Friday, June 29, 2007

Musings - violet, green



We’d be disappointed if it didn’t rain at all. That happened once in the 90s, then again in 2003, and despite all the raving about strawberries and cream and summer dresses, there was an undercurrent of disappointment. What, Wimbledon fortnight and no rain? Bad for the crops, Wellbeloved!

The rain can change fortunes. 1988, the year Ivan Lendl tried to live down his ‘grass is for cows’ remark. (OK, children – those of you who never saw Lendl play, or Edberg, or Wilander, why don’t you go do something with your GameBoys?) Five sets in the semi-final against the Man with the Blonde Eyelashes, and Becker might have lost if it hadn’t been for a rain delay that caused the match to spill over to the next day. One of the best tennis matches I’ve ever seen, blood and guts, power and touch, Boris whipping incredible angled backhands to beat Lendl at the net and Ivan hitting the lines almost at will. Boris won that match, but it took the fizz out of him and he lost the final to Edberg, the coup de grace coming when he netted an easy volley in the fourth set.

So it’s raining in London now. Which leaves me a choice between watching Piyush Chawla bowling to Morne van Wyk, or a recording of Henin steamrolling Vesnina this morning. Tough call. (But who would ever have thought that one day, a man named Jean-Paul Duminy would play international cricket?)

Justin Henin. All these ethereal leggy Slavic beauties, settling their carefully straying wisps of blonde hair, floating from end to end behind the baseline like thoroughbreds in full gallop. And along comes little Justin, grim jaw, knobby knees, like a Morgan pony cutting a full herd. Takes them apart, she does. And all because she doesn’t know when to give up. Might have been born Aussie, who knows. Not a gifted child like Martina Hingis ten years ago, not physically exceptional, but at this moment, the best combination of hard work and on-court thinking that women’s tennis can offer. Salud, Justin.

Then there are the others. The ones who turn up, make up the numbers, fight their way to the third round or the quarters but never ever win. Once in a while fairy-tales come true. Jana Novotna beating Nathalie Tauziat in the ’98 final, 5 years after she cried on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent. The beauty of that final was that no matter WHO won, it would have been a fairy-tale finish.

There are those who are remembered for one-off triumphs. Like Peter Doohan, who beat Becker in the second round in 1987 and stopped a possible 3-in-a-row. (Becker, in an uncharacteristic outburst of pettiness the next year, said that it ‘felt good’ to see Doohan waiting for a cab while he went home in a limousine. Cut him some slack, he wasn’t even 20). Or Lori McNeil, who beat Steffi in the first round in 1994 and lost in the semis to Conchita Martinez (Conchita won that year.)

Then there’s ‘Tiger Tim’, ‘Tin Man’. Timothy Henry Henman must be one of the most phenomenally unlucky players in the history of Wimbledon. (And before you ask, no, not in the same league as Rosewall.) Four semi-finals, losing twice to Pete Sampras and once to Leyton Hewitt. The fourth was another rain-delay saga. Henman had Ivanisevic on the ropes in 2001, coming from behind to take the second set in a tie-break, then sweeping the third set 6-0. Cometh the rain, Goran gets time to recover and takes the fourth set. Rain disrupts the fifth set as well, Goran wins the set and match. Who won Wimbledon in 2001? Wait, was it, aaahhh, that guy Ivanisevic? Mind you, Henman hadn’t had an easy route to the semis. His opponent in the quarters was a 19-yr-old wunderkind who had taken out Pete Sampras in 5 sets. Guy named Roger Federer.

Come to think of it, those years, beating Henman must have been like a lucky charm. Whoever beat him in the semis went on to win Wimbledon. Always the one who takes the knock-out punch from the hero. Eric Campbell and Ranjit would so sympathise.

