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Passing through

True Colors

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How do cricketers who fly frequently deal with passenger flatulence, why aren’t the Kolkata Knight Riders ever ashamed of themselves, what do stars do in South Africa when they are not playing, why are Indian cheerleaders not so hot

IN A TIME magazine tribute to Orville and Wilbur Wright, Bill Gates tells us that the brothers not only invented the flying machine, but also the technologies required for all the parts of a plane. There was inadequate information, so the brothers created their own wind tunnel to test air foils and calculate how to lift a machine into the sky. It was they who realised that the wings had to be long and narrow. These are a few of the things they thought of and carried out in the small North Carolina town of Kitty Hawk. Flying changed the way we live, shattering the myth that you need space to have sex.

But the problem of passenger flatulence escaped the attention of Orville and Wilbur Wright, even if they did make wind tunnels. Till date, there is no remedy. I had to talk about the problem to Rahul Dravid, a man who flies often. How does he deal with it?

The Bangalore Royal Challengers are back in the hunt at IPL. But when I meet Dravid in the lobby of the team hotel in Durban, the team is struggling. He forever looks like a boy worrying about the next day’s maths paper. This morning, as he emerges from the elevator in the vermilion outfit of his team, he looks more so.

Not only do Bangalore have a crucial match to play against the Kings XI Punjab, Dravid is to fly back to Bangalore to be with his wife for the birth of his second son.

It is not the most auspicious time to broach the subject of flatulence. Besides, Dravid is reading “Nandan’s book”. People who read Nandan Nilekani and call him ‘Nandan’ tend to find such questions frivolous, to use the favourite word of the anti-fun brigade. I ask him nevertheless, “What is scarier, Rahul, air pockets or co-passenger gas?” Rahul is stunned. He looks down, scratches his head, wondering whether to be annoyed or amused. “Silly question man,” he says. “It’s what… a fun magazine?”

“Just a fun question.”

“Air pockets,” he says, getting it out of the way. Flying and travelling are part of the IPL, or any major sports event. Cricketers are as well-versed with negotiating aisles as well as the pitches. They clock more miles than runs. They strap on the seat belt as often as their pads. Even as our intrepid cricketers shine with bat and ball, the impact of the Wright brothers is felt everyday as yet another team takes to the sky. Some like this life, some don’t. Dravid is known to enjoy at least some aspects of it.

“Flights save you time, that’s what I like about them,” he says. “I don’t dislike anything. Waiting in airport lounges can be tough, though. If you have played a game and have a flight to catch soon, it can be tough from a recovery point of view. But I have learnt to cope with it. I read and I have my iPod.”

The iPod of Rahul Dravid is a machine of varied tastes. It sings and talks to its master in different languages. “I’m reading Nandan’s book right now. I’m listening to a lot of stuff. My iPod’s full. I rotate between Hindi music, English music and audio books,” he says.

Dravid flew for the first time when he was ten or eleven. It was from Bangalore to Bombay. It was an experience. “Just dropping off my father at the airport would be a big thing for my brother and I. There was only Indian Airlines those days,” he says. “That first flight was great fun. Had no idea I would end up doing so many.”

He has yet to take one to China. The Wall hasn’t been to the Wall. He likes to see wildlife. He is not good with exchange rates. “I rely on the hotel for that,” he says.

Bangalore lose the game, Dravid dropping a catch and kicking the turf. But he returns to Bangalore and finds good news. Samit, Dravid’s first boy, now has a younger brother. In South Africa, the glad tidings rub off on the team, who exact revenge on Punjab in their next encounter at Kingsmead.

Yuvraj Singh, the Punjab captain, is hurting. You can see it. He is also upset because as yet, it’s only him to address the press conference. Tom Moody, the coach, is missing. When Moody enters the room a few minutes later, a sarcastic Yuvraj says, “You can come when we’ve lost the game.” These are his exact words. He means don’t just address press conferences after victories. It proves that in cricket, the captain is the boss. Even more so in Indian cricket, where no coach, especially a foreigner like Moody, can be bigger than a star like Yuvraj.

At the start of the IPL, the Kolkata Knight Riders, like the Wright Brothers’ invention, preferred to inhabit the air rather than the earth. The first flight of the Flyer, the craft the young Orville and Wilbur built in their bicycle shop in Kitty Hawk, lasted 12 seconds. The Knight Riders do only slightly better. Incongruously, they hold a press conference in a cineplex at the Suncoast Casino & Entertainment World in Durban. Despite their humiliation in the matches, they remain flamboyant.

