Siblings in a Bathroom

"Do you mind?": I had the strangest visitors.

“Do you mind?”: I had the strangest visitors.

They didn’t notice me. If they did, they couldn’t have cared less. They sat, arms crossed, looking deeply pensive. They didn’t move for the longest time. Two house mice in my bathtub.

I tried dabbing them with a pole, attempting to scare them off. They remained resolutely still. I nudged them with a sheaf of rolled-up newspaper. To no avail.

“Do you have an empty plastic bottle you have no use for?” I asked my mom.
“Why, what happened?”
“There are two little mice in my bathroom and I want to get them out”.

A bathroom is the last place on earth you want company. When I was a schoolboy, we used to have yoga taught by a Naturopath (a doctor who treats patients using natural remedies). He was an energetic man in his early 30s, but spoke and moved with the zest of an adolescent. He had twinkling eyes, foppish hair and always wore half-sleeved shirts, untucked. A well-maintained mustache covered his upper lip, and he always wore a warm smile.

We had to close our eyes during the class so that we would feel uninhibited while doing the yoga exercises. Even while making us stand on our heads or touch our foreheads with our knees, the doctor took care to keep the atmosphere relaxed and light-hearted. He would crack jokes, would whisper in your ears if you were doing something incorrectly.

“Why do you grunt, instead of answering normally when someone calls you when you’re in the bathroom or toilet?” he once asked us.
We giggled and there was muffled laughter.
Knotting his brows into a frown, tying his hands behind his back, he strode back and forth in the classroom.
“Mmmmmmm….. what?” he said in a shrill, childlike screech of a voice.
Tell me mom!
He was mimicking how we’d react in such a situation.
There was more laughter, this time free and unrestrained.
What is it?
“Isn’t it true?” he said, turning towards us.
He had stopped pacing.
“Do you know why? Because those places are the only ones where you are completely with yourself. You’re completely free, there is no one else you need to worry about. No one wants to be disturbed while in there”.
He spoke of it like it was a spiritual experience.

That has stayed with me, for some reason. Maybe because it helps, in part, explain the appeal that solitude holds for me. I like being around people with whom I don’t have to apologise for who I am, either through speech or gesture.
The bathroom is where I close my eyes and make my dreams. I soap them and nurture them. It is where I give myself a thousand affirmations, the place where I draw my energy for the day to come. And now there were two little mice sitting there.

Rummaging through the kitchen cupboard, I secured an empty 2-litre Sprite bottle. I turned on the gas stove, heated a knife and carved an opening in the bottle big enough for mice to get in. Then I slipped a slab of peanut chikki, an Indian sweet made of jaggery and groundnut, inside the bottle. The idea was to coax the mice into the bottle, capture them and release them outside the house. A trap, but without the spring.

I rushed back to my bathroom, bottle in hand. “If a mouse jumps at me, I am going to bat it away with a defensive flick,” I thought, gathering a rolled-up newspaper in my left hand and willing myself to recall my cricket-playing skills. “Just remember, as far as the mouse is concerned, you are a much bigger animal”.

Taking small, tentative steps towards the bathtub, I noticed that the two mice were in exactly the same position I had first seen them in. They could have been in church. I placed the bottle — the side with its open mouth — near the mice. I nudged them with the newspaper. Their tiny eyes darted back and forth, as if aware something was afoot, but not serious enough to demand movement. Finally, I gave a resolute push at one of them and it bolted straight into the open bottle, while the other scurried to the end of the tub. I immediately placed the sheaf of newspaper at the mouth of the bottle, trapping one mouse.

I gingerly lifted the bottle and headed for the terrace. Common sense said I should let the mouse loose right that moment. But that’s what growing up with a brother does to you. They two mice looked very similar to each other. They also looked like they hung out together all the time. They scaled walls, traveled distant lands… anyway, I was reminded of me and my elder brother. When we were kids, we used to be a two-member gang. My brother is the extrovert and I am the introvert, so I used to tail him wherever he went. Our parents taught at a university, so we lived on campus. We used to hide among the mulberry plants and bunk school, rear puppies in secret in a mango garden, run scams selling wrestling stickers to school mates. We even fell off a tree once, together. We were fellow travellers, co-conspirators.

No, I would set both mice free together. What if they were brothers? I didn’t want to make them lose each other.

Holding the paper at the mouth of the bottle, I placed it upside down on the floor. I added a hefty notebook on top as contingency, in case the mouse was too strong and tried to topple the ‘trap’.

