8/24/09

Claudio and Me

My sister and I bought the book, All Star Guide to the World Cup, at Dubai Airport in the summer of 1990. I discovered the book again recently when clearing out the store room in our house in Kerala. In it, the author David Scott had profiled each of the competing countries’ teams and had suggested that, “… you fill in the colours of the national flags.” My ten year old self had listened to Scott and duly coloured each of the flags rather meticulously using a large world map bordered with the flags of all countries that hung on our bedroom wall as a reference. 

While that World Cup was regarded by one all as not exactly the pinnacle of footballing excellence (“boring”, “dullest final ever”, “the best teams did not make the final”), it was my first experience watching a sporting tournament of such huge proportions. To my mind, it seemed to be truly glorious and destined to take on almost mythical proportions.  

Things were going on swimmingly until the 67th minute of the match being played in the Stadio San Paolo in Naples on July 3, 1990, the forward with the long, dirty blonde hair in the blue and white striped jersey received a yellow card. It was Claudio Caniggia’s second yellow card in the tournament and meant he would miss the finals. This act set a precedent – any player henceforth who would get a suspension for stupidity in any semi-final and thus miss out on the final, was inevitably labelled Caniggia-esque. This was also the moment that I experienced heartbreak for the first time.

I watched the match sitting in a hot flat in Muscat. The commentary was in Arabic and the commentator was getting hysterical about the incident. Words like unnecessary and thoughtless were bandied about. I had adopted Argentina as my team and the fact that Caniggia, who had formed such a formidable goal scoring partnership with Maradona, would miss out on the final seemed to spell doom for the Argentines. It came to be so when West Germany beat Argentina in penalties in the final - a match that dragged on and on and would eventually be regarded as a good cure for insomnia. At the time, I was excited, jumpy and nervous and eventually blubbered along with Maradona as he went up to collect his silver medal. I don’t know if Caniggia was blubbering along with us in the stands or dressing room, but I hoped he was. 

Ten year olds don’t have much judgement, especially ten year old girls. It is a fact of life that has hardly changed through generations. My questionable crush on Caniggia and his Michael Bolton like hair was a big low in my life, taste-wise. Eventually, I outgrew my crush on him (after seeing him and Maradona kiss each other on the lips). However, I still looked back on Italia 90 with a lot of affection. I learned to love football through Caniggia and the Argentines that summer. After that tournament nothing seemed to go right for either Caniggia or Maradona or the Argentinian teams at World Cups. Argentina has not reached a World Cup final since and Maradona went on to disgrace himself in 1994 in a drugs scandal. Caniggia scored only twice in the 1994 World Cup in the USA. When Daniel Passarella became the national team’s coach, he had a blanket rule that said he would not select players with long hair or earrings. Poor Caniggia, still believing in the Michael Bolton school of thought on follicle care, refused to shear off his golden locks and found himself cast out in the wilderness. 

Caniggia was brought back into the national team when Marcelo Biesla took the reins of the national team in the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. At the time Caniggia was 35 years old and playing in Scotland – which was a just reflection of his decreased abilities at the time. Caniggia never played a match in that tournament but did get himself a red card for abusing the referee from the sidelines in Argentina’s match against Sweden. Poor Claudio, it seemed, was unable to keep himself from getting booked in truly bizarre situations. I was in college at the time and watched him rage against the dying of the light and the flash of red with the sort of affection one reserved for curmudgeonly uncles. 

But of all the stories that surround this once talented footballer, one remains in my mind years after reading it. His love for the game was so strong that as a child and even as a young adult, he would go to sleep with the football in his arms. Hindsight is always 20/20 and David Scott’s statement in the All Star Guide to the World Cup that “…Caniggia showed that he has a bright international future”, seems particularly poignant given how things turned out. But at least his love for football was infectious enough for me to absorb it while watching him play. And for that, Claudio, thank you.  

8/15/09

Back to school at work

A friend pointed it out - IT workers in India are just bigger versions of their school going selves. The backpack in bright popping colors with a water bottle and three fold umbrella in each side pocket and lunch boxes carefully packed by wives.

