Saturday, March 31, 2012

New Book buys

In a sort of muted buying of books in line with my current sources of income, the following were bought this evening
Crowded with Genius by James Buchan (The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's moment of the mind)
Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley
from Book Worm and

Around the World in 80 treasures by Dan Cruickshank
from Blossoms

I have been looking for a used copy on the golden age of Edinburgh for a while now. None of the above books came cheap despite being used copies. Dickens remains a favourite author. The last one was unplanned but seemed promising. Lets see how they actually are.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Slaying the Badger: Hinault, LeMond and the 1986 Tour de France

This post is dedicated to my pal, Ashwin Bala, due to whom I read this book at all.
I was doubly touched by the fact that he generously let me read his book, with the stretch-wrap still untouched when I got it!

Bernard Hinault is one of the legends of the Tour de France (TDF or Le Tour) having won 5 of them like Eddy Merckx and Jacques Antueil, before him. Greg LeMond (who won 3 TDFs) was the first non-European to win the TDF and was a legend before Lance Armstrong had even started.

Their personalities could not have been more different. One menacing, tough, bare-knuckled old-school fighter, another easy-going, social, good-humoured but tenacious young competitor. Their numerous battles during the 1986 TDF combine to form what the author, Richard Moore describes in the subtitle of the book as the greatest ever TDF.

The author does a splendid job of getting the cycling bits right - right down to the intensity of climbing the Alpe d'Huez (for anyone who follows cycling, the significance is obvious*), given that both Hinault and LeMond both gave him great access and time. He does an even better job of getting the personalities and the evident clash of cultures well outlined.

The book is a must read for any cycling buff, particularly for those who miss the one-on-one battles from the early TDFs, missing from some of the Armstrong & definitely from the Contador years.

The book's appeal is all the more enhanced when one realizes that Hinault and LeMond were on the same team, but fought each other like prize-fighters in round 12!

Hinault's quote from the end of the book (from his 2nd autobiography)sums it up best, "...My role is to make the race hard and I succeeded. After two days in the high mountains 27 riders have either been dropped or disqualified; our main adversaries have all lost key members of their team. I always said that, in this Tour, Greg only needs to worry about himself. I will take care of the other 208 riders."

!!!

It is a book which will easily polarize the reader, but is an amazing read and a difficult one to sum up.

I can only recommend strongly that you do read it. Your time will be worth it.

* For those who don't, for now, this quote by Jean Paul Vespini should do -> "The true secret of the Alpe's success is that it is a climb that delivers a verdict - absolute, impartial, and final"

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, Rahul Dravid's retirement & other diversions

Years ago, while working on a country profile of Bangladesh I was shocked to discover that our neighbours hated us so much. Some time later, I discovered the Sri Lankans hated us too and not just due to our political meddling, but also our mastery for quite a few years over them at cricket, although for most of our generation, Jayasuriya and co. delivered the scarring for a lifetime.

Cricket is not my favourite game but like any Indian, I have played the game and followed it for quite some time before I found more fulfilling pastimes. I was born in the late 70s but managed to see almost exactly a decade of Sunil Gavaskar's cricket, most of it for a losing cause. I didn't like him although he was a stylish delight - He was from what was derisively dismissed by some as the Bombay school of cricket - play selfish cricket and score runs for yourself, even if for a losing cause. I grew up admiring Kapil Dev. He played the exact shot I spent much of my early life trying to emulate - the lofted on drive. Much like me on a smaller stage, when he succeeded he was a delight. And still Vivian Richards remains perhaps the best cricketer of any era I have loved. Just the swagger was enough although one could easily choose the soul-destroying batting style he demonstrated. I am sure several Aussie and England cricketers spent a fortune at the psychiatrists because of him. And that was till Tendulkar arrived. I shamelessly switched loyalties and dropped Kapil Dev and adopted Tendulkar as my favourite Indian cricketer. Viv was still there in my mind but he left, rather unbecomingly for a legend of his size. Kapil's staying on beyond his time just to make 432 wickets was painful to watch especially since that left Srinath & other pacers with less years to play for India.

Tendulkar's arrival marked India of the 90s - under multiple captains but steadied by Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Ganguly, etc as India still lost but regularly beat Sri Lanka, etc.

I guess my favourite test innings has to be Steve Waugh's 201 n.o. against the best WI bowling attack after Lloyd's fearsome foursome till date. And that shall be followed by perhaps any century by Dravid. All his innings were constructed meticulously and rarely flamboyant. Every shot of his seems to say, "You may keep blabbering. But I will just shut up and respond with my cricket." So you never heard him say anything substantial. In fact among any other Indian cricketers who must have played around 100 tests since 1990, except for Ganguly, only Kumble ever made a statement of substance outside the field. All of Dravid's comments were to be seen in his cricket. He didn't need to speak much.

The reason I wrote this long-winded adieu to him was because I was reading this book called Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka in my ill-fated return jounrney from HYD to BLR which got delayed by almost 4 hours. The book documents (albeit in fiction) a tribute to Sri Lankan cricket, over the years, both through long decades of painful losses and followed by the World Cup victory.