The second mouse had hidden itself in the bathtub drain when I returned. I would have missed it if I was not looking for it. Welding itself into the edges of the drain, like a furry Letter C, it was impossible to prise it free using a newspaper. I finally placed an empty bathroom cup near the drain and specked a few drops of water on the mouse. It sprang from the drain on pure reflex and ran straight into the cup. My coup was complete.

Closing the open end of the cup, I sat it down near the other mouse upside down. One by one, I then took both of them to the terrace. Standing behind a railing, I first let go of the mouse in the bottle. It fled my presence in a series of hurried hops and was out of sight in no time. The peanut chikki lay on the open terrace, unbitten and gleaming in the sun. I hurried to release the second mouse. When I set it free, it too scuttled away in short, rapid leaps. It seemed headed in the same direction the first mouse had. I hoped they hadn’t lost each other. If they had, maybe they would come back for the peanut chikki.


A Hero’s Final Stand



Sachin Tendulkar has announced his retirement.

There’s a brilliant scene in Memento, the Christopher Nolan-directed movie in which a vengeful Guy Pearce (who plays Leonard Shelby) battles short-term memory loss. In the lead up to the scene, Leonard has just smashed a guy to pulp but then can’t remember why he did so. Looking for an answer, he comes to know he did it as a favour for ‘Natalie’ (Carrie-Anne Moss) and confronts her. Natalie tries to convince Leonard that he did the job after offering to help her, and that no one made him do what he did. Leonard is unconvinced.

You decided to help me. Trust yourself.
Trust your own judgment. You can
question everything, you can never know
anything for sure.

There are things you know for sure.

Such as?

I know the feel of the world.
(reaches forward)
I know how this wood will sound when I
(raps knuckles on coffee table)
I know how this glass will feel when I
pick it up.
(handles glass)
Certainties. You think it’s knowledge,
but it’s a kind of memory, a kind you
take for granted. I can remember so much.
(runs hands over objects)

That’s the kind of memory Sachin Tendulkar has become. Like a knock on wood. Like a ball that jumps off the earth when flung against it. Like the giant shadow your little finger produces when held over a flame. In a nation with a billion people and its own dynamic, with hundreds of languages, cultures, political and social differences, he was one of the few constants for almost a quarter century.

When Sachin made his international debut in November 1989, DTH could as well have stood for a south Indian political party. You had ‘status’ back then if you had a telephone at home, period. Today, you invite benevolent sympathy if you don’t post your status despite having a phone. Back then, the 25 paise secured surreptitiously from your dad’s pocket would buy honey-dipped candies that could sustain you for the rest of the day. Today, that kind of dough wouldn’t get you a lick of those candies.

But Sachin’s still playing.

He’s the most prolific run-getter in cricket history, still the biggest name in the game, and his off-drive is still a looker: knees bent, head down, bat perfectly in line with the off-stump. As he freezes himself in that pose after dispatching the ball to the boundary, a lusty crowd cheering him on, he looks like a gladiator saluting the mob.

“It’s hard for me to imagine a life without playing cricket because it’s all I have ever done since I was 11 years old,” Sachin said in his retirement statement. The feeling is mutual. Sachin’s been around so long you take it for granted. Like a knock on wood. Like holding a glass.


Well, not anymore.

You Do What, Exactly?



Had I not clasped the railing just in time I would have tripped 30 feet to the floor below and been splayed on the mauve tiles on the ground floor. I had stepped on the thin thermacol sheet that comes with packages of new household items, like televisions and washing machines. The sheet itself, gray and rectangle as a doormat, lay on the vacuum cleaner, resting comfily like a defeated man leery of redemption.

The vacuum cleaner was creamy white with slabs of angry orange on its sides and top. The patina of dust on it made it look weather-beaten. It was. The machine’s been with us for almost 20 years. The cobwebs that hung about the vacuum cleaner, fluttering about in the wind like drunken lovers on a ship, were the only things alive in the machine. It didn’t look angry anymore.

I walked away. I was on my way to take a leak. “Vacuum cleaner,” I thought, once inside. “Vacuum. Cleaner. That name makes no sense at all. How do you clean a vacuum? You can’t clean something that’s not there. Or does it create a vacuum by cleaning all the dust and cobwebs?”

I flushed.

“But why then is it called a vacuum cleaner, and not a vacuum creator? How do you clean vacuum? It’s vacuum because nothing’s there in the first place, isnt’ it?”

I have no idea.

