“A Sparrow Falls” by Wilbur Smith (and also “When the Lion Feeds” and “The Sound of Thunder”) – and a look at the narrow perspectives often held in conflicts

Anannya Deb:

After a long time, came across a piece on Wilbur Smith whose books I once used to devour. Very nice read here.

Originally posted on Books, Films, Travel. A world of words; words about the World:

These three novels form the original Courtney trilogy, an epic saga that has subsequently grown to more than twice that number of novels including both sequels and prequels to these original three.

This trilogy focuses mostly on the life of Sean Courtney (born c 1862 and not to be confused with his great-grandson, the later Sean Courtney) and covers several historical events.  The time span is approx 1875 to 1920s and Sean’s life includes involvement in such historical events as the Zulu War (1879); the gold rush in Transvaal of the 1880s; the Boer War (1899-1902); the formation of the Union of South Africa (1910); the First World War (1914-1918); and the beginnings of the wildlife conservation movement in the early 20th Century.

SPOILER ALERT: please note that this post does reveal some details of the story (although there is also  a considerable amount of the story that is not…

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This is My Generation. The End, almost.


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Leander Paes, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly are all a few months to 1 year older than me. Bhaichung Bhutia is 2 years younger. These five people have been my contemporaries literally. And their life over the last 25 odd years has, in many ways, mirrored my own. The contexts are different but the questions are the same. The similar conflicts of choice, responsibilities, ambition and aspirations. The shared pain of graduating from random teenage dabbling to becoming a contender and then becoming class, the pressure of maintaining that class and trying to evolve oneself and maintain relevance and motivation as the environment changes and age and cynicism kicks in. I have followed the careers of these five people not just because they play a sport that one has an interest in but also because they faced and struggled with and overcame the same life questions as I did, at the same time as me.

The retirement of Sachin Tendulkar from active sport (he still has to play a couple of tests) makes it 80% down for my generation. That Leander is still around winning Grand Slams is something that, in a way, does not surprise one at all, given how one has seen him over the years. Of course, he does not wince when Patrick McEnroe calls him a senior citizen. He wears that tag quite openly and is still a medal contender at the Olympics, even with a rookie who did not even have a pair of shoes.

Given these almost parallel lives that one has lived with, it would be too shallow and meaningless to call myself a fan of any of these players. To me, each one represents a model of, a way of life in a way, of what an Indian can do. We all have our talents and abilities and our respective areas of interests, aspirations and passions. These five people demonstrate a very human and ergo realistic way of bringing all of those things to life in spectacular fashion, not just for a short burst of 15 minutes but for an entire lifetime of a generation, a quarter of a century. And more. These five people are not supermen who come from a different planet and have different non-human qualities. They come from the same social milieu (barring Bhaichung Bhutia whose background is far different from the urban middle class environs of the other four) as me (heck, Sachin flunked HSc, something that I was in danger off till I managed to get some tuitions classes) and I can see and empathise with their failings as many of those failings are issues that me and most people of our times face and have faced.

Bhaichung has moved off the football field for India but continues to score goals through his wards from his football schools and the United Sikkim club he founded to give opportunities to fellow Sikkimese people like him. He is the biggest voice India have in football and given his age, his role as a coach and manager is going to be huge.

Sourav and Rahul have moved on, immediately, to some commentary duties but there would be, no doubt, some more productive activities that they are likely to turn towards in due course.

Which brings us to Sachin. What is he going to do? This is a question that he has been asking himself for the last 5 years. It is a genuine fear. Sachin took to top level competitive cricket since his age crossed double figures. Since then, he has done nothing else. Like a software programmer who spends 30 years in the trade and knows only coding (and over the years has become brilliant at it). Take away the coding job of the software programmer, what is he to do? He has not bothered to engage with anything else. He has no other skills or affinities or preferences. Without the coding problems, he has no meaning in his life. Like actors who find it difficult to adjust to life when they retire, a Norma Desmondesque schizophrenia grips such people.

Sachin knows everything there is know about playing cricket. But that’s it. From the repeated use of the phrase (and variations of it) “It’s hard to imagine a life without playing cricket because it’s all I’ve ever done since I was 11,” it is very clear, this is a very big fear in his life. (A fear all of us have).

