A World Cup without joy

As this year's World Cup rattled on, I began reading Mike Marqusee's War Minus the Shooting, his classic travelogue of the 1996 tournament. I should add that the book isn’t a travelogue in the classic sense. Marqusee was a genuine intellectual, a man of the world before globalisation, and saw the game through a surprising array of lenses. Capitalism, globalisation, advertising, broadcasting, racism, all rear their head in his analysis of the tamasha. It is a genuinely wonderful book, a portrait of a changing game and the people that organised and played it.

But what also kept me running through the pages was an undercurrent of joy. Marqusee was enjoying every dusty, cacophonous moment of the World Cup. He tempered that joy with the fear of capitalism completely taking over cricket, a running theme of the book. But even he could not have anticipated how accurately he was seeing into the crystal ball of the game.

1996 was a remarkable World Cup, a subcontinental soap opera. There were boycotts, bombs, mismanagement, and also a remarkable brown bonhomie between the organisers India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The cricket was top drawer. Kenya staged upsets, India beat Pakistan, England were woeful, and the Australians challenged everybody. But Sri Lanka, disturbed by war and hungry for greatness, won a famous victory, brought about by their greatest generation of cricketers. Ranatunga, de Silva, Kaluwitharana, Jayasuriya, Murali, Gurusinha, Vaas, a Ceylon XI for the ages.

As I read, I was struck by nostalgia. Not so much for the cricket or for that time, but for a time when a home World Cup captured everyone’s imagination.

Because this time, it didn’t.

And that’s a shame. The game, and its biggest stage, is the last thing India experiences as a collective whole, it’s the last national experience we have. Once upon a time, we had more. We had Doordarshan’s Ramayan and we had DD Metro’s Alif Laila. We had Antakshari, we had Surabhi. Later, we had movies like JP Dutta’s Border, and sitcoms like Hum Paanch. Now we don’t. Audiences have fragmented, the world has changed. Today, India only has cricket.

Which is why this World Cup was such a letdown. It was a chance to take the game, and our nation’s obsession with it, to a crescendo, make it a celebration. What it actually became was something different.

The framing of it as a 10 team round-robin event was egregious. It was meant to keep India in the fray as long as possible (TV revenues would drop otherwise) and so we couldn’t have more associate nations taking part. This meant that the joy of seeing associates battle hard on the biggest stage, and send across a few surprises, was missing. Remember Dwayne Leverock’s famous catch in the 2007 edition? Or Kenya’s irresistible romp to the semis in 2003?

One can half-heartedly argue that the Netherlands and Afghanistan were here, and won games. But Afghanistan is far from a minnow, and the Dutch are solid cricketers bred on the county system. 

Tickets for games weren’t opened until a month before the tournament began. This effectively shut out travelling fans. World Cup fixtures are usually announced a full year before the matches, for fans to make plans. So in a World Cup that already did not have many international teams, now there were no international fans either. A huge part of a global tournament are the travelling fan groups, journalists, media contingents. All of them add to the joy, the feeling of an occasion. But we had none of that. Imagine the amount of foreign currency and local business they would have brought in, the interactions with locals that would have meant. Except the Indian board couldn't be bothered.

But were Indian fans treated well? No. Tickets were just unavailable, or hard to access. One can only assume they were being given away to sponsors and celebrities. The BCCI, the richest board in the world, would not accept digital tickets. You had to buy online, then go somewhere else to collect them. Later when whole stands showed up empty, tickets were put back on sale. During the India-Australia tie in Chennai, tickets were suddenly available online during the game. Moreover, ignoring the traditional cricket centres for garish venues like Ahmedabad meant lukewarm crowds for neutral games. These matches, if held in Chennai or Bangalore, would have been full. The carelessness and apathy was staggering.

What really irked me was also the complete absence of a build-up. There was virtually no marketing. The theme song was insipid, half-hearted, and arrived too late. The mascots were ugly. No one cared. There were no teasers, no hoardings even in the cities the games were being played in. It's as if the board decided that they were just going to do the bare minimum.

I can go on and on about the things that went wrong. But that’s not the point. The point is that we’ve been robbed. We’ve been robbed of a real World Cup, of the joy that comes with the anticipation, intermingling, and celebration of a true global tournament, one with fans, rivalries, bonhomie, and chatter. Instead, what we got was an antiseptic, 3D-printed event, like steaks at a Salt Bae restaurant, meant to be photographed with, but not actually enjoyed.

