Sunday, February 26, 2006


My essay on the Indian wicketkeeper-batsman Mahendra Singh Dhoni appears today in the Sunday Telegraph. I've reproduced the original unedited piece here.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is 24, hails from a part of India that has produced only a handful of Test cricketers, has a face a sculptor might have fashioned, wears his hair shoulder-length and with golden tints, drinks a litre of milk a day, loves fast bikes, keeps wickets as handily as any gloveman in the country, and smites the cricket ball as thrillingly as any batsman in the world. His three centuries at international level thus far have each touched a level of incandescence that batsmen sometimes achieve only once in a lifetime. These days his arrival at the crease is accompanied by a palpable rise in the temperature.

In twelve months Dhoni has moved from a virtual nonentity to one of the country's most feted cricketers - not easy in the country of Tendulkar, Sehwag, Dravid, Ganguly, and Pathan. Last month Kapil Dev, perhaps seeing in Dhoni some traces of his own limber, lashing batting style, went as far as to call him his "hero". Two weeks ago Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf, whose usual sphere is the work of statesmen, nations, and other such serious things, was drawn into words of praise for Dhoni's hair. The man clearly has a strange and unpredictable effect on people. Among all India's Test wicketkeepers, only Farokh Engineer can have matched him for dash and brio.

Dhoni hails from Ranchi in Bihar, in the east of India, but he now plays Ranji Trophy cricket for Jharkhand, India's newest state - it was carved out of Bihar in November 2000, eleven months after Dhoni made his first-class debut. His story is in fact representative - while in the past a large percentage of Indian players were schooled in cities with flourishing cricket cultures like Bombay, Delhi, Madras, and Bangalore, increasingly they come from small towns and exhibit a healthy skepticism towards traditional orthodoxies. In his early years in domestic cricket Dhoni’s batting style was a little windy, hit-and-miss. But by 2004 he had learned to temper his game. Once he had displaced Dinesh Kaarthick in India's one-day line-up, he did not need much time to rest his case.

Sent up the order for the first time in a one-day game at Visakhapatnam last April against Pakistan, Dhoni made a stirring 148, driving and cutting ferociously on the up and haring down the pitch to hit the spinners over their heads. In the sapping heat no detail was revelatory of his desire to make his presence felt so much as his frenetic running between the wickets. Nor was he found wanting in invention. The Pakistani medium-pacer Abdul Razzaq was left shaking his head in disbelief after Dhoni suddenly went down on one knee and lap-swept him for four.

An even more remarkable performance was to follow five months later in a game against Sri Lanka. India were set a target of 299, and Dhoni came in at the fall of an early wicket. He began scrappily, but every so often a hit would fly clean out of the field, and he quickly reached fifty. He settled down when the field was set back, and kept motoring on. Again, hunting slow bowling down to the pitch of the ball – like Virender Sehwag, Dhoni believes that spin bowlers are to be dismissed from sight - he tore the Sri Lankan bowling to pieces. By the time he finished off the game with his tenth six he had amassed 183, the highest ever score by a batsman in a run-chase.

It is sometimes possible to locate the exact moment when a batsman provides convincing proof of his mettle. Last month Dhoni earned his spurs in Test cricket with a spectacular maiden Test hundred to help save the Faisalabad Test against Pakistan. Coming in to bat with India still over three hundred runs in arrears in the first innings, Dhoni found himself assailed by Shoaib Akhtar in the middle of a furious burst. The seventh ball he faced was a screaming bumper. For a split second it looked as if it had him pinned, then Dhoni's bat appeared as if from round a corner and hooked it off his eyebrows for six. And then he was off, careering to fifty from only 34 balls and his century from 93.

Dhoni's runs in Test cricket this season, coupled with Irfan Pathan's improving prowess with the bat, have massively boosted India's already formidable batting. And in one-day cricket he has been India’s most influential batsman in the last year. He now averages nearly 54 from 35 games at a strike-rate of better than a run a ball, and the most recent ICC one-day rankings for batsmen placed him at No.3 in the world.

There is something pugilistic about Dhoni's air at the crease, about the way he skips up and down between balls and sometimes cuffs his gloves together before taking guard. The extravagant theatricality of his strokemaking extends all the way to his follow-through, in the way he almost sweeps himself off his feet when driving off the back foot or pulling and hooking. Like Adam Gilchrist, to whom he has been instantly compared, Dhoni exudes an intense restlessness with the bat in hand. Both are instinctive shotmakers willing to take chances in order to score quickly and prevent the opposition from closing in around them. Both can turn a game around in half an hour.

There are still some rough edges to Dhoni's cricket. Because he sights the ball so early and goes so hard at it, he is vulnerable to the good-length delivery leaving him off the pitch. And while his keeping has shown steady improvement - he was one of the first in the Indian team to wholeheartedly embrace Greg Chappell's new ideas and work ethic - he still has some way to go before his work to slow bowling reaches the level of the last Indian wicketkeeper to keep outstandingly to spinners, Nayan Mongia. Surprisingly, in a land of chirpy wicketkeepers, he is fairly quiet behind the stumps. In front of them his booming bat does all the talking he needs to.

I also had the good fortune of watching live Dhoni's maiden international hundred against Pakistan at Visakhapatnam last year. Here is my piece from last April about that innings, "A Man Possessed".

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Mumbai's Roads, Always Under Repair

Mumbai's roads are always under repair,
These roads always on the sickbed lie,
Mumbai's citizens are always in de'pair,
Wondering they live in this city why.

Tar, cement, pitch and sand,
Strew the roads and clog them good,
Bricks pass slowly from hand to hand,
Everything takes twice the time it should.

On foul vapours does the citizen choke,
His face is always streaked with grime,
The dust enters and cakes his throat,
He's stuck in traffic all the time.

And up above the open sky,
Empty but for a lonely kite,
Are there no roads in that universe high?
Nothing in the spaces of the starry night?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Samrat Upadhyay's Royal Ghosts

My essay on the Nepali writer Samrat Upadhyay appears in the Los Angeles Times today. It is reproduced here in a slightly modified form.

The Royal Ghosts
Samrat Upadhyay
Mariner, 2006

Most writers, even if they are not especially showy, intend us at least to linger upon a metaphor or a sentence, to notice the brightness of a phrase. But Samrat Upadhyay is among the smoothest and most noiseless of contemporary writers. His is an abstemious art: he sees that his characters, mostly members of the middle and lower classes — businessmen, middle-rung workers, housewives, servants — do not think in any obviously literary manner, and he strives to keep his work in the same key as their lives. He resolutely eschews metaphors, makes sparing use of colons and semicolons, and almost never resorts to that word so favored by short-story writers: "suddenly." His work is so subtle that it does not even seem especially subtle.

Although he has resided in America for nearly two decades, Upadhyay has never lost touch with his native Nepal, a country that has produced very little English-language fiction. Indeed, the capital, Katmandu, is the locale for all of his work. His debut collection of stories, Arresting God in Kathmandu, showed people negotiating a thicket of choices in a close-knit, tradition-bound society in which the needs and preferences of families are as important as those of individuals and various codes of caste and class restrict the free intermixing of people. (For example, even adults cannot marry without parental approval and, in fact, often have their life partners chosen for them by their parents.)

In a magazine interview, Upadhyay has described life as "a constant negotiation between limits and freedom from those limits, regardless of culture." The country of his birth has given him an especially rich mine of material in which the tension between individual freedom and societal constraints is evenly weighted and therefore narratively compelling. It is to his credit that in his 2001 stories and the 2003 novel The Guru of Love, he writes about Nepali society in English, for a primarily Western readership, without ever letting the whiff of exoticism invade his work.

Upadhyay returns in his new collection of stories, The Royal Ghosts, to themes familiar from Arresting God, the most pervasive of which is the struggle of men and women to understand each other, to work their way across the hollows and uncertainties that lie between them and find a way of living together. He often writes from the point of view of an interested third party, not just one or the other protagonist. (As if to dramatize how intricately people's lives are linked with others, his stories always attend closely to the lives of at least four or five characters and how they feel about one another. This gives his stories a kind of novelistic roominess.)

In "Father, Daughter," Shivaram is alarmed by the behavior of his daughter. She has left her husband — a match Shivaram arranged — for no other reason than that she cannot love him and has resumed an earlier liaison with the son of a low-caste cobbler. Conscious of the disapproving murmurs all around him, Shivaram declines to participate in her second marriage, so that "people would say less, say that he'd at least attempted to protect his dignity." His speculative knowledge of his daughter's motives and feelings, and his mixture of perplexity, outrage, tenderness and frailty, gives the story an unusual charge.

In "A Servant in the City," a teenage village boy, Jeevan, is a servant to a single woman and witnesses her affair with her former employer, which has made her a pariah. Gradually she confides in Jeevan, who supports her through her low spells. Over time, Jeevan finds that he has become "strangely possessive of her, as if he were the only one who truly knew her." He suspects that her lover will never keep his promise to leave his wife and marry her, and one day Jeevan blurts out these thoughts, turning from a spectator into an agent. Reprimanded by his mistress for his insolence, he thinks about returning to the village, "to remind himself where he came from."