I, for one, never understand this whole farce of asking people to retire. It is the selectors’ job to pick and drop players. A player has the full right and freedom to play till whatever age he or she wants. This is true for all professions. A journalist can continue to write even if he or she has turned senile and is in advanced stage of dementia. It is for the editor to decide whether the copy is legible and publishable. Sachin was perfectly right in continuing to play and believe that he was helping Team India.

In the last test series against Australia, while most people, the regular hecklers who measure human achievement in quantitative terms QSQT (quarter se quarter taka company is as good as the earnings announced last quarter), claim he did not score a single century, I believe he played an innings that made the series a one sided one for India. In fact, one does not have to take the full innings. Just 3 shots. 1st test match, 12/2 in the first innings, replying to the Australian score of 380, given the performance against England in the previous series, it could very well have become 20/5. James Pattinson was easily the best bowler for the Australians in the entire series. In his 2 overs and 2 deliveries, he produced a burst of speed (150kph yorker to knock out Murali Vijay, 147kph shortish ball that Sehwag couldn’t control, it rolled on to the stumps) that saw the two openers walk back. In came Tendulkar in the middle of the 3rd over from Pattinson and he smashed 3 fours in 4 deliveries, all of which were above 144kph. This had shades of the Dale Steyn – Tendulkar tussle in the South African series in the previous season. The best bowler of the team being played out by Tendulkar. Leaving the rest of the batsmen to play the lesser bowlers. Almost the same happened here. Pattinson was out of the attack and the rest of the Indian team were happy to play a docile Australian bowling attack.  The phrase “India won the test quite easily in the end” is a bit misleading. Without that show of intent in the 6th over of the innings, things could have been vastly different.

The idea of Tendulkar, for me, stays in those moments. There are countless of them and this patch of 4 deliveries was one of them. I don’t really care about his not scoring centuries. (In fact, centuries are a bit like the photographs that people take once they reach the top of Mount Everest. Only the last step, probably the easiest, is seen. Not the climb itself.) He doesn’t have to. There are 10 other people in the team who are equally obliged to play for Team India. They can score those centuries.

The model of Tendulkar has always been to enter the worst challenges possible and try to win over it. And to do so, one has to be simply world class. Nothing less will do. Sometimes you succeed, sometime you don’t. Sometimes it is brave, sometimes it is foolish. But it is an idea worth appreciating. It’s an idea worth adopting.

Ganesh Visarjan 2013


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Religious events are good for business. Take this family. Everyone is putting in their last breadth to stock up on balloons to sell on Visarjan Day. I saw them when I was walking towards Shivaji Park taking photos of the city. When I returned and walked past this spot, they were done. All balloons sold.

Ganesh Visarjan Mumbai 2013

18th September 2013, the 10th day of the annual Ganesh festival, like all parts of the city, Dadar in central Mumbai, was the scene of what I would call the Mardi Gras of Bombay.

Ganesh Visarjan Mumbai 2013

It’s an event. You can shut your ears and moan about it. Or like these college kids, go out there and volunteer to keep order. Or do some filming.

Ganesh Visarjan Mumbai 2013

Ganesh Visarjan Mumbai 2013


Ganesh Visarjan Mumbai 2013

The Death of Nehru



Yesterday, India survived (and done quite well for itself though things can always be better) 49 years of the post-Nehru era.

At 2 p.m. local time today 460,000,000 people in this country that has been forged on the anvil of this one man’s dreams and conflicts were plunged into the nightmare world which they have, in the last decade, come to dread as the “after Nehru” era. (link: Guardian archives)

But a small hint of one of the key factors why “India after Nehru” is where it is today (instead of being a developed nation).

One walked out to let in the diplomatists, the MPs, the Sikhs and the Hindus and the Moslems. They came – but they did not weep. Instead, the eyes shifted, there were tremors of disbelief, tinctured with moments of illumination as if this had to happen, and then the eyes shifted again. This time with fear.