I’m part of a cricket group in Bangalore that started on Twitter. We play on weekends and talk cricket all week. It is a technology-career crowd, consisting mostly of older fellows like me attempting to relive our playing days, and some out-of-college whippersnappers. Sometimes we are good, but mostly, as you'd expect, we are bad. But every once in a while, a bat makes a hearty connection, and a lofted straight drive is played to perfection. Or a leg-cutter does what it is supposed to, or a brilliant catch is taken, and we all jump up, whooping in joy. This is why we love cricket, for this sudden magic, for this anticipation that the impossible can happen, and of course for the camaraderie and joy of a good game.

In the way that this World Cup was planned, executed, and played, it is this amateur, exuberant, organic joy that was taken from us. This tournament took from us the joy off seeing an Indian team performing at the peak of its powers, because it was just us watching it, celebrating it. It reduced a global event into a parochial sham. In taking the game away from the ordinary, cricket-loving fan into the hands of the corporate and entertainment elite, the organisers produced a boring, joyless event. And to me, that stung more than the loss in the final.

Stories from an older town

A couple of months ago I was at home in Pondicherry, and my mother asked my father and me to go get fish for lunch. 

So I rolled out my needlessly powerful motorcycle and off we went to the old harbour near the stadium. There’s a narrow road that curves down from the main road to the very badly maintained harbour, and as always, it was bustling with people, noise, and the thunk of knives on wood. There were women on both sides of the road, squatting on makeshift stools or on their haunches, their cutting boards in front of them. On these broad boards were the treasures of the Bay of Bengal: small prawns and huge prawns, squids, small sharks, a red coloured fish with funny gills whose name I don’t know. There were sting rays too, and crabs of different shapes and sizes: Both of these can only be prepared with copious amounts of pepper and red chillies. When you eat them, your mouth burns, but you can’t stop. You just eat and eat and then run for Arun ice cream.

The market that day was a cacophony of women’s voices, haggling, nagging, fighting, teasing, and spitting. It used to be much larger and more crowded but my little town is modernising too, and now there are air conditioned places to get your meat and fish. But this little remnant of an older town shouts on, and natives like my grandfather and father will buy their fish from no place else.

My grandfather actually never bought his fish here, at this market. He was a busy man, but when he came to buy fish, he came in the early morning and went directly to the harbour. He held one of pre-liberalisation India’s great ranks: a gazetted officer, and he could hop directly to the harbour, choosing the best fish right off the boats. I have been on these jaunts with him, and the smell of the sea and fish would hit me as he drove his old Vespa right up to the jetties. It is a smell I know very well. It is the smell of my grandmother’s furiously hot crab curry, which I would spill on my white school shirt as I gobbled it down at lunch, the red stain taking days of washing to come off.

As I drove us back home, my father told me a story.

He showed me a road next to the harbour, just behind the Volontoriat, a social service organisation set up in 1962 by a young Belgian woman named Madeleine Herman de Blic. The Volontoriat (tra: roughly, the Volunteers) is transliterated directly to Tamil by us locals. So it is, even now, written and read in Tamil with the French pronunciation, not English. The organisation uses the same old building it has been in for decades, and Madeleine Herman de Blic, now an Indian citizen, was in 2016 conferred the nation’s highest civilian honour, the Padma Shri, for her service to society. This is in addition to the French government’s Legion of Honour, and the Order of the Crown from the King of Belgium.

Behind that road, where this lady worked to improve the lives of Pondicherry’s fishing community, said my father, was my great grandfather’s cowshed.

This was my grandmother’s father, they were the ones already in Pondicherry. My grandfather’s father and mother were still in the paddy fields in our village of Sangeethamangalam, under the great hill fort of Gingee (Senji in Tamil).

He had four cows in the cowshed, my father said, and as the eldest, it was at times his job to accompany my great grandfather to milk runs around town. And these weren’t normal milk runs. When his grandfather woke up, my father said, he would go and open the cows up. There was no real traffic in 1970s Pondicherry, and the cows knew where to go. Each one of them would wander off to a particular restaurant, where the restaurant owner would set out some overripe bananas and banana leaves for them. By this time, my father and his grandfather would turn up at these restaurants, greet the owners, and milk the cows in front of them. People were particular about these things then. The milk would go straight to the kitchen, and the cow, having done its job, would come back to the shed, even as its owner went to the next restaurant, where his next cow was waiting patiently. My father’s job was at times to milk the cow and at other times to make sure all four of them were back and secure in the cowshed. After that, he would take his bag and go to school. This was the VOC Government High School, on the street beside mine, the almost 200 year old Petit Seminaire.

I don’t know why my father told me this story then, because unlike me, he isn’t a talker. But now that he is retired and has time to reflect, maybe he’s thinking about his growing up years. It is also beautiful to me how the story of your family can also be the story of a place, its geography, its little landmarks, its very soul. My father became a policeman in his own town, and I knew he didn’t take that lightly. He was a reader, that’s how I became one, and he knew that in his life a circle had been completed, a story had been told. As he plays with his grandchild, my son, I would like to think that he’s a content man. 

One of my own goals is to complete that circle for myself, to become someone in the place that made me. Because who else would you rather be?

Things I miss

An ongoing list of things I miss, in no real order or importance:

I miss laughter. Like at school when your teacher couldn't say the word journey and when he did it left you and your friends in splits, ending in the lot being thrown out of class. The kind of explosive, uncontrollable, ugly, snorting laughter that came up from your gut and left it aching afterwards. I miss that. I think it's been years since I have laughed that way.

I miss being bored. Like during summer vacation afternoon, sun blazing, streets burning. Nothing to do, nothing to think, the world caught in time. Nothing in your head, no worries, no joy, no sadness. Just endless vacuum, ready to be filled up with things like cricket cards and Asterix and Tintin and Superman.

I miss being lazy without the accompanying guilt of adulthood. I miss being useless, of watching MTV without the constant threat from inside your head that the future is being imperilled by not spending more time in front of your computer. I miss life without the stress and the pressure.

I miss cricket. God I miss it. The thrill of an early morning game, the competition, the arguments, the easy camaraderie, the Pepsis after, and the banter. And then coming back home with stories of your spectacular fielding that no one believes. I miss the knocked-out naps after. It's the greatest game in the world.

I miss having my friends around, like really around, when you could call them and actually meet them on the same day, in 30 minutes or less, all of them together, and you could buy cheap beer and cheaper chips and spend all evening talking about obscure Swat Kats episodes.

I miss obsession. Of burning through the Lord of the Rings books in three or four nights because you are now into the books and there’s nothing else in the world more important. Not food, not exams, nothing. I miss the sheer volume of words I could put away in my head, reading like my life depended on it.

And in a lot of ways, it did.

I miss music. Like when you put a song on as you walked to class and felt as if it had been written for you, composed for you, and each lilt sent goosebumps up your arms, and you felt it, all of it, replaying it again and again and only taking it off as you entered Economics 1.

I miss the feeling of waking up to a cold morning and feeling like a new being, of looking at the world with a cup of tea and thinking how wonderful this is, that you are young and life is ahead, and it was only a matter of time before you found your way. I miss that beauty, pregnant with promise and opportunity.

I miss watching the world. Like I used to do at the Jama in old Delhi, like I used to do at the Marina, like I used to do at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, like I did this weekend in Mysore, like I do from the roof of the Ajantha bar in Pondy, spaces where I can sit and breathe a bit, where the world doesn't seem that big or frightening.

PS - I'll keep this going.

Palm trees and the open road

On a rather cold Pune morning last week, I read Joy, Zadie Smith’s celebrated essay. This is from one of the central passages, and the specificity of it is, what else can I say, joyful.

"Until quite recently I had known joy only five times in my life, perhaps six, and each time tried to forget it soon after it happened, out of the fear that the memory of it would dement and destroy everything else. Let’s call it six. Three of those times I was in love, but only once was the love viable, or likely to bring me any pleasure in the long run. Twice I was on drugs—of quite different kinds. Once I was in water, once on a train, once sitting on a high wall, once on a high hill, once in a nightclub, and once in a hospital bed."

In another place, Smith describes the emotion as "that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight."

I know what she means.

When I shared it on Twitter, a friend replied that she always felt joy as: "an intense sense of well-being/connection whether it shows up unsummoned one morning or after your heart's been cracked open by a movie or in a relationship."

This is true too. The word unsummoned is important here. 

As I read the essay, I found myself trying to remember the times when I had known joy myself, or at least felt a semblance of it.

