On Matters That Matter

The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones

Posts Tagged ‘The Times

Doubts Punctuate The 1950 Milan Kundera Spy Case

leave a comment »

“Mirek rewrote history just like the Communist Party, like all political parties, like all peoples, like mankind. They shout that they want to shape a better future, but it’s not true. The future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.” The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

As if taking a cue from one of his characters a dark secret from the past threatens to crash on the opening chapter of Milan Kundera’s life. In October 2008, the Czech weekly Respekt published a story that claimed Kundera informed on one of his countrymen in 1950, leading to the man’s imprisonment for 14 years in a hard labour camp.

The basis of the assertion was an old police report that fell into the hands of Adam Hradilek, a historian researching the bleak days of Czechoslovakia’s Communist past. The police document reopened the story of Miroslav Dvoracek and that of his childhood friend Iva Militka. The report also brought the past of arguably the most brilliant literary surgeon of communism in Eastern Europe to the forefront. It is a widely reported and misreported story in which the jury is still out on the truth and doubt remains the only certainty.

The 1950 Police Report
The police report dated March 14, 1950 says: “Today at around 1600 hours a student, Milan Kundera, born 1.4.1929 in Brno, resident at the student hall of residence on George VI Avenue in Prague VII, presented himself at this department and reported that a student, Iva Militka, resident at that residence, had told a student by the name of Dlask, also of that residence, that she had met a certain acquaintance of hers, Miroslav Dvoracek, at Klarov in Prague the same day. The said Dvoracek apparently left one case in her care, saying he would come to fetch it in the afternoon… Dvoracek had apparently deserted from military service and since the spring of the previous year had possibly been in Germany, where he had gone illegally.”

The most important thing is the veracity of the police report and from what has come out the document is being considered as genuine (though there is speculation on whether its contents are genuine). Jerome Depuis of the French magazine L’Express travelled to Prague and cited the historian Rudolf Vedova from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR), the same institute Hradilek works for: “We had the document analysed by the Czech Secret Forces archive. The paper, the names listed, the identity and the signature of the officer were all examined—and the document was found to be authentic.”

Around the same time Jiri Grusa, a Czech poet and in 2008 the president of the international writers association PEN, told a German radio station that he went to Prague to see the police document for himself. Grusa said that he now has no doubts that “the document is real. There’s no denying it. Only it is not Milan Kundera’s document, it is no denunciation, it’s a police annunciation. And if Kundera says, I didn’t do it, then I have to believe him.”

The Background
In 1948 a putsch in Czechoslovakia led to a communist takeover. This resulted in the armed forces being purged and veteran airmen who had flown with the RAF in the war (about 40 per cent of Czech Air Force) were demoted, kicked out or sent to labour camps due to their exposure to the West. Even students were not spared. Two boyhood friends, Miroslav Dvoracek and Miroslav Juppa, who had attended the same school in a small town in Eastern Bohemia were included on a list of expulsions in a memorandum from January 1949. When they were ordered a month later to join an infantry unit, Dvoracek and Juppa, aided by Juppa’s girlfriend Iva Militka and her relatives fled to West Germany.

Click on the headline to read the full story.

The Prodigy Of Prodigies

with one comment

“During the summer of 1997 The Times Magazine published John Woodcock’s personal selection of the 100 greatest cricketers in the history of the game. This immediately sparked a wide-ranging debate in the cricket world but it was universally agreed that no one was better qualified to undertake so daunting and essentially controversial a task,” said the back of the book that was published in 1998. Woodcock had covered over four-hundred Test matches for The Times alone.

The innings was opened by W.G. Grace at number one and Donald Bradman at number two followed by Gary Sobers. For the batsman at number 25 Woodcock observed that he ‘has all the credentials to become one of the two or three greatest batsmen in the game’s history, as well as one of the most engaging’. “At Perth in Western Australia early in 1992 Sachin Tendulkar made a century for India against Australia on a lively pitch with a brilliance that no other batsman in the world could have surpassed. He was eighteen at that time—the prodigy of prodigies,” Woodcock wrote.