As I watch the morning march of the worker ants, it is impossible not to want to bark out, ATTEN-SHUN! and watch them scuttle, their Tupperware bags flapping. In the morning buses (why do people who hate fresh air sit on window seats, keep the windows closed, thus ensuring that the air will be muggy inside the buses and stink of sambar and cabbage?), everyone sits with their ties in order and hair neatly braided. It doesn’t tax the brain to imagine the technical architect with the oiled hair and knotted tie and finger digging his nose, in a white shirt and grey trousers, committing to memory his geography textbook word by word instead. He is now older and working, so he’s mugging up on certification material guaranteed to make him a a more efficient worker. 

But really, even if you ace the tests and become a namesake VP, do you leave behind the illusion that you are just an overgrown schoolchild playing at “Going to Office”?

Only if the VP perks include a free SUV. Then you’ve jumped from schoolboy to rich thug. And that’s not such a quantum leap. Infantilism is key to both those avatars. Don’t throw away the backpack.

The Doppler effect in skin complexions

One half of the world tries to whiten while the other tans. While in India the cutting edge whitening creams use abrasive ceramides and pearl essences (with the tears of angels thrown in for good measure), the west, reeling from a report on the carcinogenic properties of tanning beds, toys around with caramel and cocoa.

Perhaps there will come a point, as surely as night follows day, that this darkening and whitening of complexions from opposite ends of the spectrum, will reach a consensus color and meet. Once everyone has realized that they are of course of one hue, dissatisfaction will inevitably set in and the race to become fairer and darker than the other will pick up speed.

8/10/09

Movie review - The Changeling (2008)

The pivotal scene in this Clint Eastwood film takes place at a railway station. Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) rushes past a waiting press pack and barricade of police officers to the approaching train. In the distance a boy gets down from the train, accompanied by a middle aged woman. Collins stops short and gazes in shock at the little man before her, the child that the Los Angeles Police Department will insist is hers and make her life miserable to cover up their own shortcomings.

That scene is probably the only one that stayed with me after watching this, the slightest and shallowest of Eastwood’s directorial efforts. The story of a single mother whose child goes missing from home one Sunday morning while she’s at work, and who is forced by a corrupt police force to take in a boy who they claim is her missing child, but one she’s too frustrated and angry to recognize as her own, should have made for great, compelling cinema. But the overwhelming seediness and dark atmosphere of Los Angeles in the twenties - corrupt and filled with murderous rage - and a case like this connected to the serial Wineville Chicken Coop Murders - is not apparent. Each frame and camera movement is tastefully composed. Even the scenes in the mental hospital where Collins is confined after protesting a little too loudly about the behavior of the police - a punishment that those women who dare to stand up to the men in blue  are inflicted with - is too sanitized, and too much in good taste. 

Eastwood is a lover of the slow pans and fluid camera movements. The period detail is exact and even as the lonesome soundtrack - string arrangements in a mournful tempo - play over the scenes, you know that this is a Clint Eastwood movie.

Jolie is good in the opening scenes, but the whole artifice of this, one of the most famous women in the world, being a mother in peril in the 1920s, falls apart towards the end, especially in a shot where she turns back and gives what is meant to be “I am brave, I will carry on” smile at a helpful detective, but ends up being one of the most self aware and false notes in what would have been an adequate performance. Her impeccably carmined mouth and coy looks from under the face flattering cloche hat doesn’t serve the performance either.

It is impossible not to see this movie and wish that Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential) or Michael Mann (Collateral, Public Enemies) had directed it instead. The authenticity, the grime and the dirt of a corrupt world are missing in Eastwood’s version of the story. And The Changeling suffers as a result.

8/9/09

The awfulness of TV journalism

Yesterday NDTV had an exclusive of a mentally ill man being hogtied and beaten by the police in Bihar. Which is all fine and dandy but you wonder if the police would have willingly shown their faces in such well-framed visuals as the one being broadcast. The whole thing looked staged and it was not as though the police had the classic burnt out criminal's desire to "Please catch me, I have had enough" syndrome. 