I understood both the definitions of it, though, both Smith’s and my friend’s. Like Smith, I don’t think I have ever felt joy without the terror of loss. I always thought this was peculiarly Indian, a superstition we have about not letting ourselves feel too happy, and I was surprised when I saw it here.

And like my friend, I have also known it as an amiable companion, as someone looking over my shoulder at times when I had nothing to worry about, or when I was enveloped by something completely of the time and place I was in.

There’s one memory that immediately came up, though.

In early 2008, I had just entered my final year of engineering school. I had been doing very badly in my 2nd and 3rd years and had a bunch of papers to clear. But for the first time, gripped by fear that I would never graduate if this went on, I had pulled myself up, studied like a lunatic, and attempted to pass everything in my 6th semester exams.

Now, in the 7th semester, I was in my final year, and waiting for the results.

This was the town of Karaikal, part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry, about 7 hours south of Chennai along the coast. It’s the countryside, basically, and all we had was open space and the wind. The tea shops of this old fishing community opened at 4 am, some even at 3 am, to serve working fishermen who had to leave for the sea. For an early riser, this was great, and the miles and miles of open coastline meant that the scenery was beautiful, in some places astonishing.

I was playing cricket at what we called the stadium. This was a huge parade ground at the southern end of the town, near the border with Tamil Nadu. It had running tracks and cricket pitches that were ignored for most of the year, but cleaned up on Republic Day for the local MLA to hoist the national flag.

I was fielding close to the batsman when news arrived that our results were out.

The year is 2008, remember: we had feature phones, and internet access was from the local cyber cafe. So off we went, in a procession of noisy motorcycles, hearts in our mouths, the tension showing up in coarse language, teasing, and laughter - the refuge of nervous and insecure young men the world over.

Outside the first internet place we could find, someone checked my results, and told me what I thought would never happen: I had passed everything; the current semester’s papers, the old papers I’d failed, the practical I’d been attempting to pass for three semesters, everything.

Emotions ran high there, some of us had passed, some of us had failed, and some of us had done a bit of both. The sun was going down, the southern dusk arriving quickly and quietly, with that suddenness that I’m still alarmed by.

I had a Bajaj Caliber 115 then, the motorcycle made popular by the hoodibaba campaign. There almost always was no one on those roads, but that day, I would not have noticed even if there was traffic. I zoomed past the palm trees, the wild bougainvillea, and the thorny bushes so characteristic of Tamil country.

I felt light, like a weight had been lifted off my young shoulders. In that euphoric daze, I realised also that life was coming at me, and that I had just passed the first hurdle of what were going to be many. I was terrified too, of the future, of course I was, but right at that point, I was happy.

For now, it was me and the road. And this feeling in my heart. Joy, maybe.

Written in February 2021.

Theorems on red-tiled terraces

I grew up in small houses.

On the Air Force bases we lived in, the accommodations (or airmens’ quarters, as they were called) were bare, two-roomed boxes. If you were lucky, you were allotted one with a balcony. We were on the ground floor in Jamnagar, so we had a yard. But there was still little space, especially for a family with two growing kids.

In Pondicherry, we moved around for 3 or 4 years before my father built our own house. These houses were even smaller, and when for the first time we moved into a slightly larger one (meaning separate rooms for me and my sister), it turned out to be horribly ventilated, becoming a furnace in the southern summer. You could have baked bread in one of those dark, air-deprived rooms, and we moved out of there pretty quickly.

Stifled and starved for space, I used the red-tiled terraces to study, walking up and down in the mornings and evenings, memorising theorems and formulas. Even in my terrible engineering college, whose only redemptive feature was that it was next to the sea, I still did not study in the library: I used the massive terrace, enjoying the strong winds and the view of the horizon.

I didn’t realise it, but as I grew up, I carried this around in my head. I asked for, and took up, less space. I never knew how to occupy and inhabit places, friendships, and relationships, and this extended to the offices I worked in. I was, and remain, boisterous and loud, but that’s a response. I don’t feel like I belong, so I do something to lay claim to places and people. It’s not natural, and consequently has hurt me and the people I loved.

This is just one of the things not growing up with money leaves you with, but it’s also a reflection of how working class India thinks about space. It’s utility, not indulgence. It’s to keep things, not live and love in, or to fall in love with.

And this keeping of things is relevant too; hoarding comes from a place of self-doubt, a fear of not having. And a house with too much stuff offers less to the people who actually live there.

