Monday, January 2, 2012

Fear & Hope

I’m writing this without knowing how I’ll conclude it. A question hangs over it and I’ll have the answer tomorrow.

It happens to most – or all – of us that we go about our daily lives in a routine way and we’re content to get on with it till we reach a tipping point when everything changes. You stumble upon a moment when everything else becomes immaterial and life as you knew it turns on its head. It might be listening to a song that touched your heart, it could be the death of a close one, or it could be the moment when you met your special person and fell head over heels in love. To me, the moment arrived day before yesterday, when I woke up, brushed my teeth, spat out and saw the basin turn red.
The initial horror left me in shock for a few seconds before I recovered and – in a state of denial – started searching for innocuous explanations. A cut in my tongue, weak gums, some blister hidden away somewhere and bleeding due to contact with the bristles, maybe a loose tooth… nothing. I swallow hard to see if my throat’s got some wound. Nothing. I was spitting blood. And it was coming up from somewhere deeper than my throat. At five on a freezing cold morning, two thousand miles away from my family and loved ones, I had to man up and face it: something was wrong. Very wrong. I was spitting BLOOD!

I stared at myself in the mirror, the fear and dissonance all too visible in my eyes. My mind was throwing up scenarios; and at such times, the worst always come up first. There’s a tumor in there. Throat, neck, lungs, it’s all in the firing line. No! I’ve just ruptured my sinuses and that’s what’s bleeding! I’ve been coughing for two weeks straight ‘cos of the cold and something’s bound to get sore and bleed. Relax! Yeah, that must be it… What if it’s a tumor? When a question like that grips you, two things happen. One, everything else that’s going on in your mind and around you comes to a screeching halt. Two, until it’s proved beyond a shade of doubt that it’s not what you’re afraid it is, the question just won’t get out of your head. It gets on top of everything else and dwarves them all. Life, comes to a standstill and your head goes into a fizz with a million thoughts all along the same tangent.

It was all about me and my grand plans for life. Family came later. My dream job that I had started off so well at and was looking forward to a great 2012. My book that was almost over and the hunt for a publisher all set to begin next week. The trip I had planned to tour Europe late next year. Love. Kids. Growing old. Parents and grandparents back at home. Plans to make up with Mom when I go home next month. In a moment, all of it seemed light years away. I was sick; possibly, terminally so. I’ve told people umpteenth times that life’s not fair; we just have to stop complaining about it and get on with our lives. But then it struck me. I’m just twenty three! That’s not fair and that hurts!

Trust me, it’s not easy having to cope up with this flood of thoughts in a few short seconds right after having seen your blood decorate the frothing wash basin in a grotesque way. I washed it away, wiped myself clean and made an effort to restore some normalcy by trying to setup my newly acquired hair-do when it struck again. It’s a tumor. And when you have chemo, your hair’s gonna fall off. Why bother setting it up now?  It was one of those moments when I couldn’t meet my own eyes in the mirror for a few seconds, before doing so loaded with self-pity.  Please!

I lead a messed up life. I eat like a pig. I don’t work out enough to burn the fat, I just make excuses by going for a bowl of cereals for breakfast. I’m obese. But does that mean life has to catch up with me in such a brutal way?? 

The immediate future gained immense significance as I slumped on the bed, my head as clear as the red slush I’d washed down the basin a minute ago. I was on my way to Jim Corbett for three days with my uncle’s family so no way of visiting a doctor till 31st. Can I make an excuse and stay back? No. I’ll have no answers to the million questions that would be thrown at me. Which hospital is trustworthy in this god forsaken place? I made up my mind. 31st, I’d return to Delhi, go to AIIMS with my colleague Ravi who knows all the doctors there and take every damn test in the book to find out what’s wrong with me. And what it if it’s a tumor?  I’ll quit my job, go back to Coimbatore, start treatments, write like crazy every day, look for a publisher and put my name in every Landmark and airport book shelf before it comes down to a straight shootout between me and The Bastard  (I couldn’t bring myself to say the C word; Still can’t.)

Once the uncertainty of what to do settled and the only uncertainty that remained was “Is it or isn’t it?” without any means of finding an answer for three days, it came down to the hardest and yet simplest and basic moment of truth that one can ever face. Fear of death versus the Hope of life. It was terrifying. It was humbling. It’s been three days but I haven’t let visions of the former enter my head though the prospect of it being a possibility has changed my life.

Perhaps the mess in my head would’ve been a bit less messy if something hadn’t happened a few days ago. Without any particular reason, I had ventured out to the market in the freezing cold, and devoid of any particular item to buy, randomly went to the book store and picked up a copy of Lance Armstrong’s autobiography It’s Not About The Bike. I’d read about half of it after a couple of nights when I received one of the most disturbing phone calls I ever have. It was from one of my best friends –married a couple of months ago to her childhood sweetheart- calling me back since I’d been trying to reach her for a couple of days to invite her and her husband over to my place for lunch (I’m a pro chef and hence the ‘eating like a pig’ bit). Her guy had suffered a seizure and had been in the hospital for a week now. He was diagnosed with a cyst in his brain and had been placed under severe medication and regular checkups. It was a shock. Came out of the blue. I was cursing life for what it had brought upon two of the nicest people I’ve ever met and was planning to give her my copy of Armstrong’s book so that she could draw inspiration from how Armstrong’s mom and his wife nursed him through the darkest days of his fight back from testicular cancer. But the guy looked pretty normal when I visited him so I decided against giving her the book, lest it should scare her. I continued reading and came to know in graphic detail, just how earth-shattering it is to be diagnosed with the C-thing and the horrors of chemo.

In the latter half of the three days, Armstrong’s book gave me enough strength and reason for hope but in the initial moments, it did enough and more to make me wet my pants. When fear of this magnitude grips you, everything around you seems to suggest something about it; and it’s all friggin’ negative. Sample this. My overzealous 12-year old cousin was packing some books to take with her to Corbett when she suddenly opened one towards the last few pages and said, “You know, I never got time to finish this book.”  In a few months, you might have to say the same about your book, Arun. God! This Is all about me!  I made up my mind.
“Divya, give me an unused notebook of yours and a pen please.”
“I don’t have any unused notebooks.” Kids!
“OK just give me some A4 sheets.” I took a dozen and stuffed them into my bag. Laptop might get discharged; so might my phone; but nothing – nothing – was gonna stop me from writing and finishing what was left of my book before… Fuck! Why me?

