“Tabla is the most complete percussion instrument”

World-renowned Tabla maestro Fazal Qureshi will be in New Zealand later this month. The younger son of Ustad Alla Rakha who was a constant accompanist for Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and the younger brother of Tabla’s most famous name Ustad Zakir Hussain, Fazal answers questions put to him by Indian Weekender editor-in-chief Dev Nadkarni in a telephonic interview from India.

What’s it like being a member of the first family of the Tabla, or shall we say the Tabla world’s royalty?

(Laughing aloud) Ha, ha… That’s the first time I’ve heard about Tabla royalty! There are several things: there’s a lot of pressure and responsibility because people’s expectations are high since I’m from the same family as Ustad Allah Rakha and Ustad Zakir Hussain. Responsibility – because you must make sure that if at least if you don’t add to the name you don’t spoil the name. So, that responsibility and pressure is always there and I have been fortunate enough to learn from my father and the three of us have played many concerts together in the US, UK, Europe. For me that is a signature from my father that you can actually play now…

My first concert that I played for my college was covered by [your father] Mohan Nadkarniji himself… he was invited to listen to two young players on Sitar and Tabla – that was me – in 1979-80 and he gave us a good review in the Times of India. That was approval and the fact that I have actually played with my father and brother is approval – that yes, you are good enough to play.

Can you give us a few details of the way you and your siblings were trained by your father the great maestro Ustad Alla Rakha?

My father was a democratic man. He never differentiated between sons and other students. It did not matter if we were sons or not there were no distinctions. I used to sit with the other students and learn. He was a busy man in the 1970s, travelling so much but whenever he was there, we used to learn from him. It was was difficult to catch him because of his travels. We relied a great deal on his tapes and CDs while learning from him but playing with him was even more instructive – not so much sitting in front of him but being with him, watching him… how he handled the rhythm cycle, learning his technique… that was the way we brothers picked it up.

One now hears a lot more Tabla in international music – particularly instrumental ensembles – when did this start to happen and why does the Tabla fascinate western percussionists?

Tabla is an instrument that has developed more than any other percussion instrument in terms of sound and technique – it’s an instrument that can be termed as the complete percussion instrument because of the variety of sounds it can produce and the baya is so versatile that you can even produce melodic sounds – my brother is a pioneer in this and in the olden days some maestros used to produce actual notes on the baya while accompanying other musicians. My father and brother have contributed in making it a global instrument – so you hear the Tabla in pop songs, rock music, film background scores – it’s well accepted and recognised.

As a Tabla maestro yourself, what similarities and differences do you see in the way percussion is played in Hindustani and Carnatic disciplines?

Everything is different. It is related to culture. We dress differently, speak differently, there’s a cultural difference… musically too it is different. North Indian music has been influenced a lot by other music from outside such as that of the Mughals and other invasions that happened during the history of Indian civilisation. The South was relatively isolated. So the two music disciplines went differently. The Mughals brought in Tabla, Sitar, Sarod. The points of view also differed… the difference is cultural… difference is in the way of looking at music… I do play with a lot of south Indian percussionists… Talas and ragas are same but the point of view is different. But you can find ways of coming together as many artistes have done – like my father and brother. We are all Indians, but it’s just like all fingers are not the same.

What are your activities at present besides accompanying musicians in concerts around the world?

Three of my albums are getting ready. Two are classically oriented and one is a fusion album – I call it experiments in music. It’s going to be ready next month and the other two also will be ready soon… Besides playing, I also tour a lot… I am in Europe next month with my other fusion band… so basically travelling, recording, composing…

Tell us more about Mynta – how did it come about? Is Shankar Mahadevan actively involved? Who are the other percussionists on it? Musicians from which other nationalities are involved in Mynta?

