A CURTAIN FROM THE PAST

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Will lock down alter how we like to see films?

It is a curtain I distinctly remember.

Huge, suspended from several feet above the ground with vertical columns of stitching gathering folds towards the bottom. Each horizontal fold resembled a concave arc. The bottom of the curtain had tassels. Every line of stitching, running down from the top ended in a small red light. At the appointed hour, the auditorium lights faded; the chatter in the audience receded to a hush, an instrumental hit – usually by The Ventures – played and the curtain with red lights rose slowly, revealing white screen behind. There was drama to it and a sense of magic about to visit enveloped us.

This is among my strong memories from childhood and it played out every time we visited a clutch of cinemas owned by the same promoter, in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. After every show, the curtain was brought down and the next screening commenced with that mood-setting, repeated. Truth be told, I have to juggle my memory to remember the many films seen. But the sight of that curtain embellished with red lights, going up to engaging music – I don’t forget.

In the roughly five decades that have followed since, my generation saw the cinema experience transform. As it drifted from passion to business, one of the first casualties was that curtain. Among the last songs that I recall, played specifically for the curtain, was the theme from the 1971 movie `Shaft’ and selections from Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk. Then, the attention to detail began fading and the curtain rose amid general chatter in the hall, pop hits of the day playing in the backdrop. Eventually the curtain stayed up day-long or rose for each screening with no fanfare. By then probably, the movie theater had become the business model of today; milking a piece of built-up real estate for revenue.

The multiplex trend took long to reach India and Kerala. But once it did, after some time spent savoring our first lot of two screen-cinemas, we moved fast to establishments with multiple screens. Where refreshment used to be a cup of tea or samosa grabbed during intermission, a whole industry of refreshments came to roost on the premises. The sound of chips beings crunched and fingers groping popcorns in cardboard boxes became part of viewing. Cellphone calls also entered the frame. Meanwhile ticket prices altered dramatically.

Years ago, there used to be the front row seats, first class, balcony, dress circle and boxes. As a school boy supported by parents, I enjoyed the balcony perspective with family.  By high school and college, when friends grew more important than family and the idea of supporting oneself was gradually instilled, balcony gave way to first class and front row. Employed, one reverted to balcony and even sampled dress circle and box. As multiplexes grew, the seating system lost its linkage to tradition. There were no fancy names for seats connecting cinema to the tradition of theater; only distinction by capacity to afford. The richest lounged on deck chair-like seats eating popcorn and slurping soft drinks. Those unable to afford as much, took the other seats. A family of four visiting the theater could easily cost a thousand bucks now. My first job in the late 1980s paid that much as monthly salary.

Cinemascope and 70mm were high technology in my childhood (in fact, black and white films were still around). Today, despite the proliferation of mobile phones for distraction, the cinema house is a veritable convergence of technology albeit tastelessly executed; its curtain raising-moment is a thundering cacophony of audio advertising the power of resident sound system. Where starting a theater was once linked to passion for medium, owners transformed to large companies owning multiplex chains.

The competition among theaters and its competition with other audiovisual platforms like streaming have been fueled by both convenience and immersive viewing experience. Arguably the need for countering an array of distractions is more with streaming platforms; a mobile phone for instance is usually in shared or public space and if you are seeing a film, it has to compete for your attention suitably. The influence of this authorship was visible in streamed content, which typically tended to be more weaponized (designed to grab attention) than content intended solely for the theaters.

Until the last Academy Awards, streaming platforms were kept at a distance by the film fraternity. The 92nd Academy Awards took place on February 10, 2020. At that time, going by what has been reported from China, a nation known for its secrecy, COVID-19 was two to three months old. A month later, on March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that the disease, which now spanned many countries, could be called a pandemic.

By late March 2020, large numbers of people worldwide were in a state of lock down to check infection. With social distancing advocated, cinema halls were forced to shut. On the other hand, streaming platforms became busy; television, computer, tablet and mobile phone had become the new cinema hall. The disease’s impact on the global box office was estimated at a few billion dollars. Multiplex chains were in financial distress. Newly released films that saw their theater run threatened by COVID-19 were quickly shifted to streaming platforms. Some others decided to release straightaway on streaming platforms. There is hope that when the present health crisis is past, people may revert to theaters. We are bound to have differing opinions on that. While history shows instances of crisis easing to a return of the old, crisis also leaves its imprint.

A key aspect deciding the future of cinema halls will be the quality of viewing experience. We definitely crave immersion. But it is abjectly incorrect to argue that all content becomes immersive when shifted to big screen. A film like 2013’s `Gravity’ certainly comes alive on big screen. But there are hundreds of other titles, you can comfortably watch on the cell phone without diluting the experience. Further, with the proliferation of technology and conveniences ranging from snacks to waiters serving you at your seat, the movie theater is not anymore a temple for immersive experience. It is a business model. The audience is a study in profitable distraction. Nowadays, great theater experience also has much to do with who you were lucky enough to have as audience alongside.