Then he spoke about an innings in 1997 at Cape Town describing Tendulkar as a veteran of twenty-three and his country’s captain. He played an innings of 169 against South Africa that began in a crisis and lasted for five and a half hours and was virtually flawless. But only time will tell for how long he is able to withstand the pressures of being India’s leading batsman, the relentless idolatry that goes with it, and the worry of wondering, when he is captain and India are on tour, where their next wicket is going to come from.

Time has only served to confirm that Tendulkar, even after 20 years on the road, still has the capability to produce a timeless gem. The few injury-marred Test seasons and the 2007 World Cup where he was, for reasons apparent to no one bar Greg Chappell, made to bat at number four rather than his favoured and successful position at the top of the order are among the major disappointments.

Ricky Ponting did not make the cut as he was a late bloomer but Shane Warne, Brian Lara, Barry Richards, Sunil Gavaskar and Graeme Pollock along with other legends all found a rightful mention.

On India’s 2009 tour of New Zealand, former Kiwi all-rounder Richard Hadlee called Sachin Tendulkar as the greatest batsman ever to grace the game. Hadlee, 57, who became the first official inductee to ICC’s Hall of Fame on the first day of the Wellington Test, said he was in awe of Tendulkar whose achievements down the years “clearly had been phenomenal”.

Hadlee said comparisons with Donald Bradman should also drive Tendulkar as a player. “Well, Sir Donald Bradman has been regarded as the greatest player ever,” Hadlee said. “He played just Test cricket. He hasn’t played any other forms of the game. Clearly, that is understandable. But to see Sachin and other players actually adjust to different forms of the game and different conditions all around the world, even though the average is fractionally more than half of the Don’s is in itself incredible. You got to respect it and write those performances.”

Mike Atherton, in a November 19, 2009 piece for The Times spoke about the advent of the helmet and how it helped modern players and wrote that “to suggest that Tendulkar — or, indeed, any modern, armoured or, to use Vivian Richards’s phrase, “pampered” player — is the best ever is demeaning to those former greats who stood at the crease in the knowledge that their next ball could be their last.” Fair enough; but just one factor and not the factor that decides the art of batsmanship in its totality; a heavily padded and protected Mike Atherton averaged 37.69 and I don’t buy the argument that his average would have dipped dramatically if he came out without a helmet or gone up had he dressed like an astronaut.

In all Bradman came to the crease in an international fixture a total of 80 times in one form of the game and scored 29 centuries with a phenomenal average of 99.96. “Though his batting was not classically beautiful, it was always awesome. As Neville Cardus put it, he was a devastating rarity: ‘A genius with an eye for business,’” Matthew Engel is quoted in Bradman’s Cricinfo profile page.

There is a lot more to cricket than just the helmet and those are also factors that need to be considered if any comparison has merit in the first place. The Don played his 52 Test matches against four opponents in nine grounds—five grounds in England and four in Australia. Thirty-seven of those 52 matches were played against England and 15 against the other three oppositions namely South Africa, West Indies and India all in his home conditions. Sachin Tendulkar played on 32 different Test match surfaces before he first played a Test match at a surface where he had played a Test before—the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.

Sachin Tendulkar has played on close to 60 different Test match surfaces and the limited overs game has taken him to even more parts of the cricket-playing world. He may have come out to bat on 80 occasions in just about two or three seasons in the 1990s. From 1989 to 2000, Sachin Tendulkar played 79 Test matches and scored 6416 runs at an average of 57.28 with 24 hundreds. Ponting was a late bloomer; his 2001 tour to India was a very dismal one and his resurrection as a batsman began after it. In that tour Ponting scored 0; 6, 0; 0, 11 in five innings of three Tests. After that disastrous 2001 tour for Ponting his average in 42 Tests was a decent-but-average 42.96 with seven hundreds to his name while Tendulkar had 25.