It was unnerving in a way I’ve never felt before. Hope was all pervasive but so were a million unanswered questions.What if… My eyes welled up. It was 530 on a freezing cold morning with dense fog reducing visibility to a couple of meters. And I was hidden behind my shades; afraid of what people might see behind them. I got into the car and before more waves of agony struck me, told myself the one thing that stood out from Armstrong’s book. I’m not gonna let this bastard get me. Are you listening in there? You made a big mistake when you chose me to hang out with. Big mistake. I’m gonna kick your ass so hard you’re gonna run yelping and not look back at me. It was a comforting thought that spread some warmth till the little kid piped up once again and asked, “How much time left ma?” How much time left, Arun?
I spent an hour plotting the next chapter in my book and even started writing down some basic stuff on my blackberry when Dad called. “Have you guys left? How much longer do you think you’ll be able to hear his voice Arun?  It was a sucker punch. I bent down, hid my face between my hands feigning an attempt at getting clearer reception, and broke down silently. It was too much to take. How much longer would I indeed get to hear his voice? I love my Dad. He’s like my best friend. We talk all the time and mostly, it’s just pointless banter. This was one of the most verbally meaningless and yet, emotionally priceless calls I’ve ever taken. I hung on for a few minutes, asking him random stuff, just to keep him on the line and hear him talk. And finally, he hung up. I fumbled around, found my shades, disappeared behind them and let it hit me. In a few months or a year, it could all be over. No amount of my other self telling me that there must be a perfectly harmless explanation to it could calm me down. I spat blood, for god’s sake!

Maybe it was the tears, or maybe it was the maelstrom of thoughts in my head, or maybe even the sheer vulnerability I was feeling; I slept. It was a dreamless siesta. After about a couple of hours, I woke up to the Sun shining in my face. The warmth it brought lasted a few seconds. The dried up tears and the dam opening up to release the flurry of thoughts brought me back to reality. But strangely, it was unnaturally quiet in my head. Somehow, in spite of having fallen asleep feeling more miserable than I can ever remember, I had woken up with a pretty simple thought in my head. I was going to war. And I would fight this. But if it isn’t to be, then I’m gonna make the remaining days count. Not once would I think of the fat lady singing, but I would treat every minute as if she was about to. It took me a day to realize I hadn’t stopped smiling since the moment this struck me.

I’ve heard from countless people and read on numerous occasions that just before you die, you’ll see a film reel of the most important moments of your life. I don’t know if that’s true but I know this much. When the fear of what lay in store gripped me, answers came aplenty. Answers to questions that had haunted me for long and answers to questions that had popped up a second ago. I could see an aura of simplicity hanging over everything. For a guy who starts griping internally when things veer even a bit off course, I couldn’t believe what was happening in my head.
The breakfast was bad. So what? I’ve seen worse. And it’s still edible.

We took the wrong road and spent an hour and a half on a bumpy mud road into the middle of nowhere in rural UP. I still got to see a lot of rural UP and I’ve never done that before!

We went on a safari hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive tiger. One made itself visible. But before I could look at it and click a pic, the people around us started buzzing and it ran away. So what? I was in the middle of a forest as I had dreamed to be when I was five.

Our car got stuck big time in the sand after some genius (My aunt or my driver. Neither would own up of course) decided it would be a great idea to drive across Ramganga’s dried up river bed. It took us four hours to get out of it and delayed the return trip. I still got to spend two hours sitting in peace by the unbelievably scenic river and even got to make friends with the guy who finally helped us pull our dead beat Innova out of the hole we had gotten ourselves in. Those of you looking to buy an SUV, here’s a quick tip. The Grand Vitara is an amazingly powerful 4 wheel drive. A monster of a vehicle. It pulled our ride out like it was going for a stroll. Unreal!

UP defined ‘bad roads’ and ‘mad drivers’ to us of the pompously named National Capital Region. I was in aam admi’s India! The land of Premchand and bedangi kavitas and some of the best homegrown literary greats of India. What could I possibly complain about? For the budding homegrown angreji lekhak in me, this was a pilgrimage.

In short, life refused to let me gripe about anything. Or rather, I refused to gripe about anything that life threw at me. That’s more like it. The war would be fought with a smile on my face. It could get to my body and maybe even beat it but I wasn’t about to let it beat my spirit. I stood up, eyeballed it from an inch away and smiled right back at it. Bring it on bitch! I remember one particular conversation which if it had happened at another time, would’ve gotten me fuming. On our way back to Delhi, still very much in the hinterlands of UP, we came upon a single lane bridge. Only one direction of traffic at any time. We almost squeezed in but the guy at the other end was too far in and we had to back off. Before we knew it, it was a steady procession of cars, gypsies, buses, trucks and some of the most monstrously overloaded tractors I’ve ever seen. And a bunch of vehicles had lined up behind us as well. We were trying to back off a bit to allow a truck to pass out of the bottleneck but we couldn’t. Everyone on the bridge and everyone behind us was stuck. This guy from behind us comes up and knocks on our window.

Aur bhaiya, jam karvaoge kya?” What’s the big idea?
My driver wasn’t one to back down. “Abe me jam kar raha hoon kya? Tu peeche jaega tab hi to sab niklenge!” Basically, your fault. Rear up.
“Saale Behen chod mujhe bol raha he! Teri gadi he sabke saamne. Tu ja kyun nahi raha he??” Some stuff about our driver’s sister and then, ‘Why aren’t you moving? You’re the guy up front!’

The long line of vehicles we were facing from the other side was evidently not his concern. There were people in vehicles behind him, shouting out for him to rear up so that we could do the same and let the guys from the opposite side go through. He just stood there, his face making it all too evident that he had fucked up. A proverbial pants down with the headlights on moment. And he continued to stare us down, cussing about my driver’s sister. Usually, in these situations, I’m not particularly averse to letting loose my own stream of Dravidian-Aryan-Anglo-Saxon influenced expletives but this time, it couldn’t even wipe the smile off my face! That’s what mental strength is all about, Naldo. The guy knows he’s in trouble and look how he’s standing his ground. You see the parallels? Watch and learn!

