Ban The Punter

Former Australian captain Steve Waugh started the mental disintegration of international cricket a decade ago with his brand of sledging, a strategy that has been taken to the very depths of dirt by his successor Ricky Ponting. For years the Aussies have been abusing players and intimidating umpires. Strangely the ICC has kept mum. Very few Aussie players have been banned or even warned. It gets even curiouser with the fact other players doing a fraction of the same get summarily banned, Harbhajan Singh being the latest victim.
The Sydney Test fiasco was just waiting to happen, a result of years of bad blood. The only way to end this sordid saga which threatens to get worse and worse is to issue a warning to Cricket Australia to rein in it’s “pack of wild dogs” and ban Ponting for life.

Here’s why Ponting should be banned based on the Sydney Test alone.

1. He broke the captains’ agreement with Anil Kumble
Before this tour, Ponting and Kumble agreed that in clase of a doubtful catch, the fielders word would be taken. Despite giving that in writing, Ponting still backed Michael Clarke’s controversial catch against Sourav Ganguly. Worse still, he was later shown vociferously claiming a clearly grounded catch. Pakistan captain Rashid Latif was banned for five matches for claiming a catch he didn’t take. The match referee then was, surprise surprise, Mike Procter. Why didn’t Procter ban Ponting for doing worse?

2. He has been proved a liar
You can argue that a lot of things happen on the field in the heat of the moment. But if you stick to your lies and argue with everyone (including a senior Indian journalist at a Press Conference) long after the end of play when the TV replays have shown you a liar, then where does that leave your integrity? The result is that no international player trusts or respects Ponting anymore and the least Cricket Australia can do is remove him from captaincy.

3. The sledging stalwarts can’t take sledging themselves
By Ponting’s own admission, if Harbhajan called his player a monkey he deserved the three-match ban. Then what about all the F*** and other swear words that the Aussies have been using for ages? In the last couple of years they’ve used words more offensive than monkey hundreds of times. By the same logic, all Aussie players deserve bans of atleast 10-20 matches. How can you sit and qualify a swear word? This is less offensive and that is more so? Or maybe ICC should come out with a dictionary of swear words and define which are acceptable on a field and which are not. Any swear word can be deemed racial or non-racial depending on how you judge it. The whole issue smacks of sickening double standards.

4. Bringing disrepute to the game
One image stands out in the Sydney, that of Ricky Ponting raising his finger arrogantly to the umpire to claim the dubious catch. If any Indian player had done the same, he would have been banned for sure. Coupled that with his refusal to walk and Andrew Symonds brazen public admission that he knew he was out on 30, their final celebrations without even waiting for the umpire and many others. What kind of a trigger-happy team is Ponting leading?

5. Take a look at Ponting’s past
Ponting has used an illegal graphite bat, hurled abuses at the England dressing room in Trent Bridge, been fined for dissent many times and rudely told BCCI chief Sharad Pawar to leave a victory podium. How much more can the cricket world take? The Sydney Test was the last straw. His personal life has been no different. He has brawled outside a pub and been thrown out of a night club.
Look at legacy that Ponting is sitting on. Who can forget Michael Slater’s showdown with Indian umpire Venkatraghavan over a catch he didn’t take cleanly? Or Justin Langer’s tipping of the bails of Hashan Tillekratne and then appealing. (He was amazingly cleared of the charge) Aussie greats have called sledging a cultural issue, but which individual likes to be sweared at in the first place? It’s high time Australia was shown its place starting with the ban on Ponting.

(This article appeared in Metro Now newspaper on January 11, 2008)

India yet to tap the versatility of jute

It’s eco-friendly, economical, amazingly versatile and highly under-rated. It could be India’s answer to plastic bags and has its uses even in soil conservation. Jute, the Cinderella of textile fibres, is just waiting to be rescued from the anonymity of research centres.

“Jute has been able to withstand the onslaught of synthetic fibres and plastic,” says Dr SK Bhattacharyya of the National Institute of Research on Jute and Allied Fibre Technology (NIRJAFT) in Calcutta.

“But all that was in the past,” he adds. With plastic bags posing a big environmental hazard, the search is on for alternatives.

