The champions and all that jazz
They walk beside us arm in arm. They, along with us, wait patiently for the next chamber pot to be vacated at the theatre rest room, as the comfort break is announced, with the stage play halfway through. They check their mobile phones for new messages at our adjacent table in the restaurant, waiting like us, to be served with filter coffee, piping hot and with no sugar added. Landing fatigued after a long haul flight, they stand impatiently next to us at the baggage claim zone in the airport, as everyone else has their baggage retrieved from the slowly moving conveyer belt and leave with big smiles celebrating their triumph. They are with us. We are all part of the crowd, the great faceless mass of entities, common and ordinary. Yet, they are different. They appear to be away with the fairies and levitate, metaphorically or otherwise. They levitate getting a tad, may be a millimetre and a quarter, up and away from terra firma, a little floating on thin air, defying gravity and the bondage of the dull and drab commonality. That is my perception of those who are extraordinary. They are special human beings, these champions of various types, ethnicity and appearances. They are like us all, yet, they belong to a different lot, a group of low, if not high fliers. I am simply awe struck in their presence and at their proximity.
It all started with a slight misunderstanding on my part, as a school boy, long ago, in interpreting statistics. A twice removed uncle of mine informed me one of those days, in all solemnity-
‘An Australian consumes per annum 46.23 kilograms of chicken besides gulping down 230.92 litres of milk and 321.2 litres of soft drinks while the consumption of alcoholic beverages stands at 12.43 litres’.
I only asked for it, by responding to this uncle’s impromptu quiz on national capitals, with the right answer Canberra for the capital of Australia. Satisfied and with an apparent motive to impress me and the rest of the roadside cricket playing gang of ten to twelve, age wise, he reeled out this piece of Australia-centric statistics. I was in no way connected with Australia, except by the glossy information material their embassy in New Delhi would send me and other members of the gang every now and then, in response to our regular collective request for books and periodicals about their country. Yet, I was impressed enormously with this enviable achievement of the unfamiliar Australian.
I earnestly wished I could get a photograph of the super human Australian with such extraordinary powers in the realms of eating and drinking. Obviously he would have been over-worked. He would have made it his principal task to search for, identify and visit the best of breed butcher who would have self-inculcated a sense of Himalayan patience and a remarkable and infectious penchant for precision in him. Having done that, the butcher would have declared that he has all the necessary tools for his trade calibrated and ready, as well as an abundant, freshly fetched supply of the material for the underlying business transaction. With absolute élan and ease of operations coming from decades of experience, he would load fresh chicken on his electronic scales or a high precision manual weigh machine, 46.23 kilograms of the bird at one go, not a gramme more or a gramme less. Having accomplished this, the dutiful Australian would have sought the services of his near and dear ones or would have outsourced the grilling or sautéing of the chicken succulently or steam cooking it functionally. The boneless chicken would have been cooked without losing any mass in the culinary process and would have been consumed till there was no trace of it on the melamine lunch plate or on the late Victorian golden dinner plate with skilfully crafted cutlery in accompaniment.
The ordeal would hardly end there. A clean crystal glass beaker would be procured and on cue would be filled up with pasteurised milk for staged decant into a clean glass tumbler and would have been refilled repeatedly till 230.92 litres of boiled or cold milk was imbibed, not a millilitre more or a drop less. The beaker would have been washed and dried and the process would have been repeated for the binge drinking of all the carbonated sugar drinks of the outstanding Australian’s choice, all 321.2 litres of that. Then occurs the most arduous part of the Australian’s odyssey of the victuals and libation kind. Crafty sauvignon blanc and sauvignon cabernet wine glasses and stemless beer glasses and mugs would be aggregated for him to indulge uninterrupted in the extraordinary fete of alcohol consumption of all 12.43 litres, without getting drunk. These accomplishments would necessarily require the whole hearted cooperation from a motely group of patient-as–a-cow diary farm owners, retailers and bar tenders with an eye for precision as well as a medical practitioner in waiting, should any emergency arise.