It wasn’t just answers that came to me. They all got together to paint me a picture of strength and incredible simplicity that I knew I would imbibe. There was no other way to go on. And it helped. In a heady state of fear and resilience, I stumbled upon the place where I would base the last act in my book. The flow and meanings came together in a second. It was perfect. I spent a few hours at the river’s edge every day playing out the scenes over and over in my head and finetuning them till they couldn’t get any better and got down to typing it all down. I got on calls with Dad just for the sake of it. I wanted to connect; and I was doing a good job of it. When I wasn’t thinking or writing, I got myself to immerse my mind in whatever was happening around me. Not for a moment did I let my head be with itself and get back to thinking up depressing possibilities. I couldn’t afford to. At these times, distractions are life-savers; especially so for me since my mind’s like a monkey and keeps hopping from one thought to another. It was indeed a stunningly beautiful place where we stayed but the situation I was in, made it look divine.  I fell in love with that place. When I left, I didn’t so much as turn my head towards the rear view mirror to look at it one last time. I’ll be back. I ain’t going anywhere.

You know how as kids, when our parents tell us that we’re going on a trip, we start planning out every small detail of it and form a utopian impression in our heads of how every step of the trip should go. And on the day of the trip, we wake up to see nothing’s as we wanted it to be, we start changing all and sundry around us and start pestering our parents to have even the smallest of things go our way. As kids, we might’ve thought we’re just being responsible and doing the best for everyone. Well, as adults, it’s just plain irritating when kids do that. Sorry Dad and Mum for all of it. I was a pro at it. My cousin was like Master Yoda. Size, voice et al.

Mamma, did you pack my pillow and sheets? I’m gonna sleep on the back seat.
Mamma, put this notepad in the bag, I’m gonna take notes when we go on the safari.
Mamma, get a flask of hot water, I’m gonna eat Cuppa Maggi on the way.
Mamma, get a matchbox, it’ll help with the bonfire.

Whew! I was bad but this was like sitting through Overcooked Childhood for Overzealous Kids 101. And unbelievably, through it all, the only thing that registered with me was the kid’s energy. She would do something silly. Her Mom would glare atom bombs at her and silence her. She would get right up and move on to the next annoyance. She was like an indomitable little whippet. If indeed things were as wrong as I feared them to be in my system, I would have to be a big friggin’ whippet that would get slapped down umpteenth times and I would have to get right back up and fight every time.
After three days of fear, hope and most of all, the amazing sense of positivity that I managed to bring out in myself, we returned to Delhi on 30th night. My head was still buzzing and I was still smiling ear to ear but one emotion was on top of it all. I had to put this all down on paper.  Just like Armstrong did. If the shit’s hit the fan and I’m sick, then he’s my hero. And I’m gonna do what he did. People took heart from his struggle and victory over the C-thing. Maybe they’ll be able to relate to my journey borne out of fear and uncertainty. And hence I got down to typing it all down.

31st December 2011 dawned on me and after saying hasty good byes to my uncle’s family, I got on the metro for Gurgaon. And I resumed typing. I called Ravi a few times but there was no answer. But it didn’t matter. AIIMS or no AIIMS, I was gonna clear my head and get the most important of all answers today.

Though I was immersed in typing away on the metro, I was surprisingly aware of all around me. Everything that I observed stayed with me. I remember every word of the conversation I had with my uncle’s driver on the way to the metro. I remember the 4 minute waiting time for the train to arrive. I remember most of the people who were standing near me in the train and what they were wearing. I even remember walking into the loo at Rajiv Chowk metro and the graffiti on the walls. One tacit but to-the-point note was on the door. Sunita. 9200455505. Rs. 500.  Enough said. It’s crazy but I even remember how many times the guy behind me tapped me on my back when I jumped the queue and forced my way into the train. I was impatient to get home and rush to the hospital. After three days of getting all the answers I wanted, this was one that I couldn’t wait for. This was the biggy. The train stopped for a few minutes midway to HUDA City Center metro and I started pacing impatiently inside the train. The world could wait. I couldn’t.  On my way out, I saw this guy jump up to try and touch the clock that was hung at the exit of the metro. I reached up and touched it with both my feet on the ground. Ha! I did it without the need to jump, sucker! 

I usually avoid going with the auto guys who come right up to the metro and start canvassing passengers but this time, I just went with the first guy who I set sight on and in a few minutes, I was home. My laptop was out of the bag and I was referring the phone numbers of local doctors in a jiffy. I silently thanked my Dad as I did so. A month ago, as I was at home, my back firmly rooted to the bed with a mixture of cough, cold, fever and throat infection having descended on me, my solution was to drink hot water, hot milk, honey and hope for the damn things to clear off in a week. My Dad, sitting the entire distance across the country, went online and got me the numbers of two homeopathic physicians who happened to live right next to my place. I got the numbers and my first call was to Dr. Archana Jain whose medicines had helped me immensely a month ago. It was a no go. She was not at home. I tried the other number, some Dr. Rajvedi. He wasn’t available either and asked me to come after a couple of hours. Then he said something that made sure I wouldn’t visit him. Ever.
“My son runs Hotel Coriander near your apartment. I’ll be there in the evening, why don’t we meet there?” Coriander!That place serves lousy chicken and the guy’s a total hack job. No way!

There was no one to give me an initial diagnosis. I had to go the whole hog. I grabbed the keys, rushed out and drove to Paras Hospitals, all along, telling myself to calm down. Philosophizing isn’t hard when you’re in such a weak state and it came to me too. I was driving along smoothly when this guy on a bike shot across from the other side of the divider and I almost ran over him. Even before the reflexes had saved the day, it came to me. If shit’s gonna happen in my life, I at least have a year’s warning. If shit had happened in that guy’s life, he would’ve been blown away to kingdom come by now without a moment’s notice. One moment, cruising on the highway. Next moment, it’s all over. Who’s unlucky now, Arun?

I pulled into Paras Hospitals and walked into the reception area. Since I’ve always taken homeopathic medicines, I don’t know a thing about going to a hospital and getting myself checked. There was something called OPD registration. Turns out it’s the registration counter for out-patients, the guys who don’t get admitted. I paused before I approached it. What if the lady at the counter asked me what’s wrong with me? Would I have to tell her in front of a dozen strangers that I spat out blood and am here to know whether it’s the C-thing or nothing?
“I need to see an ENT specialist.”