And this search should stop at jute, feels DR Bhattacharyya. For NIRJAFT has already come out with cheap disposable carrybags made from biodegradable jute fibres. The price of an average-sized bag could be as low as 20 paise, he claims. He says that the manufacture of these bags could be taken up by existing plastic bag making units with minimal extra investment.

NIRJAFT has come out with clothes, woolens, bedsheets, blankets and wall hangings—all made of jute. Sadly, the prototypes of most of these products are languishing in the research labs for want of better marketing.

In fact, handmade paper can be made from jute waste. This can give employment to thousands of people in the villages with very little investment.

But of special interest, say scientists, is the use f soil in soil conservation. Special blankets made of jute called ‘geotextiles’, are laid beneath a layer of soil. They have a great ability to conserve moisture, moderate soil temperature and stimulate rapid root development. They keep the soil and fertilisers together. They can even be used in canal linings to prevent soil erosion, says Dr BB Sarcar.

In fact nurseries can have jute bags for saplings instead of plastic bags. These can be buried straight into the ground and the bags will degrade into the soil in a matter of time.

Jute is cultivated in humid tropical countries only and India has a world market share of 41.8 per cent. In 1995-96, jute exports were worth Rs 234 crore. If we manage to carve out a niche market in jute products, this figure can only increase.

(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times newspaper on May 17, 2000)

Here, wastewater is food for fish, fertiliser for crops

What do you do with 15,000 million litres of wastewater dumped into rivers by towns and cities every day? If you’re in the Government, you set up a committee; if you’re an environmentalist, you cry foul; if you’re a cynical citizen, you call it a lot of plain muck.

But the Rahara farm near Barrackpore in West Bengal has embarked on a mission, which, if adopted throughout the country, could prove revolutionary in treating polluted water. Set up by the Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture, it looks rather like any other green, picturesque farm. Rahara, however, breeds fish in and grows vegetables with untreated wastewater.

What’s more, the costs at Rahara are a fraction of what commercial farming requires. The products are as safe and tasty as any conventionally irrigated farm.

Wastewater is actually rich in nutrients and highly favourable for phytoplankton (fish food). Water hyacinths are employed to bring down toxicity levels of the water.

The farm has successfully bred Bengali staples such as Rohu, Catla, Bata and even freshwater prawns in wastewater. The fish also rids the water of its polluting elements and renders it safe for release into rivers.

Scientists also that wastewater can be used to grow foodgrain, flowers as well as breed fish. Sewage water proves to be an alterative fertilizer for paddy. Medicinal crops like turmeric, ginger and garlic can also be produced.

It is a symbiotic system where the byproducts of growing vegetables can be again used for growing vegetables can be again used for production of fishes.
“In fact,” says Dr Maniranjan Sinha, Director of the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute in Barrackpore, “water pollution is the least of our problems.”

However what does worry them is that the water level of most Indian rivers is going down. This has severely affected the supply of fish needed from rivers from time to time to avoid the consequence of chronic inbreeding. “At this rate, there will be no rivers in 20 years,” says Dr Sinha.

The institute is also working on air breathing fish that do not need freshwater to survive, such as Singhi, Magur, Koi and Murrels. They keep coming up to the surface to breathe and can survive in sewage water.

Surprisingly, they also have great nutritional value and are recommended by doctor for people recovering from illness.

Dr Sinha points out that such varieties of fish would be ideal for breeding in polluted rivers like Delhi’s own Yamuna, where there is hardly any freshwater left.

The river Ganga has become cleaner, though the decrease in the water level has resulted in the decrease in the number of fish in the river, says Dr Sinha.

CIFA claims that fish culture through sewage water is in practice in Russia, a number of Asian countries and many parts of Europe.

(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times newspaper on May 14, 2000)

Barren Island rich with wild goats

Meet Billy, the goat. Resident of Barren Island in the Andamans. (Barren Island is home to the only active volcano in the country). Billy has survived the volcano’s eruptions by migrating to the unaffected side of the island, feeding on its sparse foliage and surviving, no, thriving, on seawater. Yes, seawater.

Generically, Billy is a feral goat—nomadic, untamed—in barren Barren Island.

