Sunday, June 8, 2014

Reunited

6 PM on a sunny June Saturday evening. A grass ground tailor-made for cricket, 20 miles north of Seattle. The Wizards play the Last Samurais. I'm a Wizard and we're defending a modest 96 in 16 overs, on a tiny ground where flicks and edges could mean six runs.

Over the past few years - and I realize while typing itself that I've written about my disassociation from cricket far too much recently - cricket and I had sort of parted ways. It used to be the love of my life in Mumbai, with so much thoughts, energy and waking hours expended on it. But I moved to the US in 2009, had a few modest games for Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and moved to Seattle in late 2011 - that signaled the end of my cricketing days. I did play a game or two here and there, but without any practice, and without consistency, my bowling - something that meant so much to me back then, was nothing to write home about.

A few weeks ago, I reached out to a team online to be part of a tennis ball league in the Seattle area. The Wizards were kind enough to play me straight away without seeing me practice. I bowled in a game after roughly three years, and didn't disappoint. Games on slow astro-turf pitches demanded a very different set of bowling skills. I adapted. But I wasn't thrilled either as I wasn't fast enough, not accurate and nowhere near as aggressive as I used to be. The next two games were the same way - just passing the Wizards bar but letting myself down.

But now, it's the 2nd over of the game and I'm bowling my first ball. Surprisingly, the run-up is super smooth and I'm faster than I've ever bowled for the Wizards. The ground smells of grass, and the late afternoon sun is still harsh on my face as I look up in dismay - the batsman was so close to edging! Next few balls, I focus on the run-up - and lock in the stride lengths well in advance. Shoulder speed is just a function of the smooth run-up, and sure enough, I'm faster than before. I'm thrilled. I start panting in three balls though, as I'm not used to so much physical exertion. But I'm not giving this up. A top edge results in a wicket. My first hard earned wicket for the Wizards and my first real exaltation as a bowler in years. Two more overs follow - another wicket - this one much better than the first - as it was the result of an elaborate set up that resulted in an edge to the wicket keeper, and a tight over followed by similar performances by the other Wizard bowlers as well, and we win the game. Third win in a row, but the first time I've played a role in it and I relish every single moment of it.

On the way back home, I felt something I hadn't felt in such a long time. And this is why cricket is such a great game. You could write reams about strategy and playbooks and how plans change games, but in the end - when you run in to the pitch with the wind blowing loudly into your ears in perfect silence, you could be on a crowded ground in Azad Maidan in Mumbai, on the rough muddy patch behind my building (where, by the way some of the most competitive cricket in the world is played) or on a clean cut manicured grass ground in Seattle, but it's all the same - you're focusing on the ball in your hand and the magic you can do with it, and whether you can outfox someone who has a bat in his hand and the exact same passion and aggression as you. It's a mind game and it's about overcoming all the things that make you less than who you are - work stress, personal dilemmas, existential questions, all fade away as your purpose in life narrows down to a single tunnel vision. As you run closer to the wicket and leap just before delivering, it's all crystal clear - life is never as clear to you as it is in that instant - and when the plan works and the batsman edges into welcoming keeper gloves, it all makes sense - pain and gain, effort and output, risk and reward all lie before you and you're victorious. Few things in life make you feel as rewarded as that instant when a fast bowler experience gets his wicket.

As fleeting as it is, that is a moment worth describing. If you've never played cricket, or have never been a fast bowler, I don't know how much of this will make sense to you, but it is one of the most treasured experiences of my life and I could keep talking about it. I'm feeling like I've reunited with a long lost friend, and the feeling is incredible. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Times we live in

It is fascinating to think that several ideas considered outrageous or outright illegal in our times, were very much accepted in social norms a few decades ago. It is even more fascinating to use this observation to extrapolate all that may change in the future. The unknowns of today may just make for interesting history textbook pages and Wikipedia reads tomorrow.

Is everything, and I mean everything, just a function – or byproduct of the times we live in? Is there any absolute morality?

