“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 http://www.ibnlive.in.com 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.