Dr SPS Ahlawat, Director of the Central Agricultural Research Institute in Port Blair, says few other animals have been known to withstand the vagaries of such harsh environment. And research on the feral goat could have wide reaching implications for the world in general and India in particular.

For one, the feral goat could be the answer to the livestock problems of drought-affected regions, where fresh water is in short supply. Secondly, research work on its kidney, which has adapted to the highly saline seawater, could yield rich results. (Drinking saline water can kill a human being in a matter of days). Finally, Dr Ahlawat says feral goats like Billy could be bred in “zero management farms” that can provide enormous quantities of mutton at next to no cost.

But how did Billy get on Barren Island in the first place? Some say his caprine ancestors were shipwrecked, circa 1800. Those with a more fertile imagination say Charles Darwin relocated Billy here for one of his experiments!

But if Billy is such hot property, why isn’t he world-famous yet? Dr Ahlawat sighs and says something that many scientists cite throughout the country: bureaucratic hurdles.

Thanks to the strict wildlife laws of the Andamans, it has taken him two years to get permission to take just one pair of goats off the island into port Blair. And the institute hasn’t made much headway with the limited progeny it has worked on. So, it will be quite some time before maverick Billy finds his way to dinner tables.

Baa!

(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times newspaper on May 10, 2000)

The Fantastic Voyage

The InfoTech revolution has come here to stay and threatens to change the face of the Earth. We are all speeding on Al Gore’s information superhighway. But the development of all this has not been overnight. Its development can be traced centuries back. At first, computing started slowly, picked up and since then it has been accelerating.

Early Developments: One of the important inventions, which helped in the history of computing, was the ancient abacus, which is still widely popular in Japan in the 20th century. Other developments were the slide rule in 1622, the mechanical calculator in 1647 and the automated loom in 1820. The latter used punched cards and this was the first form of primitive programming.

The 19th Century: But it was Charles Babbage who really laid the foundation for the computer, as we know it today. He made great breakthroughs in the 1830s on his analytical engine with this regard.

In 1876 came the telephone. The foundation for communication lines all over the world was laid. One 20th century invention, the modem, united the computer and telephone to unleash a monster.

The Fifties to the Seventies: During this period in the 20th century came a spate on inventions and ideas in rapid succession. The coming of the microchip in 1959, the minicomputer in 1968 which subsequently helped man to go to the moon, the microprocessor in 1970, the microcomputer in 1974 and the floppy disk in 1975.

The Eighties. PC Magic Everywhere: Perhaps this was the final stage and the most important development, the coming of the computer to the masses. A computer became a necessity for everyone in the West, Steve Jobs quit the Apple scene, but not before leaving his impact on the world and Bill Gates became a billionaire. In 1980, IBM came out with the first commercial personal computer, which incidentally was also the year of the supercomputer. In 1981 came the same computer with Microsoft Desk Operating System (MS DOS), which ensured that computer handling became much more simpler and Gates all the more richer. At that time we had modems with a speed of 300 bits per second, which looked as if they would fulfill future requirements. After that came the Compact Disc and then a spate of PCs, each better than the predecessor—the 286, 386 and 486.

The Nineties. The Coming of the Net: If everyone thought the PC revolution wouldn’t be bettered, then they were mistaken when the Internet took the whole world by storm. In 1991, Gopher, the precursor of the Web was designed to help students find information quickly. In 1992, the World Wide Web was formed thanks to researcher Tim Berners-Lee and the world was finally united on a scale never seen before. The global village seems to be shrinking and shrinking. Then in 1993, Marc Andreessen came out with Mosaic thanks to which we had graphics on the net and in 1994 came the commercial Netscape Navigator, aptly named. Now the setting was complete and anyone in the world and get information at speeds unimaginable just a few years ago. And talking of speeds, in 1996 the Optical Carrier (OC-3) came at a speed of 122 megabits per second, a far cry from the 1981 modem speed of just 300bps.

On the PC front came the Pentium for greater speeds and a larger memory and Windows 95, the real user-friendly operating system.

The 21st Century. Unpredictable: And one shudders to think what the next century is capable of. We have Virtual Reality, which creates a virtual world inside the mind. Computer aided design, medical research, writing—you name it, we’ll have Computer Aided Everything! Entire global business may be done on the Net. And then there’s artificial intelligence. Will the computer finally outwit man in all departments?

