Friday, May 27, 2011

Raising the bar

To most of the staff and students of Bangalore Medical College, Kyathi Vakharia is just another student. Like any other fourth year, she juggles between interning at Bowring Hospital, pouring through medical journals, and waking up at the crack of dawn to revise for semester exams.

Every evening, when she trades her white coat for a sports vest and trainers, she switches between the two lives she leads. In one, she’s just one of the 1,655 students in India preparing to a graduate into one of the most sought-after profession in the country. In the other, she’s India’s youngest women’s pole vault champion.

“It was the most exciting experience of my life,” the shy 22-year-old gushes, as she describes her recent outing at the National Games last month, where she bagged a gold medal for Karnataka. “It was down to just the two of us, and it was quite close. I did much better than the target my coach had in mind for me.”

Vakharia vaulted a height of 3.65 meters, breaking her own previous record and inching closer to the national record.

Finding her feet

Vakharia entered the sport in the same way that many other famous women vaulters like Elena Isinbayeva did—through gymnastics.

“When I was 5, I went to watch my brother at gymnastics practice and soon ended up picking it up as well,” she says. Vakharia is no stranger to the National Games—she participated as a gymnast when she was 11.
“I was very young and it was just great exposure,” Vakharia says, “so this time when I went back to the National Games, it was like a second coming for me.”

The lanky athlete decided to switch sports only three years ago in her 12th grade .
“There isn’t very much scope for gymnastics in the country, so I decided to move to pole vault,” the high school graduate from Baldwin Girls’ School says. “I’d been doing track and field events for a while and that point, so it made sense.”

However, finding a coach wasn’t easy, especially when there are only “two or three qualified pole vault coaches in India.”
“I met M.S. Upadhayaya, who is an air force coach and he agreed to train me,” says Vakharia. “He’s very cooperative and understands that I have to balance academics with sports.”

Three months after she began training, Vakharia took part in a state athletic meet. In her first attempt at the competitive level, she jumped 2.90 meters, which won her gold and broke the state record at the time as well.

Failing to clear

However, it hasn’t always been plain sailing for the young pole vaulter. She’s missed out on big chances, most recently at the Commonwealth Games trials.

“I don’t know what happened, I’d been jumping 3.60 in the practice grounds in Patiala before the event,” Vakharia reminisces, with a hint of disappointment in her voice. In hindsight, she sees that her pole selection was completely wrong.

“Everybody was asking why I was performing like that and it was the biggest heartbreak I had,” she says, admitting that it was the lowest point in her career so far.

However, Vakharia vindicated herself and silenced her critics with last month’s gold at the National Games.
“I have at least proved myself now,” she says, adding that a big performance in the Asian Games is not too far away.

So what sporting sights has she set herself on next?
“Well, I think I can definitely qualify for the next Asian Games and place at the Commonwealth games as well,” she says, “but the ultimate dream, of course, is making it to the Olympics!”

Balancing medical school and sports

“I always wanted to be a doctor even before I wanted to do sports,” Vakharia says firmly, “and sports is just a hobby—something that happened along the way.”

She agrees that studying medicine makes her the Indian sportswoman with “the best safety net.”
“After all these successes, I’m starting to consider making sports a full-time option/agenda,” she says, “but I don’t know how things will work out.”

But unlike many of her Sport Authority of India (SAI) peers who choose to opt out of education entirely, Vakharia displays a level-headedness well beyond her age. A sport, she agrees, is never a sure thing.

“I can’t rely on sport forever, it might not click tomorrow,” Vakharia says, adding that her parents have always been incredibly supportive. “But like my mum always tells me, right now is when I can do sports. I can always return to medicine and do a postgraduate course later.”

Vakharia manages the rigor of a professional academic course with her pole vault career effectively.

‘Well, I’m up by 4.30 every morning,” Vakharia says with a grin, revealing what an average day in her life is like. “I study for an hour and I’m train until breakfast.”

