Monday 31 May 2021

A Pakistani cricket writer recalls watching Sachin in 1989

 Recalling the 16-year-old Indian who came to Pakistan as a boy, connected with young Pakistanis as one of their generation, and returned home a man, writes SM Hussain.

It was 1989. After more than 11 years of dictatorial rule that had ended the previous year, and with Benazir Bhutto as prime minister, Pakistan was taking baby steps towards re-establishing democracy. Meanwhile, India was preparing for another democratic election.

At the time, cricketing relations between the two volatile neighbors were thriving. Pakistan had returned with a Test series victory over its ‘nemesis’ in 1987 and, two years later, had also won the six-nation Nehru Cup (ODI tournament held from Oct 15 to Nov 1, 1989) on Indian soil.

The Indian tour party arrived in Pakistan in November, just a couple of weeks after Pakistan returned victorious from the Nehru Cup. The series would’ve been touted as a ‘revenge’ series by any modern day Indian captain but, in those days, there was no such word in the Indian captain’s dictionary. On the contrary, the Indian team, under the leadership of Kris Srikkanth, looked more interested in making friends in Pakistan.

The news about the ‘kid’ cricketer in their side made half of Pakistan fall in love with the visiting Indian team even before they had crossed the border. That wonder kid was Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, whose first class cricketing endeavours were already making headlines in newspapers in India.

File photo of Sachin Tendulkar | Sachin Tendulkar / Facebook

In spite of his heroics with the bat, two out of five members of the selection committee had been reluctant to include a 16-year-old in the team, to face the deadly pace and swing of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. But the selection verdict had gone in favour of Tendulkar by 3-2.

When Sachin Tendulkar walked out to bat for the first time in Test cricket, wearing somewhat idiosyncratic batting pads and a white helmet, the Indians were reeling at 41 for 4 in the first Test at Karachi. As a boy who had recently fallen in love with the game, I was watching the Test match on our 20-inch Philips TV and I immediately felt that someone from ‘my generation’ had taken guard at the National Stadium pitch.

Tendulkar’s juvenile appearance felt out of place in a Test match setting; he looked more like a young lad surrounded by a few bullies in a school playground. But in reality, his presence on the TV screen touched a little chord in every young boy’s heart in Pakistan — every young boy who had experience of batting in the streets until dusk every day.

The sight of the young Tendulkar gave a glimmer of hope to every street cricketer that, if a ‘boy’ could make it to the highest level, so could they. Yes, Pakistan’s Mushtaq Mohammad had made his debut at the age of 15, but that had happened in 1959, before the television era, which would not have had the same impact. Plus ‘my generation’ had not even been born then.

I remember watching in awe Tendulkar’s on-drive for four against the bowling of Waqar Younis — his first ever boundary in Test cricket. But my joy was shortlived; Waqar didn’t take long to beat young Tendulkar’s bat and bowled him. Though he made only 15 runs, in my opinion, his innings was far from a failure. He had faced 24 balls, in which he hit two 4s against the bowling of Waqar Younis, who was also making his Test debut. Younis, who sported a thick moustache, certainly looked a tad bit older than his ‘documented age’ of 18.

In the second Test match at the Iqbal Stadium Faisalabad, in his second Test innings, Tendulkar reached his first milestone in Test cricket — he made a half-century. He was involved in a 143-run partnership with Sanjay Manjrekar and made 59 runs, before Imran trapped him LBW. It was quite evident that he looked more assured in that innings. In the third Test in Lahore, he scored a gritty knock of 41 runs off 90 balls.

If I say so myself, I was quite a studious boy, but one subject, mathematics, always remained Greek to me. So it was in my maths class that I decided to take out my tiny little ‘Ear AM Radio’ from my school bag and put it against my ear and covered it with my hand. My posture falsely portrayed that I was listening to my teacher with immense attention but, in reality, I was listening to the running commentary of the Pakistan and India Test match.

By that time I was so engrossed in the series that I had no other choice but resort to subterfuge to satisfy my craving for information about the Test match proceedings; especially the progress of Tenulkar, who was ‘one of us’.

That was perhaps the most ‘adventurous’ thing I did at the time, but it was nothing compared to a 16-year-old playing a courageous knock in the fourth and final Test, played at Sialkot.

The Indians were onerously placed at 4 wickets down for 38 runs when Tendulkar started to rebuild the innings. The pitch had plenty of green on it and Waqar Younis’s vicious bouncer hit Tendulkar on the nose, which made it bleed.

It was reported in the press that Pakistan skipper Imran Khan came to Tendulkar and asked him to rest and resume his innings later, but the young boy decided not to go off the field. Tendulkar made a match-saving 57 off 134 balls. Perhaps that was the precise moment when a 16-year-old boy became a man.

After the hard-fought drawn Test series, the two teams headed north towards the North West Frontier Province (now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to play the first ODI in Peshawar.

There, due to a heavy downpour and a wet outfield, the umpires thought that the ground wasn’t fit enough to stage an international one-day match but, still, considering the presence of a large crowd, they gave the green signal for an exhibition match. The festive status of the match lifted ‘pressure’ from everyone involved, and a 16-year-old virtuoso wasn’t an exception.

