Thursday, July 16, 2015

Defending the "indefensible" : Why Ben Rothenberg has committed no sin in his article on body form in women's tennis.

By now my timeline is inundated with articles and related status messages espousing my fandom towards Serena. It is no secret that I consider her amongst the greatest tennis players of all time and one of the greatest athletes of our times. I have been labelled her fanboy and it is a label I wear proudly. I have had my share of friends, decent good-natured people, throwing racist and sexist comments at her. It is no secret that she has not gotten due credit for her extraordinary achievements because she does not fit into the majority view of good looks, be it because of her color or her body form. Tennis forums across the internet are filled with venomous hatred for her, questioning her on the basic identity of her womanhood. It is a deeply saddening commentary on the nature of some of the sports fans. It is even more disturbing when famous names have question her commitment and her drive amongst other things. I don’t know why it feels like a personal offense, but it does. And yet, I did not find the article published by Ben Rothenberg on New York Times which throws light on the issue of body form in women’s tennis even mildly offensive. The headline got my racism alert on. But that is where it stopped. The article in itself was largely filled with views of individual tennis players on how they balance their tennis ambitions with their perspective on how they should look. And even on that count, three players (Radwanska, Sharapova, Petkovic) were not in favor of a bulked up image while five (Bascinszky, Keys, Bouchard, Wozniacki and Watson) were in favor of attaining whatever physical form would serve them best to succeed in the game and make any adjustments later, if necessary.

Just as one is not to judge a book by its cover, one cannot judge an article by the headline. Headlines are necessarily sensationalist. And from my little understanding of the business, it is not a call that the writer takes. If anyone is to be blamed, it is the editorial and marketing team at NYT which gave this a negative spin through the headline and clickbaiting on Twitter. But in this world where attention spans are shorter than the life cycle of bacteria, the reaction was not unexpected. Anyone who is on social media is aware of how trolls operate. Individuals who hide under anonymity fire cheap shots when they can. That cannot be stopped. Lesser the attention to them, the better.

What worried me though, is the content in some of the articles wanting to take a stance against racism and sexism. They have only managed to reinforce the stereotypes. Take the example of this article from Sports Illustrated where Elizabeth Newman blows hot about the inherent racism in the NYT article. After deploring Ben for his views, Elizabeth displays the very same traits that she accused him off. This from the concluding paragraph: “While many deplored the commentary and defended Serena on social media, the World No. 1 dazzled at Sunday's Wimbledon Champions' Dinner, celebrating her 21st Grand Slam trophy in a form fitting, pink dress. “Swerve," she wrote in an Instagram post of the floor-length gown, which featured pearl and rhinestone embellishments, a mesh bodice and a silk train.”.  Criticizing an article which talks about looks by praising Serena’s looks and dress does not exactly help. It is plain hypocritical and displays an acute lack of confidence in the basic argument – why talk about looks at all? And worse, this reinforces the women and pink stereotype. How lovely!

And then there is this article on Huffington Post which has elevated the art of taking offense. There is a link to a clip which points to Caroline Wozniacki making fun of Williams’ body. It was exactly that. Serena may or may not have seen that clip, but what is striking is that Wozniacki and Williams are best buds on tour. They display much respect and affection for each other, through social media and otherwise. Clearly, there is much more to people and their thought processes than a 1 minute stunt. And there is a big difference between mimicking and mocking. A nuance which writers for even well-known media houses appear hesitant to latch on to, for the fear that it runs contrary to the story they are building. If anything these half-baked, poorly argued articles harm, more than help, in the fight against racism and sexism.  

Monday, September 29, 2014

Modi San at Madison

If the title sounds cheesy, it is just the after effect of an oratorical masterpiece dealing in a lot of superlatives and rhetoric. As is my ears still ringing with the ‘Modi, Modi, Modi’ chants of the crowd. And what a crowd it was! A packed Madison Square Garden! Not since the heyday of Sachin Tendulkar, have I witnessed a crowd whipped in such maniacal frenzy over an individual. The dances and cultural performances which came before barely registered - sometimes because, and mostly despite, the quality of the show on offer. Try replacing Dravid or Sehwag with L Subramaniam, except that this virtuoso performer was reduced to being a sidekick akin to Vikram Rathore or SS Das. Although, rather strangely, the same crowd cheered louder for Swami Vivekananda than for either Gandhi or Nehru. Twice.

