Friday, 7 July 2017

BHARAT DARSHAN TRAVELOGUE: KALAHANDI- THE 'NOT SO' DARK REALITY

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception”- Aldous Huxley

A frail and diminutive woman wills her body along the muddy road with her back crouched, bent by the weight of sheer poverty. She treads along, her vacant eyes staring into nothingness. She carries a frail child in her arms. She will go on to sell that child. For a pittance of 40 rupees and 2 sarees. This has gone on to become the defining image of Kalahandi.

Even today, the name conjures up vivid images of starving people living in desolate conditions. This was the perception with which we proceeded for our 10-day district attachment in Kalahandi. Little did we know then that by the end of it, our perception was going to change.

(Source:www.ketto.org)


We packed our bags and headed for the district preparing ourselves for the worst.  Instead, we witnessed large houses and commercial establishments on widened roads that were well-lit with newly installed streetlights. Much to our surprise, there was even a multiplex with a 13-seater special theatre screening the latest Bollywood movies, something that cannot be found even in many metros.

The paradox of Kalahandi is that it has remained one of the most backward districts in the country, despite being endowed with a bounty of ecological, mineral, and cultural resources. 

Over the next few days, as we traversed through the district, we could see lush green paddy fields on both sides of the roads dotting the landscape, where farmers were busy throwing liberal amounts of fertilizer onto their fields. In contrast to the parched earth that we expected to see. 

The once prosperous region was brought down to its knees by a series of droughts and famines that had occurred in the 1920s. The final blow was the drought of 1965-66 that not only broke the economy of the region but also the spirit of the people. The lack of rainfall had resulted in continuous crop failure. The majority of the population, who were agricultural laborers found themselves without a job. The rich became poor and the poor became poorer and the poorest became destitute.

And then came the Indravati Project. Set up in the early 2000s, it has radically changed the face of the entire district. With a steady supply of water, agriculture started to revive. The erstwhile fallow land has begun to witness double-cropping of rice.  The cultivation of rice has grown to such an extent that Kalahandi, derogatorily referred to as India’s Ethiopia, today has become the 2nd largest rice procurer in the state.

With paddy production going over the roof, rice mills have begun sprouting near the fields that has put the economic trajectory of the district on the up. So much so that today, people are migrating from the adjoining districts of Andhra Pradesh to cash in on the prosperity. After all, not everybody loves a good drought.
*

Kalahandi is home to the infamous Niyamgiri hills that has been subject to much controversy in the recent times. Home to the indigenous Dongria Kondh tribe amidst pristine forests, it is also a rich source of Bauxite- an industrially and commercially important mineral. Having already ingested several editorials on the issue, we were aware of the plight of the tribals. A visit to Vedanta Ltd in Lanjigarh enabled us to see the other side of the coin.

The Vedanta plant was an industrial behemoth with a large network of pipes, storage cylinders and huge tanks. Trolley cars were chugging along efficiently transporting the bauxite from one centre to the other.  An aptly named digestion tank was breaking down the aluminium in it's belly. The entire plant was coated in a grim red colour, perhaps a reminder of the plight of the Niyamgiri people who reside on the hills that overlook the factory like a mute spectator. 

Discussions with the officials covered various issues such as hindrances to development and over-sensationalization of the matter. It led us to conclude that there were concerns on both the parties involved and had there been some rational heads involved in the decision making, an amicable solution could have been arrived with everyone happier at the end of the day.
*

Situated at 72 km from Bhawanipatna, the district capital, lies the scenic block of Thuamul Rampur. Which also happened to be one of the most backward tribal areas in the district. Though the visit was a long winding one that had sapped our energies, it was definitely worth it.
Known as the Kashmir of Kalahandi for the snowfall it receives during the winter season, it was once a thriving tourist destination in the state. Continued neglect and lack of initiatives led to the tourists moving to better pastures. The erstwhile tourist complex has today become a dilapidated building, run down by the ravages of time, standing as a silent witness to the changing times.

