a wall of fear around his people and a national belief that only he could protect them from the terrible world that waited outside.

Former Cricinfo staffer and currently Open magazine correspondent Rahul Bhatia sent me this link to a fascinating discussion in the New Yorker —  and the first thought that struck me as I read was that if you substituted ‘Saddam’ with ‘BCCI’, you’d still be on the money.

The link came appropos. Two days ago, while writing this post on conflict of cricketing interests, I needed to refresh my memory on the connection between Suresh Chellaram and Lalit Modi. I called a very good friend, who happened to be travelling on BCCI-related work just then.

‘Are you alone? Can you talk?’, I asked. ‘Of course,’ he said. So I asked him what I needed to know. ‘What kind of question are you asking?’, he said, and the line went dead. He called me back after a few minutes, presumably from a more santized environment, and even so answered my question in a rush, and called off saying he’d get in touch with me ‘later’, when he was done with his work.

The inherent paranoia in his reaction was hardly novel. In my years of covering cricket for Rediff, I’ve encountered it repeatedly, at all levels of the cricket hierarchy. Senior players who had gold-plated guarantees of their place in the side and in the public’s affections have called to talk of things that concerned them/the team, and almost every such conversation invariably ended with ‘Please don’t quote me by name, don’t even identify me as a senior member of the side or whatever’.

On one occasion I called a very senior administrator and asked if I could get a copy of the BCCI’s statement of accounts [a document that is, or should be, in the public domain]. He hung up. Two days later, I got a call from someone who identified himself as a friend of this administrator, and asked me to meet him in a bar known to be a gay hangout, in one of the bylanes behind the Taj. I sat at a table, waiting, at the appointed hour; this stranger walked up, sat opposite me, refused refreshment, slipped me a bulky brown-paper parcel, and left after telling me to open it after I got home. It was the kind of scene you would expect in a John le Carre novel, not one you encounter as a reporter doing a harmless story on cricket and its finances.

The BCCI controls the media, Shekhar Gupta had said in his article, to which you can only add, and how! As a direct result of some stories we did at the time based on those statements of accounts, the BCCI banned Rediff from stadiums in India. The organization didn’t need to send out an official memo; it merely kept turning down our applications for accreditation to cover Tests and ODIs; when we asked why, we got official sounding guff for the record about the ‘internet’ not being recognized, but off record, the officials — including then secretary JY Lele — told us the orders came from ‘the top’, and was linked to our coverage of the BCCI.

There in essence is the cricket journalist’s dilemma. You can make a career out of endlessly recycling the sort of pap that will not give cause for official offense; look squiggle eyed at its activities, though, and the BCCI will freeze you out, deny you access to the sport you are supposed to cover. So which reporter, knowing his job depends on it, is going to go out of his way to look under the rocks to see what crawls out from under? Far easier to write about the consuming importance of an essentially pointless one day series, or create tales of dressing room friction [the BCCI has no problem, note, with players copping flak from the media; it only bars commentary and criticism of its own activities].

That is why the real story of Indian cricket in its most seminal phase, from the 1990s through the 2000s, will never be written — and we are all the poorer for that silence: the fans, the players involved, cricket literature in general and yes, even the BCCI.

The shadow and substance

John McWhorter, who teaches in Columbia University’s Department of English and Comparative Literature and writes extensively on race relations, has a piece in Forbes on the passing of Michael Jackson worth your while because it differs from the flood of capsule biographies and evaluative tributes and frames MJ against the backdrop of race.

He wanted to be something else. Just what he wanted to be was hard to say. We got used to him over the years, but in the long view, it was downright odd how comfortable all of America was with a black man from Gary who made himself look as much like a white woman as possible, spoke in falsetto, and cherished the company of little boys to an extent which was, whatever one’s verdict on you-know-what, distinctly peculiar.

This was the King of Pop? What did it say about America that this was the man who made the best-selling album of all time, and whose later albums, like Bad and Dangerous, had sales that would have made superstars of any newcomer, but only seemed like letdowns in comparison to the once-in-a-lifetime success of Thriller? What it said was something we are more recently familiar with in the Obama phenomenon.

War reporting

Comments appended to the previous episode of Bhimsen, sent in mail and posted on Twitter indicate a fair degree of ambivalence among readers. Exemplars:

Prahlad Rao: Honestly, I was a tad disappointed with the latest Bhim. May be my expectation was too much. I was expecting more details of the war on Day 1.

Aarushi Chakravarti: You have not yet mentioned anything about sanjay’s role in “live commentary”. I was sort of hoping that there would be some demystifying explanation would come from you.

Those are not the only comments by a long way, but they are typical: What the reader looked for and failed to find [Suresh Anchal wrote in to say he had been “impatiently waiting” for the war to begin, so he could read the descriptors] is detail.