Another shift has been of the generational sort. A generation of youngsters out there used to life with mobile phone, don’t appear to have any problem focusing amid multiple stimuli. Seen so, the pairing of mobile phone and decent headphones isn’t too bad a deal for immersive experience. You can sit by yourself and see what you want. It reduces the cinema hall to tradition and traditions fade or settle to being optional.

Maybe it’s time for digital curtain on small screen, set to music of your choice.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

WHERE DO ALL THE BUFFALOES GO?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Pioneers don’t have it easy. Followers do.

Anyone who has run long distance knows the habit of latching on to another so that you are pulled along.

It is a bit like the February 2020 story about the Indian construction worker participating in a buffalo race, who got compared to Usain Bolt. It was simple, tempting math: herding a pair of buffaloes in full trot, Srinivasa Gowda sprinted 142 meters in 13.42 seconds; Bolt’s world record in the 100 meters is 9.58 seconds. Gowda was more realized than media and ministers celebrating him. After all, nobody knows as well as the practitioner. A few days after the unexpected limelight, he infused reality saying – and I quote from a published article – “ I am as good as the buffaloes that run with me.’’

In races and in life, we pick buffaloes to lead us. We also get picked as somebody else’s buffalo. Unlike the animal which runs for its safety or when prodded to race by human, we have our race-buffalo lead us and then when we overtake him or her, we feel satisfied about milestone passed. Is that the end? No. Like virus seeking next host, we start looking for the next buffalo and so on, till a half marathon or marathon resembles a necklace of buffaloes preyed upon. At the finish line, we raise our arms for photo imitating marathon greats. We spare no thought for the buffaloes we should be grateful to. Officially sanctioned pace setters; they get thanked for delivering us coveted result. But the buffaloes we pick at random from our ranks; they are forgotten.

Pace setters are officially sanctioned prompts. You choose the flag displaying the timing you are seeking and trail it as a bus. Elite runners also use pace setters. When going for a record, the pace required to get the record is maintained by the pace setters, who slow down or drop off after hand-holding runner three fourths of the way. That last quarter is in many ways more crucial than the preceding ones because eventually greatness in athletic performance is the capacity to stretch one’s endurance over the whole distance. But sometimes, even without pace setters around, competition and strategy shape certain traits. I remember the commentary of a major marathon in which the commentator seeing visual of one or two runners hanging on opportunistically at the shoulder of lead athlete, quipped, “ well that’s a convenient place to be in, isn’t it?’’ You make a buffalo of the other but don’t wish to overtake and be target yourself. Instead, you stick around at striking distance like an annoying fly and at the right juncture in the race – or when buffalo begins to tire, whichever is first – you finish him off by going ahead.

In running, which is fast but not terribly fast, this specter is still only the stuff of buffalo. Like hound on race track chasing a mechanical rabbit, you are focused on prey measured in terms of distance to cover. That’s it. Cycling is a much faster sport than running. In cycling’s peloton, the habit exceeds buffalo setting pace, to courting aerodynamic efficiency. Tucked in behind the leader, a cyclist faces less wind resistance; it is called drafting. Here, the buffalo’s worth goes beyond accidental or intentional prey driving riders on, to actually making it easier for predator behind to catch up. Sort of like authoring its own doom except, as we know, in cycling’s peloton everybody has a role oriented toward ensuring that given team’s ace cyclist is set up for the final dash. But even the final dash between fierce competitors has its opportunistic moments. They weave, sway, look around; all of them worried who should risk becoming target for the one who makes the break will be hunted.

In all of the above – from chasing random buffalo to pace setter to peloton leader – the winner gets it all. The rest are generally forgotten.

Buffaloes also remind of pioneers. Pioneers ride head on into the wind. There is nobody shielding them; none in front soaking wind resistance. The draft they create is a nice place for the rest to tuck in. Eyes on pioneer, they learn to avoid the mistakes he makes. Some in the drafting lot don’t even wish to win. They just want it easy; getting the same credit or more for easier work done. Some others, latch on behind, hanging around pioneer’s shoulders waiting for the correct moment to unsheathe their knives and strike. In human history, many pioneers have faded to oblivion because they didn’t win. Some were too early for their time; some failed to attract capital because their adventurousness troubled conservative money, some failed because in having them fail we found endorsement for our herded existence. Little by little, the failures build a case till someone drafting and making a break finds a sudden ocean of applause. We shine the light on eventual winners without asking who their buffaloes were. We even make life easy for winners rewarding them with this and that.

No such recognition visits pioneers fueled by passion, who endure hardships. As life by network and business model gains, it is strategy and scheming that have come to matter, not passion. It is the rare follower, Gowda probably one, who acknowledges the debt.

I wonder where all the buffaloes go.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)  

DOES THE MARATHON IN INDIA DESERVE SEPARATE OLYMPIC TRIALS?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On February 29, 2020 as the US held trials to choose its marathon team for the Tokyo Olympics, the situation in India was vastly different. No Indian marathon runner had yet qualified for the Tokyo Olympics via the most obvious and straightforward route – meeting the qualifying time (athletes can also qualify based on their ranking). Given end-May as cut off period for qualifying, three months remained.

What stood out in the scenario, were two factors. First, the qualifying time is stiff. For men, you have to break the longstanding Indian national record – two hours, 12 minutes – to qualify; in fact, go well past it. The best Indian marathon runner since Shivnath Singh is still more than a minute and 30 seconds behind the mark Singh set over four decades ago. In the case of women, the qualifying time for the Olympics is 2:29:30; the Indian national record is: 2:34:43. Second, unlike the Olympic trials of the US, there appeared none for the marathon in India, leaving top athletes to qualify at either the country’s premier marathons or if the dates don’t fit their training schedule or they are seeking a better course, then attempt qualifying at one of the races overseas.

So far, 2020 has proved a dicey year for mass participation road races abroad. Thanks to the ongoing Covid 19 coronavirus outbreak in multiple countries, events were trimmed or cancelled. At the time of writing, the latest casualty was the 2020 Paris Half Marathon, which stood axed. Prior to that, the Hong Kong Marathon of early February was cancelled, the Tokyo Marathon of March 1 was restricted to elite athletes and the Seoul Marathon of March 22 was cancelled. Athletes who had hoped to qualify for the Olympics at the cancelled events must find alternatives. Meanwhile, the trend of disease outbreak so far, has cast a shadow on the Olympics itself.

The two major marathons in India from the standpoint of Indian elite athletes are the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) and the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon. The latter through association with the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), is also called the National Marathon. Despite not having a fast course and having crowd management issues and questionable weather, TMM has produced timings by foreign athletes that are faster than the Indian national record for men and women. As regards the National Marathon, the course is flatter and the roads decent, save for a small cobbled section. But the route has several U-turns capable of breaking momentum.

While the existence of Shivnath Singh’s 2:12 removes room for excuses in India, you can sneak in the question: do we have a course that meets required guidelines and is yet suited for a shot at breaking 2:12? In 2020, this question assumes prominence for a couple of reasons. First, if you want to qualify for the Olympics then a male athlete has to complete the marathon in 2:11:30, a real step-up for Indian marathoners. If that timing is deemed important to chase, then a good enough course in a right enough place (where weather conditions are favorable), to set your best athletes up for the opportunity, makes sense. It has to also dovetail suitably into athletes’ training schedules and the qualifying deadline of a given Olympic season. Second, even as some road races overseas are getting cancelled due to the virus outbreak and air travel to less affected regions also appears risky, India has so far (as of early March 2020) remained less impacted by Covid 19. Yet for lack of well imagined domestic Olympic marathon trials, we have this situation of our marathoners counting on overseas events with fast courses to qualify. As mentioned, some of these events have got cancelled. Besides, participating in these races entail expense while accessing them depends on the continued viability of aviation routes amid reports of the virus’s economic impact on airlines. So what stops India from having its own Olympic marathon trials? A race featuring the crème de la crème of India’s marathon talent on a suitable course approved by required authorities? It seems all the more relevant in 2020 given the unique global situation Covid 19 has got the planet in.

To the extent this blog inquired with professional race organizers, such a race in India to qualify for the Olympics is logistically possible. The race infrastructure (course length, timing apparatus etc) has to be properly approved. In terms of support and recognition by sports bodies, the backing of the concerned national federation – in this case AFI – has to be there. We have the meteorological competence to select appropriate dates for Olympic marathon trials. As for closing down a set of suitable roads (a fast course) for the purpose, please remember: city marathons are typically run on Sundays, early in the morning (not hours of peak traffic) and if the field is restricted to elites capable of coming close to the national record, you would have a very limited number of participants with the whole course restored to traffic in two and a half hours or less. Is that too much to ask, once every four years?

