Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Writer's Woes - 6: Information V/S Imagination

A Writer's Woes - 6: Information V/S Imagination

I stopped writing six months ago. Or writing stopped from me six months ago. The difference couldn't be more profound....and the cycle couldn't be more vicious. When I stopped writing initially, it was due to schedule and stress. When writing stopped from was due to lack of imagination. Lack of imagination triggered a loss of motivation. Then followed the inevitable sense of fear that I could not progress beyond a couple of paragraphs even if I tried to write. The final straw was that the world might not approve of what I write - if my writing wasn't as interesting or as smooth as it was in better times.

The biggest strength for a writer in my opinion is his ability to pause. The ability to pause and stand still when the world around him spins madly and people go about trying to conquer it. When he pauses, a writer finds this unique frame of reference through which he evaluates the world with a completely different yardstick - one that is more emotional and creative and less logical and rational. And the observation brings forth that many questions - questions that trigger imagination. Questions to which all of us could have our own answers and yet modestly concede each other some ground for harmony.

Questions. I can almost feel questions facing an existential crisis in this information age- Information which is just information - information that need not and that will never be knowledge. The moment I think of a person and try to imagine what he is upto....there goes a post of his on social media...clearly showing who he is with and what he is doing; The moment a national event happens, there are opinions that bombard us from all sides - and most of us have little else but to align ourselves with one set of people. And someone else has already formed an opinion for us to embrace. 

The impulse for information - I somehow found it overpowering the sense of imagination. So much so, that one of the first things that I did when I found my writing deserted me was to Google "Why have I stopped writing?" and go through the results rather than introspect. A couple of years earlier, I would take a break and reflect - and curiously my writing would resurface from the depths of whatever was causing the block at that point in time.

Curiosity. An other benefactor of beloved imagination. Till recently, we planned trips to destinations with only the name of the place in mind. What was to be expected at the place remained a mystery. An uncertainty. Someone said the sunset on the Arabian Sea is beautiful. I spent weeks before our trip trying to visualise and imagine the sunset and how the journey could actually play out. Today at the click of a button, I have a clear idea of how exactly the sunset would actually play out...minute by minute if necessary.

Curiosity and uncertainty die an instant death at the hands of instant gratification. An acquaintance from the last generation to this day complains jovially that he never had a chance to look at his future wife till the day of marriage. And that he was confined to imagining her face when his parents described her. He still shows the letters he wrote for her while thinking of her (he never did post them though, out of fear!). Today, his daughter makes sure she looks up her prospective groom on all kinds of social media even before talking to him in person. The generation does it. We want to be "well-informed". And there is so much information available, that imagination hardly has a role to play.

Information is critical to survival today. To leave an ounce of it without consuming, means falling behind in the rat race. However, information breeds familiarity. And therein for me lies its conflict with imagination. We are so well informed, there is hardly anything left to imagine. And this familiarity defines. It defines what is black and what is the point of non-negotiation. If I didn't know what black is...for me black could also be a tinge of grey. This would probably open a new creative field for me which stretches beyond the conventional black. That would be poetic liberty. Today, however, with a clear definition of black and white, right and wrong, there is a sense of stupidity and suffocation as I try to imagine something out of its place. Even as I try to cajole my mind to imagine, it tries to follow a logical trajectory, guided by experience and information.

 And as I try to "Google" a way to end this piece meaningfully (hopefully marking the end of an other "thought drought"), just can't help foresee a new jargon, called "Informed Imagination"!

                                                                                             - 12th November 2015

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Lost Cricketer

                                   The Lost Cricketer

Cricket Ajja died of a massive cardiac arrest. When we went to his home to see him one last time, it was what we had expected. There was a Kookaburra in his right hand, his first two fingers still firmly on the seam. His old wife was saying he was describing the 1999 World Cup semi-finals between Australia and South Africa, when he suffered the cardiac arrest. A fitting end it was........

None of us knew what Cricket Ajja's real name was. May be his wife knew it, but true to her husband's wishes, she never revealed it. Everybody called him Cricket Ajja. He was grandpa to all of us cricket hungry folk in the neighbourhood.  He had always been there for us.

Cricket Ajja always talked with great pride about the day he was born. Even as the worried midwife struggled to get him out of his mother's womb, it seems Cricket Ajja's father was busy scoring a century (against whom was a detail he conveniently forgot, every time). His father returned, being awarded man-of-the-match and placed his bat in Cricket Ajja's hands. And Cricket Ajja's fingers had instantly wrapped around the bat. "My son will be a cricketer" decided a proud father and the journey had begun!

It was rigorous regimen for Cricket Ajja from then on. His first plaything was a plastic cricket bat. His father was his first coach. His mother had been strictly instructed to talk only of cricket at home. Education obviously took backseat. His schooling had ended in a funny way. Cricket Ajja went to the market to buy coconuts for chutney. The shopkeeper offered two for 5 annas. In a rare moment of inspiration, Cricket Ajja had bargained for three coconuts for 10 annas. His father realised education was not for Cricket Ajja.
"Maths was never my strong point. But my bargain that day was any day better than the calculations of those two dim witted blokes....Duckworth and Lewis! 22 runs from 1 ball! I started working on a new system of calculations that very day!" We still remembered those days when he tried to learn linear equations from us when we were school going kids. 

What enthralled us most was the story of his marriage. "I won my beautiful" he used to say emphatically. Cricket Ajja first saw his wife when we he went to play against Ramanagara Taluk. Smitten, he had asked her father. Her father, an ardent fan of the game himself, organised a cricket match between the best team in his Taluk and Cricket Ajja's eleven. If Cricket Ajja won, "I'll marry her off to you in style" her father had declared. The local team had batted first. In a massive run chase and a dream finish, Cricket Ajja finished the game with a boundary off the last ball. 
" There were multiple images running in my mind at the time. My beautiful, her father, my pride, my team's pride. Fine leg was in and long-on out. Third man was out and mid-off in the circle. I knew the bowler would try to york me, without giving me room. I shuffled a bit to confuse him. I don't know if he got confused though. In a burst of inspiration, I danced down the track and hoisted him over mid-off! What happened later is a blur! All I remember is my beautiful...smiling at me from the crowd.
 "She is my dearest trophy" he would declare at the end each time he narrated the story.

With so much passion and talent, we always wondered why he didn't make the national side. Cricket Ajja's eyes used to get dreamy every time that question was put to him. We would never forget the way he sighed in despair.
 " Fate. I was to board the train to Delhi in a couple of hours when my father suffered a stroke. I had six brothers and a couple of sisters by then.(My father always wanted his own cricket team, the rascal!). He said ' I don't have much time. Life is like cricket my son. And you need to shepherd this team against its formidable attack' (Even on his deathbed, he could speak metaphors!).
I knew nothing else to earn a living, but could not desert my siblings. There ended my longing for international cricket. I had to buckle down and weather the storm that was thrown at us once my father died. I was like a top order batsman shepherding tail-enders. Every time I ducked a bouncer, life had one more up its sleeve. It took a couple of decades for the track to ease. And by that time, it was retirement time".

Through all this hardship, Cricket Ajja's passion for the game never withered one bit. He was amongst the volunteers for the first test match at the Chinaswamy stadium in 1974. During weekends, he umpired many local matches and even gully cricket at that time for a rupee or two. Though his reflexes slowed down and his cricketing ability declined with age, his cricketing brain was sharp as ever. Along with this was his appetite for statistics and a photographic memory. 

Once TV became commonplace in the 90s, Cricket Ajja became famous. He had this special gift of watching the game on TV and remembering every bit of it - from the scores to the field placements to the commentary. For those who missed the match on TV due to office or other errands, Cricket Ajja would narrate every bit of it - along with pieces of commentary on the way.
We would sit mesmerised as he described the India-Pakistan World Cup quarterfinal in Bangalore. Cricket Ajja would tell anyone who believed him that he had predicted Aamir Sohail's dismissal the next ball, after he chided Venkatesh Prasad. Even 10 years after that famous win, we would sit around Cricket Ajja as he narrated the epic battle, as though Sanjaya was narrating the Kurukshetra to Dhritrashtra. "Waqar Younis breathed fire that day...but Sidhu was relentless. Even Gods were watching the game from the heavens..India could never lose" he would add his own touch of romance to the story.

South Africa seemed to be his favorite side after India. For whatever reason. May be he felt eternal sympathy for them after their exit in the 1992 World Cup. Or he was taken in completely by their fielding. Cricket Ajja was one of those rare Indian cricketers who seemed to place fielding above batting and bowling. " Save 20 runs on the field. Take your catches. They are more valuable than the centuries you score. Learn from Jonty!" he would urge us after every game we lost to Chamarajpet X1. His first heart attack, incidentally, was after South Africa exited from the 1999 World Cup, having tied with Australia in the Semis. He vowed he would never forgive Gibbs for the drop catch in the Super Sixes. A few years later, he more than forgave him after Gibbs scored 175 to help South Africa chase down Australia's 434. 

His life took a different turn when someone suggested he could make use of his abilities as an analyst. That he could render services to some local channel or write a column for some newspaper. Cricket Ajja was seen those days with Wren and Martin - looking to polish and hone his English skills. A few of us asked him why he didn't try a Kannada newspaper. " I can't describe cricket in Kannada. The intricacies of field placing, the subtlety of won't do justice" he said. A couple of his articles made the Times of India, but eventually he couldn't cope and gave up the effort. 

Instead, he turned to description and narration full time. He would describe the greatest contests in cricket to anyone who asked, but for a fee. The charge would differ for one day games and tests. It would depend on if you wanted him to describe the match in one hour or five hours. If the game was featuring India, obviously he would charge a premium. But if the game was close to his heart, you could get it for a discount. All he would ask was a coffee before the start of narration, a juice at the end of the first innings and a meal at the end of the match. To be honest, we enjoyed living games through Cricket Ajja's description than the highlights on TV. 

Cricket Ajja plodded on till 2007. That was the year serious concerns about his health surfaced. He apparently went into a depression when India exited first round from the World Cup. He was an ardent Rahul Dravid fan and the sight of Dravid weeping had a lasting impact on Cricket Ajja. After he recovered, he spent a lot of days scouting around Dravid's Bengaluru home for a glimpse of him. Cricket Ajja's ability to describe was not at its peak anymore after that.

And as though rubbing salt to the wound, IPL started off in 2008. Cricket Ajja vehemently opposed the format, saying it would hurt the technique and temperament of budding cricketers. He even forbid our team from watching IPL. But it did not work. Slowly, people started alienating him and drifted towards the entertainment provided by IPL. People who used to flock to him, asking him to describe one-day matches from the early 90s, asked him to describe IPL games - simply because of the excitement and the adrenaline in those games. But Cricket Ajja couldn't connect with IPL at all. It was a fest of boundaries,stars, cheergirls and crackers - there was no room for cricket. He even started hating Navjot Sidhu.

The last time any of us saw Cricket Ajja cheerful was when India won the World Cup in 2011. He came to each of our homes, offering us home made Mysore Pak. He mostly remained confined to his home, trying to write a book titled "In Cricket Ajja's Eyes..." Once in a while, he would call one of us to his home to check the manuscript and edit it for spelling and grammar.


" The Doctor had advised against excitement and shock, after his last attack in 2012. I tried switching off the TV in the last 10 overs. But he wouldn't listen" mourned his wife. 
Cricket Ajja had apparently suffered the heart attack after the semi-finals between New Zealand and South Africa in the recent World Cup. The excitement indeed was too much, and what with South Africa losing, the attack seemed quite imminent and inevitable.  Cricket Ajja died a couple of days later. 

Cricket Ajja was buried with the Kookaburra in his right hand and his favorite cricket bat - with which he had won the game to win over his wife. He had a strange last wish.

He wanted a particular stone in our neighbourhood wall to be used as wicket, for all budding cricketers in the area. And on that stone he wanted his epitaph. 

                                      " A Man who Lived for the Game. A Man who Lived the Game. 

                                                                    Cricket Ajja plays on."

We have resolved to make sure any kid who takes up cricket seriously, first plays on that track, with Cricket Ajja's stone as wicket. And to ensure Cricket Ajja's blessings, we make sure he gets out bowled atleast once!

                                                                                               - 10th April 2015

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Bringer of Death

                                                   The Bringer of Death

People summoned Shivlingu when the doctors failed to predict what could happen. They called him 
"The Bringer of Death". His prediction was more of a verdict than even the doctor's opinion. If Shivlingu said "The patient will live", the patient would recover from any sickness and survive any disease.  

Shivlingu was a carpenter. A man of simplicity. When he was young, he travelled a lot with a Saint whom he called his Guru. The Guru was a man of science and knowledge while his followers believed he was a person with supernatural abilities. He could detect quite a few of the diseases - from the common flu to the more dangerous small pox and would treat the victims. Based on the patient's response to treatment, the Guru would predict if the patient would live or die in due course of time. While Shivlingu did not pick up the Science behind his Guru's methods of treatment, he definitely grapsed his prowess of prediction.

His abilities were well-known in the surrounding villages and towns. People and sometimes even local doctors just admitted to his superior and supposedly supernatural abilities. When Shivlingu walked a street with his notebook, the whole street held its breath. It meant Shivlingu was on duty. People prayed it was not someone on their street who had summoned him. 

Shivlingu would enter the house of the patient; ask for a glass of water. He then meditated for five whole minutes before setting his eyes on the patient. These five minutes were those of excruciating anxiety for the patient's family and the patient himself, if he was conscious. Most patients lost their nerve when they came to know Shivlingu was being summoned. Shivlingu would smile at the patient and check his pulse and the temperature of his body. Like any seasoned doctor, he would ask for the various symptoms. But somehow, he never inquired about medicines or treatment. After listening to them, he would summon one of  the family members outside and make his pronouncement.

People always made an observation. If Shivlingu opened his notebook and made some notes before talking to the family member, the patient would always die. If Shivlingu didn't open his notebook, the patient would live. Shivlingu knew people had made this observation, but he never talked about it. Nor changed his habit.  Sometimes, it was just enough that Shivlingu opened his notebook and made notes, for the entire household to burst out in grief. Nobody knew what was in the notebook though...and people never dared asking him.  

Manjanna was a good friend of Shivlingu. At seventy years, he had already suffered a heart-attack twice. The doctors couldn't predict how long he had before the next one and if he would survive that. They had given instructions to just summon them, if there was a need.
"I have more confidence in your abilities Shivlingu, than those doctors'" Manjanna said. Shivlingu got worried.
"I hope I'd never have to see the day when I'm called to predict your death...." he said, in a sombre mood.
" We have to be practical. You never know. I need your help" Manjanna said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
"My son Vishnu has completed one year of his degree in America. He is coming here next month. If something happens to me while he's must never predict my death. Can you promise me that?"
"I can never do that. But why do you ask of such a thing? He is your son....he has a right to know!"
"He'll never go back...if he comes to know I'm dying. He loves his family too much....but that degree was his dream, his ambition. I don't want him to discontinue it for my sake or his mother's and siblings' sake."
Shivlingu was in a state of conflict. He could never make such a promise. But Manjanna had his reasons. He remained silent.


Vishnu came back home for a month long holiday. His family was happier than ever and three weeks passed without incident. Shivlingu prayed the other week would pass without anything happening. But somehow, Manjanna must have seen it coming. Four days before Vishnu left, Manjanna collapsed while taking bath. He regained consciousness a couple of hours later. The family in the meanwhile, had already summoned Shivlingu.

Shivlingu had a bad feeling, even as he was informed that he had been summoned. He wished he could escape, citing he was not well. But he had never done it in his life. He made his way to Manjanna's house.

The family was huddled in front of Manjanna's bed. Manjanna was conscious, but weak. Shivlingu asked for a glass of water. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead, even as he drank the water. He tried to meditate, but could not concentrate. He kept his eyes shut pretending to meditate, as was his custom. He prayed for the whole of five minutes, hoping he would have to make a pronouncement saying Manjanna would live. 

He then proceeded to do the inevitable..examine Manjanna. One look at his eyes, Shivlingu knew Manjanna was not going to live. His face fell. He examined his pulse, hoping there was something positive about it. But it was weak. His eyes did not have the lustre..or the strength to indicate Manjanna had much time. Shivlingu knew his time was up. And probably Manjanna knew it too. When Shivlingu got up to leave, he made eye-contact with Manjanna. Those eyes had just one message for him.

Shivlingu waited for Vishnu to come out of the house with a heavy heart. Vishnu knew the drill too. He waited for Shivlingu to speak or open his diary. Shivlingu had never been in such a situation before. Nobody had asked him to give a wrong pronouncement before. He had never imagined being in such a position. And he never wanted to be in one. Yet, there he was now. When he looked at Vishnu, he felt he could see those dreams in Vishnu's eyes..those dreams Manjanna had talked about so proudly. But then, if he made a wrong pronouncement,he would be doing a disservice to those who trusted him, to his Guru from whom he had learnt everything. Shivlingu had to arrive at a decision. He did.

He opened his notebook and scribbled a couple of lines. Vishnu was terrified. Shivlingu then forced a smile and said "Don't worry Vishnu. Manjanna is going to be fine. He'll get better every day. You better complete your degree. He dreams of you do...". Vishnu was confused. But then the pronouncement, he believed, was more important than his habit of  scribbling in the notebook. He went back inside the house, happy. Shivlingu returned home and prayed the whole night, hoping against hope, that Manjanna would survive and his pronouncement would actually come true. 

Manjanna survived. Infact, got better. Vishnu came to Shivlingu the next day and offered sweets. When Shivlingu visited Manjanna the next day, he was surprised to see him sitting on his bed. He was definitely better. But Shivlingu's instincts said his time was up. He just hoped Manjanna knew what was coming.

Vishnu left for America three days later. "Shivlingu, I'm going back peacefully. Your pronouncement is verdict. I'm sure Appa will get better. " were his parting words.

Manjanna died that night. His last wish apparently was that his death must not be communicated to his son at any cost. He had to find out only once he came back with his degree. 

The village was shocked. Nobody had yet heard of Shivlingu's pronouncements failing. Even as Manjanna's family soaked in grief, people rushed to Shivlingu's home. 

Shivlingu was found hanging from the ceiling. His notebook lay open in front of his Guru's picture.

"Manjanna will die. But I don't want to kill his dreams too.....
Forgive me."
                                                                                                    -19th March 2015

Sunday, March 15, 2015

.....and he went on Acting!

                                 .....and he went on Acting!

They said he acted best when he was drunk. That Sankrappa executed the most difficult roles flawlessly when he was a bottle or two down. Most people refuted the theory vehemently till the time they saw him on stage. And went back corrected. Whether it was Krishna from the Mahabharatha or Hanumantha from the Ramayana, there was no one better on stage when Sankrappa started acting.

I had last seen Sankrappa act when I went to our village 15 years ago. It was a phenomenon. I tried to remember his acting whenever I performed on stage. So it was quite a surprise when I saw him on our road. He was being followed by a hoard of street kids, who were mocking and throwing stones at him. I went and stood in front of him with the intention of talking to him. But then, he never realised I was speaking to him. He went on delivering dialogue after dialogue in the same elegance and grace I had seen him 15 years ago. It took me a while to realise he was mad. And some more time to shoo away those kids around him. But I was too taken aback to stop him.I watched him, swinging his arms wildly as he delivered his lines...and disappeared around the bend.
A week later, I was on my way to Koppa, my ancestral village, trying to talk to his kin. I found his home. I was surprised to see his photograph with a floral garland around it - meaning he was dead. 
"Is Sankrappa dead?" I asked his wife.
" We don't know...but he hasn't come back for three years. Must have died in an accident or a drunken brawl. We atleast got some money from the government citing he is dead" she replied. I figured she didn't care enough.

I went to meet Veeranna, the owner of the drama company Sankrappa acted in. His office was not the glamorous one it used to be. The plaster was coming off the walls. The roof did not seem as strong. He was not someone who would neglect his office, a place he worshipped. I wanted to find out the reason.

"Nobody watches plays anymore....." Veeranna started off. "Those used to be the days..when the entire village used to watch us perform for a whole night. Hundreds from neighbouring villages used to turn up to see Veeranna Company perform. But once these films started being screened, our fortunes took a dip. Attendance to shows dropped. The best actors went to Bangalore for opportunities in films and more money. The rest of them who were not talented, could not pull crowds. Revenues came down. Now we perform during festivals. Otherwise, we work in the fields as labourers."

I listened with intent. Veeranna's head was bent in disappointment. It saddened me to see a talented artist, well respected, in the position he was in. I wondered if I must ask about Sankrappa at all, but decided to give a go.

"What happened to Sankrappa?" I asked tentatively. 
"It is anybody's guess..."Veeranna said " He was the most talented. Yet he did not leave the Company for films. He never wanted any of that...the money or the lifestyle. He felt it was too fake. But how can one good actor sustain a Company
We were performing the Mahabharatha in the next village. Day after day attendance dropped. In one of those shows, there were hardly 20 people. I don't know what triggered it. But Sankrappa started acting Hanumantha when he was Krishna. We could not control him. His acting was spellbinding that day, even when he was doing the wrong act. Then he played the Mohini for ten minutes. We stopped acting and watched him perform, without a care - because we had never seen anything like it yet. Then he played Narasimha.....after killing Hiranyaksha...he laughed and laughed for what seemed like eternity...and ran out of the stage.
We could not find Sankrappa again. The news of our best actor disappearing spread across the region. And our revenues fell further. His wife came one day and told us he was dead. We accepted it."


I returned to Bangalore. I was restless. I wanted to find out where Sankrappa was. May be there was something I could do for him. Somehow, every night it was his act that appeared in front of my eyes before I slept. I prayed I'd come across him...just once more.

Such an opportunity arose a couple of months later. I spotted him surrounded by street kids again in a busy street of Bangalore. I could shoo the kids off but it took a lot of effort to rein Sankrappa in. I don't know what made me do it. But somehow I felt I had to do it. He was nothing to me. I had just seen him act once. And heard a lot of stories about him. But somewhere I felt an obligation to save him...or make an effort atleast. 

It was a whole hour before the van stopped in front of us. The wardens from the Hospital of Neurosciences had a tough time in making him get into the van. The last I saw of him was him smiling like Lord Krishna. It remained etched in my memory for quite some time to come.


It took 3 years before Sankrappa was discharged. Ofcourse he was never completely normal again. He knew who he was. He remembered he was from Koppa and that he was an actor.I subtly told him what had happened at his home and after that he didn't want to go back home. One could understand him. But I could view the whole episode from his wife's point of view too. I didn't force him.  

It was three weeks before Sankrappa disappeared from my home. I somehow had sensed this. 


Sankrappa is now a street actor. It seems weird, yes. He starts acting on the streets. People gather around him in circles. At the end of a role, they throw a rupee or two on his shirt, spread out wide in front of him. When I watched him last, he had formed a skit of his own...where Hanumantha, Krishna, Mohini and Narasimha all meet. The script seemed perfectly connected. The work of a genius. Yet when I went to talk to him...the tinge of madness was still there. He did not seem to recognise me.

He was an excellent actor....may be in real life too...

                                                                                                  - 15th March 2015