Thursday 11 May 2023

When I met Neeraj Chopra

On 6th of May 2023, I had the good fortune of talking to Neeraj Chopra, reigning Olympic Champion in javelin throw, at a lunch hosted by Fauzia (Fab Entertainment) to honour him and Eldhose Paul, the first Indian to win a gold medal in men's triple jump at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

They were visiting Doha to participate in the Doha Diamond League, an annual one day track and field meet event. Both the athletes are proud products of Inspire Institute of Sport (IIS). The other celebrity guests present were Mustafa Ghouse, Manisha Malhotra from JSW Sports and Parth Jindal, founder and director of IIS.

A hushed silence always precedes an important entry. It was no different when Neeraj and Eldhose walked in. 

Neeraj was beaming and he had every right to. The previous night, he had won first place at the Diamond League season-opener with an impressive 88.67 m.
More than the medals and the shine of celebrity, it is the person I'm drawn to. Not that I get to shake hands with celebrities on a regular basis, but whenever I've had a chance to meet with one, it's the way they say what they say that makes more of an impression on me.

Neeraj Chopra, at twenty-five, displayed the wisdom and poise of a much older person. He came across as an old soul to me. 
"I come from a humble background. From a village in Haryana. I never thought I'd be here today.." When asked by Fauzia to share his story, Neeraj chose to start by stating the obvious with such humility and ease that I felt I was listening to a person older and wiser in years than a 25 years old athlete who's star is on the rise.

The Q&A session followed the speeches. Valid and pointed questions like how the Institute plans to reach India's grassroot levels, or how does one change the national narrative of schools and educational outfits along with the parent' obsession about academic achievements at the cost of everything else, were answered by the panel with clarity and passion.

We are all products of an education system where sports and the arts are considered a waste of time by parents and schools alike, especially in middle and high school. 

The only exception is cricket. I'm not a fan and frankly, I don't understand the obsession. 

When an entire nation and that too a populous one focuses on one sport alone, it doesn't bode well for other sports. India, despite its large population, has won a paltry sum of medals in the Olympics.

All that is set to change. At least, that's how I felt listening to Parth Jindal. 

Last Saturday, in a banquet hall glowing with amber glass chandeliers, he dared to share his dream of  'Jana Gana Mana' (India's National anthem) being played on a loop at the Olympics of the future.  His confidence and his passion shone brighter than the lights. He spoke about the begging bowl he'd held out to all the big corporate houses in India when he first thought of the idea of IIS -- more than five years ago.

The proof of the pudding came when athletes from IIS started collecting gold for the first time in the sporting history of India. That's when India and more importantly those with a will and capacity to help and turn his dream into reality started to take notice.

Jindal spoke about how there is an urgent need to plan and build at least twenty more IISs, if India is to tap into its true sporting potential. 

After the Q & A, it was time for photos. I had saved my question for later. I had one for Neeraj Chopra.
"How do you tackle self-doubt-- that is if you ever have any?" I asked him once we'd said hello and I'd congratulated him.

"Of course. This is an individual sport. I have to beat my own best. So, there are times when I have to push through despite the doubts." smiled Neeraj. "I give my best to every shot. I don't save it for the last." 

Wow! I thought. 

Writing, too, is a solo sport. To give ones best every time one sits down to write would be a great way to be. It's not always possible, though.

"It's not that I don't have down days. I do. That's when I talk to my coach. I have to be happy to be doing what I'm doing to give my best." Neeraj added. 

"And you know Ma'am," he continued "life mein balance hona bahut zaroori hai." (It's very important to have balance in life." This sport is part of my life right now. It's not my entire life. Life is so much more."

Some of you reading this post may think I may have been tempted to embellish or tweak Neeraj's words. All I'll say to you is--I don't blame you. I was surprised too. He spoke in a mixture of Hindi and English. But he spoke from the heart. His eyes sparkled with  sincerity.

If this is the future of Indian representation on international arenas and forums, then I have no doubt Jindal will see his dream play out in his life time. 

