A Hero’s Final Stand

Certainty

Certainty


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.

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

LEONARD
There are things you know for sure.

NATALIE
Such as?

LEONARD
I know the feel of the world.
(reaches forward)
I know how this wood will sound when I
knock.
(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.

Certainty.

Well, not anymore.

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 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!)

1) http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4153/5000118968_b8b6ee5b84.jpg

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.

2)  http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m7yhu4WWSq1ra9dw0o1_1280.jpg

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.

3) http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lu3ghgS3um1qeg95lo1_1280.jpg

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.