(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times newspaper in 1998)

Sworn AD-Versaries

Man is under attack from advertisements from all sides. Sometimes it’s a visual attack and sometimes aural. Through the TV or in print. And sometimes a gigantic hoarding stares at you from the bus as you stop at a red light.

Advertisements are becoming more and more aggressive and treading directly into enemy territory. From Look at what we have got, the focus has clearly shifted to Look at what they haven’t. The best example in this is the Pepsi-Coke global war—especially the chimpanzee ad. The ad showed two chimps under observation. One drank Coke. The other Pepsi. The ad begins with the Coke-drinking chimp making great progress in educational blocks and the Pepsi chimp running away. The Pepsi chimp is then shown partying around town with a jeep full of girls. Coke took Pepsi to a South American court and lost the case. But two wrongs made a right in the end when a local soft drink manufacturer made an ad with a Pepsi chimp look-alike showing him throw away Pepsi and taking to the local brand.

When Pepsi endorser Michael Jackson got dehydrated on his Asia tour, hoardings with the caption, Dehydrated? Have a Coke came all over. But this campaign had to be aborted. The opposition did not come from the enemies of unethical advertising, but from Jackson’s fans.

So when Pepsi came to India, no one was surprised that it took Thums Up head on. An ad showed a Pepsi van going along a highway and passing three signs. The first was the Thumbs Up sign. The second was the same sign sideways making it a hitchhiking sign. In the third, it appeared upside down to become a thumbs down. Burger King also unleashed its series of digs against McDonalds. These included punchlines like Have it your own way (an attack on McDonalds mass production methods) and the Whopper beats Big Mac. Polo and Minto, Exide and Standard are some of the companies in India who have taken each other head on. The Telegraph came out with an ad showing the difference between it and the Statesman, calling it the generation gap. The counter ad was captioned (what else?) the degeneration gap.

But negative advertising isn’t more pronounced than it is in America, especially the presidential elections. There a candidate wouldn’t be able to speak much about his strengths, but able to produce a thesis on his opponent’s faults. Clinton won his first term on a blatantly anti-Bush campaign and even made an MTV-type jingle titled Read My Lips. He won his second term not on merit, but due to Dole’s inability. In UK, the Tories began their election campaign by showing a photo of Tony Blair on which were superimposed the eyes of the devil. The greatest opposition came only from the Church.

But this whole process is irreversible. Such a form of advertising has spread far and wide and threatens to spill over into the 21st century with a vengeance.

(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times newspaper in 1998)

Watch your back, now!

The ubiquitous ad hawks may just stick their ware up on anything under the sun—coffee vans, car screens, elephants, shaven heads and what not. There is such a mad scramble for space

Look around you and you will find that ads have become a part of everyone’s life without most even realizing it. They are there painted on buses and walls, on T-shirts and shopping bags, of hoardings of all sizes and in all places, on cloth banners and even on the metallic tree guards and railings that partition city roads.

Not satisfied with the ear-marked ad spaces available in newspapers, magazines and TV slots, companies will sponsor, innovate and create, and ensure that their name comes in the most unlikely of places, no matter how hard the consumer tries to void them.

When videocassettes became popular, companies started inserting their ads between the films. And then people started fast-forwarding those ads. Sometimes the cable operators would do it for them. Round one to the viewers. But then came ads superimposed on the film, which came at the bottom of the screen and couldn’t be done away with. Round two to the advertisers. After that, every round seems to have gone to them.

Even on satellite TV, the sponsors’ decided to add their name to programmes to ensure maximum publicity. So we have Videocon Flashback, Lux Kya Scene Hai, Timex Timepass and a whole lot of others. A far cry from the time when the Doordarshan time was sponsored and we’d get captions like 30 Plus time and Booty Mixie time just below the clock that appeared before the news.

Another field is sports, particularly cricket. Not content with appearing on strips around the field, they have spread everywhere. First the company name came on the bat and then sponsors made it to the T-shirts of cricketers as logos. The tournament titles never went without the sponsor’s name, making household names Benson & Hedges, Texaco, Wills etc. Finally came the spectators and they handed out scores of printed 4s and 6s, which had the company name on top. These are wildly waved at every attractive stroke, ensuring that the viewer sees the company name even when the camera focuses on the spectators.