This year, Tim is 32. It’s his 14th Wimbledon. He’s still copy-book at the net. He goes down low, knees fully flexed, he gets the racquet-head out in front, in the close-ups you can see his eyes on the ball. But he’s 32, not 22. So when Feliciano Lopez, six years younger and an inch taller, bangs those serves into the body, Tiger Tim can barely fend them off, let alone control them. He fought despite all that, he came back from 2 sets down, forced a fifth set, but the legs weren’t there at the finish. He says he’ll be back next year. It’s his passion, though he will be 33 and his ATP ranking is already down to 74. Not everybody can be an Andre Agassi.

This is the angst of the journeyman. Knowing they’re good, better at what they do than all but 100 or 200 people in the entire world, but never in the record books, never engraved on the trophies, always footnotes in the sporting histories. Tormented by hope, by ‘what ifs’. Maybe if I just keep returning steadily over 6 rounds, maybe if the other guy falls apart, maybe if I have the edge of windy conditions … Almost - pardon the self-indulgence - a Prufrockian dilemma.

What was that name in the second round? Sebastien Grosjean?

Update: Appeared as an op-ed in HT, Mumbai on 5th July. Not that THEY bothered to tell me.

Try identifying these people. None of them ever won Wimbledon, but each of them has beaten the best.


(The man on the right was called ... well anyway, who's the guy on the left?)









And a non sequitur - am I the only one who sees a resemblance?



Saturday, June 23, 2007

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Youth!

Some young blogger friends are going for a long drive on Saturday. From Calcutta, even.

I pointed out that a thousand kilometers in one of these machines is not a very good experience for the spine. That the prospect of some great despatches and superlative photographs is marred by the possibility of the camera disintegrating as the vehicle bounces over luvverly roads.

I was told that new cameras can always be bought.What about a new spine, eh? Can you buy a new spine if the present model disintegrates? ‘No problem, dude, if Superman wossisname can survive that way for years, so can I.’

‘Superman? Christopher Reeve? Man, you’d need somebody’s help to POOP all the rest of your life! How exciting is THAT?’

‘Not a problem, dude. We may all need adult diapers eventually.’ Yes, but at 70, not at 21. Oh well. Why do I even bother?

So tomorrow I may meet up with a 3-person Expedition for the Popularisation of Adult Diapers. Takes all kinds.

(You may send your surplus diapers here.)


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

En passant

Been working harder than I like to (in between returning from a sweaty holiday and flubbing badly at the Guv’nor’s annual quiz). So of course I went blog-surfing.

Surprisingly, Sonia Faleiro reads an Elle story about Playboy babes and their TV series. Strange. I mean, we men used to read Debonair and Playboy for the literary content – what would women appreciate in them?

And the ever-dependable Prufrock Two points me back to a Master. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Allan Stewart Konigsberg.

(How the fornication does one embed links in rediffblogs?!)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

No mas

I wouldn’t have minded all that much if Nadal had beaten Federer.

I wanted the man to win his Grand Slam. I wanted him to take his place in history. It wasn’t to be. Rafa made it three in a row.

Which would have been all right, except that Rafa didn’t win the match as much as Roger lost it. FORTY-FIVE unforced errors in the first three sets? Roger Federer? Get out of here!

He lost it in the mind. Some day we may know whether he was more rattled by history staring him in the face, or those biceps on the other side of the net. Whatever. The third set was a nightmare. All Roger had to do was keep the ball in play, keep it deep. What did he do? Put it in the net. Time and again.

Every time Roger did His Thing, built a point carefully, used his change-ups, it was Rafa who blinked. Every time Roger tried to finish off a point quickly, he blew it. What went wrong inside his mind?

Yes, I know that Nadal creates his own pressure, I know what it takes to go toe-to-toe with a guy who may be the greatest clay-courter ever. But this is not just any guy facing up to Nadal, this is Roger. A man who’s not supposed to have a weak link in his game. One weakness has, however, been visible since the semi-finals – when he’s stretched deep and wide on his backhand, Roger slices it into the net more often than not. He's just a fraction of a second too slow to the ball, hits it from that little bit too far away and it finishes too low and too short.

