Sunday, November 14, 2010

Giving Nature a hand

The ‘bandar ka tamasha’ (monkey show) has always been a central part of childhood entertainment in Pakistan. The sight of a man carrying a small monkey around the streets of Lahore is common enough. Sometimes, they are accompanied by a goat or a dog, which serves as something for the monkey to ride as part of its act. The troupe travels from car to car, knocking on windows, looking for people interested in watching their act. They don’t mind where you are, whether you’re parked in the bazaar, snacking, or on the main road stuck in a traffic jam, they’re ready and willing to perform.

For a few rupees, the bandar-wala will enthral young and old with a lively show consisting mainly of the monkey caricaturing humans in certain comic situations. Armed with the dugdugi and a light cane, he instructs the well trained monkey to go through the various routines and situations he has taught him, and the monkey obliges without protest. The act is more often than not quite entertaining.

But I have always been slightly uncomfortable with the whole idea of the bandar-wala. It always seemed slightly cruel in some ways. For one, the monkey has obviously been captured from its natural habitat somewhere in the wilderness of the north and been brought away to the city. This must have some effect on the psychological well-being of the animal; being taken away as well as having to adjust to captivity. Also, it’s always struck me as highly likely that the animal is mistreated. God knows what technique the trainer uses to train it, but if he is beating the poor animal, it’s not like he’s going to have some animal rights group on his tail (the trainer’s tail, not the monkey’s!).After all, in a country where human life and rights are of little consequence, what chance does a poor animal have.

There is the off-setting argument of the poor bandar-wala having to make a living, but it is not enough to quell this uncomfortable feeling.

I think there is a justification though. Look at it this way. Supposedly, we have all evolved, and are still evolving. These monkeys and humans most likely had a common ancestor at some point in the distant past. But what happened? We humans got our act together. We stopped swinging around, shouting and flinging faeces at each other (I’m actually not sure that these monkeys do the last part). We realised that the future lay in Yahoo and Google, and hedge-funds (whatever the hell they are!). We decided to stop picking berries and mucking about all day, and to get real jobs as writers and engineers. We also gained something called self-awareness, and started asking questions about where we came from, and why we are here, and whose winter collection is to die for this year. These monkeys are too busy stuffing their gut to be bothered with these profundities.

But, of course, what really separates us from our rather backward and rather distant relatives is our manners; our social graces, if you will. What it is to be human is the way we greet each other, the way we shake hands, or heartily slap each others backs; the way we laugh and joke in a way that shows good upbringing. It’s the way we say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘LOL’ and those countless other phrases that demonstrates our superiority over the animal kingdom. These pleasantries may seem inconsequential, but are essentially what sets us above all others.

Well, I guess it’s about time we stopped thinking about ourselves and decided to help the less fortunate. So, if a few bandar-walas have taken it upon themselves to educate and civilize our boorish cousins, good on them I say. Yes, the poor brutes may feel hard done by, and yes, we too feel a slight sympathy for them, but this is the kind of tough love they need to get out of the squalor they have restricted themselves to for centuries.

Natural evolution, of course, is a very time consuming process, and it may take thousands of years before these creatures develop any sort of self-awareness or appreciation for these civilities. But, when they get there, they shall be able to draw on these experiences to know exactly how they should be behaving. The monkeys of the future will be fully trained to deal with awkward social situations.
‘I have to visit my in-laws today, how should I greet them?’ ‘My wife beat me up today, how should I react?’ ‘I’m going to a Bollywood themed disco tonight, if only I knew how to dance like an Indian actress’ – none of these situations need trouble the poor souls.
They will simply react with ‘O yes, I remember, we’ve been trained for exactly such a situation, it’s in our genes.’

And who knows, this training may actually result in acceleration of their evolutionary process. I’m sure it must have some effect.

Of course, we also need to be careful of the other possible eventuality of aiding monkey evolution; the dreaded ‘Planet of the Apes’ scenario. We must therefore set strict guidelines for monkey training. We must be vigilant and ensure we have the upper hand at all times, and inculcate monkeys in ways that ensure an uprising will never be possible. Implanting a deep need to watch inane soap operas, or reality television should ensure their brains are never developed enough to plot an overthrow of the current natural order, while also keeping them functioning socially.

Helping nature is the least we can do!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Unlikely Superhero

-The follwing story is a work of fiction. All characters and events are a product of the authors imagination. Any resemblance to actual events is entirely coincidential

I suppose everyone is familiar with the concept of superpowers. We’ve seen enough movies and read enough comic books to know how it works. There are two common explanations for people possessing such powers, either they’re not human and belong to a more developed species, or they’ve been in some horrible accident where they’ve been exposed to radiation or chemicals or something powerful enough to alter their genetic make-up.

I’ve still to figure out which of these categories I fall into. I have been in possession of my power as far back as I can remember, but it’s difficult to tell how I got it. There was one bizarre incident when I was little.

I’m not a very smart man now, so, needless to say, I was no genius at the tender age of two either. My entire day was spent waddling around the room, banging my head into pieces of furniture. For some extra excitement, I would chew on whatever I could fit into my mouth; shoes, crayons, table legs, I’ve chewed them all. So, it was one such action-packed day when I sat behind the television taking in the weather report while happily chomping down on the antenna cable, when the antenna, outside, was struck by lightening. The electricity from the strike travelled down the cable to the television, blew it up, and threw my two-year-old frame across the room. I was lucky to have survived. But this doesn’t really sound like a bizarre enough accident to have given someone superpowers does it?

On the other hand, my superpower isn’t really all that super either. I’m getting quite embarrassed talking about it now. I suppose I should say what it is and get it over with quickly. My superpower is, brace yourself, the ability to forecast the weather. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I can give you all the details. Just pull them out of thin air. The day’s highs and lows, humidity, wind speed, rainfall, pretty much anything you need to know. The time-span of these forecasts diminishes with the distance. So, sitting in Lahore for example, I could give you the weather for this city for the next four days, but for Islamabad it would be the next three days, and barely twenty-four hours for Karachi.

So was it due to the weather report on television that I got this skill, or are my parents aliens? I couldn’t really say. I mean they’ve never mentioned it, how would you know?

You can imagine my excitement when I discovered I had this gift. I was somewhere in my early teens, and was ecstatic at being gifted at something. I figured I could be something great with a skill like this, if only I could figure how to use it properly.

You can also imagine my disappointment in my later teens when I discovered how utterly useless this gift was. There wasn’t much crime-fighting to be done just by predicting the weather. There wasn’t much money to be made either. To be honest, modern technology really killed off any potential I may have had. In another time, I could have been a god or a messiah of some sort. I could have blessed generals and emperors with knowledge of what the future would bring. For all I know, soothsayers of ancient times were actually people like me. Today, of course, we live in the age of the weather report. I used to stare in horror and disgust as smug, smiley men and women graced my television screen with predictions they had made using their machines. These hacks who think they are doing me a favour. I don’t need your bloody forecasts; I already know what the weather is going to be like. I am the chosen one!

Like a lot of other things in my life, this anger also left me. I had barely scraped through college, and with few options open to someone as devoid of talent as myself, I was facing tough times. The trouble isn’t just that I lack talent. The trouble is the coupling of this disability with my crippling laziness. I really can’t imagine working hard at a job. So, I did the one thing that seemed logical. I sold my soul and went over to the dark side; I became a meteorologist. Now it’s my smug. smiley face on television that tells people what weather awaits them. I get to do nothing all day and just turn up for the bulletins. I don’t need to prepare, obviously, so I have absolutely nothing to do.

Given my lethargic disposition, I am living the dream - getting paid, decently enough, for showing up in front of a screen and saying things from memory. Sometimes the machines get it wrong, and we have a mismatch between what I’m saying and what’s on the screen. At these times I act all worked up about the incompetence of the guys running the screens, and bask in my brilliance the next day when I am proved right.

It’s a nice existence, but sometimes I do wonder about what could have been. If there had actually been some awesome application to this skill. I even have a superhero costume, hanging in the back of my closet. Sometimes, late at night, I get it out and dress up while watching television. I narrate my own background story.

“Iqbal Jameel, by day he’s a mild-mannered weatherman, but when night falls, he becomes… Weatherman!”

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Trusting the PCB

Among the many voices that have been consistently critical of the authorities running Cricket in Pakistan is that of legendary captain and all-rounder Imran Khan. His denigration of the BCCP went well beyond usual player-management friction one may expect in sport. In the 1992 version of his autobiography, All Round View, Imran has accused the board of incompetence, nepotism, and outright corruption. The chapter discussing this topic is full of quotable incidents and insights into the visibly bungling authority that is the Cricket Board in Pakistan. From tales of small-minded board officials trying to manipulate players and captains, to stories of criminal negligence in developing the domestic circuit, to accusations of ticket sales fraud; the few pages paint a bleak picture of the what goes on under the control of the ‘cricket bureaucrats’.

He closes his critique of the board with the following sentence: “Quick and extensive surgery is required if we are not to become a second-rate cricket power.”

As the more astute of our cricketing audience will have noticed, we have become a second-rate cricket power. Far from the roaring team of the eighties, widely acknowledged to be one of the fiercest in the world, or even the nineties when an unpredictable but outstandingly talented Pakistan team could be relied on to give tough opposition to any side, today Pakistan fans go into matches with much dread and a little lingering hope.