Pepsi and Wills seem to have a pervading presence in the market paces of India thanks to their unique way of sponsoring sleek lighted plastic name boards for shops which sell their products.

Advertisers have also capitalized on Delhi’s Pragati Maidan for one place that was totally free of ads—the blue sky. And so we have balloons of all shapes and sizes displaying products, which swell in number, especially when some trade fair is organized.

And so the race is on to find newer and fresher pastures. Who knows what the future holds and what way companies will find to get the attention (and sometimes irritation) of then average consumer.

(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times in 1998)

Strangers

He saw her across the crowded room… She was mysterious… And so familiar…

His sunken eyes, pale face and sharp teeth drawing blood belied despair. Silhouetted against the moonlight, he stared at the stormy waves, as the cool night breeze caressed his cheeks. He felt the softness of the stranger’s kiss and shuddered.

“Oh Aru! How I miss you!” Sudhir silently cried. His longing couldn’t quell the pangs of guilt that surged through him. But Aru would never know, would she? She was thousands of miles away. He closed his gritty eyes and his mind automatically veered to the other night…

As he strode down the graveled path to Carol’s beach house, he felt uneasy amidst the hedonistic surrounding. But Carol was his only link with Aru, and he didn’t want to miss any chance… Besides, Carol was good fun.

He stood at the door, adjusting his vampire outfit, plagued with second thoughts about going to the party. He’d almost turned back, when a stunning Cleopatra opened the door. “Wow! Count Dracula himself! I’m honoured,” Carol’s lilting murmur flowed through. She looked gorgeous, from her sensuous smile right down to her cleavage, a la Elizabeth Taylor.

“Come on in and join the fun!” she sing-songed, handing him a drink. He looked around. Through the tinkling glasses and inebriated laughter, he heard a familiar voice. He turned around and saw Khanna, a crashing bore. “Not him!” he groaned to himself. “So tell me…”

One round of drinks and he was already feeling heady. “I need some fresh air,” he muttered to himself, and went out to the balcony. He gazed at the clear sky and felt as lonely as the stars above. That’s how he’d been feeling for the last two years.

Deep, abiding loneliness. He felt so uncomfortable among his friends—they’d all come with their wives. “Why do I bother with these parties?” he asked himself thinking about all the boring ones he’d been to lately. He couldn’t take it any more—he just had to leave. And as he turned, his glance fell on her.

Dressed like an exotic bird, she had all the trappings of a beautiful temptress. Oblivious to the admiring glances she was attracting, she continued to delicately sip her drink. There was something mysterious, something fascinating, something so familiar about her. Their eyes met, clashed and she started, in surprise. And suddenly, her surprise gave way to a bewitching smile.

“Hi! Want to join me?”
Before he could reply, she was beside him with a drink.
“Your Count Dracula getup is cool. You could’ve even scared a bat!” she laughed. “How about taking a walk on the beach?”
“It is quite suffocating here. Actually, I was just about to leave. But… why not?” he murmured.

They walked silently with only the flow and ebb of the waves interrupting their silence. And then she spoke.
“Goan beaches aren’t like the Californian ones. But they’re just so beautiful, aren’t they?”
“Been there, have you?”
“Once, when I was a child. Married?”
“Yes.”
“So how come you’re alone tonight?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Want to talk about it?”

And so the conversation went. Short questions, shorter answers. Neither felt the need for lengthy explanations. And in the process, he realized that she was just as lonely as he was. It was their loneliness that drew them together. They reached the end of the beach.

As they turned back, Sudhir stumbled a little. She held him close. His head started spinning—and it had nothing to do with the drinks. It had been so long since he’d felt a woman’s touch. He couldn’t contain himself—he kissed her.

They were standing near a beach hut. Sudhir offered no resistance when she took his hand and led him in.

As his lips pressed against hers in the dark, he felt her gown slip. Before he knew what was happening, their bodies were entwined in a passionate embrace. His last thought before losing control was that he’d never experienced such ecstasy before.

In the wake of their smouldering kisses, his estrangement with Aru didn’t matter anymore. His depression had finally found mind-numbing release. Exhausted, he fell asleep.