Fear was the one dominant feeling one experienced as one came out. Fear that at this moment one had to avoid the reality of Nehru’s death and the Pandora’s box of suppressed ambitions it will release.

The funeral procession tomorrow will cover six miles. Mr Nehru will he cremated at Raj Ghat, where Gandhi was cremated. The last rites for this agnostic will be administered by Hindu priests

Fear. Need to turn to someone to be a leader. Nehru. Gandhi.

Football vs Soccer – The Australian Debate



a word that summons up images of permatanned American sportscasters gabbering on about Sir Wayne Lineker’s famous goal in the 1984 World Cup final. (link)

The Guardian’s football section on their Australian edition is called, umm, soccer. Sports editor Tom Lutz of the Guardian says:

we think it avoids confusion with football as in Aussie Rules. Or football as in rugby league. Or, possibly, football as in sepak takraw.

Of course, Australia has its own football – there are four different versions of it. But…

In 2010 Craig Foster, our chief football evangelist, wrote in his book that “we can stop talking about the ‘four football codes’, since there is only one football code. The others are handball codes.” (link)

But this is insane. Trust Americans to do this (underlines put by me).

I own an American copy of Simon Kuper’s Soccer Against the Enemy. The word “football” has been cleansed from the book, autocorrected to “soccer” by the editors.

Even when Kuper is writing about American football – as in gridiron – his words have been changed to “American soccer“, which is just downright confusing. Taking the silliness to another level, Cameroon is described as “the most successful soccering nation in Africa”, surely one of the greatest grammar crimes in sports writing ever. (link)

Time to call John Cleese to close the debate.


On Gambling and Manipulation of Outcomes



For whatever reason, I have had very minimal consumption of IPL for last few seasons (perhaps after Sourav Ganguly got dropped by all the franchises). Of course it is difficult to avoid it completely. Every coffee shop, pub, quiz or anybody’s house you go to, the matches are going on in the wide flatscreens on the wall. Twitter and Facebook have nothing else on the time line.

When the news of the arrests of Sreesanth, Ankit Chavan and Ajit Chandila broke,  I suppose, there were a billion people who were betrayed (trust TOI to come with such a pompous headline).

(On the other hand, there were those self-righteous equally pompous folk who tried to shout they should be excluded from the billion people betrayed. Hey, the population of India is 1.21 billion as per the 2011 census. So consider yourself to be part of the 0.21 billion people whom TOI left out in the headline)

Anyway, to get back to the case of spot fixing. there has been a continuous feed of comments, views and recommendations on the issue. One such theme that is going around is the idea that legalising betting will reduce spot fixing. Nitin Pai explains this here. The logic used is that legitimising betting coupled with tougher enforcement reduces the incentive to cheat.

There is a fundamental flaw in this argument. Betting or gambling is one activity. Spot fixing (or match fixing or any related activities) is an act of manipulation. These are two separate acts and deal with different facets of human nature.

Gambling involves taking a chance on the likelihood of an event happening the way you want. In gambling, you are away from the actual event, an independent observer who cannot in anyway influence the outcome of the events. There are horses running and you bet which one will win, come second, etc. The outcomes are dependent on the horses and how they perform, you as a bettor have no influence on it. In a way, it does not matter whether it is called a game of skill or game of chance. As a gambler, your lack of control is the same. What separates a game of chance from a game of skill is the ability to make some informed guesses about the outcomes. Knowledge of the skills involved in a particular activity can at least give you an idea as to which one is more likely to win. If you are betting on a match between Roger Federer versus Rohan Bopanna, for example, a little knowledge about the abilities and previous records of either person as well as a general understanding of tennis as a sport will give you the insight that it might be a good idea to bet on Roger Federer to win.

(Of course, there is the other form of gambling – risk taking. People take risks with their careers, businesses, sporting performances, etc but here they directly influence their performance and success. We are not talking of that kind of gambling – where you gamble on yourself)

For the gambler, there is a basic expectation – that the events are made to happen within their existing known environments. Apart from force majeure, there is no out-of-the-ordinary actions which can influence the events. Whether the outcomes turn out the way the gambler wanted or not, as long as they happened within their internal logic, the gambler can live with it. In sport, the gambler expects that the contestants will apply their best skills / play their regular game and whatever happens in the end is a result of the fair contest.

Spot fixing / match fixing is different from gambling or betting. This is a case of manipulation. In order to achieve specific outcomes, external entities try to influence the events.

In the stock markets, investors can take a chance on a company and invest in it. They expect the company to operate in a fair manner in the market place and based on its performance, issue out appropriate returns. Now, if the someone decides to tamper with some aspects of the company to artificially boost the stock price, then that becomes a case of manipulation (the stock market version of fixing). The phenomenon of insider trading is a known evil in business. There are have been many cases of media publications (and journalists specifically) who have stakes in specific companies and publish unverified / false news reports that can drive up the stock prices. The media publication might issue a correction in the next issue but in the interim has already made the profits.

In cricket, what has happened has been specific individuals (bookmakers) influencing the game by paying cricketers to not play as per their best skills or natural game. This is an act of manipulation aimed at getting the desired outcomes.

In the IPL itself, this may be one of the many types (i.e. driven by betting) of manipulation that occurs. Since teams are run by businesses and many of these businesses use the teams to build their brand equity, often one sees players included in teams when cricketing logic would suggest that they should be dropped. Sachin Tendulkar, for example, according to cricket experts, should not be in the team. But he is a big draw – he pulls in people to the stadium in Mumbai, his numbered T-shirt sells more at all the outlets, its his face leading everyone on all the group photos used in the various endorsements. So he needs to be in the team, not for cricketing outcomes, but for more mundane business outcomes.

In the football fixing scandal, there was an out and out deliberate program to influence sporting encounters. An international operation spanning China, Philippines, Singapore betting on matches in Finland and Sudan does not come up randomly. There was tremendous planning and creative thinking in actually executing the whole operation. In fact, special football matches including international friendlies were organised simply for the purposes of betting (and the syndicate making money from the fixed outcomes).

So why are these bookmakers / syndicates manipulating the game? For the same reason that journalists manipulate news to promote the stocks that they own. They have a lot to lose / and a lot to win. And when you have a lot to lose, you want to control the events and make it go your way. You are uncomfortable and helpless otherwise. (According to some reports, Gurunath Meiyappan seems to have lost over Rs 1 crore in bets. That is a lot of money to lose. He needs to recover that money.)

There is also the thrill of being in control, having the power (money, position, authority) to drive things your way. Why would the head of an IPL franchise (the India Cements folks are desperately trying to wipe out all mention of Gurunath M on their site) try to go beyond his immediate functions and try to manipulate games? Because he can. He can order the captain to pick a particular player irrespective of cricketing logic. He can insist on certain formations. There’s a thrill to it.

To bring back Nitin’s point about the legality of gambling or betting, whether the bets were done through legal or illegal channels does not make a difference. People had too much going for them to remain silent spectators. They needed to influence the conduct of the matches. Even if betting was legalised and there were legitimate businesses running betting shops, the law still can’t do anything to stop the gambler / bettor from approaching the players and making attempts to get events happen their way.

The presence of the underworld is not so worrying. In fact, because it was the underworld who are under constant observation by the police (through phone taps), this whole saga was exposed. It is the explicitly legitimate personalities and organisations that one is more worried about.

Most cricket fans remember Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh betting against their own team in the Headingley test of 1981. England were in an impossible position and the bets were going at 500-1 for an England win. After England won, powered by Ian Botham and Bob Willis, there was a huge furore when it was revealed what Lillee and Marsh did. Did they manipulate their performances so that they could win the bet? Probably not. But you never know.

Manipulation of events cannot be reduced. As long as there are people who have a huge stake in the events, there will be attempts to control or make things go in their favour. But there can be a way out for the public to protect themselves. And the way out is transparency.