In ancient Rome, known for being a society with political frameworks strikingly similar to today’s democracies, large orgies were routinely part of social gatherings, and even religious ceremonies. In  ancient Greece– a society credited with giving us many of the foundations of existential philosophy, theater, literature and the arts, it was not uncommon for male members of the gentry and even general public, to indulge in sex with minors – mostly young boys. (Interestingly, one of the interpretations of the anti-homosexual passages in the Bible is that it refers to this Grecian practice – as it was well known at that time). Intense psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs were peddled as everyday herbs and flowers in Indian and Oriental cultures, until a few centuries ago.

The list is endless. People were beheaded for postulating that the earth is round, and not a flat plate held on the back of a tortoise. Slavery – the ownership of human beings – depressing to even begin considering, was common worldwide. The Bible even has passages outlining the ideal prescribed conduct of a slave owner, and that of an obedient slave. People with retardation and personality disorders were believed to be possessed. Unwed pregnant women were burnt and crucified as witches, a few centuries ago. In more recent times, the Holocaust happened seventy years ago because one race believed they had the right to annihilate another.

It is not all horrifying and macabre though.

Native American cultures have long honored same sex marriages, celebrating homosexuals as gifted individuals. They were honored with special places in society.  In in the Indian sub-continent, the Mughal emperor Akbar had special chambers devoted to free-spirited debating. All intellectuals were invited, and there was absolute freedom of speech – politics, religious ordains and social structures were debated intensely without any reservations – in the presence of the emperor and his gentry. It is believed that these discussions helped shape public policy and resulted in religious harmony in one of the few successful multi-ethnic empires in the pre-modern age. It is ironic to note that this freedom does not exist in many parts of the world even today. The fledgling laws of fair trade are not new to the twentieth century – they were in full practice during the ancient Egyptian and Grecian civilizations. These economic concepts have struggled to gather favor among the first world countries today.

The future will see changes too – probably at an accelerated pace, as information spreads faster and intellectual disparities are reduced across the world. It is possible to conceive a very different set of rules in the future. Relaxation in laws that govern the consumption of drugs. Same-sex marriage will be legalized, and all this opposition to the practice will be spoken of in the same way slavery is addressed today – as a dark shadow in the history of man’s capacity to embrace his brother. A slow demise of organized religion as we know it, in the light of newer scientific discoveries that hammer away at the existential unknowns we end up attributing to divinity today. No, it is certainly conceivable. Again, the past serves up an example – the ancient Egyptian civilization peaked at around 3150 B.C, and continued up until 30 B.C when the Greeks conquered and ended an entire empire. For more than three millennia, a culture was held together by a now-forgotten religion. That is longer than all our monotheistic religions of today. By at least thousand years. How many of the Egyptian Gods do we know now?

I even envision a day when world leaders slowly wake up to the fact that countries are just imaginary lines on maps that divide people. The DMZ – the most heavily militarized border in the world, between North Korea and South Korea, separates families and people who share the same ancestors until two generations ago. Will it unite Koreans one day? Tibet houses the earliest origins of the culture and religion that forms the fabric of life in most of eastern Asia. Will the conflict with China see an end? Will India and Pakistan, in a few hundred years, wake up to see that the LoC is just another way to divide a country that fought against imperial colonization as one entity? Racial differences will be seen as a byproduct of cross continental migrations and subsequent evolution to best acclimatize to climactic conditions. 

Laws, rules, culture, and customs are all subordinate to the times we live in. Who is to say what is right then, or what is wrong? 

In Divine Company

T.R Mahalingam (1926 - 1986) is one of the greatest Indian musicians, and arguably one of the world's finest as well. A child prodigy, he picked up the flute at the age of five secretly against his father's wishes. He picked up the arcane nuances of Carnatic music by himself, and learnt to play in three speeds - the hallmark of a rounded musician. His first concert was at the age of seven. Mali, as he was called, lived an eccentric life - his brilliant musical career cut short by alcoholism and recluse. He died at sixty of a cerebral hemorrhage. 