When he woke up after a few hours, she was gone. As he lay on the bed staring emptily at the ceiling, a voice broke his reverie.
“I see you’ve had quite an eventful night.” It was Carol.
“Err, well, umm… It was…,” he fumbled.
“Relax! It’s okay. I won’t spill the beans. It happens to the best of us. Just wanted to tell you the party’s over. Everyone’s going homw. I was just wondering where you’d got to. Ciao!” And she went back.

Sudhir looked at his watch. It was four in the morning. It was high time he left, he thought. And suddenly, he came back to the present.
“Should I tell Aru? Will Carol tell her?” Worried, he got into his car.
As he turned into his drive, he saw a light in the kitchen. He walked towards the open patio doors.

Arundhati was there, sitting in the lounge, calmly sipping coffee. “Oh great!” he thought—she always had a great sense of timing!
“Aru?”
“I’m glad you’ve been enjoying yourself in my absence. Want some coffee?”
Sudhir looked at his crumpled clothes guiltily.
He could imagine what he looked like. Aru could always see right through him. Abruptly, she got up to leave.
“Wait, Aru! Don’t leave… Don’t get me wrong… When did you get back?”
“Does it matter?” she asked, bleakly.
“Why did you return?”
“I had to know something, before we parted. I wanted to know if there was something worth salvaging.”
She started to walk to the door.
“Aru… Please! Don’t jump to conclusions. Let me explain…”
She didn’t stop, didn’t turn.
“Forget it.”
And the door was slammed shut. His breath came in short, laboured gasps, and he went out to get some fresh air.

Outside, the air was rent with the smell of smoke. He ran to the backyard.
All that remained in the burning embers of a slowly dying fire were ashes, remnants of bird feathers and a couple of broken shells.

And, as realization dawned, he crumpled into a heap on the ground.

(This short story won first prize in the Femina magazine fiction contest of 1996)

Divide and Misrule

How can a person feel lonely or isolated in a world of around five and a half billion? It’s not difficult. Man follows the policy of ‘Divide and Live’ — he keeps on dividing the population into ever smaller groups, increasingly isolating himself. First, the world is divided into the living and non-living. The living into plants and animals. The animal world is further classified into vertrebrates and non-vertebrates. Vertebrates into mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds and fishes. Then there are two clear distinctions in mammals — humans and non-humans.

Then mankind is spread over five different continents, which could well be five different worlds, separated by race, language and skin colour. The ‘white’ropeans, Americans and Australians, brown and yellow Africans and Asians. Continents are further divided into countries, each fiercely independent and engaged in a rivalry with each other. The Russian-American cold war of yore. Anglo-French antagonism which has seen the two countries in opposite sides in seven wars in the past. Indo-Pakistani clashes. The long Iran-Iraq conflict… The list is long. ‘Love they neighbour’ is a dream; most neighbouring countries have had atleast one major conflict, or are at a perpetual state of war.

As if this isn’t enough, many countries have secessionists who want separate lands. The former Yugoslavia has been torn apart by ethnic conflict, while Afghanistan’s internal turmoil in the 1980s saw much of its population either dying or fleeing the country. The Kurds are seeking a separate homeland in West Asia. Pakistan was split into two in 1971. And India has faced secessionist militancy in Punjab and Kashmir.

There is further division on the basis of religion. All religions talk of God and service to mankind, but history has witnessed the bloodiest of campaigns when armies of two different religions have met. The old world saw many battles between Christianity and Islam. There have been four Arab-Israel wars over religion. It was antagonism against a particular sect that caused Adolf Hitler to court disaster with his infamous ‘Final Solution’. India also has had its communal riots. Almost each religion has conflicting sects. The division chart continues. Hinduism has been divided by untouchability, Islam by the Shia and Sunni factions. In Christianity it is the Catholics versus the Protestants, with many other sects.

