Monday, June 22, 2009

The flower girl

You go downtown to buy yourself some books and beer. Yes, it’s an evening for vices and kicks (wisekicks?).
After gorging yourself at the Premier Bookshop, you’re ready for beer. You turn the corner and walk down Church Street. The evening crowd is beginning to thicken. As you’re about to follow the invite of the Carnatic music and climb up the stone steps into Coconut Grove, you’re stopped by a girl.
She’s pretty as the setting sun. Dressed immaculately in turquoise. Selling flowers. Speaks impeccable English. And, oh, she’s twelve or thereabouts.
It’s ten bucks to the rose, but you cannot refuse. Because you sense an urgency buried under her calm and pleasing demeanour, a quality that whispers like a distant waterfall. You ask her a couple of questions and learn a little about her life. She attends school in the morning and sells roses in the evening. She’s been doing it for many years now. No, she isn’t scared.
The last answer is given on the trot, for she spots another customer and hails him. A middle-aged man. Who puts an arm around her shoulder and caresses her. Makes her walk alongside. Bends to talk to her, till he’s a whisker away from kissing her. Meanwhile, his hands continue exploring. The girl neither turns away nor conveys alarm.
You watch, and beg your legs not to turn into jelly. The girl’s past-present-future flashes in front of your eyes. You turn away, walk up the stone steps. Beer. Need beer. A moment later, you find your jelly feet firming up, returning down the stairs, and walking towards the middle-aged man and the 12-year-old girl. You stop two feet away. You gaze at the man intently. He ignores you for 30 seconds, then asks, ‘Yes?’
‘It’s not right, what you’re doing,’ you say.
‘Not right.’
Your “insinuation” finally “dawns” on the man. He’s outraged.
‘Bastard and all that! How dare you? I’ve known her for years. Ask her,’ he shouts. Some people halt and watch.
‘Is that right? Do you know him?’ you ask the girl.
She nods-shakes her head. She doesn’t know which side to take. The man shouts some more, then seeing no response from you, ups the ante. He now wants to beat you to pulp if you aren’t careful. You ask him to back his claim. He sizes you up and decides against it. He walks away, but he’s still outraged. Such allegations against such a decent man.
The girl has also disappeared through the cracks in the confrontation. Her “Uncle” must have watched the scene from a short distance. Uncle has a busy job. He has to make sure the girl – and others like her – delivers profits every day. When required, he brokers peace with (or wages war against) troublesome stakeholders of the street: cops, rivals and busybodies like you. He ferries the young girls and boys from distant suburbs every evening, and ferries them back late in the night, once they’ve sold their entire clutch of flowers. And from all accounts, he doesn’t mind the occasional groper amidst the public. Such folks indirectly train the girl for what lies ahead, her true calling, which could begin – why! – next summer.
These details, you’ll learn later. For now, you’ve borrowed outrage from the middle-aged man. You want to do something. You think this must be featured in newspapers. That would change the situation, huh? So you call this Page 33333333333 newspaper, which is situated right around the corner. You’re patched through to the beat journalist. She listens to your story, but only till you’re into your third sentence.
‘Oh yes, the rose girl in turquoise. I know.’
‘Will you, er, do anything about it?’
Not possible. They’re fine. It’s a benign operation run by that nameless Uncle. No need to worry.
You call friends with a more proven ability to feel outrage. Fifteen minutes later, you have the number of three NGOs and the Child Helpline. The latter is not available (after hours). The NGO representatives are sympathetic, even, yes, outraged. But, in direct and oblique terms, you’re told that you (and they) have no locus-standii. They would, of course, fare better than you when reporting the incident to a cop. Only slightly better. And with preparation, proof and all that, they could actually get custody of the girl. But it won’t happen in a jiffy. Not tonight. Not without a prolonged fight.
You slap the back of your head. Hard. You live in a country where even the father does not have locus-standii vis-a-vis his daughter unless the mother’s happy with him. You must shed your illusions. Fast.
Beer. You need beer.

What’s with Dhoni?

When I returned to India after a brief hiatus, IPL 2 was in full swing. Of course, I had followed the action over the net, and for a couple of days, on a Thai hotel TV. But now, watching the matches in my own living room, often without multi-tasking, I observed subtle changes in Dhoni. The first change was the way he handled the post-match presentation ceremonies: the Chennai Superkings captain, I thought, had become quite verbose.

