Monday, February 14, 2011
PLAYING BY THE BOOK (*MSTRRC)
by Gautam Pemmaraju
Allauddin Khilji1 did not vacation in France. The Turko-Afghan marauder and conqueror did not say to himself on one hot Delhi summer at the end of the 13th century, after having marched into the city with his uncle Jalaluddin’s head at the end of a lance, that the tropical heat, the sweeping ‘loo’ blowing across from the western deserts of Southern Baluchistan to the Thar, was too much to bear. And that he would rather bugger off to the more pleasant and purportedly more glamorous (even then?2) climes of Southern France. Via Paris of course, having first taken in the sights.
But I wrote that he did. I claimed, in my 7th class history final exam, that the heat-stricken ruler set off for some well deserved R&R and frolicked, as men of such regal stature are apt to do, with some fine local lasses - one massaged his troubled brow, one fed him grapes, and others fanned him. A few days later, post our Maths final as we played makeshift cricket with thick plywood clamp boards and a red rubber ball, I was called into a higher class (their exams were longer) by our history teacher Mr. Imdad Ali - popularly known as petloo on account of his distended, overhanging belly. He asked after my parents, if there was to be a family holiday, and how I had fared on the history exam. I had cracked it of course. The margins were straight, broad and drawn in red ink, I had spaced out my words cleanly, my handwriting was fairly legible, it even had an distinctive appeal I thought, and importantly, I had written more answer sheets than anyone else in my class. As the older boys sniggered in the prescient knowledge of my humiliation, I began to get a sneaky suspicion that something was amiss. He ruffled my hair, pinched my cheeks, told the class of how good a student I was, of my passion for cricket, and then asked in faux concern: “But baba, when did Allauddin Khilji go to France?”
I was a carefree, cricket obsessed young lad then, hardly different from most others. No mere game to us, it was instead a febrile affliction. If not in narrow by-lanes, driveways, corridors, local grounds, school cricket pitches, or any clear stretch (indoor or out) where a bat (anything at all) could face a ball, we constantly sought out places to play. It was during this time, as my medieval history was being set right and I was vying for a spot on the under-13 school team, that I got hooked on to Book Cricket.
Book Cricket3 was a staple classroom game in India. It involves, quite simply, a thick(ish) school textbook, mostly history, an English reader, or the iconic Wren & Martin English grammar book. Played by bench mates, often surreptitiously by back-benchers (and more openly during SUPW5) this simple empirical pastime, is predicated on the random flipping/choosing of a page and recording the even number result as runs scored. 2,4,6 represented game runs, 8 a single run, and 0 was an out. It was left to the imagination of the players to decide who the batsman at the wicket was, who was bowling and in what manner the batsman was out.
The passing years brought on severe disenchantment towards the popular forms of the game and aside from the 5 day version, I have all but let go of my obsession, only to have it firmly replaced by an abiding fondness for, well, books. Often guilt-ridden at the thought of having betrayed my past, given up on my heroes and having discarded an untainted passion, I have devised this redaction as a reconciliatory gesture. A restful tomb for restive memories is what I am hoping for.
I present here a game of Book Cricket, played by myself, with some arbitrarily chosen books. Nowhere close to an entire match, it instead is best imagined as Session 1 on Day 1, played in some phantom location and on a pitch constituted by the aggregated tempers of iconic venues - from the passionate (and sometimes riotous) spectatorship of Eden Gardens, Kolkata, the famed sea-breeze at National Stadium Karachi, the polite sheen of Lords in London, the rich bounce of Melbourne Cricket Ground, the record breaking nature of Wanderer’s in Johannesburg, the fast pace and Blue Mountains backdrop of Sabina Park, Kingston (and the ‘party stand’), the ‘nicely coming on to the bat’ character of Mohali, to the history and spirit of Chepauk Stadium, Madras etc. The players are chosen entirely on whim.
So here we go. Umpire Dicky Bird signals the start, and as Krishnamachari Srikanth faces Rumesh Ratnayake, I flip A History of South India by KA Nilakantha Shastri to open at page 244. 4 runs. Nice start. Typically Srikanth. Shastri writes here of the medieval conflicts between the Bahmani Sultanate4 that had taken control of a great part of central and South India (the Deccan), and the Vijayanagara kings (both had staked claim on three fertile regions - Tungabhadra Doab, the Krishna-Godavari Delta and Konkan-Marathwada). Ahmad Shah and Vira Vijaya Raya fought on the banks of the river Tungabhadra. Internecine battles saw the invasion of the kingdom of Rajahmundry by the Gajapati dynasty of neighbouring Orissa in 1435.
In 1995, Pat Robertson, the televangelist and Christian Broadcasting Network founder who made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, visited the bustling merchant town of Rajahmundry5 on a proselytizing trip. The town, with its hundreds of temples, draws scores of Hindu pilgrims for ceremonial baths in the river Godavari, particularly during the Pushkaram congregation every 12 years, when millions gather on the river banks known as Koti Lingalu, or Ten Million Shiva Lingas. Commenting on their religious rituals, Robertson was quoted to have chided Hindus for “washing their sins in the sperm of the God”.
Further flips reveal discussions on the river Kaveri, the southern Ganges, and Tamil literature that celebrates it; of the military strategist Kautilya and his seminal work Arthashastra; the account of Megasthenes of the Pandyan kingdom; the institutional monopoly on Sanskrit learning by the Brahmins and the few exceptions to be had then; Deccani style temples, the finest example of which Shastri writes, is the Ambarnath temple6 in Thane, Mumbai, etc. This peregrination yields a total score of 14 runs in the first over. A breezy start.
I then open to a zero numbered page. The first batsman out. A fast in-swinging ball? A classic Imran Khan7 delivery? The book in hand is a fine one indeed – A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport by Ramachandra Guha. The page I have arrived at introduces the reader to early native engagement with the game, based on socio-religious factors, in the process of ‘staking a claim’. Different kinds of Indians took to cricket, Guha informs us, and region and community played critical roles. In a telling indication of identity issues, he quotes a Parsi cricketer:
It is the opinion of many teachers that the Parsee boy takes to cricket as a duck takes to water. The Hindu is slow in learning it, but once attracted to the game he goes on improving. The Mohamaden boy prefers his marbles to bat and ball.
I introduce Mohammed Azharuddin as my next batsman. His dream debut8 against England in 1984-85 signalled the arrival of a great talent – a peculiar manner, awkward somewhat, but oddly skillful and elegant. From a lower middle class Muslim family of Hyderabad, Azhar stayed in a small house not very far away from where I lived, with parents and several siblings. Azhar, or Ajju bhai as we knew him then, was our hero. He not just embodied the aspirations of the Muslim community, Muslim youth, and youth of Hyderabad in general, he also represented the damaged pride of a city in physical and psychological decline. Mercurial, idiosyncratic and still living in the past, the city, since its capitulation to invading Indian forces in September 19489, unable to come to terms with modernity, Nehruvian ideals, new migrants, and the reshaping of its boundaries, was trapped in a sort of torpor. This was signified not just by dispossessed Nawabs sitting around aimlessly in Irani Cafés downing cups of opium tea, geriatric, intractable clerks in government offices who went on four hour lunch breaks, rickshaw drivers who disdainfully looked the other way when asked if free, but also by a collective disengagement with the world at large. It was as if outwardly the city rebuffed all in false pride, but inwardly, its countenance was a mask of sadness and damage. It was truly, a melancholic city.
Certain of Azhar’s fleet-footedness and sweet timing, I pick up Bilkees Latif’s The Essential Andhra Cookbook. The stylish batsman does not disappoint - a 4 on account of page 244. Zarda-e-Aamba is a peculiar dish, described by the writer as ‘golden layers of mango and rice’. I attribute page 84 to a classic Azhar stroke – a sharp flick off his feet to the mid-wicket boundary. Bilkees Latif describes a brilliant dish here. Unique to the region, invoking the diverse influences, from Central Asian, Persian, Mughal, Telangana, Andhra, this meat dish also bears witness to the syncreticism and the composite culture of the Deccan. Chigoor Ka Saalan10 is a mutton curry prepared with tender tamarind leaves and flowers. This unique mixing of flavours and influences offers critical insight into the essential character of the region. Just as it would be ridiculous to purge this mutton of the tamarind leaf that it is so promiscuously involved with, so also strident politics that seeks to ‘decontaminate’ local cultures of religious, linguistic and socio-cultural intermingling, is not just false, but highly problematic as well.
