Tuesday, April 26, 2011

McLeod Ganj

Inertia defines software engineers - they grow like fungus on swivel chairs and do not budge until someone either lays them off or offers them higher pay on a different swivel chair. Asking them to do a bit of travelling normally gets you the goggle eyes and a querulous, "Do you know what our release schedule for this month is like?" Even so, you'd think that one of this tribe would have sense enough to do a bit of exploring when living in Delhi - especially given its proximity to the Himalayas. But not me. It was only in the last week of my one-and-a-half years here that I decided to head for the slopes. And that, too, because I happened to fortuitously get in touch with an old friend who was planning a trip to McLeod Ganj with her friends. I leeched on, naturally.

The cast of characters:- 

a) My friend, who, having lived a sheltered life in the hills of Rishikesh, has not yet learnt that most basic of all rules of city living: do not piss off a waiter until he has deposited the last of your orders on the table. It is fascinating, though, to see her find new ways of aggravating even the gentle Tibetan waiters meal after meal. The rest of us had to take extra care to not try anything from any dish ordered by her. 

b) A's friend from college, and now in HR. No sooner did I hear the words "HR" than I kept a wary eye on her for the remainder of the trip for any signs of horns or a tail, but she kept those well hidden under a sweet and patient demeanour. She did admit, though, in one of her less guarded moments that she models herself on Catbert. 

c) Another of A's college friends, and married to B. Is a guy, so will not get much mention here, except that the two apparently had a wedding very reminiscent of the ending of The Graduate. 

d) The sci-fi nerd. Spent much time boasting about her travels to everywhere I hadn't been to. Considers herself a treasury of all human knowledge and is very confident about everything she says - so much so, in fact, that winning a copy of Sourcery off her, when she stuck to her claim that it was Adrien Brody who starred in The Librarian trilogy, was as easy as stealing a single off Munaf Patel. 

e) I think I was the only normal one.

We hired one of those big car types that seats five people relatively comfortably and were off on Thursday night. The highway to Chandigarh is undergoing construction of some sort, and large sections of the highway beyond Chandigarh towards Dharamshala had apparently gone AWOL in the wee hours of Good Friday. And so it was that we reached the guest house only by noon. On the way, having forgotten to take Avomine, I spent some time doubled over by the road-side, taking in the crisp Himalayan air, and offering the asphalt my breakfast in return. Avomine now taken, the rest of the ride found me in a stupor, and I don't remember much of it; except that the snow caps of the mountains didn't seem to be the soft-looking snow I'd seen in photographs and from a distance, but more of a hard, shiny white - much like a Colgate ad - and suggesting a bit of translucence, too. Or maybe that was just the Avomine...

We had done extensive research on the restaurants to visit, prior to our trip, and none of our choices disappointed. We disagreed on pretty much everything except food. The only hint of trouble during mealtimes was when one of us would dip his or her spoon in the neighbour's plate, only to be warned off with a "mine, all mine" hiss. In between meals we did a bit of shopping and were occasionally treated to breathtaking vistas - like the side of a hill, on the far side of a valley, lit up by the lights of McLeod Ganj, on one particular lonely walk up to a restaurant.

We really did eat quite a lot - it was pretty much the only thing we did there - and we didn't stop eating till Sunday afternoon, which is when we turned the car Delhi-ward. The place is frequented by a lot of Westerners: now these chaps invented pollution, colonialism, the slave trade, and gave us a couple of World Wars, but on the plus side, they also gave us Zooey Deschanel, Dire Straits (I discovered an awesome live performance of Romeo & Juliet in C's iPod), and pastries. Plus, the fuckers know how to eat breakfast: no pohas or idlis for them. Many of you know me as one who lives life in moderation, practically monk-like, but I will have you know that on Sunday, I had a "Farmer's breakfast" for starters, followed up with a lemon cheese cake, a chocolate pancake, a cheese & onion quiche, a glass of  watermelon juice, a glass of orange juice, and a glass of fresh lime soda (sweet) - and all that just for breakfast. Only the thought of the drive back, and the memories of what had happened to me on the drive up, kept me from really getting into the spirit of things.

Anyway, that's how we spent our two days there. In between, we felt a little guilty that we were in the midst of the Lesser Himalayas and had not done any trekking; so we found a spot where there was a set of steps leading up into the mountains, beside a waterfall.  We climbed and climbed and climbed. And just when we thought our rib-cages would crack, the steps stopped and we found ourselves at the Shiva Cafe, complete with soft cushions, a spring with ice-cold water, and food and drink. We blinked our eyes a couple of times, not quite believing them, but it was no mirage. We asked the chaps who ran the place whether they served anything alcoholic, but that was pushing our luck - we had to settle for lemonade and Minute Maids. Still the mattresses were boon enough, and some of us read and the others dozed lightly in the warm afternoon sun. And that was the extent of our exploration of the Himalayas.

McLeod Ganj is also the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, and we therefore visited the Dalai Lama's monastery. We were told that we couldn't meet Mr Lama, as he is travelling, but were welcome to look around the monastery. Which we did. And that was the extent of the widening of our cultural horizons (if you discount the time we spent gawking at the photographs some cafe owners had put up of Richard Gere posing with them).

And before we knew it, it was time to head home. The ride home was fairly nondescript, except that us two guys were dumped in the seats farthest back, and by the time we stopped for dinner at a dhaba in Chandigarh to reacquaint ourselves with Indian food, our legs felt like they wouldn't ever again fully straighten up. And I was all the grouchier because a post I'd just published, through which I'd hoped to garner a few "you will roast in hell for all eternity"s, did not manage so much as a pbfffssst... But really, the food more than made up for all of it. Ever tried brain fry?

Let me now break from tradition and offer you some advice. If you are ever to hit that spot in your lives where you wish to quit your job and get a few months of vegetating in, without your wallet taking too much of a hit, consider a stay in the lonelier reaches of Dharamshala. You'd have to hike a bit to get there, but once you do, you'd get accommodation for around 150 bucks a day, which, as any city-dweller knows, is definitely a deal. You can stay there for months. Plus, as far as food is concerned, if you remember the meal I described a few paragraphs back, the bill came to about 850 bucks for that one - and this despite four other people hogging as much as I did, and the restaurant being very much in the town. Contrast this with the 6000 we paid for some starters and drinks in Delhi, just before we began the trip, and... what're you still doing here? Get packing! 

P.S. - Make sure you carry Moby Dick. And whenever you reach one of those bits where Melville goes on about how captivating the seas are and how the whole of the human race yearns for the seas, substitute "mountains" for "seas," and the book seems to work so much better all of a sudden.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Is Tendulkar really that controversial God person?

Part II, or the much more impressive "finale," of my two-post Tendulkar series. But unlike Part I, or the also-very-impressive-sounding-but-wildly-inaccurate "overture," I'll get right down to it. No scene-setting. Brisk and businesslike, it will be.

Since the late nineties, allusions to Tendulkar's divinity have been bountiful. The subject matter for today's post is this disturbing tendency several wise people, me included, have noticed in the change in tone of these from the playful to the earnest. Apart from the unsavoury sight of normally sober people calling a sportsman "God" with passionate fervour; apart from the fact that the appeal of sport lies not in some deity performing the inevitable but in fallible men and women, under the scrutiny of millions, defying probabilities and expectations; apart from the fact that these references aren't even being used for purposes that has my approval, such as mocking the aggravatingly religious; what irritates me most is that it demonstrates further how everything human about Tendulkar is being stripped away, how he's being reduced to a symbol.

Besides, aren't we selling him a little short here?

Tendulkar has never struck me as the sort who'd unleash plagues of locusts on the Egyptians or kill first-borns on a genocidal scale because of differences with the local Pharaoh. Nor, given the methodical way he goes about his business, is he likely to moan that everything's just so screwed up, go for a reformat, and then rely on a truly hare-brained species-recovery plan*. No wars in his name, either: the English are unlikely to launch crusades to reclaim Bombay, nor was he the one who allegedly told Bush to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. His name has been used neither as an excuse for terrorism nor for the subjugation of women. Never have his followers shamed a nation by bringing down a centuries-old mosque to make space for a shrine in his name, nor has anyone been burnt to death (along with their little children) just because they tried to convert Tendulkar fans into Lara ones.

The thing is, Tendulkar's no jealous God. He's quite happy for you to be both his fan as well as a Lara one; in fact, many Tendulkar fans do indeed have other cricketers before him, with not a word of complaint from the Little Master. He hasn't, to my knowledge, dissuaded anyone from coveting the neighbour's pretty wife - all he asks is that you move your feet decisively, and that you keep your head still and your elbow high (all of which are grounded not in some obscure code of "moral" behaviour, but in the laws of physics). He has no known problems with condoms or abortions, nor does he demand any particular fashion or dietary restrictions of you - except perhaps "go easy on those biryanis during an innings break" or "spring for an abdomen guard that does not require dozens of adjustments on live TV."

He even adopts and improves on some of the nifty stuff from popular religions. Why show the other cheek, for instance, when you can just offer the full face to begin with? Through his various charities, he's fed a hell of a lot more than 5000. He's been forsaken by his followers, pronounced dead**, and then experienced a glorious rebirth. He's carried the cross of insane, unfair expectations for 21 years with not one reproving word. And he also, with the same perfect grace, subjects himself to interruptions when having a quiet breakfast with a friend, to oblige a stranger who asks him to speak to her cricket-mad friend on the phone (a true story: I was her cricket-mad friend). On one of the rare occasions he's made a political remark, it was to speak out against divisiveness - very un-God-like.

There's much more evidence that he's the anti-God. Every innings of his is a plea to cricket fans everywhere to shirk studies, work and their families, to leave aside all thought of what is right and what ought to be for what is. Also, he'd never draw a giant, no-no-type X on the juicy-half-volley length right outside the off-stump, on pain of banishment from Eden Gardens; for he wouldn't let one go himself without an attempt at an exquisite caress through the covers. The promise of eternal bliss is a poor substitute for life's pleasures - which is why his career has been one that's stretched out the nows and staved off the laters: that mastery over Time is not just for giving himself an age to get into position, but for all who watch, conferring on us all an eternity carved out in the present.

There's a part of me, for instance, still stuck in one particular instant - no more than half a second, in standard time - of 2003***, when a backfoot drive off Akram ensnared me and countless other millions. I already have my heaven, my promised land; what more can any religion offer me? As that particular Tendulkar bubble joins the other thousands he alone has set afloat in the river of time, are we unjustified in asking whether this universe of ours might also not be one such bubble created by a Tendulkar equivalent (a much less perfect specimen than Sachin, of course, given our trouble-ridden world) of another dimension playing a backfoot-drive equivalent off an Akram equivalent? Are we getting a headache? I am.

*How many sysadmins do you know whose data-backup plan in its entirety is "save the first two files of every folder"?

**The link to that "Endulkar" caption of yours (circa 2006 - I hear you've switched to the Almighty bandwagon these days) is awfully hard to find, Times of India.

***At 3:31 of this video.

P.S. - Happy birthday, Sachin.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Hogfather, and the debate on religion

Disclaimer: I've never been the most voracious of readers, so anything I write on books should be taken with a slightly bigger pinch of salt than usual.

A friend made me read my first Terry Pratchett with, "He may well be a modern Wodehouse." And that read turned out to be "Hogfather." No other book has had me so absorbed in it since my boyhood reading of "The Call of the Wild." For one, the world-view it presents seems to match mine pretty much exactly - it's as if Pratchett peeked inside my head and not only understood every vague feeling and unfinished thought, but then went on to build the wittiest, most imaginative story around it. In terms of inventiveness only Tolkien comes close, but even his considerable talents appear as slow as Ent-speech when juxtaposed with the effortless sparks that fly off every other paragraph here.

Since I'm not yet ready to topple from P1 the dozens of Wodehouses I've read over the years, I still maintain that Pelham Grenville makes me laugh more, and, further, is the most prolific character-creator I've come across. But even he hasn't managed to do for me what Pratchett has with just this one book - take a mist of a thought that has been wisping around in my head, frustratingly inexpressible, evading all attempts at pinning down; and then crystallise it into black ink on white paper, appositive phrases and relative clauses in full bloom, and complete with dotted "i"s and crossed "t"s.

Case in point:- 

The amount of belief in the world must be subject to an upper limit. Creatures have appeared that were once believed in. They disappeared because they were not believed in - people were believing in something else, right? It follows that if a major focus of belief is removed, there will be spare belief.*

Isn't that just the perfect summing up of religion? We spend so much time taking positions on religion, on its goodness and badness and the relative degrees of the same, that we lose sight of something fundamental: taking a position on religion is rather like taking a position on thirst. Religion isn't something that exists distinct from humanity, it's just a manifestation of a part of our humanness - as quintessential as is wrinkly skin on spending too much time in the shower, or a boner in the morning.**

Assume religion didn't exist (ignoring that this is kind of like saying "assume we didn't have lungs"). Even if we didn't have lungs, we would still need something to oxygena... err... do the stuff that lungs do. And if your counter-argument is, "Well, what if we didn't need oxygen too?" then a response to that is, "What then would blood do?" and this goes on until we end up with a completely different creature, biologically. Uh... I don't think that was quite what I was shooting for. Lungs do something useful, and I don't mean to imply that religion is useful.  Let's try another one...

The Internationale opines: "If these ravens, these vultures disappeared one of these days, the sun will shine forever." To which Orwell replied, with unimpeachable logic, that if they did disappear, we'd merely have other creatures take their place and do just what the ravens and the vultures did; ravening and vulturing is something that will be done - it's not like we had this perfect society going and they landed from Mars to ruin our utopia, was it? Studying the whys and wherefores of our propensity to religion is a different matter, but all this arguing about whether we need more religion, or less of it, seems like an exercise in futility: we have exactly as much religion as we deserve, or put another way, as we're built for.

I suppose I could've presented this with just two paragraphs - one with the Pratchett quote and a green tick next to it, and the second with Weinberg's "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion," and a red cross beside it (expressing disagreement, if all the symbolism is getting a bit too much). But if I were to express only concise, original thoughts, all you'd see on hitting this URL is a blank page.

*It doesn't appear in exactly that format in the book - it unspools as dialogue.

**I wonder why the religious don't use this argument more often when confronted with a fire-breathing atheist, or indeed, why atheists don't use it more often when confronted with a religious fundamentalist?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The trouble with Sachin's numbers

Part I of a two-part series, as promised here.

The backdrop: World Cup 2003. Tendulkar had been its top-scorer, and its player of the tournament, but the finals accentuated a feeling growing amongst supporters here that he "doesn't perform when the team needs him." It had been him who appealed to the fans for patience after a couple of lacklustre Indian performances had them baying for blood (a disastrous tour to New Zealand just prior to the World Cup not having helped the mood much), and it was he who then led the way with a couple of stirring performances, most famously against England and Pakistan, that saw India charge to the finals. And then, chasing 360 against McGrath and Lee, he fell for 4. It was clearly his failure that cost us the Cup.

And that was what prompted me to write an essay on Tendulkar, which was as much a defence of him as a celebration of his talents. And when I published it here on my blog, it was in 2008, just at the start of his astonishing second wind, when, for all money, it had looked like the genius had run its course.

The point is, therefore, that in the current climate where Tendulkar is untouchable, where Virat Kohli told a teary nation moments after winning the Cup: "Tendulkar has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years. It is time we carried him on our shoulders," this new post of mine is going to be a lot less defensive and prickly. It will instead merely voice a vague disquiet (my life is a collection of vague disquiets).

What does Tendulkar mean to us? No really, serious question. Up till 2003, we could've got away with the answer that he's nothing more than the nation's greatest artist, willow-wielder supreme, and therefore national treasure. But then, when the injuries took their toll and his numbers started to lose their lustre, we showed our ugly side, culminating with that sad day at the very stadium where, five years later, he would get his lap of honour. It's an extension of the "delicate sort of question" that people have started to ask: do Indians still love the actual game of cricket?

In the last 3 years, Tendulkar has got back his numbers. He's pulled so far ahead of Ricky Ponting that it's unlikely the Australian will ever catch up with him. Experts routinely say that he's batting as well as he's ever done; and, at the twilight of a magnificent career, the records are tumbling almost with every innings. There was the 35th ton with which he went past Gavaskar, the 40th Test ton, then the 50th, now his 100th international ton up ahead, also the 50th ODI ton, and of course the overtaking of Lara on the run-scorers list, the 14,000 Test runs, the 15,000th Test run soon to follow... It's got to the point where any innings he plays that isn't a century is considered a failure, like those two vital half-centuries against Australia and Pakistan in the knockouts: the sense of anti-climax was palpable.

There probably isn't a more effective way of burying the legend of Tendulkar than under this mountain of statistics. This centuries business, for instance. It means little more than the addition of an extra digit on the scoreboard. Some of his most memorable innings - be it from the spectator viewpoint, or in terms of value for the team - aren't three-figure knocks. I could name another half a dozen World Cup knocks of his that would blow the six centuries he has in the tourney out of the water. And yet we keep piling the pressure on him. Every innings he plays, every single one, is hyped as about some record or the other. Would it really surprise anyone if he had a melt-down a la Joe Pesci in "My Cousin Vinny"?

For contrast, let's look at Rohan Kanhai (picked for sentimental reasons). I've never seen the bloke bat, nor do I know a single statistic about him. But all I have to know about him is that he is one of brightest jewels in the West Indian school of batsmanship, purveyor of the falling sweep, and of whom Sunil Gavaskar not only wrote, "To say that he is the greatest batsman I have ever seen so far is to put it mildly," but also named his son after. The imagination takes care of the rest. So much more diverting than 99.94, that sort of stuff. That is the sort of legacy that Tendulkar, who introduced my generation to cricket, deserves; not a serving of numbers, bland and boring.

Tendulkar is no Jacques Kallis: walking proof that consistency is really the last refuge of the unimaginative. And the last three years are not the best of his career. No way. Not even close. Maybe his average is better than ever before, and maybe his strike rate is as good as it has ever been, and maybe Team India is winning more than ever. But there is more to batting than averages and strike rates and wins: there is the question of oomph. Sure, he's aged gracefully, his technique as solid as ever, his experience unmatched. But can you really expect a 38-year-old to have the same sizzle in his batting as that of a 25-year-old?

If he's Stanley Kubrick now, his genius tempered by thought, every shot seemingly practised a 100 times before, then the Tendulkar of the 90s was murderous, unpredictable, practically unhinged even; of whom Gavaskar said that no other batsman has ever before combined classical technique with raw aggression. This was a man against whom the accusation was often laid of throwing his wicket away, of having two shots to every ball, and then getting out playing the third. The Tendulkar you see now is treated with respect by his opponents. The Tendulkar of old made them quake in their boots.

Look at some of the clips of his centuries against South Africa in Cape Town and Bloemfontein, and against Australia in Chennai - the latter two being practically run-a-ball efforts. And couple that with the situations he played those in: the 169 in Cape Town was when India were reeling at 58 for 5, the 155 in Bloemfontein when at 68 for 4. The 155 in Chennai came from a relatively comfortable second-innings position of 44 for 2, but it came against the backdrop of the most-hyped battle of the decade: Tendulkar vs Warne, meeting for the first time in the subcontinent, and with Warne having already dismissed Tendulkar for 4 in the first innings. But if you were to watch any of those videos linked, does the savagery of his batting contain any inkling at all of the pressure he must be under? And he did it over and over, innings after innings.

Look at the movement of his feet, the quality of those backfoot drives, the numerous shots in the air, the sixes, the one-bounce fours. He has now cut down on the risks, keeps the ball more along the ground, and dabs and nudges a fair bit. Compare the way he played Steyn in South Africa with the way he played Donald and Warne in those videos. Look, this isn't a whinge. I'm glad he's adapted his game to prevent a decline like Viv Richards had in his twilight. It's a marvel that Tendulkar at 38, when his reflexes must be nowhere near what it was in his youth, was able to keep the deadliest fast bowler in a couple of decades at bay, when his teammates were being rolled over around him. But it was still the immovable object that presented itself to Steyn, and not the whirlwind that went about dismantling Donald and Warne. And that gale is how I'd like Tendulkar to be remembered.

There was once a bunch of 9-year-old kids who gave not a damn about whether India won or lost. They just wanted the opposition to take three quick Indian wickets, so that the little Number Five would walk in and go about his business. As they grew older, the inevitable corruption of their spirits happened and it became the done thing to wish for Indian victories, for team over individual glory. What I realise now is, I think I care more about the individual. A team going about collecting trophies, no matter how efficiently, does not have the same attraction for me as sublime skill at its rawest. When Tendulkar's gone and when Laxman follows him into retirement, there will be none left in that batting line-up I'd watch without reservation. Perhaps if Pujara fulfills his promise...

I watch less and less cricket these days, and the day is not far when I stop watching it altogether. The memories that top the list should a stranger tap me on the shoulder and, in answer to my enquiring eyebrow, break the silence with "Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days of auld lang syne?" will not be of Dhoni holding aloft the World Cup, or any number of trophies won in Australia or South Africa. It will be of Tendulkar in the 90s, caught in a floundering team, but all the more magnificent for it. Tendulkar the record breaker, Tendulkar the accumulator, has his place, but the real legend is someone else. The strokes he conjured: some of it from the textbook - like those backfoot drives and that straight drive of his - and some very unorthodox ones, like the upper cut and the paddle sweep... those, I'd never forget. I hope that when his career is remembered, it is the kid that comes first to mind; before the icon, before the record books, before the scalpel, there was the curly-haired bully and his cleaver. Tendulkar is so much more than just some numbers and Indian wins.

For auld lang syne, my dear. For days of auld lang syne.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Movie Turn-Ons, Part 4.6 (Cheesy Sci-Fi: Creature from the Black Lagoon)

Are spoilers really possible at all in this sort of science fiction? Is there one amongst you who does not think that the creature will snuff it in the end? Oh, all right. There are spoilers ahead. Be warned! 

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

The one thing you have to admire with these films, even more so than every other quality we've discussed so far, is their directness. They do not cloak their intent. Take this one. The viewer's left in no doubt that there's one Black Lagoon, containing one Creature, that will be the focus of attention. Compare and contrast this with, say, "Independence Day" (anyone settling into the cushions ready for some good, old-fashioned patriotism is going to have a bit of a jar when the tentacled alien throws Brent Spiner right at the camera), "Armageddon" (no, no, Father Léon Morin, save your cash for the needy; nothing remotely Biblical here), or "2012" (WTF?)

The movie starts with an impressive narrator declaring that in the beginning God created the Earth and the heavens. (Where'd he crash before he did this?) The Earth is now a hot molten mass, but cooling rapidly, he assures us. Clouds form... hardening surface... restless seas rise... life (miracle of) begins... "The record of life is written on the land, where fifteen million years later, in the upper reaches of the Amazon, we're still trying to read it."

The zoom works its way to the Amazon, where, by the banks of a tributary, a geological expedition headed by Dr Maia finds the fossil of a hand (with webbed fingers and nasty claws) sticking out of the rock like a bulb out of a socket. He asks for funding from Dr Williams, the head of a marine-biology institute, for further excavations. Aware of the publicity this could get him, Dr Williams is only too happy to fund. There is a brief interlude while the leading man (introduced below) makes a fine speech on the value of marine research. Apparently, a potentially amphibious creature like this (the gill-man, from now on) could give us clues on how nature booted us out from the seas and onto land. It is speculated that we could use this knowledge to adapt ourselves to alien environs, when the time comes.

Before we know it, Dr Maia, Dr Williams and his star ichthyologist, Dr Reed* (with girlfriend-cum-researcher, Miss Lawrence) find themselves in the Amazon. Dr Maia's camp, they find, is now a mess, his two assistants having been disemboweled by something with nasty claws. "Jaguars," they speculate. The digging for the rest of the fossil is not too successful, but there remains the hope that a part of the bank caved in, and the river carried the remains to the lagoon at the end of it, which, according to local legend, is a paradise - but one that none has ever returned from. On they sail.

At the lagoon, Doctors Reed and Williams dive down to the bed to collect rock samples to verify their theory. While everyone is analysing the samples, Miss Lawrence goes for a swim in her little swimsuit. The gill-man, lurking about under the water, is fascinated by her nifty moves ("a stylized representation of sexual intercourse," says one dude on the DVD extras; "a love dance," chimes in Julie Adams, the actress playing Miss Lawrence, much more succinctly) and develops a crush. That's the one fascinating thing about us that films have explored for long: our attitude to inter-species coupling. We may look askance at a man who has sex with pumpkins... or sheep; or at a woman who does so with turnips... or tadpoles... or is infatuated with the toe of a statue (even if a human statue). But the attractiveness of our women to the most menacing of other species, on the other hand, is a matter of pride to us.

The gill-man, in a careless moment, no doubt blinded by love, gets caught in the scientists' net. He manages to escape, but the scientists are now aware that there is rather more than a fossil to aim for. Dr Williams slowly sets himself up as one of those intense, ambitious types, so badly needed in a movie of this sort, who care more for the money and the fame than the science itself. He intends to take the gill-man back to civilisation. The others don't wholly approve of this, but since he writes the cheques... (In their more charitable moods, they do acknowledge that they wouldn't be able to go on with their digging, if Dr Williams wasn't around to dig up money for them.) One thing leads to another, and Dr Williams fires a harpoon at the gill-man; it's all-out war from now on end.

There are casualties on both sides, with the scientists perhaps suffering more than the gill-man. The gill-man is portrayed rather sympathetically. He has a soulful, fish-like face that makes us feel for him, and, as a crew member points out in the above-mentioned extras, it is the humans, after all, who have barged in on his territory and set about aggravating him: apart from the harpoon firing touched on earlier, the humans display a deplorable inclination towards pouring poison into the waters, throwing cigarette butts into it, etc. (To quote another snippet, the film seems to sympathise with a burgeoning environmentalism. "What're you doing to my world?" is what the interviewee feels the gill-man is thinking, as he watches the heroine throw a cigarette butt into the river.)

Anyway, just when the rest of the crew prevails on Dr Williams that maybe it is time to leave, they find that the gill-man, perhaps for reasons of love or maybe even revenge, has blocked the way out of the lagoon, and the boat is unable to push on through. This provides a platform for a few more diving sequences where the scientists attempt to de-block the river. In one of these, Dr Williams gets his comeuppance from the gill-man, and in another one, the gill-man finally gets a move-on and kidnaps Miss Lawrence. He carries our unconscious heroine into his lair, and proceeds to lay her down on a stone slab. And just as we lean forward with interest, our natural curiosity being whether it is scientific inquisitiveness that drives him, or something rather more Bunuelian, the obligatory rescue scene kicks in, and we lean back in disappointment.

The gill-man is shot full of holes, and sinks soulfully to the bottom of the lagoon. The end credits come up, and we're left with the choice of either moving on with our lives, or writing a review of the movie. As you can see, I've chosen the latter. Overall, not a bad way to spend a slow evening, but if pushed, I'd have to admit that of the four movies reviewed so far, this is perhaps my least favourite. Given the illustrious company, that's by no means an insult; the movie's definitely worth a viewing or two. It (shot in 3-D, by the way) was a huge hit in its time, making the gill-man one of the early successes of the movie-monster genre (and going on to appear in several sequels) - a pioneer in making the waters unsafe for us, two decades before The Shark popped up to carry on his legacy.

*Had you been watching the movie, instead of reading about it here, you would've recognised him as Putnam, from "It Came From Outer Space."

Coming up next: "Tarantula!"

Sunday, April 3, 2011

World Cup Gripes

As hinted at earlier, I've been in a phase of nirvana-esque placidity: of calm smiles, gentle words and very little activity. But because the World Cup happened to coincide with my realisation that I'm a Dudeist, there were times when I was jolted out of my complacency. Sport very rarely lets you maintain your equanimity - unless it be a Test match on a Sri Lankan featherbed. Since I've never been poetic enough to describe the highs, I'll just whinge, thank you.

1) Sidhu. Much has been written about the mediocrities of the commentary teams. But mediocrity, I can handle. The world is built on the stuff, and we're conditioned from childhood - in no small part by being made aware of our own mediocrities - to accept it, and to ignore it. The trouble with Sidhu is that he's inanity on a Citizen Kane scale. He preens, he hogs the mike, he shouts down those around him, and he seems to earnestly believe that his "Sidhuisms" are sayings of supreme wit and insight - every answer has to have a prologue, even if in no way related to the question asked.

Though I've met no one who admits to liking him, he must have his legions of admirers. I can think of no other reason why ESPN-Star, one of the few sober sports channels we had left, chose to have him on their team. Bhogle, for all his experience, has had little success with shutting him up, contenting himself with a pained expression on occasion. Ganguly and Simon Hughes, often finding themselves at Sidhu's right and left, prefer to hang their heads and grit their teeth. I kept my sanity by mostly keeping the TV on mute, but what happens when he's on at the same time as Tony Cozier, a commentator I love? Do I hurl a handy chair at the screen and run screaming from the room, or do I put up with that bottomless hole, the prince of the loud-mouthed egotists, the sultan of cringe, just to hear "the voice of Caribbean cricket"? 

2) The obsession with numbers, personified by the tragic case of the deification of Jacques Kallis, and the still more tragic case of the reduction of Tendulkar into one number after the other - and the really, really much more tragic case of the lowering of him to the level of the Gods (coming soon; watch this space... or rather, the space above this). 

3) West Indies. I grew up listening to awed talk of the great West Indian batsmen of yore; of Richards, Fredericks, Kanhai, Sobers, Headley and the like. Sad, therefore, to see this lot play as if the spinning ball is a nasty contravention of the spirit of the game. 

3.92) South Africa. Unquestionably the best side of the tournament...  on paper. Also, as per de Villiers, the "opposite of chokers." Uh-huh. 

4) The ads. Apart from the glorious promo and the Super ZooZoo ads, there wasn't anything memorable at all. Idea showed the most promise by signing up 6 World-Cup-winning captains and displaying great topical awareness by making corruption the theme of the ads. But then they followed it up with a series of the lowest-IQ ads ever seen on TV. Get Idea, indeed. How about Get Clue? Also - and I'm looking at you, Royal Stag - I can't think of a sillier thing to do than "looking your opponent in the eye and telling him: I will make it large." You'd be lucky if your opponent didn't smack you on the forehead with a rolled-up newspaper. 

5) Shahid Afridi. Gone are the days when I could blithely claim that I'd never support a Pakistani team that had him in it. I even secretly enjoyed Ian Chappell's over-the-top criticisms of him - his "wicket" celebration is ridiculous, isn't it? And then came the semi-finals. He watched his team-mates drop Tendulkar four times, three of them, three, off his own bowling, and then follow it up by consistently giving up wickets with bizarre shots every time they had the target in sight.

Any other captain - one playing the most important match of his career, to boot - would've been reduced to a wild-eyed, apoplectic blob of jelly. But he said hardly a word - even managing a smile on occasion. At the presentation he was grace personified and, still smiling, went on to offer a warm, congratulatory speech to the Indians. Don't you just hate it when people make you do an about-turn, from complete loathing to something near unconditional love? 

6) The lost cliche opportunity. When Misbah dropped Tendulkar, I'd just about got an idea for a Facebook status on whether, for the second time in twelve years, the World Cup had been dropped at mid-wicket. But then Tendulkar went on to play one of the scratchiest innings I've ever seen him play - rivalling Nasser Hussain's century in that finals at Lord's - and the Pakistanis, for their part, went on to drop him so many more times that I was left in a daze. Which allowed someone else to sneak in with a "World Cup needs super glue after all those drops?" status update. 

7) "Let's do it for Sachin." That turned out well in the end, admittedly, and no one deserves it more than him, but it's still not cricket to hear a whole nation and a good many members of the Indian side say stuff like that. The World Cup, you'd like to think, is the ultimate sporting symbol: of proven superiority over the cream of world cricket; of an achievement that will be remembered for as long as the sport is played. Something rather more than the sporting equivalent of a gold watch, or an honorary Oscar, is my point.

7.11) Euphoric first-morning-post-World-Cup-win gripe. Dhoni, after looking completely out of touch up till the finals, played a truly magnificent captain's knock last night. And we all love him. And we want to know everything about him, from his favourite chutney to where he stands vis-a-vis the pot when taking a leak. But we still don't want to see interviews of his in-laws. (Apologies if the other news channels are all restrained and dignified: I'm at a friend's place and all we get here is Headlines Today.)

8) My nerves. My childhood being spent following a team that never won anything, I'm used to watching cricket with a certain fatalism. I'd slept like a baby after India lost the semi-finals against Sri Lanka in 1996, and the finals against Australia in 2003, because I'd never really believed they were going to win it anyway. But things have changed. I don't know whether the matches were really that good (a neutral will have to tell me that), but the knockouts were so nerve-racking that I felt quite ill during parts of it. Against Australia, I opted for a shower and a long walk during India's chase; and against Pakistan, a 25-minute shower during India's innings and a 45-minute break, when an urge to get all my marks cards from college scanned hit me during Pakistan's chase, were the only things that kept me from collapsing to the floor. 

9) Minnow bashing. They added a lot of colour to the tournament, and I, for one, have been converted. I'm sorry to hear that the next World Cup will have only 10 sides. There is an argument that their presence makes the teams for the knock-out stages predictable. The thing is, no more than 6 sides at any given edition have any real chance of winning it, anyway. Better to have a predictable line-up at the knockouts, than have an unpredictable one that'd guarantee predictable results, if you get my drift.

As to the argument that the league stages have no meaning, well, that's true, but what of it? Philosophers have long argued that life itself has no meaning and shit, so why should the league matches of the Cricket World Cup be any different? Besides, what's so bad about watching the world's best teams assembled together, even if the matches are meaningless in the broader context of the tournament - it's still cricket, right? Yes, they could schedule more than one match per day, and also make sure there isn't too much of a gap between "competitive" match-ups, but that's about it. Keep the minnows! 

9.83) I must bid a mournful farewell to England bashing, too. Never again can I indulge in it, for never before has any side come so close to  impersonating one of my favourite sportsmen - Goran Ivanisevic. They had half their squad return home with a series of complaints that included, of all things, depression. And they went down rather tamely in the quarter-finals. But still, for their exploits in the league stages, for tuning their performances to the exact frequency of their opponents (majestic against India and South Africa, and as pathetic against Ireland, the Netherlands and Bangladesh), for always keeping the spectators' interests at heart with six nail-biting contests on the trot, this team has to be the most exciting in the history of sport. 

9.99) Ponting bashing. I was conscious of much sadness as he walked off the field after the loss to India. I'd never liked him, and was therefore surprised at the depth of my feeling. As things turned out, he didn't retire. So I doubt this will be as permanent as my farewell to minnow-and-England bashing; doubtless, he'll soon do something that'll make me start hating him all over again. 

10) It has often been said that the people behind the scenes get little of the credit for anything. Little does the rest of the world know of my contribution to India's wins. I hit upon the formula quite by accident during the match against Australia. When India's batting, so long as the TV is on mute, we do ok. This was proved beyond doubt when, in the match against Pakistan, I briefly turned the sound on to find out what the kerfuffle between Ajmal and Harbhajan was. I forgot to turn the sound off, only for Bhajji to get stumped off the next ball.

I managed to further refine this during Pakistan's innings by figuring out that when India's fielding, if there's a partnership building, the best way to get things rolling is to go for a walk. And then, so long as I'm within 3 minutes of my flat, or within earshot of a webcast (passing by under someone's window does not count, if I cannot legibly hear the commentary), wickets fall regularly.

There, I too won the World Cup for Sachin, didn't I?