Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cricket is the root cause of our Olympic debacles.

Sports columnist, Nirmal Shekar, writes in his piece in The Hindu:
As a professional sportswriter, I am sick of hearing the question over and over and over again. I find it almost nauseating. If there are tens of millions posing the question, then, over the four decades that I have spent in the profession, there have been tens of hundreds of answers, from serious commentators and sports critics down to lay persons.
Why does a nation of over 1.2 billion people end up with just a few pieces of bronze and silver every four years in the most celebrated event in sport? 
This is a clever (but overused) method of using a clichéd subject for a column, by making it appear as if others are mouthing such clichés, while the writer himself is sick and tired of the question, but is forced to use his valuable column space to answer the stupid question. Something like the technique used by MGR to sneak in and take part in hot scenes in his movies, entirely imagined by the heroine, while he himself was pure and blemishless.  

Anyway, let me not get into details of those dream scenes. Back to Nirmal Shekar.

He discloses the reason for the repeated Olympic debacles:
..if you chose to leave aside all serious analysis as to why Indian track and field athletes, swimmers, gymnasts, hockey players and other Olympic participants fail to live up to our — and sometimes their own — expectations and came around to zeroing in on a rather reductionist, and surely controversial, viewpoint, the answer might be simple.

For, this question raises its ugly head for only about two weeks every four years. The rest of the time — for three full years and eleven and a half months — we are obsessed with, worship and shamelessly pay obeisance to a sport played with any degree of seriousness by eight-and-a-half nations. Let us, then, accept the truth. We are a one-sport nation. And even a toddler would tell you what that sport is.

So, let us forget the London Games. In a few weeks, the Indian cricket team will be playing in the Twenty20 World Cup in Sri Lanka where the conditions will suit Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his boys to the hilt.  

Ha, yes . Cricket is the root cause of all evils plaguing other sports in the country. QED.

He goes on to admonish the cricket-lovers:

…..we don’t care about them for three years and eleven-and-a-half months. We don’t care about their impecunious circumstances, their heroic struggles, their fight against-the-odds and battles with cynical, self-serving sports administrators heading often corrupt sports bodies.

…We have failed the Koms and the Yogeshwars and the rest as much as we seem to believe that many Indian athletes have failed us. They don’t owe us as much as we owe them.
And concludes on this grand note:

Nothing reflects our unity in diversity — and is a greater tribute to it — than our national obsession with cricket.

Sorry Mary, we forgot about your gas cylinder and the constant problems with power failures in your little house. But that is who we are.  
Yawn.  Will someone who knows this writer tell him a few things?

·         It is true that cricket is patronized in cities and large towns. But I’ve seen no evidence of the game being an obsession in smaller towns and village, where- if we are to believe our Census bureau- 60-70% of our nation lives. Tap them for your sport, by all means. We will applaud the effort.

·         Even if 100 million people are passionate about cricket in India, it is a staggering number which I suspect is more than the populations of Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa added together. So, it does create an impression that the whole nation is doing nothing else.  But the reality is that it is still less than 10% of our population. Dip into the other 90%.

·       How does my love of cricket come in the way of progress of other games? Is it a zero-sum game? Are the cricketers encroaching on a hockey ground?  Or having their net practice in a shooting range? By all means play your respective games in your respective arenas and earn glory for the country. I am sorry about your struggles, but I assure you as a cricket-lover that I haven’t caused any of them, not do I wish that you should struggle. If the media is focusing only on cricket, don't blame me. Get them interested in your sport.

·         It is my choice not to watch or buy a ticket to watch Mary Kom in action. While I admire her spirit and her tenacity and would like her to get gas cylinders in her house and win a gold medal at the Olympics, I find boxing a barbaric sport and refuse to have anything to do with it. Same with Sushil Kumar, the vegetarian wrestler who bit his opponent’s ear and caused much blood to ooze out. In my view, wrestling is one of the ugliest events you can watch.But I do recognise that there are others who like to see their favourite wrestler chew chunks of the opponent's anatomy. I respect their right to choose and enjoy their sport.

So, please spare us the sanctimonious lectures. And stop trying to make cricket-lovers feel guilty and accountable for the poor performances in other sports, when we have enough ‘poor performance’ to contend with in cricket itself.

There must be a reason- other than cricket- why a nation of over a billion people does badly at the Olympics. Find it.  If you are obsessed with blaming cricket constantly for your ills, you will never get out of your misery.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

ARR vs My brain.

It is said of A.R.Rahman’s music that one must listen to his songs several times before they can be really appreciated. I remember the difficulty I had in making sense of his song, “Fanaa” in the film “Yuva’. The first time I heard it, I thought it was a cacophony of wild sounds more suited for a tribal ritual. After listening to it a few more times, I liked the song. . His song, “Jana Gana Mana” from “Aayudha Ezhutha’ is another example of a song that drove me mad initially and then gained acceptance by my brain. These songs don’t stand out for their melody ( the opposite is actually true) but the rhythm is catchy.

Why this delayed appreciation?

