That Really Stung!

I had bought a motorbike in Bangalore in mid-2000. If you are familiar with the lay of Bangalore, you will know that Brigade Road is one-way in its most glamorous section and two-way in a section that few people know even exists – the place in front of All Saints Bakery / Sparks / Urban Edge. My office happened to be in Raheja Chancery, the building opposite All Saints. To get there you would have to pass All Saints, take a U-turn and go about 50m. Or you could cheat and go about 10m on the wrong side of the road, thereby saving yourself around 100m of driving distance. So, with a new bike and nary a care, I cheated. And then a traffic cop stopped me. A lot of Indian traffic cops are out to make a quick buck and would not hesitate to fine you (or take a bribe) even if you have done no wrong. I was a clear offender, so I knew I had it coming. What ensued next was the most interesting conversation

Cop: What were you doing?
Me: I was in a hurry
Cop: So?
Me: So I thought that I maybe I could take the short cut…
Cop: And?
Me: Well, there was no traffic coming in this direction and it was only around 10m
Cop: Are you educated or uneducated?

If you are wondering, the small font is not a formatting error. It is just that my deep baritone voice had become more mouse-like than I thought humanly possible. And after the last question I had no voice left. I have been called a lot of things in my life, but somehow this was worse than everything else put together. I could only look on sheepishly as the cop let me off without even a fine. After that incident I haven’t ever driven on the wrong side of the road – even if there is nobody watching.

At IIT-D we used to have a concept called “Socials”, which, to the uninitiated will appear extremely weird.It involved girls of some college in Delhi visiting a boys hostel for an evening of socializing. Several among us thought of it as a rite of passage. Several among us looked at it as an evening of unbridled ogling. And several of us simply felt it was a waste of time. Typically a person would have belonged to all three categories in the course of 4 years. I did participate in the socials once – during my fourth semester, when the visiting college was Indraprastha. I did manage to befriend someone and called her up the following weekend.

The socials happened the weekend before 14th Feb and we had exams from 12th to 14th Feb. So I happened to be calling her on the day right after Valentine’s Day. We talked for a while, then came the topic of what we did on our respective Valentine’s Days. I complained about being stuck in an exam. And then:

She: Oh, I did not do anything. I am not … Valentine
Me: Yeah, precisely.
She: (a long pause)
Me (thinking): Oh S***!! Did I really say that?

The “…” is because I could not understand what she had said at that point. This is often the case with old payphones in India – the slightest disturbance in the phone’s machinery can result in an onslaught of static. I responded with what seemed like an absolutely reasonable response. It is only during her pause that I figured out what was said in the ellipsis. She had said, “I am not anybody’s idea of a perfect Valentine”. It goes without saying that we didn’t have any further conversations after that.

Maria Sharapova once remarked regarding her clay-court play: “I am like a cow on ice”. You could probably apply the same analogy to my dancing. During a Deloitte party in Hyderabad I was asked by a lady to dance with her. In spite of my protestations regarding my complete lack of grace in this department, she dragged me on to the dance floor. Compounding the situation was the fact that I was wearing a kurta-pyjama and chappals. A little while later she burst out laughing at my discomfort and kindly accompanied me off the floor. Since she was a friend of mine I didn’t have to endure any embarrassing remarks from her.

Somehow the instinct that makes you want to dance is completely absent in me. As a result I have had to learn some typical dance moves that help me live to die of shame some other day. Folks might be familiar with the roti belna (where you pretend you are using a rolling pin to flatten out dough, then pretend to toss the flattened dough from one hand to the other), kite flying (where you imagine that you are holding the twine for flying a kite and tug at it over your head first on the right side and then on the left), toweling dry (where you think that you are holding a towel in both your hands and wiping your back dry) and some other such moves.

I was, however, certified a disaster on the dance floor long before I learnt the face-saving moves. During my first Rendezvous in 1996 I was generally impressed with the droves of young ladies paying a visit to the IIT-D cultural festival. My friends and I would hear some guy bragging about how well he it it off with some visitor and would privately wish that guy a slow, painful and girl-free death. Come the last day of Rendezvous, it was time for some drastic measures. My friend Ahuja and I were dancing at the podium, hoping to spot some unsuspecting girls whom we could subject to our torturous dancing. We did manage to find one such pair and danced for about 10 minutes, after which they excused themselves. We high-fived our way back to the hostel, finally having something to brag about.

The next day I bicycled to class, while Ahuja took the bus. Lo and behold! Who should he see there, but the two people who we danced with! One of the girls happened to spot Ahuja and immediately started talking loudly enough for him to hear:

You know ya? We were at the podium last night and these two guys came up to us and asked for a dance. Those two had no clue about what they were doing and were clapping their hands and pumping their fists as though they were happy to see us dance. Those dumbos didn’t know how to dance at all.

Naturally I heard this by proxy, but it was embarrassing enough to be told to the whole hostel. I remain a dumbo to this day – Tanuka will vouch for that.

Using Fountain Pens – The Lost Art

Back in 1988 we were making our entry into the fifth standard (fifth grade for Yanks). This was of special significance to students in India, for we were graduating from using pencils for writing to using pens. At that point the choice was between fountain pens and ballpoint pens.

Given the fact that most of us were from a middle class upbringing, the best fountain pens those days used to be the black-body gold-cap “Hero” and “Wing Sung” pens that came with the inscription, “MADE IN CHINA”. In the days prior to the market liberalization it seemed a privilege to possess one of these, which, even today would rival several others in terms of the quality and ease of writing.

There were the rest of the folks who would use ballpoint pens – Reynolds (“Fine Carbure”) was a rage those days. Most people would agree that penmanship was undoubtedly better with a fountain pen, but then would actually use a ballpoint simply because it was easier to use. You never had the problem of a leaky pen and you didn’t have to cope with the growing pains of broken nibs.

But somehow I always liked fountain pens. Never mind the fact that the ones we had were often of poor quality, which more often than not resulted in a mess. Once you got used to them, however, you could actually notice a significant difference in your handwriting. Fountain pens gave you a lot of control while writing, and moreover, since you were always concerned about them leaking, you paid that little extra bit of attention to them. I do recall, though, alternating between fountain pens and ballpoints, depending on what I felt like at that point. Somehow in exams critical to me I always ended up using a ballpoint – the board exams of Class X, the board exams of Class XII, IIT-JEE and all other entrance exams. The reasons are not hard to fathom:

  1. Ballpoints ran smoother on paper, so in exams where time is of paramount importance they give you that edge which can make a difference.
  2. You avoided the undesirable risk of having a malfunctioning pen at crunch-time.

Fast-forward to my professional career – almost. I did purchase a “Hero” during my summer internship at TCS/TRDDC Pune in 1999. This was my only “indulgence” in a summer of frugality. It was the first time I was being paid for work and out of my total earnings of Rs. 5,900/- for the entire 2 months, I was able to pay rent, buy train tickets for the journey back home, purchase breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, manage bus tickets for a daily commute, buy a waterproof jacket to shelter myself from the rain, buy a “Hero” pen and save Rs. 50/-!! I somehow never ended up using the pen too much.

Then came 2004. My project team decided to gift me a Parker. I was so touched by the gesture that I decided to start using the pen right away. I did use this quite extensively for the next year or so. I do remember conversations in this vein:

Somebody: Can I borrow a pen?
Me: Sure, here you are
Somebody: What the…? What kind of a pen is this? You use a fountain pen??!!
Me: Yes, that way if you inadvertently walk away with the pen you know later who you took it from!

This works. Everytime. My romance with the Parker came to an end when the cap and the body developed a crack. So I was on the hunt again and got a really expensive “Senator”. I was really happy with this one, till the mechanism I used for refills clogged. And then I got myself a Lamy, which I have been quite content using for the last year or so.

However, it is a sign of another malaise that in my one year with this pen I have had to refill it only once. Naturally I was quite annoyed with myself when I saw that I was out of ink when I desperately needed to complete the Sudoku on my flight from Austin to San Jose last evening. This, and a host of other incidents on my trip to Austin prompted me to write this.

In this age of the internet, laptops and PDAs, we really have no time for the old-fashioned letter to friends and relatives. If we don’t have someone’s email address we lose all contact with him / her, never mind the fact that we know where exactly this person lives. All it would take, though was to simply put pen to paper. My dear friend Ahuja, on my just concluded trip to Austin gave me copies of two letters that I had written to him back in the days of IIT. The originals were printouts of what I had typed out and sent to him by snail-mail. You see, we had computers those days, but not internet. The printouts sent me on another train of thought. There was a time when I used to write at least two letters by hand each week. Two letters each week! I was regular, I had good style and most importantly I had a great handwriting. At present I probably write one letter every two years. My emails are by no means regular. And my style of writing has deteriorated to an alarming extent.