She’s in college by 8 and often has to go to hospitals across the city as a part of her posting. Vakharia finishes post-lunch lectures by 4 in the evening and is back in SAI’s training grounds in an hour. After a rigorous three-hour evening session, she hits the books by dinnertime and often “falls asleep with them” by eleven at night.

There are definitely times when the pressure really gets to her.

“I can remember several times when I’ve felt very frustrated,” Vakharia says. “Especially because my coach comes in only twice a week and I’m on my own for most of the training sessions. I sometimes wonder what I’m meant to do.”

Vakharia’s coach though, is very supportive of her academic life as well.

“Most coaches try to push their athletes very hard, but mine doesn’t,” Vakharia, who wants to specialize in orthopedics, says. “When the Asian track and field competitions came up, he told me that I didn’t have to do it this year because of my course and that there will be other events next year.”

“I live on the SAI campus for the entire week and I get to go home on Sundays,” the disciplined young athlete says. “I think the last time I went out was between tournaments a few months ago when I went to Gujarat to meet relatives,” she adds, struggling to remember the last time she just lazed about.

Most of her college doesn’t know about her secret other life and Vakharia often has to get “proxy attendance” when she occasionally skives off class to attend practices.

“I’m not in the sport because I want fame, so I’m okay with not being recognized,” Vakharia says, responding to comparisons made with young cricketers who are mobbed by fans and the media. “I do this because I love the sport, that’s all.”

Does she ever feel like she’s missed out on a regular high school and university life?

“Not really, I’m not the partying sort anyway,” Vakharia says, with a smile. “I’ve chosen this path because I really want to, and I’m very happy with my life.”

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Anarchy in Pune: on the road with No Safe Word

It’s 5 a.m. and the tour bus has pulled over by the side of the road. Its occupants huddle around a single lit Gold Flake that’s spinning between them. I walk down a couple of paces to find Charan, No Safe Word’s drummer doubled over and hurling his insides out. He mumbles incoherent apologies for having coated the bus floor with the remains of last night’s dinner.

Ritwik, No Safe Word’s bassist, staggers towards his drummer, taking large swigs from a half empty rum bottle. Charan has taken off his puke-stained shirt, and the wind carries it a few paces down National Highway Four. A tall figure chases after it and brings it back with a victorious smile. Kishore Krishna, No Safe Word’s front man. Neither the reeking tour bus nor the bumpy ride on the NH 4 has killed his buzz. With Ritwik’s inebriated cackling in the background, Kishore turns to me with a mischievous glint in his eyes.

“Let’s burn this shirt.”

What do you get when you put a destructive punk band, a psychedelic/electronic act and a 90s’ blues –rock outfit together in a 13-seater tempo traveler van pointed in the direction of Pune? All night drinking binges, some really appalling jokes, great tunes and above all, a potentially explosive music festival.

On their way to play at the Octoberfest in Pune’s Smokies club, No Safe Word is on the road with Bangalore’s The Bicycle Days and Parachute XVI. Guru from Parachute, whose organizational skills have also forced on the role of the responsible adult, takes the wheel while most of the artists are finally catching some shut eye. Kishore, however, is animatedly giving me his “two schools of punk” idea.

“So, there’s one group of punk bands that did the whole melodic pop genre and then there’s the other that made in-your-face dissonance tunes,” he explains.

“And that’s what’s great about the Pixies, they did both ends of the spectrum,” he says, lighting a King Lites, the only brand of cigarette he smokes.

“Sonic Youth, now there’s another band that had a massive influence on me. That was music that had something to say.”

No Safe Word was formed this time last year by Kishore and ex-Easy Street guitarist Vicky, after several attempts by the latter to take his ideas live. The band, he says, was “born out of a necessity.”

“No Safe Word was something Chennai just desperately needed. A kick in the nuts, if you will,’ Kishore says with a grin. A whole generation of bands with the stereotypical “Chennai sound” [read: generous usage of a wah pedal and Robert Plant knock-offs] were throwing in the towel, which created a gig void that desperately needed filling. Enter these guys, with an interesting story about how they formed.

“No Safe was formed the night The Black Lips tried to destroy Chennai. We’re meant to finish the job.”

The gig Kishore’s talking about was The Black Lips India tour last year, as a part of DNA’s Campus Rock Idols Chennai leg.

“That gig was absolutely fucking insane. So, The Black Lips started playing and received pretty lukewarm initial response. Vicky and I went up front and bunch of other kids joined us. A little while into the show, the organizers asked the band to wrap up quickly, because the venue was going to be closed. The band took this as an excuse to go absolutely berserk,” Kishore reminisces.

Apparently, all hell broke loose in the last five minutes of The Black Lips set. The front man “cannonballed into the audiences, only to be thrown back onto stage.”

“Suddenly, I saw a bass guitar go flying up in the air and crash land on stage. The next you know, the guitarist has his trousers off, while the frontman dives into the drum kit. Meanwhile the remaining two band members are making out on stage,” says an amused Kishore.

“That was punk as hell! That was when Vicky and I decided that we just had to get something going to shake this city up.”

Pune Calling

Our tour bus makes a late stop for lunch at a dhaba [a highway eatery] in Kohlapur, a Maharashtrian city known for its footwear and wrestling. Thirty two rotis and a stream of spicy curries later, [“I’m sure we’ve cleaned out the kitchens and put this place out of business,” Nikhil from The Bicycle Days jokes], the travelling circus hits the road again. Limes are licked to prevent motion sickness and post-lunch cigarettes stubbed out, while the driver fixes the bus’ music system.

With an EP in the offing, No Safe Word’s tunes have spread like wildfire across the indie underground through the internet. Back in our bucket seats, Kishore and Nikhil polish off a bag of Melody chocolates they’ve discovered, while we talk about the back story behind No Safe Word’s songs.

“So, there’s this whole narrative behind each of our songs that I conceptualized while writing the material initially,” says Kishore, “There’s these characters, Johnny and Sheena, who are the protagonists of the story that runs behind the songs.”

The concept, he says, is set in a parallel world—a “ghost town” that has taken shape in an Orwellian future.

“It’s a futuristic society for sociopaths, who are products of their environment. Mainstream society has little use for them and exiles them into this colony, where they begin to govern themselves,” he says.

Are these possible Huxley allusions, perhaps?

“Oh no, hardly,” replies Kishore, dismissing the connection quickly. “This setting is entirely comic—there’s plenty of dark humour involved.”

We stop for a smoke-and-chai break two hours after lunch. As we sip tea out of little plastic cups with the wind billowing in our faces, Kishore and I discuss No Safe Word’s “creed,” if you could call it that.

The idea, I gather, is to turn “civilized society” on its head.

“I guess we’re saying ‘this is how we see society, what are you going to do about it?’” Kishore says, making no effort to hide the strong defiance in his tone.

So how do the tunes get written? Do they have a unique process, like most other bands do?

“I write most of the material, actually,” says Kishore, as we pass a gigantic highway signboard that screams “PUNE: 120 Kilometers.”

“I recorded and programmed most of the stuff—the bass, the drums and the vocals—and Vicky puts his guitar bits on it.”

“And yes, there are differences in ideas,” says Kishore, preempting my question on creative differences.

“Like when we first began, Vicky and I couldn’t really see eye to eye on several bands. We went through a whole list of bands we individually liked and couldn’t find any common ground.”

That was until they discovered The Gun Club.

“I guess The Gun Club was one band both Vicky and I instantly agreed upon,” says Kishore. “Vicky’s influences are quite 60s and he’s an excellent blues guitarist. So he quite readily took to their rockabilly sound and its blues origins.”

No Safe Word however, wants to take the sound of the seminal rockabilly band to the next level.

“I’m talking about ‘koothubilly,’” Kishore says excitedly, explaning to me his new idea to merge the sound of the Tamilian ‘koothu’ (funeral) drums with rockabilly.

