Thursday, March 30, 2006


Of all things physical that can trigger a snowfall (avalanche is somehow so not fitting) of memories inside me, rain's got to be the most potent.

I was reading a blog the other day, and there was a mention in it about Pune, and that's all it took. From Pune, my thoughts went to rain, from rain to windows, to perfectly shaped raindrops, to sweaters with moth-eaten holes in them, to hot coffee, back to rain ... You get the drift.

Pune was where I spent two of the most wonderful weeks of my life. We were on this 15-day training trip. It was during the peak of the monsoon and the place was practically inundated then. Yet the rain was not the constant, purposeful, boring rain you would expect, it had character to it, if you know what I mean. My memories of those days resonate with the drum and feel of the rain in the background -- it's like you have chocolate ice-cream for dessert on your first date, and every time you remember that fateful (ahem!) day, flavouring the associated memories is this bitter, viscous taste flooding your salivary glands.

It was a time when I was free in the truest sense of the word. No expectations. No future to get anxious about. Footloose and free. And yes, there was this wonderful girl I met on the trip who seemed to find my jokes amusing -- and hence, I'd like to believe, she found me err nice(you can drop that quizzical look, she's married now and that's that). The best was when we were in class, and there was a power cut. So, the sincere trainees that we were, we lit candles and were discussing, and I happened to look at her when she was speaking. Of all the enduring images of feminine beauty I've had opportunity to witness in my life, the image of her face, lit by the flickering flame from the candle, her pink cheeks glowing in the otherwise dark room, will probably endure more than the others. Surreal she was, and needless to say I wasn't listening to what she was saying, sincerity be damned. Freedom, rain, companionship -- couldn't get better than that, I guess.

I never really thought of myself as a rain person. Rain was just one of those things I never had an opinion about, like flowers for example -- yeah they smell and look nice, so what? Like that ... But then rain has this damp, persuasive way of seeping into the convoluted currents of your consciousness, just like flowers again. To me rain was like some of the people we run into in our lives. We see them a lot, spend time together, discuss stuff, have a few laughs, but then we go back to our homes and our lives and that's it, we cease to think of them till we meet next. And then one day, during one of those encounters, somewhere, you strike a chord, and suddenly, that person, or at least that 1-dimensional perception you have about that person acquires that extra 2-D, a little shape here, a little colour there, and before we know it, they are there, in our lives, embedded in our undulating thoughts, and they stay there for life, even if we no longer meet them. Rain is like that to me.

There is nothing more intoxicating than standing before a window, watching those grey, brooding clouds approach ominously from the very boundaries of the distant horizon and decolour the morning sky, like ink blotting a white bed-spread. And then witnessing those magical drops fall, as if in slow motion, reincarnating the earth. To hear those drops pound the window, to let that raucous throbbing subdue the other sounds in your mind, to then open the window cautiously and welcome the eager rain in, to feel those drops then break upon your face and drip down your chin, and fall down into a puddle around your feet -- there's no taking away the beauty of that feeling.

And then there is the joy of cycling in the rain. I was in college and returning from a class by train one day -- this was when I had to cycle to and from the station every day. It was night, and the rain was really thrashing about. You know how it is, there are sheets slashing the streets in one direction and then, like a moody housewife running around the house, they shift direction and begin slashing the other way. And though I'm usually quite pragmatic -- you have to be when you have a history of asthma -- I decided to brave it that night. And the memory of that night is burnt so strongly inside my head, that I sometimes wonder if I made it all up. So, there I was cycling on roads without a soul on them, the rain soaking, saturating, and dripping off my clothes in rivulets, pounding my head, stinging my eyes, and pretty much reducing visibility to a couple of feet. I pedalled on laboriously, all kinds of songs running through my head, lines from poems read ages ago coming to mind in an insane sequence.

And then it happened.

There are sights in life, which when you see, make you feel that if you were to die just right then, you would have no complaints about doing so. A sight so magnificent, so heart-wrenching, so once-in-a-lifetime, that I didn't want to write about it lest I spoil the beauty of its memory by attempting to put into words something I'm not capable of. But try I must.