My take-away from the afternoon was this -- Love for what we do should guide us through life's challenges and joys. Humility and the understanding that 'life is so much more' is a lesson worth remembering and reminding. Nothing lasts forever but to put ones best foot forward at every step is a great way to do justice to the talent one is born with.

Sunday 7 May 2023

'Don't climb on the Bullock Cart' is looking for your love and support

With only 10 days left for our project to reach its target, I reckon it's the perfect time to write about how my second  book (yet to be born) came to be and what it means to me.

The book is called 'Don't climb on the Bullock Cart' and it's being published by Parakeet Books.

When asked about  reasons for writing a book, two questions need answering: Why you and why now?

Soon after I graduated high school, I left my hometown, Dehradun, to pursue a university degree in New Delhi. I didn't know it then but I would never make my way back to the place of my birth, except as a visitor. 

My grandparents (Papaji and Beji) were a big and happy part of my childhood. They raised the dreamer in me for in their eyes, I could do no wrong. They never said 'no' or 'don't do it' when we (my siblings and I) carried out our adventures in Papaji's gorgeous garden; climbing and jumping off trees and the big water tank. 

They were, however, always ready with home-made remedies and softly spoken 'next it like this..' advice to heal our cuts and bruises.

I've moved cities, countries and continents in the last thirty years but I've always carried my birthplace, my home, Beji and Papaji's memories with me, within me wherever I've travelled to or settled down in the world.

Naturally, I wanted my children, raised outside of India, to experience my grandparents' love. But time and distance made it impossible. 

When I lost Papaji and Beji, my children were very young.

Every time I visited my home town, I'd notice it changing. Concrete, multi-storeys started replacing dirt patches and zig-zag lanes where we used to play hide and seek, pithu and kanche. However, it was the fading of people's memories of how our neighbourhood used to be that bothered me. 

That's when I started writing and blogging about my childhood, about Beji and her cooking, about Papaji and his love of the land and his grandchildren, about our mulberry tree, about the recipes they conjured up as home-made medicines.

Then one day in the Autumn of 2020, Tanmay read one of my blog posts. He enjoyed it so much that he offered to do a story board based on it.

In the middle of the second Covid wave, while stuck indoors, Tanmay (from Bangalore) and I (based in Doha) would meet over zoom once a week to work on the story. One scene, one line, little details like how Beji wore her dupatta, how short and messy my hair was when I was five--all of it was moulded into lino-cut illustrations by Tanmay. 

Two years later, our collaboration had turned into a full-fledged illustrated book ready to be published. 

Then last year, I saw an Insta post by a friend and poet whose work I admire--Devjani Bodepudi. Her post mentioned that her next book (for children) would be published by Parakeet Books. So, I messaged Devjani and told her about our 'almost ready' book. 

We knew we'd found the perfect home for 'Don't climb on the Bullock Cart' when we received an emphatic yes from Judy at Parakeet Books. She loved the book, she said.

The dots connected, stars aligned and here we are -- sharing this link to Kickstarter. It'll take you to our project (picked as a #projectwelove by them) where you can pre-order a copy, or help out with a contribution. If, however, you're unable to buy or contribute right away, then please share the link with anyone you know who may be interested. Every little helps.

Thank you for supporting my writing journey with your visits and kind comments. It all started here :)

Have a lovely Sunday and wishing you all a fabulous start to the new week.

Monday 1 May 2023

Doha Fashion Fridays -- lifting the cloak of invisibility with fashion

Dear Readers,

It is 'International Workers Day' today. It is the first of May.

What better way to acknowledge the many migrant workers who live in Doha than to share the story of one of the most appealing photographic exhibitions I have seen in recent years.

It's called Doha Fashion Fridays and it's on at the M7 till the 20th of May 2023.

It's not often that one is able to capture an entire experience in one word.

But on 18th March, 2023, I came across one such word--an old and known one-- in a new light which did just that. This was at the Doha Fashion Fridays inaugural talk at the M7.

The word is curator. 

Although I am familiar with the word but I have always associated 'curator' with the act of sourcing, collecting and  assembling of objects or art of interest in a certain way for a certain purpose or audience. I hadn't given the word much thought or bothered to look up its etymology. 