I am the only Indian percussionist now. Shankar used to be part of it but not any more – we have western percussionists. Basically Mynta a Sweden based band. I met them 23 years ago and have played with them ever since. We’ve produced 6-7 albums; we travel all over Europe, the US, India. It was love at first sight between us in 1986 – we’re still going on… If you want to play fusion music, you need to spend a lot of time with the band and understand each other closely.. only then can you come up with real good music. We now have a Saxophonist from US, In India we have Vikku Vinayakram, Shankar Mahadevan when he has the time – and many others.

My favourites are Fuzzy, Song from Brahmaputra and Teabreak – what was your role in their composition/ production?

Fuzzy was a on the spot creation by me. We were sitting in the studio and the idea suddenly came up to me… I just thought I should produce something with rhythms but interacting with some melodic structures – so that’s how Fuzzy came about… and when we are doing a composition or recording an album we play it a number of times during a tour and after 20 concerts or so, the piece takes shape and then we go into a studio and do a commercial recording – that’s how we do it. We play, alter, replay offer suggestions to the composer, and so on.

What changes do you see in the way Tabla is taught these days – especially outside India?

Popularity has increased tenfold… I still teach at a class in Mumbai that father started… wherever I go there are all kinds of people who want to learn… US, UK, Japan, everywhere. This has given an insight to a lot of people on what the Tabla is… and it’s no longer seen as an exclusively classical instrument. It’s now a popular instrument

Your father emphasised on memorising hundreds of bols, which I’m pretty sure you’ve imbibed as well… Is the same emphasis placed on bols by modern teachers?

People do not have much time these days. They come for an hour. The Guru Shishya Parampara does not exist anymore – 10-15 students taught at a time for an hour… they go home and practice, come back. Memorising bols is not there any more… Times have changed.

Can you tell us more about your concert in NZ?

I’m looking forward to playing with Adrian though I’ve not met him. But that’s how it is in Indian Classical music. You often meet the artiste for the first time on stage. And just play: 95% of our music is improvised… everyone knows the basics the artistes just build on it… that’s the true classical way of doing things… go on the stage and play.

I wanted to visit NZ for a long time and never got an opportunity. I’ve been all over the world except NZ. It’s my pleasure to be there and thanks for making the efforts for me to come. Looking forward to meet Indians there.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, September 2009

An ode to India’s immortal comic books

By Dev Nadkarni

No introduction to Amar Chitra Katha –the well known comic book series on Indian mythology, legend and history– is necessary to those of us who grew up in India in the 1970s and thereafter.

Millions of copies of the 450-odd titles have been printed and translated into over 50 languages worldwide. A few dozen of the best selling titles are still being reprinted after 40 years. At least a couple of generations of people of Indian origin relate to their roots through the ACK series –no matter where in the world they live.

For me personally, the connection with ACK is something I deeply cherish. Having been raised on them since I was seven years old, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the series both as author and associate editor (during which time we also launched an equally popular children’s magazine called Tinkle – now available in the Auckland library system).

It was a few years ago that Karline McLain first contacted when she was researching for her PhD thesis on ACK. She consulted with me on a number of aspects of the series over the next several months. Little did I know until last week that having earned her doctorate on ACK, she had also published a book on the subject titled India’s Immortal Comic Books: Gods, Kings, and Other Heroes (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009). The book hit the stands only last week.

We at the Indian Weekender congratulated Karline and sent her a few questions that we thought would interest our readers, many of who we are sure have seen and read ACK at one time or another. Here are excerpts from the email interview:

What fascinated you about ACK?
I first realised how important ACK comics were to the global Indian community when I was a graduate student teaching assistant at The University of Texas at Austin (USA), where many students of Indian heritage enrolled in the undergraduate courses on South Asian religion and culture. Frequently, these comics were the primary means by which these students had learned Hindu mythology and Indian history as they were growing up.