The comparisons of Tendulkar and Ponting began only in the years after 2002 and 2003 and then in the injury-marred period of Tendulkar; where he largely-remained stationary while Ponting had more than a few out-of-the-world seasons. In November 2002 Tendulkar was 19 hundreds clear of Ponting and in the period that followed and established Ponting as a modern great he made 21 hundreds as opposed to Tendulkar’s four and the gap was narrowed down to two hundreds.

The gap stands at six today with Tendulkar at 45 hundreds and Ponting with 39; there is no comparison in the ODIs where Tendulkar leads with 45 hundreds and 93 scores of 50 plus with a batting average of 44.71 and a strike rate of 85.90 and Ponting has 28 hundreds and 74 scores of 50 plus with a batting average of 42.88 and a strike rate of 80.28.

In terms of adaptability, Sachin Tendulkar as an 18-year-old on his first tour to Australia made two hundreds; a 148 not out in Sydney and the much talked about and unrepeatable 114 at the WACA in Perth. In subsequent tours Tendulkar has made four more hundreds in Australia to go with five scores of fifty plus; he averages 58.53 in Australia. He has never come back without a hundred from a Test tour and Brisbane is the only Australian ground among the ones he has played Test cricket on where he does not have a hundred. In 2003 he got a shocker from Steve Bucknor at Brisbane; and then despite being in decent nick that tour was a disappointment for the Little Master until he reached Sydney and accumulated runs with the ascetic discipline of a monk rather than the flourish of a genius; an unbeaten 241 and then a 60 not out salvaged his tour.

Ponting, on the other hand, has had a miserable time in India and he got his first and only hundred in 2008; twelve years after his first tour in 1996. His average in India is a poor 20.85 and he has two fifties to go along with his only hundred. The home and away average of Ponting is 60.08 and 49.23 respectively but for Tendulkar it has been ‘equally-comfortable’ playing home or away with averages of 55.28 and 55.44 respectively. Clearly the Little Master is at home in all conditions.

Is The Tiger Lost In The Woods?

with one comment

As children my brother and I used to think, like I presume some other children also perhaps thought, whether celluloid heroes like Amitabh Bachchan and sporting ones like Sunil Gavaskar also had to answer nature’s call. For a brief period—at an age that I can’t pinpoint but can indicate by saying that it was characterised by an overwhelming feeling in which everything seemed larger than life—we found it difficult to place our heroes atop a commode. And precisely because our minds were in conflict we occasionally did wonder about what to us was then a profane thought. Nothing remarkable happened when the idea just dropped out of our consciousness; there was no ceremony and there is no memory of it and the only fact is that we grew out of that brief period as naturally and as simply as one season melts into another.

This unsanitary beginning is to make a point that childhood curiosity is one thing and a deep-seated interest in the life of others quite another; it would be a lie to say that I don’t have any interest in the lives of others but I will emphasize that with every passing year an interest in my own life has grown gradually while the interest in the lives of others has declined. And I think that is what happens with most people; my mistakes, just like those of most other people, can be traced back to me. The margin I am keeping here is for a small minority of good boys, who are capable of committing heinous acts and also ensuring that the trail never leads to them.

With that said allow me to start this post about the paparazzi culture and the Tiger Woods life uncovering mission which has become the latest obsession in the world. Is the Tiger Woods scandal a really big story with everything remarkable about it? Truth, by the way, is no defense in defamation cases and the saviour of a reporter and a publication is fair comment (public interest). I got to learn about the fact that it had become a big scandal only via a blog called Medium Term on December 1; and my comment to it suggested that I had reacted only to the last line and not the point of the whole post. Then I read a December 8 update to the blog and the various gormless comments on both the posts; including my own.

