The sky is falling

Indians are worried, says this story. Turns out, one Indian American is “worried” about whether the Hindu religion has will be properly portrayed. Guess who?

It is a splendid, pure, exalted form of worry, that exists in its own space. The worrier doesn’t need to read a shooting script, or have any clue what the film is about — but since when does any of that stop said gent from being “worried”, and from issuing statements highlighting that worry?

Oscar winning actress Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman) will reportedly be in India in the third week of September to shoot Eat, Pray, Love, and Hindus in the US are not too happy about it. Many are concerned about the authenticity of the depiction of the ashram and Hinduism in the film.

Indian American Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA), said that Hinduism and its belief system were quite often misunderstood and incorrectly depicted outside India and urged the filmmakers to stick to authentic traditions.

Based on Pushcart Prize winner Elizabeth Gilbert’s spirituality/travel memoir, the film is currently being shot in New York till the end of August. After a two-week stint in Italy, shooting will move to India to film ashram sequences. Some of the Indian crew of Slumdog Millionaire will be helping in the India part of the production, though the shooting schedule is being kept hush-hush, according to reports.

In the book, Gilbert writes about coming to India to learn the “art of devotion”. A critic has defined her depiction of the spiritual four-month quest as “the worst in Western fetishisation of Eastern thought and culture”.

Indians are anxious to see how perfectly Roberts does her job of cleaning ashram floors as a part of her devotional duty, reciting 182-verse Sanskrit chants, and going through gruelling hours of meditation while being feasted on by mosquitoes.

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The compleat letter writer

Sometime last week, I’d thrown up a link to this brilliant letter Groucho Marx wrote when Warner Brothers hit him with a notice of copyright violation.

A more contemporary master is Australian humorist David Thorne [website] — I’ve been a fan since the time he responded to a bank notice about settling an overdrawn account by submitting the drawing of a spider. More recently, some unsuspecting bloke moved into an adjacent building and decided to have a housewarming party — and by the time David was done with him… never mind, read.

And now he’s topped his own standards, in this exchange with a landlord who didn’t know just what she was getting into when she sent him a reminder that he was not allowed to keep pets in his apartment. Statutory Warning: Don’t read at work, especially if you are the kind with a very loud laugh.

The seven stages of fan

Saad Shafqat writes this of the Pakistani fan, but I’d think it holds equally true for the rest of us. So which type of fan are you?

Ashes to ashes

One day you’re a hero, the next you’re a bum, so what the hell.

Babe Ruth wasn’t the first sportsman to experience the vertiginous nature of sport, and he won’t be the last — but there has rarely been as precipitous a descent from the heights as the one being experienced just now by Andrew Strauss and his men.

A month ago, England roared; its team, the media held, was ready to challenge for supremacy in the Test world. From that to ‘ill-tempered rabble’ is some fall.

They were a rabble, an ill-tempered bunch of no-hopers and the decline was so steep, so unbroken in every phase of the match that mattered, it was impossible not to conclude that it will take a lot more than a miraculous flight to Lourdes by Flintoff and Pietersen to restore the damage – and any competitive balance to an Ashes series which some of the more romantically inclined believed was within England’s grasp on Friday morning.

What came to pass was rather more than a defeat. It was an investigation conducted by Ricky Ponting and his team into what many believe is the ruling culture of so many areas of English sport.

Culture is a fancy word, though, for a deficiency which has always been fatal in the upper echelons. The killer weakness is an inability to build victory upon victory and take each success as a stepping stone to a more permanent condition of strength rather than see it as some reason for premature and spurious self-congratulation. The former course is the Australian way. That’s how they managed to arrive here as a once great force roundly declared to be on the skids – and then leave so far ahead of their opponents, psychologically and in performance, that it is almost impossible to imagine any meaningful retaliation by England at The Oval next week.

Yesterday morning it was illuminating to walk through the corridor where the Australians waited to take the field. Their exhilaration at the prospect of victory, their sense of pride that they had been to the hardest place most of the team had experienced and emerged as the masters of every situation was so tangible you could cut it.

Ponting was clean-shaven and his eyes glowed more fiercely than any competitor you could remember since the best of the great fighter Roberto Duran.