Tell us about your research in India
In 2001-2002, I received a Fulbright grant that enabled me to travel to India to engage in further research on these comic books for my PhD thesis.  When I arrived at the comic book studio in Mumbai, the founding editor Anant Pai (Uncle Pai to millions of Indian kids) promptly showed me to an empty desk that had been cleared for my arrival.  I spent the next year analysing the production and consumption of ACK.  When at the studio I moved between my desk in the artists’ enclave, the glassed-in editorial offices that overlooked the artists’ floor, and the studio library, observing the production of these comics and interacting with their creators.  I also travelled throughout India to conduct interviews with freelance artists in Pune, New Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, and other locations.

What were your impressions about living and working in India?
First, I must note my gratitude for all of the hospitality I was shown by so many people throughout India as I worked on this project. Where else could a scholar come and be welcomed into an office for a whole year?  And of course many, many people welcomed me into their homes and shared their comic book collections with me.

How in your opinion has ACK contributed to India’s long story telling tradition that has been essentially oral in nature?
One way that ACK has contributed to India’s story telling tradition is by acting as a substitute grandparent in the lives of Indian children, both in urban India and around the globe.  During the time that these comic books were created, many families in India were leaving the joint family structure behind as they migrated from villages to urban areas in search of employment and educational opportunities.  Thus the generation of readers who grew up in urban India in the 1970s and later often did not have an extended support network — no grandparent to tell them stories at bedtime.  Parents took comfort in these comic books, giving them to their children as a substitute for that long-standing oral tradition that had been passed on from one generation to the next. The same occurred in the diaspora context.  As one NRI in Canada explained to me, “I was born and raised in Edmonton, Canada. Both of my parents are from the U.P. As we did not have any relatives here when I was growing up, I relied almost exclusively on ACK for learning about Hinduism and the history of India.”

What struck you most about the series?
When I first began to study it was how sacred these comics are to some readers, which makes them unlike any other comics in the world that I am aware of.

Can you tell us a little about your book?
Through studies of a range of issues (including “Krishna,” “Durga,” “Shakuntala,” “Shivaji,” “Shah Jahan,” and “Mahatma Gandhi”) this book demonstrates that Amar Chitra Katha comics, as a form of public culture that has reached into the everyday lives of millions of Indian children over the past four decades, are a crucial site for studying the active creation and recreation of religious and national identities.  Through my many interviews with comic book creators and readers, I learned that the concepts of Hinduism and Indianness presented in this comic book series are not static, but have ultimately been arrived at through the interaction of the founder with editors, authors, artists, and readers.  As comic book creators decide which mythological and historical figures to single out and cast as Indian heroes, and as comic book readers decide which issues to buy and which to bypass, they are actively participating in a continuing discussion about what it means to be a modern Hindu and what it means to be Indian today.

Prithvi Sukta’s modern message

By Dev Nadkarni


When was the last time you heard someone break into song about mother earth? Or for that matter, the last time you cared to listen to birdsong, or the breeze whispering to the trees?

In recent times, we talk of the earth and her environment almost exclusively in the context of her degradation and progressive deterioration. We are more used to the cacophony of discussions, protests, alarmist statements and fear psychosis often leading to mindless violence than we are to birdsong. The twentieth century has been witness to countless traumatic instances the world over involving pollution, deforestation, giant dams, over population and rapid, unsustainable development. But paying tribute to the earth in these difficult times has been reduced to mere tokenism and sloganeering.

The world of three, perhaps four thousand years ago was different. Two thousand-odd chemicals were not spewed out into the air every day. Auto exhausts did not cause a wheezing Pranayama. Nuclear and chemical pollution did not produce deformed babies. Deforestation did not cause desertification and men did not render creatures extinct at the rate of a species a day. Yet in such pristine times, an ancient, learned sage, voiced his concerns for the well-being of the earth, while thanking her profusely for giving mankind and the creatures that she sustains all she has, so generously and unhesitatingly.