“Now Wait a Minute…”

"Where have I seen that before?"

“Where have I seen that before?”

Have you ever seen someone who looks like you? I’ve seen a spitting image of myself in dreams sometimes, standing right across me and carrying on with his life as if I never existed, and it has always disturbed me. In Tamil movies, (and most of Indian cinema, including Hindi cinema) it’s usually the male lead who has to contend with this duality and the complications that arise from this situation are conveniently overcome by casting one of the two characters as the ‘bad guy’. The bad guy always dies in the end, usually after realising that the mirror image he has been fighting was in fact his long-lost brother (usually a police officer).

But reality is more complicated than that.

At some point in life, we’ve all come across anonymous people with faces that look uncomfortably familiar. “I’ve seen that face somewhere,” we think, “but I can’t place it”. It gets worse. There are some faces, I’ve noticed, that kind of ‘repeat’ themselves. Each time I see that kind of face on someone, it belongs to a different person but I could swear I’ve seen it before, in some other context. I wonder whether this is true for everyone.

A couple of months ago, I went to a wedding in Odisha, a state in central-eastern India. It was the bridegroom’s wedding procession (‘baraat’), a traditional ceremony in Indian weddings where the bridegroom sits in a car or atop a mare and is taken on a procession to the wedding hall. It’s a noisy, colourful affair, with relatives and friends swaying their hips to popular movie numbers and singing along with them. Most usually loosen up prior to the baraat with a tipple or two of alcohol. It was there that I saw him.

He was barely out of his teens, wore a yellow t-shirt and black, carbon-framed glasses. He was dancing maniacally to the Hindi songs that were blaring out of the loudspeakers. I’ve seen that face, or minor variations of it, a lot of times in my life. “Here we go again,” I thought. I’ve long since stopped trying to figure out who exactly these faces resemble, because I’ve never ever succeeded getting there.

But this time, I got him. Some days after returning home from the wedding, I was going through old photos from my college days when I caught him standing right behind me, looking away from the camera. He was darker than the guy I saw in Odisha, the glasses were round instead of rectangle, but the similarity was very much there. I felt such a wave of relief. I had, for the first time, finally identified a face that had eaten up so much of my time.

But I was also puzzled. Because he wasn’t really anyone close to me. He was just a friend of a friend. I don’t remember his name, or even one proper conversation between us. But the mind is such a mystery. We remember so many trivial things we don’t need to. We forget things that we consider really important.

But identifying him has also convinced me that I am not imagining things when I think some faces look particularly familiar. They are really out there, I tell myself. Just keep looking, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get them.

Crank It Right Up

Pressure: Let's shake on it, say Justin Langer (left) and Daniel Vettori

Pressure: Let’s shake on it, say Justin Langer (left) and Daniel Vettori

Justin Langer was a tough opening bat in the great Australian sides led by Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, his flintiness often overshadowing a deceptively efficient strokemaker. In a team filled with marquee names, he seldom got the credit he deserved.

Daniel Vettori has been New Zealand’s outstanding bowler for the past 15 years, notching up 681 wickets in all formats of the game. His batting, however, still has the ‘what if’ look of Ridley Scott’s ‘American Gangster’. All those beautiful shots… if only we could have had a little more depth. With a bit more application, Vettori would have a much better batting average than 30.10.

So. An Australian and a New Zealander.

Besides a healthy antipodean dislike for each other, they share another common ground: pressure brings the best out of them.

Langer averages 68.75 batting in the fourth innings of Test matches away from home. That’s almost 23 runs more than his career average. Vettori’s fourth innings average away from home is (for a bowling allrounder) a very impressive 38.50, almost 8 runs higher than his career average.

Batting in the fourth innings of a Test is, by common consent, one of the more difficult tasks in cricket. By the time the fourth innings rolls around, it’s usually at least Day Four of a 5-day Test match and the pitch has more cracks on it than a Bollywood actress’s face without makeup. The ball turns, keeps low, spits up, reverse swings. It’s a tough grind at the best of times. When playing away from home, it gets even harder. The reputations of many a fine career have been dismembered in these sessions.

I am a fourth-innings man. I work best when under the pump. When working against an imminent deadline, sat in front of the computer, I go into a pensive mood, cradling my chin on my right thumb, with the index finger pointing to the skies in a classic Godfather pose. My family knows better than to disturb.

