The Night I Turned Sherlock Holmes

Much To Ponder: Holmes Takes A Look

I’m not a great fan of crime thrillers.  I’m not daft enough to part with hard-earned dough only to have my heart in my mouth over the better part of two hours even as the bleating of distant violins grows unbearable. “Out with it!” I almost said aloud as Jodie Foster stumbled and staggered around in the dark as Buffalo Bill stalked her beyond her arm’s reach, wearing a night vision goggle and waving a gun in her face.

‘Silence of the Lambs’ is a fantastic movie, but I liked it even better the second time around. They couldn’t scare me this time.

One of my favourite places on earth are bookstores, but I politely turn to the next rack the moment I see dark, malevolent covers containing the works of writers like Ian Rankin and P D James.

But Sherlock Holmes is different. With him, you won’t have to contend with much blood, maybe a couple of murders here and there, but by and large, the old boy will tuck you into bed with an avuncular — if a touch condescending — explanation of what the whole fuss was about. I have to say here that I haven’t read Rankin or James, but as I said, I think I’ll like them better the second time.

So it was my love for Holmes that made me watch ‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows’ yesterday. It was alright, but a kind of a letdown, when you consider that the ingenuity in the first installment was gone in the second. The simple, brilliant observations by Holmes that were such a delight in the first part were few and far between here. Professor Moriarty was far too villainous, with his plans for ‘world domination’ and a handful of henchmen by his side ready to pounce like rabid dogs to do his bidding. I frankly expected more cerebral stuff.

Holmes, too, felt too boxed in within the confines of the Action Thriller mode the movie seems to have been made. There was, for instance, no scene in the second installment like the one in the first in which Holmes meets Mary, Watson’s (then) fiance, for the first time. In the first part, Holmes had humiliated her with pointed observations about the necklace she was wearing, correctly guessing she must have borrowed it and noticing the ring mark on her finger, surmised she must have been engaged but it had not resulted in marriage. Near the end of the scene, an embarrassed Mary throws her drink into Holmes’ poker face.

All said and done however, the Second Coming was reasonable entertainment, and by the end I had caught the detective bug.

Somewhat against my better judgement, I decided to test my own powers of observation. It was 1 am.

Holmes had made it look so simple, I told myself. I knew it wasn’t that simple, but it couldn’t be that hard either, could it? “The little details,” I could imagine Holmes telling me now, wagging a finger. “The little details”.

After wrestling with myself over the best method  to carry out the experiment, I arrived at this: climb the stairs to go to the lumber room and ferret out a book containing Pulitzer prize-winning photographs (yes, that’s where I had to retrieve it from). Then, cover with a towel the descriptions alongside the pictures, before trying to make out what the person(s) in the photo was doing, where and when the snap might have been taken. If possible, I would also try to ascertain who was featured  in the picture, in case it wasn’t readily obvious.

The results of the experiment were unexpected and welcome, and not just because of the results themselves. Regardless of the end product however, the process was sheer fun.

Here’s what happened, and by clicking on the links I’ve provided, you can check how good you are, too. (No cheating!)


Observations: “It’s a black child and these are black people. They’re sitting in a service, in a church, sitting in the pews. The woman’s black veil signifies it’s a funeral service, but wait a minute, ‘black veil?’, this is a Black and White photograph! The child, by the way she has sought refuge in the woman, should be her daughter, I guess. The woman looks in deep grief, and she looks forlorn, as if bereft of all hope. The general scene in the picture is one of sobriety. There’s a card in the woman’s hand, and I think it should be the lyrics of the songs they sing at the service”.

When I looked at the black and white photograph, saw only black people in it, sensed the general mood of the picture, and the sorrow on the face of the woman holding the child, only one incident crossed my mind: Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. But still, who was the woman? I mean it could be anybody mourning King, but could it be somebody?

As the photo had been awarded the Pulitzer and was important enough to make it into this book, I guessed the woman might be King’s wife, and the child, his daughter. I knew King had a son, I didn’t know if he had a daughter. But I took a guess, and was I right!

Answer: The photo was taken by the celebrated photographer Moneta  Sleet Jr, and the woman in the picture is indeed Corletta Scott King, Dr King’s widow. The child is his daughter. The picture had been taken at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on April 9, 1968,  five days after King fell to an assassin’s bullet. I’ve read a lot about King, but obviously I didn’t know he had two daughters and two sons.


Observations: “These are all young men about to be shot to death. They’re all blindfolded. In the whole picture, I can see only two of the lined-up men standing fearless, standing ready as everyone else is cowering or trembling in fear as they realise any moment could be their last. The man on the extreme right looks remarkably composed, standing straight, his blindfolded eyes looking straight ahead, his left hand on his side and his bandaged right hand raised to his stomach like in a kind of half salute. He must be some kind of a leader. All the men in the picture, both the prospective victims and the perpetrators, have middle–eastern looks. And since this photo is also black and white, I instantly think back to the decade-long Iran-Iraq war.

The blindfolded men are all in shirts and trousers, which could mean they’re probably educated and are student uprisers. If you look at the area in which they are about to be shot, it’s a far-flung place and you can see a couple of guards keeping watch. So presumably this is the usual spot where such prisoners are taken to and shot to death”.

Answer: This turned out to be a kind of 50-50. Iranians were involved alright, but only Iranians and no Iraqis. The photo was taken on August 27, 1979, just before the Iran-Iraq war between 1980-88.  The young men about to be shot are Kurdish rebels and two former police officers of the deposed shah of Iran. They have been tried and sentenced to death by Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards, who are about to carry out the execution.

The photographer, who belonged to an Iranian newspaper, was never identified.  The picture’s wider renown was down to the efforts of a United Press International staffer based in Iran, who has also not been identified.


Observations: “Again a b & w photo. One soldier sleeps atop sandbags in pouring rain even as another is on watch a few feet away. The sleeping soldier looks like like he’s black. A black and white pic capturing a war scene, my first guess is Vietnam. The sandbags suggest the place is very much a battlefield, and the soldier could be catching a wink of sleep between skirmishes. There’s not much else to go on in this photo”.

Answer:  The picture was indeed taken during the Vietnam War. It was taken on June 17, 1967 by Japanese photographer Toshio Sakai, who was with B Company of the American army then. The soldier taking a nap is indeed catching up on some sleep between skirmishes, as both sides have been forced to stop shooting due to the intense downpour.

Hence, at the end of my little exercise, I find that two out of three is not all that bad. These, of course, are  immensely restricted conditions in which to compare oneself to Holmes. The sheer range of his knowledge — from history, physics to chemistry, from the streets of London to the intricacies of high living, and above all, his common sense and understanding of human nature —  can only be aspired to. His penchant for making deducements from the tiniest details even as he sauntered through everyday life is peerless. However, it does goes to show that if we care to stop and observe, one does have the talent to make some fairly startling observations and make a bit of a name for himself in the process. What’s more, it’s a fascinating way  to keep yourself busy after 1 am.


Goodbye, Lance

Farewell: Armstrong Couldn’t Ride This One Out

Lance Armstrong said bye today. No farewell ride, no more Vollebak,  no more tight Texan jaw uncoiling into a grin as he crossed the finish line.  Lance Armstrong did something today I’ve never seen him do in his entire career.

He gave up.

He was hounded out of a sport he dominated like no other. I don’t know if Armstrong doped but I’d have liked to see him given a fair chance to defend himself. As it was, the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) dredged up a probe that US federal prosecutors had shelved in Feb 2012 after a two-year investigation into alleged doping by Armstrong and his former teammates. The crux of the USADA’s argument was that many of Armstrong’s former teammates and associates had fingered him and so he must have doped.

He never failed a drug test, but has been persecuted by a vindictive and biased USADA driven by its hawk-like CEO Travis Tygart. ( A 1999 urine sample showed traces of corticosteroid in an amount that was not in the positive range. A medical certificate showed he used an approved cream for saddle sores which contained the substance*.)

After a US federal court had ruled against him on Aug 20 in a case challenging USADA’s jurisdiction to press doping charges against him, Armstrong had two choices: accept the sanctions imposed by the USADA or go for an arbitration, in which many of his former teammates could potentially have sang on him publicly.

“If I thought for one moment that by participating in USADA’s process, I could confront these allegations in a fair setting and – once and for all – put these charges to rest, I would jump at the chance,” Armstrong said in his statement today.

Armstrong alleges other riders have been offered “corrupt inducements” by USADA. Maybe, maybe not. But the real shame  is, we’ll never know the truth.

Is Armstrong’s cop out an admission of guilt?  If some of Travis Tygart’s former colleagues allege that he killed the Ethiopian Prime Minister, who died recently, but there is no real evidence to prove it, does it mean he really did it? If Tygart says he won’t contest a guilty verdict because the case was being handled by an agency bent on crucifying him, does it mean he’s afraid of the truth?