England by contrast were plainly entombed in the knowledge that they had not even managed the odd hint of meaningful defiance.

The shambolic nature of England’s play in the fourth Test is also the theme of Paul Hayward’s column.

In 48 turbulent hours, England have lurched from being one-nil up with two Tests to go to a team who dare aspire no higher than victory-by-massive-underdog. There have been phases in this Test when they have surrendered all credibility as a fighting force. They have been a team of recidivists – mentally soft compared to the relentless self-improvers Ricky Ponting has inspired to shed their no-name image.

When Australia finish England off, two outcomes will keep the urn in Ponting’s mitt. A draw or an Australian victory at The Oval will preserve the status quo. England would go to Surrey’s home with a much stiffer task than in 2005, when they needed only to share the match to release a tsunami of celebratory fizz.

Retain or regain: which would you bet on? To believe England will need to book Trafalgar Square again (please, no) you would have to dismiss the first six sessions in Leeds as an aberration, a cosmic bad-hair experience, prompted by the loss of Andrew Flintoff and a hotel fire alarm. More to the point, England will have needed to bed down last night believing they are still capable of conquering a side that bowled them out for 102 and then struck 445 before scything down the best English batsmen again, this time for 78 runs.

There is a lot of forgetting and ignoring to be done. And learning. England’s bowlers stuck their hand in the fire for two days running, thus demonstrating a curious inability to learn from pain. The evacuation alarm klaxon that sent them on to the street outside their hotel at 4.30am on Friday was still ringing in their souls by the time they saw that Headingley demands precision and tightly marshalled aggression rather than the short-ball machismo that furnished Australia with so many runs.

That last bit strikes a chord. Watching the early passages of the Australian first innings, I was struck by the way a good tactic turned into an albatross so quickly. In the initial overs, the England bowlers seemed to use the short ball brilliantly to have the Aussies in considerable strife — but by the 6th or 7th over of the innings, the short ball was becoming so predictable, Ponting was waiting on the back foot before Harmison and his mates had even hit their delivery stride.

Mike Atherton says all is not lost: England needs to drop Bell, Bopara and Collingwood and pick Faith, Hope and Freddie — never mind that the last named is being held together by band aids and hope, and the names of the other two don’t show up in the county scoreboards. Scyld Berry adds a fourth name to the list — that of a player who hasn’t turned out for a Test in what, five years? More?

David Gower’s piece meanwhile appears to underline the essential problem England is facing: the best chance to win the Ashes is a result-oriented pitch for the fifth Test, but the problem with that is that England’s fast bowlers have already shown an ability to collectively lose the plot, while the Australian attack is increasingly finding its feet as its bowlers begin to hunt in pairs and Mitchell Johnson appears to return to a measure of form [and then there’s always a fit and ready Brett Lee].

Amidst all the gloom and doom, Martin Johnson predictably has some fun, noting among other things the presence of a light aircraft trailing a ‘Get Well Soon Freddie’ banner in its wake.

Since 2005, England have won more matches without Flintoff than they have with him, which only goes to prove the Mark Twain theory about statistics being closely related to damned lies. Flintoff didn’t take a single wicket at Edgbaston, but he visibly lifted the others with his energy and presence. Here, on the other hand, England’s combined electricity would barely have illuminated a 40-watt bulb.

Which is why, if Flintoff is fit for the final Test, the minimum requirement for the announcement would be the ringing of church bells, a public holiday and a papal puff of white smoke. We can’t be 100% certain just how badly Flintoff’s late withdrawal affected England mentally, but rarely can Headingley have witnessed any team playing with their heads so far up their backsides since the arrest of a pantomime horse here several years ago.

Collectively, the commentary sums up England’s plight quite nicely: the team is deteriorating “in all apartments”, as Justin Langer would did say, and the only antidote anyone can think of is the hope that a Flintoff in some questionable state of fitness will appear on the field, complete with magic wand. Against that, Australia has systematically set right the problems that plagued it in the first and second Tests: Shane Watson in the makeshift slot of opener has nailed his third successive fifty; Michael Clarke and Marcus North are competing to score 100s; Ricky Ponting’s batting form is looking increasingly better; Siddle has been aggressive and Hilfenhaus methodical and both have learnt to bowl as a pair; Mitch Johnson is getting back into a groove of sorts and Stuart Clark provides an additional game breaking option…

I’m getting to where I wish I’d put some decent money on the 2-1 Oz win I’ve been talking up since this thing began — could have made up for some of my losses in the more unpredictable stock market.