A chapter in the ancient Atharvaveda, the last of the four Vedas, the Prithivi Sukta (or Song of the Earth) is a collection of sixty-three verses in praise of the earth and her environment, a fine and touching work of deep gratitude. According to tradition, the verses were composed by the seer Rishi Atharvan, who is also credited with much of the compilation of the Atharvaveda. The verses are full of both poetic and metrical elegance and besides thanking the earth for everything, convey many concerns about man’s relationship with her, in many places, almost presaging modern times.

Reading through the verses, one sees that the Prithivi Sukta is much more than an ancient poet breaking into inspired song, imbued with gratefulness. In fact, the verses show that the author has observed, deeply reflected on and carefully analysed the interpenetration of the earth’s ecosystem with her myriad life forms. He wonders at the cyclic patterns of her many processes like the tides and the seasons and then underscores the importance of not upsetting her fragile balance: “May none of our activities, as we go about our daily tasks, cause injury or grief to mother earth.”(v.28) Then again, the seer, on behalf of the agrarian Vedic community, says: “May we till your soil in a way that does not harm you nor disturb any vital ingredient in you.” (v.35) He follows up this verse with a prayer to mother earth to bless mankind with her seasons regularly and favourably. (v. 36)

The Prithivi Sukta is among the earliest texts where the earth is referred to as mother and her relationship with man as one between mother and child. “Like a mother, may the earth nourish us and spur our growth.” (v.10) The earth, her creatures and the ecosystem are seen as family: “May the earth hold us close, like a mother protects her sons and may the rain-filled dark clouds, like a father, water us and see to our growth.” (v.12) In some verses, the Rishi Atharvan prays to mother earth to protect mankind from beasts, inclement weather and the other fierce forces of nature as a mother would protect her helpless children. In others, he advises his fellowmen not to do anything that would upset her “internal calm” quite obviously referring to the spectre of geological upheavals and natural calamities.

The importance of commerce and economics in life, too, was not lost on the ancient sage. In the later verses, Rishi Atharvan describes the earth as a goddess and praises her with the choicest of superlatives in keeping with the Vedic tradition of deifying and eulogising natural phenomena. He prays to her to give mankind some of her immense wealth –gold and jewels (v. 44) and asks her to let good fortune flow like a thousand incessant streams of milk from Dhenu, the divine cow (v. 45)

Perhaps the single most important idea in the Prithivi Sukta that is more relevant today than it might have been when it was composed is that of understanding among us humans in preserving nature’s pristine purity. “May whatever is decided in assemblies of men, in villages and towns, be in accordance with your rules, not contrary to them, O Mother,” (v.56) is how the author counsels good sense to prevail in our dealings that could affect the earth and her environment. In another verse he says, “May we have the good sense to perform only those actions that will keep the waters of the earth pure and unpolluted.”

“Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, the simple idea that foreshadowed today’s catchwords like “global village”, “lonely planet” and “one world” by three millennia, has been referred to in a very contemporary manner by the ancient seer: “May we, the children of Mother Earth, have the wisdom to speak to each other pleasantly and in a manner that is understood well, in spite of our different tongues and cultures. May our interaction among ourselves and Mother Earth be harmonious. (v.16)


By Dev Nadkarni

Just exercise some caution when you browse the next red hot, explosive website that claims to expose the evils of our country!

Got a whiff of something that’s hot, spicy and potentially explosive? Snoop around, booby trap your quarry with micro cameras and quick, go online! Don’t forget the accessories and adjuncts too: shady girls, sleazy locations, sleazier language and a great line like national betrayal that’ll have the public gasping for more. In a few mouse clicks, you’ve ensured your fifteen minutes of fame at fibre optic speeds. And with some luck you could laugh all the way to the bank! That’s the Net age mantra for anyone who has any interest in stirring up a hornet’s nest by using that old-fashioned journalistic staple –the investigative expose.

In the new, instant media, the traditional rules of publishing have been rewritten. The Internet has brought a boundary-less, global mass medium within reach of anyone who has access to a computer and an Internet connection. Hitherto, the media was institutionalized. The Net has individualized it.