This over yields twelve runs in all as I journey through Raw Banana fry, Date Halwa and Bibi Mariam ki Roti (The Bread of Virgin Mary) on page 40. This zero does not account for a dismissal. It’s a no ball.
Azharuddin’s fall from grace, precipitated by match fixing and illegal betting charges, ended his cricketing career in 2000. The murky side of the sport was revealed to the general public. The involvement of Pakistani and South African cricketers hinted at a broader culture of greed, and cricket, in many ways, changed forever. A handful of players, including Azharuddin11, were banned for life, others faced suspensions, a few received wrist-slaps, some cried foul, some cried publicly defending their honour, a few slipped into oblivion and there was also Hansie Cronje’s12 subsequent death in a plane crash.
I have another tremendously stylish cricketer, both on and off field, batting at the other end – Antigua born, West Indies capped, Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards13. Known for his flamboyance, good looks and charm, he was a fiercely competitive cricketer. Generally unflappable, his style was also marked by insouciance, a cool disregard for the opposition, expressed pointedly each time he danced down the track to hit the ball out of the ground. A true ladies man, one of his lovers was Indian actress Neena Gupta with whom he had a child. Viv Richards exuded a cool, easy and charming love for the game.
I open to Page 42, Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, to score this ‘fragment’:
To impose upon my passion a mask of discretion (of impassivity): this is a strictly heroic value: “It is unworthy of great souls to expose to those around them the distress they feel” (Clotide de Vaux); Captain Paz, one of Balzac’s heroes, invents a false mistress in order to be sure of keeping his best friends wife from knowing that he loves her passionately.
And then on to Tales from Grimm, translated and illustrated by Wanda Gag14, page 192, The Frog Prince:
The next evening, the princess was eating her dinner at the royal table when – plitch, plotch, plitch, plotch – something came climbing up the stairs. When it reached the door, it knocked at the door and cried: Youngest daughter of the King, Open the door for me!
Edgell Rickword’s The Contemporary Muse, offers the following wisdom on Page 400 in the late Geoffrey Grigson’s15 compilation, The Oxford Book of Satirical Verse:
‘What thing did I love that walks the street,
on limping, foul, and garish-leathered feet?
Shall I go through the list from A to Z,
or shall we, sweetheart, take a trip to bed?’
‘Why stir the wasps that rim Fame’s luscious pot?
Love costs us nothing, satire costs a lot!’
Having lost the great Viv Richards here, I must now introduce another batsman. I have not flouted any rules of the game as yet since I’ve not really created many constraints. Keeping it empirically elementary allows for some laxity. But constructing constraints, designing them with sharp-eyed devotion, and introducing them as definitive parameters or smooth operators alike, opens up the narrative to highly individualistic quirks, analytical expression, and psychological games. While this subverts more popular notions of literary narration, it introduces distinct patterns and cadences that may not be at first glance visible.
Inzamam ul Haq takes guard at the crease next as I reach for Harry Mathews’16 My Life in CIA. The sole American member of the French literary group Oulipo17, and a friend of Georges Perec, Mathews, then living in Paris, was often considered and sometimes publicly denounced as a CIA agent. Fed up with being harangued, Mathews decides to play along. He devises exercises for himself in concealment and espionage; he practices dead drops, sets up a phony travel agency with just a post office box, which soon enough finds clientele.
I hit page 42 again. It displays a series of numbers – 01:10, 02:20, 03:30, 04:40 and so on. This is a set of prescriptive train departure times that Mathews presents after a talk to a group of nervous travellers, particularly to those for whom signs/numbers induce paralysis and panic. Departure anxiety may strike with unpredictable virulence and cripple those prone to such dyslexic tendencies. Mathews devises two rules. The numbers above embody the first one - departure times are the same when read left to right or right to left. The second states: “for every departure, a return must be assured that strictly obeys rule one”. The talk was dedicated to a former dyslexic and client, Auguste Blaise, Mathews writes:
…who one day in October, 1968, against my urgent advice, had taken the 04:40 Island Express from Jolarpettai Junction to Bangalore and never been heard of again.