After I started working and making my own money, this was one thing I consciously worked towards: having my own space, for me and for the things I loved and cherished. So I don’t feel small. So my dreams don’t feel cramped. This translated to - and I noticed this only when my younger cousin pointed it out - a string of rented apartments in Pune and Madras with one common overbearing feature: large, glass-fronted French windows.

It was as if I was still reaching for the outdoors, for light and for air.

This last week, I gave up a bunch of my books to a used books shop. I didn’t want money, I just wanted to be rid of them. I had started hoarding too, and I wanted to be free of that insecurity, the fear of losing things that is borne of owning them in the first place. I told the polite Ismaili who owned and ran the shop that I don’t want anything in return, but he insisted I take a few books. We had tea together, and I chose from his fairly good collection of mostly crime fiction.

Returning in an auto, I looked at the 4 books I was bringing back, in exchange for about 40. I started the first of those that very evening, on the terrace.

Written in January 2021.

A Madras and Chennai Super Kings reading list

There’s a bunch of friends I’ve grown up with, with whom I went to school and then to college, and who remain my closest gang of never-do-wells. We do at least one trip together every year (usually Kodaikanal, whose lanes we now know like the back of our hands), reliving old memories and retelling old stories. We have a WhatsApp group with a cringeworthy name we thought up when we were 17 or 18, and it hosts our conversations and our constant bickering.

If you had a peek at it, it would be very difficult for you to guess that these are grown men in their 30s, and that almost all of them have kids.

The group is never more active than when there’s a CSK match on, though. In late 2007, our 3rd year of engineering, we got ourselves a cheap TV so we could watch cricket. We watched the 2007 World T20 together. All of us were avid fans, and played a lot.

And then the IPL began, and the Chennai Super Kings bought Dhoni.

This marked the beginning of a fandom we have celebrated together for so long we don’t remember a time without it. At least once every year we try to go to a CSK game. in 2019 we went to Bangalore to watch a thriller where Dhoni put a ball out of the Chinnaswamy and we almost, almost won.

This sense of community and loyalty is why at least one of us will text in the group just as the toss happens, that quintessential question: Enna da, batting a?

Over the years, I have written a lot about the city and about the Super Kings.

I grew up in the Indian north, and this gave me a way of seeing (the Naipaul phrase) the Tamil south both as an insider and an outsider. The culture, proud and loud, extends to me a belonging I never had and only found when I moved back home to Pondicherry. But because I had an understanding of the other to compare it to, I found that I could articulate its essence much better.

This was then the starting point for the three essays I share here. Written at different times in my life and in response to different things, there are three things common to all of them: A vision of Tamil identity, my understanding of my people, and the team and a player that somehow embodies these things.

1. On Madras, its women, and its evenings (August 2015)

One of my own favourites, and an essay several of my friends ask me about again and again. Written when I was a different person, and when some of the most important things in my life, good and bad, hadn’t happened to me yet, it is a celebration of Madras and its quiet, self-contained romance.

2. Whistles in the night (March 2018)

The Chennai Super Kings returned in 2018 to the IPL after a two year ban, and we couldn’t wait. It was a dream return, a campaign that will be remembered as much for its symbolism as for the victory. But it was the anticipation of it, the idea of something you loved coming back to you expressed as collective emotion, that I tried to capture here. I succeeded, I think.

3. The hero from the hill country (July 2019)

Written just after India’s exit from the 2019 World Cup campaign in England, this was a kind-of farewell to Mahendra Singh Dhoni, captain of India (well, that’s how he’ll be remembered, though Virat led us that campaign). I consoled myself by the fact that he would still lead the Super Kings, and that he still belonged to us, in a way. But I won’t lie: I teared up when I wrote it. There’s a lot of MS in this, but there’s also a lot of Madras.

More than a decade I have followed and loved this team, and as my life and career speed up, I have less time to devote to the pure, rabid fandom of my younger days.

What sustains me yet, however, is that every time there is a CSK game, a bunch of old friends in different corners of the world will come together over a screen, and at least one of them, bleary-eyed, will text again that old, beaten question: Enna da, batting a?

Written in October 2020.

Why do you love reading?

Yesterday my friend Shankar Ganesh messaged me on LinkedIn. He was looking for an old answer of mine on Quora, an answer I had written in 2013 to the question ‘why do you love reading’.