Perhaps the Almighty had a script ready to put young Sachin Tendulkar on the road to success. First, a knock on the nose in Sialkot which hardened him, followed by a ‘friendly’ match in Peshawar, in which he batted without a care in the world, with utter confidence and self-assurance. I remember watching him coming down the wicket and smacking sixes off the bowling of Mushtaq Ahmed and Abdul Qadir. I can never forget that smirk on the late Qadir’s face, as if he could tell that the little maestro had arrived.

My elder sister was an avid listener of music on the BBC radio show ‘Multi Track’, which she used to tune into on a shortwave radio. It gave me the idea that, if there were music available, it only made sense that cricket commentary must also be accessible.

Eight months down the line, when Tendulkar made his first Test hundred at Old Trafford in Manchester, I was fortunate to be able to sit in my room in Pakistan and listen to the BBC Test Match Special commentators describing it. On that day, it became clear that the boy, who had made his debut in Pakistan a few months ago, was now a grown man, ready to take on the best bowlers of the cricketing world. And that he did.

India produced quite a few world class batsmen in the 1990s, with the likes of Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly, but Sachin Tendulkar was nothing short of a phenomenona. The world may remember him simply as India’s greatest batsman, but for yours truly, along with many other Pakistani youngsters who saw him make his Test debut in Karachi, Tendulkar will always have a special place in our hearts.

Because at that time, he was ‘one of us’ — the boy from my generation.

(Source: Scroll

Sunday 30 May 2021

Ask yourself which books you truly love

Before there were books, there were stories. At first the stories weren’t written down. Sometimes they were even sung. Children were born, and before they could speak, their parents sang them songs, a song about an egg that fell off a wall, perhaps, or about a boy and a girl who went up a hill and fell down it. As the children grew older, they asked for stories almost as often as they asked for food.

The children fell in love with these stories and wanted to hear them over and over again. Then they grew older and found those stories in books. And other stories that they had never heard before, about a girl who fell down a rabbit hole, or a silly old bear and an easily scared piglet and a gloomy donkey, or a phantom tollbooth, or a place where wild things were. The act of falling in love with stories awakened something in the children that would nourish them all their lives: their imagination.

A depiction of the Churning of the Milky Ocean, circa 1820.

Credit... The British Museum

The children made up play stories every day, they stormed castles and conquered nations and sailed the oceans blue, and at night their dreams were full of dragons. But they went on growing up and slowly the stories fell away from them, the stories were packed away in boxes in the attic, and it became harder for the former children to tell and receive stories, harder for them, sadly, to fall in love.

I believe that the books and stories we fall in love with make us who we are, or, not to claim too much, the beloved tale becomes a part of the way in which we understand things and make judgments and choices in our daily lives. A book may cease to speak to us as we grow older, and our feeling for it will fade. Or we may suddenly, as our lives shape and hopefully increase our understanding, be able to appreciate a book we dismissed earlier; we may suddenly be able to hear its music, to be enraptured by its song.

When, as a college student, I first read Günter Grass’s great novel “The Tin Drum,” I was unable to finish it. It languished on a shelf for fully 10 years before I gave it a second chance, whereupon it became one of my favorite novels of all time: one of the books I would say that I love. It is an interesting question to ask oneself: Which are the books that you truly love? Try it. The answer will tell you a lot about who you presently are.

A scene from “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen.

Credit... Bettmann Archive/Getty Images


I grew up in Bombay, India, a city that is no longer, today, at all like the city it once was and has even changed its name to the much less euphonious Mumbai, in a time so unlike the present that it feels impossibly remote, even fantastic. In that far-off Bombay, the stories and books that reached me from the West seemed like true tales of wonder.

Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” with its splinters of magic mirror that entered people’s bloodstreams and turned their hearts to ice, was even more terrifying to a boy from the tropics, where the only ice was in the refrigerator. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” felt especially enjoyable to a boy growing up in the immediate aftermath of the British Empire.

Perhaps tales of elsewhere always feel like fairy tales. But for me, the real wonder tales were closer to home, and I have always thought it my great good fortune as a writer to have grown up steeped in them.

Some of these stories were sacred in origin, but because I grew up in a nonreligious household, I was able to receive them simply as beautiful stories. When I first heard the tale in the great epic Mahabharata about how the great god Indra churned the Milky Way, using the fabled Mount Mandara as his churning stick, to force the giant ocean of milk in the sky to give up its nectar, “amrita,” the nectar of immortality, I began to see the stars in a new way.

In that impossibly ancient time, my childhood, a time before light pollution made most of the stars invisible to city dwellers, a boy in a garden in Bombay could still look up at the night sky and hear the music of the spheres and see with humble joy the thick stripe of the galaxy there. I imagined it dripping with magic nectar. Maybe if I opened my mouth, a drop might fall in and then I would be immortal, too.

Illustration from the Mahabharata, circa 1800. 

Credit...Sepia Times/Universal Images Group, via Getty Images

 This is the beauty of the wonder tale and its descendant, fiction: that one can simultaneously know that the story is a work of imagination, which is to say untrue, and believe it to contain profound truth. The boundary between the magical and the real, at such moments, ceases to exist.

We were not Hindus, my family, but we believed the great stories of Hinduism to be available to us also. On the day of the annual Ganpati festival, when huge crowds carried effigies of the elephant-headed deity Ganesh to the water’s edge at Chowpatty Beach to immerse the god in the sea, Ganesh felt as if he belonged to me too; he felt like a symbol of the collective joy and, yes, unity of the city rather than a member of the pantheon of a “rival” faith.