There were two defining visits on that day- both to primary schools very close to each other and both so different from the other. The first one was an example of everything wrong with the education system. Absent teachers, broken blackboards, unfurnished classrooms, poor ventilation, cramped space, dysfunctional bathrooms, and an erratic power supply. As we walked through the school, we witnessed the portents of a demographic disaster.

With laden hearts, we proceeded to the next school which was a stark contrast to the previous one. With well-manicured gardens running along the boundaries of the walls and tall imposing statues of religious figures, the school was being run by an enlightened individual who took upon this institution as his life’s mission. Motivated teachers, robust infrastructure systems and a speckles environment, it was a model school for the entire region. We even got a chance to interact with the highly talented students. Particularly, a young tribal girl who had enthralled us with her sharp singing. 

As I lost myself in her melodious song, there was only one question haunting my mind- what if there were such hidden talents in the other school who will remain hidden forever.
*

Traversing back on the long winding road, we realized that not everything is hunky dory; the recent Dana Majhi episode bears testimony to the fact. Nor is Kalahandi the same poverty-stricken district it was a few decades ago.

Kalahandi’s past was a dark one. The future, certainly is not.










-           

Monday, 19 June 2017

The promise of an all-rounder

It is just 13.3 overs into the Indian innings. Normally the stage of the match where Rohit and Dhawan continue to pile misery on the bowlers. Instead, Pandya comes into bat. He hardly ever gets that many overs to bat on a normal day. But this is not a normal day.

It is the finals of the Champions Trophy. Against their arch-rivals Pakistan. The team that supposed to be knocked out in the group stages. The team whose batting was renowned for not making 300 plus targets.

Instead, the scorecard reads 54-5. The best batting line up had wilted away in spectacular fashion under the onslaught of Amir, who has just recovered from a back-spasm. Rohit Sharma, he the sole possessor of double double-centuries in limited overs cricket, was beaten for pace, swing and almost everything else for nought. The best batsman on the planet, was worked out not once but twice off consecutive balls. Shikhar Dhawan, who has engraved his name in Champions Trophy Hall of Fame, managed to survive a bit longer, but soon nicked one in the corridor of uncertainty. Three batsmen, who had piled up 900 runs between them with a combined average of 90.87, back in the hut for scores of 0, 21 and 5. Game, Set, Match.

                                                                  *

14 overs had gone by. The scorecard read 78-0. Pandya is brought into the attack. On a normal day, Pakistan’s top order would have self-combusted in spectacular fashion. But then, this is not a normal day.

The parsimonious Bhuvaneshwar failed to get any swing from the placid pitch, Bumrah failed to get his robotic-precision yorkers and instead started gifting no-balls and wides (3 and 5 respectively) and the spin duo of Ashwin and Jadeja were swatted around the park like harmless flies. The newly famed bowling attack was taken to the shredders.
                                                             
                                                                   *
(Source: www.cricinfo.com)

Pandya brought up his 50 with a monstrous six off Shadab Khan, the third consecutive of the over off just 32 balls. On a pitch that was nothing short of a batting paradise, he was the only batsman who was striking it cleanly from ball one. This was not the typical ‘the-match-is-already-over’ mindless slog but a display of proper power hitting. Maybe, it was a bit too late and eventually it would not have had any consequence on the result but it showed promise of his potential in the days to come.

                                                                   *

Pandya was supposed to be the weakest link in the Indian attack. Bogged down by the nagging length of the seamers and the accuracy of the spinners, he was the bowler the opposition targeted. He was introduced only after Kohli decided that he could not hide him any longer.