There was some great tennis in the last set. But it happened because Roger gave up on the baseline and tried to rattle Nadal by coming to the net. It didn’t work. It can’t work. Rafa has the weight of shot to prevent volley winners, and the legs to reach and overwhelm the defensive volleys. By the time Set 4 warmed up, everybody knew who had won. FedEx was not the 'best in the world', he wasn't even good enough. The Kid had him beat.

Vamos, Rafa!

A nice touch about the prize-giving. Right before that last forehand went long, I wondered ‘whatever happened to Guga?’ Lo and behold, there he was, looking a little like Mats Wilander on Ecstasy even though he was in a nice grey suit. (Mary Pierce looked a sight yesterday. Major fugly.)

Next month, of course, a Duke will hand over a prize. But even if he wins it, there will be a gap in Roger's showcase. This time, next year? He'll be 27 ...

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Food of love, and the love of food

My good friend the Uncut One (India’s most popular blogger … sorry, second-most popular, since my other friend now holds the palm by public poll) has spent quite some time on the current Indian Idol series. Analysed trends, made predictions. Which is very commendable, I daresay, but also a huge waste of time.

Because the really good amateur singing is not on ‘Indian Idol’. Thanks to the Better Half, I’m quite au fait with the current series. Large Bong contingent, including a constable from the Kolkata Police. Apart from Eamon / Iman, however, not one singer combines grammatically correct singing with verve. Not the girl from Calcutta who won hearts by sadly blaming her own looks, not the baby who sings flawlessly but without any life in her performance.

And does anybody else think that Javed-saab has suddenly lost it? He’s trying to be a genteel version of Simon Cowell. That’s best left to Anu Malik (maybe not the 'genteel' part). What ails that man anyway? Can’t have the man-we-love-to-hate earning sympathy through sickness. On your feet, man!

The real performance, ladies and gentlemen, was on a different channel, on a show called ‘Voice of India’. To begin with, Abhijeet is a judge and I’m a fan of his gayaki. And last night, Sumitra Iyer, an Infosys techie, sang Hare Rama Hare Krishna, doing both Asha Bhonsle’s and Usha Uthup’s parts, switching between voices and scales with an élan that rivaled Kishore Kumar’s in that song from Half Ticket (Aake seedhi lagi dil pe jaise katariya) To quibble, she mainly showcased her ability to sing in different octaves, there isn’t too much gayaki in that number anyway. But her real-time switches between octaves was jaw-dropping, her performance was flawless, confident. She communicated a sense of enjoyment, a rapport with her listeners. THAT is a performance. Goodbye, Indian Idol.

About that Kishore Kumar number. Any aficionado knows the story of how Lata Mangeshkar was supposed to sing the part for the on-screen Kishore (in drag as a ­rather hefty ­banjaran). How she fell ill and Kishore suggested to Salil Choudhury that he sing both parts. How he rehearsed it once and then pulled it off in one take. People appreciate his effortless switch from falsetto to baritone, the sense of fun. What freaks me out is the way he mimics Pran’s voice, keeping the song alive while going faintly off-key in places, perfect vocal acting of an amateur singing. Close your eyes and listen to him when he starts in the male voice and you’ll believe it’s Pran singing. (By the way, Pran was apparently quite a sex symbol in his heyday.)

In breaking news, the Most Popular Blogger is recovering from a strange affliction of the innards that apparently got so serious he had to delay his return to the US. Sad, how living in the USA debilitates the proud Indian intestine. The good news is that, out of consideration for his adoring public, GB has risen from his bedof pain to shoot off a post. However, as I remarked to him, what profits a man if he gain a green card and lose his immune system? My own innards (knock on wood!) stood up manfully to a week of processing pork, squid, guavas, lemon grass et al from street vendors in Bangkok. But, as GB just said on chat, wait for the post. (GB and I also agreed that the chances of Mallika Sarabai starting a blog, then attending a blog meet, then falling for either of us, are so low as to be negligible. I heaved a deep doleful sigh. And went back to my cuppa, faintly relieved.)