When I learned that Ganesh’s love of literature was so great that he sat at the feet of India’s Homer, the sage Vyasa, and became the scribe who wrote down the Mahabharata, he belonged to me even more deeply; and when I grew up and wrote a novel about a boy called Saleem with an unusually big nose, it seemed natural, even though Saleem came from a Muslim family, to associate the narrator of “Midnight’s Children” with the most literary of gods, who just happened to have a big trunk of a nose as well. The blurring of boundaries between religious cultures in that old, truly secularist Bombay now feels like one more thing that divides the past from India’s bitter, stifled, censorious, sectarian present.

It has to be admitted that the influence of these tales is not always positive. The sectarian politics of the Hindu nationalist parties like India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party uses the rhetoric of the past to fantasize about a return to “Ram Rajya,” the “reign of Lord Ram,” a supposed golden age of Hinduism without such inconveniences as members of other religions to complicate matters. The politicization of the epic Ramayana, and of Hinduism in general, has become, in the hands of unscrupulous sectarian leaders, a dangerous affair.


I want to return, however, to that childhood self, enchanted by tales whose express and sole purpose was enchantment. I want to move away from the grand religious epics to the great hoard of scurrilous, conniving, mysterious, exciting, comic, bizarre, surreal and very often extremely sexy narratives contained in the rest of the Eastern storehouse, because — not only because, but, yes, because — they show how much pleasure is to be gained from literature once God is removed from the picture.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of the stories now gathered in the pages of “The Thousand Nights and One Night,” to take just one example, is the almost complete absence of religion. Lots of sex, much mischief, a great deal of deviousness; monsters, jinnis, giant Rocs; at times, enormous quantities of blood and gore; but no God. This is why censorious Islamists dislike it so much.

In Egypt, in May 2010, just seven months before the revolt against President Hosni Mubarak, a group of Islamist lawyers got wind of a new edition of “Alf Laylah wa Laylah” (the book’s original Arabic title) and brought an action demanding that the edition be withdrawn and the book banned because it was “a call to vice and sin” that contained several references to sex. Fortunately, they did not succeed, and then larger matters began to preoccupy Egyptian minds. But the fact is, they had a point.

An illustration from “The Thousand Nights and One Night.”

Credit... Fine Art Images/Heritage Images, via Getty Images

There are indeed in that book several references to sex, and the characters seem much more preoccupied with having sex than being devout, which could indeed be, as the lawyers argued, a call to vice, if that’s the deformed puritanical way you see the world. To my mind, this call is an excellent thing and well worth responding to, but you can see how people who dislike music, jokes and pleasure would be upset by it. It is rather wonderful that this ancient text, this wonderful group of wonder tales, retains the power to upset the world’s fanatics more than 1,200 years after the stories first came into the world.

The book that we now usually call “The Arabian Nights” didn’t originate in the Arab world. Its probable origin is Indian; Indian story compendiums too have a fondness for frame stories, for Russian doll-style stories within stories, and for animal fables. Somewhere around the eighth century, these stories found their way into Persian, and according to surviving scraps of information, the collection was known as “Hazar Afsaneh,” “a thousand stories.”

There’s a 10th-century document from Baghdad that describes the Hazar Afsaneh and mentions its frame story, about a wicked king who kills a concubine every night until one of these doomed wives manages to stave off her execution by telling him stories. This is where we first see the name “Scheherazade.” Sadly, of the Hazar Afsaneh itself not a single copy survives. This book is the great “missing link” of world literature, the fabled volume through which the wonder tales of India traveled west to encounter, eventually, the Arabic language and to turn into “The Thousand Nights and One Night,” a book with many versions and no agreed canonical form, and then to move farther west, first into French, in the 18th-century version by Antoine Galland, who added a number of stories not included in the Arabic, such as the tales of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”

And from French the stories made it into English, and from English they journeyed to Hollywood, which is a language of its own, and then it’s all flying carpets and Robin Williams as the genie. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that there are no flying carpets in “The Arabian Nights.” There is a legend that King Solomon possessed one that could change its size and become big enough to transport an army.)

“The Arabian Nights” poster for a burlesque show, 1888.

Credit... Universal History Archive/UIG, via Getty Images

This great migration of narrative has inspired much of the world’s literature, all the way down to the magic realism of the South American fabulists, so that when I, in my turn, used some of those devices, I had the feeling of closing a circle and bringing that story tradition all the way back home to the country in which it began. But I mourn the loss of the Hazar Afsaneh, which would, if rediscovered, complete the story of the stories, and what a find that would be.

Perhaps it would solve a mystery at the heart of the frame story, or rather at the very end of it, and answer a question I’ve been asking myself for some years: Did Scheherazade and her sister, Dunyazad, finally, after one thousand nights and one night and more, become murderers and kill their bloodthirsty husbands?

How many women did Shahryar, monarch of “the island or peninsula of India and China,” and his brother, Shah Zaman, sovereign ruler over barbarian Samarkand, actually kill? It began when Shah Zaman found his wife in the arms of a palace cook. Shah Zaman chopped them into several pieces and headed for his brother’s home, where he found his sister-in-law, Shahryar’s queen, in a garden in the company of 10 ladies-in-waiting and 10 slaves. The 10 and 10 were busy gratifying one another; the queen summoned her own lover down from a tree.

