Saturday, 29 September 2007

Those Were the Days

Today I'm taking you down a wonderful journey all of you have experienced at some point in time or are soon going to experience: college!

The very mention of the word evokes countless unforgettable memories in my mind- perhaps it does in yours as well. I was in G.N. Khalsa College in Bombay between 1996 and 2001 and I can say without qualification, that those five years were by far the greatest of my life.

My most vivid recollection from that golden age goes back to my very first day in college- that's also by far the most embarrasing experience from those five years. It was the Maths lecture and our professor Mr. K.R. Singh was taking the roll-call. I said "present" when my number was called. The dialogue that followed went like this:

K.R. Singh: Who's that? Stand up! (I stood up)

K.R. Singh: Aainda se tum 'yes sir' kahoge (from now on, you'll say 'yes sir')

Me: Yes sir.

K.R. Singh: Say 'yes sir' 5 times.

I can't help but laugh, recalling all that at this distance in time, but you can imagine my embarassment back then. Imagine the plight of a shy, unsure-of-himself 15-year old, being made to look like a fool in front of the class the very first day of college- and that too in front of all the girls! For a teenager, girls are the biggest attraction and there's no greater humiliation for a young man at that age, than to be embarassed in the presence of members of the opposite sex, isn't it?

Then came the familiarity, the formation of groups, hanging out with friends after college, going for movies, the endless banter- and there always used to be one guy in the group who was usually at the wrond end of it and of course: talking about cricket, movies and girls... well you know what I'm talking about! How wonderful those days were: all you needed to do was go to college, come back home and study and appear for examinations twice a year. There wasn't a responsibility, not a care in the world... just pure, uninhibited fun!

Then came graduation. One fine day, you were out of college. You suddenly had to think of getting a job, building a career, you had a boss to listen to and his demands were infinitely different: no lectures, which would get over after 50 minutes, there was much more at stake and suddenly the tension of submissions looked almost laughable. Life was no longer carefree like it once was. You had a lot less time for yourself, your folks back home... everything changed and perhaps somewhere in the midst of it all, you altogether forgot your old carefree and uninhibited self. Life was never the same again.

And yet, the memories of those golden years remain with you forever. College life in metropolitan India today is of course, a far cry from what it was in my time. We didn't have shopping malls, multiplexes, CCDs/Baristas in our days; life was a lot different back then- and I'm talking of less than a decade ago! Back then, CDs were the in thing and buying those computer magazines with which you got a free CD was in vogue- those CDs had a lot of computer games of course! The best form of entertainment was going to play pool with friends (bowling alleys were still a new thing) or going out to watch a movie. Most theatres weren't air-conditioned and you'd get a ticket for as low as 30 rupees, the seats would be old and uncomfortable...remember those days?

I'm sure a lot of kids today would wonder how one could have had fun with all that- musty old single-screen theatre halls, the old-fashioned restaurants that are considered passé today, no mobile phones, no Orkut... how on earth could all that have been fun?

And yet, would anyone who didn't live through those believe that kids today have much more fun than he/she did? The answer is an emphatic no, isn't it? It was not the place, but the company you enjoyed, isn't it? Come to think of it, it was the togetherness that you really enjoyed, isn't it? It was after all, not the atmosphere, not the air-conditioning, not the luxury that you enjoyed, but the joy of being out with your friends and every generation has had that joy.

To every generation, his time seems the best. In reality, every generation has experienced and will experience the same fun, the same joy. Its just that your experiences take a different form, all else is just the same. If the best form of entertainment in my father's time was listening to cricket commentary on radio or watching a movie in a theatre or reading a book, it was watching movies on a VCD or watching cricket on T.V or going to an entertainment park in my time. Today it would be hanging out with friends in a CCD/Barista outlet, or going to a shopping mall or watching a movie in a multiplex. In the end, the true joy is in doing all that with your group!

When you look at it, every generation is relevant in its own time.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Music, Cricket and India

Two significant and not unconnected events occured within a short space of 24 hours: the Indian Idol finals on Sunday, 23rd September and the World T20 World Cup on Monday, 24th September 2007.

