Friday, March 16, 2012

The Prado

Almost three years ago, a few friends and I visited Spain for the summer. It was meant to be a reunion of sorts as we were coming from different parts of the world - Brazil, Italy and England - and meeting some of our mutual friends in Madrid, Burgos and Grenada. I arrived there first, a day ahead of everyone else, and was picked up at the airport 'by surprise' by a friend who I had not seen in over a year.

Her parents lived in Punto, on the outskirts of Madrid and though she spent most of the year in an entirely different continent, her relative familiarity with the city made her our de facto guide. The first place she took me was the Prado Museum. It was afternoon already and we knew we didn't have much time in the museum, so we went immediately to her favourite section - the one exhibiting the Black Paintings of Francisco Goya. Though I did go to the Prado again, once my other friends arrived, it was the paintings of this section that left the biggest impression on me. I was particularly taken by the painting below, which was possibly inspired by the Ruben's painting beneath it (also displayed at the Prado):

Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son c. 1819-1823

Ruben's Saturn Devouring His Son  (1636)

The paintings depict the Greco-Roman myth of Chronos (Saturn) the Titan devouring his children because he had heard it prophesied that one of them would overthrow him. (There seem to be many such narratives in Greek and Roman mythology - the story of Oedipus springs to mind)  

I find the former painting to be more potent in its imagery than the latter, despite the latter being more refined. The crazed, desperate look in Saturn's eyes as he peers out of the darkness leaves a particularly haunting impression. I have read on one blog that this painting can be seen as an allegory "on the situation in a country [Spain] that was consuming its own children in bloody wars and revolutions". I think this is an apt way of explaining the imagery as the painting was made weeks after the French declared their war on Spain. (On the other hand, contemporary accounts also say that Goya was also experiencing the onset of paranoid dementia at the time, so that could have had an effect to!)

These were also some of the memorable paintings I saw at the Prado:

Velazquez's The Triumph of Bacchus (1629)

Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych (1490-1510)


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Shakib's fall from ODI No. 1 All-rounder status

Over the past year, I have become an increasingly regular contributor to the BanglaCricket forum. I love the cricketing and non-cricketing discussions that take place on the forum and can't help but marvel at some of the intellect on display. It's a shame that most of these Bangladeshis are expats, never to permanently return to Bangladesh. In any case this was what I wrote in response to some of the comparisons which were being drawn between Shakib al Hasan and latter-day, legendary all-rounders Botham, Hadlee, Khan, Dev, Sobers and co. It was written soon after Shakib lost his throne as No. 1 ODI Allrounder in the world to Shane Watson and there was criticism of his supposedly diminishing performance.

Drawing Comparisons to All-Time Greats

 I think its important to remember that while statistics are indicative of a player's prowess, they still need to be looked at in context. Botham's ODI Batting Average looks poor but it's important to remember that he largely played as a lower-order (pos. 6-7) slogger in England's ODI team. That much is clear from his 79+ SR at a time which had thinner bats, larger boundaries and no Twenty20. Even if the England team of the 80s wasn't the greatest, it certainly had some very good batsman and did not call upon Botham to bat out a majority of the overs. The fact thatShakib has had to do this on a number of occasions has meant that he has had more opportunities to score centuries and half-centuries (and full credit to him for making the most of many of those opportunities!) To illustrate my point, look at the performance of this season's KKR team. They are a balanced outfit with competent professionals and have done well so far (and hopefully will continue to do so, fingers crossed!). They haven't required Shakib's batting services as of yet but from the look of things, if they ever need to, it will be in the last quarter of their innings which is a slog fest. He would have to score runs very quickly and more often than not he will get out on a relatively low score. His average may look poor, (even in T20 terms) but as it is the SR that matters, it would not necessarily indicate his lack of capability with the bat.

Regarding being an All-rounder in general, as an All-rounder in Tests, Botham was remarkable, as 14 Test Centuries and 27 5wicket hauls attest to. As you know, the figures of Sobers, Imran, Kapil and Hadlee are just as/more impressive.That will require some effort and skill for Shakib to catch up to. And I wonder if he will ever get the opportunity to attain such a number of runs or wickets, given the decreasing number of Tests we seem to be playing each year. Shakib has now bowled in 34 innings and taken more than 4wi, 10 times. Will he ever get to play the other 134 innings that separate him from Botham and thereby attempt to surpass his record of 48 4wi+ innings? Probably not. 

As the G8's poor cousins, we're stuck in a vicious cycle of few international-quality first class/test matches and poor overall match performance. Which is not only unfortunate for the country but is also unfortunate for our shining lights, Tamim and Shakib

When they retire people will not look at how ICC rankings changed over the years but at bare statistics. If they play fewer matches, their runs or wickets aggregates will never match those of the best players. Also, the average spectator will not consider how many catches were dropped off Shakib's bowling or how sloppy the ground-fielding was but rather how many wickets he took or how many runs he scored in comparison to the players of the G8. If his side remains mediocre, the vivid images of arm balls shattering stumps and searing square cuts will blur and overtime people will only remember the depressing win-loss column. While the all rounders of moderately successful teams may secure legendary status with sensational performances in one series, Shakib would have to replicate Hadlee and win matches for Bangladesh single-handedly for over a decade, if he wants to enter the 'Allrounders Pantheon'. 