Ah, the malice and treachery of womankind! Shah Zaman told his brother what he had seen, whereupon the ladies-in-waiting, the slaves and the queen all met their fates. (The lover of Shahryar’s late queen seems to have escaped.)

King Shahryar and King Shah Zaman duly took their revenge on faithless womankind. For three years, they each married, deflowered and then ordered the execution of a fresh virgin every night. Scheherazade’s father, Shahryar’s vizier, or prime minister, was obliged to carry out Shahryar’s executions himself.

This vizier was a cultured gentleman, a man of delicate sensibilities — he must have been, must he not, to have raised such a paragon of a daughter as Scheherazade? And her sister, Dunyazad, too, another good, smart, decent girl.

What would it do to the soul of the father of such fine girls to be forced to execute young women by the hundreds, to slit girls’ throats and see their lifeblood flow? We are not told. We do know, however, that Shahryar’s subjects began to resent him mightily and to flee his capital city with their womenfolk, so that after three years there were no virgins to be found in town. No virgins except Scheherazade and Dunyazad.

By the time Scheherazade entered the story, marrying King Shahryar and ordering her sister, Dunyazad, to sit at the foot of the marital bed and to ask, after Scheherazade’s deflowering was complete, to be told a story, Shahryar and Shah Zaman were already responsible for two thousand two hundred and thirteen deaths. Only eleven of the dead were men.

Shahryar, upon marrying Scheherazade and being captivated by her tales, stopped killing women. Shah Zaman, untamed by literature, went right on with his vengeful work. One thousand and one nights later, the death toll stood at three thousand, two hundred and fourteen.

Scheherazade telling stories in “The Arabian Nights,” 1892.

Credit... Smith Collection/Gado, via Getty Images

Consider Scheherazade, whose name meant “city-born” and who was without a doubt a big-city girl, crafty, wisecracking, by turns sentimental and cynical, as contemporary a metropolitan narrator as one could wish to meet.

Scheherazade, who snared the prince in her never-ending story. Scheherazade, telling stories to save her life, setting fiction against death, a Statue of Liberty built not of metal but of words. Scheherazade, who insisted, against her father’s will, on taking her place in the procession into the king’s deadly boudoir. Scheherazade, who set herself the heroic task of saving her sisters by taming the king. Who had faith, who must have had faith, in the man beneath the murderous monster and in her own ability to restore him to his true humanity, by telling him stories.

What a woman! It’s easy to understand how and why King Shahryar fell in love with her. For certainly he did fall, becoming the father of her children and understanding, as the nights progressed, that his threat of execution had become empty, that he could no longer ask his vizier, her father, to carry it out. His savagery was blunted by the genius of the woman who, for a thousand nights and one night, risked her life to save the lives of others, who trusted her imagination to stand against brutality and overcome it not by force but, amazingly, by civilizing it.

Lucky king! But (this is the greatest unanswered question of “The Arabian Nights”) why on earth did she fall in love with him? And why did Dunyazad, the younger sister who sat at the foot of the marital bed for one thousand nights and one night, watching her sister being fucked by the murderous king and listening to her stories — Dunyazad, the eternal listener, but also voyeur — why did she agree to marry Shah Zaman, a man even deeper in blood than his story-charmed brother?

How can we understand these women? There is a silence in the tale that cries out to be spoken of. This much we are told: After the stories were over, Shah Zaman and Dunyazad were married, but Scheherazade made one condition — that Shah Zaman leave his kingdom and come to live with his brother, so that the sisters might not be parted. This Shah Zaman gladly did, and Shahryar appointed to rule over Samarkand in his brother’s stead that same vizier who was now also his father-in-law. When the vizier arrived in Samarkand, he was greeted by the townspeople very joyfully, and all the local grandees prayed that he might reign over them for a long time. Which he did.

My question is this, as I interrogate the ancient story: Was there a conspiracy between the daughter and the father? Is it possible that Scheherazade and the vizier had hatched a secret plan? For, thanks to Scheherazade’s strategy, Shah Zaman was no longer king in Samarkand. Thanks to Scheherazade’s strategy, her father was no longer a courtier and unwilling executioner but a king in his own right, a well-beloved king, what was more, a wise man, a man of peace, succeeding a bloody ogre. And then, without explanation, Death came, simultaneously, for Shahryar and Shah Zaman. Death, the “Destroyer of Delights and the Severer of Societies, the Desolator of Dwelling Places and the Garnerer of Graveyards,” came for them, and their palaces lay in ruins, and they were replaced by a wise ruler, whose name we are not told.

But how and why did the Destroyer of Delights arrive? How was it that both brothers died simultaneously, as the text clearly implies, and why did their palaces afterward lie in ruins? And who was their successor, the Unnamed and Wise?

We are not told. But imagine, once again, the vizier filling up with fury for many years as he was forced to spill all that innocent blood. Imagine the years of the vizier’s fear, the one thousand and one nights of fear, while his daughters, flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood, were hidden in Shahryar’s bedroom, their fate hanging by a story’s thread.

How long will a man wait for his revenge? Will he wait longer than one thousand nights and one night? This is my theory: that the vizier, now ruler of Samarkand, was the wise king who came home to rule Shahryar’s kingdom. And the kings died simultaneously either at their wives’ hands or at the vizier’s. It’s just a theory. Maybe the answer lies in the great lost book. Maybe it doesn’t. We can only … wonder.