The patriotic chants of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ or ‘Vande Mataram’ would prove to be as misleading as those of ‘Indiiaaa, Indiiaaa’ when the second wicket partnership is going great guns in a test match at the Wankhede or Feroz Shah Kotla. You would be na├»ve to think the crowd was there to watch a masterful performance from the rest of the Indian team. They are there to witness their (demi)God bat. (Why else would crowds be so low on the days when India is bowling or if Sachin had gotten out the previous evening?). In much the same way, the crowds at Madison square were there to hear their beloved Modi, not their Prime Minister. 

As for his speech, imagine the Undertaker, at this very venue, getting ready to execute the ‘Choke slam’ and the crowd baying for the opponent’s blood. Now imagine the Undertaker executing a ‘Choke slam-a-minute’ for an hour and a half with the crowd also not wavering in its intensity. Now you know how it felt. This is not to say that the crowd did not laugh. They laughed readily at Modi’s jokes, both the old and the new. And they laughed right in the middle of the American national anthem.

In sport, when someone performs really well against a terrible opponent, or in a favorable environment, the defense is ‘you can only play against what you’ve got’. That is the defense I am going to opt for Modi today. He is an outstanding orator. A man with the ability to read not just the pulse, but also the minds of the audience in front of him. He has charmed millions and millions across the country, from diverse communities and geographies. Twenty thousand NRIs reminiscing about home, and given a rare opportunity to feel proud of their leader, were not going to be too hard to be swayed. And he wasted no time in doing so. Starting by hiking the morale and ego, by praising the historic role of NRIs in elevating India’s self-esteem and positioning himself as just a common man out on a historic mission, he quickly won the crowd over. They had possibly even toppled over for when he quickly differentiated the NRIs as ‘you folks’  and him and the rest as ‘us Indians’, no pride bubble was pricked.

The most solid announcements he would make in a 90 minute speech would be OCI-PIO merger, lifetime visa and visa-on-arrival. Most of these were efforts started by the previous government. Modi, of course, deserves the credit to have the conviction and determination to carry it through. If only we were so generous of our praise of Manmohan Singh and UPA 1, instead of deriding their achievements as NDA 1’s hangover. 

He continued to work the crowd, often lifting jokes from the internet to thunderous applause. He got a louder cheer when he termed Gandhi as an NRI. Imagine the collective delight of 20,000 Non-Resident Indians when he compared us with one of the greatest that ever lived. If this was not a lesson in how to work a crowd, nothing else is. And he would constantly refer to Gandhi, only so as to use him as a pedestal to weave in his own story and ideas. No other leader would deserve a mention. It was as if he wanted to position himself next to and, maybe in the future, above Gandhi in the pantheon of Indian leaders. As if to drive home the point further, he would later mention how no other leader in the last 15 years had gotten the kind of love that he has gotten. A period of 15 years, which conveniently includes 5 years of a much loved, truly great leader from his own party.

A well deserved round of approval through applause came when Modi veered on the subject of a ‘Clean India’. It takes guts for a Prime Minister to shame his citizens into action on such a hygiene issue. But we deserved the berating we got from the leader of our country. If this does not push us into action, nothing will.

He also got a heavy round of applause when he spoke of dismantling old laws. Almost all of them. One each day, so that he can sleep peacefully. Eerie?  Not if you believed the crowd. If the decibel levels at MSG translated to similar approval levels back home, it would appear that most Indians believed that we were being tricked for 67 years with stupid laws and that we may even need a new Constitution. Such seems to be the blatant disregard for many years of development - four and a half of them under Vajpayee’s NDA. Vajpayee remains a favorite PM for many of us, and one of the many positive side effects of this election was his elevation in the eyes of the majority as a PM that the country needed, but did not deserve given how the party was defeated in 2004. Speaking of which, I am beginning to wonder how history and the Indians would have judged Manmohan Singh if he had, retrospectively fortuitously, served only one term? As a great leader who delivered more than 8% growth year on year, completed the spectacular rise of telecom and one who stood his ground to get his way on the nuclear deal, maybe?

I wonder how history will judge Modi as a PM, in 5 years’ time, and in all likelihood again in 10 years’ time. In the meanwhile, I will wonder how you judged this article. And me.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Ship of Theses

Ship of Theseus, to sound snobbish, is a delightful intellectual exercise.  Unlike what most mainstream reviewers (in this I mean those whose profession is built on the number of stars that they dish out) say, this movie is not just about an organ transplant changing the character of the individual, or not.

 This movie has a bit more soul in it than that, or rather it deals a lot more about  the soul. The movie is a modern day take on the immortality of the soul and the time bound decline of the body.  So, while we have always believed that our soul exits our body and enters another as a continuation of our life cycle, here we have the kidney and the heart and the liver, move on to another body to extend the lifetime of the organ and the individual. Therefore, while our soul may only enter one other body, our organs can enter multiple bodies. Behold the miracles of science!

It talks about re-birth, not just of the soul, but of the body. And therefore, when the monk curls up into a foetal position and calls for his mother, it is representative of his second birth. The mother is a recurring theme. We get to see the Aliya’s mother and only hear about her father (and a very minor appearance in the hospital scene), the monk calls for his mother and not anyone else and the fundamental cause for disquiet between the stock broker and his grand-mother, is her influence on his mother. Therefore in its own way, a movie which glorifies the advancements in science is lso an ode to the mother, without whom there would be no life, human or otherwise.

It is about the frivolous nature of man’s concern for animals and reiterates the simple 6th grade learning of the survival of the fittest. So, while Maitreya goes about to save animals and acts as their voice, he is eaten up by the tiniest of bacteri/virus, therefore mocking the enhanced stature that he had given himself as the protector of the weak.  Who are we to give ourselves that exalted position, when we are ourselves just a toy for organisms which we cannot even feel, let alone feel for?  We are but just a speck on the universe, and the shots of the monk’s retinue making the journey through vast nothingness is just a reiteration of the same.

It is about the everyday doubts that seize us, inhibits our thinking and hinders our progress. It is as much about one’s body part being transported to the alien environment of another body, as it is about the individual’s journey to an unfamiliar environment.   So, Aliya is thrown out of her comfort zone not once but twice – once when she loses her eyesight and then when she regains it.  And the story transports Navin from the unfamiliar confines of a hospital room to the slums of Mumbai and to Stockholm. At each stage, the discomfort is writ large on his face. In what is perhaps the cruellest twist in the movie, the stock broker’s act of kindness is spurned mid-way by the practicality of the daily labourer. It is a delicious irony as it only reaffirms his mantra in life – a large dose of comfort coupled with a limited display of ‘humanity’.

It is about portraying individuals on screen, and not the stereotypes associated with them.  The visually impaired girl displays a lot of spunk but loses some of her confidence when she regains her eyesight. The stock broker is as devoid of emotion when he cleans the bed pans of his grandmother as he is in front of his trading screen. When asked if the soul exists, the monk answers ‘pata nahi’, not as an angst ridden philosophical response but one delivered in excruciating pain.

It is about all of the above and so much more!

So while, this may not be the best of indie productions (as this cannot be judged by someone who hasn’t seen anything else), the accidental release of the movie in the mainstream, holds hope that more such movies with spirit will find their way into the homes and hearts of millions. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Serve & Volley RIP

The 2001 classic.

A forgettable affair, 2010 final

Two of the most common sets of photos in a newspaper in India are from obituaries and VLCC type before & after ads.

Obituaries usually are accompanied by a photograph of the deceased by which the loved ones often wish to remember them by. The screen shot on the left is from the classic Wimbledon final from 2001 featuring Goran Ivanisevic and Patrick Rafter.

Pictures in before & after kind of advertisements are used to convey a sense of betterment, the after effects of using a product or a service. The above 2 pictures though are a Benjamin Button kind of take on the same. The 'after' picture represents the worsening of the state of the game.

Till the early part of the previous decade, there existed a brand of tennis players called the serve & volley players. As soon as they gave a sweet little thunk to the tossed up ball on their serve, they set off towards the net, much like a rampaging bull after a imaginary matador. The player on the opposite end of the court then gave himself a single shot to win the point, for he knew that if the return was within stretching distance of the server it would be disposed off with a deft volley. As a consequence, there developed a second set of players. The baseliners. The strength of these players were the return of serve and an array of passing shots. Over the course of a match, the crowd would 'ooh' at a drop voley and 'aah' with a down the line passing shot.

And then appeared on the scene, two would be legends and all time great contenders. This on a normal day would mean cause for much celebration in the tennis fraternity. The two have over the past 5 years given us many a fabulous contest. They have at times put up such individual displays that their place in the all time best virtuoso performances in a sporting arena is but a formality. Neither of them, though, were natural serve and volley players. That is not the downside though. When the leading players of a generation both play in a certain style, the youngsters who look up to them tend to copy that, in the fatal hope of replicating their success. This has led to a virtual abandonment of a style of play which has given us great viewing pleasure. Besides, in the near foreseable future, it raises the prospect of not having a single serve and volley player be part of the action on the second Sunday.