Such an event does not have to be the definitive platform for selection to the Indian Olympic marathon team. What it does is – it adds to available options, especially in an extraordinary year like 2020, when avenues to qualify stand restricted due to virus outbreak and India remains less impacted region. Further if established as regular practice, for amateur and elite alike, `Olympic trials’ is as much goal to aspire for as the `best,’ `biggest,’ `richest’ or whatever other attribute you may assign a regular marathon. A case worth mentioning in this context is the American ultrarunner Jim Walmsley. He qualified for the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials based on results secured at the Houston Half Marathon. At the trials of February 29, running his first full marathon, Walmsley finished in 2:15:05, placing 22nd. He didn’t make the team but it shows what Olympic marathon trials can mean. Based on what Indian elite athletes told this blog, the onus of organizing such trials is with the authorities. They have to be interested enough in the marathon to make options available in an Olympic year.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The qualification details for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics mentioned herein, is as available on Wikipedia. This article is by no means a definitive piece on the subject; it seeks to provoke thought – that’s all.)

TWO WORLDS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

“ The runners of the Berlin Marathon 2019 should expect a wet track. The forecast for Sunday sees a few hours of rain for Berlin. On Saturday it will be partly cloudy, partly sunny. However, thunderstorms are expected from Saturday afternoon on. Meteorologists therefore give the athletes in the capital little hope for a finish in dry conditions on Marathon Sunday (29 September 2019). According to Deutscher Wetterdienst (DWD), it will be wet and cloudy. At first the meteorologists expect rain only in the northern half of Brandenburg, but in the course of the day the rain will spread to the south. The maximum temperature will be 21 degrees Celsius.’’ – This was the weather forecast for the 2019 Berlin Marathon as provided on the website berlin.de two days ahead of the event.

On Marathon Sunday Ethiopian running great Keninisa Bekele created history in Berlin. He ran the second fastest marathon on record, covering the distance in two hours, one minute and 41 seconds, a timing that was off the world record by just two seconds.  Ashete Bekere of Ethiopia won the women’s race; she completed in 2:20:14. It was also occasion for the winner of the first women’s marathon at an Olympic Games (1984, Los Angeles) to rejoice afresh. Sixty two year-old Joan Benoit Samuelson of the US, completed the 2019 Berlin Marathon in 3:02:21 breaking the World Masters Association record for the 60-64 years age category, news reports said. Berlin’s weather wasn’t comfortable and supportive for all. Among the runners from India that day in Berlin was Anjali Saraogi. She texted in that the temperature was alright but the rain bothered. “ I was feeling very cold and was shivering. The rain was terrible. But the volunteers were out braving the brutal weather and supporting us. Immense respect for that. The course was easy, that’s why we could all run in that rain,” she wrote.

Almost 5000 kilometers away it was a different thermal experience for race-walkers and marathoners at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships as they battled the heat and humidity of Doha, Qatar. On Wikipedia, the average high temperature in September for Qatar is 39 degrees Celsius; the average low, 29 degrees. During the 2019 world championships, outdoor endurance events like the marathon and race-walk, were scheduled for midnight to escape the weather conditions. It was a first for the world championships. Aside from training to run in warm weather, athletes have to reset their wakefulness to coincide with night hours.

Midnight, September 27-28; the women’s marathon underway in Doha (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of IAAF and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

In the women’s marathon held in the intervening night of September 27-28, only 40 runners from the 68 who started the race, finished. The timing was slow. Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya was the winner; she covered the distance in 2:32:43, significantly slower than her personal best of 2:17:08 or for that matter, the winning time for women at the 2019 Berlin Marathon. According to IAAF reports, the race had begun in temperatures of 31-32 degrees and humidity of 73 per cent.  From the women’s marathon, a memorable photograph was that of a bunch of elite runners who quit midway, making it to the finish line in a golf cart. Some of the others who withdrew were stretchered off and at least one athlete spent some time under medical observation. “ Amid the havoc, Kenya’s Ruth Chepngetich emerged triumphant, claiming gold in two hours, 32 minutes and 43 seconds – the slowest ever World Championships winning time and more than 15 minutes slower than her personal best. The winner then collapsed some time after the race while talking to the media,” a report in UK-based publication The Telegraph, said. While deciding to proceed with the marathon, the authorities had backed it up with precautionary measures and support services matching the weather conditions. They followed the book. In January 2019, the IAAF itself had highlighted the issue of thermal stress, hosting on their website information about a study done ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and discussing the need for organizers of any sport event to have suitable protocols in place (https://shyamgopan.com/2019/01/25/spotlight-on-thermal-stress-impact-on-sport-events/).