There are several people who have spoken of a demise of Indian cricket (at least Test cricket) in the wake of Dravid's retirement. I think that is premature. India may have to wait for a while to see a period of dominance that will see them be No. 1 in all forms of cricket, but I am sure that will arrive, perhaps, even in my lifetime. Note that even Pakistan which has produced such raw talent across various years, perhaps more than any other country (except India!) has not exactly seen a decade of global dominance even when Waqar and Wasim bowled in tandem and didn't hate each other. We may not see another talented, dignified and gentlemanly cricketer of the likes of Dravid in my lifetime, but even he would reassure you, "Don't give up, just yet" just like he did through his batting all his life. Bless him.

Each of the countries I mentioned above - Australia, West Indies, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India have all seen cycles of great cricket followed by forgettable form. They have all been resurrected more than once. Any cricket fan will await the next one, when a good era is past.

Read Chinaman to know how hope is rewarded. I haven't even finished the book but just as you don't need to finish a bottle of single malt to know it is good, you don't always need to finish reading a fine book to know it is a great read.

Monday, March 05, 2012

A Shot at History-My Obsessive Journey to Olympic Gold by Abhinav Bindra

A Shot at History-My Obsessive Journey to Olympic Gold by Abhinav Bindra (AB) with Rohit Brijnath (henceforth referred to as SHOT in this post!).

This is the finest (auto)biography about an Indian sportsman that I have read till date. Admittedly the genre is sparse and my reading in that genre worse. I have only read Prakash Padukone’s profile by Dev Sukumar, all of Gavaskar’s works and parts of the multiple works on Sachin Tendulkar, none of them half as memorable as SHOT.*
SHOT stands out mostly because it gets an extremely difficult part of writing about sports – describing the process of getting to be good. And AB’s winning gold has little to do with enhancing the appeal of SHOT. SHOT does not need anything else beyond its central character to legitimize it.

With my new-found rather perverse need to be paid for spending my time on things, I won’t write a detailed review here, but I will recommend this book strongly for the following reasons.

There is very little material available on Indian athletes becoming World Class. It is another matter altogether that the underlying subject is not vast either! This books dismantles the process – from mental fitness to physical fitness threadbare, much like the protagonist dismantles every part of his gun and gets it customized. AB’s attempts at 3 Olympics till date and a 4th one in the offing are not with much precedent. He is a rare breed, not just for his medal winning heroics but for his ability to go to his 4th Olympics in a row!

AB’s respect for his peers & predecessors– Jaspal Rana, Gagan Narang, Anjali Bhagwat, Samaresh Jung and RR Rathore, among others stands out. He doesn’t idolize them but he treats them with solid respect and on several occasions acknowledges the help/support from each. I particularly liked the fact that he praises Anjali Bhagwat’s performance, especially when he was still young and she was significantly ahead in performance. It is possible that shooting puts the participant in a unique situation where men and women are doing similar tasks with similar weights unlike in other sports where the women typically have lower targets/weights, etc – lower height in hurdles, lighter discs in discus, javelin, shot-put, etc. But the very fact that he treats her like a peer is welcome. Towards the end of SHOT in a certain episode, he clearly uses Saina Nehiwal’s very presence as inspiration.

His love, admiration and dependence on his coaches and experts (and he employs nearly half a dozen of them at various points) – especially Gaby, his shooting coach stands out. I have read fewer books where the contribution of the coach gets such coverage and is as well articulated. Read the chapter titled “A Grammar of Gunfire” and the anxious moments before his final round at Beijing and his coach’s cool conduct under pressure, where what seems like sabotage threatens to derail his journey to a medal for the 2nd time (of course, make sure to read his account of his agonizing Athens experience) for a beautiful description of the same.

AB’s ability to talk about himself and this is where I suspect Brijanth has played his part and get the elusive process of becoming a world champion well laid out is downright fantastic. AB also provide a few laughs and does much to help the reader understand his supposedly stand-offish nature – including his acknowledgment of inspiration from training at the US Olympic Centre in Boulder, Colorado to the 15 year old Bangladeshi prodigious shooter who beats him at a competition#. Mercifully, AB is one sportsman who has a right to be proud and that does come through as never does he betray a sense of not being the best in the world, even when he was yet to be World & Olympic Champion. It is possible that this may be colored by the fact that SHOT was written after the events, but still. One of the several delights of SHOT is peeking into the mind of AB (and he does let the reader do so, wonderfully), as he flits from mischief to nervousness to swagger to depression to love for his family and general agony of failure and relief from success, etc, some of it stretching over a decade, some of it lasting less than a few seconds.

AB’s journey from being a distracted 13 year old with outstanding ability in the sport to being the World Champion in his early 20s is an incredible read.
MUST READ

*As a side-note, if you have other books to recommend, tell me. I did pick up Dhanraj Pillay’s book a few years but couldn’t get past the first few pages. I do intend to read Gopichand’s biography soon

# never mind the fact that AB is himself a child prodigy

Friday, March 02, 2012

Beauty - here then, gone now :(


I was walking home earlier today when I saw this beautiful bird breathing heavily on the ground, on its back. I figured it must be hurt. I tried to pick it up gently using a tiny piece of paper, which was all I had in hand and the bird struggled all over. I did so since I thought I should minimize contact points since it may have broken something. So I went home to get something larger to pick the bird up and leave it in a park opposite my place where we could feed it something, figuring I would get help from someone who knew what to do with it.
By the time I went back, the bird had died.
The poor bird had beautiful wings but didn't have much of a tail. I couldn't figure whether it couldn't fly because of something else hurt inside or because it was too young or because it didn't have much of a tail.
I don't even know what bird it is.
Quite sad to see something so beautiful pass away so quickly. Bless its soul.