He hurried the ball, got them to rap on the pads, skirted the outside edge more than once and by the end of his first spell, his figures read 4-0-17-0. Not bad for the fifth bowler. Even as Pakistan kept piling on the runs on a pitch that had literally nothing for the bowlers (Amir and Co. would disprove that later in the day), he kept bowling his heart out. He eventually dismissed Fakhar Zaman getting the centurion to miscue a slog. Maybe it was a bit too late and eventually it would not have had any consequence on the result but it showed promise of his potential in the days to come.

                                                                   *

The ODI format is undergoing radical changes in a struggling bid to maintain its relevance. Even the English, who had refused staunchly to change their playing style since the time bowling was done a-la Trevor Chappell, have dusted their cobwebs, and embraced the modern game with explosive batsmen who tee off from the word go. India, on the other hand, largely continues to play percentage cricket with their frontline batsmen taking time to settle before going for the big shots. The only exception being Hardik Pandya who can go bonkers from the very first ball, as was evident in the league match against Pakistan, when he was promoted ahead of Dhoni and Jadhav to do the finishing duties.
                                                                            
                                                                   *

India has been on an elusive quest for a seam-bowling all-rounder ever since the days Kapil Dev enthralled the crowds with his deadly out-swingers and fearless hitting. Not to mention the shiny locks and striking moustache that had inspired the fashion sense of an entire generation of cricket viewers.

It is too early to talk of Pandya on the lines of Dev. His flashy chains, tattooed biceps and gelled hair may not have the same effect as Dev. But his cricketing skills definitely show promise.  
                                                                             
                                                             
                                                              ***






Friday, 17 March 2017

BHARAT DARSHAN TRAVELOGUE: WARRIORS OF WALONG

Tucked away in the north eastern most corner of north east India lies a natural paradise that has witnessed one of the bloodiest battles fought on the Indian soil. A battle in which the greatly outnumbered Indians refused to bow down to the Chinese. A battle of grit, tenacity, and determination. A battle whose story remains forgotten in the annals of history. As we embarked on a journey with the Army (to Walong in Arunachal Pradesh) revisiting those episodes in history, we got a glimpse into the life of the indefatigable Indian Jawan. 

By the time, we reached Walong, the sun had begun to recede its long rays casting a pall over the entire town. While the rest of the town had retired into their homes causing an eerie emptiness in the place, there was a buzz of activity in the army camp. Guarding. Patrolling. Surveilling. Drills. Exercises. Sports. The Jawan goes on about his duty meticulously day and night like a well-oiled machine.

Our first visit was to a newly constructed memorial on top of a small hillock overseeing the air-strip, commemorating the martyrs who had laid down their lives in the Battle of Walong in 1962. There were helmets. Guns. Photographs. Bullets. Poignant tales. More helmets. Remainders and reminders of those who defied all odds to fight the Chinese till their last breath.

A tall statue of a soldier, aptly named the ‘Soldier in Silence’ stands overlooking the valley where the battle was fought. There were names inscribed over the walls. 6 Kumaon, 4 Sikh 4 Dogra, 3/3 Gurkha rifles, 2/8 Gurkha Rifles and 2 Assam Rifles. Martyrs reduced to mere names.

As we stood there paying our respects, the flame in the large urn kept flickering in the blustery wind, refusing to die out, just like those soldiers. On the wall, emblazoned in large white letters were the words “LEST WE FORGET” – a grim yet telling reminder of the historical amnesia that the nation suffers from.



Before the break of dawn, we made our way to another memorial, ‘The Hut of Remembrance’ in the Namti Plains, where the Indian defences withstood the Chinese onslaught for 22 days.

Ensconced on all sides by the snow-capped mountains dotted with pine trees lie the idyllic Namti plains. The auburn grassland carpeted over the undulating plains that looked straight out of Van Gogh masterpiece. As the sun peeked out of the clouds casting a glow on our faces, the army men recounted the tale of the Battle of Walong.
On the fateful 26th day of October in 1962, the Chinese had launched an offensive against the Namti defences with the aim of capturing Walong. The Indians had everything going against them- freezing weather, inhospitable terrain, limited resources, outdated weapons and a powerful enemy. The Indians were heavily outnumbered with just 3000 men as opposed to the 15000 on the opposite side. But what they lacked in numbers, they more than made up for it with courage.