Shakib not being on the list of All-Time Great Allrounders

I wouldn't personally use that list as an authority for this discussion. While the Cricinfo debate is about the 'greatest allrounder', they obviously mean greatest allrounder 'till date'. The Selection Panel have deliberately nominated players who have long since retired and thus have the benefit of a sweeping view of the players' entire careers; the peaks and the troughs and their impact on the game as a whole. (The exception, of course, is Kallis who is still playing but as we know he has broken enough international batting records and been consistent enough with the ball to merit discussion. Importantly, he has also been around as an allrounder for close to a decade and a half now. In contrast to someone like Vettori, who has also been around for ages but has only become an allrounder in recent years.) Shakib's international career is little more than 4 years old and we still can't be certain about how his overall career will pan out - so how can we compare him with someone whose career is/largely is over? It will be interesting to see what the nominations are in 20 years time when such a question is considered again, long after Shakib, Vettori and Watson have retired. Given that they take into consideration unquantifiable parameters like 'impact' on the game and memorable victories/achievements, I have a feeling he will be in good stead. 

University of Warwick, Coventry

Some thoughts on what it would take for Bangladesh to be a democracy

I think these are some of the things that prevent us from being a so-called real democracy (besides the obvious corruption and dynastic politics):

1. Identity crisis. Are you a Bengali first or are you a Muslim foremost? Are you Americanized, Bollywoodized, Ingrej or khati deshi? Is it possible to reconcile their differences? If so, how? Or, better yet, how without being hypocritical or a mixture of contradictions? And what about those Hindus/Christians/Buddhists and Tribal/Indigenous people that we hear about in the news from time to time? Bangladesh has been sold as a homogeneous country for a long time but it's clear that we're not. We need to accept these differences, respect and celebrate them. Easier said than done of course and we can see the kinds of problems that established heterogeneous countries like the USand India have. 

Fostering a distinct Bangladeshi identity is a very difficult aspect of nation-building. There is practically a silent consensus among most people that different religions and ethnicities should be respected; that strong religious and cultural values can co-exist, etc. But the problem is how the question ofidentity is used in the political sphere and how it is manipulated to create schisms in our society. An ordinary Bangladeshi can almost innately reconcile their Bengali heritage with their faith, their traditional values with their increasing exposure to the world. The problem arises when political forces artificially delineate what is 'Bengali', what is 'Islamic' and what is 'foreign' and force people to choose between them. Such ploys need to be discontinued.

2. Lack of political and legal education. An elected government has relatively free reign but an opposition party(ies) need to know how to effectively oppose in and out of Parliament and the public needs to be more aware of their rights.   

At the moment MPs have their hands tied if they wish to oppose a particular Bill, Act or Amendment as they have to vote along party lines. If I remember correctly, the tenuous justification given for why MPs have to vote according to party lines is that it prevents 'floor crossing'. Apparently, in the early days, MPs would surreptitiously change their party allegiance and it was feared that Parliament could become unstable as a result, so, floor crossing was banned. The fact that politicians like Barrister Moudud Ahmed changed their political party every few years clearly shows the ineffectiveness of this policy. Whatever merit this policy once had, it has no place in a country that tries to project itself as a multi-party, transparent democracy. 

The point is that the opposition parties as a whole should voice their objections in Parliament (rather than in public press conferences). People forget that only a little bit of Parliament's work occurs in the main Chamber and most of the actual legislating and policy making is done behind the scenes in standing committees. There, the Chief Whip has less power and there is more opportunity for across-the-floor negotiation. As far as I am aware, there are at least a few BNP MPs on standing committees and they have the opportunity of voicing their opinion and effecting a real change. Whether they do so, is another matter. (Of course, the incumbents act in the same way when they are in the opposition.) 

Parties seem to think that the most effective way of protesting legislation and policies is through general strikes. Staging protests outside of Parliament is nothing more than a facile exercise in political showmanship which only demonstrates how immature our democracy still is and is detrimental to the economy to boot.

3. Lack of an efficient and transparent criminal justice system.


British Bangladeshi Identity Crises

In my four years in the UK till date, I've often gotten the impression that religion is a 'culture substitute' for british-bangladeshi youth, where alienation from both their native culture and 'western' culture has led them to cling to another set of cultural values i.e. Islamic values. 

Growing up abroad, many of them have never learned their native language and have never become really familiar with Bengali literature, music, festivals, customs etc. You'll almost never see a young guy in a cotton panjabi or a lungi or a girl in a sari (except for weddings). At the same time, many of them also feel distant from western customs and habits and feel that they do not truly belong to it. So, in this state of limbo, they attach themselves to a more pan-national set of values that give them a sense of identity and community. By being British-Muslim, they suddenly have brothers and sisters from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Palestine, Malaysia, Indonesia and all over the Muslim ummah. This particular attachment is clear from the fervor with which the youth campaign for Palestine as compared to socio-political issues in Bangladesh. I believe it is this desire for identity and community that causes many deshi young people abroad to be religious. 

This is not the same in Bangladesh. Bangladesh may only be 40 years old but there have been Bengali Muslims living in that particular tract of land for many more years than that. This gestation has allowed for a more comfortable synthesis to be reached between culture and religion, which allows them to exist side by side. Many people are deeply pious but also greatly revere their mother tongue and immerse themselves in cultural festivals. (I'm speaking generally of course, there are always exceptions) It isn't really a choice, it just happens. In contrast to that, in the last couple of decades, many choices have opened up to Bangladeshi youth. They can choose to stay the course of their parents or they can become increasingly 'westernized' or 'bollywood-ized'. Striking a balance is difficult and I am sure many of them will face crises of identity like their British-Bangladeshi cousins in the UK/US. 

Someone who embodies this 'caught between two cultures' identity is Lowkey, the Anglo-Iraqi hip hop artist. He describes himself as being an 'Englishmen amongst Arabs and an Arab amongst Englishmen'