Travelling can be fraught with anxiety. A desired end, a tangible result, can often fuel such anxiety for there is on the one hand the desire for success, and on the other, the fear of failure. The inevitability of the being cheated out of time, by death, is the greatest of a multitude of anxious perturbations. It is then the asynchronous vagabond, the meanderer, the fakir, directionless, aimless and rootless, who personifies the absence of worldly purpose and the many anxieties, vicissitudes it brings. Kim japam muchyate jantur janma samsara bandhanaath. What are the magic words that release us from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth?18 The narrator of Nabakov’s first English novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, while journeying to apprehend the derelict details of his deceased brother’s life, wonders if the enigmatic Sebastian Knight too was not afflicted by such thoughts of the futility (and absurdity) of earthly life. At page 4219 for the third time so far, I find these words of Nabakov’s narrator:
The keynote of Sebastian’s life was solitude and the kindlier fate tried to make him feel by counterfeiting admirably the things he thought he wanted, the more he was aware of his inability to fit into the picture, - any kind of picture.
I seek to partially appease Book Cricket purists (surely already incensed by my dilletantish, cavalier attitude) by now referring to a textbook. The textbook is the truest ‘pitch’ for the game. My choices are limited – two in all. The first was much sought after by those who studied college level mathematics – Walter Rudin’s Principles of Mathematical Analysis20. Not prescribed on syllabus, it was nevertheless a must have and was considered to be the ‘bible of classical analysis’. Unfortunately, my then instructor Mr Tajuddin did not think so. He would instead read aloud proofs whilst copying them out from exam guide books onto the blackboard, pausing occasionally to spit out through the window, the sanguine juices of the paan he just chewed through, so as to once again attain some manner of comprehensible speech.
As I imagine the crafty Shane Warne now bowling to Inzamam, sledging him relentlessly, the stump microphones picking up the sporty (and not so sporty) needling, I reach for the only other textbook I currently possess – Stanley Alten’s Audio in Media.
The portly ex-captain of the Pakistan team smashes a clear six straight into the green roofed Ladies Pavilion at the Sydney Cricket Ground. I have opened page 376 where Binaural Miking21 is discussed. Imprecisely thought of as a stereo microphone technique (in sound and music recording), binaural, as the word suggests, is meant to achieve a realistic spatial aural experience by mimicking, as close as possible, human hearing. A dummy head within which two hi fidelity (omnidirectional capacitors) mics are placed at a distance of 7 inches apart is generally used in recordings. Meant to create the ‘illusion of both the vertical and horizantal planes’, this technique is an interesting psychoacoustic discussion in its relation to Head Related Transfer Functions (HRTFs).
It also invokes a very keen aesthetic/ethical argument, passionately advocated by producer/owner of Waterlily Acoustics, Kavi Alexander22 (a Grammy winner for A Meeting by the River – Ry Cooder/Vishwa Mohan Bhatt). I interviewed him over ten years ago in Santa Barbara. Of Sri Lanka origin, Alexander ran away from home at the age of 17, radicalized in part, he informed me in a long and delightful conversation, by Dean Martin (in Rebel Without A Cause) and Playboy magazines. After working in Europe for a while he eventually moved to America in 1981 where he set up his own recording facility and label. His philosophy is premised on capturing the ‘true fidelity’ of certain kinds of music, particularly chamber and shrine music, in sharp contrast to music industry production styles wherein each component is broken down, recorded separately in an acoustically dead environment (studios), and reconstructed with ‘false’ sonic attributes (post production). Alexander records artists performing live (usually in a Santa Barbara church) with a pair of custom made microphones using near coincident stereo pair techniques (M-S, Blumlein, etc). All the gear he uses is custom made vacuum tube and the only digital process is the final CD mastering. With a spiritualist bent, constantly referencing Sufi/humanist ideals (particularly Rumi), he strongly believes in the ‘ethical’ preservation of ancient forms of music. This is excerpted from our conversation in May 2000:
So what I'm doing on one hand, is trying to preserve the ancient art forms. Technology is not going to save us - this is, this stuff, the spiritual legacy of mankind. Not high sampling rates, Silicon Valley, technology, no. This technology is not based on compassion; it’s based on greed, manipulation, and the subjugation of mankind, of the individual, on denying the individual’s spirituality. You have to go back to the older holistic view of life and where do you find that? In those older traditions.