I shared with others my spectacular Down Under vision and my awe and admiration for this incredible Australian who I presumed as moving around a wee bit tipsy due to heavy milk consumption and incessantly belching out, that being the after-effect of having a mini poultry farm, journeying smooth through his well organized digestive system. It was then my statistical uncle hastily interrupted me to apply the necessary course correction. He enlightened me on how to interpret statistics, any statistics that come my way. I was crestfallen to know that there is no such champion Australian who eats and drinks like a mathematical glutton but the furnished figures in litres and kilo grammes stand for an average or rather the sinister ‘per-capita’ consumption, that is arrived at by dividing the total consumption by the population count, in a year, which is per annum, in Latin.
In order to further impress me, this uncle who derived acute pleasure in procuring, constructing and sharing such information, went on to announce with unmitigated glee that he lived 1.387 kilo metres away from my home. He explained that the pedometer he strapped to his shoulder during his morning walks had measured this distance precisely as he went walking, as the crow flies. Had he, instead of ‘as the crow flies’ settled for ‘at a stone’s throw’ distance, I probably would have tested out to my content the veracity of that, with a few pieces of asphalt smeared rock stone, available heaped and strewn by the roadside.
Yet, the champion in the family, a statistical one at that, had to be lauded and applauded at all costs. It indeed is a tall order to be always on the hunt for all sorts of statistics, to read, comprehend, classify, analyse, memorize and more importantly, to continuously update the information as and when fresh data streams are made available. Considering the fact that statistics is not confined to a few spaces, the search for quality statistics would become a life-long pursuit bordering on passion. The sharing of curated statistics with all who evince genuine interest in that and with those not that intense would be a self-assigned duty for the sake of helping everyone to stay informed in the short term and get enlightened in the long run.Arguably, it is not something one acquires on the fly. And this applies equally to all genres of special skills, the champions appear to possess.
In my native language Tamil, we have a classic literary work, Thiru-k-kuRaL, made of one thousand three hundred and thirty couplets each of a tweet length, that is, of around one hundred and forty characters. I know of one of my seniors at school and a few mighty elders of remarkable talent and an elephantine memory who had had memorized all the one thousand and three hundred and thirty couplets of Thiru-k-kuRaL. Not content with that, they would readily oblige anyone who cared to be treated to a full recital of all those verses with meaning, with curtain calls for encores most welcome. Going still beyond that, they could even recite the exact couplet given its serial number in the order of their arrangement. Mention any word and they would come out with a lightning response as to whether that term finds a place in the book and if it is present, the recital of all couplets containing the word would follow. Or on provided with the first word of any couplet, they usually would recall it and continue with the next ones to follow till the downpour is brought to a close with human or natural intervention. These are champions of the first degree, I would say without any hesitation.
I know of another category of champions who also specialize in Thiru-k-kuRaL. They flourished till a decade or two ago, kind courtesy the Postal Department of Government of India. An essential piece of postal stationery then was the ubiquitous ‘inland letter’. Coming with a light blue tinge, this stationery would be of roughly half the size of an A-4 size sheet of paper, length and breadth-wise, with neat flaps to tuck in and fold the letter vertically and horizontally at the middle, giving it a petit and snug look.
A couple of inland letters would just be adequate for a pair of separated-at-birth twins to appraise each other of how life was, kind or otherwise to them, at any given decade of their existence. A set of sixty-plus twins may each require half a dozen inland letters to have the entire flash back thrown open to the other with all bells and whistles and recollected family song and dance, as if they had lived together every moment of it. Though there appears to be no history documented in inland letters of any such champion twins meeting after their sixtieth birthday, all we know is that the medium of inland letter aids another category of champions as well. These are the crusaders for propagating Thiru-k-kuRaL and other classics far and wide, to re- establish the ancient ethos and attendant moral values. They write with an ink pen the couplets of Thiru-k-kuraL on the inland letter and mail them to the addressees. Not unusual, one may think, though not quite sure of the audience for such spirited initiatives. Anyone with a literary bent of mind, a pen to write, a friend breathing far away eagerly waiting to receive and read the epistle, as well as staying blessed with the availability in abundance of inland letter stationery in the local post office, can write at the maximum thirty or forty couplets on the inland letter, fold it carefully along all the marked creases and mail it to the port of destination. But our champions are a different lot. They do write Thiru-k-kuRaL on a blank inland letter, but not a miserly thirty or forty. They go ahead and write the entire book of one thousand three hundred and thirty couplets on a single inland letter, with the smallest of letters one can write with an ink pen. Of course with a magnifying glass, the recipient of the letter can read all these verses and any further information written on it, lauding the skill of the letter writer, probably proceeding to safe keep the classical artefact of correspondence, for posterity.