Who are these scoop-a-day enterprises? Our saviours in shining armour? Or mere pamphleteers with their private agendas –as murky and ulterior as the ones they set out to expose? It would be too simplistic to conclude either way. But given these times, it will be difficult to know the real intentions –whether the exposes are honorably and old-fashionedly in aid of the greatest good of the greatest number or for the very private cause of a not-so-hidden axe to grind: eye-popping valuations.

In the recent instance of the defencegate expose, the men behind the website were almost immediately negotiating mega investment deals from potential investors. How come we have never seen this happen in the case of good ol’ newspapers that have been at the same job for over a century now!

The very individualized nature of publishing on the Net ever blurs the thin line between freedom and license. Terms and ideas like editorial caution, public decorum and decency simply don’t seem to matter (text is reproduced uncensored with all expletives intact). There seems to be consummate awareness on the part of the publisher that there is no authority that can enforce any sort of curbs or even set a standard of decency. Nor is there the fear of reprimand.

Most of all, the widespread disillusionment with public life and the government feeds the individualistic righteous indignation of the publisher, justifying almost any means to the end, all traditional tenets of morality and decency notwithstanding. What’s more, an axe to grind, quite naturally encourages the individual to throw all self-restraint to the winds.

It is the total absence of an institutional structure behind the publishing of such websites and a complete focus on the individual who is behind the stories that undermines their credibility. Explosive content in the online media, unless provable offline and in the real world, will therefore always suffer from a great crisis of credibility. In the long term, the credibility of websites publishing potentially damaging content in the online media will depend on the seriousness, dispassionate tone and provability of such investigative exposes.

The famous adage about Caesar’s wife and suspicion will always be a guiding principle for the publisher and a potent yardstick in the hands of the public. And it is only the complete absence of any axes to grind –both obvious and hidden– that will separate the serious contenders from the soapy, slippery purveyors of dirtylinen.com.

In the meantime, the gullible public, whose disillusionment with public life being exploited so very well by the purveyors of dirtylinen.com will continue to applaud such enterprises, not seeing the well-concealed axes to grind and their own hidden agendas.

Who is speaking?

By Dev Nadkarni

“Who is speaking?” How many times have those three atrocious words been inflicted on you when you’ve picked up your handset? Undoubtedly, it’s the most used telephonic “greeting” that the calling party uses across this country. In some languages it is even shorter: The cryptic Gujarati or Hindi “Kaun?” the nonchalant “Kon Boltay?” in Marathi and the terse Kannada “Yaaru?” are just three examples.

A few years ago when non-working telephones (and wrong numbers whenever they worked) were the norm with Indian telephones, I was spending my summer vacation at a friend’s shop helping sell his wares. His phone would be inundated with wrong calls through the day. On one exasperating occasion, he picked up his handset when the phone rang for the nth time, just shouted, “Tera Baap” and smashed it down in its cradle in a hundred degree celcius rage. Expectedly, the voice at the other end had asked that most wonderful question of Indian telephony, “Kaun?”

Another time, the voice at the other end, neither identifying its owner nor asking for a specific person on this end, hurriedly conveyed the message that his truck had broken down on Tilak Bridge. What was he to do? “Just stand there till another truck arrives,” said my friend, who couldn’t care less who the wrong caller was and put down the handset.

The primary courtesy of a telephone caller is to identify himself or herself and then enquire after the person he/she wishes to talk with. “Kaun?” or “Who is speaking?” is not just impolite –it’s a difficult question to answer and a terrible way to open a telephonic conversation. What if it’s the wrong number? What if the person receiving the phone is not the person the caller wishes to talk with? In any case, at some point, the caller has to identify himself and then ask for the person whom he wishes to talk with. Why not do it at the outset? That would save so much trouble and make the call so much nicer. But most people don’t!