When the presenter asked him if the pitch offered something to the bowlers early on, Dhoni gave him a complete match summary, including what his boys did right, what they did wrong and what they must now do. This wasn’t the Dhoni of old. A couple of years ago, this surprisingly articulate man – from Bang Nowhere, mind you – was such a joy to listen to. His answers would be crisp, to the point. Almost as if he was challenging the presenter to ask the right questions. And suddenly, his answers were directed not to the presenter but to his own subconscious.

The Uber Cool had become Deliberately Cool. Now, there was an edge in Dhoni’s nonchalance. As if he had suddenly realized that he had much to lose. And since this was happening when the Superkings were comfortably placed on the League Table, I reached the intrusive and unkind conclusion that something’s not quite right in his personal life. Such is the price an Indian cricketer pays for his fame – a casual “expert” like me is entitled (ahem!) to let his imagination run wild.

As the games progressed, though, I felt a tad justified. Dhoni was messing up behind the stumps, but not because he was in a flurry. Rather, he was losing a few micro-moments to the slow-motion playing in his brain. Even more telling was the fact that he was occasionally showing his displeasure when one of his boys erred on the field.

Well, it bothered me. No, I wasn’t cheering the Superkings. But the T20 World Cup was right around the corner – there was barely enough time for Dhoni to get his act together and knit a team out of our mavericks. Everything depended on that.

Needless to say, the first warm-up match against New Zealand was a good enough indicator of things to come. The All New Unimproved Dhoni had showed up to defend the cup. I wrote a Facebook entry: Not getting positive vibes this time, and left it at that.

Meanwhile, the rest of the fraternity was getting uppity about a different failure on Dhoni’s part: his batting. The fact that he wasn’t unleashing the huge hits that signalled his arrival on the world scene. Hello? Where has everybody been? Dhoni hasn’t played a swashbuckling innings since… well, here’s the thing and there’s no escaping it… Dhoni hasn’t played a swashbuckling innings since Dravid was unceremoniously chucked out of the Indian ODI side. Yeah. Once Dravid left, Dhoni choose to be the sheet anchor, the Dravid-like finisher.

What other option did he have? Gifted though the Indian batting lineup was – with the likes of Gambhir, Sehwag, Yuvraj, Rohit and Raina – it would have evident to the new captain that all of them were stroke-makers. None was natural in the ship-steadying business. So. Like a true leader, Dhoni decided to be the grown-up. Perhaps he had searched deep within and determined that he liked caution. Perhaps the role, once assumed, became his own. Either ways, Dhoni played this role superbly, winning us a series of ODI series. Over the past couple of years, he walked in at number 3, 4, 5, 6 or even 7, and did the job. Especially in the half-crumbling, half-sleeping sub-continental pitches. This was run-a-ball Dhoni. A half-century without a single boundary. Or 70 in 65 balls. Or 80 in 70 balls. The one aberration to this glorious run was an ODI we lost with Dhoni returning to the pavilion, not out, after a long innings. It had been a reasonable run-a-ball innings, but India had needed more. That evening, I cindered the memories of his early batting. I decided that his Nagpur blitzkrieg, his mind-numbing assault on the Aussies and Pakis, are unrepeatable acts. This T20 World Cup must have driven most fans to the same conclusion, I suppose.

But I still remain a fan of Dhoni. A huge one at that. Of course, I could have been a gargantuan fan had Dravid been around. (Remember, just before he was dropped, Dravid had scored 92 in 60 balls against a spirited English attack. So his days as a plodder were definitely behind him. He had become a true situational maestro in the 50-over game.) And with Dravid (or an apt replacement) wearing blue, we probably wouldn’t have seen the Dhoni Ferrari driving on the slow lane.

This transformation of the Jharkhand juggernaut, and his eventual inability to bat in higher gears, also tells us that batting – more so aggressive batting – is predominantly about pre-programmed hand-eye coordination. The body takes over, the retinas make the muscles move, the ball disappears. Not much to do with mental strength. That plays a role between deliveries, when the body is fidgeting.

In Dhoni’s case, the pre-program has changed. If he wants to bat in a higher gear again, he needs to go back to the nets and allow his body to relearn the Big Bang drills. He must bring that game to the T20 format. As for the 50-50 format, well, run-a-ball Dhoni’s as good as it gets.