In a chapter dedicated to the musician,  “Igor Stravinsk “ in his book,   Proust was a neuroscientist”, Jonah Lehrer provides this explanation of how our brain responds to music:

 A work of music is not simply a set of individual notes arranged in time. Music really begins when the separate pitches are melted into a pattern. This is a consequence of the brain’s own limitations. Music is the pleasurable overflow of information. Whenever a noise exceeds our processing abilities- we can’t decipher all the different sound waves hitting our hair cells- the mind surrenders. It stops trying to understand the individual notes and seeks to understand the relationship between the notes. The human auditory cortex pulls off this feat by using its short-term memory for sound (in the left posterior hemisphere) to uncover patterns at the larger level of the phrase, motif and movement. This new approximation lets us extract order from these notes haphazardly flying through space, and the brain is obsessed wih order. We need our sensations to make sense.

It is this psychological instinct- this desperate neuronal search for a pattern, any pattern, that is the source of music. When we listen to a symphony, we hear a noise in motion each note blurring into the next. The sound seems continuous. Of course, the physical reality is that each sound wave is really a separate thing, as discrete as the notes written in the score. But this isn’t the only way we experience the music. We continually abstract on our own inputs, inventing patterns in order to keep pace with the onrush of noise. And once the brain finds the pattern, it immediately starts to make predictions, imagining what notes will come next. It projects imaginary order into the future, transposing the melody we have heard into the melody we expect. 

By listening for patterns, by interpreting every note in terms of expectations, we turn the scraps of sounds into the ebb and flow of symphony.

So, with Rahman’s music, our brain has to ‘unlearn’ some set ideas and structures and discern new patterns. He frequently dispenses with the conventional structure of songs and weaves together different threads into a composition, yet manages to infuse harmony. For our brain to understand what's going on and settle down, we need to give it some time.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The attachment of a country dog.

The British military doctor, Henry Harpur Spry, who I had referred to in my previous post, records his observations ( page 44) on the numerous stray dogs to be found in all parts of Hindustan, and how one of them got attached to his entourage on one of his travels, across jungles, on a palanquin in the year 1835. 

A singular instance of attachment on the part of one of those numerous country  dogs which infest all parts of Hindustan occurred to me in this journey. I first fell in with the animal shortly after I quitted the town of Logassee, in Bundlekund. The day had then broken, and supposing the dog belonged to one of the palankeen men I took no further notice of him. 

On reaching Chatterpore, however, I found that he still accompanied us, which led me to inquire whether he was the property of any of the party. The reply was in the negative. As the poor animal had come so far with us, it was only fair to give him house-room, so I permitted his resting in the same apartment with Lieutenant M. and myself. A portion of our scanty meal was all he had to eat. On setting out in the evening the animal was again on the move, and kept beside the palankeen the whole of the night, till we reached the Heerapur dak bungalow, the next day at twelve, having been our companion throughout the whole of the nocturnal wanderings in the Golgunge jungles.

We had now been in company together upwards of sixty miles, and with the exception of a few small biscuits the creature had tasted nothing. At Heerapur he bore evident signs of exhaustion ; no sooner had we entered the hovel than he threw himself on the ground, panting violently. I procured some water from a boy of the village, which, when placed before him, was eagerly lapped up. 

My stay, as I have already mentioned, was a very short one. I did not get in till twelve  and the air being cool in comparison with the previous day, I started again at two. The dog, notwithstanding his fatigue, also got upon his legs, and seemed determined to go on. He kept up for about five miles further, and then giving me a look, which seemed to ask for sympathy, and which I shall never forget, dropped in the rear, and lay down. Of course I soon lost sight of him, and being very far from any habitation, I very much fear the poor creature must have died.

The inviting figures of Hindu women.

In the course of his travel through Central India, a British military doctor, Henry Harpur Spry, makes an admiring reference to Hindu women and wonders how they manage to acquire their ‘inviting figures’ without the use of corsets that were then popular with European women. He has recorded his observations in the book, “ModernIndia: with illustrations of the resources and capabilities of Hindustan ...,Volume 2,”  published in 1837. ( page 133) 
The women, especially those in the large towns, have inviting figures, with an erect and elastic gait. No man can have lounged at a ghat, or ridden through a town, without being sensibly struck with the pleasing gestures and graceful actions of the softer sex; and did they possess faces only half  so attractive as their persons, the hearts of the gazers would be in imminent danger. Corset makers find no employment in India, and yet the ladies of Hindustan possess forms which cannot be surpassed. When they have the advantage of a pretty face, in addition to their well-developed person, it is only just that they should lord it a little over those to whom Nature has not been so bountiful.

The extraordinary degree of gracefulness and elasticity displayed by these women may be attributed in part to an artificial cause, although a corset, as I have just remarked, or anything resembling it, is, I believe, unknown to them. From their earliest childhood they are taught to carry vessels on the head, and, as they grow up, a daily morning visit is paid to the village or town well for a supply of water, which is always brought home by the girls in earthen jars, thus poised. This exercise has the effect of bringing all the muscles of the back into action, and consequently strengthening the spine; while the chest is thrown forward and expanded. We see no crooked backs, or shoulders, out in Hindustan. This employment teaches them, as they walk, to permit the centre of gravity to fall on the middle of the foot, giving them, as they go along, a firm and upright gait. 