Has technology pushed us so far back? I recently wrote in a post that children today are missing out on the undiluted thrill of turning the pages of a book. I would like to take it a step further and state that adults today are missing out on the good and effective means of keeping in touch in trying to keep up with their work. Perhaps that is why the sound of the scratch of the nib of a fountain on a sheet of paper seems so nostalgic to me.

Who Died and Put You in Charge?

Here are a few things that really make you question the infinite sagacity of the folks in charge

  1. In cricket the first testicular guard was used in 1874 and the first helmet was used in 1974. It took people over a hundred years to realize that the head is also very important.
  2. The rankings in Miss India contests used to be: Miss India, Miss India First Runner Up and Miss India Second Runner Up. The winner would go to Miss Universe, the First Runner Up to Miss World and the Second Runner Up to Miss Asia Pacific (or some other contest). Since 2007 the organization committee showed their wisdom. They renamed the titles as: Winner = Miss India World, First Runner Up = Miss India Universe and Second Runner Up = Miss India Earth. So Miss India World ranks ahead of Miss India Universe. Whoever knew that the World was larger than the Universe!
  3. “Dial M for Manipal” – Okay, I guess you would like a catchy tagline. So Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” could be morphed into “Dial M for Manipal”. But wait – this tagline is/was for Manipal hospital. So would you like to go to Manipal in an emergency and get murdered? I don’t know if and when the Manipal guys changed this line, but it really used to crack me up when I was in Bangalore from 2000 to 2002.
  4. It is common to have barf-bags in the seat pockets in front of you in flights. On a flight of Indigo Airlines in India last year for the first time I noticed a barf-bag with a message, “Hope you feel better soon”. Normally this wouldn’t be noticeable: who, after all, would go opening the barf-bags? But in this case the bags and the accompanying caption were conspicuously placed so that they would catch the eye of the passengers. It was as though they expected the passengers to fall sick!

An Apple a Day Keeps the Insurers Away

No, you read it right. If there is anything I loathe about the US it is the healthcare system. For a country that is advanced in almost every sense, it is surprising how they have let the healthcare structure run amok like a rabid dog.

My first experience with the healthcare system was when I developed a carbuncle on my jaw, that made things so painful that I couldn’t open my mouth. I had driven to Orange County from the bay area and the pain kept progressively growing by the time I got to the destination. I tried the different home-grown remedies, all of which would gross out readers with fine sensibilities, so I will not describe them here. My friends felt sorry for me and suggested that I go to the ER to get it treated. So we went there. On the way I enquired from my friends about the typical cost of getting treated. This was the response:

With insurance it takes about $20-40. In the ER it will probably be around $80-100. Without insurance it would probably come to around $200.

I had travel insurance, but my employer had a funny way of working in these matters, so I actually did not have the insurance information at hand. Fair enough – $200 is something that I could afford and later get reimbursed. I kept thinking on the way that if this was India, I wouldn’t have to go to the ER. Almost every hospital has a doctor on call almost all the time. And it would not cost more than Rs. 200/- to get this treated. But I guess this is the price you pay for living in the richest country. We got to the hospital and met the doctor. He essentially tried the same home-grown treatments that I had used a lot more effectively than him, then gave me some Vicodine and sent me off saying that there was nothing he could do. So I went out to make the payment. The receptionist asked me if I had insurance, to which I replied in the negative. So she ran through some numbers and very graciously said:

OK, so I applied a 40% discount and this is your invoice.

$1,350.00. I am usually a calm and collected individual. So my first instinct was to take my glasses off, wipe them clean and put them back on. No, it was still $1,350.00. After a 40% discount. For those feeling too lazy to do the arithmetic, the original amount was $2,100.00. Again, displaying every inch of my calm and collected personality I took out my corporate card and paid the bill. After all, I was on a tour and my employer had failed to provide me the insurance information. To my credit I avoided freaking out. As soon as I got internet access I wrote an email to my employer outlining what had happened. I was given an assurance that this wouldn’t be a problem so the issue was taken care of. About a month after I had returned to India I received a letter saying that I owed the doctor for his services – another $695.00. So to fail to treat a carbuncle it takes $2,045.00. I could have flown to India and back, gotten much better treatment, rented a car for a few weeks and taken all my friends out to a lavish dinner and still have money to spare.

My second experience was in Chicago, again during a weekend, but arguably more painful. I had developed extreme discomfort and a sharp pain in my stomach which prevented me from sitting, standing, eating and sleeping. Essentially it had rendered me useless. This time, though, I made sure that I had my insurance information. I also tried to first get a regular appointment, but it was just after the offices had closed, so I again had to go to the ER. Suffice to say that after around 7 hours of mucking around with CT scans, Ultrasounds etc. the best they came up with was – yes, Vicodine. Never mind the fact that I tried to explain to them that this was probably an ulcer, given that the first occurrence of the discomfort was when I ate something. No recommendations about how this could get better. And then came the other shocker. They could not locate my insurance benefits. Luckily they said that I would have to call them in a few days about theĀ  invoice. I did, and figured out that using my SSN they had managed to bill my insurance company. They weren’t able to do it earlier because my SSN and insurance were both pretty new. Later I got my Explanation of Benefits from the insurer and found that my 7 hours in ER had a total cost of around $9,000.00. I would also have had to be treated for cardiac arrest at the time of treatment if I had known of this amount.

The third experience was with a doctor in the bay area. Fortunately this trip was not within miles of an ER. But the doctor was a quack masquerading as a hypochondriac. This was the gist of my conversation with him:

Quack: Your blood pressure is off the charts. You have the BP of a 60-year old
Me: OK
Quack: Does anyone in your family have a high BP?
Me: Well, my father developed it recently, but he is past 60.
Quack: Oh, but being 60 shouldn’t affect pressure – so it is hereditary in your case.
Me: What the hell are you talking about??!!

Well, I didn’t really say that last bit aloud, because my calm and collected personality intervened. This quack has put me on hypertension meds and cholestrol meds and claims that I am borderline diabetic. Weird, since the tests show all results as normal. Yes, my BP was high, but that was directly correlated to my stress levels those days. Of course, this may simply be a problem with this doctor, but the trend is disturbing. All doctors I have been treated by seemed way below standard. Agreed that the ER doctors specialize in trauma, but I would expect at least some basic knowledge of other branches of medicine. In the case of my stomach ailment they couldn’t even suggest that I go to a gastroenterologist or get an endoscopy later.

When you fall ill there are several hurdles that you have to think through

  • The first thing that needs to be done is to find a doctor within your plan.
  • Then, doctors are not available for visits on weekends or on weekdays after 6:00 pm.
  • If you fall ill while traveling then good luck, because of all the riders that come with Primary Care Physicians.
  • If you have poor ergonomics at your workplace your insurance will not cover your treatment because you should be covered by workers’ compensation.
  • Eyecare is so expensive that getting a pair of glasses for myopia could cost at least $300.00
  • Dental insurance has its own quirks
  • Even with all the money you pay there is no guarantee that you will be satisfied at the end of the day

Why does the whole process of getting treated have to be so convoluted? When I was in the UK I had to go to a hospital for treatment. The process was slow, but that was to be expected since I had gone after hours. But what I really liked is that the person treating me knew her stuff inside out. She laid out all the options in front of me in a clear and succinct manner. And it didn’t cost me a thing. But the cost is not a big factor. I am a firm believer in paying a person commensurate to the services / goods received. But nothing in the US healthcare system inspires that kind of a wish. Truth be said, things are not always bad in terms of the doctors. I have seen doctors much more proficient at work here. But given the amount of money that they make, I would hope that the average standard would be a lot higher. I have had much better care at Sarojini Devi Eye Hospital in Hyderabad, which is a government-run hospital, than I have had in the U.S. of A. Since the healthcare industry in this country is effectively run by insurers, you had better start your daily apple to avoid the insurers.

Sporting Gestures

I had written about Nadal and Federer at this year’s Australian Open, applauding the spirit displayed by Nadal after his victory. Today I came across an article in the Guardian (yes, I read all the British and Australian newspapers whenever India does well in Cricket, just to see what other countries think of it) that talked about the author’s top 10 favourite sporting gestures on the field. While a few readers have commented that Nadal’s act should have made the list, I was happy to see Andrew Flintoff consoling Brett Lee figure in the top 10 – that was something I had appreciated in my post.

I will be keeping my posts short till 24th April. The 7-day work weeks clubbed with a work-related repetitive stress injury has severely hampered my capacity to write here or to work on Aquoid.


The Baddy Blog

No – this is not a bad blog by any stretch of imagination. It is actually a Badminton player’s blog. Saina Nehwal’s, to be precise. Unfortunately it is not a blog in the classical style – there is no RSS / Atom feed or a place to enter comments. Nevertheless, it is a very enjoyable read. More so because I really love playing Badminton myself and Saina is an excellent player (10th in the world at the moment) and a very good writer. The writing style is direct and witty, describing aspects of daily training and with a peek into some interactions that she has on a day to day basis.

Saina’s rise to the top is a very inspiring story in itself. As an 8-year old she would start her day at 6:00 AM each day and ride pillion on her father’s scooter for 20km. From an American perspective 20km is a trifling distance – 12.5 miles, but this is a pretty long ride in India where your scooters don’t go faster than 40-50 kmph (25-30 mph). There were also financial hardships like kit costs, training costs etc. Luckily she managed to find sponsorships starting in 2002, which ameliorated the situation to a large extent.

I do hope Saina finds great professional and personal success – we need people like her to put India on the map of world sports.

Starting Aquoid

After my anguished lament in my last post regarding not having enough time to blog, I had an epiphany. I felt deadlines should be worried about, but that shouldn’t really stifle other creative urges.

Why are you worrying about You-Know Who?
You should be worrying about U-No-Poo – the Constipation Sensation that’s gripping the nation!

– Advertisement for Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J. K. Rowling.

I had been wrestling with ideas about releasing my page layout as a WP theme. Then Koke doused my aspirations with cold water, pointing out how this theme was nowhere close to acceptability. So I thought. And then I thought some more. And then I saw this really well crafted WP theme based on Vista called Inanis Glass. And then it hit me – what if I make a theme just like that for the Aqua interface, but with different flavours – Cheetah, Puma, Jaguar, Panther, Tiger and Leopard? And that started Aquoid. In due course of time I hope to have themes for all and sundry, starting with:

There are several challenges involved, like testing this out on all browsers, testing over various connection speeds and bad machines and so on. But for now, it is back to my daily job.

And yes, check out Aquoid.

Buckling Under the Load

The last few weeks have been really strenuous. Case in point – I could not play Holi because I had to be on call. And the sad thing is that the weeks up to 17th April are going to be just as bad if not worse. For one, I am working 7 days a week. Officially. That means no tennis on Saturdays and no badminton on Sundays. And no experimental cooking for Tanuka in my free time. And no playing or watching movies with Aikataan on most days :-(. That really hurts. And I have to put my tribute series to cricketers on hold. Again. Just when I was getting warmed up. But I guess I will be back soon. And maybe I will sneak something in at times – like I am doing here, waiting for some folks to return from their lunch break. After all I already have the material – the dressing up of the content is what is taking time.

Potting the Seven Potters

By nature I tend to avoid books and movies with a lot of hype associated with them, because the bigger the hype the greater the magnitude of disappointment in a large number of cases. So I was quite judgmental about the Harry Potter series when I first heard about it in June / July 2000 and I kept wondering what it was all about. When my dear friend Vishy tried hard to get me to read a Harry Potter, I was staunch in my refusal, going more by my brother Koke’s word about Harry Potter being like Enid Blyton’s novels. Not that I disliked Enid Blyton as a kid, but as a 21 year-old I did not want to be caught with a kids’ book in hand.

So when I had to start a train journey from Hyderabad to Kolkata aboard the Falaknuma Express in May 2001, I was quite surprised to see myself picking up a Harry Potter. I had no clue what the first book in the series was, but looking at the descriptions on the back flap I figured Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had to be it. It was a decision that I wouldn’t regret. By the end of that trip I had finished reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (book 4) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (book 2) as well. To say that I was addicted would be an understatement.

After getting back to Bangalore I got myself a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (book 3) and finished that. Then began an elaborate hunt for good fan-fiction. But nothing could keep me sated till the next installment came by. I was a bit disappointed with Order of the Phoenix (book 5), and while I felt Half-Blood Prince (book 6) was a definite improvement, I was also left wondering how on earth J. K. Rowling would finish up the series with so much left to do. With trepedition I looked forward to The Deathly Hallows (book 7), and what a fitting end it was to the series!! So pleased was I with it that I went ahead and purchased Tales of Beedle the Bard.

What makes me like the series so much? I could point out several reasons:

  • A really fertile imagination – Rowling comfortably rivals other fantasy writers with her world of fiction. There are several literary creations of hers to show that off:
    • The game of quidditch, complete with rules, a world cup and a supporting book, Quidditch Through the Ages.
    • The smooth blending of the world of magic with the world of “muggles”, as the magical folks would call them:
      • The hypothetical Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross, acting as a train stop for transporting between the two worlds
      • Use of fairy-tale concepts of magic, like flying broomsticks, magic carpets, cauldrons for potions and adding a modern spin of commercialism to them, like a Nimbus 2001 broom.
      • Introducing a minister for magic to handle liaison between the two worlds
      • Making the kids of the magical world go through an academic schedule similar to the kids outside – full-year terms, exams at the end of the terms and so on.
      • Saying that creatures like dragons, basilisks, phoenices, goblins, centaurs, elves and merpeople exist in the magical world. This kind of writing provides rich fodder to kids’ imaginations.
  • Great play of words
    • Avada Kedavara – Interesting how abracadabra and cadaver could be changed into a curse
    • Diagon Alley, Knockturn Alley
    • Voldemort, meaning “flight of death” for the villain’s name, though Rowling claims the name wasn’t intended to have a meaning.
    • Malfoy, meaning “bad faith” as a name for the villain’s lackey.
    • A werewolf called Remus Lupin
    • A person called Sirius Black, who can transform himself into a dog
    • Spellotape – much like cellotape, except that it is magical
    • Pensieve – from pensive, something where all your thoughts go in.
    • Rubeus Hagrid – based on Hagrid Rubes, or “Giant of the jewels”, a kind giant in Greek mythology who was framed by Zeus for murder and banished from Mount Olympus, but allowed to stay and take care of animals. Rowling claims that the name is derived from “hagridden”
  • The *very* witty writing style.
    • Poking fun at the arbitrary values in the FPS system of measurement using the concept of galleons, sickles and knuts (1 galleon = 17 sickles, 1 sickle = 29 knuts)
    • Some really funny dialogue, like the ones involving Kreacher, the mocking by Severus Snape and the bickering between Ron and Hermione.
    • The motto of Hogwarts was “Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus”, meaning “Never tickle a sleeping dragon”.

The plots are simple, yet engaging. I will try to summarize them without letting out too many spoilers:

  • Philosopher’s Stone
    This book was called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the US because the American editors felt that the use of “Philosopher” in the title would misrepresent the contents of the book to children. Being the story that introduces it all, this novel has a special place in the hearts of most fans. The plot was straightforward – there is an attempted robbery where the thieves try to get a highly desirable object – the Philosopher’s stone. This could be the elixir of life for Voldemort, hence every attempt is made by Harry and his friends to foil the plot thereby delaying Voldemort’s return to power. The novel did set about highlighting those traits in people that would become cornerstones of the series.
  • Chamber of Secrets
    The theme here was certainly more innovative than Philosopher’s Stone. Mysterious messages show up everywhere in the school and people keep getting petrified. Harry keeps hearing mysterious voices and then he discovers that there may be a monster locked up in an unknown Chamber of Secrets. The book then proceeds to show Harry beating the odds to emerge triumphant. It also shows how brilliant Voldemort was and highlights class discrimination in the wizard world. Watch out for the anagram at the end of the novel – it is particularly intuitive.
  • Prisoner of Azkaban
    This is the book where Harry breaks free off the pack. He displays mastery over an extremely advanced form of magic and shows that when it comes to dark magic, he is better than most at defending against it. There is no Voldemort in this book and it is slightly low on action except for the last bit. Most people liked this novel for the titular character, but I felt that Sirius Black was more of a plot device than a character of much significance.
  • Goblet of Fire
    The most action-filled book of the series up to that point, bested only by The Deathly Hallows. It has a lot of things happening, like the characters developing into full-blown adolescents, a full-blown sequence with a dragon, some spectacular fights with other creatures at the end, the first death explicitly portrayed, Harry honing his magical abilities further, some great plot devices and most importantly the return of Voldemort. It also leaves a few very significant open ends (like a glint in Dumbledore’s eyes) that don’t get resolved till the very end of the series. And then it leaves the gates open for fans arguing what the romantic coupling in the novels should be.
  • Order of the Phoenix
    This is one depressing novel. It wasn’t a bad novel – it was just gloomy. Everything that could go wrong with Harry goes wrong, starting from nobody believing his story about Voldemort’s return, to a really sadistic teacher at school, to losing a dear one to coping with anger issues accompanying his age, to encountering romantic frustration. And given that it was longer than Goblet of Fire, it felt like a let-down when the climactic scene didn’t show much of a battle between Harry and Voldemort. Of course, that was compensated by a more competent wizard battling Voldemort. But nevertheless, this book was a let-down. This was also the book where “the prophecy” was revealed, in fairly ambiguous terms, if I might add.
  • Half-Blood Prince
    After the gloom of Order of the Phoenix, I was hoping that this book would lift my spirits. It did, though the end left me rather stunned. Luckily this novel did not have Harry brooding too much over the killed character from Order of the Phoenix. One of the key aspects here was some back-story for Voldemort, to help Harry and us readers understand his psyche. True to form Rowling killed off another character, but this was a character who had truly been central to the plot up to this point. I wasn’t able to wrap my head around how Rowling would be able to tie up all the lose ends in the last book. Statistically only 2/7 of Harry’s battle had been won and his most powerful ally was lost.
  • Deathly Hallows
    It is a testament to Rowling’s exceptional skill that she managed to tie up ALL loose ends in this novel. And what really took the cake was the whole aspect of the Deathly Hallows and Dumbledore’s back-story. More than anything else this was a tale of redemption. Several characters, major and minor found forgiveness and redemption and their stories received closure here. All in all the entire journey was well worth its wait.

Rowling’s writing style is so captivating that even the most mundane of sequences have the quality of an absolute page-turner. Though the books are all titled Harry Potter and something, each book shows what can be achieved by teamwork – Harry is never the smartest wizard, but he has a conviction and determination that is so desired in a hero, Hermione is most often the brains behind the operations (though Harry tends to overrule Hermione’s logical outlook of things) and Ron is all about heart. Also, each book chronicles one year in the life of the characters, so the characters grow with the series.

If there is one criticism that must be leveled at Rowling it is that she is an unmitigated disaster at the romantic aspects of the series. A common topic of discussion all over the internet during the first 5 novels was how the romantic pairings would work out. Fans were vertically split between Harry-Hermione vs. Ron-Hermione. Both camps were convinced that there was enough evidence for their “ship” to win out and ship wars ranged from dignified to vitriolic. Eventually one relationship triumphed, which most people could live with since it was the author’s prerogative. But the manner in which a new relationship was foisted on Harry by suddenly having a character pitched as “his equal” left a lot to be desired. More importantly the romantic interactions in Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows seemed extremely awkward and forced, almost as though Rowling felt obliged to include something romantic, but had no idea how and would much rather be concentrating on the main plot. But this must be the sole blemish in a remarkable series.

One thing that I will be grateful to Rowling forever is that she has given the kids of today something really good to read with contemporary settings. A lot of children today shun books for video games and movies and in that process, they really miss out on the undiluted thrill of turning through the pages of a book. Her books showcase very simple concepts like the values of love, kindness, forgiveness, courage, redemption and loyalty. They also highlight several issues in society like class distinctions, belief in superiority by birth, blind faith, presenting illusions of safety when things are not quite hunky-dory and so on.

I am waiting for Aikataan to grow up a bit so that he can start reading – books like these are bound to unlock a child’s imagination.

The Inevitable Void: Part 1 – VVS Laxman

I had promised as far back as December 2007 that I would pay a tribute to India’s retiring generation of cricketers. I never really blogged much after that promise, until the start of this year. As a result I more than missed the bus. 2 of the 5 cricketers I had hoped to profile have already retired and another is under immense pressure to perform. In any case by the time this “Fab Five” retires India will have pretty big shoes to fill, hence the inevitable void.

If you know me personally you are probably aware of my passion for cricket. And if you don’t know me personally, here are 3 things I should tell you:

  1. My stated hobbies on Orkut include “memorizing cricket statistics”
  2. You can find evidence of the above in some questions that I post on Cricinfo.
  3. Even without a dish antenna here in the US, I manage to follow every ball bowled in every match that India plays, thanks to the Cricinfo commentary. I avoid sopcast, mind you, so Cricinfo commentary and my extremely fertile imagination help me create the whole picture in my mind quite effortlessly. In addition I follow every international match that takes place, though not necessarily ball by ball.

Anyway, back to the point. The cricketers I am going to talk about are:

  1. VVS Laxman
  2. Anil Kumble
  3. Sourav Ganguly
  4. Rahul Dravid
  5. Sachin Tendulkar

I initially set out to pay my tribute in a single article, but then I realized that of late consulting has affected my brevity and I have been writing pretty long articles. So I split this out into 5 different posts. Hope you like it.

The first player I will talk about is VVS Laxman.

Some good players raise their level of play to a stratospheric level when faced with a tough opponent. Laxman is one such player and the opponent he likes so much is Australia. Though people remember him for the epic 281 at Eden Gardens, he has a lot of noteworthy innings.

  • 167 in Sydney against Australia, 2000 – This innings should have given the Australians ample warning about things to come. Though India lost the match by an innings, Laxman’s 167 was breathtaking. More importantly his score was almost 64% of India’s total of 261 – something that fell marginally shy of breaking the oldest record in cricket – the one that Charles Bannerman set in the very first test by scoring 165 out of Australia’s 245, a whopping 67.35%!!
  • 281 at Eden Gardens, Kolkata against Australia, 2001 – The innings of a lifetime! Australia had won 16 tests on the trot, crushing India in the previous test by an innings. Here they set up a solid 445 in their first innings and bundled out India for 171. Following on, when India lost its first wicket, in an inspired move captain Sourav Ganguly sent Laxman in at one down – a position typically occupied by Dravid. Then India lost 3 more wickets, including those of Tendulkar at 115 for 3 and Ganguly at 232 for 4. India still needed 42 runs to make Australia bat again.

    What followed was the stuff of dreams. Dravid joined Laxman at the crease and the 5th wicket partnership lasted a whopping 376 runs. The pair batted throughout the fourth day and thoroughly wore out Australia on a hot and humid summer day in Kolkata. The sad part was Laxman missing out on becoming the first Indian to make a triple century on the 5th morning. But the battering was so severe that Harbhajan Singh and the Indian spin attack played havoc. And quite incredibly, Australia LOST!!

    I remember sitting at the office during the last half hour of the match, unable to concentrate. One of my good friends, Ashish Goel called up his home, asked his wife Alankrita to put the phone’s receiver near the TV, then switched on the speakerphone at his desk. And all of us shared the thrill of this spine-tingling victory.

    There have been only three instances in the history of cricket where a team following on has won a match. Australia has been at the receiving end in all three and this was the third instance. This match had such a profound impact on cricket in general that teams have been very reluctant to enforce a follow-on ever since.

  • 154* at Kolkata against West Indies, 2002 – This was in the third innings of the match, after West Indies had built a first innings lead of 139. India was in the danger of being bundled out for a poor score after being 4 down for 87. Laxman joined Tendulkar in the middle and took India to safe shores. India managed to draw the match.
  • 148 at Adelaide and 178 at Sydney against Australia, 2003-2004 – Two big centuries, two 300+ partnerships and an utterly frustrated Australia. By this time Laxman was a permanent fixture in the test team and his confidence was sky high. These innings were sublimely beautiful. The Adelaide innings came when India was in a tough situation. Again his partner in crime was Dravid, but this time Laxman played the supporting role. The Sydney innings was in Tendulkar’s company. Tendulkar had adopted a monastic approach, leaving any ball outside the off stump because of his dismissals that series. But Laxman had no such reservations and he delighted in feasting on the Aussie attack.

Laxman seems to derive sadistic pleasure in tormenting Australia. 6 of his 13 test centuries and his top 4 scores are against them. Most of the time he is a delight to watch – wristy, aggressive and with an array of strokes to rival the best. He has somehow not made much of an impact on ODIs, though 4 of his 6 centuries are against Australia in this format as well. Some of his ODI innings are remarkable too, like his 103* at Brisbane (against who else, but Australia!) and his 107 at Lahore against Pakistan in a match that helped us win the historic ODI series.

He has always been a stable influence on the middle order and is an expert on extracting the most from the tail. He also works excellently in tandem with Dravid. With his teammates being more high profile Laxman often doesn’t get the credit he deserves mainly because he bats so far down the order. I forever will remember him for one thing. 281.

Status: Still strong in tests, but out of ODIs.

Next up: Anil Kumble