A long table is draped in velvety black and gold, the colours of the team. Speakers blare the predictably hammy team song. When the singer declares “Aamhi [I am] Kolkata, we rule!” you cringe. John Buchanan defends everything, the number of support staff, his tactics. His fingers are long enough to be asparaguses. Sunil Gavaskar and Sourav Ganguly would perhaps love to chomp them off. Ganguly sits near the left end of the table, legs stretched out, hands folded across the chest, eyes on his Puma shoes.

I ask him if he would have done things differently had he been captain. “I don’t think I can answer this question,” he says. Murali Kartik sits stiffly, looking straight ahead. He has strained his neck while lifting weights and now cannot turn it. It is a good time to pick his pocket. Later, Buchanan eats popcorn and obliges burkha-clad women who want a photo.

Chris Gayle reveals a startling and genuine laugh, cackling away between answers in an interview. He is the one member in the team who seems happy and unconcerned in a good way. God bless the Caribbean spirit.

Durban has streets with steep slopes like in San Francisco, lined with trees bursting with healthy dark green leaves. On a sunny day these stand out against a striking blue sky. The ocean can be different shades of blue, grey or green. At times the sky is overcast but a part near the horizon is clear, and you see the sun’s rays slanting down from the clouds on to the sea.

But the city is like an attractive girl with halitosis. You look twice before opening your taxi door and stepping on to the road. In the foyer, you can feel the glances on your wristwatch. The hotel management leaves you a written instruction to check with the reception desk if someone claiming to be a hotel employee knocks at your door. In such a place, Suncoast World becomes a popular escape for IPL visitors, including players and selectors. It is near, and it is safe. Besides, it has something that Indian travellers—adventurers that they are—look for the moment they land in a foreign country: an Indian restaurant. Or something resembling one.

Dhoni comes here with some Chennai Super Kings teammates. Muralitharan takes a takeaway to his room. Both tip well, says a waiter named Eugene who speaks Hindi and does not look like Eugene the WWE star. Narendra Hirwani, former leg-spinner and now national selector who endured a diet of bread on the New Zealand tour, looks content as he settles into a chair, blissfully aware that he can rip into as many rotis as he wants here and possibly even order a giant roti under which to sleep like a baby.

Joginder Sharma, resembling the former Italian football striker Toto Schillaci, sits at a table with a friend. But there is a ticking time bomb in the restaurant—table mats with a photograph of Gandhi and on it the legend ‘Nagiah’s: Quality Mutton Butchers’.

Foreign players saunter around the food court, looking for their kind of meal. The Havana Grill and Wine Bar draws Matthew Hayden on consecutive nights. Andrew Flintoff has seafood at the Cape Town Fish Market, a restaurant. He looks worried for some reason. The next day, he injures his right knee and is out of the IPL. The prized catch of Chennai Super Kings, netted for $1.55 million at Goa, proves to be a disappointment.

One-fifth of Durban’s population is Asian, mostly Indian. At Kingsmead, the black girl manning the entrance to your enclosure says to you every morning, “Namaste, tumhi kaise ho? [Hello, how are you?]” The young doorman at the player interview room has learnt drawing “the thing that looks like a ‘3’” when in school. He means ‘Om’. But when it comes to cheerleaders, it is speculated, Indian girls are not popular.

Rowena Barry-Taylor, a reader of the The Mercury newspaper, is furious about this. In a letter to the paper, she says that she enjoys the IPL games but gets ‘irritated’ with the ‘so-called cute little dolly birds’ that are cheerleaders. ‘They have no grace or elegance and appear cheap, common and very tacky,’ Ms Barry-Taylor writes. ‘Please bring on those lovely Indian ladies in their colourful saris (sic). They are a delight to watch—refined and elegant.’

Even as Twenty20 is on, ‘Twenty Ten’ dominates the thoughts of South African fans. Twenty Ten is next year’s football World Cup. South Africa is the eager host. Durban is building a stunning new stadium for the tournament. It will host eight matches, including a quarterfinal and a semi-final. It is so large that the adjacent ABSA Rugby Stadium, despite its imposing terraces, looks tiny in comparison. A taxi driver says that the arena is named after two people, one Moses, the other Madiba, which Nelson Mandela is affectionately known as. A visit to the site informs you that the name of the stadium is Moses Mabhida, not Madiba. “Moses Mabhida was a South African footballer of the past,” another taxi driver tells you casually. He is slightly off the mark. Mabhida is a former general secretary of the South African Communist Party.