In her younger days, the wife of one of modern Indian cinema’s most celebrated directors, was visiting London. She went to a phone booth and called a number she thought was her cousin’s. “Hello, is that Raj?” she cooed in her soft, mellifluous voice. “How I wish it was,” said the voice at the other end. Hanging up and flustered, she tried the number again. Is that (she spelt out the number). “If that’s the number you dialed, this must be that number,” said the same voice again. The young lady was learning telephone etiquette the expensive way in that London phone booth!

Sense of Tumour!

By Dev Nadkarni

Do we Indians take ourselves too damn seriously? Do we lack a sense of humour particularly when the joke’s on us? Some months ago, a visiting westerner friend, when asked what struck her most about her India visit said that it was our people’s ability to laugh. Despite the poverty, deprivation and bleak circumstances, smiling, laughing faces stared her in the face, said this firang friend. And it intrigued her. She wondered what gives us the strength to smile and laugh at ourselves amidst all the gloom. “You guys have a terrific god-given sense of humour,” she said.

I don’t know if laughing at ourselves in gloomy circumstances is a good thing or a bad thing but I know for certain that we can laugh at ourselves. Indiana jokes that have done the rounds of the Net in recent years and grown so much to encompass virtually every Indian community has long removed the Sardar monopoly. Twelve o’clock jokes are passé. We now have jokes for round the clock laughter! Mallu jokes are enjoyed all over as much as Maharashtrian or Gujju or Tamil or Bengali ones. In fact these jokes, I would say, work effectively as national integrators. Why, the cross-border popularity of Indian and Paki jokes amongst the two peoples could qualify as a potent weapon for defusing all this mindless tension. One of them talks of swapping Laloo and Bihar for Benazir and their fast bowlers!

But our elected representatives and the great big administration in New Delhi have shown completely antipodal behaviour. Comments about our dear prime minister in an American newsmagazine have apparently pulled the rug from under the administration’s feet. The comments on the premier’s health have been seen variously as a slur on his great personage and even an insult to the nation. The administration has gone hammer and tongs at the magazine and the writer of the piece. Why is Babudom so scared about laughing at it itself? Compare this with what happens in other democracies that function better than ours.

When Clinton and Monica were hot, the US media went to town with red-hot Clinton jokes. The Americans laughed. The world laughed. Our own Babudom laughed. Right now, there is a weekly show on American television with a guy who superbly impersonates George Bush and says amazingly stupid things as if the president himself was mouthing those ludicrous statements. Nobody objects. Least of all, the president and his White House staff. Blair is similarly lampooned even in his nation’s “propah” press. We all laugh. So what’s with our administration?

Our bureaucracy suffers from tunnel vision when it comes to matters of national identity. It equates an individual with the entire nation. So what if a few comments were made about our PM’s health? Does that make the whole nation weak-kneed and half-sleepy? Must they make statements that inflame party workers so that they burn copies of the mag? Given such knee-jerk reactions one begins to worry about the administration’s mental health more than the premier’s sleepiness.

Aaiye, kuch record banaaiye!

By Dev Nadkarni

Population: one billion. Teams that qualify for World Cup soccer: zero; Olympic gold hopes: zero. Teams that compete creditably in any world-level global event: zero. Long on quantity, very, very short on quality –that’s the lot of us Indians when it comes to our international competitiveness. Especially in team games. We are a country of individualists. We’re not known for teams. There is any number of apocryphal tales of Indians working more in individual interest than for their teams. The famous story of the tub of Indian crabs graphically epitomises this trait.

No matter. The natural individualists that we are, Indians show a strong trait to excel in individual sport, often of the self-created variety. So, we hold world records for things like walking backwards the greatest distance balancing a milk bottle on one’s head. Or for the longest (and perhaps the grubbiest) fingernails. Or even the longest locks of hair and moustache! There’s a scramble among Indians to set world records in such pursuits and the Guinness people count India as one of the countries from where it receives most applications.