In passing, and at a tangent, is Shane Warne gently accusing Langer of plagiarism, here?

Contrarian view

WADA is proving to be the gift that goes on giving. Here’s Mukul Kesavan, driving the argument straight down the middle of the road.

But it isn’t quite as simple as that. Cricket isn’t the only sport that has resisted WADA’s increasingly stringent testing regimes. In March this year, football’s two most powerful bodies, UEFA and FIFA, rejected WADA’s new code and asked the organisation to reconsider its rules given the special nature of team sport. Football’s administrators argued that there was a basic difference between the individual athlete who trained privately, on his own, and footballers who trained collectively six days a week and were easy to locate. Like the BCCI, they asked for an exemption for players for the off-season “…in order to respect their private lives”.

Towards the end of April, WADA and FIFA were reported to have resolved their differences, with FIFA’s president offering full compliance with WADA’s regulations. FIFA’s English affiliate couldn’t have got the message because in early August the Guardian reported that the FA was successfully resisting WADA’s plan to test its elite international players. UK Sport, acting on behalf of WADA, had settled for elite women players and junior players. FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, was pressing for “high-risk categories”, namely injured players, to be target-tested, not leading international players. This sounds remarkably as if FIFA and the English FA are asking for exemptions for their male internationals and offering their women, children and wounded as substitutes.

And it isn’t only football: the administrators of team sports like basketball, ice hockey and volleyball have all asked for clarifications. The BCCI is a soft target: a recent opinion piece on Cricinfo mocked as nonsensical the BCCI’s invocation of the Indian constitution’s guarantee of privacy. It’s useful to note that the BBC news site reported earlier this year that “[…] sixty-five Belgian sportspeople have launched a legal challenge claiming that the intrusive nature of the WADA code breaks European Union privacy laws”. If Yuvraj Singh’s objections to the WADA code seem ludicrous because he’s widely seen as one of a bunch of indulged Indian cricketers, we might attend to Rafael Nadal’s objection to the new code, or that of Andy Murray, who said : “[…] these new rules are so draconian that it makes it almost impossible to live a normal life”. According to the BBC, “[…] the British Athletics Commission (BAC) chief executive warned that the tougher regulations meant a number of British athletes would retire if they missed two tests rather than risk the possibility of a ban and the subsequent suspicion if they were absent on a third occasion”.

Normal service — the question of why the BCCI has to play spoiler — resumes with Anand Vasu on his blog.

But what exactly is the problem? Sportsmen around the world have signed on and although they complain about the tediousness of the exercise all just grit their teeth and get on with it. Just when the International Cricket Council thought they were doing the decent thing, adopting a globally accepted norm, the Board of Control for Cricket in India said “thanks, but no thanks.”

Just why does the BCCI have to get involved? Why do they have to roadblock pretty much anything the ICC comes up with, and to add insult to injury then call the apex governing body toothless? It’s a bit like asking why Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mt Everest. Simply because it was there to be done and he could do it.

Can India’s players really be complaining about having to pee in a bottle when WADA’s marshals come calling? And even so, since when does the BCCI back the players when they want something? Usually when the board gets its hands dirty there’s either money or power involved. In this case there are no millions to be made, but certainly there’s power to be lost.

Bhimsen: Episode 67

[Episode 66] [Archives]

Duryodhana leapt high. I bent at the knee, going low in a counter.

In a move I had never seen before, his left hand came off the mace. The right hand slid down the handle till his fingers held it by the tip, and then he flicked it at my face like a whip.

I blocked it with ease – and realized too late that the move was meant to distract, not hurt. Even as I moved to defend, Duryodhana lashed out with his leg, smashing his heel against my shoulder and sending me staggering backwards.