The Chinese sent troops after troops but the Indians offered stiff resistance with all that they could muster. Armed with aggression, valour and obduracy, they defied all odds to stop the Chinese juggernaut. The Sikhs, Dogras and Kumaons fought and fought. Even after they had been struck down. With their very bare hands, refusing to throw in the towel. Eventually, the Chinese broke the Indian rear-guard but by then, they had lost 5 times the men India had.

Such was the tenacity with which the Indians fought that the Chinese, even today, refers it as “Tiger’s mouth”. It was fitting that the Time Magazine had remarked “At Walong, Indian troops lacked everything. The only thing they did not lack was gut.”

Today, in the Namti Plains, there lives a solitary man in a solitary house with the serene Lohit gliding along gently, a silent witness to the ravages of time.

The high point, literally and metaphorically, of our journey was the trek to Hill 90, India’s eastern most border point. Starting from Kibithu, we were accompanied by a brigadier and his young son who put us to shame as they raced along without breaking a sweat while we were drenched profusely in the cold weather.

As I huffed and puffed my way on a winding path that seemed to go upwards and upwards, I just had a single thought plaguing my mind- the difficulty that the soldier has to face while carrying weapons and supplies to the post.

As I reached the top, I knew that I would not mind trekking again and again to reach here. Several thousand metres above sea level, there were several Jawans tirelessly guarding our borders unmindful of the adverse conditions that they had to put up with.
From the vantage point, we were able to see the infamous Line of Actual Control with our naked eye. Surrounded by hills, valleys, and ridges, we saw the contested pieces of land that has led to disputes between the two neighbours.  

On the other end, we could see the extensive road network that China had built right till the border and the new settlements that are being installed aggressively by relocating people. On the home front, the army men elaborated lucidly the high level of preparedness, robust infrastructure system in place and the strategy deployed in case any eventuality should arise.
As we walked our way down Hill 90, reassured that India is in safe hands, I was reminded of the solemn pledge inscribed in the memorial in Namti Plains- Walong will never fall again.  







Wednesday, 8 March 2017

India shows intent...finally

In the 33rd over of the first innings, Lyon ambles up and pitches the ball near the off-stump. The ball hits the rough, bounces and turns into the batsman. The batsman goes back into the crease. He is rumoured to score runs even while sleeping. He is said to possess wrists that could flick any ball to the boundary. Instead, he shoulders arms. The ball thuds into his pads. In his counterpart’s words, Kohli had what could be described as a brain-fade. A classic example of lacking intent, that he had exhorted his team mates for in the previous match.

Lyon kept bowling similar balls. Over after over. And it fetched him wicket after wicket. Pujara was caught in the crease. Rahane failing to read the straighter one. Saha edged a skidder to slips. Nair deceived by flight.  In the end, his figures read 8-50, the best by an overseas bowler on Indian shores.

There was prodigious bounce and turn on offer. But the Chinnasamy had no demons lurking inside the pitch a-la Pune. India needed their batsmen to put their head down, set in for a long haul, show some application and grind down the opposition. Instead, they capitulated in spectacular style reminiscent of the first match.
*


The scorecard reads 120-4 in the second innings. The Jadeja experiment had failed. DRS continued to frustrate Kohli. The lead was a mere 33 runs. They were trailing 1-0 in the series and staring down the barrel. Australia knew they were just a couple of wickets away from an unassailable lead in the series. Suddenly, Smith’s dream of an unexpected series win did not seem so fanciful.

In walked Rahane, who had not crossed 30 in 9 of his last 10 innings and who had been playing off-spinners with the same assurance with which Raina plays the short ball. He joined Pujara, who had scratched, edged and survived his way to 34. Australia sensed the kill. 

Smith immediately turns to his best-bowler. Lyon turns the ball viciously. He gets the ball to spit venomously from the pitch. The outside edge is beaten. A catch is dropped. All in the same over. A wicket should have fallen. Yet it did not. Somehow, the batsmen survive. They refused to bow down. They battled on.

Pujara began to show the discipline that had come to define his batting style. He left balls outside his off stump in a religious manner bordering on fanaticism. He defended like his very existence depended upon it. He scored only when the ball was pleading to be hit.

Rahane was not in his usual stroke-making elements. He curbed his natural instinct to drive. He was scratchy, dogged and even ugly at times but he kept on rotating the strike, never letting the bowlers bog him down. So much so that Australia managed to bowl only 8 maidens during the entire partnership. And by the time the lead had crossed 100, only 1 maiden was bowled.  

As the overs passed by, the batsmen began to feel more assured. The pitch became slower and the bowlers did not pose the same threat. The ones and twos had now turned into boundaries and the scoreboard was ticking along. For the first time in the series, Australia were playing catch-up.

Pujara and Rahane batted their way through 46.2 overs, forging the highest partnership of the series and definitely, the most defining one. Eventually, it took a fire-spitting spell from Starc to end the partnership. By then, the duo had put together 118 runs and the lead had grown to 151. Australia were all but out of the match.

When Kohli was dismissed, Australia had cut the snake’s head. They thought that the body would fall off. Little did they know they were dealing with a Hydra.

**

Pic courtesy: www.icc-cricket.com

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Neocolonization of the Gentleman's Game

When a few enterprising gentlemen from the East India Company decided to colonise India, they came armed not just with modern artillery, a strong naval fleet, and mercantile policies, but also with bats and balls. Because, Cricket was never seen as just a game. It was more than mere runs and wickets.

The British used the game as an instrument to impose imperial order, glorify their rule and transmit English values in the colonies. They used the game to impose moral standards on the unenlightened Indian populace. For long, the sahebs would play the game under the sun. The native was only allowed to watch from afar.

But the native would not remain a stranger to the game. He would adopt it, get better at it and use the very game as a form of imperial resistance and nationalism. He would eventually, transform the very English of English games (and they have invented quite a lot of them) into a game that has become essentially Indian in essence and character. Today, the gentle claps from stiff-lipped gentlemen in tweed jackets and wide-brimmed hats in Lords has given way to the raucous and passionate fan of the Eden Gardens.

Clubs were formed. Associations created. Teams organized. And soon, the country had begun to produce players of fine calibre like CK Nayudu and Lala Amarnath. But as a team, they were yet to make a presence felt on the global arena. They neither had the economic clout of England or Australia nor the sheer brilliance of the West Indies. They were the Sri Lanka of the 80s and the Bangladesh of the 90s.

It all changed in 1983.

It is said that catches win matches but Kapil’s catch would not only win the first world cup for his country but go on to change the cricketing landscape of India and the world. It was the time the humble television started to become popular in the households. It was also the time when Indian hockey was on a decline. The world cup winners were the heroes people were seeking for. The players gained popularity among the masses the game spread through the nook and corners of the country. Cricket’s pivot to India had begun.

24 years down the line, another Indian captain would go on to win the first T20 world cup which led to the consolidation of India’s hegemony in world cricket.

Today, India heads a unipolar power structure in the cricket politick. The rise has been a reflection of the fast-growing economy and increasing purchasing power of the citizenry in the country. The country’s market grew with its growing middle class and the sheer size of its cricket crazy population lends it enormous weight.

India is dubbed as the commercial centre of gravity of the game and accounts for 80% of the game’s revenue and 75% of the viewership. In the words of Gideon Heigh, “the world is witnessing the Indianisation of cricket, where nothing India resists will occur, and everything it approves of will prevail”.