But the events that are unfolding in Pakistan cricket these days have managed to outstrip even the great Khan’s apocalyptic predictions. Barely two months after the national captain and two strike bowlers were suspended by the ICC, and in the backdrop of their hearings, the young wicket-keeper has done a runner. Zulqarnain Haider disappeared form his hotel room two days after playing a small but crucial role in securing the fourth ODI for Pakistan against South Africa. On the morning of the fifth ODI, without warning, he was gone. He was later to resurface in the UK, claiming he ran out of fear for his life after receiving threats from bookmakers. He also said that his family (still in Pakistan) are also under threat.

Setting alternate scenarios and Haider’s possible ulterior motives aside for a moment, if the situation is to be taken at face value, the episode highlights what has been a lingering issue in Pakistan cricket. While rumours of a gambling mafia’s influencing games in Pakistan have plagued the team for decades now, the true extent and power of the perpetrators is little known. The lack of a whole-hearted effort from authorities to tackle this menace means its perpetrators have never actually been unmasked. It also means the machinery in place for carrying out this task have never been exposed neither has the dilemma facing players involved in the Pakistani cricketing structure.

The term ‘mafia’ seems to be aptly selected in light of the omerta observed by all those contacted concerning any investigation into the matter of match-fixing. The Qayyum report itself is reminiscent of Michael Corleone’s hearings in the second Godfather movie, with Ata-ur-Rehman doing several about turns in his allegations against Wasim Akram, news of several witnesses to present evidence who then reneged, and the commission distinctly noting the non-cooperation of those questioned and their reluctance to tell the truth.

Zulqarnain is, of course, not the first player to have been threatened. In fact, it now appears to be normal practice. The Qayyum report also contains the story of Saeed Anwar, who allegedly confessed to receiving instructions to underperform to Javed Burki and committed to relate the same story to the commission. He then returned to Burki to pull out of this commitment as his brother was being threatened. The entire episode was denied by Anwar in front of the committee, except for the part where his brother had been threatened. (The report doesn’t address any investigations into why his brother would be threatened if the incident reported was not true!)
Ata-ur-Rahman, among his u-turns, also claimed that he had been forced to retract his statement by coercion.
Geoff Lawson, the former Pakistan coach has also reportedly cited an example of strong-arm tactics being used to influence the team. He reportedly told of a selector whose daughter had been threatened. In his highly vocal criticism of Ijaz Butt, he has been defending the actions of the three players accused in England of Spot-fixing saying, "If it is the case that these young players are being affected, then there is something very bad with the environment in which Pakistan cricket is being played"
If the practice is as rampant as it appears to be, there is one aspect that the media (even the English media) seems to be consciously avoiding. That is the possibility of the complicity of the board in the practice of match-fixing. The Cricket Board’s inability to protect its players has been oft criticised, but is that where their crime ends? The question that needs to be raised more forcefully is what Yawar Saeed actually thought was going on when his players were openly cavorting around England with a man known to be linked with bookies and match-fixers. The News of the World report also noted the condescending, and abusive tone in which Mazhar Majeed spoke to several players, most prominently, Mohammad Aamir. This is a fact that definitely warrants more investigation into the exact nature of the relationship between bookies and the players.

Much of the suspicious behaviour of the Board points to its reluctance to delve very deep into the issue. The Qayyum Commission itself seems to be a bit of fiasco. Given its time constraints and lack of evidence, it closed with a vague conclusion that all was not above board in the cricket team. Fines and recommendations followed, but nothing concrete. Even these recommendations were ignored by the PCB.

The Cricket Board falling over itself to deny any impropriety in England was also highly suspicious. It seemed to completely rule out the possibility that the players may be guilty. Could this be due to a misplaced need to protect its players? If so, such notions seem to have vanished once the players’ hearings started. The board quickly abandoned their support for the players, cancelling their contracts.

If patterns of corruption are studied (and there is ample opportunity to do so in Pakistan), quite often regulatory bodies appointed to prevent illegal operations get involved with operations for kick-backs. It is not beyond the realms of imagination that the Pakistan Cricket Board is also upholding this time-honoured tradition. It would certainly explain Zulqarnain’s reluctance to go to them for help. It would also explain the reluctance of the Board to tackle the issue of match-fixing.

There comes a stage when incompetence reaches such levels that the integrity and intent of a body must be called into question. That stage has long been reached for the Pakistan Cricket Board.

It will be an obvious embarrassment to the country if external forces have to step in to sort out the structure and functioning of the Cricket Board. The rest of the cricketing world’s fast depleting patience with Ijaz Butt and the Pakistani Board may result in just that. Pakistan is already on the brink of being declared a pariah in the cricketing world, firstly due to the security situation and now with constant controversy. Ijaz Butt has been told in no uncertain terms that his antics will not be tolerated by the ICC for long. But will the Board get its act together and decide to finally take the issue seriously, or is Pakistan cricket doomed to a fate worse than ‘second-ratedness’.