So what's so significant about it? And how were the two connected at all? On the face of it, they were completely unrelated events with no connection whatsoever. But there runs a common strand uniting the two.

Go back to Sunday evening, with Prashant Tamang and Amit Paul's destinies in the balance. Here was Prashant, a young cop from Darjeeling who was unknown, nothing in this wide world, in a country of over a billion people barely 6 months ago. With him was Amit Paul from Shillong, a place seldom remembered, from Meghalay, a state the very existence of which is almost forgotten by the rest of India. Both these young men were from the North East- a part of the country that has never fully integrated itself with India and about which the rest of India knows but little. These two young men brought their parts into the collective consciousness of India. Between them, they managed in a few months, what the Government of India failed to do in 60 years.

The following evening, India win the first ever T20 world cup. The winning catch was taken by a young man from Kerala, off the bowling of a player from Haryana and watching anxiously was their captain from Jharkand. Three men from completely different states who would perhaps not even understand the other's native tongue. These three men were proudly representing India.

But Dhoni and Prashant are somewhat similar: both from humble backgrounds, both from Eastern India and both from places very little known. Darjeeling is in the North-East, virtually seperated from the rest of India, where seperatist sentiment isn't wholly unknown. Jharkand, from where Dhoni hails, is one of the newest states in India, carved out of Bihar- a shockingly backward state remembered almost always for the wrong reasons (I can testify to the appaling condition of Bihar, having been there myself). Until Dhoni came along, Jharkand was known perhaps, as the state which has Jamshedpur in it.

And therein lies the similarity: both these young men have achieved extraordinary success, both are from little known places, hundreds of miles away from the bustle of metropolitan cities like Bombay, Madras, Delhi, Calcutta, Bangalore or Hyderabad. Both of them have brought their native places into the radar. Most importantly, they have come to the national stage and shown that even people from provincial cities can match or even outdo their counterparts from the bigger metros, given the right opportunities. Prashant and Mahi will both inspire countless young men and women in provincial India to believe in themselves, to aim higher, to dream bigger than their predecessors a generation ago.

I am from Bombay myself, exactly the same age as Dhoni. I know how little people in bigger places know about life in provincial India. I have myself been to several cities across India and I know how different things are, out in the smaller towns. And yet, I have also seen how attitudes are changing out there. There is talk about economic boom, globalisation, etc even in those provincial cities.

Personally, I believe that as far as India is concerned the metropolitan cities have played out their historic role. Its the smaller cities that have to come forward and contribute to the boom if India's spectacular growth is to be sustained over a longer period. That is where the significance of people like Amit Paul, Prashant Tamang and Mahendra Singh Dhoni comes into the picture. They are the people who will inspire a new generation of young Indians to believe in themselves, to take India forward. Those two events reflect the India of today and will inspire the emergence of the India of tomorrow.

This, my friends, was not just about music or cricket or entertainment.

This was a celebration of new India.

Congratulations India

What a performance! What a game!! A world cup final- an India v Pakistan final, last over, India 1 wicket away from victory, Pakistan one blow away from victory. Could even the greatest script writer have conjured up not just those countless twists and turns, but that incredible finish? As likely as not!

Leave aside the outcome for now, and cast your memory back to a strikingly similar finish 21 years ago. It's friday and it's Sharjah. Pakistan need 3 runs to win the finals, India need 1 wicket. The bowler: Chetan Sharma from Haryana. Sharma comes running in and at the last moment (by his own confession) changes his mind and decides to bowl a yorker. The ball turns out a full-toss. Come back to the present: 4 balls left, 6 runs to win, Pakistan one blow away from victory, India one wicket. The bowler: another Sharma from Haryana- this time Joginder Sharma. Misbah ul Haq comes down the wicket to hit the ball straight (as Shoaib Malik later admitted) and changes his shot at the last moment.

The results are identical, but equally contrasting.