In a more serious vein, man is said to be at his most creative when faced with daunting odds. Even renowned business schools follow this model. Students are divided into groups, given minor sums of money and asked to multiply it within a particular time-frame, say 2 or 3 hours. Delhi University students recently generated Rs 1.22 lakh from just Rs 7,500 within six hours on the streets of Delhi. It’s a way to challenge yourself.

These past few months, I did some of my best writing when applying for admission into Master’s programs in journalism. I got into some, could not accept their offers because they didn’t offer a scholarship, and didn’t get into others. Regardless of the results, the experience of writing Statements of Purpose has proved to be unexpectedly enriching. The very name — Statement of Purpose — had suggested a drab experience wherein I’d furnish platitudes about how elite the Master’s program at a particular institution was and how privileged I’d be to be admitted there.

But it was, instead, a wonderful voyage of self-discovery. For instance, I realised that my father has been the most influential person in my life. (Easy to say, hard to realise); that David Halberstam’s ‘Summer of 49’, which I once picked up for Rs 100 (about USD 2 then), was the most important sports book I’ve read; that ‘The Verdict’ is my favourite movie and that Economics can actually be a very interesting subject.

Writing SOPs (Statements of Purpose) has resulted in a strange phenomenon. Nowadays, when I place my hands on my laptop, the left ring finger hovers over the Ctrl key and the right index finger deftly rests on the Left Arrow. This is because I edit stories backwards i.e, I move from the period, back to the part that needs correction by using the Ctrl+Left Arrow combination.
Once I finish the correction, I go back to the start of the paragraph and run over the entire content, from right to left, using the Ctrl+Right Arrow combination. My hands have become so used to the rhythm of this process that sometimes my fingers look as if they’re involved in a sexual act with the keyboard. Such is the plight of aspiring writers.

Anyway, here are the final couple of articles that were published at in April. I couldn’t update them as I was caught up in the application process.

a) Why Barcelona Must be Afraid

This was written just before the UEFA Champions League semifinal clash between Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Bayern had just steamrollered Juventus, the champions of Italy, in their quarterfinal meeting and I had said Barcelona better watch out for the Germans. Bayern duly gave a footballing masterclass to the Spaniards, winning the tie emphatically by an aggregate score of 7-0. They also went on to win the Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund.

b) Bayern Flex Muscles, Real Just Glide
This covered the first leg of the quarterfinal clashes between Bayern and Juventus, and Real Madrid and Turkish side Galatasaray. Bayern were dominant even in the first leg and could have wrapped up qualification then and there. Juve were lucky to survive. Real strolled to an easy 3-0 win against Galatasaray, but would make life difficult for themselves in the second leg. They eventually went out in the semifinals, losing out to Jurgen Klopp’s underrated Borrussia Dortmund.

The Best Way to Learn

Enterprising: Dan Rather

Enterprising: Dan Rather

“What’s the best way to learn?”

“Through reading,” I said.

“Reading, yes,” the instructor nodded.

“But the best way to learn is to teach what you know”.

I’d been sure that reading was pretty much the be all and end all of learning. It made sense. You read the best books, the best websites, the best columnists — it’s the best info you can get. Want to know about the life of a professional footballer? Look no further than Tony Adams’ autobiography. A heads-up on American print journalism in the 20th century? I learnt more from Arthur Gelb’s memoir than I could have from any encyclopedia. Hell, I didn’t know what an IPO was till I read Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline. (Those were the days when I still thought Sheldon was a woman.)

But strangely, the moment I heard that the best way to learn was through teaching, it rang true. That had something to do with a difficult childhood memory. When I was in school, I had trouble with mathematics and a classmate of mine gladly helped out. I didn’t get any better in maths, but he did go on to top the class.

You see.


Like all good lessons we learn in life, I promptly forgot about this till reminded of it by the instructor in what was a preparatory class for an MBA entrance exam. (A class which I later quit because the maths involved drove me up the wall). Last week, I once again revisited the truism of this concept.

My parents were both university professors. As such, I grew up in a world filled with books. Guests to our house were routinely asked by my father to “sit if you can” on the sofa in the hall, overflowing as it always was with books. Dad was an English professor, a versatile man with a deep knowledge of various subjects, be it literature, history or philosophy. He loved to read, but enjoyed even more sharing what he read. He had a brilliant sense of humour and loved making people laugh. In return, all he wanted was their attention. “You furnish the laughter,” was the understanding. “I’ll furnish the talking”.

In short, he was a Leo.

After he passed away last year, my family has been conducting informal knowledge-sharing meetings with friends, former colleagues and students once every month. The idea is to share our insights, over the course of a Sunday morning, from any book we have read. Last Sunday, it was my turn.