I registered, paid five hundred and fifty bucks to get a plain file and two sheets of paper in it and was shown to the ENT department. I told myself to be calm and not tell him anything about what I was afraid of. Give ‘em a hint and they’ll fleece you to the high heavens. Play it cool. Be a good sales guy. It was right next to the pediatric wing so I spent ten minutes playing with the kids waiting outside and finally, mercifully, the bearer of the answer I was here for arrived. I’ll never ever forget Dr. Amitabh Malik. I spent a grand total of ten minutes with him. I walked in knowing full well that in a few minutes time, I could be told that I’m fucked. For good. He asked me what’s wrong.

I gave him a background of the last month’s climate induced misery. Deep down, I was hoping against hope that it was indeed something to do with the constant coughing. “… So I woke up three days ago, brushed my teeth, spat out and found blood in it. Significant amounts. Over the last two days, the amount’s been much lesser but I still find blood.”
“You found lumps or streaks of blood?”
Have you heard guys talk about a heart-in-the-mouth moment? Well, this was it for me.
“Streaks. I can show you pictures.” I fished out my phone.
“Not necessary. Come closer. Any other complaints apart from this?”
“Nothing.” Just this one instance of finding blood oozing out of my mouth and splattering the basin in a way that nothing short of a lobotomy can wipe out of my memory.
He made me open my mouth, placed a gauze frame on my tongue, flashed a torch at my insides and said “Say eh”
“Say eh”. “Eh”. “Say eh”. “Eh”. This went on about a dozen times before he pulled the gauze out abruptly and pulled my nostril wide open with something that looked like a pair of tongs. “Any blood from your nose or ear?”
“Nope.” God no! I shuddered. That would’ve made me bolt from Antarctica to the nearest hospital for an MRI, CAT, ECG, EEG, ELISA and every damn test in the book.

Finally he was done. His next words were the reason why I’ll never forget him for the rest of my life. At around 1:30 PM on the 31st of December 2011, Dr. Amitabh Malik said these words to me. “The blood vessels in your throat are swollen. And they’ll bleed for a few days whenever you cough. Nothing to worry about. Just take some vitamin tablets. No cancer or anything.” He actually said it. Fear of the damn thing must’ve been writ large on my face.

I exhaled like I’ve seldom exhaled. “That’s exactly what I was worried about. It’s not a tumor? Should we run some tests to make sure of it? Are you absolutely sure?” There I was, basically giving him a blank cheque. Good sales guy, my arse!
But he was a good guy. “I’m sure. It’s just the coughing. Cover yourself up well and stay warm. You’re not wearing enough clothes for the winter.” And when I stayed silent. “There’s no tumor. Relax. Live life king size. Don’t worry about it.”

Three days after the damn thing first moved me to tears, I broke down again. There was nothing inside me. No war to fight. Nobody to kick out of my system. I was fine. It would strike me much later that thanks to these three and a half days, I was more than just fine. And the ear to ear grin stayed as I wiped off the tears, shook his hand, thanked him for having made my day, wished him a happy new year and walked out with a swagger that would make any tough guy proud. I was OK.

People go to hospitals ‘cos they’re sick. Hospitals make me sick. At that moment, Paras Hospitals and its dour interiors looked like Coimbatore. (To me, there’s no happier place than Coimbatore. Home) I walked out, got into my car and started a series of fist pumpings that made the security guy peer in curiously. I almost called Dad to share the news when I stopped. No friggin way! This would be my secret. One word about this and he’ll be on the next flight to Delhi. Madness.
I drove out, rolled the window down and gave out the loudest and longest “Yes” of my life. Everything was back to normal. And thanks to these three days, nothing would ever go back to being normal. Every move I was making, every thought crossing my head was telling me the same thing: There was a before and an after. And there was no comparing the two guys. For one, I still don’t know what will wipe this smile off my face. And for another, I don’t want it to be wiped off. I wanna live with it. I wanna go to sleep with it. I want it to greet everything and everyone around me.

I treated myself to KFC’s best, gave thirty bucks to a beggar, called up a friend of mine and bluntly told  her, “I’m fine and I don’t have the c-thing.”
“You don’t have to be so melodramatic and hypochondriac” Er… now I have to look up what hypochondriac means.

It was 10 degrees outside, the doctor had asked me to cover myself up well in this weather. I was running around in a shirt and a pair of jeans. Nothing mattered. I was fine. My book would go to the printers in a few months if all pans out well. It bloody will!  And I don’t have a cloud hanging over me. Life was beautiful.

I pulled up at the traffic light and when the lights turned green, gunned the engine. It gave in and turned off. As I turned it on again, the horn started blaring from behind me. “Relax dude! There’s enough and more time left in life!”

  *                             *                             *

(Inspired in equal parts by my plight over the last three and a half days and Lance Armstrong’s autobiography. The two just happened to walk into my life at the same time. )

Friday, October 1, 2010

Who will step up?

An off-color display away to Bolton and a lacklustre performance at Valencia have meant that United go into this weekend's headed at The Stadium of Light, still not in full flow. There's a semblance of respectability to the week that could so easily have gone horribly wrong but for moments of sheer predatorial instinct by Michael Owen and Javier Hernandez. But is it enough steam to spruce up the team ahead of a potential banana skin against Steve Bruce's men?
Form apart, injuries to key personnel are threatening to derail a wobbly season yet again. We still haven't reached last season' lunatic levels but losing Rooney, Giggs, Scholes and Valencia is bad enough. While the injury to Wazza is a welcome relief since it gives him time to go away and get his head straight, the same can't be said about the others. The midfield's display against Scunthorpe and Valencia in the absence of Scholes show what we'll be missing from the next season once He retires. Fletcher' while industrious, seems lost without a creative midfielder around him to pull the strings upfield. And he still hasn't hit top form yet this season. To make things worse, he's already started 2 matches this week, a third might be too much to ask. Carrick and Anderson are just back from injury and giving them two starts in 4 days is a risk, considering the schedule for the next few months. Scholes is out for a week, minimum. This leaves Sir Alex with just Darron Gibson who is a certainty for one of the 2/3 midfield slots. Keeping in mind Gibson's limited distribution skills, Ando is ruled out to partner him. Will Sir Alex spring a surprise like the last time against the Black Cats at home (Danny Welbeck on the left wing)? Magnus Eikrem and Corry Evans certainly merit a callup on the back of a solid start to the reserves' season and it will be interesting to see how to shape up. Or maybe, just maybe, is Owen Hargreaves fit enough to make the bench?
On the wings, it's even worse. Giggs is out for a fortnight and Valencia is... well, out :'( Nani's played every minute of the matches against Bolton and Valencia and due for a break. And Park has been woeful this season. But fair play to the lad, standing up and taking responsibility. Maybe Sir Alex will give him a start just to help hm get his confidence back. The international break is no reason to play the fatigued legs of Nani and Fletcher since they will be in aciton in Euro qualifiers. If indeed Park gets the nod at left wing, who plays right? Has the Portuguese matured enough to give three top notch performance in a week? If not him then Gabby obertan will pounce on a start. Bebe makes a case for himself, but the bench is the closest he is getting to first team action this year. Rafael might be a good option but I guess it's too early in the season for Sir Alex presses that red button. A three man central mid field of Gibson, Park and Fletcher/Carrick behind a three man strike force might just pass muster looking at the glut of options up front.
Up front is where the relief arrives. Yes, Rooney is out but that (though hard to believe considering his 34 last season) is OK, looking at the alternatives. Berbatov will be the string puller ahead of a three man mid field. And I would prefer Macheda mining up next to Owen or Javi. All three have a point to prove. Macheda's been superb with his intelligence and link up play every time he's come on. His pass to Javi for the winner at Valencia was a gem. He should start in absence of Wazza. Owen after a spell on the sidelines and Javi after his clean-as-a-whistle strike at the Mestalla will both make a pressing case for a start. More than Macheda perhaps. But starting with both will mean, palying with 9 men trying to get last ball to 2 men. Waste of a player, IMO. But atleast, we have some options here.
The defence looks stable but doesn't exactly pick itself. Rafael was good without being spectacular against Valencia. He should start. Vidic with 2 starts in the week, and Rio with 90 minutes three days ago, need a break though we can ill afford it. Darren Bent's form calls for one or both of them to be lining up in defence but I can see Evans edging Rio just as a precaution. Depending on how lightly Sir Alex is going to take the Balck Cat's potence up front, Wes Brown and Chris Smalling might get a look in, to releive Vidic. I don't see it happening though.
Evra was, for the first time in 2 years, less than spectacular in the mid week. But he was REALLY less than spectacular. Pablo Hernandez ghosted past him enough times to make a strong case for a chant of 'Fergie Fergie Sign Him Up'. But that apart, perhaps the French captain needs a breather. Fabio has stepped up quite well when called up.
Injury to ex-Red Devil, Fraizer Campbell and Danny Welbeck's loan clause mean that Steve Bruce is down to two strikers for the header. Maybe a 4-5-1 will make Fergie rest both Rio n Vida.
It promises to be an intriguing weekend.
Wish list:
Regulation win at Sunderland.
Arsenal emulate City and stop the Blue war machine
And just for kicks, Newcastle beat City, Andy Carroll nets a few and Fabio calls him up.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


The breeze was like a raging stream, flooding through the narrow, snaky streets of Poitiers. The 10 degree C wind with nigh a touch of moisture hit his already dry and parched face like a block of dry ice. Winter was setting in. And it would get progressively worse. Till it reached a point where the French, enjoying a 'bright day' all around him, would fire up the heaters, down the shutters, and disappear into hibernation. He remembered the previous morning and laughed to himself at what lay in store. Waiting in front of class, he had been greeted by the Professor. "Ca va?" Teeth chattering and his whole body shivering like a leaf, he had managed to say something that sounded like "Bit… col.. outhere". The man's you-ain't-seen-nothing-yet smile  spoke for him.
But strangely, his reaction to the temperature dropping to a single digit was decidedly different from the last couple of days when it had dilly dallied between ten and fifteen. There was no jacket today. The shivering was absent from his gait and the relaxed jaw showed no signs of chattering. He seemed just as impervious to it as the other street dwellers were. What was it about the 30th of September that was drowning out the effect of an alien climate?
His school was half way around the block. His mind, was halfway around the World. A billion people, two of the oldest cultures in the World, with the most complicated and difficult of pasts between them and the land that's seen it and borne it all for centuries, stood still and waited with bated breath. 6 centuries after the first brick was placed, 60 years after the first idol was placed, 18 years after the multicultural fabric was ripped apart beyond repair, India awaits. It would be settled today. Would it be settled today? No, lemme rephrase it. Would it be settled today? If so, then would it be settled today? Digging up Ayodhya is done. Now the grave digging begins.
He paused for a second. Was that what was making him impervious to the cold? The anxiety of what was happening back home? Fear of what was to be unleashed on his country? The 'yes' from his mouth was drowned by the 'no' from his mind.
"Of course I care!"
"Yeah right. Pull the other leg, Naldo!"
Much as he wanted to believe otherwise, much as he tried to bring up instances to prove otherwise, in spite of all the patriotic hormones that he tried generating, he knew it was a losing battle. Somewhere in him, with roots deep enough survive the storm of 30/9 was the undeniable fact. That he didn't care. At least, not enough to be oblivious to what was happening around him.
He walked into the school, relishing the warm atmosphere. Though he hadn't felt much outside, this was where he wanted to be. His mind strayed from the dimly lit corridors of the school to the muddy, unpaved streets of Ayodhya that he had never seen.
"Salut!", he turned to see the face he had seen enough times to remember in class.
"Salu……" , as it turned out, not enough times to remember her name. "How are you doing today?"
"I'm good. How are you? Nice party last night?"
"I wasn't there. I saw the mail from the organizers… guess I'm too old for that stuff! "
She laughed, betraying the mockery ill-concealed beneath the humor. Well, one couldn't really argue that he didn't deserve it.
"Er… I read something on the internet yesterday. Some mosque judgment today in India?"
Sigh! "Yeah. Big day back home. Lotta security, communal tension and all that stuff. It's gonna be out in a few hours.Kinda nervous about the whole thing"
"What is it all about?"
He had tried many times and failed to imitate the French way of doing "poof!", the reaction that you get when you ask them something complicated. This time, he nailed it. "It's… kinda complicated. Six centuries old story."
His hunch about what that kind of a party does to people's heads was vindicated when she, with a look not unlike the perennial 'spark' on Paris Hilton's face said "Tell me tell me!"
"OK, I'll give you an analogy first."
"An anal….?", her eyes popped ever so little but that was enough.
"No no! It's not… that. Analogy means… er… something similar. An example."
"Ah. Yeah. Example. " The Hiltonian expression returns.
What example can I give? He thought. Ofcourse! When in doubt, talk football! "OK, imagine that England and France are one country."
"Now, Bobby Charlton, British legend. Thierry Henry. French legend. Remember, both of them belong to the same country now. Imagine that an asteroid struck the Earth after Charlton retired and all records of his achievements are lost. The new generation just knows that a legendary player called Charlton existed and played for Britance. A new stadium is built in Normandy and they name it Bobby Charlton Arena. Thierry Henry hits the World stage and becomes the legend that he is. And retires eventually. His followers decide that Charlton is just a myth ('cos there's no proof of his existence) and rename the stadium in Normandy, Thierry Henry Arena. Centuries pass. Bobby Charlton and Thierry Henry are long dead after unforgettable careers and fulfilling lives. One fine day, Charlton's followers put his pictures on the emblem  of Thierry Henry Arena. Both parties clash. Thousands die. The stadium is shut down. Decades later, Charlton's followers destroy the stadium's Henry emblem, with an intent to put a new Charlton emblem on it. Both parties clash, thousands die. Things can never, ever, be the same between the two sides again. And today, the court in Normandy is going to decide whose face will decorate the emblem and whose name will grace the stadium. And whatever they decide, both sides will clash. And thousands will die.'
The Hilton look was gone but… that's all one could've said about the look on her face. "And?"
"And that's it! In a nut shell."
"But… it's just a game. And a name!"
Was it?? "I wish it were that simple. The side that loses, loses face. They'll feel humiliated."
"So why can't they have two stadia?"
"One next to the other? They'll kill each other in half a day."
"OK then... have the other at some other place!"
"Can't do that. Henry and Charlton were both born in Normandy. It has to be there."
"Er… so what are they gonna do about it?"
He shrugged. A billion people waited for the answer. "What would you do?"
"Er…" The 'rrrrr' has lasted for 60 years. Does it end today?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Bit More Of The Same Lunacy