Why indeed?

I had actually deleted my Quora presence a year or so ago. I wanted to consolidate my writing online; was looking to create my own little space, like this one. But I had saved my answers. I had sent them to my mail, where they waited, I guess, for Shankar to remind me.

I sent my answer to him yesterday, and today, I’m putting it up here.

Why do you love reading?

I'll write three lines for you.

'My name is Sairam Krishnan. My friends call me Sai. My father was an officer in the Indian Air Force. I'm a small town boy, brought up in several Indian towns. I grew up on British classics and radar stations and jetplane specifications.'

There. What did you read? You read something about a boy from India, right? And there might be a few who never knew that there is such a person in some corner of the world, living a life like mine.

Well, now you do.

Reading is a window into another world, into lives and manifestations of it you never knew existed.

Have I ever been to Istanbul? No. But I know about 16th century Istanbul's coffee-houses and their connection to the time when the winds of radical Islam first blew into a peaceful religion and ended up impacting all of us. I read it in a book by Orhan Pamuk.

Do I know how it feels to be poor in America? No. But I know how they live, how they have to rely on community kitchens & handouts, how finding living space is expensive and almost impossible, how much physical and mental abuse they have to take. I read it in a book written by Barbara Ehrenheich.

Do I know the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland? Do I know how the shadows mingle with the smell of draught on cold Scottish evenings? No. But I know they do. I know how the old and the new are interchangeable in Scotland, and how evil transcends everything. I read it in Ian Rankin's Rebus books.

And I don't mean only books. This is what happens when you read anything, even a tiny passage like the one I wrote about myself. You know something. At that point, you are that person.

That is magic, isn't it? It is seductive, the ability to let your own mundane life behind, to become someone else, doing something else, something exciting and exotic, even if it is for just some time. Who said time travel doesn't exist? It does. And we travel across time each time we read history books and watch Robert Clive and Siraj-ud-Daulah meet at the Battle of Plassey.

I mean, how could you NOT love it? You are seeing things you never can in real life, learning so much, improving as a person, incorporating empathy, and so much more.

In the end, it’s the stories, it’s all about stories. The world, our memories and the way we look at other people, are all stories.

We are drawn to them anyway, stories are in our nature, and readers are just people who love them just that bit more.

I was tempted to edit it in many places, but I did not. It’s a wide-eyed 25 year old’s answer, and I don’t want a cynical, hardened 32 year old changing it in any way.

Some things are better left as they are.

Written in May 2020.

The greatest game in the world

Batting is hard. Anyone who has played any serious cricket knows this.

It is an unnatural thing to do: bend over at that curious angle with a piece of wood in your hands, and try to play a ball coming at you with speed, not to mention the bowler’s skill. To do it for more than 5 overs - helmet on head, the Indian sun beating down, and on matting pitches that behave in any way they want - is to subject yourself to a kind of torture most people spend their lives avoiding. But we, those who play this game or have played it, love it. We love it because it means something. We love it because of the feeling of removing the helmet and the pads and the numerous guards after a long stay at the wicket. It’s the satisfaction of achievement, of something we can’t name.

On Day 5 at the Gabba, Cheteshwar Pujara batted. He took blows everywhere, and at least one finger probably needs more medical assistance. But he batted. He has done this before, of course, and has won us games and series, including the last one in Australia. But this series, he has been Australia’s arch-nemesis, not because he made more runs, but because he refused to get out. They had to bowl the balls of the series at him to get him to leave, and even that wasn’t enough on the last day. Young Pant’s exploits will become legend, as they should, but he was able to do what he did because a man from the dust bowls of western India turned up against the world’s best bowling attack, and wouldn’t go away.

Bowling is hard. Fast bowling, even harder.

When a fast bowler lands, four or five times his body weight hits his knee and ankle. His foot slides violently ahead, with the force of delivering the ball bringing it slightly back again. All of this happens in seconds. There are stories of fast bowlers of yesteryear not removing their shoes during breaks so as not to get scared by the blood they knew they would see. And yet, we do it too, willingly, amateurs and professionals, alike - we run in and let rip. The thrill of it, the wind in your hair, the batsman in your sights, leaning into your stride, and delivering one that pitches on off and seams away - how do you describe that feeling?

We love it without knowing why, without understanding why our heart leaps as the ball swings or seams or bounces or screams.