**** ****

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Lisbon

[I was advised not to post this on the blog until after it had been published.
Subsequent mails and phone calls went unheeded.
Now I'm informed - in passing, mind you - that it has indeed been published, I know not where.
Even if it hasn't, here goes. I mean, how long can I hold in 2200 words?!]



One o’ clock on a Saturday afternoon and the streets of Lisbon are quiet. A few cars and one large yellow bus whoosh down the Avenida de Liberdade towards the Rossio. From his vantage point 40 feet above me, left hand resting theatrically on a lion’s mane, Sebastiao de Melo, Marquis de Pombal, once Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Portugal, watches them on their way. What a name. Pombal. Pom-bal. Pom-ba-line. I like this town already.

Strolling down the Liberdade, it’s hard to believe that most of this city was wiped out in the 18th century. On 1st November 1755, All Saints’ Day, an earthquake believed to have measured 9+ on the Richter Scale shook Lisboa for four minutes or more. The little that was left standing after earth and fire was soon destroyed by water. Forty minutes after the earthquake, a tsunami in three waves swept over downtown Lisbon. In the aftermath of destruction, the Marques de Pombal, came into his own.

Given a free hand by King Joseph I, the Marques rebuilt Lisbon on pragmatic lines (and came up with one of the great quotes from an administrator. Asked what should be done after the catastrophe, he said phlegmatically, “Now? Bury the dead and feed the living”) The Lisbon disaster also spurred the first survey of seismology – the Marquis circulated a questionnaire about phenomena that might help to warn of an earthquake. The downtown area, or Baixa, now has large squares and wide avenues in a rectilinear grid. This is the area where I am headed, down the Avenida. Past palm trees, flower beds, wrought-iron railings on sleeping buildings, the mouths of cobbled alleys leading uphill, languorous hotels, statues of cardinals, contemplative old men on sun-warmed stone benches.

Despite the late hour, the city is just stirring to life. Friday nights in Lisbon may not end at sunrise. Saturdays don’t start till late afternoon. Which is a problem. I haven’t eaten anything since an early breakfast, my stomach thinks my throat’s been cut, but the shops are yet to open. Half a mile up the road, I find a café that’s just opening. When I grimace at Salvatore’s suggestion of a turkey sandwich, he ushers me to a chair in the sun (very welcome in the chill of January), gets me a coffee for ‘while I wait’, then an ashtray so I don’t tip my cigarillo over his freshly-swept sidewalk. Half an hour later, I stifle a gasp at the ludicrous bill – where else in Europe can one eat one’s fill for 5 Euros? Having put myself outside the coffee and a steak sandwich the size of a young carpet, I tool onwards towards the Rossio, filled with a vague sense of goodwill towards my fellow man (probably induced by Salvatore’s infectious smile).

Even the sidewalks are special in Lisbon. Where other cities might have cement or at most cobblestones, Lisbon has mosaic. Everywhere. The Romans are to blame for this (as indeed for most things in western Europe); they started it all by paving their vias with it. It’s a little slippery underfoot at times and I’m told it doesn’t wear well. Yet the art of calcada, as it is locally known, produces not just a curiosity but works of art underfoot. The sidewalks and piazzas of Lisbon seem to flow and undulate with patterns. Sadly enough, it is a dying art. Low pay, cheaper alternative materials and the arduous process seem to discourage its perpetuation. I consoled myself that the mosaics will at least last my lifetime, they’ll still be around when I return to this endearing city.

The Avenida de Liberdade ends behind the Teatro Nacionale. Strictly speaking, it ends in the side wall of a café that also sells little gift-packs of wine. PORT wine, of course. The name comes not from Portugal itself but from Porto at the mouth of the Douros river, whence it was shipped to England after the Treaty of Methuen in 1703. (The terms of the treaty needn’t concern us, except that it had something to do with the effects of Anglo-Gallic bickering and the banning of French wines in England.) Technically, only the right wines from Portugal can be labelled Porto or Vinho do Porto.