OK this is ONLY 'cos I felt guilty about not having posted anything in a long time. A thorough search of the Recluse' archives threw up...
This. Here goes...

stupid observation i made long ago
long long ago in a diary on the go
to prop up morale ever so low
and pour it all out in a flow

and in a rickety ride n amidst the clouds,
in a seedy lodge n swaying moods
I dragged my mind out of the woods
With nigh more than words

Of a time when the clouds chilled my head
and pages and pages of Sparks I read
and thoughts of lunacy, in my head I bred
From one to another, thoughts led

Oh boy! was I a fool!

Friday, July 16, 2010


Finally it took a moralising monologue from Lord Emsworth to drag Empress back onto her breezy path from her road to revolutionary reconfiguration of the pen.
Oh how he liked the look of unbridled joy on her face as she revelled in the attention showered on her by Snowball and Napoleon. Their hefty human master and his bumbling, babbling bunch of assistants vanquished from their farm and power finally in the hands of the animals led by snowball and napoleon, the grass was finally green as ever; And the apples, red and juicy like never before. The new era was here.
Alas, the wily humans found a trap door. As one of them said, "Well odysseus, you found a way to make the lambs invite the wolves for dinner". And dine, did the humans. The apples shrank, the grass turned dry, the animals found their portions halved. Poor heathens, ran, they did, to Empress. "Help!", the cried. "We want more!", they chorused. "Men!", they seethed. And nay a moment of rest did Empress savour. Nigh impossible did she find it to stroll by the lake, let her hair loose in the breeze and converse with her consort. "Ouch! There's a nail in my shoe! The clouds are turning grey! What am I gonna do? And the Sun's going down too!"
In the pouring rain and the slippery mud, she traipsed back to the pen, desolate, lonely and desperate for that long lost melancholy. And there, in the pouring rain and slippery mud, amidst the clueless and the carelss, did Lord Emsworth find Empress. In need of nigh more than a look of love, nigh more than a semblance of care. And down he swooped on his companion of long. For, with Empress he dined and with Empress, he kept his woes in bind. And to Empress, he would show the merry land.
Hence, he set upon his street of salvation to drag Empress by the scruff of it's neck barely recognizable from it's face and trunk to it's long forgotten breezy, carefree path. And, munching on the generous bits of mulberry Lord Elmsworth spoilt her with, happily she lived ever after. Animal welfare.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Harry Red-Champ!