At any rate, the final count of the dead was three thousand, two hundred and sixteen. Thirteen of the dead were men.

A 1933 illustration from “The Tortoise and the Hare” in “Aesop’s Fables.”

Credit... Arthur Rackham, via Culture Club/Getty Images


The stories that made me fall in love with literature in the first place were tales full of beautiful impossibility, which were not true but by being not true told the truth, often more beautifully and memorably than stories that relied on being true. Those stories didn’t have to happen once upon a time either. They could happen right now. Yesterday, today or the day after tomorrow.

Animal fables — including talking-dead-fish fables — have been among the most enduring tales in the Eastern canon, and the best of them, unlike, say, the fables of Aesop, are amoral. They don’t seek to preach about humility or modesty or moderation or honesty or abstinence. They do not guarantee the triumph of virtue. As a result, they seem remarkably modern. The bad guys sometimes win.

The ancient collection known in India as the Panchatantra features a pair of talking jackals: Karataka, the good or better guy of the two, and Damanaka, the wicked schemer. At the book’s outset they are in the service of the lion king, but Damanaka doesn’t like the lion’s friendship with another courtier, a bull, and tricks the lion into believing the bull to be an enemy. The lion murders the innocent animal while the jackals watch. The end.

Many of Aesop’s little morality tales about the victory of dogged slowness (the tortoise) over arrogant speed (the hare), or the foolishness of crying “wolf ” when there is no wolf, or of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, seem positively soppy when compared to this Quentin Tarantino-like savagery. So much for the cliché of the peaceful, mystical East.

As a migrant myself, I have always been fascinated by the migration of stories, and these jackal tales traveled almost as far as the “Arabian Nights” narratives, ending up in both Arabic and Persian versions, in which the jackals’ names have mutated into Kalila and Dimna. They also ended up in Hebrew and Latin and, eventually, as “The Fables of Bidpai,” in English and French. Unlike the “Arabian Nights” stories, however, they have faded from modern readers’ consciousness, perhaps because their insufficient attention to happy endings made them unattractive to the Walt Disney Company.

Yet their power endures; and it does so, I believe, because for all their cargo of monsters and magic, these stories are entirely truthful about human nature (even when in the form of anthropomorphic animals). All human life is here, brave and cowardly, honorable and dishonorable, straight-talking and conniving, and the stories ask the greatest and most enduring question of literature: How do ordinary people respond to the arrival in their lives of the extraordinary? And they answer: Sometimes we don’t do so well, but at other times we find resources within ourselves we did not know we possessed, and so we rise to the challenge, we overcome the monster, Beowulf kills Grendel and Grendel’s more fearsome mother as well, Red Riding Hood kills the wolf, or Beauty finds the love within the beast and then he is beastly no more. And that is ordinary magic, human magic, the true wonder of the wonder tale.

A postcard illustration of a scene from the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel.”

Credit... Popperfoto, via Getty Images

The wonder tales taught me that approaches to storytelling were manifold, almost infinite in their possibilities, and that they were fun. The fantastic has been a way of adding dimensions to the real, adding fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh dimensions to the usual three; a way of enriching and intensifying our experience of the real, rather than escaping from it into superhero-vampire fantasyland.

Only by unleashing the fictionality of fiction, the imaginativeness of the imagination, the dream songs of our dreams, can we hope to approach the new, and to create fiction that may, once again, be more interesting than the facts.

The fantastic is neither innocent nor escapist. The wonderland is not a place of refuge, not even necessarily an attractive or likable place. It can be — in fact, it usually is — a place of slaughter, exploitation, cruelty and fear. Captain Hook wants to kill Peter Pan. The witch in the Black Forest wants to cook Hansel and Gretel. The wolf actually eats Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. Albus Dumbledore is murdered, and the Lord of the Rings plans the enslavement of the whole of Middle-earth.

We know, when we hear these tales, that even though they are “unreal,” because carpets do not fly and witches in gingerbread houses do not exist, they are also “real,” because they are about real things: love, hatred, fear, power, bravery, cowardice, death. They simply arrive at the real by a different route. They are so, even though we know that they are not so. The truth is not arrived at by purely mimetic means. An image can be captured by a camera or by a paintbrush. A painting of a starry night is no less truthful than a photograph of one; arguably, if the painter is Van Gogh, it’s far more truthful, even though far less “realistic.”

The literature of the fantastic — the wonder tale, the fable, the folk tale, the magic-realist novel — has always embodied profound truths about human beings, their finest attributes and their deepest prejudices too. The wonder tale tells us truths about ourselves that are often unpalatable; it exposes bigotry, explores the libido, brings our deepest fears to light. Such stories are by no means intended simply for the amusement of children, and many of them were not originally intended for children at all. Sinbad the Sailor and Aladdin were not Disney characters when they started out on their journeys.

It is, however, a rich age in literature for children and young-hearted adults. From Maurice Sendak’s place “Where the Wild Things Are” to Philip Pullman’s post-religious otherworlds, from Narnia, which we reach through a wardrobe, to the strange worlds arrived at through a phantom tollbooth, from Hogwarts to Middle-earth, wonderland is alive and well. And in many of these adventures, it is children who grow into heroes, often to rescue the adult world; the children we were, the children who are still within us, the children who understand wonderland, who know the truth about stories, save the adults, who have forgotten those truths.

Salman Rushdie is a novelist, essayist and the author of “The Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020,” from which this essay is adapted.