The BCCI, the apex governing body of cricket in India, has grown into a multi-headed hydra spreading its tentacles everywhere. It decides whom India will tour and who would tour them. It rearranges matches held elsewhere to suit television viewers in India. It even changes rules to decide how the game will be played to suit its needs, a classic example being the DRS. It even refused to come under the ambit of the World Anti-Doping Agency, simply because it did not want to. India is to the ICC what the United States is to the UN.

The growth of the IPL is merely symptomatic of the shift in the economic power from the developed bloc to the emerging world. The cash-cow of Indian cricket has upset traditional cricketing structures. There is money involved in it like never before. Teams across the world are adjusting their calendars to participate in the IPL. Many players have made it abundantly clear that they will prefer the league over national commitments simply because it is too good money to lose. Even England, the lone country to put up a resistance against the IPL, have come to terms with it.

Cricket in the country has become a way of life. Players are not mere mortals- but gods and demi-gods. People perform pujas before matches. They shower love and adulation when the team wins. And they break houses and burn effigies when the team loses. The inordinate amount of passion generated by the fans led Ashish Nandy to remark that Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British.

On the other hand, English cricket today is undergoing dynamic changes with more players of Indian origin representing the national team and at grass-root levels. It is estimated that in the coming decade or two, half of the English team will have players with subcontinental origin. Quite ironic, considering the fact that the princely Ranjitsinghji was long denied a spot in the England team just because he was brown.

Decades ago, the English took their cricket wherever they went, acting as missionaries of the game, spreading it in their colonies. Today, we find the Indian diaspora carrying their game to America and other parts of Europe, introducing the game among the locals Cricket has truly become an Indian game.


The iconic Lord’s still remains the home of the game. But it’s heart beats at Wankhede.

The Great Himalayan Trek

Of all the discoveries that man has made since inception, it is said that the discovery of self is the most difficult one. No one knows how it will happen and when. For some, it is a momentary spark; for others, a long drawn out journey. For the members of Trek Group No.14, it took a trek in the majestic Himalayas to discover their selves.

It is said that a journey is made memorable largely due to its members and ours was no exception. The group was a motley mix of people from various backgrounds, characters, and interests. Few were friends already, few mere acquaintances and few complete strangers. It was akin to a salad bowl where all the vegetables retain their individual flavour and characteristics. But together, they bring their own unique taste. And such was the case with our group. What started out as a mix of different people ended up becoming very good friends.

When we started out, we had been given the infamous tag of being the “softest” trek as we had to cover only a distance of 71 km. This put us at great ease and happiness. But once the trek was over, we came to know that neither was it an easy trek nor a short one.

The first leg of the trek was at Uttarkashi situated on the banks of Bhagirathi river, one of the two major headstreams of the holy Ganges. Mythology accords Bhagirathi as the source stream of Ganges and it is considered as a holy river in its own right. It was our luck that we stayed very close to the river- the so called “river view” for which we have to shell out thousands elsewhere. Many of us made use of the opportunity and took a dip- some their entire body and some just their fingers- to absolve any supposed sins that we might have accumulated in our short lifetime. We do not know whether we became purified but we certainly were frozen due to the cold waters.

The high point, literally and metaphorically, of our journey was Dayara Bugyal- a picturesque landscape carpeted with lush green meadows whose beauty would have made a Monet jealous. To reach the destination, we had to undergo a strenuous journey from Baarsu where the only way was upwards and further upwards. Time, invariably begins to slow down when we trek uphill- even a minute feels like an hour. We were exhausted beyond imagination but once we reached Dayara Bugyal, we realized that the hard trek was worth it.

Nestled at an altitude of 3200 metres, the vast alpine meadows stretched endlessly over the horizon. The bugyals (or meadows) are inhabited by the local nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal tribes who let their cattle graze to their heart’s content. The locals consider the area to be sacred and believe that the bugyal is home to a natural deity.