As a young boy of ten, I was often, especially on Sunday after noons, made a reluctant letter writer by the elders in the family. It was of course not for their own use but my services were offered to the friendly neighbours, absolutely free and without even seeking the consent of the service provider, me. It was all extended as a gesture of enormous goodwill and amity with the nearest co-inhabitants of the planet, across the compound wall. The grateful grandpa and grandma neighbours would entice me with a few ripe palmyra fruits to their home and would diligently lay siege to my precious Sunday afternoon intended to be joyously spent on an invigorating game of street cricket, mindless of the scorching Sun.
‘Please help us to write a short and sweet letter to our son, the inspector of Police in the temple town, a hundred miles away from here, as you know. We want to convey briefly our blessings and best wishes to him and his family through you, a bright young lad from an illustrious family of our neighbours for the past three generations, whom we all including the inspector of Police at the temple town keep in high esteem’.
The ordeal would start in this docile manner. The first suggestion for the day will be thrown in along with palmyra fruits, cautiously yet casually.
‘Write with elegant, small letters as a brilliant, educated and cultured youngster would indulge in rather than with big ones what we illiterate and semi-literate are prone to scribble while forced to write, which the inspector of police in the temple town despises reading’.
Having established my position in the specially-enabled hierarchy thus, I often would have to play the part I was expected to play. The wily old neighbours would start dictating a sentence, man and wife each in turn or in unison, in measured tones for me to sit all ears and faithfully reproduce in the letter. After the salutations and blessings for each member in the family of the inspector of police in the temple town, the climatic condition and the weather prevailing in our place would be duly conveyed with information on the water level at various reservoirs. The health status of these two elderly tormentors would find an elaborate mention next with updates on the previously conveyed status with data on further deterioration or improvement and the details of medicine prescribed by the allopath, homeopath and the native medicine man. Any food restrictions any of these healers of the sick would have enforced on their patients would find the next mention which usually would be followed by listed enquiries about the health condition and updates sought from the family of the inspector of police in the temple town. A quick status check would be made at that point of time by the old man by gently snatching away from me the partly written inland letter along with the cardboard pad to which it is secured with a steel clip and quickly going through the contents while reckoning the still available space for further writing. The next warning about the need to write in still smaller sized letters would be issued forthwith, sandwiched with toothless smiles, as the ensuing sixty minutes would be utilized fully to convey the details of the cow at the backyard that had delivered the calf an hour before dawn, auspiciously on a Friday, the list of relatives who visited this month, the purpose of their visit, the duration of stay and the details of those who are expected to arrive the current and the week after. The details of the temple festivals celebrated in the past thirty days and those scheduled for the current month would be conveyed next and with a general round up of the going on like the municipal auction of tamarind trees on tank bund road and the intensifying of the bandicoot menace, the letter will come to close, again with blessings for all those intended to receive it and invoking all Gods in the pantheon to keep the family in their lists of the perpetually blessed.
These strenuous exercises in writing the history of an entire family in an inland letter, at hindsight, makes me feel elated that I was more or less an upcoming champion once, reaching first base. Had I been a willing collaborator of the elderly neighbours and had an ear for news and deft fingers to write them all on an inland letter, I would have by now graduated to a position of writing not only Thiru-k-kuRaL in its entirety on the letter but also the meaning of all those one thousand three hundred and thirty couplets as well. I further would have proceeded with all domestic and neighbourly encouragement accrued, to write these epic epistles not on the inland letter but on its poor cousin, the post card. It was my misfortune the neighbours departed for their respective heavenly abodes sooner thereafter without intimating anyone through forced-labour-written communiqués. It is not easy to become a champion harnessing the services of the postal department alone; nevertheless, that does not prevent me from being an admirer of champions.