In this last test a lean leftie named Thangarasu Natarajan made his debut. This was a man who bowled with a real cricket ball only after he was 20. He had no money to buy shoes as a junior cricketer, and he almost gave up the game. Well-wishers and teammates from his state side encouraged him, and helped him play in Chennai’s well-funded, superbly organised leagues. He bowled there, a lot. He won a place in the Tamil Nadu first-class side. He matured, he bowled with red balls and white, and kept it straight and tight. He made a name for himself in the IPL, but only after a couple of years of being in it. And then he was invited on this series as a net bowler. As he leaves Australia this week to meet his child for the first time, he has reached the pinnacle of the game.

This man, who first bowled on the famed red soil of his home district of Salem, in which grow the mangoes the world waits for every April, is India test cap 300.

These are just two stories from several that this year’s historical tour has thrown at us. There are so many.

Captain Rahane, leader, almost statesman-like; Shardul Thakur, whose heartbreak of a debut test stands forgotten; Mohammed Siraj, all Hyderabad, all heart; young, fearless Sundar; the immensely likeable, audaciously talented Pant; the Punjab rising again, in rebellion and resistance, in the country and on the field, with Gill declaring his arrival; the old warhorse Ashwin showing his experience; Vihari, holding Andhra and India aloft on an injured hamstring: Phew.

What do I write about? See my problem?

But I’m also lying. I knew what I was going to write about.

In 2005, I watched the series which sealed the primacy of test cricket in my head and heart: Freddie’s Ashes. I have watched cricket for so long after that, lived through the Indian limited overs victories of 2007 and 2011, watched the Stokes miracle at Headingley, and the Sri Lankan triumphs in South Africa. The game has changed, and there’s also a lot of it. They way we watch it has changed, the way we listen to it has changed, the speed of it is has changed.

And that change meant something else too.

Whether we admit it or not, test cricket was waning. The younger, newer nations are concentrating on the slam-bang versions that are televised, and which presents their players with superstardom. They are not to blame at all. They are responding to the incentives, financial and social, that they see.

Fans always worried that this would happen, that this game of attrition, resilience, and skill, this beloved form of our game, would fade away into irrelevance, into something only richer nations play. This fear of ours - that the romance of the five-day game, of long-drawn battles, of ebbs and flows, of cricket at its purest - would be denied to newer, younger fans, is something we carry, even if we don’t say it out loud.

And this is what gives me most joy after this series - not India winning, not all that absolutely marvellous cricket, not all these stories.

No, what gives me joy is that another generation has seen what test cricket can be. And what test cricket can be is life itself - it sometimes all goes belly up, but if you dig in there and brave the heat and the insults, if you have patience and grit and you watch well what’s being thrown at you, you’ll get your chances, and when you get them, you can take some of them, and when you take some of them, you might have an innings worth remembering - a life worth living.

It’s tough. But test cricket is tough because life is tough: Nothing good comes easy, nothing worth having is easily had.

This is the romance of this game, this is its lesson for life.

In the greatest cricket novel ever written, Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman, he writes, “The ball is made of leather with a hard seam running its circumference. The bat is made of willow. The sound of one hitting the other is music.”

The world was astounded these last two months at the melodies our game had to offer. This series, and all the cricketers that played in it, have made sure that more people will come back to listen. Those who love this game can’t ask for more.

Written in January 2021, after the Indian team's victory in the final test of the Border-Gavaskar series in Australia.

To be worthy of what we lose

A friend texted me last week from Europe. As we spoke about work and careers, she told me how living in another country was helping her rethink a lot of things.

Almost like meeting a new version of herself, she said.

I have found that travel does that to me, which is why I always find ways to wander. At the same time, it is my identity, my sense of history and home, that keeps me grounded in a world that seems to be trying very hard to implode.

So I go away, in a sense. But I find that I can’t go far.

I don’t know why. It’s hard to define that feeling, like that pang in your chest when you look out the windows of a train at night, wind rushing through hair and face, and wonder whose home that tiny pinprick of light is.

That thing I can’t name, that unknowable sense of longing, is a constant companion. I’ve made peace with it, sort-of.

My friend told me that every time she and I sat down to talk, she would always think this guy must have done a lot of introspection, a ‘crazy amount’. And how I always spoke with such clarity.