Finally!! A dozen transfers, five seasons of heart break after heartbreak, replays, controversies, and three different managers later, Spurs, mercifully, make the cut for the Champions League. Peter Crouch's 50 million pound goal will be remembered by White Hart Lane faithful for ages to come. It propels Spurs to the Champions League Playoffs for the first time since 1962 and probably even the main draw if they win and Fulham beat Arsenal on the last day of the season. While the third place finish seems like a pie in the sky, nothing about this season or Arsenal and Fulham's form has suggested that an upset is not on cards. What the hell, it wouldn't even be an upset considereing Fulham's European fairy tale run and Your's Truly competing with Lukasz Fabianski and David Seaman for the coveted spot between the sticks. But irrespective of what happens on Sunday, Spurs can look back at an incredible 20 months. Looking at where they were in the table October before last, if someone had told me that Spurs will be fighting for something this day, I would'v been justified in thinking they would be fighting with Newcastle United and West Brom Albion for a direct ticket up from the Fizz Pop league. That they had an outside chance of qualifying for Europa League last season and that they've displaced Liverpool from the 'Big Four' this season is testament to the work that Harry Redknapp has put in. Spurs had two points from eight games and were rock bottom in the table when he took over from Juande Ramos (Remember him? He's at Real Madrid now. No wait, that was 10 months ago. It's CSKA Moscow now. Shit, no! That was eight months and 2 weeks ago. Hmmmm, where is he ow by the way?) To propel them from those lows to a fourth place finish within in a season and a half... it's been a phenomenal jorney for the tactician.
Just how badly Spurs wanted to break into the top four and qualify for the Champions league is highlighted by the sum spent on transfers. Since July 2008, the list of players who have joined Spurs is long and reads something like this: Jermain Defoe, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Peter Crouch, Wilson Palacios, Luka Modric, David Bentley, Sebastian Bassong, Gareth Bale, Heurelho Gomes, Niko Krajcar, Robbie Keane (out, in, out again), Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Geovani Dos Santos, Eidur Gudjonsson, Alan Hutton... phew! It's an incredible accumulation of pace, flair, solodity and creativity. And it's an expensive accumulation at that; not more than a couple of them were acquired for less than eight figures.
The transfers apart, just the motive behind some of the transfers have shown how desperate Spurs were for European football. Manchester United's entire defensive line save Patrice Evra was wiped out for a month and their response was to play Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick as centre backs apart from relying on youngsters Ritchie De Laet and Oliver Gill. Compare this to Spurs; Luka Modric got himself injured at the beginning of the season for a couple of months and presto! In comes Niko Kranjcar from Portsmouth to cover for him. That elusive fourth spot has beome nothing short of an obsession for Spurs, Villa, Everton and from this season, Man City (sigh!). All of them have chosen different paths to try and reach the summit.
Aston Villa with Martin O'Neill's policy of predominantly buying cheap British talent almost broke the top four bastion last season. If it hadn't been for a spectacular dip in form towads the latter half of the season and THAT remember-my-face-for-a-couple-of-dacades goal by Kiko (Oh that boy!!) Macheda in the dying moments of their Old Trafford visit, Villa could well have edged Arsenal out of Champions League spots. That they fell short in spite of the heroics of Milner, Young and Agbonlahor shows just how hard it is to find your way past Arsenal and Liverpool (Don't even think of United and Chelsea here).
Everton with it's excellent bunch of academy kids and David Moyes' preference for versatility in his transfer targets have been there and thereabouts since they actually broke through to finish fourth in 2005-06.
Man City have kept it simple. The Real Madrid-Chelsea way. "How much for a Champions League spot?" Sparky Hughes thought he had the asnwer to it until Michael Owen popped up and in Alan Smith's frenzied words, "With his first Old Trafford goal for Machester United, makes the place erupt!". Owen also erupted a few fragile tempers in the desert and at the blink of an eye, Roberrtthhhho Manchheeeni had taken over. By the look on Sheikh Mansour's face when Peter Crouch headed past Martin Fulop, Mr. Hot Scarves doesn't seem to have the answer either. Harry Redknapp, however, has the answer, "Nothing". You simply can't buy your way to the Champions League. Atleast, not it one season. Mancini to his credit, has done a decent job on the field and in the transfer market. Adam Johnson might yet turn out to be the best piece of business City did amidst the arrivals of Tevez, Adebayor, Santa Cruz and Robinho (ha ha ha ha ha! Imagine what City, Real or Chelsea would pay to have the old Robinho back and playing in their colors!). I usually hate it when I hear people talking ill of the Middle East but after looking at the circus that the Sheikhs have converted Eastlands into, I can't help but roll my eyes and tail of with a "Well er..." when I hear stuff like, "That's why God gave them camels and not clubs to run".
Spurs, on the other hand, have gone about the job in their own way. They've bought players when they had to and at other times, have simply changed their system to raise their game. Harry Redknapp hasn't just brought success, he's brought a new way of playing to Spurs. Gone are the days when their defending used to sway from ridiculous clowns in blue and white to get-the-f***-outta-here. Michael Dawson, Sebastian Bassong, Ledley King, Assou-Ekotto and more recently, Gareth Bale have evolved into a formidable unit (just ask Chelsea and Arsenal). The midfield has a more settled feel to it with the arrival of Wilson Palacios and emergence of Tom Huddlestone. Creativity has never been their weak point and the arrival of the Croats Modric and Kranjcar has enhanced it further. Aaron lennon has truly developed into a World Class winger, what with his blistering pace and motly bag of tricks. Even patrice Evra has found it difficult to live with him. Their backup players do seem to be able to step up and deliver when needed (Did anyone know who the hell Danny Rose was till the derby??)
The work has shown in the results and they've emerged as one of the most consistent units in the EPL this season. More than Everton and Villa and certainly more than Man City and Liverpool (Ah Scousers! What has become of the team I knew, respected and despised in equal measure??), Spurs deserve their spot amongst Europe's elite. How far they can make it in the Champion's League remains to be seen. But considering the quality they have, it won't be surprising at all if they pull their weight and dump some regular European biggie in the latter stages. That's the difference between a new English team in the Champions League and a new team from some other country. The competition for the at 4th spot is so intense and the gap between the big four the next 4 has reduced significantly. Spurs won't feel out of place at all in the Champions league. They could go some distance even with their current lot. And if Harry gets to make a big splash in the transfer window, it's gonna be one hell of a Spurs outfit lining up against Real Madrid and Inter Milan in five months time.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Curious Case of Dimitar Berbatov