The venerable author Kushwant Singh once observed the Sikhs, the race of the gallant warriors which he belonged to, have an ear for music, though in general they are never associated with music of any kind. Kushwant Singh mentions that the Sikh have so much music ingrained in them that they have set to music every verse of their holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, to a classical raga, the pre-arranged and pre-defined musical pattern. They have also meticulously indexed the whole book with appropriate raga links and soulfully sing the verses as they ought to be sung in the specified ragas. They have advanced one step further and have set the index of the book too to music. And they sing the index also, Kushwant Singh says. They are in my champions list, prominent for their innovative and spectacular achievement in the sphere of systemic, ethereal and eventually divine music.
That apart, there exists a bevy of other skill sets with exhibition of excellence and expertise in them available for experiencing and evaluating. I have watched a stellar performance by a senior citizen in his seventies, frail looking, and visually challenged. Veterans at that age would normally have hung their boots calling it a day and would have rested in earthly peace like the retired race horses immortalized by Philip Larkin in his poem ‘At Grass’. Yet, this individual did not display any intention to be at grass or to while away the residual existence, cutting the grass. Instead he was forever eager to exhibit his unusual skills to all who cared to congregate around him. His specialization pertained to multi-tasking, now taken over entirely by computers. Nevertheless, this septuagenarian could do eight different things all simultaneously. Thus, someone sitting in front of him would be giving him a word to be the last in a four line verse with an expectation he completes and recites quickly the whole verse anew, taking into consideration the rhyme, meter and the necessity to convey a noble thought as core content. While this is going on, someone to his left, usually a lady with a supposedly melodious voice would be singing a near-melody of classical Indian music and within a minute the song commences, the performer would be expected to identify the raga -the music pattern- and mention it out. A third onlooker looking innocuous would be seated to this man’s right and would do something queer like touching the visually challenged old man’s nose every now and then with a freshly plucked rose. The old man was supposed to keep count of the number of times he was subjected to this flowery good touch and tell it out when the programme would conclude. To add to the torment of the elderly person, someone from the other end of the hall would go on mentioning loudly every five minutes, an eight digit number of his choice which the old man had to store in his mind and add to the sum total of the numbers already uttered. Another volunteer drawn from the audience would think of a popular person, like a political leader or movie star, one at a time in his mind and would be issuing three minimal clues that too cryptic to help the old man find out who the person was. The blind old man would be given a basket of flowers of different types and a bobbin of thin cotton thread, to keep his hands engaged in making a garlandof flowers, with clear demarcation of coloured segments, achieved through appropriate selection of flowers forming the sequence in getting strung together. He had to recite, yes, as you have rightly guessed, the exact Thiru-k-kural couplet, the serial number of which, yet another spectator would be furnishing at regular intervals. That would account for seven different tasks to be handled concurrently. Some one else, perhaps a history aficionado would be at random mentioning an year in the common era at regular intervals, on hearing which the aged person with insight would be furnishing the list of historic occurrences that took place in that year, country-wise. He always would come out with flying colours at such demonstration of his multi-processing skills like a computer, never failing, quite unlike the electronic gadget. Such is the stuff champions are made of.