I’d earlier planned on doing an extensive post at the end of the series, addressing a whole heap of issues, but I now reckon a couple of points need to be made if the upcoming episodes are not to invite a similar sense of disappointment in you.

The first, and most obvious, point is about the detailing of the war. When I got to this bit [and I’ll admit to dragging my feet a bit, and making two episodes out of one, simply to postpone the moment when I had to get into ‘war reporting’], I had two directions to go.

Clearly, there is a difference between a fly-on-the-wall narrative that assumes omniscience on the part of the narrator, and permits him to be everywhere, see everything and describe it all in the round, and an individualistic, point of view-driven narrative where the focus would be narrower and events outside the narrator’s experience would not form part of the narrative, no matter how crucial such events were.

There is, for instance, no way Bhim would have had the faintest notion what Krishna was telling Arjuna ahead of the battle, so unlike the many Vyasas who together composed the Mahabharat as we know  it today, there was no room for me to get into an extended treatise based on the Gita.

When Bhim fights, what he sees is the enemy immediately ahead and, at best, what is happening in his immediate vicinity — he couldn’t tell you how Arjuna fought Bhisma, or how Drona repeatedly cut the bow of Dhristadyumna, or any of the other incidents that highlight the traditional narrative. The story here is POV-driven, so the trick for me is to keep the narrative limited to what Bhim could have known about or been part of.

I toyed initially with the idea of using the daily evening strategy meetings as a device to talk of the war outside of Bhim’s own immediate experience. In those meetings, I could have the others narrate what they had seen and heard, and thus fill in the blanks.

I blocked out a couple of episodes that way and then jettisoned them. MT Vasudevan Nair, whose novel Randaamoozham provides the source material for this recreation, apparently came to the same decision — he too skims lightly over the details of the larger war, and throughout keeps the narration in tight focus.

The reason — and I hope that will become apparent in future episodes — is because unlike the Mahabharat, Randaamoozham [and its loose recreation here] is not so much the story of a war as it is of a family.

In an extensive footnote appended to his book, MT says he is merely “giving voice to the many silences” in the original.

“Giving voice to the silences” is a speaking phrase; it is the thought I’ve kept in front of me while writing successive episodes. The exhaustive details of the war are, for those who want them, easily available in print and on the net. I didn’t go there in the episode in question, and I’ll be going there even less in the episodes to come.

What is missing from the existing narrative is the sense of what happened behind the scenes. Forget the traditional trope of this being a battle between good and evil — what it is, when stripped down to its essence, is the story of a family fighting for survival.

Bound tight by ties of blood and of shared suffering, such a family would come together against the perceived enemy, yes. But even so, as the pressures mount and stress escalates, there will be disagreements — even violent, bitter quarrels, recriminations.

The popular version of the Mahabharat occasionally glances at such; this version will focus more closely on these, at times in extreme close-up. It will, in that sense, “give voice to the silences” and, in the process, paint a picture not of children of god on a divinely ordained mission where the outcome is a given, but of a group of human beings with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, united by a shared mission yet occasionally divided by their own personalities, their world views.

Long story short, what you won’t find in the episodes going forward is exhaustive detail of who fought who how; what you will find — I hope — is a narrative that slips into the silences that lurk beneath the sounds of war.

Michael Jackson, RIP

A very good friend I met for a smoke just now is still all teary-eyed about the passing of the ‘King of Pop’, and she is not the only one — a colleague told me of someone who’s mother is all broken up over the news. And they are not alone — on the New York Times, a graphical interface collates tributes from people around the world touched by the man and his music.

Michael Jackson’s passing leaves me emotionally unmoved, and only touches me in the John Donne sense. Remember?

No man is an island,  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Perhaps my lack of ‘feeling’ stems from Michael Jackson’s music not having been an integral part of my growing up, in the way Hendrix and Joplin and Dylan, Led Zep, Floyd and Purple were to name just a few. I did for a while play the thriller album on endless loop, and I’ll confess to practising the moonwalk before a mirror till I managed a fair approximation of the move — but that is about it; otherwise I remained largely untouched by the endless soap opera of his life, while still occasionally listening to his music on my IPod.

Coincidentally, two weekends ago I was reading this piece in the Guardian by Peter Conrad [if you are checking out my Delicious feed on the sidebar here, you probably read it too].

I’ll leave you with two videos:

And this one, of Moonwalk down the ages:

One more: MJ in India

Come to think of it, the man had magic that spanned generations. I remember at the time choking over articles in Samnaa and elsewhere where Bal Thackeray gushed about the pop icon — articles complete with pictures of the loo in Matoshri that Jackson used.

Update: There is on Time magazine a ton of related stuff [actually, there is MJ stuff on every media site worldwide — way too much to sift through]. Among points of interest, a compilation of Twitter tributes by celebrities, and Time’s compilation of top ten MJ moments. And Mental Floss on his early days.