He doesn’t show enough commitment to the team… He’s lazy… He’s too slow on the pitch… He doesn’t care about the team… He’s an introvert… Every catcall in the book has been heard about Manchester United’s enigmatic no.9. For a man who’s 18 months at Old Trafford have evoked such extreme reviews, Dimitar Berbatov’s Manchester United career started off on a brilliant note. The cross from near the goal line to setup Carlos Tevez for United’s first and only goal at Anfield in their 2-1 loss to Liverpool announced his arrival louder than his $30 million price tag. The deft tricks and stunning touches that had held the World in awe during his spell at White Hart Lane were expected to take Old Trafford by storm. It was supposed to be a dream combination. Wazza with his marauding, lung-bursting runs and Berba with his classic flicks and touches. 6 months later, the knives were out and the catcalls had started. The crowd was clearly not impressed with the Bulgarian’s nonchalance. The people who mattered, to their credit, made the right moves though. Sir Alex Ferguson, in spite of the presence of Carlos Tevez, continued to persist with Berbatov and Berbatov on his part, continued to put in his best.
True, he doesn’t have Ronaldo’s bag of tricks or Rooney’s level of involvement in the game or Darren Fletcher and Ji Sung Park’s work rate and this is what the fans love to watch but Berbatov has quietly gone about doing what he does best, pulling the strings from ‘the hole’. He’s a peculiar kind of player, he drops in behind the lone man and sets up attack after attack. He’s a master at reading the opposition’s defence and picking passes through them. Now it’s easy to see a Xavi Alonso or a Francesc Fabregas in this kind of a role in central midfield but Berbatov, labelled a striker, has been doing just that. Can you call him an out and out striker? Nope. He’s too slow for that simply doesn’t score enough goals. Can you call him an attacking midfielder of the Kaka, Wesley Sneijder type? Not really. The trickery is missing. Can you call him a midfield playmaker? No way! He plays too high up for that and doesn’t really drop back to help the defence. And he’s labelled a striker.
At a club like United where 20 goals per season are a pre requisite for a first choice striker, his lack of goals was always going to be a problem. Let’s face it, the guys who donned the striker role before him had an insatiable lust for goals. There was Ruud van Nistelrooy with a goals per game ratio that won’t be beaten in a few decades. There was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, there’ll never be a man like the baby faced assassin again. There were Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke before them and more recently, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. Now Berbatov will never be mentioned in the same breath as these names when it comes to pure goal scoring instinct. So it was only natural that the crowd would run out of patience with him soon. Not that they don’t like anyone other than the most absurdly talented bunch of players named above. Lesser talented men like Park Ji Sung have become Old Trafford favourites simply because of their sheer determination and work rate. Any United fan would swear by his life that Park would die trying rather than give up. And they adore him for that. Now why don’t they like Berbatov the way they like Park? It’s the man’s demeanour. He’s emotionless, he doesn’t show commitment, the whole list of catcalls start all over again. Now, the fans seeing only the visible side of Berbatov and the club seeing only his visible side are two entirely different issues. Surely, a man of Sir Alex Ferguson’s experience would’ve known what Berbatov was all about before getting on Juande Ramos’ nerves and stretching them right to the limit before landing his striker on transfer deadline day. And amidst all the calls to drop Berba and play Tevez, Sir Alex would surely have known the value of the man he was being urged to axe. True, he stuck it out with Berba and gave him enough chances though it led to the eventual transfer of Carlos Tevez.
Now into his second season at Old Trafford, where does all this leave Berbatov? First choice striker alongside Wayne Rooney. But then, with Michael Owen as the backup striker and the other options being the untested Mame Biram Diouf and teenagers Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda, you would expect Berbatov to be Rooney’s undisputed strike partner. But is he really? A comparison of the number of games played by United no.9 and 10 say an entirely different story. Rooney has not just emerged from Ronaldo’s shadow, he’s grown into a talisman, he’s Mr.United. The best striker in the World at the moment (ok Blaugrana, I’m a United fan). And Berbatov, has shrunk in comparison. A look at the contributions of support strikers in the big teams across Europe show Berbatov is not Rooney’s partner but backup. Chelsea: Nicolas Anelka has played every match against the top 5-6 clubs in the EPL and in the Champion’s League. Liverpool and Arsenal: They always play the lone man up front to pack up the midfield but in Arsenal’s case, either Nicklas Bendtner or Eduardo partnered Robin Van Persie in attack on most occasions before the Dutch hitman pulled up for the season. Barcelona: La Liga, Copa Del Ray, Champions League, whatever be the tournament, Pep Guardiola’s juggernaut rumbles on without compromising on 3 men up front. It’s only a question of whether to play Thierry Henry or Pedro Rodriguez. And that’s more of a transition than anything else.Real Madrid: Apart from El Ron, they always Raul or Benzema alongside Higuain. Rarely is it Ronaldo and Higuain alone. Atletico: Aguero, Forlan and 9 others. Every match, every tournament. Inter Milan: Jose Mourinho’s carefully assembled outfit rolls with an intimidating striking line up of Samuel Eto’o, Diego Milito, Goran Pandev and Wesley Sneijder these days. It’s the same line up whether they’re playing Catania or Chelsea. AC Milan: For all the talk about Leonardo’s team being packed with pensioners, they continue to play an attacking brand of football with Pato, Ronaldinho and either Huntelaar or Boriello playing up front. And the number of strikers didn’t drop even when facing United at Old Trafford (That they got walloped is for another day).Bayern Munich: Two of Mario Gomez, Miroslav Klose and Thomas Muller line up every match.And United? Rooney and Berbatov against Blackburn, Hull, Wolves, Portsmouth, Wolfsburg and Sunderland. Rooney all alone against Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Barcelona, CSKA Moscow, AC Milan, Manchester City, Everton and Aston Villa. If a player, after moving to a top club for a record transfer fee, doesn’t get to play the matches that really define a top club, was it really worth moving in the first place? Would Berbatov feel more happy sitting on the bench in all the Champions League knock out round matches, play 20 minutes a match and pick up a Champions League winners’ medal? Or would he have been better off staying at White Hart Lane as Spurs’ frontline striker, play every match of the season, compete for a top four finish, lead his team to the Champions League and line up against the likes of Ronaldo, Messi and Pato? Needless to say, he would’ve been Harry Redknapp’s first name on the team list if he had stayed at Spurs. A lot of strikers have moved in and out of White Hart Lane after Berbatov but one can safely assume that he would’ve been partnering Jermain Defoe up front in every match, had he stayed there. Looking at the way things are turning out for Spurs this season, they’re primed for a top four finish, meaning Champions League football next season. Jermain Defoe will line up next to Peter Crouch or Roman Pavlyuchenko against the best of Europe while Berbatov will warm the bench and watch Rooney play all alone. With Sir Alex Ferguson repeating it often these days that the 80 million pounds received for Ronaldo’s transfer is burning a hole in his wallet, it might well be the case that a certain big name striker from Valencia might find his way to Old Trafford. And that, would effectively mean the end of Berbatov’s stay at United. But even if there is no significant addition of strikers to United’s roster next season, is the no.9 jersey and a spot on the bench in the big games, really worth it for Berbatov? It’s going to be an interesting phase from now till the end of the end of the summer transfer window for United and Berbatov. Whether it’s a window of opportunity for Berbatov or a window to splash in for United, remains to be seen.