I am, of course, an oenophile of some standing, with considerable expertise in distinguishing between the two main types of wine. To wit, Wine I Like and Wine I Don’t Like. Since Port is Wine I Like, buying should have been a simple operation. Until the man behind the counter asks me what KIND of port I want – tawny, vintage or (with a faint shudder) ruby? Or would I like some Garrafeira? Even, if Senhor is a connoisseur, some Reserve? (The capital letter was evident from his reverent enunciation) I mumble something about coming back later and beat a hasty retreat.

As one rounds the corner from the Teatro Nacional (which has a library upstairs AND a café in the front porch – how typically Lisbon!) one is in the Praca Dom Pedro IV. Over the last thousand years it has been used at various times as a cattle market, a public execution center, bullfight arena and carnival ground. Today the Praça and its cafes are the heart of Lisbon. No native, however, can direct you to it. Lisbon’s town square is universally known (nobody knows why) only as the Rossio. Surrounded by baroque buildings and arcades, overlooked by tiled houses sprawled across one of Lisbon’s seven hills, the Rossio is unique in my experience because it is paved with acres of calcada. The square seems to heave and flow with the patterns. As I stroll across the waves of mosaic, cafes and flower stalls stir into life.

Across the Rossio, through an old archway and down the Rua dos Sapateiros, the Street of the Shoemakers. Curlicued balconies muse in the noonday sun as it creeps into this canyon of quiet. Turn right at the first crossroad (cross-alley?) and you face the Elevador de Santa Justa. This metal fantasy with a viewing terrace on top was built in 1902 by Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard, but its appearance has spawned the urban myth that it was designed by Gustav Eiffel. Not surprising, since Ponsard was Eiffel’s student. The Santa Justa is the only vertical elevador in Lisbon – the rest are funiculars - and has little purpose other than to provide a view of the town. But surely that’s a good enough raison d’etre?

Turn left, cross the Rua do Ouro or Street of the Goldsmiths and you find yourself in the Rua Augusta, a magnificent paved promenade that leads down, across the tram-lines to the Praca de Comercio and the sea. Vasco da Gama sailed from here, and Ferdinand Magellan. After 1755 it was rebuilt on a grander scale and its several acres are now ringed by ornate Pombaline architecture. This used to be one of the symbols of Portugal’s maritime might. It does not lack for grandeur, even though the space overhead is scarred with electric wires and tramcar cables. Now, as I rest my legs on a convenient bench, a seedy man with a piebald stubble and a leprous leather jacket sidles up and tries to sell me drugs. Time to move on.

To the opposite corner of the Praca, where a red tramcar serves as a tourist office. Directions, and then down the crazy cobbled street to catch a real tram, the fabled No. 28. This route goes all the way up through the winding streets of the old district, down the other side and ends in a square beside the Rossio. (I discovered that this square is about a 5 minute walk from where I boarded the tram on the other side of the Alfama!)

800 years ago, the Alfama was Lisbon. Its name, drawn from Al-hammam, ‘the baths’, reveals the Moorish influence (still visible in some of the architecture). As the city spread to the west, the Alfama (like Chandni Chowk in Delhi or Whitechapel in London) became the district of the poor and the fisher-folk. Unlike the more fashionable Baixa, it survived the 1755 calamity because it was built on a hill. This heritage district is honeycombed with steep cobbled lanes, some so narrow that I flinch as the tram rattles headlong through them. On some stretches the tram runs on a single line, stopping and checking for traffic in the other direction. Alonso, the driver, never loses his smile and flirts scandalously throughout the journey with an old lady who affectionately taps him on the head with her bag. We pass bakeries, front parlours, tiny shop-fronts. The window of a second-hand book-store provides a tantalizing glimpse of a Portugues edition of Red Rackham’s Treasure, two old ladies quarrel in genteel fashion on a tiny terrace.

