What I Wrote About When I Was Not Writing

And, we’re back — not that I ever stopped writing.

In the days leading up to my last post on this blog (‘The Power of Rajinikanth’), I wangled a deal, thanks to good friend Sattwik Biswal, to write for the website of CNN-IBN, one of India’s leading English news channels. I’d write on football and tennis, thanks to my record as a sports journalist and experience in covering both sports. I’d have loved to write on cricket too, considering I’ve covered international cricket tournaments, but in India it’s better to be a sportswriter willing to write on cricket and being turned down than the other way around, believe me. There are just too many writing on cricket in India.

Anyway, as luck would have it, Andy Roddick had announced he would retire from the sport when his 2012 US Open campaign came to an end. He lost in the fourth round to Juan Martin Del Potro in four sets,  and on Sept 7, I wrote a tribute on the IBN blog:


(They’ve got a fancy banner in the blog with my pic on it, and Im desperately searching for a better pic. Taking a presentable photo of yourself  on your own has to be up there with reviving Mel Gibson’s acting career.)

The piece had come out kind of alrighty, though I told myself later that it had a rushed feel to it and I could’ve done much better in a calmer state of mind.

The following two weeks saw me write on Italian and English Football, both of which impressed the editor.

A write-up on the tribulations of AC Milan this season (Sept 17):


My latest article, a piece on Arsenal’s unbeaten season to the English Premier League season (Sept 25):


Watching the Spanish League at Indian hours, with matches kicking off at 1 am and even later, is inhuman. But Im a night person and making notes while catching the matches means Im seldom passive, and by extension, bored. And the commentary is excellent — restrained and insightful.


The Power Of Rajinikanth

Superstar: Rajinikanth’s Star Power Is Jaw-dropping

I had failed to make a train reservation. It was the festive season and college would not reopen till a week later. I had no idea how to make a Tatkal booking online and I shuddered at the thought of rising early — around 4 am — to make the quick walk across the road from our college to the railway station and make the booking in person if I was to have a chance of landing a train berth.

So I decided to take the bus home. Long-distance travel by bus in Tamil Nadu is a fascinating, if exacting, experience. I’m not referring to the air-conditioned, heavy suspension buses that have sleeper ‘births’ similar to the ones in trains. I’m talking about the lean, metal-jangling beasts of the road with clattering windows and minuscule baggage racks. They usually have fellow passengers who doze off with old Illayaraja songs blaring from the mobiles in their shirt pockets (few carry earphones).

Some wonder if you could lend the magazine on your lap, if you’re not reading it.

These buses are a paradox. They are incredibly cramped, yet remarkably airy. If you can find a seat by the window, you’ll have the luxury of going to sleep with the moon shining down on you. You can see small towns become bigger and bigger as you near them and then vanish back into obscurity.

The tera-bad suspensions will wreak havoc on your sleep, but you can make plans.

Travel, in my opinion, is the best time to make plans. They turn out to be more optimistic if you’re seated by the window, as if the certainty of progress outside — non-negotiable, and only in one direction, forward — makes you upbeat over how you will fare in your own plans.

But traveling in these buses is by no means a simple point-to-point affair.

The vehicle would not have crossed the city limits when the first voice of concern is raised. “Yen Saar, padam podaliya?” (‘Sir, aren’t you screening a movie yet?’)

Any frequent patron of these long-distance buses will tell you that more often than not, the movies screened in the TV sets installed in these vehicles are crass offerings with an overload of violence and machismo. To listen to the speakers installed somewhere in the middle of the bus, you’d think someone was roasting corn in the background. The volume would suddenly surge during the middle of a conversation in the movie, then drop off as impulsively.

Frequent travelers like me have grown to stay unperturbed by such intrusions. We have learned to repudiate them by pretending they do not exist, even as we try to align ourselves to the rickety rhythm of our ride and fall asleep. A staple feature of most of these rides is the screening of back-to-back movies. The first movie would scarcely have ended and the ears would have just started to recuperate when the second would start. It was during one of those ‘second’ shows that I realised the magnetic effect Rajinikanth has on Tamilians.

It was well past midnight when they screened ‘Baasha,’ the second movie of the journey. ‘Baasha,’ a flick about a common man turning a dreaded don after another don kills his close friend, is agreed to have been the movie that catapulted Rajinikanth to superstardom from mere stardom. After ‘Baasha,’ Rajini pulled away into a rarefied space of stratospheric wage, expectations and pulling power. Today, his status is only getting bigger — he’s the highest paid actor in India now — 17 years after Baasha’s release in 1995.

When I was making this trip home, it had been 8 or 9 years since Baasha’s release. The film is one of the most frequently telecast on cable TV, and Rajini had starred in a handful of movies since then. However, I was curious how many were still interested in watching the film. Only a few were braving sleep and watching, with the rest content to give the flick a miss this time around.