(Source: NYT)

Saturday 29 May 2021

Covid a hoax, vaccine will kill us, say Aligarh residents who’ve ‘sworn’ against taking shot

 In Aligarh, be it Hindus or Muslims, the young or old, most don't want to get vaccinated against Covid. They claim 99% people die because of it.

A combination of ill-conceived notions, misconceptions, a lack of trust in the Modi government and other insecurities is fuelling vaccine hesitancy in Aligarh, with people of both communities — Muslims and Hindus — saying they don’t want to take the Covid-19 vaccine shots.  

This even as safety trials of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, which began in November, are still underway at the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College (JNMC), which is part of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) campus in the city. 

Even the death of 18 AMU professors, 16 of whom hadn’t even taken the first dose, has done little to provide a reality check in the region.   

Apart from vaccine hesitancy, there is also little adherence to Covid protocols in Aligarh | Photo: Praveen Jain/ThePrint

ThePrint travelled across Aligarh city Sunday and spoke to people of both communities and all age groups to understand why they don’t want to get vaccinated. 

While some think that the vaccine causes death, most others here still think that the pandemic is nothing but a “rumour”. 

‘Covid is afwa, only 1% live after injection’

For a number of people in Aligarh, the Covid pandemic itself is a hoax. 

Among them is 42-year-old Avdesh Kumar, who works at the Muktidham crematorium. He believes that Covid is an “afwa (rumour)” spread by media and politicians for “TRP and votes”. 

“Covid ek afwa hai. Upar walla ke bharose he hum aaj tak, kuch nahin hua. Kuch hoga toh dekha jayega, sui toh bilkul nahi lagwayenge. (Covid is a rumour. Nothing has happened to us until today. If something happens, we will see but will not take the vaccine),” the 42-year-old said. 

Kumar has cremated around 100 Covid bodies during the course of the pandemic. When asked why he still thinks it’s a rumour, he said, “People are dying because they go to hospitals. Don’t know what doctors do to them that they end up dying. Who knows this might be a strategy to force everyone to take this injection.” 

No one in his family, including his wife and three children, all adults, have taken the vaccine.  

His colleague at the crematorium, 24-year Devendra Kumar, shares similar views. 

“I have warned my wife and other relatives as well, no one should take this vaccine,” Devendra said. 

“They show on TV that after the injection, one is made to sit in the observation room for 30 minutes to see if something goes wrong,” the 24-year-old added. “This shows that the doctors and the Modi government aren’t sure of the side effects. We know that 99 per cent of those who take the shot, fall ill and die. Only 1 per cent live, how do I take this chance?”

Rahul Somkar, a 30-year-old fruit seller, also  believes that the vaccine can lead to death. “My family has warned me against it,” he said. “Kasam khayi hai hum sab ne ki sarkar agar zabarzasti bhi karegi, hum tab bhi nahi lagayenge (We have sworn not to take the vaccine even if the government forces us).”

It’s a view also held by Rajkumar, a ragpicker and part time e-rickshaw puller, who is the sole breadwinner of his family. 

“I have to earn money for my sisters, and younger brother. My mother is handicapped,” he said. “Who will give me guarantee that I won’t die after the vaccine? I have heard stories where so many have died after the shot; the government isn’t telling the truth.” 

‘Never taken an injection in life, won’t take it now’

Sunder Lal, 62, a rickshaw puller, said he will not get vaccinated until his last breath. “Zindagi mein sui nahi lagaya, ab kyu lagau? (I have never taken any injections in my life, why will I take them now?),” he said. 

Lal isn’t the only one to share this view. At least 10 others in the 60-75 age group that ThePrint spoke to echoed similar sentiments. 

“Kuch din bacha hai bas zindagi ke, kaunsa vaccine se jeevan badh jayega (Only a few days of my life are left. It’s not like the vaccine will increase my lifespan),” 72-year-old Abdul Shakoor  said. 

Some others believe that vaccination is a ploy by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to project himself as “God” who can cure everyone with a “sui”. 

“Modi is trying to play God. Will we become completely immune to this Covid if we take the jab? No. Will we become immortals? No,” said Mohammed Farooq. “He is a magician who is trying to make us believe in illusions.” 

Salma, 38, who runs a paan shop said, “Namaaz padhte hai roz, kafi hai (I offer namaz regularly, that is enough).” 

“If this Covid and vaccine are for real, let me ask one thing, why did West Bengal, UP have elections? Why was Kumbh Mela held?” asked 35-year-old Nur Jahan. “This is all a big joke and fools are falling for it and taking the vaccine and they all end up in graves.” 

Mohammed Saleem, 40, and a few others of the Muslim community stated another reason for not getting vaccinated — fear of “sterility”. 

Meanwhile, people across the city, which is under lockdown, continue to flock across streets and lanes without social distancing measures and masks. According to government data, Aligarh has 1,440 active Covid-19 cases and 92 people have died so far in the city. 

(Source: The Print)

Friday 28 May 2021

North Sea green energy could overtake oil and gas by 2030, says study

 More than half of offshore energy jobs could be in low carbon sectors, including wind and renewables

The UK’s half-century legacy as a leading offshore oil and gas hub will be eclipsed by the North Sea’s fast-growing green energy industry within the next decade, according to new research.

An academic study by the Robert Gordon University, based in the oil industry capital of Aberdeen in Scotland, has found that by 2030 most of the UK’s offshore energy jobs will be in the low carbon energy industry.