There is a near-extinct species of champions engaged in something unique, putting their life and limbs at risk, who seldom would make it to the safe and secured list. A couple of decades ago, I have read with interest, newspaper reports about a lanky youth who would stay in a freshly dug out shallow pit with lizards, scorpions, centipedes and, oh yes, snakes providing company, for days together. The pit would be barricaded in such a way to ensure the deadly co-occupants do not crawl up and out into the surrounding concrete jungle, while providing an unobstructed view of the peaceful co-existence of multiple forms of life, twenty four hours a day, as the event continued. This gentleman would have his leisurely breakfast, frugal lunch and a reasonably laid out dinner with all the venomous reptiles in attendance, crawling around and swaddling his body at times. He went for ablutions to a secluded corner suitably made private, as the vermin attempted playfully to crawl up his ankles or relax over his elbow when he opted to catch a few winks. Not once it was reported he was stung by a scorpion or had to be removed to the ICU, being a victim of snake bite. When I shared my unadulterated excitement over these singular happenings, with a well meaning friend of mine, she wryly observed, ‘Had these insects been gifted with the power of speech, they would have proclaimed themselves as real champions who at the greatest risk to their minimalist existence stayed that long with a human being’. Notwithstanding that observation on the vagaries of human nature and the vulnerability of animal existence, I followed with lot more interest the accomplishments of this lanky young man who in the course of time became a lanky old man with more number of snakes and other reptiles thrown in for company in confinement and the period of incarceration gradually increasing to a fortnight or a month. I am still clueless as to who sponsored those reptilian events or what the lanky lad did for a regular living. A frequent newsmaker in the vernacular dailies with the photographs of him and the friendly snakes and scorpions appearing on the inner pages with weird captions, it was a matter of regret that this champion bid adieu through a tiny eighth page obituary reference in the same newspapers, as having passed away struck with contagious viral fever transmitted by mean mosquitoes.
Not sharing living space with snakes and crocodiles but still doing something unique and out of this world, would also, if carried out with all sincerity, earn the practitioner name and fifteen minutes of fame, if not leading one to the Hall of Fame. One of these champions stood on one leg for 7 days non-stop, shifting legs only twice a day. Yet another, stood on his head for a couple of days, whistling old film songs while at it, and taking two minutes break every four hours.
Another champion I can place straight under this classification is the one who rolled a pea with his nose, for a distance of twenty five kilometres. It is certainly a feat qualifying for the honorary tag, namely champion, especially if they go by the opinion of someone like me gasping for breath even while crouching under the couch momentarily to retrieve the elusive ten rupee coin that has rolled out from the pocket. While voicing out my three cheers to this champion, I also am keen to know whether there is any further information available in the public domain as to what happened to the pea and the sturdy nose after the fete.
How I wish the pea-roller took for company another champion who was at ease walking backwards. To add more variety, he could take one more achiever who could cycle backwards. If this is not enough, he with a heart for variety bound inclusiveness could have requested the reverse-bicyclist to strum a guitar as he reverse-pedalled, playing the notes in reverse order. I am ready to virtually applaud all these and write about them in my blog adorned with a dozen exclamation marks standing upright on their heads.
And still more champions do abound. There are those who contested sixty seven general elections to the nation’s Parliament and had successfully lost all the sixty seven, getting forfeited of the security deposit they made to the Government Treasury for contesting. I wish them a happy return of the security deposit paid for the next election they would contest.
There are champions who definitely are not laughing stock but who have stood on a podium cracking jokes non-stop for seventy two hours, making the listeners roll or rather revolve with incessant laughter for three days back to back, perhaps requiring a little medical attention to put them back on their feet. That longish performance of standing comedy, as well as the collateral performance of the audience, would merit a champion tag.
Apart from these known champions, there are millions of those belonging to the unknown variety. What about the home maker as a champion? Does it matter if the entity is a he or she? For a small family of four, this anonymous home maker would have cooked half a kilogram of rice or made twenty pieces of roti (leavened bread) each day. Over a period of twenty years, these silent achievers would have cooked around a mind boggling three thousand six hundred kilograms of rice or about twenty thousand pieces of roti, of course not taking into reckoning the thousands of kilogrammes and litres of lentil soup, chutney, cooked vegetables and meat to go with the main item. Their accomplishment needs to be lauded on another count too – without getting stung by the monotony or getting fatigued and bored, they carry on tirelessly their self-assumed role of the provider of succour, vitality and energy to the whole family, as time roles on as a silent spectator. They are champions of all champions, always.