It indeed looked as if the deity had spent some extra time here exhibiting his handwork. Secluded away from the rubric of modern day developments, it was the perfect place to be in harmony with oneself and contemplate on nothingness, with the clouds circling a few feet above our heads.

We pitched our tents under the star lit sky and as darkness engulfed, we could hear ourselves as even nature had gone to sleep. That night, where we sat around the bonfire forging bonds in those dancing flames are sure to be etched forever in our memories.  In the morning, the sun peeked out of the dense clouds, bathing the majestic snow clad peaks of Neelkanth, Srikanth and Bandarpooch Hills, creating a radiating glow.

Sometimes, the destination makes the journey worthwhile and at times, it is the very journey that is a delight. Our route from Lata to Belak was definitely not the latter. Infested with tortuous ravines, almost perpendicular slopes, and slippery tracks where we could not trust our own feet, it seemed that it was nature’s way of putting man in its rightful place. At one particularly treacherous route, where a fall would have resulted in broken bones, many of us, who were hitherto steadfast atheists, became staunch believers of the almighty. But it was at that stage where each member of the group ensured all of us reached safely. In times of adversity, the members showed their courage which solidified strongly the bonds of friendship that had been formed already.

We kept on trudging through uphill and the mountains were teasing us throughout the way. At one juncture, it would appear as if the peak was just a few metres away creating a sense of false hope and lull. But once we reached, we would be confronted with yet another peak. This continued for a while till we stopped believing the mountainous mirages. We kept plodding along till we began to hear some human voices. It happened to be the members of Trek Group No. 8. A sense of relief swept over us when we realized that we were not alone.

In Belak, we stayed in Gujjar huts, that were comparatively large in size for a thatched hut. Built out of stones available from the nearby area, they were designed and maintained to suit their day to day lives. The huts were multifunctional in nature with the entire space serving as hall, bedroom, and kitchen.

The stay at Gujjar huts made us realize something important- that we take many things for granted and we realize that only when we do not have them. Used to snug, warm beds and cosy rooms at the academy, it was strange to sleep on a bare floor in our sleeping bags. As the embers flickered in the fireplace, we realized that the people who lived here faced immense hardships- for even drinking water was a luxury that had to be fetched from a considerable distance. It opened new perspectives into the way people lead their lives in these parts of the country.

The leg from Belak to Budhakedar was indeed remarkable for the very fact that all the members of the group, irrespective of their fitness and injury status, showed immense fortitude and solidarity. We traversed downhill through dense silver oaks and stout deodars rhododendrons at a speed that would have made our PT instructors proud. Throughout the route, we were accompanied by the youthful Balganga river whose pacy flow probably egged us to go faster. The river bid farewell to us by merging into the Dharmaganga river once we reached Budhakedar. As we neared Budhakedar, we sighted a few small shops and houses that hinted at civilization. After spending three days in the very lap of nature, we felt happy yet sad to see the towns that we were so used to.

Our journey ended at Ghuttu, one of the smaller hamlets situated on the banks of Bhilganga River. The village, with its rustic way of life, was beautiful in its own right and it was fitting that we completed the trek in a place ensconced by mountains.

Travel is said to be a great teacher and the trek taught us many a thing. It pushed the limits of our physical and mental barriers to the fullest and we came out stronger and happier. We realized that man has been very alien to nature and the journey made us appreciate even more. Throughout the trek, nature had surprised, delighted, shocked and excited us and in the end, embraced us.

As our bus made its long winding way back to Mussoorie, we reflected back on that one week in the Himalayas that we would cherish for the rest of our lives. 


Sunday, 31 January 2016

The flame still flickers

Sports is no stranger to comebacks. Both the good ones and the bad ones.

On one end of the spectrum, there is Jordan who came out of his retirement and led the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive titles between 1996 and 1998. There is the near mythical tale of Nikki Lauda, who came back to the racing track a mere 42 days after being pronounced "almost dead" due to the infamous crash at the German Grand Prix. He even went on to win his second world title in 1977.