The research found that the number of green jobs off the UK’s coastlines is likely to climb from 20% of the country’s offshore energy sector to 65% by the end of the decade in a “significant change for the offshore energy industry”.

Teesside Wind Farm, also known as Redcar Wind Farm, towers over the town of Redcar. Photograph: Bill Allsopp/Alamy Stock Photo

Almost half of the jobs in the UK’s offshore energy industry will be supported by the offshore wind sector, which is the largest in the world and could support up to 90,000 roles by 2030 under a new deal with the government to support a quadrupling of wind power capacity.

Meanwhile a fifth of offshore energy industry jobs in 2030, or 40,000 roles, will be linked to other clean energy sectors such as producing hydrogen from renewable energy, or capturing and storing the carbon emissions from factories and heavy industry under the seabed.

The number of jobs supported by the North Sea oil and gas industry is expected to fall to 40% of all offshore energy jobs, or just over a third of the total, as the oil industry continues to decline.

The findings mark a milestone for the UK’s North Sea industry which for decades has prospered financially, and supported a significant number of jobs within the UK economy, by producing billions of barrels of oil since the industry’s hey-day in the 1970s.

But Prof Paul de Leeuw, a director at Robert Gordon University and the lead author of the report, said the swing towards green energy jobs represents a “material prize” for the UK because those currently employed in the oil and gas sector will be able to transfer their skills into cleaner sectors.

“With many of the skills and competencies required for the offshore energy sector to be highly interchangeable, the energy transition offers a unique opportunity to create a new world class net zero energy workforce,” he said.

The energy minister, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, said the government’s recent deal with the North Sea industry “will make certain we have an energy skills base in the UK that is fit for the future”, while the Green Jobs taskforce will give advice on how to create the skilled workforce needed for a low-carbon economy.

(Source: The Guardian)

Wednesday 26 May 2021

Was the fiddler framed? How Nero may have been a good guy after all

 He was a demonic emperor who stabbed citizens at random and let Rome burn. Or was he? We go behind the scenes at a new show exploding myths about the ancient world’s favourite baddie

Nero comes with a lurid reputation. “The main thing we know about him is his infamy,” says Thorsten Opper, curator of the first British exhibition devoted to the Roman emperor. “The glutton, the profligate, the matricide, the megalomaniac.” Also, the pyromaniac: famously, Nero “fiddled while Rome burned”, or at least strummed his kithara to one of his own compositions, The Fall of Troy, while a fire, supposedly begun by him, destroyed three of Rome’s 14 districts and seriously damaged seven.

Friend of the homeless … this Roman bust of Nero, remade to look thuggish, features in the British Museum show; Peter Ustinov playing the emperor as a mincing toddler in Quo Vadis. Composite: Alamy, Mgm/Allstar

His afterlife on the page and screen is certainly arresting. Nero inspired some of the greatest Renaissance and baroque operas, notably Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Handel’s Agrippina, which chart the emperor’s adulterous love for Poppaea, who became his second wife. In the epic 1951 movie Quo Vadis, Peter Ustinov played Nero as entirely unhinged: a mincing, purple-swathed toddler in a man’s body. Christopher Biggins took him on in I, Claudius, the classic BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’s novel, and made him power-hungry, baby-faced and quite, quite mad.

The main ancient sources on Nero are uncompromising. The historian Tacitus offers a vivid picture of a ruler consumed by cruelty and paranoia during his 14-year reign, which ended after an armed rebellion precipitated his suicide, aged just 31. This portrait includes the story of his extraordinarily elaborate plot to assassinate his powerful mother, Agrippina, using a trick boat designed to collapse at sea and drown her (the doughty dowager empress swam to shore, but was later dispatched by sword). It also includes, even less palatably, the information that the emperor killed his wife Poppaea by kicking her in the stomach when pregnant. Nero’s biographer Suetonius, meanwhile, tells us that – aside from his disgraceful habit of singing and playing on the public stage – the emperor liked to amuse himself by going out into the streets after dinner in disguise, attacking and stabbing people, and then chucking their corpses into the sewers.

Baby-faced and quite mad … Christopher Biggins as Nero in the BBC adaptation of I, Claudius. Photograph: BBC

As for fiddling while Rome burned, he wasn't even in the city at the time

But the thrust of the British Museum’s exhibition, which opens this week, is that this story of wantonness and degeneracy is, essentially, propaganda. “The sources need to be seen as texts that have a clear agenda,” says Opper, the museum’s curator of Greek and Roman sculpture. The “elite senatorial writers” who formed this negative picture, he argues, could not reconcile themselves to the demise of the republic and the establishing of populist, one-person rule.

Nero: The Man Behind the Myth tries to hint at another, suppressed version of the emperor – one that survives only in scraps of pro-Nero graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii, in asides in the main ancient texts, and in objects and sculptures that managed to escape the Roman habit of destroying images of a discredited ruler (known as damnatio memoriae, the damnation of memory).

The reputation for “sex and violence and gluttony” that swirls around Nero was, argues Opper, carefully built up through the lavish invocation of unfounded conspiracy theories and deliberate use of the rhetorical tropes of vituperatio. These techniques of undermining opponents – untrammelled by modern legal restraints on libel or slander – often focused on the target’s supposed sexual incontinence and financial profligacy. The British Museum exhibition, he says, “isn’t about rehabilitating Nero – it’s about critically reading the sources and stripping out the accretions”.