The route to my house runs through a narrow road which separates, on one side, a small pond, which is dry for most part of the year, and on the other side, a small farm on which the kids in my neighbourhood play Cricket. But on that night it was raining so bloody hard, the pond was overflowing across the road -- not by much though -- and onto the field on the other side. And as I struggled through this road on my cycle, the wind threatening to topple me off my saddle, lightning 'happened'.
Flashed, streaked, and bolted right across from one corner of the sky to another, its reedy fingers tearing the heavens apart into a million tiny bits and just lighting up the whole wide world with an ethereal glow. For a full five seconds at least. I braked and got off. Had to, I was dumbstruck. And as I looked around me, wind and rain whipping my hair and face, there was day, and there was night as the lightning pulsed, almost as if in climax. Again and again.
The sight of the pond shimmering in that orange, unearthly light was eerie and breath-taking, and then I was consciously looking around, memorizing every little mesmerising detail around me. The farm was bathed in light as if on fire; the trees lining the farm standing still, as if electrocuted; the temple by the lake, as if petrified by the anger from above, looking on in stony silence; the telephone pole in the middle of the pond struggling to stay upright; the road ahead with the water gushing across ... And then as suddenly as it happened, the lightning went away, like a truant kid hauled away from stage before he could utter his vile limerick. And then thunder slammed home. Boomed and shook the earth and left me trembling in my wet clothes. And then silence, like that which follows the click on a phone after a long, soul-searching conversation.

Standing there on that road and staring into the night, breathing my lungs off, the water lapping at my shoes, all I could feel was disbelief. And shock. And a strange numbness, as if nothing mattered now. And as I continued to look around, I was so painfully aware of all that I could not see then, the triteness that confronted me in the darkness of the night, all that beauty which, but for that momentary respite of lightning, I would never have seen in that special light. And as I look back now, I realize Life is like that too. All it takes in the darkness that we pedal through is that one extraordinary moment, that one moment when it takes something greater than us to make us realize the true extent of what's around, and what we miss out on.

That I lay wheezing in bed for the next two days is a different story altogether. But like I told myself between coughing spasms, it was worth it. Truly.

I like to think -- and this is by no means an original thought -- that rain has character. There is the furious, thrashing rain that comes in slanting sheets, as if it's trying to hack its way through the concrete jungle of our cities. At times like that, it's best to be stranded in a bus-stop with a hot snack handy, and just watch the rain pillage and plunder. Trust me. Been there, done that.
And then there is the sorry rain, when the clouds have almost dried up, when the rain just falls down vertically in a thin shower. It's almost as if the drops felt tired of travelling and just decided to drop down and die. And if you're in a sad mood, be sure, you'll feel sadder before this rain stops.
And then there's this really mean side to the rain when it just goes full throttle and stays that way for days on end, and then there's no option but to sit it out. But the rain is at its best when it's playful, when it alternates between a drizzle and a downpour -- if you've played football in this sort of rain, you know what I'm talking about.

And then there's the afterward. Walking through the streets after a rain, seeing the world attired in its best colours, when that cleansed feeling transcends the surroundings and leaps into the depths of your soul, when you feel like starting all over again...As if God fell in love and decided to let everyone on Earth know.

Funny thing, this rain.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Chennai RTI Initiative

Last week, as I was bloghopping my way to glory, I came across this. Needless to say, I was curious. To cut to the chase, a group of young people in Chennai have got together to start a citizen's initiative to help create awareness about the Right to Information Act (RTI), and to bring into existence a citizen's movement to make effective use of this Act.

To learn more, go
here, or you could join if you're interested in volunteering, or if you simply wish to know more. Do pass this information on to anybody you know who would be interested in this initiative. The group is in its infancy and is looking to expand its volunteer base. If you're not in Chennai, but are still interested in contributing, do get in touch with the group to know how.