I have long been of opinion that this course, if followed by the persons conducting boarding schools at home, as a calisthenic exercise, would be infinitely more effectual than the method now pursued, to give tone and muscular powers to the delicate frames of young females; and the benefits derivable from it would, I think, be so apparent as to supersede the present machinery of dumb-bells, back-boards, hoops, and skipping-ropes. In order to secure the success of the undertaking, it will be necessary to model the jars employed in strict accordance both in size and shape to the lotah and gurrah used in Hindustan. The former is made of brass, and contains about a pint; the latter is earthenware, and varies in size from a quart to a gallon. 

The following sketch will convey to the reader an idea of the forms of these two vessels. 

They might first be poised on the head, and then carried forward and backward filled with water, by the assistance of one hand only. After a steady upright step has been attained, the bearer should make the attempt without the assistance of either hand, and in six months, I have no doubt, a manifest alteration for the better would be discernible.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

A Hindu Colony in Armenia

The Asiatic Journal and monthly register for British India, China and Australasia in its edition of 1837 ( page 181-185) , has this interesting story on a Hindu colony in Armenia, consisting of migrants from India, around the 1st century BC.

A singular account of a certain colony of Hindus, that emigrated from India into Armenia, is recorded in the historical work of Zenobius, a Syrian bishop and primate of the convent called Innaknian, who flourished in Armenia in the beginning of the third century. The narrative was evidently written in Syriac, and intended for the Syrian nation, though the writer seems to have subsequently re-written the same in the Armenian language, but with Syrian characters; the letters of our alphabet having been invented a century posterior to that period. By a very long residence in Armenia, Zenobius was successfully enabled to acquire a perfect knowledge of the Armenian language, in which his history has been handed down to us. This interesting work was published in Venice, in the year 1832, being carefully collated with five manuscript copies, written in different periods.

I shall, in the present memoir, first give a description of this Hindu colony, the narrative of Zenobius, and then an account of the religious wars waged between them and the first propagators of Christianity in Armenia.
"This people had a most extraordinary appearance. They were black, longhaired, ugly and unpleasant to the sight. They claimed their origin from the Hindus. The story of the idols, worshipped by them in this place, is simply this: Demetrf and Keisaney were brothers, and both Indian princes. They were found guilty of a plot formed against their king, Dinaskey who sent troops after them, with instructions either to put them to death or to banish them from the country. 

The felons, having narrowly escaped the pursuit, took a shelter in the dominions of the king Valarsaces, who bestowed on them the principality of the country of Taron. Here a city was founded by the emigrants, who called it Vishap or Dragon. Having come to Ashtishat,they raised idols there in the name of those they worshipped in India. Fifteen years after their settlement in the country, both of the brothers were put to death by the king, for what fault I do not know. He conferred the principality on their three sons, named Kuar, Meghti, and Horain. The first built a village, and called it after his own name Kuan. The second founded a village on the plain, and called it after his own name Meghti. The third also built a village in the province of Palunies, and gave it the appellation of Horains. 

After a certain space of time, Kuar, Meghti, and Horain, of one accord, resolved on changing their abode. They sojourned on the mountain called Earki, which to a delightful temperature added a fine and picturesque appearance. It abounded in game, herbs, wood, and all that is adapted for the comfort and convenience of man. Here they raised edifices, where they set up two idols, respectively dedicated to Keisaney and Demetr, in honour of whom attendants were appointed out of their own race. Keisaney had long flowing hairs, in imitation of which his priests allowed the hairs of their heads to grow, which custom was afterwards prohibited by authority. This class of people,  on being converted to Christianity, were not deeply rooted in their faith. They durst not, however, openly profess the religion of their pagan ancestors. They continued, therefore, dissemblingly to allow their children to wear plaited hairs on the crown of their heads, in remembrance of their idolatrous abominations."

The description of this idolatrous colony is entirely accordant with the colour, appearance, manners and religion of the present Hindus. The cause of their emigration from India is distinctly stated by Zenobius, but through what route or in what period they found their way into Armenia, it is very difficult to determine. It is, however, clearly evident that they had formed a permanent settlement in our country prior to the commencement of the Christian era. Valarsaces, under whose government they found protection, was grandson of Arsaces, the Parthian, and brother of Arsaces the Great, by whom he was appointed king over Armenia, Anno Mundi 3852, or a century and a-half before Christ. 

The story concludes thus:

It is impossible to know what was the number of this Hindu colony at the time of their emigration from India into Armenia. We are, however, certain, that from the date of their first settlement in the Armenian province of Taron to the day of the memorable battle, a period of about 450 years, they must have considerably increased and multiplied, and thus formed a part of the population of the country. No vestiges of this Hindu race can, at present, be traced in Armenia, save the record of their exploits, handed down to us in the narrative of Zenobius.

(Read the full story here)