John Frusciante, two time guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, also a child prodigy, studied the works of Hendrix and David Gilmour, and was inducted into the Chili Peppers at the age of 18. At the age of 22, the trappings of a rock-star lifestyle pushed him into manic depression, forcing him to live as a recluse in his Hollywood mansion for six years, refusing to see the outside world, indulging in macabre paintings and furthering a life-threatening dependency on intravenous drugs. A fire ultimately destroyed his mansion, and he was barely alive when rescued - almost dead from potentially fatal infections caused due to improper intravenous injections. It turned out to be his return to the world outside, and he went on to make award winning albums with the Chili Peppers before quitting the band in 2009 again to pursue solo work. 

What do these two musicians - arguably among the finest of their times and genre - have in common? They both claimed to see God while playing. Mali said he could see God five minutes into his playing, and that either made him think it useless to continue, or motivated him to continue hours beyond the scheduled concert end time, confusing concert attendees and organizers. John Frusciante was asked why he doesn't make mistakes while playing. He replied that he felt himself to be in the company of God, and  that he only serves as a medium of the infinite creativity God possesses - and of course, that is the reason he doesn't make mistakes. 

I am constantly amazed at this humble attribution of their genius - no doubt also the product of dedication and constant practice - to a divine entity. What must it be like to experience such elation? To feel such control in the midst of brilliance, that your mind doesn't know better than to take recourse in calling it the presence of God? We the 'normal' people, working on normal deadlines in normal jobs, and hurrying to meet normal trains that will take us to normal destinations, don't know what it's like to experience expertise on a plane that is beyond normal comprehension. So I guess we'll never know. 

Is it true that we have to know much more than we do, in order to discover even more, all that we don't know?





Saturday, September 14, 2013

Of Nightmares and dreamscapes

If you know too much, there is never a way to un-know. 

I’ve been alone a lot over the last few months, and in the midst of a few big changes in my life, I have embraced solitude by turning to the one thing I used to love as a kid growing up – the joy of reading. 

As a child, I remember long languid summer afternoons spent lying down and reading - entire volumes of RK Narayan's tales - the sweet sweet stories of Swami and Friends, the lovable homely Malgudi Days, and all of the young adult fiction that the 90s had to offer.

Over the last few months however, I cannot claim to have read such lovely benevolent books. The highlights of a very specific type of reading that I have been engrossed in are - the Rape of Nanking, the horrors of Unit 731 and the induced famine in North Korea that killed a third of the population there. Not even twenty years ago. I do not know if it is some kind of morbid curiosity that my own dark side has been unable to resist, or if it is something else within me that makes me want to know more about the horrors that humanity has inflicted upon itself. 

The list goes on. An Auschwitz survivor book. Pages and pages on the Rwandan genocide. Mexican drug cartel violence - happening even today just a few hundred miles south of the border. Western governments ordering drone strikes to obliterate entire villages in the rural middle east - on mere whiffs of suspicion as to the inhabitants of the village - again, probably happening at this very instant as you read this. 

And yet, I realize, my brain isn't strong enough to hold its own and be peaceful with what it learns. I have nightmares. Painful things happening to loved ones. Mysterious unseen monsters that cast shadows, fill the walls of my apartment with gloom and a macabre sense of dread. Sometimes I dream of being a child again, staring into my mother's eyes - I am shorter than her waistline in these dreams, I vividly recall standing in the tiny kitchen of the house we used to live in until I turned nine. My dreams reverberate with the sounds of my father's motorcycle as he turns into our street, returning from work - my earliest memories in life revolve around listening intently at dusk for the booming Royal Enfield motorcycle to come racing up our lane.