The group is also looking for contacts in the media, legal and govt. administrative fields to get more visibility and expertise in the above mentioned areas. Legal contacts would be valuable in getting to know the processes involved in filing/handling cases under the RTI act. So, if you, or somebody you know, have any contacts in these fields, do kindly write in to the group, drop a comment below or, again, email me (See profile page for ID).

Also, I’m on the look-out for contacts with local residents' organizations in Chennai, since the group is keen on working with one or more of these associations to get a larger sample of problems that can be addressed through the RTI act. I would greatly appreciate it if people could get me the details of any such organizations that they are in touch with.

Finally, if you are not sure if you can volunteer, but would like to know more, be sure to visit the google group to know the details of the next meeting -- the first meeting was held on Sunday, the 26th of March.

Would be nice to hear what you have to say.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Not too much Cricket?

Bob Simpson says here that today's cricketers play "less cricket overall" than their predecessors did.

In an intriguing article, he finds fault with present-day cricketers taking cover under the "too much cricket" excuse to avoid practising as much as they really should, to protect themselves from injury. And this in turn affects match performance, he says. A typical catch 22 situation. Practice/Performance or self-protection?

I do agree with him when he says that practice makes perfect, and that the greatest players are the ones who spend hours perfecting their game. But the question is why does he feel that the current levels of practice are not enough?

His arguments, and the general flow of the article, seem to be directed more towards proving that the previous generations -- including his -- were fitter and played a lot more than the current crop of players, rather than pointing out the need for more practice today. And since the stars of yesteryear didn't suffer injuries at the rate that today's players are subjected to, the latter have no excuse to shy away from practice.

Nice way to put it, but then is it all true?
The article is too simplistic with too narrow a scope for my liking. Simpson's argument rests on the sole examination of bowlers and assumes playing conditions, competitiveness, the willingness to dive/slide while fielding (remember Simon Jones?), economic benefits and the pace/frequency of travel to be the same between the generations. Casting aside these shortcomings as oversight, it is still not possible to accept the reasons that he gives us to prove that the previous generation were fitter and played more cricket.

Early on Simpson says,

At present players have a restriction of 15 Tests and 30 one-dayers each year. In all that is 75 Test days and 30 ODIs per year. Not a huge load by any means and even less when you consider that Test matches are generally over in four days. So the total days of international cricket are probably closer to 90 than 105. In addition, of course, with first class matches requiring only 90 overs per day it is far less than in the past.

--Emphasis mine--

What does he mean when he says "Not a huge load" and "far less than in the past"? Does he mean to say that the workload on today's bowlers is lesser than in the past? And if so, how does one go about assessing the veracity of this statement? One way to do this would be to find out the average number of days/year that a professional used to play cricket in the past (past = 30's to 60's as per the article) and compare it with today's figures.

Take for example Simpson himself. The average number of days/year that he's played professional cricket over a career spanning 25 years is around 52 (considering 5 days per test and 4 days per first-class match). Do the same math for our own Anil Kumble, and what does the figure come to?


And this is considering 4 days per test as Simpson wants us to believe!