Tiger Woods is a genuine great on the golf course and he may not be an ideal husband but is there any shortage of less-than-ideal husbands that Tiger deserves to sit on top of that heap as well. This is typical Daily Mail journalism for you; just go to their website any day and you’ve got to give them credit that they do not lose a single opportunity to have two perfect images that would tell you how an X celebrity has lost or gained a stone since she was last spotted in public. Any female celebrity that walks out without wearing a bra underneath would be up on their website with her cup size and her success at keeping gravity at bay spelt out for the reader.

There is no doubt that the public is interested but I have serious doubts on whether it is in public interest. It is in the interest of our gusto for the lurid that justifies such excavation. There is no moral high ground to claim but I would prefer some erotic literature over what to me is boring tabloid crap any day. How about a paper that unveils the life of tabloid scribes; would that be any less interesting?

I have learnt from friends, who have more than a passing interest in the range, that golf is a sport that mirrors life very closely. I know the rules but only those who play can tell you that it is a simple game if you can keep it simple and can get as entangled as life if you start messing with it. Mark McCormack—the man who founded the first sports management company with just under $500 in capital and thereby gave birth to a multi-billion dollar industry—loved the game of golf and wrote in his bestseller What They Don’t Teach You At The Harvard Business School: “I have often said that I can tell more about how someone is likely to react in a business situation from one round of golf than I can from a hundred hours of meetings. Maybe golf cuts more directly to the psyche than other games and situations. Or maybe it is the venue itself—green grass and rolling hills. It’s astonishing how so simple a game can reveal so much.” Tiger Woods pulling out of golf is already being seen as a threat to the sport that is struggling amid the recession and one newspaper reported that the Tiger Woods brand alone is 50 per cent of the sport.

In a statement published on his Website Tiger Woods said he was profoundly sorry and asked for forgiveness. Golfer John Daly said, “I’m in shock over it all, a lot of our players are in shock. I’m not happy with the way some of our players have responded—that’s their way of getting back because they know they can’t beat him at golf…”

Heinrich Böll, one of Germany’s leading post World War-II writers and the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, wrote ‘a marvel of compression and irony’, The Lost Honour Of Katharina Blum, that was translated into English a year after its publication in 1974.

The back of the book cover reveals the plot: “Katharina Blum is pretty, bright, hard-working and at the centre of a big city scandal when, at a carnival party, she falls in love with a young radical on the run from the police. Portrayed by the city’s leading newspaper as a whore, a communist and an atheist, she becomes the target of anonymous phone calls and sexual threats. Her life is ruined by the distortions of a corrupt press; she shoots the offending journalist and gives herself up for arrest.

Step by step, and with an affecting forensic clarity, Katharina’s story is reconstructed for the reader, gradually disclosing an entire panorama of human relationship and motive. The novel is a masterful comment on the law and the press, the labyrinth of social truth and the relentless collusion of fact and fiction.”

The Times said, “Böll sustains a masterly and insidious tension to the end. He is detached, angry and totally in control.” Heinrich Böll served for several years as president of International P.E.N. and was a leading defender of the intellectual freedom of writers throughout the world. He died in 1985.

The plot is revealed because it is not the plot but the narration that makes the book great. On one side is Werner Tötges, the journalist behind all the falsification and on the other is Böll’s narrator, whose profession remains unmentioned, but he consistently separates facts from assumptions. The Sunday Times said: “Such is the force of Böll’s conviction, the clarity of his vision and the icy economy of his unemotive prose that within this short space he has distilled a spirit that burns into the palate the unmistakable and lasting tang of truth.”

The thickness of the book is inversely proportional to its impact—just about 140 pages. It is the social milieu of late 1960s and early 70s that the book attacks indirectly; especially the Alex Springer-owned Springer Press that controlled almost half of the newspaper circulation in West Germany.

“Art is always a good hiding-place, not for dynamite, but for intellectual explosives and social time bombs. Why would there otherwise have been the various Indices? And precisely in their despised and often even despicable beauty and lack of transparency lies the best hiding-place for the barb that brings about the sudden jerk or the sudden recognition.” (Heinrich Böll from Nobel Lecture, 1973)

%d bloggers like this: