Wednesday, 28 March, 2007

I had a haircut!!! Woo Hoo!!!

I got my hair cut today, and it feels brilliant having whatever little breeze there is in late March Chennai moving about lazily through parts of my head previously protected from the elements by unruly hair growing in patterns not dissimilar to the fibre of that other glorious creation of nature, the coconut.

Why then, I wonder, do some people want to grow their hair long? Friends of mine, most notably Mr. Rajesh Madhini (see image above), go around with so much excess baggage on their heads that I’m sure some of the grey stuff inside their heads must be quickening its rate of waving goodbye to this world (we are all born with a certain number of neurons in the brain; they do not reproduce, and throughout our lives their number diminishes) to allow the black stuff on the outside to flourish like the green stuff in the Amazon. This possibly explains why, generally, with notable exceptions (don’t ask me for examples); women aren’t as bright or as quick on the uptake as men. Before the flag waving, slogan shouting activist women out there start burning effigies of me, I apologise for what was certainly a politically incorrect statement. But I hasten to add, you lot would be a lot brighter in my eyes if you didn’t walk around willingly bearing the burden of more than a hundred thousand shoulder length hairs. But please do not take this opportunity to emulate my look; not everyone can carry it off the way I do.

Wednesday, 21 March, 2007

Street Cricket

There is a particular joy in playing cricket at an unorganised level, where you interact with individuals from vastly different backgrounds; each one of whom is a character in the truest sense of the term, possessing uniquely homespun technique. There is a freedom for individuals to experiment, respond naturally to different situations and make mistakes; something that is usually not found at more organised levels of the game. The result is usually hard fought cricket, with plenty of arguments, some of which turn ugly. That, however, is the environment where boys learn to respect differences, sort out issues themselves, and move on to the important business of playing the next match.

A tennis ball in the right hands can do terrifying things. Harmless looking lobs pitching a foot outside leg stump can uproot off stump (which can be anything reasonably off- stump-like) and result in arguments about whether the ball actually hit the stumps, whether the wicketkeeper disturbed the wicket; sometimes batsmen say they weren’t ready. Hitting the ball out of the gate in a certain friend’s house results in the batsman being declared out. I have known batsmen to do so with the cleanest of lofted drives right out of the sweetest part of the bat and say they weren’t ready.

A better argument would be the legitimacy of the bowler’s action. Underarm bowling can be defined in many different ways, and no two people agree upon the same definition. This is largely due to the fact that every bowler breaks some law in some manner. Bent elbows; arms being raised above hip, or sometimes shoulder height; right handed bowlers delivering the ball from a point near their left elbow – there are plenty of ways to get a tennis ball from one roughly drawn crease to another with one point of contact between ball and pitch somewhere in between.

Balls pitching twice are usually called dead ball, with rules changing from one street/apartment compound/backyard to another. The confusion always stems from the second pitch being behind the popping crease. This sort of delivery may or may not be a dead ball, and this sort of delivery has the nasty habit of beating batsmen and hitting the stumps. If only they played with straight bats…

If they all played with straight bats, however, there wouldn’t be any character left. Street cricket is an attractive spectator sport simply because it throws up great contests; which aren’t high quality skirmishes, but comedies of error. I was alarmed by the total lack of quality in a match between two teams of nine and ten year olds a few months back and I found myself thinking how much better my friends and I were at that age. Thinking about it now, though, we were probably as bad, if not worse. All that quality I remembered would have been what I had seen through ten year old eyes; and a ten year old mind would have made sense of what I saw using about five years of cricket knowledge as reference.

That was about the only match I’ve witnessed between kids of that age group in a very long time, and it saddens me to think of all the fun this generation is missing out on. Nobody plays on the streets, nobody sits on the walls, and nobody argues with the guy next door who confiscated the ball and refuses to return it. Some of those arguments were the greatest moments of my life, where the adrenaline would course through my veins, and I’d feel like the king of the entire street (which was a pretty big place for a small kid who wasn’t allowed to take his cycle out into neighbouring streets).

I vividly remember an argument I got into when I was a little older. This guy had chased us away from our pitch, and refused to let us play any longer. My friends had already started removing the stumps from the turf; and I was waging a lone, polite struggle against that chap, who was under the impression that we were out to break his beautiful windows. It went like this:

Me: We don’t intend any harm, sir.

Him: You better intend!!! You BETTER intend!!!

I’d have shown him plenty of intent, and possibly thrown in the meaning of the word as well, if my friends hadn’t disappeared from the spot.