However, not all comebacks have a fairy tale ending. Schumacher, who had created almost every single record there was on the racing track, came out of retirement in 2010 partnering with Mercedes in a bid to recreate his magic but sadly, it was no happy second coming.

The recently concluded T20 series between India and Australia saw a number of comebacks in both teams, of which the most scrutinized one was that of Yuvraj Singh. 

Yuvraj Singh was literally on top of the world in 2011 following India's world cup triumph where he was adjudged as Man of the Series. He was scoring runs; taking wickets and winning matches for his team. All at the same time. He was a burning inferno at the top of his game, scorching down the opposition at will.

And then it hit him. A disease so deadly, that a complete cure has not yet been found despite the rapid advancements in the field of medical technology. It takes a lot to just lead a normal life after being diagnosed with cancer let alone play again. But he rose like the metaphorical Phoenix and staged a comeback into the Indian team.

He was drafted into the T20 squad for the 2012 world cup held in Sri Lanka and he emerged as the leading wicket taker for India in the tournament but had a poor showing with the bat. Later in the year, it was in the second T20 against Pakistan in Ahmedabad that he showed glimpses of the old Yuvraj with a blistering 72 at a strike rate of 200, knocking Saeed Ajmal, the then best bowler, all over the park. There were a few more knocks against Australia in the shortest format but consistent failures and lack of fitness plagued his comeback. The 2014 T20 final seemed like the final nail in the coffin.

Not one to bow out easily, he trained hard and harder in the domestic circuit and scored runs heavily. 341 runs in the Vijay Hazare Trophy at an average of 85.25 helped him in his comeback to the T20 team. He was supposedly the "balancing act of the team". He brought in vast amounts of experience, the ability to roll his arm over for a few overs and above, all the "big-tournament player" tag.

Irrespective of all the ups and downs in his career, there can be no bigger "big-tournament player" than Yuvraj. Batting for the first time in his career, he scored a match-winning 84 against world champions Australia in the quarterfinal of the 2000 ICC Knockout trophy. India's triumph in the maiden T20 World Cup in South Africa rode largely on his exploits where sixes rained out of his bat like the July monsoon. The best of them all was the 2011 World Cup where he was adjudged 'Player of the Tournament' turning in crucial performances for his team both with the bat and the ball. 

This T20 tour was effectively to be a dress-rehearsal to get the right team combination before the marquee tournament in India in a few months time. Though he did not get to bat in the first two matches, he showed glimpses of what he can do with the ball. Dhoni had been strongly advocating for the need of players in the top 6 who are also able to bowl. He likes his team with players who are able to not just bat or bowl. And that's what Yuvraj has to offer. In the second T20, he effectively derailed Australia's chase when they were cruising along. By the time his two overs ended, he had picked up a wicket for just 7 runs. 

Yet, the large question of his batting remained. The team and the management had to know if he still had the ability to bring back Yuvraj of the yester-year. The first T20s saw him sitting in the dug out without facing a single ball and though the series was decided already, he was pushed into a pressure cooker situation in the final match with India needing more than 10 an over with 5 overs to go. A perfect situation to cement his position in the team. Except, things did not start well.

He struggled to get bat on ball, especially against Watson, who had him in a tangle with a judicious mix of full-length and short balls. He was on 5 off 9 balls with 17 more needed of the final over. The ghosts of the 2014 final had come to haunt him. A painstaking 11 from 21 balls  had  then shut India out of the game and Yuvraj out of the team. There was every possibility of that happening again. A poor last over would have effectively closed the doors on Yuvraj but a four and a six off the first two balls in the last over and an ensuing victory exorcised the demons of the past and has given him one more lease of life. One more chance at redemption for a swansong.

Yuvraj is not the burning inferno that he once was. But the flame in him still flickers. It will bode India well if it burns brightly.