We had been fighting for a long time. Or maybe it just felt that way. Early into our bout, I realized that Duryodhana’s mace – his favorite one with the gold-plated handle and the wickedly sharp spikes along the head – was considerably lighter than mine. Whatever it lost in power, it more than made up in the speed with which he could wield the lighter weapon.

All those years ago, when we fought for the first time during the trial of strength, I had won by using my strength, hammering my mace repeatedly against his to tire his wrists and arms.

Thinking to repeat that tactic, I went at him hard from the moment Balarama finished his little speech. “Just in time to watch your two disciples in battle,” Krishna had said as Balarama’s chariot rolled into the glade.

Balarama always spoke of impartiality, of how the Pandavas and Kauravas were equally dear to him and how he wanted no part of our quarrels – but for all that, he had over the years favored Duryodhana, taking him under his wing and teaching him the tricks of the mace.

When war seemed inevitable, Balarama had gone off on an extended pilgrimage to avoid taking sides – but only after he made sure the bulk of the Dwaraka army would fight under the Kaurava flag.

I had listened to his little speech about fair play, about the rules of combat and about making him proud of us, with growing disbelief – did he think this was some contest got up for his amusement?

Duryodhana swung at me – a powerful, underarm swing aimed at the right side of my chest; as my mace met his in a block he disengaged, spun in reverse with startling speed, and swung at my left.

There was no time to bring my mace around. I smothered the impact by stepping into the blow and blocking the handle with my body — but even so it stung, driving the breath out of me and forcing me to one knee.

Duryodhana roared in triumph and charged, swinging; I parried and, still on my knee, spun around with a sweeping strike at his legs that forced him to jump back, giving me room to recover.

What had started off as a contest of speed and strength was slowly turning into a battle of skill and wits. My arms were beginning to feel the strain; I was gasping for breath and struggling with the sweat that poured down my face and into my eyes – and by the look of him, he was as drained as I was.

I sensed desperation in him as our battle dragged on. There was an increased frenzy to his attacks. He must have known his best chance was to finish me off quickly, before my strength and endurance began to wear him down.

I realized I had to change my tactics, find his weakness and figure out how to exploit it.

Duryodhana jumped high, as he had repeatedly done since our battle began, using his lighter mace and his agility to advantage. What made his tactic dangerous was that he kept changing the angle of attack – sometimes he jumped high and swung down at my head; at other times he feinted, forced me into a defensive posture, then waited till he was on the way down to attack me from an angle lower than I was prepared for.

With sudden clarity, I saw the flaw in his tactics – and what I had to do.

I breathed deep to center myself, and settled down to a calculated defense, blocking his attacks without launching any of my own, conserving my strength and waiting for my opportunity.

I had to make him think I was more tired than I was, that my reflexes were slowing down, that it was all I could do to defend — and that he had no reason to fear a sudden counterattack.

Duryodhana changed tack and launched a series of swift attacks, swinging the mace to the left and right with great dexterity and putting all his power into each strike. I countered with force; our maces struck sparks off each other.

Seemingly hard-pressed, I staggered back, letting one hand come off the handle and taking one of his strikes on my body.

Dimly, I heard my brothers yelling encouragement. I shut it all out – their shouts, my rage, the memories of all the insults Duryodhana had visited on us…

It was only a matter of time, I knew, before Duryodhana would go airborne again. This time, as he reached the apex of his jump he swung from the right, aiming for my shoulders and chest. I made as if to block, waited till he was committed and then pulled out of the feint.

To exploit the weakness I had spotted, I knew I had to take a serious blow – and this was it. I did the best I could to minimize the impact, but even so his mace landed on my side with a thud that drove the breath out of me. I bit down hard on the searing pain, spun around and using the momentum of my turn and the full strength of my arms, I smashed my mace against his momentarily unprotected ribs.

The crack of breaking bones as the head of my mace smacked into his side told me all I needed to know. Duryodhana crashed to the ground, the mace flying out of his hand.

Vaguely through the percussive pounding of blood in my head, I heard the voices:

“No.”

“Bhima, he is unarmed, you have won …”

“NO!”

Almost as if it had a will of my own, my mace rose high overhead. Duryodhana raised his legs in a desperate attempt to block. I adjusted and smashed the mace down against Duryodhana’s thigh, just below his waist.