There are differences in political ideology. Socialists and capitals, blocs and pacts. The Left, the Right and the Centre. Factions and groups within a single party. There are divisions on the basis of money in one’s pocket — the upper class, the middle class and the lower classes. Two different classes can’t mingle, as oil and water don’t mix. In a country like India, there are states with different languages, cultures and traditions. There is no unity in diversity. Each state is hostile to outsiders, and sympathetic only to its ‘sons of the soil’, granting them special privileges. These sons are further classified into various communities. There are agitations to have existing states divided, and we have Jharkhand and Uttarakhand movements. There are wheels within wheels within wheels…

Finally, your neighbour must fall into one or another of the above categories and you still don’t get along with him. This leaves  you with your family. With the passage of time, brother fights brother and they part. So, in the end you’re left alone and the whole world is out to get you. Five and a half billion divided by five and a half billion equals one.

(This article appeared as an Edit Page Middle in The Times of India newspaper on May 22, 1995)

French Window is a Door

You have all heard of Russia, Portugal and Turkey. But have you heard of Russian roulette, the Portuguese man-of-war and Turkish delight? Do you know what they mean? Or exactly what is an ‘Indian summer’?

Merely knowing the meaning of certain words is not enough, you have to know the usage of combination of words too. Like British, French and German might simply mean ‘of’ Britain, France and Germany respectively. But when used in combinations with a particular word, the result is quite different.

First the French effect. A French window isn’t a window from France, but a glazed folding door. A French door is simply a glass door. What type of leave do you take when its without permission? French leave of course. A lot of ‘French’ is used in cooking too. A French bean is a kidney bean; French toast is bread dipped in a batter of egg and milk and fried, French fries are deep fried potato strips, and French dressing isn’t a type of dress but salad dressing prepared from oil, vinegar and seasoning.

Then the Dutch have a reputation for being miserly. Hence a Dutch treat is one in which each pays his own expense. An auction is a sale in which articles are sold to the highest bidder, but what if you found yourself in a sale in which the price was reduced till a purchaser was found? You’d be sitting in a Dutch auction.

A Dutch bern is one consisting of a roof supported by poles. A Dutch uncle is a person who criticizes with unsparing frankness and a Dutch door is one which is divided into two units so that they can be opened separately. You may not be able to speak Dutch, but you speak double Dutch many times. That is the term for incomprehensible jargon. Do you know how a drunk behaves? He disregards authority, speaks what he likes and could not care for the world. Such courage, got out of strong drink, is called Dutch courage.

Russian boots are high boots with cuffed tops. Roulette is a gambling game played on a table with a revolving centre over which a ball runs, but Russian roulette is a game, in which each participant in turn, using a revolver into which one bullet has been inserted, spins the cylinder, points the muzzle at his or her head, and pulls the trigger.

The Portuguese man-of-war is another highly misleading name. It doesn’t denote a belligerent from Portugal but a type of ocean invertebrate animal having a bladder like structure.

A Roman nose is a nose with a prominent bridge and a Roman candle is a firework consisting of a tube that emits sparks and balls of fire.

Indians are people of India, but Red Indians are the original inhabitants of America. India rubber is one which rubs pencil marks; India ink is a dense black pigment used in drawings or the ink got from it and an Indian file is a single file. ‘Indian summer’ denotes a period of mild, dry weather in late autumn or early winter.

(This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper on 11 February, 1995)

Of adages & reality

When I was small, I was battered with golden sayings, proverbs, adages and maxims of all sorts. They were there in our ‘Thought for the day’, school diary and liberally in our teachers’ speeches. All of them got registered on my mind as truths of life, but as the days progressed, they started to make less and less sense.

Take ‘Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.’ I don’t know about the healthy and wise part, but I haven’t heard of a single wealthy man who doesn’t go to bed late. Another gem is, ‘Speech is sliver, but silence is golden.’ Saving a few situations here and there, I don’t see how far you can go with silence. You have to be a good talker to make your way around the world.

But I’ve faced the greatest problems with ‘Practice makes a man perfect’. There are certain people who have a natural talent for a thing and are near perfect with their first try. And there are others like me who for years persist and get nowhere.

For example, take football. I watched stars on TV do wonders with the ball and got attracted to the game. I started playing seriously at the age of seven. I played during the breaks, after school and in my spare time. After three years, I was still where I started. I joined a boarding school where we used to play football daily. Let alone master the ball, I never could even score a single goal in a single match.