“When people in Chennai flock together and play those drums at the same time, there’s so much in there that you hear and experience,” Kishore says, “and I want to add that influence to our music.

“But let’s see, I’ve got to convince the rest of the boys first,” he adds, with a grin.

So how does the rhythm section find expression, when most of the material is written between two members?

“See, the reason we write our material this way is to maintain our tunneled vision with the composition process,” Kishore replies.

A lot of this, I’m beginning to understand, has to do with Kishore’s solo other project, The Fish Eyed Poets, where the frontman writes and produces all the music. Rolling Stone India gave “Snakeism,” his debut EP, a big thumbs-up and calls Kishore a “splendid one man show.”

“I guess I’m a little like a friendly Hitler on the band,” Kishore says, with a laugh. “You’ll have to talk to the other guys though, to get an idea of how they really feel.”

But judging by the general camaraderie and on/offstage chemistry between the members, NSW is no Smashing Pumpkins and Kishore no megalomaniacal Billy Corgan.

Kicking out the Jams

We finally pull up into the drive of the Beverly Hills Hotel, a tacky but expensive recreation of Hollywood in the Pune suburbs. As Guru fills out the paperwork at the desk, the bands call shotgun on the plush rooms in the “Elvis Suite.” Yep, this is what happens when you have a lot of money and land, but little creativity, someone comments with a snigger. No one’s complaining though, especially since the rooms are fitted with flat screen TVs, jumbo-sized beds that swallow you up like quicksand and massive balconies carpeted in turf. Needless to say, the pristine toilets and hot showers receive the most vocal appreciation after eighteen hours on the road.

“There’s no way Vicky and Ritwik are staying in the same room,” says Kishore firmly, playing the responsible adult, as we check in at the reception desk.

“They’re so destructive! Vicky is an absolute fucking nihilist and with Ritwik for company, they’ll just trash the room they’re in!”

If there’s one thing the duo is always up for, it is another round of Old Monk and a tightly packed spliff. It’s a little past midnight and the bands have been told to hit the sack early, to make it on time for sound check. Kishore and Charan have called it a night after an early dinner and retreated to their rooms. But I’m having a late drink with Ritwik and Vicky on the balcony.

“Yeah, we’re pretty badly behaved,” says Ritwik with a laugh, as he makes a roach for a joint that is in stages of preparation. “You’ve heard right. Who wants another drink?”

As Ritwik helps himself to another glass, Vicky tells me about the time they gigged in Pondicherry.

“Oh, that gig was fucking good fun! We played at the Freedom Jam in Pondicherry and were well hammered throughout,” he says beamingly.

‘It was extra fun because Kishore, who doesn’t drink too often, was super drunk as well,” adds Ritwik, with a chuckle.

“I remember being on stage and the next thing, we were in this house with a bunch of random posh old men, drinking their booze and eating their dinner,” Vicky tells me, with a confused look. “Yeah, the organizers gave us some rather strange accommodation.”

“I remember flinging eggs off the kitchen counter, because I thought they were hard boiled and was trying to prove to Ritwik that they were,” Vicky says, grinning sheepishly “Man, I was so smashed. The owner of the house was quite patient with us!”

Ritwik is the latest addition to the lineup, after he parted ways with his previous band, Chennai’s alternative rock outfit, Blacklisted.

“Yeah, I guess that just didn’t work out, its good fun playing on No Safe Word now,” says the left-handed four-stringer, who has been on No Safe Word’s rhythm section since April. We eventually settle down in The Bicycle Days’ drummer Shreyas room and wade through some atrocious two a.m. TV programming.

“Oh shit, Kill Bill’s on,” announces Nikhil, The Bicycle Days’ sampler/keyboardist, and there’s a general air of agreement on what to watch. Half an hour later, everyone has passed out and the television drones in the background, as Uma Thurman continues on her bloody rampage.