That would be the perfect Midsummer Night's Nightmare.

(Technically Speaking :

The screen shot on the left : The arrows are the usual path trajectories of the player serving. Thus, in the days when serve and volley was still employed by a large percentage of players, as the tournament wore on, their movements caused a certain pattern of wear and tear on the grass. This is what the picture on the left depicts.

The screen shot on the right : The arrows in this case indicate that approaches to the net have come down considerably, as is visible by the fairly uneroded stretch of grass in the no-man's land. The approaches are happening after a reasonably long rally and from various parts of the court.)

(This is a replug of an earlier Facebook note

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cricket - Sport or just a game?

It has just started and it already feels like everything is over. The romance, the thrill, the joy, the despair, the chatter, the excitement and the innocence, or whatever was left of it.

Personally, this particular series of revelations about spot fixing and betting could not have come at a better time. Till last year, there was a chance that this kind of news could have really hurt. This season it is a mere confirmation of what was no longer just a hunch. Pollard dropping 3 in a row (practically pushing the second one off his hand after catching it), RP Singh bowling a couple of Mohammed Aamir balls in the same match, Hussey not being given run out by the third umpire, McCullum ducking under a catch.And even typing this out hurts as hell - Dravid tapping the ball away after catching it cleanly to allow a second run.(No. I am not a Dravid baiter. Quite the contrary. Proof? , ). If any of this had been an isolated incident in any other age, it could have set alarm bells ringing. That all this and more happened in a matter of weeks was just confirmation of the fear in the mind. Am I certain that all of these are incidents of match/spot fixing? No. Do I fear that all of these are incidents of match/spot fixing? Yes. To be in denial would be like saying that Titanic was a myth perpetrated to ensure better safety on ships. Let's face it. The IPL was just an extension of the board-room games that gigantic corporations play. It was just an additional playground on which politicians could score points against each other. For the top cricketers it was like an year end bonus.

But then to believe that the rot is limited to T20 is to hope that global warming is only about the summer getting hotter. The same cricketers play in all the formats. And it would be new twist to corporate ethics if they chose to cheat only in one format and not the other. The same bookies network would hound them even when they play for their national or state sides. Would they resist them in that scenario? When the stakes are higher? Place your bets.

Will this whole charade of allegations, counter-allegations, arrests, investigations and more arrests clean up cricket? No. The incidents in the lead up to the investigations merely indicate a shift of power - from one camp with shady antecedents to another. A sponsor and team owner, also the subject of a high profile investigation and has gifted huge tracts of land to cricketers in a state where the party in the ruling coalition is headed by a former BCCI/ICC head, pulls out in the week before the allegations. The investigations against the current chiefs son-in-law is being handled entirely by a police department different from the one which unearthed the spot fixing claims. The sponsor returns to say that he would be happy to continue as Indian team sponsor if the ex-BCCI head returns to power. The head spins with the possibilities of what could have been and what could be.

In the midst of all this we, the paying public, are just mere spectators to a game which has ceased being just a sport. So, the next time you pay for the ticket to a cricket match, you could also be getting the added service of being taken for a ride.

So, will this mean we will stop watching cricket? No. The lure of watching Sanju Samson's cover drive and Pujara's hook would be too great to resist. Why? Because, as Sundar Raman, the CEO of IPL, succinctly put it (in a different context), we are all :

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Facebook Generation - Damned if you do, damned if you don't

The Facebook generation – that’s what we are called. It used to sound cool. Now it sounds cynical. We express our happiness on it, our frustrations on it, our sadness on it and more sadly our anger on it. We even get arrested for it. But that’s all we were capable of. We did not know what it was to take to the streets, to suffer body blows, to stand up for a cause we believed in by standing by it in the face of peer pressure. We were ridiculed for it. Pontificating from the air-conditioned comforts of television studios and editorial desks people called us arm-chair critics. Some of us even agreed with that. We were taken aback by the growing indifference to the world around us. Yes, we went for candle light marches and Anna took us for a ride. But then those were just style statements. When it really mattered, we will buckled down because we did not like to get our hands dirty.