In the stock markets, one of the key roles of institutions like SEBI or SEC is to ensure there is transparency in the workings of all publicly listed companies. Every bit of news from personnel changes to purchases of new offices to mergers and acquisitions have to be made public. Specific advisories and guidance reports have to be given by the company management on what they are planning to do, their strategies, their thinking, etc. There are mandatory disclosures that have to be done. Investors benefit from this transparency. They can decide for themselves which companies are operating in a fair manner. They can pick companies where they can predict correctly. It also makes it difficult for individuals within companies to get away with rampant manipulation. A newspaper making a claim about a company has to be backed by a corresponding disclosure / public statement. Without the later, the SEBI can pull up the company for falsification and fraud.  They may not get caught immediately but whether it is Satyam or the LIBOR scandal, it comes a full circle in the end.

Sport, whether in India or abroad, is mired with opacity and obfuscation. Organisations like FIFA, IOC, IAAF, etc are known for all the stuff that is left unsaid. The selection of a host city for the Olympic Games (and what happens behind the scenes) is the subject of many investigative journalistic efforts including a book. The shenanigans of Indian sporting organisations are just a drop in the larger ocean.

What the public needs is more visibility. Even WWE publicly declared the nature of its wrestling contests (as part of some regulatory tax filing). In spite of the scripted contests (or maybe because of it), WWE still has its own cult and audiences. Sport will also have its audiences but the people who run it need to be (or forced to be) open about what they do.

For a team that is representing the country and carrying the India flag, it is expected that the nation knows how or on what basis the specific 11 individuals were selected. (In the case of Olympic sports, Indian athletes’ travel and allowances are paid for by the government, i.e. tax payers money. The case for right to information is stronger here.) It is expected that the selection committee select the team that can best deliver results. If there is any other motive to selecting a player leading to a sub-optimal team, then that is a break in the expectation of the nation.There are enough instances of people trying to figure out strange team selections. But selection committee meetings are never made public. And in the press conferences, the selectors are instructed by the BCCI to not say anything. By forcing the BCCI (and all other sports organisations) to be transparent and make public disclosures of what happens in every meeting, it makes it difficult for individuals within the BCCI to get away with many things.

Prem Panicker has spent most of his life writing about cricket and has regularly written about the need for BCCI to be more transparent. As of now, Prem has given up on the sport.

On English football

In 2000, Diego Maradona published his autobiography El Diego. The English translation came out in 2004 and Martin Amis reviewed it in the Guardian. A lovely read (the review) which, not only gives a deep view into the flavour of the book (I haven’t read it), but also illuminates the quixotic personality of one of the greatest footballers ever. Since it is written for the Guardian with its British audience, obviously Amis needs to write something about the two goals.

In South America it is sometimes said, or alleged, that the key to the character of the Argentinians can be found in their assessment of Maradona’s two goals in the 1986 World Cup. For the first goal, christened “the Hand of God” by its scorer, Maradona dramatically levitated for a ballooned cross and punched the ball home with a cleverly concealed left fist. But the second goal, which came minutes later, was the one that [England manager] Bobby Robson called the “bloody miracle”: collecting a pass from his own penalty area, Maradona, as if in expiation, put his head down and seemed to burrow his way through the entire England team before flooring Shilton with a dummy and stroking the ball into the net. Well, in Argentina, the first goal, and not the second, is the one they really like.

This post is not about South Americans and their style of football, however brilliant and entertaining they may. This is about the football of England, the exact opposite. But this opening piece on Maradona is important. It gives you the contrast. Gary Linekar scored a goal in that match in 1986. He ended the tournament with six goals and got the prize for being the top scorer. They are all hard working goals. Nowhere near as glamourous as the ones created by Maradona. But while the aesthetics may not have been there, one still respected it.

English football for a long time was one about good old guts and gore. There is a famous photograph of Terry Butcher coming off an international match (a WC qualifier against Sweden) in a shirt soaked in blood. When asked about it, he claimed  “Off the pitch I was always an ordinary, mild-mannered bloke. But put me in a football shirt, and it was tin hats and fixed bayonets.” 

Nick Hornby, who made football popular as a literary theme, in his essay for The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup reflects on his relationship with English football. He speaks of the ’80s when the “English disease” i.e. football hooliganism made him reflect on his nation’s sport

“In the mind’s eye now, England games during that decade were frequently only just visible through a cloud of tear gas.”