Known words are like our landscape. That which we see everyday, we stop noticing. We stop paying attention. Not unlike the migrant workers in Doha.

Although they are visible on construction sites but for most of us who live in this city, they're 'invisible' underneath their blue overalls and yellow hard hats. They merge with the landscape. We, as a collective, are mostly indifferent to their existence.

So, when Aparna Jayakumar prodded Charlotte Cotton to share more about the word 'curator', I was struck by its aptness. The word curator owes its origin to the Latin verb curare which means to take care of. 

How apt, I thought. How perfect. 

Care: a four letter word that is all too often overlooked or overshadowed by the other overused four-letter words -- love and like. 

Care. To take care of. To care enough about. To bother to care in the first place.

I believe 'care' is the basis of humanity. Yes, love is the canvas on which all human drama plays out. But care is the currency of love. How much or how little we care about ourselves, our families, the society, this planet and all the creatures of this planet decides our and their state of health.

Doha Fashion Fridays is the result of an idea that was planted by political cartoonist, Khalid Albaih seven years ago. Serendipitously, Aparna happened to be his neighbour. So when one day Khalid mentioned his idea to her, the seeds started sprouting into a 'unique collaborative project.' Soon, Shaima Altamimi came on board. 

During the panel discussion the previous day, when asked about her motivation to join the project, Aparna mentioned that when she first moved to Qatar from India, she was struck by the absence of life on the streets. In India, LIFE along with its messiness and chaos is on full display out in the open. The poor, the rich, the involved and the disinterested share the same space. The populace is part of the same canvas. 

In Doha, it's different.

But on Fridays everything changes, especially on the Corniche.

It's the migrant workers' day off. On Fridays, if you find yourself on the Corniche, you will be rewarded with a sea of colour and life. Hundreds of workers pour into public spaces dressed to the nines. This is where they spend their day--meeting friends, taking photos, spending their  free day their way. 

On Fridays, on Doha Corniche, the cloak of invisibility is lifted. 

During the rest of the week, it's easy to not notice the construction worker in his blue overalls, the domestic help in her neatly ironed uniform, the drivers, the loaders and so many invaluable contributors to the rise and shine of this beautiful country and city. They become an invisible backdrop to the humdrum of progress and success. And this is true of many countries and places.

In India, for example, when I was at university, my flat (barsaati) was next door to a basti -- a shanty town. I was hit by the sounds, smells and  poverty of the basti the first time I saw it. I had grown up in the sheltered shade of Dehradun. So, this was shocking. But three years later, by the time I graduated, the basti had become the backdrop to my barsaati. I had stopped caring because I saw it everyday. I was so focused on myself that I'd stopped noticing the 'others'.

A couple of years ago, I was shocked to see the sea of tents in Seattle and Portland in the USA. The homelessness of a super powerful nation was on full display and yet the daily commuters around me didn't seem to notice or want to pay attention. 

Indifference is the rose tinted lens we use to see our world when we are comfortable.

Doha Fashion Fridays reminds us that curiosity about the other is a good thing. Curiosity leads to care. And care is a great connector.

Khalid Albaih's curiosity about the fashionable migrant workers gatherings on Fridays was the foundation on which Aparna and Shaima built. They cared enough to lift that cloak of invisibility. 

A cloak we so easily and carelessly drape over those we don't care enough about. 

I  urge you to go and 'meet' the vibrant migrant workers of Qatar via their portraits and stories at the exhibition. 

But if you're not able to, then this photo essay in the Guardian will give you some idea about the ethos and aspirations of this ongoing project.

Visibility -- the one human need that comes in after food, shelter and clothing. All it takes is a glance, a smile, a nod to turn the invisible into the visible. 

Let's play our part and lift the cloaks around us. Acknowledge the presence of another, the other.  It may reveal ourselves to us. It may not be pretty. Reality rarely is. But at least it will be real. To be real is worth everything.

Thank you for reading this post. I welcome your comments and views. Wishing you well.