Or so I thought. A celebrated scene in the movie has an enraged Rajini, now reformed and in disguise as an autorickshaw driver, escorting his sister to meet a minister who had demanded that she sleep with him in order to get admission to medical school. Instructing his sister to wait outside the minister’s room as he talks to the minister, Rajini reveals his bloodstained past with remarkable sang froid, a nonchalant smile playing on his lips.

(A link to the scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-XicHO7ETw)
(Watch from 2.00 minutes)

We don’t get to actually hear what Rajini tells the minister, and the affair is seen only from behind a closed door. As Rajini recounts his trigger-happy days, the look of terror brought about in the minister by the revelations is what makes this scene terrific. The music director of the movie has nicked Brad Fiedel’s ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ theme to use in this scene, as in many other important moments in ‘Baasha’. But that should not detract from the fact that the scene remains one of the most iconic in Tamil cinema.

I knew how popular the scene was among Tamilians, so when it was about to begin, I was curious if anyone would actually wake up from sleep to watch it. I was about to turn around to check when,

Clack. Clack. Clack. Clack.

Practically half the passengers in the bus were releasing the hatches of their push-back seats and sitting back upright, shaking off sleep, eyes still bleary.

They wanted to watch.

It was almost 3 am.

It was extraordinary. People waking themselves from sleep — which can be hard to earn on a bus like this — to catch a minute of a flick they might have seen hundreds of times.

It was then I understood, the pull Rajinikanth has on the ordinary Tamilian. That’s the best illustration of star power I have ever seen, including the ones in all those movies.

The First Time I Saw Rahul Dravid

At Work: Dravid’s Committment To The Game Was Total

I was reading about Cheteshwar Pujara recently and the young man was insistent he’s not the next Rahul Dravid. No, he said. He’s a legend, I cannot replace him.

“It’s impossible to replace him”.

His words made me remember the first time I saw Rahul Dravid.

It was in 2008 and Dravid was in the midst of his worst batting slump after he had established himself in the Indian team. He averaged 30.96 for the calendar year — well short of his career average of 52.31 — and as I entered the M A Chidambaram Stadium on December 11, I had consoled myself that I’d probably not get to watch the master make a century.

I had arrived along with my colleagues ahead of the 9 am start and as we checked our tickets and shuffled across to our seats, my eyes rested on a giant out on the field.

With legs like tree trunks, his knees jutting out from beneath massive pads fastened to his shins, he was waving the willow in his hand like a badminton racket.

It was the first time I saw Andrew Flintoff.

He was in training, in the ‘nets’ prior to the toss. He didn’t connect every ball, but when he did, you could hear a shrill, hard crack.  When he walked across the green mat, it was as if a convoy had resumed after stopping to refuel.

Okay, I told myself.  This is the big league. It was the first Test match I watched in person. My annoyance with what I had considered the snobbish habit of using a capital T when writing about Test matches suddenly disappeared.

Soon, England won the toss and chose to bat. It was time for India to take the field.

A curious thing happens when Indian cricketers field in India. Whenever the ‘home boy’, i.e. the cricketer native to that particular region where the match is taking place takes a catch or even makes an interception, the crowd roars in approval. This is of course natural. But when the fielder in question happens to be Sachin Tendulkar, the location does not matter.

No matter where he plays, be it Chennai or Mumbai, Nagpur or Dharamsala, Sachin is always “Sa-chinnnnnnnn, Sa-chin!” to the crowds. Even his misfields are cheered. Today was no different.

Andrew Strauss, the England opener, clipped one off his legs and the ball came racing down to fine leg, where we were seated. And giving the ball chase was Sachin Tendulkar.

“Sa-chinnnnnnnn, Sa-chin!”.  “Sa-chinnnnnnnn, Sa-chin!”.

Tendulkar chased down the ball and lunged it back to M S Dhoni, who was doing the wicketkeeping. With Tendulkar at such close vicinity for the first time in the match, people at our end kept chanting his name and broke out in applause. We joined in the applause too, and didn’t let up till he made a quick half-turn on his way back and gave us a rapid wave before turning back again. A huge roar went up from our end.

As Tendulkar took his place in the slips beside Dravid, the roar was still going. It was now Dhoni’s turn to amp up the spectators. He turned around in our direction and raised his hands overhead in a clapping motion, again and again, till the volume from the stands increased a couple of notches.

Rahul Dravid is not the type to demand applause. Maybe Dhoni had done what he did to liven up the atmosphere, for Test matches are hard enough to play with the support of cheering spectators. A mute home crowd is worse than an empty stadium. But Dravid is not Dhoni. He has his own way of communicating with the public.

Play resumed. As if to check if he would be accorded the same kind of adulation given to two of his colleagues, Dravid slowly, shyly, turned his head just a crack to look over his shoulder in our direction.

Only the head, mind you, for his hands were still resting on his thighs. He had been standing in that slightly crouching position he usually adopted in the slips, intensely concentrating on where the next ball would travel. It had not come his way and it was then he turned, almost imperceptibly checking if anyone noticed him.

Not many did. Not many broke into an applause because Dravid immediately turned back to concentrate on the next ball. But I noticed him. And clapped in applause. It was the first time I saw Rahul Dravid.