I chose Dan Rather’s ‘The Camera Never Blinks’. When I first read the book, it took a while to warm myself to it due to what I initially saw as Rather’s sense of self-importance. He opens the book with his famous rebuttal to Richard Nixon in a press conference, when the President asked him “Are you running for something?” amid the hostile reception from the heavily partisan gathering after Rather identified himself as the questioner. Not missing a beat, Rather replied, “No sir, Mr President, are you?”

It was a great comeback by Rather, but not so great that you devote 14 pages of the book to it. It looks overwritten at the best of times. I had just finished reading Walter Cronkite’s autobiography, and that made it look worse. Cronkite’s memoir had two or three anecdotes on every page. His accomplishments were so many that it was one of the reasons I chose Rather’s book over Cronkite’s to discuss last Sunday — it is too hard to pick out the most important events in Cronkite’s life. There were too many.

However, as I continued reading Rather’s book, I realised he was a hard-boiled newsman who built his reputation on sheer determination and improvisation. Now, as I reread the book in order to discuss it, I appreciated how enjoyable a read it actually was. It surely must have suffered from the Cronkite effect when I first read it.

When I discussed the book with guests last week, they were on tenterhooks when I narrated how Rather covered the JFK assassination and his adventurous journey to the India-China border in 1965 following rumours of mobilisation of troops at the border. It was only later I realised that as I prepared notes ahead of the discussion and discussed the book itself, I had come to admire Dan Rather more than ever. With some reporting experience under my belt, (I had not done any reporting when I first read the book) now I could really appreciate his dedication to report the truth and his determination to overcome tremendous odds while doing it. And his improvisation. When in New Delhi during the 1965 India-Pakistan war, he tied a shipping bag from CBS News, which had words stamped in red across the side, “CBS NEWS, RUSH, URGENT, HOLD AT AIRPORT” to the flagstaff of a Limo and used it as a ‘diplomatic flag’ to bypass security restrictions on transportation and avail diplomatic immunity.

I don’t know for sure teaching is the best way to learn, but it’s certainly the most rewarding. If you do a good job and you know you have, it massages your ego in a soothing kind of way. I basked in its warmth a long time after that, and I still smile when I write about it.

Milan Find the Tables Turned on Them

Thanks for an online course I once did on sports writing, I’ve cultivated the (extremely useful) habit of jotting down important moments during a football match. It goes like this:

4′ – Arsenal score! Great cross along ground frm right by Walcott, Giroud scores. Wenger doesn’t celebrate.

6′ – Kroos long range shot, saved.

10′ – Bayern corner. Gustavo goes close, but strike goes over. Too high?

And so on. But on Tuesday, March 12, when Barcelona hosted AC Milan during the second leg of their Round of 16 Champions League match, I could barely take my eyes off the screen to jot down the important passages of play. There were just too many of them. That first half performance, which yielded Barca 2 goals, has been called arguably their greatest display in recent years — and that’s saying a lot, considering they’ve played in Champions League finals, semifinals and innumerable El Classicos during this period.

All Milan had to do was score once and Barca would have needed four goals to ensure qualification to the quarterfinals. Four. (Milan had won the first leg 2-0.) But the lone goal never came, and I gotta say it’s an absolute privilege we’re getting to watch this glorious team at its peak. (They can still cut out on the diving, though.)

That first-half display reminded me of another extraordinary first-half, by Milan against Liverpool during the 2005 Champions League final. Paolo Maldini had scored — his first goal in I don’t know who many seasons — in the 3rd minute, and Hernan Crespo had picked up a brace before the half-time whistle. When the players trooped off at half-time, Ricky Kaka had run Liverpool absolutely ragged from the middle of the pitch. It was of this performance that the great Brian Glanville wrote, “Milan had a great first-half. A half, but what a half!”

Liverpool fought back to eventually win the final, but that first-half remains one of the best displays of Carlo Ancelotti’s great Milan side of the early and mid 2000s.

I wrote on the same theme, along with another of this week’s Round of 16 tie, for my piece on the IBN blog. The other match saw Arsenal beat Bayern Munich in their own backyard, with a performance that left you shaking your fists furiously at the television screen, wondering aloud where all this guts and gumption had gone during their first leg, which Arsenal had lost 1-3. Wenger’s boys (and they’re still boys) won 2-0 on the night, but were eliminated on aggregate. What a waste.

The link: