Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Road to Purandar, Part 2 - "X" Marks the Spot

We last left our heroes on the perilous slopes of Mount Purandar. They are a mite perplexed on being told that they're standing on an invisible fort. So they proceed to a hall containing a mythical map that is supposed to answer all their questions. Will "X" mark the spot, or are their adventures just beginning? Read on to find out more!

We dutifully made our way to the hall. We did see a map (covered by graffiti) behind a statue of Shivaji. Looking at it, it indeed looked like we were on the fort itself. The mystery deepens. What about that temple that is an hour's trek from the fort? Behind the hall we saw a huge rock outcrop on top of a hill even higher than where we were. We reasoned that since we were already on the fort, and since the temple was supposed to be the highest point in Purandar, it must be on the rock, as we could see no higher points in the vicinity. We decided to get to its top - a decision we regretted for every minute of our climb upwards.

Several trails we took - all of them ending either with the trail narrowing to a few nanometers, or bees, wasps, spiders and other human unfriendly creatures stopping us. We also saw the bones of dead animals eaten by leopards and tigers. Of course, it might just have been the shells of some weird fruits we saw hanging on some bushes there, but that possibility is small. Several times we decided to go back. But every time we would see a new trail, and curiosity - the thing that killed the cat - and pride - that deadly sin - kept us going. A thought was starting to worry me.

"Do you know how to get back?"
"Eh, no. But that doesn't matter. We can see that statue on the ground over there. We can make our way to something as long as we can see it."

It seemed to me that there was something wrong with that logic. We'd been seeing that blasted rock above us for about 2 hours, without getting us anywhere near it. It was an unpleasant train of thought, though. There was no point following it.

To cut a long story short, after more twists and turns than we cared to count, we reached the top. It was beautiful. There was the rock hanging there right above us. There were some steps-like thingies that looked like the seats of an open-air theatre leading up to it. And a hell of a view, as well. No temple, though. Our reasoning faculties working overtime, we concluded that the temple must be on the rock itself. There was no question of us actually climbing that rock, but we saw a trail going up around one side of it. We took it. This was a trail that had a huge vertical face of the rock on one side, a valley on the other - and it was all of a foot wide. It looked like only a few goats, and Spiderman - on a good day - had ever used it. I had on a pair of "hiking shoes", that was about as grippy as wet ice. It was a lot of fun.

To cut another long story short, that trail lead nowhere. It just went on and on. After some time, we just gave up, sat down, and had lunch. At least Ashwin did. I hadn't had any breakfast, either, but starving was better than eating potato-chips sandwiches. We were tired and hungry. The sun was beating down on us. We didn't want to take that trail back. We started searching for helicopter rescue services on our phones. We didn't find any. We called up an old friend of ours, instead, and taunted her a bit. This done, we felt a lot better and made our way back. No number of words can express our joy on reaching the end of the trail that ran on the side of the rock, and reaching a proper trail - that had only a few bees, wasps and spiders to worry us - back down to the statue. This we did, and began to make our way back to the car. We reached that fork in the road again (where we had taken the right to avoid the kids), and out of morbid curiosity, took the road on the left.

We met some people there who told us that the correct way to the fort was to take that road until we saw a canteen, and then, behind it, the trail to the fort started. We saw people going up and down the trail. I don't know what that map back in that hall was all about (most likely, our map-reading abilities are on par with our highway-sign reading abilities), but now that we "saw all", we realised that the rock that we thought the temple was on had been the back portion of the fort, and we couldn't enter it, of course, because the entrance was up this trail that we saw people using. Logical, too. No point in building a fort and then allowing people who climb up any side of the hill to get inside it. We even saw the temple.

Ever been to the Taj Mahal? Me neither. But my point is, imagine that you did try to go there. But because some kids were there in the correct route, you took some other road, and ended up at its back entrance, or something. No way to go in. But you don't know you're at the back entrance because there's a deserted hall there with a map that says you're in Taj Mahal proper. Having no proof to the contrary, you believe it. "Isn't there more?", you still wonder. "It looks so different in pictures." And then, on your way back, when it's too late, you see its front in all its glory - from a distance. "Oh, there's the entrance," you say. "And that garden. And those other thingies." And you say, "Oh well, such is life. Besides, to a true traveller, it is the journey that matters and not the destination."

Anyway, thinking these thoughts we walked back, and saw a gate from which we were supposed to have entered. It seems we missed that too while coming up, and had taken a kind of detour through the army camp - typical for the day. We walked down that trail a bit, and as we didn't know how to reach our car down that way, walked back up to the gate. A gentleman standing at the gate thought we were nuts. He sees these 2 chaps enter through one entrance and then promptly turn around and head for a second exit. "Err, the fort's that way," he said, pointing up. We smiled sadly, explained a bit and were on our way.

We reached Pune at around 3:45 PM, and had a bit of lunch at Polka Dots (my first meal for the day). As a general rule, in movies, guys who return from perilous expeditions get to jump into the arms of girlfriends who look like Liv Tyler. Well, that's why they don't make movies about software engineeers. In our field, women who look like Liv Tyler - oh, forget the looks, ANY women - are about as common as a Rahul Dravid reverse sweep is. Amazing sleep, though. About 12 hours of it. A lot of good photos, as well, from the trip.

P.S. - Here's a link to Ashwin's album for Purandar. He has shamelessly appropriated some of my photos, though.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Mahjong for World Peace

Matthew Hayden has scored 8000+ runs, from 94 tests, at an average of 54, with 30 hundreds. VVS Laxman, from just one match less, hasn't even crossed 6000, with an average of 44, and a mere 12 hundreds. The former, an all-time great; the latter, merely a very good player - at least for the statisticians. But there are people for whom a game of cricket is not a piece of paper with some numbers on it; but a duel between artists with the bat, the ball, and their brains for brushes, and a field - green with grass, slippery with sweat, and red with blood - for a canvas.

Give these people a 30-second glimpse of Laxman dispatching, with an elegant wave of that magic wand that others call a cricket bat, between fast bowler and mid on, a short-of-the-length outswinger way outside the off stump, and they know, they just know, that all the statistics piled up by all the Haydens of this world cannot match that one brief glimpse of true, pure genius. So much for numbers...

Now, on a slightly different track, to Mahjong. A game similar to several card games where you "make a hand". Instead of a deck of 52 cards, though, you have 136 tiles. Importantly, the game starts with 4 walls. One player breaks the wall, to deal tiles to each of the 4 players. And then everyone takes apart the walls, tile by tile, as each player self draws. Add to this that Mahjong was invented by Confucius, a man who emphasised love for humanity, social harmony, etc, and factor in that the player who breaks the wall is called the "honour", and how much clearer do you want the symbolism to be!

The object of this game is not to win in the least possible time, as commonly believed. The reverse, in fact - win as late as possible. Anyone can win in the first few turns, going for a low-faan, high-probability hand. The real challenge is to go for a high-faan, low-probability hand, and win with a mere handful of tiles left in the wall. Tile by tile, brick by brick, you reduce the "walls of hatred, greed and fear" to rubble. Of course, in this affirmation for World Peace, you risk draws, you risk huge defeats. But it is this willingness to walk the tightrope between glory and disaster that separates the Laxmans from the Haydens.

This aspect of Mahjong can even be construed as a reflection on why there is so much trouble in the world. Even if most people were benevolent do-gooders (purely hypothetical, of course), that one person (represented here by a clean-reach-chee player) selfish (and boring) enough to put his own ends of winning in the first few turns, before the needs of the community, is enough to keep those walls keeping us apart intact.

We are all born with traits that naturally lead to walls between us; but can we rise above them; that selfishness, that desire to play it safe, that ruthlessness that comes from wanting to win, no matter how lifeless or unethical the means; can we instead use our passion, our hopes for a better world, even our lust for destruction, to demolish those walls inherent, while at the same time satisfying the innate urge to compete? Are we merely Robert Frost's old-stone savages, who move in darkness, and cannot think beyond "Good fences make good neighbours"? Can we show the grace, the sportsmanship, to accept the risk of the game petering out into a draw, or even of losing? For what is sport if you cannot accept defeat? These are the questions Mahjong asks.

Tell your grand children that you once won a Mahjong tourney with 5 consecutive hands of clean-reach-and-chees, and they will yawn. Tell them you discard all your edges and honours, as "all middles" is statistically more probable, and you will hasten your entry in an old-age home by a good 15 years. Tell them you never keep any of those pretty red dragons or the dark green ones because the probability of you getting the other two is less than that of seeing an act of sportsmanship from Michael Schumacher, and they will yell out, "Mom, I hope you're an illegitimate daughter, because I don't want any of his genes in me!"

Why go for a boring old "seven eyes"? Why not add a "mixed edges" and also a "mixed one numerals" to the hand? Give it a bit of character. So what if your chances of winning with this refurbished hand are only fractionally higher than the number of WMDs that Bush has found in Iraq? So what if you're going for "small dragons" and have only one of each dragon in your hand? "Nine treasure lamps" an impossible hand? Says who? To all the objections they can conjure, and a million more, thumb your nose, and say, in as defiant a tone as you can manage, "So what?!" The more improbable your victory, the more glorious your stand, the more your cojones.

Sachin Tendulkar could've left a head-high bouncer from Brett Lee, on top of middle stump, well alone. For that's what most would have done, consigning the ball to the trash cans of history - like so many other millions. But he didn't. He played this stroke, instead. A shot gloriously out of the ordinary. A shot played not by percentages, but with heart and boundless skill. A shot played by a warrior, against the fastest bowler in the world at his sharpest. A shot unforgettable for an audacity equalled only by its artistry. Tendulkar took the road less travelled. Why not you and me?

Or take Kimi Raikkonen. In 2005, at the Nurburgring, the Iceman was leading the race in a car that had one wheel hanging off it literally by a thread. The sound of the wheel bouncing off the tarmac, shattering his McLaren's suspension piece by piece, could be heard even over the wails of those incredibly powerful engines; the on-board camera showed a car vibrating so much that it is a wonder Kimi could see anything apart from a blurry haze. The percentage game? Pit the car, change the wheel, lose the victory, but still get third place. But what does a racer do? He waves the pit crew aside, dismisses all thought of grave injuries, and battles on for lap after lap, in a pile of metal disintegrating all around him.

At 300 km\hr, in the final lap of the race, the tyre tore lose, and he was thrown into the wall. A million hearts were broken around the world. But of the 2005 season, the image that endures is not of the champion holding aloft his trophy, but of a shattered McLaren against a tyre wall, seconds away from victory. Sure, it's an image of tragedy. But who will ever forget it? - in a few years, most people won't even remember who the champion of that year was, but the memory of Kimi and his fight against the odds will live on. If a man can risk life and limb just because he wouldn't settle for 6 points, when he could have 10, why do we set our sights on a mere 3 faans, when there are 20 to play for?

Where those sporting giants have an audience in the millions for their battles, us Mahjong players have to make do with a mere handful. But battle it is, nevertheless; if just on a table, with 136 tiles, and three other numpties to play against. Why be content with slowly bleeding our opponents to death with chees, cleans, all-middles and the like, when we could go all out for glory with "One numerals", "All greens" or "13 honours"? Sure, on occasions, to keep our hand and our chances of victory, we may have to ignore the hands of our opponents - and risk defeat. And why not? Why have a dull draw as your best hope, if you have even one chance in a thousand of a win? When others live and die in a blaze of glory, why play like accountants?

If an air-conditioned room with 5 people be where we make our stand, why not make it a stand that those 5 will remember for the rest of their lives? Why go with the odds? Why play the percentage game? Wage a lonely war, instead, in the hope, in that less-than-1% chance, that you will declare a 15-faan win, than have a 25% chance of a drab 3-faan win. Sure, you may be spectacularly busted, or you may be left high and dry, with tiles to go before you win, and tiles to go before you win. Take that chance! Take up arms against the sea of odds! Play with passion! Play with style! Play for World Peace! Attempt to "Mahjong" with the hands less played, for ages and ages hence, you might just say that that is what made all the difference!