Round a corner, a huge church appears, looking down over the sprawl of tiled roofs to the sea. On the landward side a building’s cheery red façade is punctuated with a cheeky line of washing. This, notwithstanding the drying clothes, is the Museu de Artes Decorativas or Museum of Decorative Arts. A chance foray across the road yields an epiphany. TheAlfama is studded with little terraces or Miradouros, and on the one I have found, the Miradouro de Santa Lucia, sits an old man who could be the Spirit of Lisbon. Eyes closed, immersed in the spirit of his music, he picks at his guitar and hums almost to himself. The open guitar-case in front of him is a technical detail, almost irrelevant, and I hesitate to throw in a coin. Lovers stand by the inevitable wrought-iron railing, holding hands as they look at the sea and a lone sailboat tacking in the afternoon light. A sonorous bell in the church tower strikes the hour, the deep notes somehow accentuating the dream-like perfection of the moment. The church, the sea and an old man’s music. Lisbon.

As the light lengthens and the day fades, I bestir myself in search of the Castello. Round a corner and up another series of precipitous lanes, past a little square where a couple while away the late afternoon on a terrace, and finally the gateway to the Castle is in sight. The gatekeeper, musing on the line of tourists filing past his window, is an equally interesting relic. As are the two ladies who chat through a window, framed prettily by the ceramic tiles or azulejos that adorn the facades of so many houses here.

The Castle of St. George is a Moorish pile dedicated to an English saint in the 14th century by John I, probably influenced by his bride Philippa of Lancaster. Once the centre of Lisbon and the home of royalty, the Castelo de Sao Jorge is old – very old, the first fortifications date back to the 2nd century BC – and now it is tired. Battered by sieges, rocked by earthquakes, forsaken by monarchs (Manuel I shifted the royal residence to the Ribeira Palace on the banks of the Tagus), the Castelo has been restored since the 1940s. Now, dreaming on its hilltop, it offers perhaps the best views of Lisbon.

Evening is drawing in as I pick my way down from the Castle. My sense of direction, confronted with the random serpentine meandering, soon gives up. The lane is deserted, nobody from whom I could ask directions. (Even if they understood English, which is not very likely considering my experiences through the day. Friendly, yes. Helpful, yes. Charming, yes. Intelligible, no. The vigorous hand-waving is reassuring, though. They MEAN well.)

As I pause for breath, a most intriguing doorway catches my eye. I push the door open and peek in. I am initially confronted by a male posterior, which soon turns into a friendly Irishman who assures me that I can get some, aahh, refreshment on the premises. I find a table in the colourfully kitschy mess, a coffee appears, Eamon joins me and we light up our cigarillos. His Portuguese friend Paula, who runs the place (‘I don’t WORK here, y’know, I’m only press-ganged when Paula needs the place done up’), wanders over. Time passes. I am offered, in quick succession, something from Czechoslovakia, something from Bulgaria, something from France and several somethings from our very own Lisboa. I am unwise enough to accept. Paula’s daughter drops in and helps me print out my ticket for my flight next day. More time passes. The floor seems suddenly distant. A plum tart appears and is ingested. Eventually, in one of the increasingly rare interludes of clarity, I realise that (a) it is dark outside (b) I had better leave before the shops close, or risk the wrath of a Better Half Deprived of Souvenirs and (c) in any case it would be wise to leave while I can still walk.

Paula and Eamon refuse to accept any payment. Even for the coffee, which I had ordered ‘before we were friends’. Phone numbers are exchanged, e-mail addresses traded. As I step out, the cool of the evening clears my head somewhat. The street lights are coming on in haphazard fashion as I step into a church at evensong. Despite my lack of faith, the physical experience is uplifting. I have mixed feelings, however, about the teen couple alternately genuflecting and snogging in the last pew. I wander out again, the evening meandering through more cobbled alleys, past open doors and bright cafes with the tables laid, down uneven stairs that take sudden detours. The day is ended, the night lies ahead. I head hotel-wards under the emerging stars with my hat at a rakish angle.

On the last leg through the Alfama, a name and a frame. I shall be back for more.