There are too many such people around, all of whom occupy ground floor flats, and take long afternoon naps. The rapidly increasing population of this psychographic coupled with the rapidly dwindling population of kids who care enough for their piece of turf and the sport they play to actually resist being driven out, has probably brought the curtains down on street cricket, at least in the bigger cities with more affluent people. Every kid has a computer now; many have high-end gaming consoles as well. In the old days, a couple of us had 8-bit Nintendo consoles, and a whole bunch of kids would go to one person’s house, and we’d have loads of fun playing Mario, Contra and other simple, addictive games that turned up in plastic cartridges with a chip.

The only ten year olds (in the bigger cities, I reiterate) who play cricket or any other sport these days are the ones who are good at it; at an organised level, with coaches monitoring their every move. Parents don’t encourage their kids to go out and play, unless sport seems like a viable career option; viable career options for fifteen year olds!

There is too much homework, too many textbooks, too much talk of the big, bad, competitive world out there. Tenth and twelfth standard students suddenly stop singing, dancing, painting, playing the tabla and playing on the streets; and decide that the time has come for them to study. Examinations and record work become a priority; and some people reassure their children with this very amusing piece of advice:

‘Two years. Work hard for these two years, be serious; and you can enjoy life after that.’

How can someone who’s been robbed of his vitality during what should have been the most fulfilling phase of his life ever enjoy whatever is left of it? The fellows I saw going around with blank looks and textbooks in their twelfth standard are still doing just that. Their holidays were spent preparing for the next term, the next academic year; and once they’re out of college, they’ll be sitting on a desk somewhere, in front of a computer, putting together stuff other people did, making it look coherent and characterless. They’ll earn fat paychecks, yes, but none of that money will ever bring them the lost pleasures of their childhood, their children will go through the same process; and a generation of kids will grow up not knowing what it feels like to launch a tennis ball into Orbit Apartments.

Thursday, 8 March, 2007

Onion Oothappam

What can a power cut do to elevate your onion oothappam experience into a higher plane? This is not a question I have pondered a great deal about, but I was given an opportunity to do so the other evening.
I’m a great fan of the dosa and its myriad forms. The onion oothappam is a sublimely beautiful thing, crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, with a smattering of molaga podi, if you like it, and finely diced onion embedded into its surface. The process of making one is fascinating to watch, and even more so, to listen to. This uninterrupted listening was made possible by the benevolent souls in the electricity board. No television, no television next door, and so on…
So there I sat, with an emergency lamp sitting next to my plate on the table; my back facing the kitchen where my mum weaved her magic. The batter went on the tawa, the ladle went over it repeatedly in a circular motion, and the whole thing sizzled away until, with a deft motion of her wrist, my mum turned it over. The sizzling became louder, and then a swift scraping noise as the oothappam slid off the tawa onto my plate.
I wasn’t watching her cook, but my ears were being treated to divine music.
As one disappeared down the gullet, another made its way onto my plate; and I began to reflect.
The best food is always found in an environment where there is no insecurity, where everyone knows everyone, and the setting doesn’t overwhelm the food. At home, therefore, the combination of consistently brilliant food and the knowledge that I can eat as clumsily as I want to and no one will mind makes the process of consuming food a real pleasure. I usually eat stretched out on the sofa, with a book in my hand, the remote on the armrest and the plate leaning at a dangerous angle that threatens the equilibrium of its contents. Sitting on an elegant high backed chair, with a frilly tablecloth sitting in front of you, laden with a selection of knives and forks so shiny you don’t want to put fingerprints on them, glasses with fluted stems waiting to upset the candles which seem to be there for the sole purpose of setting the tablecloth on fire; this sort of thing frankly makes me nervous. And the conversations around tables such as these are usually in hushed tones, and forced. The food itself is fussy, with elaborate care taken to make it look like a still life painting. Making food is an art, and it can be kept pure only if it’s allowed to be itself. This won’t happen if some chef too full of his own importance puts the chutney in a squeezy bottle and paints wiggly patterns all over a piece of oothappam cut in the shape of a butterfly with a very prominent proboscis. That chef doesn’t understand food. All he wants to do is to put his signature all over the place; like what I used to do all over my notebooks in school in the days when I used to be this guy with an inflated opinion of himself, seeking attention and seldom getting it.
When the chef begins to think he’s more important than what he’s putting on the plate, he loses sight of the fact that his customers primarily want to eat.
Actually, most of his customers turn up to soak in the ambience, the candlelight, the feeling of being treated like a spoilt crown prince who hasn’t learned to tie his shoelaces yet; eating isn’t quite the priority. That in turn causes the chef to indulge in impressionism, and this sort of thing attracts more of the ‘Look at me, I’ve got Swarovski on my shirt’ crowd. They’re stuck in a mindless vicious cycle.
They have no idea what they’re missing out on, the poor sods.
I laugh at them, a maniacal laugh, distorted slightly by the presence of copious quantities of oothappam in my mouth.