We should really have an Indian book of trivial records. Records that are impossible to be bettered by any international team or individual worth his salt. Records that other countries dare not, let alone compete, but even contemplate. Not a problem finding entries and entrants. Just look around you. There’s a Mumbai cabbie that cuts more lanes in a day than Lata Mangeshkar has cut records in her entire life. And for the record, he’s never had an accident –all thanks to his record brake!

The longest it has taken an arrow to traverse a distance of twenty metres and yet managed to kill its victim is one whole minute (the victim probably died of waiting). That was in Doordarshan’s Ramayan. Which means the arrow crawled at about 1.2 kmph –slightly faster than South Mumbai’s peak hour traffic. The Indian politician has the unique record of breaking more promises than he makes. This he achieves by breaking all his own promises as well as those made by his colleagues by not cooperating with them (remember, we are individualists).

Game for some more? A few general polls ago I remember having read of a guy who voted under 13 different names in the same poll booth –and it was not even a captured booth. For the record, this happened in Mumbai, not Patna. Patna, of course, holds the record not just for captured poll booths but also carjacked car dealerships. Our very own Maharashtra, the beacon of progress, is not far behind in creating its own dubious world records. It will soon have the record of mass kidnapping elected representatives in the noble interests of the state’s well being.

Try adding to this list of dubious Indian world records –you’ll never find a dull moment compiling it!

Impossible? Think again

By Dev Nadkarni

Recent weeks have clearly belonged to Indians who achieved the impossible. For a country whose psyche seems almost hardwired for underachievement, these three-in-a-billion citizens shine like beacons ever so bright. Giving us a simple message: It can be done –even in India. And nothing in recent times has lifted up the Indian spirit as the doings of these three amazing men.

Late last month, we lost the portly son of a schoolteacher who rewrote the rules of entrepreneurship to be unequivocally acclaimed as India’s greatest entrepreneur ever. That he built the country’s largest business empire almost seems incidental. We have a boatman’s shimmering-haired son whose family pawned its jewels so that he could pursue his higher studies as President of the world’s most populous democracy. And we have a railway ticket collector’s wiry son who led India to a near-impossible one-day victory in the Nat west cricket tri-series.

Fine instances of where a laboriously ground, delectably delicious masala of sheer grit, hard work, charm and timing can take the underdog in an environment as loaded against risk-taking, swashbuckling entrepreneurship and the under-privileged class as India. The stories of these three men have been incredible profiles in courage. They began life like one billion of us Indians: going out there to bat on the field of life with no score to our credit. Just the dream of winning and experiencing the evanescent thrills of life’s fours and sixes whenever we can steal them. The difference between the rest of us and these three is that they won. The odds that they could get to where they are today would have been stupendously Himalayan. They blazed scorching trails. May be it’s a little premature to club the cricketer with the other two given his young age and just a couple of successes; but given the status of cricket in Indian pride, the young man certainly stands up to be counted.

Everyone loves a real-life rags-to-riches story, a real-life fairy tale. Much has been and will be written about these three men, their humble beginnings and the way they charted their own personal courses to success. The way they did India proud against seemingly impossible odds, to become legends in their own lifetimes. Such stories are far more common in countries that have always encouraged capitalistic free enterprise. Not in regimes like India. Which is what makes their achievements so much more cherished.

Sure, there will be those who will not be impressed by these success stories. There will also be those who will attribute unfair methods, underhand deals, clever politicking, playing the religious card and the benign smile of lady luck to their great success. No matter. None of these detractions can take away anything from these super-achievers. As for luck, we have always known that god helps them who help themselves. Irrespective of that god’s denomination.

Sure, you can make miracles happen!

By Dev Nadkarni

Years ago my job regularly took me to the swank offices of an ad agency that were housed on the third floor of one of those nondescript industrial estates in the smelly underbelly of Mumbai. The painfully slow industrial lifts and the long queues to get into them were avoidable and I had long opted for the crummy flights of the fast crumbling staircase.