In the “Waiting Room”

I’m up by eight a.m. and carefully sidestepping the empty liquor bottles that riddle the corridor leading to the bathroom. In an hour, we’re off to our venue: Smokies’ Club in Kondhwa, Pune. As we pull up behind the open air stage they’ve set up for the concert, a ten-foot inflatable Smoky the Bear greets the with bleary-eyed, restless musicians. The other bands begin their sound check, while the No Safe Word boys sit by the sound console, with large sunglasses and bottles of water to cure their hangovers.

In a distance, Vicky is changing the strings on the Stratocaster that he has borrowed from Kishore.

“I think the next big investment is in some gear,” says Kishore, contemplatively, “possibly a few more guitar pedals.”

Vicky’s runs his guitar through a simple set up: just a green Bad Monkey tube overdrive pedal and a compressor.

“No point buying him pedals,” Kishore adds, as an afterthought. “He probably won’t even remember to bring it to gigs.”

Just then, Vicky calls Kishore to help him tune his newly-strung guitar.

“The fellow’s been playing that instrument for ages and he can’t even tune it now,” Kishore grumbles, as he leaves to sort his guitarist out.

The evening approaches and brings with it some ominously dark rain clouds that cause the organizers to panic. Before we know it, we’re all running for cover after the skies have opened up and unleashed what it possibly the heaviest downpour Pune has seen this monsoon. The sound guys are frantically throwing tarpaulin sheets over their exposed stage gear, cursing the weather gods in Marathi.

Meanwhile, the bands retreat to the bar, where they drown their weather woes in some freshly brewed apple cider and wheat beer. Kishore is nursing a splitting headache and the rains have certainly killed everyone’s buzz.

“Heh, the barman must think I’m nuts,” Kishore jokes, as he stirs the sugar in his hot cup of tea. “I’ve been ordering these cups of tea all afternoon, at a place that serves such excellent beer.”

The rain has thinned down to a harmless drizzle and the organizers tell No Safe Word that they’re on in half an hour. The boys sit down to discuss the order of songs in their set list. I admit to them that I find this rather strange; one half expects an anarchist punk band like them to just wing it. I’m beginning to discover though, that while they like to party hard, they’re hardly likely to let that compromise their performance.

“Kishore doesn’t approve if we drink too much or get wasted before a show,” says Charan, as he firmly steers a drink away from Ritwik. But given the rains, today might be an exception, as Ritwik asks me to get him another beer.

Here we are now, entertain us…

As No Safe Word set up, the crowd that took refuge at the bar now crawls out of the woodwork and trickles in around the stage. I’m standing backstage and trying very hard not to get in the way of a mob of irate sound guys, who are lugging large Peavey amps across the stage. I grin at Vicky, who is hollering at Rahul, The Bicycle Days’ guitarist, for a tuner.

“Pune! How’s it going? I love Pune, and this excellent beer I’ve been drinking all night! We are No Safe Word, this one’s called Hack!”

With that brief introduction, No Safe Word plunge into a set of energetic, no-nonsense punk tunes that transport you right back to 1977.

“…Johnny sharpens his machete, he knows what’s comin’ and God, he’s ready now…”

Kishore dances across the stage, his shades precariously swinging in his hands and grabs at the microphone to spew lyrics that read straight out of a Tarantino script. Vicky’s bluesy licks, masked in the rawness of his muddy guitar tones, create a hook for Kishore vocals to swing on. The audience, if anything, is just plain amused at this band. I’m guessing they came out tonight for evening of ‘classic rock’ covers and got a band that are so in-your-face with their sound and persona.

“Do you guys like Iggy Pop? The Gun Club? Nick Cave? Pune, get over your cultural handicap!”

Kishore eggs the crowd on, and has now commands a whole audience, that are leaning against the barricades and bobbing their heads to NSW’s catchy pop songs.