It’s always weird when friends tell you these things, because you don’t have that perspective. You are stumbling along on your own way, fumbling, falling, getting up, and trying again. You don’t look at yourself like that.

But, as I told her, it wasn’t natural to me. I sort-of fell into things, and let life take me along.

The thinking happened because of necessity. I lost too much once. And I told myself never again.

As the hurt and pain congealed, cleaned itself up, and became a scar not immediately visible, I acted on it. I subjected every little conversation, every little decision, really every move, to silly levels of scrutiny . I thought a lot about why I chose to do this over that, and what would really make me happy. It became second nature, and now I do it unconsciously: I’m acutely aware of what I say and do and feel.

Does that mean I have not made mistakes? No, of course not, I still fuck up all the time. I’m very human, as fallible as everyone else. Probably even more so.

It’s a journey, as most things are.

A couple of days ago, Pico Iyer tweeted something Emily Dickinson wrote: To be worthy of what we lose is the supreme aim.


Written in July 2020.

Home and country

I lived in five Indian towns before I was fifteen. One of them was the capital, but Delhi in the early 1990s still felt like a town, my mother tells me, so we’ll call it that. I grew up speaking Hindi at school and Tamil at home. I picked up some Gujarati in Jamnagar and some basic Khasi in Shillong, both of which I’ve forgotten. 

At that time if you’d asked me where home was, I would have showed you a drab ground floor flat on a rained-out, beautiful hill. I had claimed that hill as only children of a certain age can: I knew almost every corner of it, where mushrooms grew, which berries were the sweetest, and which after-rain puddle was deep. It was mine.

Only when we moved back south in the early 2000s did I get that somehow innate sense of Tamil-ness back. 

To grow up around your own people, speaking your own language, in the town where your father was born, where your grandfather asked your grandmother’s hand in marriage, not far from where your ancestors bred cattle and goats and worked the land for rice and where the sweat fell from their brows: is a privilege. It’s not something I take lightly. This soil bears the weight of my people’s history. It is mine. 

If at this time, you’d asked me where home was, I’d have showed you my gorgeous little seaside town.

When I moved to Pune, I rented a flat with French windows that caught the waning afternoon sun. I filled that hall with books, and watched cricket with my friends on weekends. Once when I was returning to it after 3 weeks or so abroad, I remember feeling overwhelmed at how it felt, with my books, my vase full of dried flowers, and the comfort it seemed to give me. This was the first time I lived alone, and had made a home. It was mine.

If at this time, you’d asked me where home was, I’d have showed the corner beneath the window, where I read, and I would have made you a cup of ginger tea.

I started to understand how home can be something you are born into, and also be something you make, or choose.

I’d never thought about home in this way before. The first time I started to do so was when the Citizenship Amendment Act or the CAA, was passed into law by the Indian parliament at the end of 2019, and protests broke out almost immediately. I also understood its relationship to the National Register of Citizens or the NRC, and how a combination of the two could be devastating for the secular, equal polity that India aims to be.

I was alarmed.

I had believed for a long time that the wonder that is our country is open to everyone. That this huge, vast, unknowable land is mine, of course, as it is also everyone else’s around me.

Of course I was wrong. As I grew up, I realised that India has worlds within worlds, I learnt about caste, about patriarchy, and had experiences of casteism and classism. I tried to educate myself about all of this; I'm still learning. But I had been corrected and jarred to come to terms with the realities of a national history which is by no means simple.

But I can’t turn away from it, from my nation’s incredible contradictions, and from my duty to its ideals, just because there are no easy answers. India is home. It is mine, its is yours, it is ours. It is, and I have believed this with all my heart, saare jahan se accha. I have to do what I can to make it a better place.

And if someone challenges its very founding ideals, I have to defend it too. I owe it to the freedom generation, I owe it to the joy and happiness and privilege of growing up where you belong, I owe it to my father who spent all his life in uniform. But most of all, I owe it to my people, our people.

If someone, in all these years, had dared to ask me to prove that I am who I am, I would have no understanding of how to answer. I probably would not have understood. I am Indian, that’s who I am. I have no notion of how to be something else, someone else.

To challenge someone’s idea of home is to strike at the core of a person’s identity, to strike at their sense of who they are. It's cruel, violent, callous. Which is why it was the first time I too felt compelled to get on the streets.

Because I know and understand what home is, and I cannot imagine what it would feel like to lose it.

A version of this was written in January 2020.