It always struck me: the offices I visited were so well appointed, veneered, carpeted and richly upholstered –you could be in any of the business capitals of the world. But to say that the approach to this well-groomed microcosm was stark in contrast would be an understatement. Chipping concrete, falling plaster, discoloured walls, broken steps, cobwebbed grills, not to mention the one, universal hallmark of our ethos –paan-stained wall-corners on the landings.

After a hiatus of a few months, I visited the building again. Much remained unchanged. The chipping concrete, the broken steps and the cobwebbed grills were still intact. But there was one overwhelming change. The walls were whitewashed and the paan stains were gone. The wall-corners, instead, had tiled pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses fixed about knee height. The society running this industrial estate had hit upon this plan, my friend at the ad agency told me.

Gods’ pictures had successfully prevented people from spitting on the wall-corners. The idea was borrowed from the Prince of Wales Museum authorities, I was told, who had done the same thing with their perimeter wall that people used for spewing out more than just paan fluid! The next time you find the picture of a god in an innocuous place, you know why its there.

There’s a celebrity I know who’s wrought a miracle on his personal life so very ingeniously. Smothered by autograph hunters every time he appears in public, he found that there was no convincing reason he could use to ward them off. They would use every trick to get him to sign –cajole, humour, evoke sympathy, even self-pity. Then he hit up this tremendous excuse. He would simply say, “Today is my vrat –I don’t sign on my vrat days.” And the crowd would melt away without any fuss. “Next time, god willing,” would be their apologetic, fatalistic refrain, to his great delight.

Who says you can’t get god to work miracles –whether civic or personal– even in these times?

International licence to kill

By Dev Nadkarni

A while ago I needed an international driving licence. I was told that you could get one in Pune without much of a problem. I enquired at the local driving school. “International licence? No problem. Enroll for our fast track course, and you get it in seven days,” said the counter person.

“Fast Track?” I hesitated. “I’m not looking for a race car licence, just a plain international one.”

“We’ve changed the name of our course to Fast Track –earlier we called it Crash Course and it didn’t go down well,” said the man. “It covers international safety like fastening seat belts, not putting your arm out of the window or dropping cigarette ash outside, right of way…”

“But aren’t those taught in your regular courses?” I asked.

“No. Because it’s impossible to drive here with something that restrains movement like a seatbelt. As for limbs outside the windows –mostly the taillights don’t work and we advise learners to hand-signal. We’ve stopped instructing about right of way because this is decided by the size and speed of the vehicle,” said the man. “When a PMT bus storms into a roundabout, you simply don’t stand a chance, even if you have right of way. Better not to know the rules.”

“Where do we begin?” I asked, cranking up.

“Mulshi or lonely places like that,” said the man.

“Why not Tilak or Laxmi or even M.G. Road?” I asked.

“You’ve driven on those roads, na?” he replied. “No point practicing there if you want to get an international licence.”

“Why?” I countered.

“If you drive abroad like you do on those roads, you’ll have trouble. You need practice holding the wheel straight over longer distances so you don’t cut lanes  –you must stay in lane always,” said my learned instructor. “In Mulshi, there is no traffic, so you get good practice.”

Sage advice flowed copiously as I tried keeping a straight course in my imaginary lane. “You cannot spit in those countries; but if you must, be careful. In a left hand drive car, spit out on the left. Or you may end up spitting inside the car by sheer force of habit,” he said.

Suddenly, there was a thump and the car shuddered to a halt. “You went over a pothole –you should have swerved,” moaned the instructor. “But that would’ve amounted to lane cutting,” I said.

The instructor examined the broken axle. “If you face a situation like this abroad, go to those solar-powered phones by the side and call for help,” he said, desperately flailing his arms to hail a passing truck for our ride back to Pune.