Towards the end of “Follow the Bats,” Charan busts his snare drum, prompting Guru to quickly run across stage with a replacement. However, nothing can slow these boys down tonight, as they almost quickly take off into the popular “Porky’s last Stand.” Kishore discharges a gut-wrenching squeal between Vicky’s dirty chords, in this song that graphically describes with how Sheena slowly cooks and eats a fat man she captured.

A girl in the audience requests for “Steam Vent,” and Kishore’s jaw almost drops.

“Well, somebody actually KNOWS our songs! We weren’t going to play that song, but I guess we’ll have to now,” Kishore exclaims, with a mixture of surprise and amusement. The song, with its sexually charged lyrics and wave of ambience, reveals a psychedelic side that can’t be seen on any of their other songs.

“Johnny the whip,” leaves the audience gasping at Kishore’s vocal range, with Vicky pitching in with backing vocals. The rhythm section’s tightness cuts through on “Mantis Blues,” where Ritwik’s groove on his Kramer leads the song.

The band sign off with their koothubilly attempt, “Machete,” and the audience stands converted. Clearly, No Safe Word have broken Pune (incidentally, this is their first gig outside South India) and it is only matter of time before these Chennai lads take their brand of punk live across the entire country.

As we drive back after the gig, I’m reminded of a conversation over lunch at a local dhaba. Guru was giving Kishore grief over his refusal to ever eat vegetables.

“You’re all punk and then you eat nothing but processed food!” Guru says, laughing as we gobble down idlis.

This starts an interesting debate about what punk is, with Kishore getting the final word in.

“Punk, well, there’s no such thing anymore, man,” the tall frontman says with a smirk, “it’s all long forgotten. We’ve lost punk.”

And then, with a grin he quickly adds, “Well, at least I’m sure it has nothing to do with vegetables!”

School’s out early for these students

With his class ten board exams just a week away, Latif hasn’t attended a single class this semester. The only two days he showed up this term were last week, for graduation day practice. Sans school uniform, the 16-year-old makes an appearance today to watch an inter-school junior cricket match.

However, Latif isn’t just another truant high school student. He’s Bangalore’s most promising prospect to play for the Indian cricket team at the next world cup.

“I miss a lot of classes because of my sports involvement. This term, I was in Kerala for two months at a cricket camp,” says the student of St. Joseph’s Indian High School, who has been playing state since he was 10.

His school is known for having produced some of the country’s finest sports people, including former Indian cricket captain Rahul Dravid.

“The cricket season runs all year round, so most of our students attend only 10 days in a month,” says Vincent Paul, the sports secretary at St. Joseph’s. “Some of them don’t even attend any classes, because of their sports schedules.”

How do the students then, manage to graduate at the end of the year?

“All our students who play sports are given full attendance for classes,” Paul says. “Each student has letters that come straight from the director of the Department of Public Education, permitting them to take off from school. So they have to be given attendance, without any problem.”

Paul disagrees that their academics are compromised as a result.

“The class teachers help the students catch up,” he says.”They keep track of these special students and give them extra classes.”

Latif manages to get a 50 per cent in his exams each year. While his coach calls Latif their “finest cricket all rounder,” Paul admits that he is just an average student.

“The 50 percent is an achievement for him, given his sports involvement,” Paul says. The trophy case in his sports room is filled with silver, and three young boys in school uniform sit around a desk covered in paperwork next to it.

Shouldn’t they be in classes right now?

“Oh, those are our football, hockey and cricket under- 14 captains,” Paul replies.”They’re helping me file some health forms for the physical education department.”

Academic performance aside, Latif is sure that cricket is what he wants to do in the long term.

“My coach has helped me and physical education teachers have really helped me so far,” he says. “I want to play cricket all my life.”

Trishul K.V thought along the same lines as well when he was sixteen. He began playing basketball since he was 13 and did very well at the high school level. He represented the state for several years and even made the men’s under-21 team when he was just a freshman at college. But just a year after having graduated from college, he now works for a logistics company.

“The government sports authority does little to help budding talent,” the lanky 22-year-old says. “If you want to get a good job, you have to think outside sports.”