52 against 111! You decide for yourself. Not a huge load eh? Add to this the frenetic travel, compared to the leisurely cruises that the Aussies used to take in the 50's when they came to play the Old Enemy, and you will understand the real meaning of "load".
Another way to see if the load is really lesser than in the past is to compare the number of overs that bowlers have had to bowl per year across generations. This is what Simpson does, but let us dig deeper into the stats, shall we?
Simpson sanctimoniously quotes figures of overs bowled by different bowlers from the past during a year, or during an English tour, and compares it worth modern-day figures which are on the lower side. This approach is flawed. Like he himself admits, the tours have gradually become shorter which means there are not as many tour matches being played as before. But what is not apparent immediately is the quality of batting that the bowlers had to bowl against and the results of these tests, across generations.
England were terrorised by Shane Warne during the middle and latter half of the 90s, and when the opposition collapses, a bowler can't be faulted for not having bowled enough overs! Tests of late have been result-oriented unlike the drudgery that used to pass off for Test Cricket during Simpson's era -- I'm sure they had their share of interetsing matches but I'm talking of the overall trend. And so when tests produce results, there is a greater probability that bowlers don't bowl as much as in matches which are drawn.
A look at Shane Warne's stats would show he's bowled more than 1300 overs/year over the last 16 years, which compares well with most of the figures from the past that are quoted in the article.
What I'm more interested in are the averages (runs/wicket) and strike rates (balls/wicket) of these bowlers that Simpson quotes.
A cursory look across four leg-spin legends, as far as tests are concerned, is revealing:
Clarrie Grimmett, Avg: 24.21, S.R.: 67.18.
Richie Benaud, Avg: 27.03, S.R.: 77.04.
Shane Warne, Avg: 25.21, S.R.: 57.60.
Anil Kumble, Avg: 28.76, S.R.: 65.78.
So not only are today's greats playing more than their predecessors, but are taking fewer balls to take their wickets, with the runs conceded being more or less the same. Let me put this in perspective. If only Kumble and Warne were to bowl as a team they would take approximately a 100 balls less per innings to bowl a side out compared to Messrs. Grimmett /Benaud. 100 balls is equal to half a session. And over two innings they would save a session for their team, just at the cost of 20 more runs per innings!
I admit that the above analysis is too naive, that these are truly great bowlers and that the numbers will even out if we take a bigger sample across all types of bowlers, but I'm just playing Simpson at his own game. And the irony is -- if you take his side of the argument -- all this has been achieved with lesser practice! That says something about how accurate the article is, doesn't it?
Anyway, the point is not only is the load on today's cricketers more than what it used to be, they have been extremely successful with the current levels of practice. Like the cliche goes, there is no practice like match practice. Moreover, Simpson neither gives us data on the practice levels during his era nor says in detail, with accurate facts, why today's bowlers -- despite their successes -- should practise more.
Simpson goes on to wonder if the current generation, not "free to climb trees, throw stones", are not as hardy as their predecessors. This is preposterous, to say the least. Accepting this argument -- only for a moment though -- would mean evolution and mutation have been happening at an unprecedented rate which would make Darwin roll over in his grave and jump for joy, not to mention how it dashes the hopes of those propagating Intelligent Design. Accepted that lifestyles have changed, but what makes Simpson think that his generation were the culminating point of millions of years of evolution? Preposterous and presumptuous!
He also makes an interesting comparison with golf, citing Vijay Singh as an example. Yeah, right! So what would Mr.Simpson want Shoaib Akhthar to do at evening after stumps during a test? Go to the nets and bowl, of course! Bollocks. Why not ask Michael Schumacher to drive two practice races before each race? It is okay to draw parallels across sport, but the danger lies in cutting across contexts that are unique to each sport.
To conclude, yes practice is necessary, but in today's age, when teams and cricketers have so much to benefit by prolonging their careers, practice needs to be balanced with the number of matches being played. At the international level, the game is more often than not in the mind. Add to that the intense media and public pressures that cricketers have to face these days, when there is no rest day in between a test, and you get an idea of what these guys go through. All I have to say is, leave it to the players and coaches to decide how much practice is necessary. They certainly are not lacking in enthusiasm and most certainly don't hide behind practice bowlers, as Bob would have us believe. As for the article itself, it's nothing but the self-gratifying rant of an old man indulging in juvenile games of one-upmanship, replete with misleading statistics and unbacked generalizations.
Update (27 March): The average number of days/year figure for Simpson is not exactly reflective of reality -- see comments for more details.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Alchemist and Ayn Rand

I've been pondering this subject on and off and I think it's time I put this to rest.

Ok, first up, I'm a fan of Ayn Rand and her "Objectivism" philosophy, but like with all things in Life, I don't go overboard with it, meaning I do realize there are certain shortcomings in the way she deals with a few things (idea for a future post?).