Suddenly, after the sickening (and far more credible) expose of fake encounters in Manipur by Tehelka, the Indian news media has latched on to what it thinks is a trend - since Indian television news channels have the collective IQ of a split pea - this is not very surprising. And since they lack anything called objectivity, restraint and good reportage, expect the next few weeks to be filled with exclusives of wonderfully filmed police misbehaviour.

8/7/09

The passing of a thespian

A great Indian actor died yesterday. And NDTV, in their morning bulletins, chose to shine the spotlight on... John Hughes. While Hughes has made cult Hollywood films, the fact that   one of India’s top English news channels (not that there’s much competition, mind) ignored  the death of National Award winning actor and President of the Kerala Sangeeta Natak Academy shows where the Indian media’s priorities lie. If Murali had won a blah Oscar, the coverage would have been endless. 

The Express has a tribute to the great man here. I am not sure I agree with a lot that is said and neither am I a fan of the florid style of the tribute, but something is better than nothing.

8/6/09

Stuff that made my day

Apparently the Haryana Government thinks golf is not a sport but "entertainment". Anyone who has slept off on the sofa in front of ESPN and woken up to see pointless putting on a huge expanse of land, knows that the only thing "entertaining" about golf are the ridiculous butt contortions the golfer goes through when teeing up for a shot.

How to save the world? Pee in the shower - basically don't train your toddler.

And do you really need to know how Shankar from accounting likes his tea? This article says we apparently know more about our colleagues and co workers than our spouses. If you've seen the two Software Engineers (not married to each other but to other people) canoodling in the office pantry in the best teen movie manner, then this is probably not news.

Hercule Poirot and the Art of Survival

Early on in her most audacious murder mystery, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie has her eponymous Belgian detective with the egg shaped head and waxed moustache, Hercule Poirot, cultivating vegetable marrows. He is unhappy with the results and smashes one to the ground for not being big enough. It lands at the feet of Dr. Shephard, who — those who haven’t read the book, stop reading now —is the novel’s narrator and also eventually revealed to be the murderer.

Hercule Poirot always fascinated me not only with his behavioral peculiarities so deliciously brought to life in the long running Poirot TV series by the impeccable David Suchet, but also by his uncanny knack for instinctively teaming up with the characters who would eventually turn out to be murderers. I wonder if this wasn’t Poirot’s survival tactic – a theory that gains a special relevance in this year when his most famous case, The Murder on the Orient Express, turned 75 and when Charles Darwin’s 200th birth anniversary was celebrated. If Darwin argued that natural selection is one way to propagate a particular species with only the strongest surviving youth and going on to procreate and increase the population, surely Poirot was blessed with a similar instinct to survive.

I set out to research my theory some weeks back. I had some of his best cases in book form as well as television adaptations. Suffice to say that watching and reading Poirot and nothing but Poirot for two whole weeks is disorienting. At work I could hear the theme music playing and I found myself imitating his mincing, pointy-toed walk. I also gained the habit of putting the word “delectation” in work-related emails. I would say the word in my head in a faux-Belgian accent. But my fledgling theory did sprout tiny wings and maybe a few feathers.

Poirot kept his friends – Hastings, Miss Lemon and, well, that’s about all – close, but he kept his enemies closer. In Peril at End House, he seems smitten by the damsel in distress, the charming Young Nick (named after the Devil himself) and keeps the impression going until the final act when he unmasks the murderer. His moony behaviour around the gorgeous actress, Jane Wilkinson, in Lord Edgware Dies convinces Hastings that he has fallen in love. And his affability and friendliness disarms the nefarious villain in Evil under the Sun.