Occasionally, mortified, I turn to ancient eastern philosophy for solace - the Dharmapada - the words of those who heard the Buddha speak, and the Upanishads - first person accounts of self discovery as professed by ancient sages in India - dating back to 3,000 B.C The whole of eastern philosophy has but one purpose - to instill a sense of awareness in one's mind, that life is transient, fragile, very short-lived, and that the sole aim of one's life is to live gently, consuming only as many resources as needed to survive, and not causing harm to others. There is no mention of a tusked God, or a savior of people, or of a list of things to do that will get one to heaven. Because - there is no concept of heaven or hell, both can exist on earth and within one's mind as a consequence of one's actions - it is all an infinite chain of Karma - the law that says the nature of your actions ultimately determine the nature of the events that occur in your life.

I do find moments of peace. A hard day's work at work brings a satisfaction that is inexplicable. A few evenings with good friends, a much awaited visit to my home - to be with family again after two years, is approaching and I cannot wait to be with them again. I have a vacation planned with my childhood friends, and I cannot say how excited I am for that. 

Several unanswered questions though. How are people okay with obsessing over the specifications of the newly unveiled iphone, instead of even bothering to read about the chemical bombings in Syrian schools that just happened last week? Children died of burns. While the 'western world' as we know it awaits the new iphone and hotly debates how Samsung will respond, and who will be cast as the next Batman, and whether Kim Kardashian will have a lasting marriage. 

I know now - of all the things we try so hard to achieve in life - money, good  company, knowledge and happiness, peace of mind is the hardest to find. When I do find it, I will cherish it like I have cherished no other thing in my life. Until then, it is onward, through more nightmares and dreamscapes. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Slow Un-Realization of Dreams

A long long time ago, I used to play cricket for my college team. I used to dream of being a fast bowler for India. To feel the giddy rush of the sprint towards the pitch, with the wind in my ears and the warm smell of sun burnt grass all around me - and to bowl with all the power that my momentum and shoulder strength could muster - an insane rush of power and primal strength coupled with years and years of honed cricketing practice. All this with the deafening roar and cheer of thousands and thousands of delirious fans in a stadium flooded with big night lights. What a life, to do the one thing that gives so much happiness, and to do it again and again, in front of a billion people! Was quite the dream indeed. I can't convey to you the extent to which I would dream this dream, all through my teen years and into my very early twenties. 

But then, life happened. Or rather, nothing happened. I didn't do anything. To live my dream. Instead... 

Fast forward several years. I'm 26 now, and a lot more rounded around the mid-section of my exterior, and a fully integrated atom in the big machine that is corporate America. 

It is 9:20 PM on a Thursday night. The silence is too depressing, and I put on some music. The Final Cut - by Pink Floyd starts to play. I ease back into my chair as familiar music fills my ears. I stare into my screen and pore over numbers. I have to finish up some stuff for a project due tomorrow. It is either a late night tonight, or four hours on Saturday. I choose the former. Every day, five days a week, I try very hard to make digital ad-space on some websites financially lucrative to advertisers - to advertise their wares. It works too. People buy products they don't need, with money they often don't have. 

I welcome you to my American dream.

My phone buzzes. A message from my kid brother back home. "Brother, can you call?" I tell him I will call him as I walk back home. 

A few minutes later, I'm walking back home. I pass a giant parking lot on the way home, and I decide to walk through it to save a few minutes. The downtown streets are deserted, and the parking lot is totally vacant too. A vast rectangular strip of land, brightly illuminated with a few neon lights. 

As I step on into the lot, I get that familiar feeling - one that has grown all too infrequent over the years. If you grew up like me, playing cricket in India in the 90s, there is a permanent OCD ingrained in your brain - you are trained to imagine cricket fields in vast vacant spaces (mostly due to the lack thereof in Mumbai, where any cricket game would have rules subordinate to the presence of cars, buildings with very fragile windows, passers-by and other deviations from regular playing conditions). 

Instinctively, I picture a pitch, and fielders at the far ends of the lot. Within a fraction of a second, my brain has already sized that the straight boundaries are too long and the side boundaries would be too short for the pitch the way I am picturing it. Would probably be okay, another part of my mind quickly reassures (probably because I've actually played games on more disproportionate grounds). 

I can even see my 22 step run-up, and my best buddy Rohan batting - a few intense contests from many years ago spring to mind (Rohan was a worthy rival - the best batsman I knew. He dreamed equally intensely of batting for India then - he is now a traveling network analyst-consultant in upstate New York). The bright neon lights only complete the picture. With a fictitious seventy thousand strong crowd cheering in my ears, I make my way through the empty lot and on to the street that will eventually lead me home. 

I get to play cricket once or twice a year now. I don't know if I will ever play that sport as well as I used to once upon a time. I don't even know if I love cricket as much as I used to back then. Life grows on you, and you are trained to like all things somewhat equally, and nothing all too much. But every once in a while, it is impossible not to get transported back to a time when that lovely lovely game meant everything and more to me. 

Pink Floyd didn't know how right when they ended the song the Final Cut with 
'Thought I ought to tear the Curtain down,
I held the blade in trembling hands,
Prepared to make it but just then the phone rang,
I never had the nerve to make The Final Cut'

I walk back to my empty apartment thinking what it would have been like if I'd made my final cut. 



Saturday, May 4, 2013

Third Chapter (Ramblings - IV)

It is six in the evening, and I am sitting on my patio watching the sun shine on the world. Above the rooftops across the street, Seattle is going to witness another one of its spectacular sunsets. I have so much to say, and no one to listen - it is only when I feel this way that I write, and I welcome the feeling with a smile.

The air smells of flowers, I hear laughter coming from another balcony a few floors below me. Beautiful women in towels and bikinis walk into the building across the street, returning home from a sunbathing session at the waterfront that is two blocks away.

The sight of bikinis has made me lose my train of thought, and I find myself struggling to remember what it was that made me so contented and dissatisfied at the same time.

I guess I never realized the true meaning of the phrase 'today is the first day of the rest of your life'. I feel like that today. Not one for cliches or platitudes, I stay away from those kind of phrases. But today, it feels like the long dull winter and all the sadness it brought with it, are a thing of the past.

I remember so much and so little at the same time about the first part of my life - growing up in Mumbai, the most beloved city in the world, with my parents and friends - I remember days, occasions, moments, parties, laughter and so many other visuals and scenes. But I don't remember at all, all the little pieces that you don't bother to put into words when you life your life a midst them. But the life I lived in Mumbai will be always be magical to me, and by far the best days of my life.

My first four years in the US - the next notable 'part' of my life - mistakes, bigger mistakes, heartbreaks, failures, very little professional success, comebacks, desperation and resounding loss - these too, more eventful and recent although they are, are now behind me.

I am no believer in destiny, or in any of the beliefs that state a man's life is already charted out, and that unbeknownst to him, a magical hand has scripted for him all his victories and defeats, robbing him of the chance to ever feel in control of his own life. But today, I can't help but feel that the way the book my life has read up until now,  the third chapter of my life has now opened up, slowly and beautifully on this fragrant spring day.

Which road do I take? Will I find what I am looking for? Will I find out in the first place, what it is that I am looking for? These questions may well never be answered. The secret to life, I now realize, is to know when to stop looking and make peace with the unknowns, while never giving up the search altogether.

Dumas, my favorite writer, once famously wrote - "Life is a storm. One day you will be basking in the sunshine, and the next day you will be shattered upon the rocks". It is the precarious ledge we perennially walk on, is life as we know it - and today in this sunshine, I allow myself a smile on my face, knowing fully well that soon, I may be dashed and shattered on the rocks that this chapter of my life no doubt place.




Monday, March 4, 2013

I wonder



I wonder if now you smile, somewhere far far away,
And the world is warm, and waves on murmuring shores play,
Children laugh, lovers kiss, and the sweetest things mothers say,
And black nights lie defeated, by the golden purple dawn of day.

But as tomorrow recedes, day by day, and drink by drink,
I cannot but help, but of my lovely lost love think,
And through bleary eyes and the haze of smoke filled rooms,
An insipid today passes, and a vacuous tomorrow looms.