Trishul laughs when you ask him about his attendance record during his college years.

“I think it was a little over 10 or 11 percent,” he says with a shrug. “We never attended class because of the number of matches we played in a semester.”

Trishul admits that there are no real “extra classes,” in college to help students like him. Most of them “attend group study sessions and get class notes off other students.”

“Private institutions like colleges definitely push sports students,” he says. “We get into the college on sports quota, pay minimal fees and some students at the pre-university level are even pushed through in exams despite poor performances.”

Once they’re out of college though, Trishul says, things change.

“You just can’t make it on your own. There isn’t any help from the sports system to keep playing and make a comfortable living.”

Previously, every public sector company had a certain quota of jobs reserved for sports people. However, these opportunities are slowly disappearing now.

“There are fewer jobs for us in the government sector these days,” says Xavier Vijaykumar, the veteran striker who currently holds a job with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and plays for their Indian League football team.

“The reduction in sports quotas are definitely a very disappointing thing,” he says, adding that coporate sponsorship is probably the only way forward.

The government-run Sports Authority of India (SAI) says that this is an issue with the central government.

“The central government has reduced the percentage of jobs for sports people in public sector companies,” says M. Mathai, an official at SAI. “They say that there’s a scarcity of funds or something.”

But the sports quota jobs, some say, are hardly satisfying.

“Even if you do get a job with sports quota, you just don’t get the respect that other employees do,” says Trishul.” You’re treated like just another sportsperson and not as a regular employee.”

Given the crumbling infrastructure and widespread corruption, playing sports for a living in India is really putting your neck on the line. Adnan Agha was quick to understand this. The tennis prodigy has been playing since he was eight and apart from playing at the nationals, he also played in two Indian Tennis Federation international events. However, when he got to college, Agha was almost forced to hang up his tennis racket.

“My parents wanted me to do engineering, so it became really hard to keep playing tennis,” Agha says. “While the engineering college took me in on a sports quota, they don’t want me playing sports and would rather I focus on the course.”

With college running till five, Agha has little time to make the daily training schedules. And then, there are sports injuries that have sidelined him. Agha hasn’t played in the tennis circuit for three years now, after a string of injuries to his shoulder and wrists.

“Tennis isn’t a viable future in India, especially since there’s no funding. I come from a middle class family and this is something I’d need to continue in the sport,” Agha says. “The tennis federation does nothing for the sport, at this level.”

Educators agree that schools either “push the child too hard or suppress their sporting potential” with an overdose of academics.

“Our schools need to strike a healthy balance between academics and sports,” says Mary Alexander, who has taught high school for over three decades. “It is particularly disheartening when the government does not ensure that these are systems in place.”

“Just last week, I read about a group of national level swimmers who would practice in an apartment, by lying down on the floor and swinging their arms and legs about!”

There is a certain hint of regret in Trishul’s voice, when he reminisces about his college years.

“I loved playing ball and wouldn’t ever trade that away,” the former star forward of the Jain College team says. “But on some level, I feel like I missed out on a normal college life.”

Meanwhile, Agha looks at making a comeback in tennis over the next year.

“I’m starting again and trying for a tennis scholarship at an American university,” he says optimistically. “That’s the only way to go about it. If I get spotted by the scouts, I’ll be a shot away from playing in the Davis Cup. ”

On death and dying: our down-to-earth politicians

In the run up to Karnataka’s election campaigns, you are bound to come across the phase “mannina maga.” Loosely translated into English as “son of the soil,” it is a label that politicians plaster all over their campaign propaganda. Its purpose in political rhetoric is to show just how close your friendly neighborhood member of legislature is to the common man.

The moniker, however, acquired a whole new meaning over the last month, when these “sons of the soil” were dragged down by a series of land scams. The irony, which has had punning headline writers rubbing their hands with glee, has not been lost on the public.