I don’t know if Armstrong doped. But I’d have liked to.


*Source: Wikipedia, which quoted:

India’s Olympics: Show Me The Money

Now We See You: It’s All Very Well Backslapping Yogeshwar Dutt But Do We Really Care Beyond That?

I was flipping through the TV channels and stopped when I saw two rowers racing neck and neck with another team in a fight to the finish. It turned out one of the teams was from India and I sat down right there, calling out to my mom and brother. As we watched in delight, Sandeep Kumar and Manjeet Singh first overtook, then surged away from their Egyptian competitors, ultimately finishing more than four seconds ahead.

Was it a gold or silver, my brother wanted to know. Aware of the notoriously difficult conditions our rowers conduct training in, I asked him to hold on. It could be a qualifier to enter the next round.

It was a qualifier all right, but a qualifier to decide who would finish last.

Our rowers finished 19th in the Men’s Lightweight Double Sculls in a field of 20 teams, handing the ignominy of last place instead to their Egyptian rivals.

It was crushingly disappointing to realise what we had been cheering them on for. However, it has to be said that rowing is among the fringe sports in India, where sports itself is on the fringes.

The Indian way of life is geared towards stability. We don’t like risks. Safety is as much a staple as salt in Indian households. We have a paranormal fear of losing. It’s as if every Indian has the words of Howard Hughes’ mother ringing in his ears: “You are not safe! You are not safe!”.

To realise what needs changing in the Indian mentality, lets fly west across the Arabian, Red and Mediterranean Seas and on to England. The legendary late English football manager, Brian Clough, had been operated upon for liver transplant and was recovering in the hospital. His doctor, a brilliant surgeon named Derek Manan, visited Clough to check up on his progress.

Clough was a livewire who could be relied upon to produce ingenious one-liners in almost any circumstance. “Hospitals are wonderful places when you need them,” he recalled later. “But you need to break the ice from time to time”.

Clough asked Manan what his hobby was. It turned out to be golf.

“Any good?” asked Clough.

“Not bad, I am off fifteen”.

“What’s your weakness?”

“My short game, chipping to the green”.

“Well,” Clough said, “I’ll tell you what you’re doing for a start”.

“You don’t know what I do. You’ve never seen me play golf,” the doctor said.

“Maybe not but I bet you’re never up. I bet you nearly always leave the ball short of the hole”.

Seeing the doctor smile, Clough asked if he could offer any advice. Sure, he said. “Never up, never in — that applies to a lot of things in life”.

The trouble with a majority of Indian households is a fear of what would happen to their child if he/she fails to make the cut as a sportsperson after compromising study.

A dominant number of Indian sportspersons take up sport as a career either because (i) they have no other choice or (ii) they can afford to fail and have an upper-middle-class (or better) family life to fall back on.

A majority of school and college-level athletes hail from rural backgrounds, managing to get an education by virtue of their exploits on the field. In my years as a sports correspondent and a student office-bearer in college, I’ve come across only a handful of athletes from the middle-class.

And no revolution can meaningfully start unless the middle-class takes it up. All roads in a consumer-oriented globalised world are starting to make inroads into middle-class India. Middle India is the swelling, soaring monolith whose spending power makes its cricketers figure among the world’s richest sportspersons despite the game’s span being stretched over eight to ten countries.

The argument of the middle-class is that there is no money in other sports as in cricket, and they’re right. World class athletes like Mary Kom and Gagan Narang should have at least half as much air space in advertisements as Virat Kohli and Gautam Gambhir. When success is measured by different yardsticks in different sports, it is natural parents and their wards are wary of making an unrewarding career choice.

But success, however hard it may seem, breeds success. Just look at what Michael Phelps has done for swimming. Or closer to home, what Vijender Singh and co. have done for boxing after their exploits in Beijing 2008.

While Vijender was the lone Indian among the 5-member all male contingent to make the semifinal back in 2008, this time around three Indians have an opportunity to make the last four stage, including the imperious Mary Kom.  In a team much stronger than the one that left for Beijing, Vikas Krishnan too made the quarters before being controversially knocked out following a successful appeal by the U.S. against him.

Moreover, letting children do what they want, what they are good at, will mean a much greater success rate of talent conversion and frankly, happier lives. Would a state-level athlete settle for a job in a bank if he has accommodating parents who encourage him or a corporate culture that is willing to back him? Children need heroes to look up to. Stability is a desirable quality in life, but there are no certainties in life, only probabilities. To dare is to live. To fear is to shrink.

“Never up, never in”.