A new pressure is also at work on Upadhyay's characters: politics and recent events in Nepal. The young democracy overseen by a monarchy has endured a turbulent five years. In 2001, the crown prince fatally shot several members of the royal family, including his father, King Birendra, in a drunken fit before turning his gun upon himself. Since then the country has been riven by a bloody Maoist uprising that has taken thousands of lives. The Royal Ghosts shows how the tension among the monarchy, democrats and communists has eroded the country's social fabric, demolishing the old stability against which the characters of Arresting God in Kathmandu played out their lives. This darkness and violence lie at the edges of several stories in the new collection and are addressed explicitly in a few of them.

In "The Weight of a Gun," the elderly Janaki finds a gun hidden under the mattress of her schizophrenic son, Bhola, who has often boasted that he is a Maoist. She lifts it gingerly, her head buzzing with questions. "Holding it carefully, she peeked out of the window. People were going about their business." Everything is as normal, but this one gesture of Janaki's is revelatory; she has stepped over the threshold and has been sucked into the morass.

Even when he engages most closely with politics, Upadhyay always illuminates the private realm, as in the book's splendid title story. On the morning that word of the killings in the royal family sends shockwaves across Nepal, Ganga, a taxi driver mistrustful of the monarchy and generally of all those in power, drives around Katmandu, observing various scenes. He pays a visit to his younger brother Dharma, who works in a photocopy shop.When Ganga enters the shop, it is dark. He sees his brother sprawled naked on a bed with another man. Learning that Dharma is homosexual hits Ganga much harder than the death of the monarch.

Distraught, he beats up his brother, then wanders from place to place. (Upadhyay's characters are great wanderers — when they feel tense about something, they go for a walk.) Late that night, a very drunk Ganga seeks out an acquaintance, who wonders if there was some conspiracy behind the killings. Ganga's response meshes the day's two big events. "Maybe, maybe," he slurs, interpreting history through family. "How can we know what goes on behind closed doors? We cannot even know with our own relatives."

Monday, February 13, 2006

Jeet Thayil's reading

The poet Jeet Thayil has some worthy observations about literature and some good picks in recent books by new Indian writers on the books page of the Times of India yesterday. I concur with Thayil's view that a lot of new Indian writers are "producing unexpected work in terms of genre and language" - I've read three very good first novels by Indian writers in the last two months alone (I've written about two here and here, and the third is my friend Sonia Faleiro's The Girl). And Thayil has some very good things to say too about Henry James and Naipaul. I quote the whole piece here:
I liked Rupa Bajwa's The Sari Shop, Samit Basu's The Manticore's Secret, Pankaj Mishra's An End to Suffering: The Buddha In The World, Sarnath Banerjee's Corridor, Rana Dasgupta's Tokyo Cancelled, Siddhartha Deb's Surface.

It's good to know there are young Indians producing unexpected work in terms of genre and language. And it's good to know Indian publishers are finally willing to take a risk and take on fresh material. India has more young people than ever before and they deserve a new kind of writing.

I think he's the master of the semi colon and the em dash. Look at the first paragraph of A Way In The World for an example of authoritative punctuation. I go to Dante for the difficulty, to remind myself that there's no need, ever, to explain.

For pleasure, I read cookbooks and Salim Ali's The Book Of Indian Birds, which has some delightful passages.

For instance this description of the Malabar Whistling Thrush: "In breeding season, male has a rich and remarkably human whistling song, rambling aimlessly up and down the scale, whence the bird gets its popular name of 'Idle Schoolboy'."

My favourite characters from literature are Moby Dick, Babar, Aeon Flux, Billy the Kid, Agastya Sen, Job, Nancy Drew, Nick Charles, Saleem Sinai, the cities of Bombay and New York.

As for a favourite line, at the moment probably this line from an Edward Thomas poem: 'Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon.'

Here are some poems by Thayil - they're not entirely to my taste, but you can make up your own mind about them. He can also be found in conversation with the writer Eunice D'Souza here. And here's another piece by him on a subject on which any alert Indian moviegoer could come up with his or her own essay: "Borrowed by Bollywood". I don't possess a copy of A Way In The World, but if some reader who does could quote the first paragraph in a comment, we could all have a look at that.

And here's another very good piece by another Indian poet, Keki Daruwala: "On Writing in English: an Indian poet’s perspective". Daruwala says very perceptively, about the endeavour to find a poetic language apposite to his circumstances: "In university one had been brought up on a diet of Shelley and Keats. When you left the campus you faced harsh reality around you -- drought, poverty and communal riots. One needed a harsh language, words with a saw-edge, words which rasped and got into you like the shards of a broken bottle. Slowly, almost unconsciously the poems developed a vocabulary and a soundscape of their own." A good interview with Daruwala in the Hindu can be found here.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Comments enabled

Ok, in response to a growing chorus of voices (and also a lot of mail on my previous post on Rang De Basanti), I'm enabling moderated comments on the Middle Stage.

I'm not online for very long everyday, so my replies will sometimes be less regular than normal - and nonexistent when I'm travelling - but I'm looking forward to some dialogue.