“What have you done?!” Yudhishtira rushed up to me. “He was unarmed – to hit him then… it was wrong!”

I stared at my brother in disbelief, amazed –not for the first time – at a sense of wrong and right that he seemed able to switch on and off at will.

Just yesterday, he had danced with glee when Arjuna felled Karna.

Karna had voluntarily put down his weapons; Duryodhana had lost his in a battle that had not yet ended – that was right, this was wrong?!

I looked away and caught Balarama’s eye. His face contorted with rage, he was straining to get away from Krishna and Satyaki, who struggled to hold him back.

“Coward!” he screamed. “Duryodhana was the better fighter — you tricked him and then, when he was unarmed, defenseless and hurt you hit him! Your act was against dharma, against the laws of combat! Coward!”

Deep inside of me, something snapped. Duryodhana was finished – I knew that he would die of his wounds even if I didn’t lay another finger on him. But this – this was more than I had the fortitude to bear.

“Let him go!” I roared at Krishna. “I vowed to kill Duryodhana – and kill him I will, right here, right now. I know no kshatriya dharma greater than that!”

I raised my mace high overhead.

“Anyone who thinks to stop me can step forward now and try!”

I waited, mace poised, as Krishna and Satyaki let Balarama go and stepped back. He took a step towards me, then another, his eyes locked on mine.

And then he stopped.

I held his eyes with mine as my mace came down with all my strength, crashing into the side of Duryodhana’s head. Almost in continuation of that blow, I flung my mace away. I had no further use for it – my war was over.

For long moments I stood there, mentally and physically drained by the toughest battle I had ever fought in my life.

I felt their eyes… my brothers’, my kinsmen’s, my friends’… eyes that looked down on my dying enemy with pity… eyes that lacerated me with a scorn I had done nothing to deserve…

I walked over to where Visokan waited with the chariot, and painfully hauled myself in. On the deck, I saw my blood spattered mace.

“It is a good weapon,” Visokan said gently, as he held out a cloth for me to dry the sweat that poured off me in an unending stream. “What does it know of dharma and adharma? What does it care?”

He drove slowly towards the river. I threw away my robes – and felt the soothing, healing caress of a gentle breeze.  My ‘father’, Vaayu – where were you when I was all alone, when my enemies covered me with their arrows and my friends with their contempt?

As I dived into the river, I heard the sound of Visokan driving away.

I floated in the water, letting the gentle eddies rock me like a baby in its cradle, and thought back to what I once was – the little boy who, every evening, would come to the riverbank looking for his father… the boy who, on feeling that first gentle touch of breeze on skin, would pray with all his heart to become the strongest, the bravest, the best warrior of all time.

That prayer had come true. I had grown big and strong – there was in my world no warrior to equal me, no one who had ever bested me in combat. I had fulfilled my vows, every last one of them; my last remaining enemy lay breathing his last in the dust, the thigh he had slapped in a lascivious invitation to my wife a bloodied, broken mess.

I had become what I wanted to be, done all that I vowed to do — and yet, what did I have? A wife I shared with four others… two other wives whose faces I couldn’t remember… a son who had given up his life for those who had delighted in his dying, two other sons who I did not know… and brothers who could never appreciate the depth of feeling I had for them…

Evening gave way to the pitch black of night, matching the darkness that swamped my mind, my heart.

I sat there for a long, long time. At some point, I thought I smelt smoke…

The urgent clatter of horses’ hooves woke me from my reverie. I looked around for my robe as Visokan drove up at reckless speed.

He jumped down before the chariot had come to a halt and ran towards me, sobbing.

“They are dead… Ashwathama… he came in the night, like a thief… he set fire to our camp… he killed them all while they slept…”

He collapsed to the ground, sobs wracking his frame.

From the depths of a heart grown suddenly cold, a question welled up and lodged in my throat: who?

My brothers had gone off into the forest to celebrate the victory, with them went Krishna and Satyaki. Dhristadyumna broke away from the party – I want to celebrate with the first good night’s sleep I have had since this started, he told them.