But that was not the only crucial moment that India grabbed, even if it be the one that will be remembered for an age to come. There were countless moments in the World Cup that India grabbed: moments when the game could have shifted the other way.

Go back another 10 days, and we have a similar scenario: Pakistan need 1 run off the final ball to win the game against India. The batsman? Who else, but Misbah Ul Haq, who had brought Pakistan back from the dead! Haq gets run out and its a tie! India grab the bowl out and in the process, become the first ever team to win a cricket match 3-0!

Zoom another week ahead: India v South Africa, with the hosts looking assured of a place in the finals. India needing to win it outright to qualify for the finals. South African captain Smith flashes hard and Dinesh Kartik at second slip (yes indeed: second slip in a T20 game!) pulls off a blinder. Within an hour, India are into the semi finals; South Africa are out of the world cup yet again.

The next day, India v Australia- the Semi Finals, no less. Australia are cruising along at 156-3 after 16.3 overs. 21 balls, 33 runs required; easy target for Australia. Suddenly, B-A-N-G go Symond's stumps. 3 overs 30 runs to go: Harbhajan Singh produces an incredible over. Barely 15 minutes later, India have knocked Australia out of the world cup; its an India-Pakistan final!!

So what was it that this Indian team did better than most predecessors? Perhaps the simplest answer is: grab the decisive moments. It would be fair to say that Dhoni was remarkably pro-active- something few Indians captains have ever been. How many times have we seen Indian captains allow games to drift, waiting for something to happen?

Granted that Dhoni had his share of luck and that all his moves came off spectacularly and that it may not always work the way it did in these two weeks, granted that he may not always win all the crucial tosses as he did here, but it was something more than just luck. Go back to the league game against Pakistan, when the outcome was to be decided by a bowl out and remember who Dhoni picked to bowl? Harbhajan Singh, Robin Uttappa and Virendra Sehwag (no longer remember who the other bowlers were). Whom did Pakistan pick on the other hand? Mohammed Asif, Umar Gul and Shahid Afridi (once again not sure who the others were).

And so Dhoni gave it to two part-timers, while Shoaib Malik didn't. But the logic was simple: slower bowlers were more likely to hit the target than quicker bowlers, for whom the ball not only swung, but who would be bowling off a shorter run-up which was bound to disturb their rhythm: simple logic... or was it? One week later, against South Africa, R.P. Singh snaps up Gibbs and what does Dhoni do? Bring in a second slip! Could you imagine a second slip in a T20 game? Two balls later, Smith edges the ball and Kartik at second slip pulls off a stunner. Come back again to the finals: 5 overs gone, restrictions off but Dhoni decides to retain an extra player in the ring to stop the easy singles. India slow down Pakistan and in the end, the match is won by a measly 5 runs.

And so 3 different games and three different moves by Dhoni, all three of them highly unconventional. How many Indian captains can you remember, who dared to be unconventional? How many Indian captains would have told his players "just enjoy yourself, don't worry about the result"? No one who watched the T20 World Cup could deny that the cricket India played was high-octane, thrilling, tantalising... you could go on looking for adjectives. It was simple, uninhibited cricket by a young team, led by a captain who understood that the best way of playing is to enjoy what you're doing, that cricket after all's said and done, is only a game. And let's not forget that Dhoni is also that player, whose under construction house in Ranchi was demolished by angry fans barely 6 months ago.

And yet, 6 months later, India's first round exit at the World Cup is long forgotten. 11 young men, who between them averaged under 24 years of age brought home the World Cup! The contrast between that team of 6 months ago and this team are easily discernable. Whereas that was a team of careworn veterans who looked inhibited by expectations, aspirations and their own reputations, this was a team of youngsters who grew up post-liberalisation, a young team that worried little about expectations or reputations and importantly, believed that nothing was beyond them.

This was a reflection of new India, of 2000s India.

And yes, to conclude, let me point out one astonishing coincidence. The last time India won a World Cup, back in 1983 (when most members in the current team weren't even born) Australia's first game was against Zimbabwe, which produced a shock upset.