“And so, perhaps understandably, some football fans started to feel a little conflicted about the national team. In 1990, when England played Cameroon in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, it wasn’t hard to find people in England – middle-class, liberal people, admittedly, but people nonetheless – who wanted Cameroon to win.”

English football fans apart, the key trend that has happened in England has been the EPL. The emergence of club football has made spawned “professional, media-aware, occasionally petulant and very, very rich” footballers in complete contrast to the likes of Terry Butcher.

“The England fans who went to the friendly match against Argentina (played, as is the way of these things now, in Geneva, for reasons that remain obscure) were still singing their “No Surrender to the IRA” song, and there’s more than a suspicion that they’d rather watch Terry Butcher and his fixed bayonets than David Beckham, a man who, after all, has been photographed wearing a sarong. But then, that’s England all over at the moment. We’d still prefer to be bombing the Germans; but after sixty years, there’s a slowly dawning suspicion that those days aren’t coming back any time soon, and in the meantime, we must rely on sarong-wearing mutlimillionaire pretty boys to kick the Argies for us. We’re not happy about it, but what can we do?”

(note: this book was published in 2006, as a lead up to the WC then)

As a football fan since 1982, I had the same changes in my appreciation of the English. From a solid respect for the likes of Linekar, Butcher, Shilton and Gascoigne (in my mind, the last of the “tin hats and fixed bayonets” generation), it has become complete scorn and disgust for the likes of Lampard, Terry, Rooney and co. (Probably the only EPL player who I place in very high regard is Ryan Giggs. But he is Welsh.). Admittedly, they are good footballers. Beckham, even at his age, is still the best ball bender in the business and his accuracy with the overhead pass is, as yet, undiminished. Rooney still has the wherewithal to be a goal scoring playmaker in the lines of a Ronaldinho. Yet, there is still a scorn and schadenfreude when one sees England or an English club lose a game. The on-cue English quarterfinal exit via tie-breaker in 2006 was, if anything, an affirmation to Nick Hornby closing his essay with the words “Allez, Les Bleus.

Events of last week triggered me to write this post. Across the world, a number of football managers of various clubs retired from the profession, finished their contracts with one club & signed up for another club or were sacked from their jobs. A few of these manager events happened in England as well.  At the presentation at Old Trafford, the Mancunian announcer called upon Sir Alex Ferguson as “the greatest British football manager” – lots of achievements in the past but more importantly lots of football expertise left behind as a legacy for the future.

But if you saw the outburst of sentiment from Indian football fans, it was reminiscent of the anguish felt by fans at the passing of MGR, NTR and the like. It was the end of the world for them. End of football for sure. Subhash Bhowmick ending the season with yet another I-League title, this time with Churchill Brothers, was of no interest to them. If only these people had seen English football in the 1980s.

It is quite funny to see Indian football fans junk their own football in the country and tie their loyalties to England and English clubs while Englishmen like Hornby question their own loyalties and comfortably settle for the French partly due to the presence of Arsenal players in the team – Vieira, Petit, Henry, et al.

The Fall and Rise of German Football – according to me


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As an 8 year old watching a football match live, late at night, with eyes drooping off to sleep every other minute, one can be excused to being short on one’s memory. With this disclaimer, I can state that the 1982 semi-final match stays in my head for just three things – Battiston lying immobile on the pitch, Bossis holding his head in anguish  after missing the last penalty and Platini walking dejected after playing a super game. Notice I remember only the French side of the game.  I became a fan of Les Bleus. The losers. (Later, via Sportstar, I read that Platini had moved to Juventus. So now, after East Bengal, my next favourite club on the list was Juventus.) Nothing about the Germans. On Youtube, the pixelated clips do not trigger any cues either. One simply did not bother to remember anything about the Germans. When Italy won, it was just right, one felt. How can a country which plays boring, easily forgettable football win a World Cup?

In the next World Cup, West Germany once again played France in the semi-final. And they won again, this time with goals in regulation time. I remember the ball spilling out of Bates’ hands into the goal. Lucky (for the Germans). Sloppy (for the French). Germany went through. In the final, me and the rest of world were clearly on the side of Maradona and his Argentinian compatriots. Argentina were 2-0 up and it seemed just right. The more delightful and beautiful football playing team was going to win.