Some of Doha’s race-walks were also slated to be held the same weekend as its women’s marathon. At a media interaction ahead of the 50 km race-walk; world record holder in the discipline, Yohann Diniz of France, minced no words in describing the weather conditions. In particular, he highlighted the contrast between the ambiance within the main stadium and the warm conditions outside. Within the stadium it was 24-25 degrees Celsius. His sport as well as the marathon, is held outside. The walkers had been taken for “ idiots,’’ the 41 year-old Frenchman was quoted as saying by the website france24.com. In the early hours of Sunday – the same Sunday that was Marathon Sunday in Berlin – Diniz was among those who didn’t finish the 50 kilometer-walk. It was won by Japan’s Yusuke Suzuki (the first world title for Japan in 50km race-walking; Suzuki is the world record holder in 20km race-walk) who told the media afterwards that he “ was just desperate to finish.’’ It was a relief to get it over with. Numbers don’t lie and as in the women’s marathon, the timing from the men’s 50km race-walk speaks for itself. Suzuki crossed the finish line in 4:04:20. Diniz’s world record, established in 2014 in Zurich, is 3:23:33. In the women’s 50km race-walk, the winning time for China’s Liang Rui was 4:23:26; the world record set by Liu Hong earlier in 2019 is 3:59:15. In the women’s 20km race-walk wherein China swept the podium, Liu Hong won in 1:32:54. The current world record held by Elena Lashmanova of Russia is 1:23:39.  There were those, who reacted differently too. After winning silver in the 50km race-walk for women, China’s Mocou Li told the IAAF’s official channel (she spoke through a translator), “ I am not so tired. But I feel that I cannot speed up; maybe because of the weather. This is not the worst of conditions for me. I feel relaxed today.’’

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Television coverage of the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships has been spectacular. Technology made the coverage rich in terms of data, details and camera angles. You could conclude – even if athlete in one’s living room is mere pixels on screen, it made more sense to watch the world championships on television than in the stadium, where you wouldn’t get to see the action this close. The bulk of the telecast was around disciplines taking place in the main stadium. Technology works best in contained environments; containment is also part of the emergent business architecture of sport and media properties. The IAAF had informed well ahead that the media-technology mix in Doha would set new benchmarks. There were complaints too. Some athletes found the new block cameras (cameras attached to the starting block in sprint events) intrusive and unethical. On September 30, CNN reported that the IAAF had decided to restrict the use of images from these cameras after the German Athletics Federation highlighted the issue. Amid the emphasis on telecast, media reports said that the number of spectators at the stadium fell as opening weekend gave way to working week. Plenty of empty seats showed up on TV screens worldwide. Famous athletes had only family, friends and a modest clutch of spectators applauding them in the stadium. Questions were raised in social media on why the biennial athletics championship traveled to Doha.

According to published reports, the organizers then promised to make an effort to get more people in but pointed out alongside that a made-for-television schedule of events meant few wanted to stay that late into the night in the stadium. By Day 4 as endurance disciplines like the men’s 5000 meters final and the women’s steeplechase final got underway, there was a sizable presence of East African supporters in the stadium, to cheer. The atmosphere was festive. The Ethiopians; the Kenyans, the Ugandans – they got to celebrate their victory. Daniel Stahl of Sweden broke into a run and jumped over a hurdle as he celebrated his triumph in the men’s discus throw.  Mariya Lasitskene competing as an authorized neutral athlete and crowned world champion for the third time in the women’s high jump did a victory lap. For those looking at it all as panoramic story, it was also moment to reflect about weekend gone by. The strong performances and cheering within the stadium were a contrast to the struggles and timings reported in endurance sports staged outside.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

MUSCULAR AND READY TO BOYCOTT

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Over the past few days, the media has reported on the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) recommending boycott of the 2022 Commonwealth Games (CWG) because the event in Birmingham won’t feature shooting, a sport in which India has known strength.

The bullet points are three. First, India is strong in shooting. Second, India has been gradually improving its medals tally at major sports events; at the Gold Coast edition of CWG in 2018, India secured 66 medals of which 16 came from shooting including seven gold medals. Third, if shooting is absent at Birmingham, then, Indian prospects for rich medal harvest become proportionately dim.

The anger at shooting’s exclusion is understandable.

Question is – is boycott the answer?

A threat to boycott may work as means to apply pressure on the organizers.  But beyond that what merit does it have? Especially because the battle is not over any universally prized principle breached as was the case for example, when the sporting world boycotted South Africa in its apartheid years. Here it is clearly one country’s grievance over chances to win medals limited by the absence of a particular sport it is good at. Shooting is one of several sports at large events like CWG, Asian Games or Olympics. Boycott on the other hand, applies to all Indian athletes preparing to participate. In other words, everyone from runners to cyclists to swimmers, gymnasts and badminton players – all will be benched. Why should a whole national squad suffer just because Indian shooters may or may not be going to Birmingham?

The PTI report on the proposed boycott (it is available on the Internet) quoted from the letter Narinder Batra, president, IOA, wrote to the union sports minister, Kiren Rijiju, seeking early discussion on the matter. “ We want to express our protest by not taking part in 2022 CWG in the UK to make the CWG understand that India is not prepared to take India bashing anymore and the people with a particular mindset in CWG need to understand that India got its Independence in 1947 and India is not a colony of anyone anymore and is now the fifth largest economy in the world and by far the fastest growing economy in the world,” the IOA chief said in the letter – so PTI reported. It didn’t end there. “ We have been noticing over a period of time that wherever India seems to be getting grip of the game and performing well, then somehow we find that either the goal posts are shifted or rules are changed. We feel it is time for us in IOA / India to start asking tough questions and start taking tough positions,’’ Batra wrote, adding that given the political sensitivities involved in the matter the IOA does not see itself as the expert to decide. Hence, the request to meet the minister. In June 2019, Batra was elected a member of the International Olympic Council (IOC). Earlier in 2016, he became chief of the International Hockey Federation (FIH).

Batra’s letter to Rijiju presents a contrived argument for boycott. It is hard to comprehend how the reasons (emotions would be a better description) posed – everything from India’s emaciation through colonization to its independence movement to subsequent body building by GDP – are relevant to shooting’s inclusion or exclusion at an international sports event. The letter also contrasts what the sports minister himself stated recently – that he wishes athletes heading to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to focus on their preparation, free of distractions. Shouldn’t the same logic apply to 2022 CWG as well? As regards the more legitimate concern around goal posts shifted, mentioned in Batra’s letter, they are in the domain of sports administration, not sports. Isn’t it the job of sport administrators to sort it out sparing sportspersons inconvenience? If boycott is tool towards the same end, then it must be pointed out alongside that its real effect is one of casting sportspersons into an environment of uncertainty. In other words – it is inconvenience.

According to reports, the IOA’s call for boycott found support from a variety of domestic sports federations. They valued solidarity with IOA over what happens to their athletes. Some athletes too supported. To his credit Abhinav Bindra, India’s best known shooter and the first Indian to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics, spoke up against the call to boycott.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

STRAY DOTS CONNECTED BY NELSON’S EYE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

From high mountains to vehicle sales and jobs with fat salaries, the industrial paradigm is blinding us to the obvious.

2019 was not the first climbing season on Everest hosting queue of climbers.

One recalls photos shown by those who climbed Everest in the past decade. Lines have happened before; maybe not this bad on the final stretch of the ascent. A line is a potential queue; a queue is potential congestion. In other words, 2019 was in the works.

All that was needed was favorable circumstances converging. A slightly higher number of permits doled out, fickle weather of climate-change, a cyclone big enough to have distant impact in the Himalaya and climbers rushing to take advantage of a narrow window – that appears to have tipped what was potential into reality. In the days following the tragic deaths of May 2019 official explanation puzzled. A memorable line of reasoning was that people had died of altitude sickness, poor fitness and lack of experience, not traffic congestion on the peak. That is probably true.

Traffic jam at altitude

Consider the following. Altitude sickness is checked through acclimatization. But there is no certainty that it won’t strike. When it hits, the best remedy is losing elevation. Poor fitness can spell trouble when climbing a mountain entailing physical strain and the challenges of altitude. Experience counts. The more you have been to the high mountains and endured different scenarios, the better your understanding of self (and its limits) and greater your bandwidth to cope with nature.

In the event of altitude sickness, how easy will it be to turn around and lose elevation if the climbing route has too many people, at least some of them slowed by strain of altitude? If your fitness is poor and experience limited, how well will you cope with extended exposure to harsh nature, which is what happens when caught in a queue? Point is – long lines on any high mountain is unsafe. That raises the question: why do we ignore signs of potential accident? Why do we defend after tragedy?

One reason (certainly not the only one) would be the difference between mountaineering as activity and the same as industry. Across sectors, industry has typically showed reluctance to acknowledge its faults. There are investments, businesses and livelihood at stake. Viewed through such prism, old lines from old photos may not have seemed early indicator of what could potentially be. The other thing you notice in activity cast as industry is how notion of dynamic nature recedes and predictability becomes prized. Approached as industry, a high mountain becomes branded objective bought off a shop shelf. As with any other product, expectations rule the transaction and those expectations have to be met. The tragedy and defence from Everest spanned May-June 2019.

Traffic jam at sea level

On June 19, a leading daily reported that Mumbai had some of the worst traffic jams in the world. The report was notable for pinning blame almost wholly on civic authorities responsible for roads and the traffic police, responsible for issues like parking. There are two actors overlooked in the story of traffic jams – vehicle manufacturers and consumers.