Agatha Christie might have intended this empathy for villains to be red herrings that would lead the reader up the wrong path. This conscious decision to distract the reader from guessing which character was the rotten apple also served as a means of self preservation for her most famous creation. He survives because his creator’s instincts ensure that he has a protective shield, keeping him from harm. This was highly ironic given that Christie was privately frustrated with Poirot because she couldn’t kill him off and let her creativity loose by conceptualizing other mysteries that did not involve the little Belgian. She was handcuffed to Poirot for most of her life – the public wanted more stories with him and as an author who had to depend on royalties for her own survival, she continued writing Poirot mysteries beyond the 1960s and into the early 1970s. Poirot dies in The Big Four but this proves to be a ruse. When Christie eventually killed him off in Curtain (written in the 1940s because of the author’s fear of dying in an air raid during the war but only published in 1975), it wasn’t like Holmes and Moriarty on the Reichenbach Falls with the prospect of a comeback, but a final act from which there could be no return. Hastings describes the body and the funeral and readers knew that the little Belgian wouldn’t be appearing again. The New York Times carried an obituary on its front page for Poirot – the first and only one for a fictional character.

Poirot’s superior grey cells and finely honed instinct for survival elevated him above all other mortals in his world. And in giving him those powers, his creator proved the theory of natural selection and survival of the canniest, coined by another genius thinker.

8/5/09

Small is beautiful

The outer walls of the Honest Pen Hospital are covered with images of a broken pen being carried on a stretcher and consultation times are neatly written on a slate board nailed to the top of the entrance. Naseer, the chief (and only) consultant at the hospital, sits behind a counter – a hole in the wall of a small room with a blue door and shutters covered with posters for the latest in pens. He has sat there for over twenty years now. His father before him also sat in this small two floor building on Palace Road in Thrissur, selling pens, nibs, refills, ink bottles and offering pen repairing services.

I had always been fascinated by the name of the shop and the graffiti outside but had never ventured inside. I first heard of the pen hospital in college when a senior asked if I wouldn’t mind going and investigating what exactly Naseer did in his seemingly eccentric establishment. I hadn’t taken the opportunity at the time and had all but forgotten the place until one afternoon last December when curiosity got the better of me and I finally decided to go in.

Naseer, a pleasant middle aged man who has devoted himself to the cause of the writing instrument, has many regular customers. He said business had not slowed down and the ubiquitous computer and paperless communication had not made pens extinct. People still trooped in with fountain pens and expensive ball pens that had to be repaired. On occasion, a customer would bring in an antique that had given up working after long years of service. From behind his counter Naseer the pen doctor tended to these patients and dispensed advice on how to take care of nibs and fillers and the proper use of inks. My disabled Rotring drafting pens, relics of my days as a student architect, could be cured too. Having tried a lot of different methods to get them to function properly – ranging from the orthodox soap water to the truly bizarre involving huge amounts of Sprite – and never succeeding in dislodging solidified ink, I had quite given up hope of ever using them. Naseer however suggested a simple home remedy and if that didn’t work, I was most welcome to admit the pens to his hospital. As we talked, small town Indian life passed by us. Bank clerks and teachers came in and gave their non-functioning Sheaffers, Parkers, Heros and Ratnams for repair. Naseer studied each one carefully and gave his feedback. Come back tomorrow, the day after and so on. He would have them ready.

Between twelve and one in the morning and after five in the evening when office workers drop off their sickly pens are the pen hospital’s busiest times. The conservativeness of places like Thrissur – the slow hesitation to dispense of trusted instruments for newer models – has helped Naseer maintain his modest business. The Honest Pen Hospital is the only one of its kind in India, probably the world. For all the flak that Kerala gets for being a business unfriendly state, where there are more hartals than working days in a year, niche businesses like Naseer’s continue to thrive.

He gets calls from as far away as Dubai or New Delhi from people who have woken up one morning and found that a beloved pen has stopped working. He works hard at saving these precious possessions. He does not discriminate between the superior and more mass market brands. All pens are special and worthy of equal treatment. All of them get his special attention and benefit from his deep expertise.

After visiting Naseer and viewing his cosy little shop dedicated to one of the truly great inventions of man, I wish that I had visited him earlier. The number of calligraphy and Rotring pens that I had disposed of because they didn’t work or their insides were clogged with hardened ink, could have been saved and I would have been a better person for it.

So this is the first...

post of blog number - I have lost count.