Thoughts of the use of technology, by whom, in what manner, to what end and the power of its immediacy, its revelatory and insurrectional potency, occupy my mind as I finally look to Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs in the pile of books around me, noting of course, it’s current relevance as we witness the dramatic events in Egypt and the Arab world. I suspect that whichever page I flip to will have portentous meaning. I open to page 104.
Revolution must be distinguished from revolt, coup d’etat, palace takeover. A coup or a palace takeover may be planned, but a revolution – never. It’s outbreak, the hour of that outbreak, takes everyone, even those who have been striving for it, unawares. They stand unawares at the spontaneity that appears suddenly and destroys everything in its path. It demolishes so ruthlessly that in the end it may annihilate the ideals that called it into being.
Some games end. Some never do. My own game here (barely one since all of three overs have been bowled) has to be called off now. I hesitate to make a scorecard, it seems pointless; I decide instead to end with the words of the late Martin Gardner23 who once said:
I just play all the time and am fortunate enough to get paid for it.
* The name of the game, so to speak, appears to me critically linked to its empirical nature and hence – Multi Source Text Random Redaction Cricket or MSTRRC.
2 Franco-Mongol alliances were being forged during this period and Philip IV was keenly negotiating to keep the common enemy, the Mamluks, at bay. Rabban Sawma, an envoy of the Mongols, was a prominent figure. Here’s an interesting online text:
3 Here’s a lovely post by a Madras based blogger eulogizing Book Cricket
The rules of the game have a few variants although the general principle is much the same.
I came across this rather peculiar version:
An interesting piece by Ayaz Memon on Cricket books
5 SUPW was a compulsory subject in the Central Board of Secondary Education school system and is an acronym for the delightfully silly Socially Useful Productive Work. It involved doing nothing for most of the year, occasionally a quasi-botanical trip, and in our 10th class, in anticipation of our final exams, we finally saw some action – an eggplant crossed with a tomato.
4 J.D.B.Gribble’s A History of the Deccan is available online:
5 Rajahmundry has great historic significance and is at least a 1000 years old. It is part of the fertile Krishna-Godavari coastal Andhra belt, the region from where my ancestors originated.
8 Azharuddin’s international cricketing debut was on 31st Dec 1984 against England in Calcutta.
In 2009, Azharuddin contested parliamentary elections and won the seat of Moradabad on a Congress Party ticket. Here’s a interesting piece by Mukul Kesavan:
9 See my piece in Open, The Fall of Hyderabad, here:
10 No online recipe for this dish unfortunately. But here’s something on Hyderabadi food:
11 For those interested here’s the full text of the Central Bureau of Investigation’s report:
12 There was much speculation over Hansie Cronje’s death in 2002, many sources claiming he was murdered. Here’s an article from then:
14 Wanda Gag, the Minnesota born artist/author/illustrator is famously known for her book, Millions of Cats.
15 A well known and regarded anthologist, Geoffery Grigson died in 1985, around when I first purchased the book I cite.
16 Wonderful interview with Harry Mathews in The Paris Review
17 The Oulipo Compendium:
and a nice resource…
18 These Sanskrit words, from the Vishnu Sahasranama Stotram (the 1000 names of Vishnu) alludes to the concept of Samsara explored in several Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
19 This repetitive page result suggests a possible constraint, a game variant: one could hypothetically play MSTRRC by opening to the same randomly chosen page number of a series of books. The score is already known here if the number of books is decided upon. The choosing of the page number can be constructed through a series of constraints – say for instance, the 5th member of a series (one must predetermine what kind of series) generated by the price of a jar of mango pickle randomly picked from the shelf of a store, or if one is so inclined, stolen surreptiously.
21 A binaural recording podcast…
A binaural resource…
22 On Waterlily Acoustics…
23 Martin Gardner’s obituary
Posted by Gautam Pemmaraju at 12:55 AM | Permalink