Vehicles are manufactured, marketed with high voltage campaigns, sold at attractive prices and backed with consumer finance – all by the automobile industry. The ones willfully spending, congesting the roads with their purchase and often prone to driving rashly are the customers. Yet no solid blame reaches these two segments. Vehicle manufacturers have traditionally kept big advertisement budgets; something media seeks. About two decades ago, officials at Indian auto companies used to argue that they are above spoiling the market with aggressive pricing, low interest loans and product discounts. Growing competition among auto companies, the pressures of surviving market cycles, the technological challenges facing the global auto industry, the rising relevance of public transport and ethical preference for less polluting means of mobility – all these changed industry. There is desperation to sell before product relevance dries up. Now the Indian market also hosts freebies, discounts and cheap loans. Sellers are targeting pockets where the consumerist dream still attracts and tales of urban congestion are distant.

Questioning the habits of readers / viewers (who are also vehicle customers) to the point of irritating them is not affordable to media. Editors have limits decided by business model. As people spend on vehicles in age of high salary and more disposable income, both customer and industry are spared acute scrutiny by media. Civic authorities and traffic police take the blame instead. Like the mountaineering industry’s inability to visualize potential danger in a long line at altitude, vehicle manufacturers and customers reserve a Nelson’s Eye for their role in traffic congestion. They see their combined activity as feeding GDP (even if time wasted in traffic jam is productivity lost). GDP is currently unquestionable; it is a nice place for big fish to hide.

There is a cost for our collective existence – growing and burgeoning – that nobody wants to acknowledge. Like Mumbai’s traffic jams and May 2019 on Everest, all costs eventually come home. Yet the architecture of potential mess appears lost on even the educated.

Traffic jam in the head

The new rain; rain of vehicles (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

And so in June 2019, it was Nelson’s Eye again, as a former senior official of the Indian IT industry argued that what stifled employment in the country was not lack of jobs but lack of well paid jobs. It harked of an older fantasy sold (much successful like vehicle sales measured in numbers) – that of celebrating exploded population as demographic dividend. Doesn’t demographic dividend / workforce have the propensity to be consumerist with consequences thereof? If you are not blinded by GDP, you will notice that more money does not reduce the carrying cost of our bloated existence and its equally bloated aftermath ranging from stress to congestion to trash. Instead, allowing ourselves to see without tainted spectacles would be a good starting point.

One example for how money solves nothing is government finances creaking under the load of rising wage and pension bill. Transplant the habit to private sector, you will simply spread the disease. In the urge to appease constituencies monetarily, inequality grows and the economy is stalked by inflation. What we need is reasonable hours of work, reasonable salary and most importantly – affordable cost of living that stretches currency’s mileage. This demands a very fundamental reinterpretation of life away from mono-cropped imagination. After all, the best way to enjoy Everest without damaging it, is not to have everyone aiming for the top but respect even those content to watch it from far. In other words, spread earnings and opportunities around. Unfortunately, our educational system (that’s where we gain perspective of life) has been surrendered to GDP. It is the stuff of rat race; it even advocates it. We have few original characters born from it. There is no contrarian thought. To the extent it is all driven by money, alternative incentives like social acceptance and support, relevant to sustain non-mainstream imagination, have shriveled up. Your intuition warns that the overall accounts of existence are not balanced. Money tells you: don’t listen to that internal auditor, just keep minting money. What would you call such book keeping if it was a company, bank, airline or housing finance outfit, you were auditing?

In June again, there was a news report which said, some youngsters were living frugally and saving as much as they could to retire earlier than usual. It smacked of industrial superstructure tapped solely for income with an acknowledged lack of soul-connect to it. Unlike before, meaning it seemed, lay in retirement. There were others stepping out to see the world on small budgets; hope in their hearts to compensate for lack of cash. Now, that’s a different approach. At least, it’s no Nelson’s Eye.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)            

THE WORLD’S HIGHEST MIRROR

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

According to media reports, as of May 28, eleven people had died in the 2019 climbing season on Everest. It is time to rethink Everest in the head. For one’s own head – that’s where it all begins.

Long before the ultra-fast fuel refills of today, gas stations were a much slower affair.

Where digits flash by at present, technology then was a lazy roll of printed numbers on the counter. Every liter which typically took several seconds to be reached was marked by the sound of a metallic chime. The chime wasn’t the only sound characterizing gas station. The pump was sometimes noisy; it’s whirring sound harking of cogs and wheels within. A few chimes later, you knew the quantity of fuel you had sought for daily commute was close to being met. If it was full tank you sought, the concert lasted longer. Everest in May 2019 reminded of that old fuel dispenser. As several hundred people converged to climb the peak amid inconsistent weather conditions, every other day a chime sounded marking somebody’s demise.