From B.S.Yeddiyurappa to Deve Gowda, they’ve all done a pretty unconvincing Bill Clinton on the news channels, with outright denials accompanied by copious weeping. There are more tears in their press conferences than a whole season of that soppy telly soap your mum has on every evening. The question really is: how much credibility would you give anything a politician says, especially if his initials are B.S.?

But like the five stages of dying, the denial turns to anger. The mud-slinging over land grabbing begins. Accusations over who started de-notifying land are all you hear. Of course, the media is there to catch it all, as it allegations fly thick and fast between the BJP, JD(S) and Congress camps.

The anger is short-lived. In our times of political pragmatism, deals have to be cut quickly. The rage gives way to bargaining. The BJP take stock of their loyalists and work out ways to buy the outsiders onto their side. Money exchanges hands as legislators trade political lineage. Old favors are called in, and quid pro quo is the lingua franca in the party circles.

The evidence, however, remains incriminating. No amount of “legitimate” documents waved at television cameras can prevent our politicians’ sins from catching up with them. The Lokayukta have a whole filing cabinet of land records that say otherwise.

And this is when all the media dust begins to settle.

The bargaining segues into depression. We haven’t heard from Yeddy for quite a while now, apart from the occasional religious visit. Of course, he is under instructions from the party’s high command to keep a low profile. Their damage control department works overtime to salvage what’s left of the battered BJP reputation. The land scams have pretty much stuck the BJP’s name in the dirt.

So there you have it. The five stages of the dying political careers in Karnataka—this is how the spiral descends.

Shock and denial. Check.

Self righteous anger. Check.

Desperate bargaining. Check.

Depression accompanied by a sudden religious impulse. Check.

All that’s left now is acceptance.

Under the table -1

We may have won the World Cup this time around, but this was despite the team’s longstanding fielding woes. It’s common knowledge that Indians make the worst fielding side in cricket. This must have something to do with all those greased palms.

Graft is such a big part of Indian society. There’s hardly a day when we don’t have screaming headlines in newspapers that take great pride in having exposed corrupt bureaucrats. Well, that’s rich, coming from a media fraternity that has been dogged with paid news scandals and playing power broker for money in the government cabinet.

So is there is any way out of this never ending cycle of bribes, kickbacks and under-the-table shenanigans? Is there a chance for greater transparency?

This is why 2005 was a defining year in our six decades of statehood. That year, the government passed the Right to Information Act, the first move towards greater transparency in the system.

Activists describe this act being “being more powerful than a gun.” Every public office is required by law to put records of all public spending up for public access. Any of these details can be accessed with a simple letter to the information officer, who is bound to reply in under 30 days or be penalized.

The RTI has shaken up the political establishment and several activists have blown the lid off some of the biggest instances of public money fraud. Often, this has come at a price, like Amar Nath Pandey’s case, for instance. The 55-year-old social worker was shot at on two occasions and attacked after he used the RTI Act to uncover fraud in a government scheme for the poor.

However, the common man needs to realize that he can fight corruption with RTI application. Most often, it’s a sheer lack of will that deters people from taking on the system through these legitimate means.

Another way to tackle corruption is the establishment of regulatory mechanisms in the different sectors of bureaucracy and government. The Lok Ayukta in Karnataka achieved the impossible when they initiated the investigations against Chief Minister Yeddyurappa late last year. We need to build mechanisms to real teeth and not limit their powers.

The media in Indian need to be held accountable as well. Outlook’s editor recently admitted that several journalists are on corporate and government payrolls, including the late Ayub Syed and R.K. Karanjia, whose list of “bosses” even included Colonel Gadaffi! It’s important that the media introspects and cleans up before its casts another stone at the government. The Radia tapes showed just deeply entrenched our media is in the mire of corruption.

Finally, the ultimate drive against corruption can only come from the masses. It’s time we said no to pay the cops off every time we jump a signal. It’s time we refused to slip the clerk at a land office an extra 200 rupees to get our work done faster. It’s time we stopped whining about “the system” and actually did our little bit to change it.