Once in a match, 22 players were crowded near a goal. I got disgusted and came out. To my luck, the ball popped out of the melee and landed at my feet. I excitedly took the ball and started running towards the opposite goal. The whole crowd froze, staring at me in silence. After some time the opponent goalkeeper also took off.

I thought it would be simple, but the ball just wouldn’t stay at my feet. It moved far to the left, then to the right and then to the left again. I was zig-zagging desperately as the goalkeeper gained on me. I reached the goal after what seemed like ages. I fumbled and kicked the ball to open my account. But out of nowhere, the goalkeeper dived and it was a save. I passed out of school and remained goal-less after a decade of football.

It’s the same with my handwriting. I had the most atrocious handwriting in class. My teacher told me that the more I wrote, the better it would get. I patiently wore out practice books and even chose a greeting card with beautiful handwriting to imitate. I don’t know how many hours I spent in all that and was it worth it? Today, after all that practice I have a handwriting that looks like, as my sister puts it, ‘squiggly ants’.

When I became an adult, I was exposed to two things — shaving and driving. When I shaved for the first time, I ended up with blood and leftover hair on my face. A thousand shaves later, I am just marginally better.

Each time I ride my scooter, I say my prayers. When my father started to teach me to drive in school, he was a very frustrated man in a matter of weeks. Today, after being on the roads for 7 to 8 years and driving in a tough place like Jodhpur where nobody follows any rules, I am what I was.

And it’s the same with a dozen other things.

(This article appeared as an Edit Page Middle in Deccan Herald newspaper in 1995)

On a razor’s edge

I hate shaving. Period. The very sight of a razor is enough to give me the creeps. I’d rather go to work unkempt than indulge myself in this daily ritual.

But it wasn’t always like that. When I was small, all things connected to shaving including ads on TV had a great fascination for me. I just loved watching my father put thick white creamy lather on his face and see the razor remove all the hair along with the foam like magic. I used to frown whenever I saw any uncle or bhaiya with a stubble.

So there I was looking in the mirror everyday and rubbing my cheeks hoping to see that elusive sprout of hair. One of my schoolmates, as eager as I was, used to shave his face with a dry razor even though he was as barren as the Thar desert.

Then one day, I finally saw it coming! I monitored my chin carefully every morning and patiently watched its progress like a farmer watching his first crops sprout. I soon got a good stubble and it was D-Day.

Armed with all the implements, I started. Phase I. Cool. Working up a lather and applying it on my face. Phase II. A disaster! I took the razor and removed the cream, I got a cut. Then another cut, then another… I washed my face and looked in the mirror horrified. All I could see was patches of blood alternating with patches of hair.

After a few more rounds of shaving I was still left with an unsmooth chin. “Don’t worry,” I was assured, “it happens to everyone the first time. You’ll soon get the hang of it.”

So I waited. In vain. Days passed. The days became months and the months years.

Everyone gave me suggestions. “Rinse your blade after every touch.” “Use warm water.” “Use the right angle.” Nothing changed it, I still looked like an injured warrior with a rough chin after shaving.

“I finally decided to get away from it all and grow a beard. And that’s when everyone started picking on me. My relative, a spinster, looked at me with disgust and said, “I simply can’t stand men who don’t shave.” One girl started calling me Devdas, while another remarked, “You look quite primitive,” relegating me to the status of a Stone Age man. A friend put his arm around my shoulder and exclaimed, “My, don’t you look depressed!”

This sentiment was echoed by others and I failed to understand the negative response my beard was getting. Even the college dean singled me out of all the people who didn’t shave. Bang in the middle of a lecture he gave me one of his cold icy stares and froze the class for 10 seconds before saying, “But why have you stopped shaving?”

The last straw came when one of my best friends refused to go out for a film with me and my beard because I looked to mean and resembled a beggar! I had had enough and decided to shave my grown beard. In my first try, it remained intact. With more than a dozen tries, it finally came off with a record number of cuts.

My friend engrossed in his paper looked up at my blood-stained face and said, “Now you look much better.” I was back to square one.

In a science fiction novel I read, the hero, thanks to a futuristic device, shaved just once a month. I wait daily for someone to come out with such an invention.

(This article appeared as an Edit Page Middle in The Indian Express in 1995)