2-2. The Germans came back. Shades of 1982. The boring team was making a match of it. Finally, yet another moment of brilliance from Diego – a clever pass to Valdano to put in the winning goal.

The initial perception of German football remained the same for me. Boring. And when I read essays and articles by  many people on German football, I am happy to say I am not the only one. However, over the years, there is another thing that one has built up over the years for Germany – respect. These guys may not be aesthetically interesting to watch but these guys are good – a workman ethic, precision thinking and reliable – just like their cars and music systems and agricultural equipment and boilers and other items of domestic and industrial use. This respect came from watching some of their matches from history – the 1954 campaign that ended with a final played in rain completely dampening Hungary’s free flowing play and allowing the Germans to work the ball to their advantage; the 1966 final where, for all practical purposes, Germany had the game. It took a bit of luck and some miscommunication amongst the referees to get them a goal; the 1970 campaign, first the comeback win over England with that unbelievable header goal by Uwe Seeler and then the slugfest against Italy with Bechenbauer playing with his hand on a sling; and finally the 1974 team with Berti Vogts assigned the task of marking Johann Cruyff, the best player in the world at that time – and Vogts did his job so well. After the initial scampering that led to the penalty almost as a next move to the kick off whistle, Cruyff was completely bottled up.  Today, with the rich television coverage available, one can imagine the same when one watches El-Sharawy mark Dani Alves (in the AC Milan – Barca first leg PQF game) or Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez hold the midfield to deny any space to Messi.

There was respect for the German team but it was still boring. Oliver Kahn was a great goalkeeper and one should always be a little partial to great goalkeepers. But that team was still not attractive enough.

Then came the transformation – a slow one but when it came, it was simply un-German. Europe in the last twenty years has become the New World for people in Asia and Africa. Refugees, political and economic, white collar and blue collar, perforce  or by choice, have been slowly and slowly changing the demographics of the continent. The 1982 French team had Tigana from Mali and Tresor from Guadeloupe. But the 1998 World Cup of France was a geography lesson, especially a lesson on the French colonies. From France, racial integration moved north to Belgium, Netherlands, even Sweden with players like Martin Dahlin and Norway with John Carew.

Nobody would have expected the Germans to be like that.

Turkish, Tunisian, Spanish, Polish, Ghanaian. These are some of the nationalities of the regular players in the current German football team. These are all people born and grown in Germany. They are Germans. But when they play football, it is not the traditional German style. It is the more flamboyant style that you would associate with other countries around the world. There is an aesthetic value that they seem to have put to their game. Schweinsteiger combining with Ozil and Khedira in the middle and setting up goal scoring services to Muller, Reus and Klose has become a thing to watch.

But one can’t just blame racial integration and the natural flamboyant mental models of these players. They must also have the ability to put it to practice and deliver results. This is where the Bundesliga comes. The number of German players playing around Europe has always been low. At any given point of time, the number of key players, especially those who are first choice picks for the national teams, who play outside  Germany be counted on at the most two hands.  It means that the core nucleus of the team – the Lahms, the Neuers, the Mullers, the Gotzes, etc. – are all shaping and honing their skills at home.

Sometimes, this form of home schooling can be self-limiting.  You get stuck with a few hackneyed ideas with no one able to disrupt the status quo. The same coaches, the same players, the same strategies and tactics, the same …. – leading to a serious state of stagnation.

The events of the last two weeks show that the Bundesliga is not in any state of stagnation. As Wembley prepares for 90,000+ Germans who are going to party there on the 25th of May, one can safely say that this is a league of true class. It’s not just 18 teams who are filling up shopping baskets with players picked up from random footballer supermarkets. These are 18 clubs with a history, a set of values, an ethic for reliability and a willingness to move with the times as the society around the clubs change. Even bottom of the table Gruether Furth, who got promoted to the Bundesliga top draw for the first time in its history, has Nigerians, Koreans, Senegalese, Turkish, Tunisian and Croatian players in its squad.