That done, I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho a long time back and even as I was reading it, what struck me was how everything that he says in the book is incongruous with what Ms. Rand has to say. And much as I'm against contradictions in Life, I liked the book. So this post is an attempt to see why people can like both the authors and why they don't.

Firstly where do the two agree and where do they differ?

The Alchemist, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are all books dealing with the single most important question Man faces in Life, which is: what to do in Life, and how to go about doing it. The authors, through their books, do agree, in principle at least, that it's all in your hands -- you make your destiny, you bring your dreams alive. The protagonists in these books are fairly strong beings, and coincidentally, have mentors to show them their way (note: the exceptions being Howard Roark and John Galt).

So much for how the books are similar. But the differences are too obvious and too glaring to ignore.

Firstly the characters. With Coelho's characters, there's always this air of "There's more to me than meets the eye", whereas with Rand, what you see is always what you get. Amusingly, this works both for and against both the authors. With Coelho, this aspect makes the characters endearingly human as in you can never predict how they'll behave in a given situation, but then cloaks them in mysticism, and this makes it difficult for a rational reader to take them seriously (admitted it's a fable and that you should not look for reason, but then the more 'unreal' the characters are, the more difficult it is to take them seriously). On the other hand, the WYSIWYG nature of Rand's characters reinforces your faith in the idealistic, but at the same time, makes them too heroic and such wonders of moral evolution that those who are not at the same strata of thought find them intimidating. This is what splits readers who've read both the authors into opposing camps.

Where Coelho consoles his readers by saying that destiny will not be denied even to the flawed man(by flawed I mean philosophically flawed), Rand vehemently advocates that destiny is the sole -- and even holy -- proprietary of the philosophically right.

And then there's always this thing about how Coelho leaves himself open to the "rationalist" attack. Phrases like "Language of the world", "universe conspires" and words like "signs" are nice to read in the book but they have as much practical value as a flashlight without batteries during a power-cut. On the other hand Rand is so bloody straightforward in her books that it hurts (if you're not ready for her), and this scores in her favour.

Simply put, the difference between them can be summed up with one question:
In times of crisis, when you're down, do you look inward or outward for strength?

Where Rand calls for unyielding will and enormous self-belief, Coelho falters in suggesting that apart from inner strength, you should also look towards "signs" for encouragement, guidance and help in your quest. That these "signs" can be interpreted in any way -- both positive and negative, and that it is virtually impossible to define a "sign" is what most people who hail The Alchemist miss out on. Like a friend once said, it's just subjective interpretation of objective reality.

Come to think of it, if you look at it in a certain way, the books are really self-improvement at a higher level. The only difference is in the degree of mental fortitude that they demand from their readers. While Rand's books appeal to those who have cultivated a good level of philosophical vigour in their thinking, The Alchemist -- as philosophy abounding in mysticism -- tends to appeal to those who seek safety and inspiration in the simple and the unknown.

What The Alchemist does -- and does well -- is to interpret chance as having a pattern, and meaning, to it, and this is where I have misgivings about the book. As a fable, as fantasy, I found it fascinating, its metaphors and symbolism do appeal to the romantic in me, but only at a "story" level. To carry its effect over into the realm of daily life is just stretching it a bit too far.

What is random should be treated as random. Unless we know otherwise.

But it is still possible to enjoy both the authors despite their conflicting view-points. All that it needs is to know where to draw the line.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


I'm trying out some stuff with the blog template. So if the layout looks funny you know what's going on. Thought I'd do it offline, but then I guess, some feedback won't hurt.

So, if you're having problems viewing the page or with anything else, or if you think something can be done better, just drop in a comment with the following information:

  • Operating System.
  • Browser name and version.
  • Screen Resolution.
  • Problems/Suggestions.


Update (21 March): Removed the picture stuff until I can figure out how to make the site look decent on all browsers (Thanks for the mail Kripa), retained a few other changes, guess this is how it will stay till I can somehow steal some time to work on the html. And anon., "issues" is a general adjective -- side-effect of being around Software Engineers all day long.