Ashwathama came in the middle of the night. With him was Kritavarma, and Kripa – the guru of our race. They set the camp on fire – that must have been the smoke I sensed, and ignored… as our people woke to this conflagration and rushed out in panic, Ashwathama cut them down one by one in the dark.

Dhristadyumna… our children, Draupadi’s sons… Prativindhya, Suthasoma, Shrutakirti, Shatanika, Shrutakarma… my son Sarvadha, who had become inseparable from his cousins…

Young men… boys, really – the future of the Kuru race, for whom we had slaughtered our kin and won a kingdom…

All dead.

I looked down at hands that seemed suddenly drained of their strength.

The war was over, but the enemy still lived.

The enemy never dies…

Australia’s problem with plumbing

The story, in briefs:

Justin Langer, who seems to have installed himself as rabble rouser in chief for this Ashes series, did a ‘dossier’ on the England team from his vantage point as captain of Somerset.

Ricky Ponting says the Aussies have read it. No shit?! And here we were thinking they were a bunch of illiterates who couldn’t read something labelled ‘Enemy Dossier’ and served up on silver platters, with a side of fries.

Turns out, so has everyone else read it — and Justin Langer is gutted. It is not immediately clear to me why he is gutted — this is one person’s thoughts on the strengths [admittedly, not much to think of there] and weaknesses of one of the teams, so what’s the big deal? It could as easily been a column in the popular press.

Michael Vaughan — who, after the fourth Ashes Test ended inside three days, can be fairly certain his successor isn’t going to emulate his Ashes-winning effort — says the dossier is largely true.  It’s a strange sort of defense, this — a one-line precis would be: Yeah, well, okay, so who’s Langer to talk, has he ever been part of a team that sucks as badly as we do, says Michael kindly. Gee thanks — now show us what you can do if you spit on your hands and set out to be cruel.

So that’s the story. Me? I’m bloody bored. Exactly what is it with Australia, that it cannot seem to keep its private correspondence private? John Buchanan appears, at some point in his immersion into Sun Tzu, Clausewitz and, for all I know, Chanakya, decided on this as a ‘tactic’. Remember this history? In fact, the Aussies seem so taken with this tactic, the leaks don’t stop even when you are no longer part of the establishment: Greg Chappell leaks or is leaked while coaching the national team; Buchanan leaks while coaching KKR; Langer leaks while captaining Somerset… and nary a sign of a plumber in the offing.

James Bond said something about once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, thrice is enemy action. And the 10th time? Mate, the tenth time, it is merely a transparent device long since past its use-by date — give it up already.

As for the dossier itself? Five ‘pages’, that boil down to this: England are good only when making the running; can’t take pressure; tend to disintegrate. In other words, “… they will taper off quickly if you wear them down in all apartments.”

Update: Skimming through the Brit press for Ashes related content, stumbled on more on the famous dossier. Here’s Ian Chappell, asking what the fuss is all about?

I hate to be a spoilsport for all the conspiracy theorists, but the document is actually worth less than the official scorebook being used at Headingley. You show me a bowling plan that is regularly successful and I’ll point to a limited batsman…..

It’s easy to produce plans for batsmen who are recidivists but try coming up with a sure-fire method of dismissing Ricky Ponting cheaply on a regular basis. I’m certain Jimmy Anderson and Graham Onions know where to bowl to trouble Ponting early in his innings but they are also aware that if they miss that spot by a few centimetres either way, the ball will disappear to the boundary.

When it comes to bowling plans, a top-class batsman can shred one faster than an Enron executive handling a top-secret document.

Anyone with a decent knowledge of the game can draw up a few foolscap pages of plans to dismiss batsmen and unsettle opponents but unless the author is accountable for the end result, they’re mostly window dressing.

A captain has to make the decision who to bowl and where to place the field, and if all goes astray, as it did for Andrew Strauss at Headingley, he better be able to change tack quickly and inspire confidence in his team.

Strauss was anything but inspirational during the productive Michael Clarke and Marcus North liaison on the second morning; in fact, he was culpable. The general consensus was that England had bowled too short and wide on the first day. So what did Strauss do? He gave the ball to Steve Harmison, placed a field for short-pitched bowling and then had a ring-side view of the resultant carnage.

Vic Marks has more history on dossiers and leaks.