And then it all changed. Thousands of young people decided enough was enough. They took to the streets, and no ordinary ones at that. They were lathi charged. No one was spared. A picture is worth a thousand words and there were thousands of them - of a policeman clamping his foot down on a protestor, of policemen hounding individuals in packs, of women getting hit on the head and being shoved around and of men receiving multiple blows despite not retaliating to any of them. Not for the first time, many of us sitting at home felt the anger. But for the first time we felt ashamed, at sitting at home and not being on the roads. Because, they were us. And then we felt the connection that the angered youth of a nation should feel. For every blow dealt on the “Street of Victory”, the hurt was universal. They were taking the blows for us. And then when no one expected us to come back and fight another day, we did. To take more blows. To take a stand.

And then, the political elements stepped in. Ruckus was created. What was earlier a protest now turned into violence. An officer in uniform died of injuries. To the media which has so far dealt only in global statements, this was turning into a gruesome reality. This was civil unrest. They were no longer the sole guardians of the nation’s conscience. The people, yes we the people, had decided to wrest back what was rightfully ours.

The machinery kicked in. Protests at what costs, screamed the ‘liberal’ media. The tables were turned. Is the life of the constable of any less value than those who have fallen victims to rape, they asked? We all knew the answer. Did the government? Ministers were given the chance at spin doctoring. They only managed to incite more anger. The Prime Minister made a speech, but not a statement.

“Lumpen elements” became the problem, because everything else was “theek hai”.  Metro stations were closed because the police could no longer handle a protest.  The silent protestor was beaten up because the government’s lost its voice.

We were the problem, because when everything around us was wrong, we could never be right.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

That Sinking Feeling

Goodbye, Sachin. No, really. Goodbye.

At 25, it is tough to get anyone to believe it when I say that I am just getting out of a 20 year relationship. But then, at 40, it must be even tougher for you to cast away the adoring millions and walk into the sunset. You will will yourself on for a series or two for your pride, for our joy and for the team. You will score another masterful hundred and get bowled a few more times. But I will not be around to see that. To use that dreaded phrase – “you have been dumped”.  

The fact of the matter is that most of us are selfish beings. We were more than happy to say that you were our biggest love, our life and such nice things for a good part of 2 decades  - when you were in your prime. Now that you no longer look that good at the crease, now that you are scratching around more often than not, now that there is younger, fresh blood to get excited about, now that you are 40 and we are just  25 or 30, we are ready to move on. We will check back on you once in a while to be sure that you are doing okay. But we will be long gone by the time you let go of us. Like I said, we are selfish.

Who am I kidding?

We will be there every single day, because in your struggle, you prove yourself to be as human as us. For over 2 decades you were somebody we could only dream of. Now you have descended from that glorious platform that you had built for yourself and are now closer to the end, closer to being us. Did I say we will move on? Nonsense. You will move on- to your loving family, to the commentator’s box, to the Parliament and many high places. Us? We will be watching videos of you cover driving Donald, sending one right back at McGrath, tonking Warne over mid-wicket, cutting Ambrose, flicking Wasim, bamboozling Moin with your googly or juggling your way to yet another catch at slip.  

The many 20 somethings like me secretly wish that you will be able to play on forever, because we do not know what life is without your batting to look forward to. If we came back with a bad score in our exams, and you scored a century that day, you not only took away a bit of sadness from us, but also a bit of our dad’s anger.  That you made our world a happier place is not to be denied.

However, we are pained to see you struggle. We are forced to look away when you grope outside off stump to a second rung bowler or get bowled to deliveries you would have whipped past the leg umpire for a boundary a couple of years back.We don’t like it as it makes us feel vulnerable. To know that a legend like you could be reduced to a struggle like this makes us doubt what we will make of ourselves at 40. We want you to go now because we want to retain only the happy memories. Like I said, we are selfish.

I plead guilty to arguing that Dravid was a better Test match player than you or that Lara was more of a match winner. But in hindsight, those titles and arguments seem a little too trifle in the bigger picture. When Lara was run out in his last match, we stood up in our drawing rooms to applaud even though he was thousands of miles away. Dravid did not even give us that chance. When he announced his retirement, we were left shocked and speechless. But you? When you say your final goodbye, we will be shedding tears – in schools in Chennai, in offices in Delhi, in the markets of New York, in the clubs in Sydney and the bylanes of Mumbai. Because when we said you were our biggest love, our life - we meant it.

P.S : This is the second consecutive post on cricket and relationships. I realize that I might be having really bad break up blues.