Trouble in store … Colchester’s Fenwick Treasure. Photograph: British Museum

Once you push the anecdotes and gossip out of the way, he says, there is a rich and intriguing political picture to be discerned – one of a traditional ruling class threatened by the wealth of an insurgent group of provincials; political pressure building up as “anxiety about money blurs class divides”; and an emperor who is attempting to shore up a shaky power base through currying popularity with the plebeians, or ordinary people of Rome, all the while coping with pressures on the eastern and western fringes of the empire, in what are now Armenia and Britain.

The exhibition begins with a powerful metaphor for the shading of the “real” Nero into the Nero of myth. A bust normally housed in the Capitoline Museums, Rome, showing Nero with a brooding, malevolent physiognomy: a cruel curve to the mouth and an oversized chin that give him a rather thuggish air. This is the Nero Ustinov skilfully and enjoyably inhabits in Quo Vadis. Yet, says Opper, the sculpture was fragmentary: only the area above the right eye and left cheek is original. It was heavily restored in the 17th century by a baroque artist who gave Nero that mad chin and depraved mouth – one who’d read his Suetonius, or at least had a firm idea of the “wicked” character passed down from the Roman historians.

Few complete original sculptures of Nero survive. But one or two do remain: a striking statue of an angelic-looking boy of 12 or 13, on loan from the Louvre, presents a very different picture. This is a portrait of a young boy “making his debut as part of the imperial family”, according to Opper. The sculpture was perhaps once part of a dynastic group: officially adopted by his predecessor and stepfather, Claudius, this boy was groomed for power early to ensure a smooth transition. This was, in fact, achieved, says Opper, pooh-poohing the notion that Nero’s mother, Agrippina, killed Claudius – poisoning him, as ancient sources insist, with mushrooms.

For Opper, the real brutality of Nero’s reign is contained not within the emperor’s personal acts of violence, whether real or imagined, but within the cruelty and exploitation of the Roman imperial system. A section of the show is devoted to Britain – at the time a young, unstable addition to Rome’s empire, the southern and eastern part of the island having been invaded and conquered by Claudius in AD43. Nero’s reign, however, saw one of the most famous incidents in Britain’s Roman history: the uprising of the former Roman ally Boudicca, queen of the Iceni people in what is now East Anglia.

Ancient sources hint at corruption, greed and tax-farming (auctioning off the right to collect taxes) on the part of the recent imperial rulers. Thus provoked, Boudicca’s revolt was bloody, as described by the historian Tacitus, and as observed in the archaeological record. The exhibition includes a recent find: a hoard of coins and jewellery excavated from beneath a branch of Fenwick in Colchester, then Britannia’s provincial capital. They seem to have been buried, perhaps by the terrified and fleeing Roman inhabitants, most of whom Boudicca’s forces massacred. The hoard was found beneath the layer of burned material that is the physical trace of Boudicca’s rampage through the town. Also on show is the recent find of a kneecap that a sword sliced off, and a jawbone hacked through by a blade.

Perhaps most chilling of all, though, is the evidence of Roman chain gangs, discovered on Anglesey: metal shackles that would have restrained five slaves, or prisoners, or prisoners-of-war, a reminder of the fact that the Roman empire ran on the muscle power of the enslaved. Anglesey was the scene of fighting between Romans and – according to Tacitus – a force of Britons that included “black-robed women with dishevelled hair like Furies” and druids “screaming dreadful curses”.

It was the general Gaius Suetonius Paulinus’s advance towards Anglesey that gave Boudicca her chance to strike while the bulk of Roman forces were occupied in the west. She very nearly got rid of the Romans altogether. There’s a bronze Roman head in the British Museum’s collection, included in the exhibition, that was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. Opper thinks it could represent Nero. Theories have been put forward that it was Iceni war loot, ritually deposited in the river after being snatched from Colchester or another Roman centre.

What about the story that Nero was responsible for the fire that devastated Rome in AD64? Surely that – the single most famous thing about Nero – must be true? Opper shakes his head. Nero wasn’t even in Rome at the time, he says, and the city – with its badly built, overcrowded housing – “was due a fire”. He argues that the story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned is a kind of slippage, the solidification of a rumour based on the fact that he really did write a poem about the fall of Troy, which included scenes of a city ablaze. Instead, he points out, even the ancient sources concede that Nero made sure the homeless were housed and that rebuilding was along much safer, more regulated lines – albeit with a giant palace of his own, the Domus Aurea, spilling forth magnificently over the Oppian, Caelian and Esquiline hills like a kind of city-centre Versailles.

The enjoyably monstrous Nero, then, seems to be fading away under Opper’s critical gaze. So who was he? The “real Nero”, he argues, is no longer recoverable, so effective was the propaganda of his opponents. The exhibition ends as it begins, with another powerful image of the emperor’s erasure. After Nero’s death, a brutal civil war broke out. One after another, four powerful generals attempted to seize power. The one who finally succeeded was Vespasian, who had led the Second Legion into south-west England and Wales. He founded the second dynasty of Roman emperors, the Flavians. That final object is a stone head of Vespasian, recycled and recarved from a sculpture of Nero.

Nero: The Man Behind The Myth opens at the British Museum, London, on Thursday.

(Source: The Guardian)