I think both the legs of both the semi-final matches are unforgettable, not just for the goals but for the clever and beautiful style of play that overshadowed the Spanish prima donnas. Alaba’s measured aerial ball to Robben to moves in, taps the ball to his left foot and fires it past Victor Valdez. This is worth remembering. Weidenfeller charging out picking up the ball right off the forehead of Ronaldo even as the star was in position to head the ball into goal. This is worth remembering as well




From The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup

That’s what you learn, as soon as you start to play and watch football: that football is difficult and beautiful, and that the two are related. Players kick the ball to one another, pass the into empty space which is suddenly filled by a player who wasn’t there two seconds ago and who is running at full pelt and who without looking or breaking stride knocks the ball back to a third player who he surely can’t have seen who then, also at full pelt and without breaking stride, crosses the ball at sixty miles an hour to land on the head of a fourth player who has run seventy meters to get there and who, again all in stride, jumps and heads the ball with, once you realise how hard this is, unbelievable power and accuracy toward a corner of the goal just exactly where the goalkeeper, executing some complex physics entirely without conscious thought and through muscle-memory, has expected it to be, so that all this grace and speed and muscle and athleticism and attention to detail and power and precision passion comes to nothing, will never appear on a score-sheet or match report and will likely be forgotten a day later by everybody who saw it or took part in it. This is the beauty and also the strange fragility, the evanescence of football.

John Lanchester, essay on Brazil

Remembering & Re-watching Pyaasa, 1957


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While roaming around Mutton Street in Nagpada area (popularly called Chor Bazaar), I entered one of those small shops which stock old cinema posters. As I was scanning through the displayed specimens of Ganga Jamuna, Suraj, Patthar Ke Sanam, etc., I tentatively asked the fellow there for Pyaasa. He pulled out a huge 3 feet tall poster, the classic one which has become an icon in Indian pop culture. I bought it there and there, Rs 1500 for it. It is still rolled up and kept in my house and I am yet to find someone who I can trust for framing it so I can hang it on my walls.

Pyaasa does that to you. The moment in the film is not in the film but immediately after. As the two lost souls walk away and The End splashes on the screen, your mind goes back to three things:

First, you are thinking:

Ye hanste hue phool / ye mehakan hua gulshan
ye rang mein aur noor mein duba hui raahen

Then you are thinking about the scene where a hungry coat-clad Vijay (Guru Dutt) helps a bhadralok load his suitcases into a taxi and gets a copper coin for it. The bhadralok mutters “what a state of affairs, educated people have turned to becoming coolies”, an ironical moment given that the copper coin he gives as payment turns out to be counterfeit.

This is immediately followed by a scene that forever puts that glimmer of hope into whatever dungeons of despair you may be in:  the scene where  Gulabo finally traces Vijay when she finds him in a lunch house trying to get a meal. (move to 28:52 in the video below)

There is nothing else one can write about this film which has not already been written. Just the thoughts that it evokes in you when you watch it. 55 years after the film, you notice the contemporaneity of the themes, themes which you can still see around you. Anurag Kashyap brought those themes out with Gulaal and for those who still didn’t get the message Piyush Mishra all but says it in the last song (and indeed the last bit) of the film.

har ek jism ghaayal, har ek ruh pyaasi
nigaho men ulajhan, dilon me udaasi

It is my personal opinion that Pyaasa is the greatest Indian film made – it is the Citizen Kane of Indian cinema. The emotional drain of Pyaasa and later Kaagaz ke Phool killed Guru Dutt but if he had survived, in my book, he would have become a greater film maker than Satyajit Ray, possibly the greatest. Where Ray was a master professional and used his craft to the fullest, Guru Dutt started with the core idea and worked backwards. He was happy to delegate all the craftsmanship duties to Abrar Alvi, VK Murthy, SD Burman and Sahir Ludhianvi. He focused on moving the audience. In hindsight, one can say that the audience walking out of the theatre in 1957 when the film was released was an indicator of Guru Dutt’s success. He evoked those emotions he wanted and those emotions frightened the audience who had innocently come to watch some song and dance extravaganza.


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