The deaths were mainly on the Nepal side, along the normal climbing route on Everest. Photos from the mountain showed a long queue of climbers waiting at high altitude to access the summit and get back. The situation has been compared to a traffic jam. On May 28, it was reported that officialdom saw the traffic jam as a product of other factors. To be blamed, according to them, was adverse weather, insufficient oxygen supplies and equipment. The number of climbing permits issued, they said, was only slightly more than in the previous years. The photos made an impression stronger than the officials. They aren’t the first such pictures. There have been similar ones before. You know something is deeply wrong in those images.

Left to market forces and state revenue from permits doled out, I doubt if anything will change. They may choose to refine the scenario by hiking permit fee to limit traffic or for the heck of seeming just, along with hiked fee include a portion decided by lottery. Either way, unless an element of common sense (essentially questions like: what are you on Everest’s slopes for; is the summit worth dying for, that too, death for all the wrong reasons?) and plain and simple aesthetics (questions like: what is an enjoyable climb?) prevail, meaningful correction is unlikely. What is happening on Everest has nothing to do with mountaineering. It has everything to do with the industry mountaineering spawned and is therefore, a mirror to what became of our lives.

Among discerning mountaineers, Everest by normal route is no longer a prized ascent. If you climb it by other routes, the fraternity takes note. It would therefore appear, an ascent of Everest by normal route is not meant for accolades from this fraternity. For the trained and untrained, Everest by normal route is to either satisfy one’s personal urge or harvest applause from the larger, less discerning arena. One of the causes highlighted for the deaths of 2019, was that of inexperienced climbers attempting Everest. There are those who say only trained mountaineers must be on such peaks. It has also been reported that Nepal, which has so far not sought proof of climbing experience from those arriving to attempt Everest, may now alter the rules. The emphasis on training is partly correct as required approach but it is not entirely convincing as panacea for Everest’s problems.

As is evident from the published news reports of May 2019, there are trained people too in the Everest queue, both as clients and guides. One thing I keep asking myself all the time is – which trained mountaineer in the best sense of the term would support, leave alone endure a mile long queue in the Death Zone to reach a summit? Everything about that predicament points to delay and extended stay in environment hostile to human physiology. Not to mention, even at low altitude, such spectacle filled with people challenges the very aesthetic behind courting wilderness. The saddest part of above said queue and its consequences at elevation like exhaustion, frostbite and high altitude illness is that you endanger yourself and others. Inefficient progress by one person has cascading impact down the order. It is difficult to imagine that these dangers escape the attention of the trained lot, who too are there on the peak. Why then, does the traffic jam repeat? Where is the voice of the trained lot in this regard? The media reports of May 28 said that authorities have presented double rope in the area below the summit for improved management of the flow of climbers, as solution. Like many contemporary solutions, it is a specific, technical quick-fix that spares the market larger questions.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Hence the submission, Everest is a mirror to what became of us. It reflects a host of human compulsions – from the pure mountain lover wishing to be on the world’s highest peak, to the naturally curious, to the deliberately ambitious, to those that availed loans to fund climbs and can’t turn back for fear of losing face, to those racing against their biological clock for a piece of immortality to remember life by, to those ticking off goals from a bucket list, to those seeking glory by all 8000m peaks climbed, to those chasing Seven Summits, to those seeking multiple Everest ascents, to those seeking promotion in employment through Everest summit gained, to those fearing disappearance if their CV in life does not have Everest stamped on it, to those whose livelihoods are dependent on everyone seeking Everest turning up on the mountain, to an entire industry surviving on Everest’s magnetic attraction; the list of compulsions converging on the peak every climbing season, is long.

In times by money, media and marketing each of these urges attracts exploitation. Catalyzing the process is the pressure population exerts on human activity. For sure the number of people on Everest can be capped. That is doable. What can’t be capped is the number of people dreaming Everest, which on planet hosting exploded human numbers and rat race alongside, is high. If it wasn’t for this rat race and pursuit of distinction by any means, would climbing Everest as client via normal route, be construed as extraordinary? Distinction has become highly prized and standing on a high point is among the oldest distinctions in humanity’s guide book for life.

Perhaps, journeys must become more important than goals. If you did a life time of climbing at lower altitude does that make you less than a couple of million rupees spent and foot placed on Everest’s head? The repeated tragedies on Everest are reminders in that direction. It is built into the paradigm that the quest to access a tiny piece of inhospitable real estate at 29,029 feet should reveal what is wrong with us. Wrong in this case of crowding, has come with a price: several dead.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)