Eight minutes into Episode 1 of the documentary series on Netflix, titled “Losers”, and directed by Michael Duzyj, former WBO Heavyweight champion Michael Bentt, makes the shape of a pistol using his index and middle fingers before shoving them into his mouth. There is a pregnant pause for a few seconds before Bentt removes his fingers. Whatever relief the viewer experiences turns out to be premature as Bentt mimics the suicide act once again. Silence. Gun in mouth. Goosebumps. Fear. Bone chilling tension. Bentt finally reverts to his original repose with both hands calmly resting by his sides.
Michael Bentt’s destiny was cast by a man who was more a brute than a benevolent individual. That barbarian unfortunately also happened to be his father. Born to Jamaican parents, Bentt narrates in the documentary about the earliest memory he had as a child – sitting squeezed between his parents and watching two people box one another. A massive Muhammad Ali fan, Bentt Sr, was given to just two primal forms of expression – raw rage and stony silence. He also nursed a frenzied ambition for his son to be the next Ali. Michael Bentt had no choice but to box. The barbarian even plucked out the antennae from the TV and walloped young Bentt with it when the boy confessed his distaste for the sport. In an essay titled, “Of Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice”, American best-selling author, Joan Didion writes, “…whenever I hear parents talking about their children’s chances. What makes me uneasy is the sense that they are merging their children’s chances with their own, demanding of a child that he make good not only for himself, but for the greater glory of his father and mother.”
Michael Bentt narrates in a matter-of-fact manner how he went onto win the New York City Golden Gloves Championship 4 times and the National Championship 5 times. “The reason why I turned pro was to get under my father’s roof” admits Bentt. But his pro debut turns out to be an absolute horror show. A first round knockout at the hands of Jerry Jones and the earth gives way under Bentt’s legs. “My father who was present, went ballistic. ‘How my fucking son lose the fucking fight?’” This humiliation almost became too much to take for Bentt and he even contemplated suicide in his brother’s apartment. Hence the mimicking of the suicide act as set out in the preceding paragraphs.
A chance call from Evander Holyfield results in Bentt becoming his sparring partner. George Benton, the legendary trainer spots a mercurial talent in Bentt and thus begins Chapter II in the reserved boxer’s reticent dream. A string of victories, and the next thing Bentt knows is that he is up against the ferocious Tommy Morrison for the WBO Championships. Against all odds, the underdog knocks out the reigning champion, and Michael Bentt arguably becomes the world’s most hesitant boxing champion. “I never wanted to be a professional in the first place.” Whatever joy Bentt may have nursed in bagging the title is short lived as his very first title defense turns out to be an unmitigated disaster. A lesser known boxer Herbie Hide demolishes a haggard, and zombified Bentt, knocking the stuffing out of him. Hide, involuntarily, also did a bit more than just knock Bentt out. The blow to his head lead to a swelling in the brain to reduce which Bentt is forced into an induced coma. Bentt remains in that state for four full days. “My father was living in Florida then. And I heard that he said, after he watched the fight… ‘yeah, let the bloodclaat boy dead’. That’s Jamaican patois for him saying, ‘let the fucking guy die.’” Bentt’s professional boxing career thus comes to a careening halt. But when the neurosurgeon pronounces his career done, a sense of relief engulfs Bentt. It is a new beginning to a new phase in life.
Always nursing a penchant for writing, Bentt decides to give wings to his passion. After enrolling himself in writing classes, Bentt meets legendary sportswriter Bert Sugar at an HBO event. Sugar asks him to pen a piece for his magazine. The result – “Anatomy of a Knockout – How it feels to be KO’d”. This piece leads to a casting when writer/Director Ron Shelton, homes in on Bentt to play the role of Sonny Liston in his film on Ali.
As the documentary effervescently reveals, Bentt is leading a contended life training entertainers and actors in preparing them for their roles. Working with stars such as Mickey Rourke, Bentt is the proud recipient of respect, trust, care and affection, valuable gifts which his father never even bothered showering on his vulnerable son. The A-list of celebrities looking for Bentt’s expertise and advise are legion. From Clint Eastwood, to Michael Mann, and everyone in between the list seems to be bottomless. “Getting knocked out by Herbie Hunt was the best thing that ever happened to me” says Bentt as the episode slowly winds down. “It was painful. But if I had not gotten knocked out by Herbie Hide, I would still be playing the role, the “role” of the boxer guy wearing that mask. Quoting Miles Davis, Bentt signs off in style, “sometimes it takes a long time to learn how to play like yourself.” “I am always chasing, like, you know, “Who am I?”. “And that’s Ok.”
Ron Shelton however has the last word. “I think we get it wrong a lot, especially in this country. It’s all about winning. People who are considered “winners”, are, in. my mind, some of the greatest losers of all time, and people who are called “losers”, are to me some of the great winners of all time.”
Thus, it should come as no surprise whatsoever that the title of this episode is “The Miscast Champion.”
“Radical Humility” edited by artist and writer, Rebekah Modrak and Jamie Vander Broek, art librarian at the University of Michigan, is a “feel good” assemblage of essays penned by an eclectic agglomeration of authors. One common theme unifying these contributions is the notion of humility. Thus we have, among others, philosophers evoking the Socratic principle of humility in acknowledging the gaps in our knowledge, scholars extolling as “making failure”, the unfortunate efforts in 3D printing endeavours, and film makers reminding their viewers about the contributions made by “losers”, which at times even tower over the virtues of winners. Unlike the run of the mill self help books that specialise in flogging dead horses, yet professing the discovery of an earth shattering piece of wisdom or principle, “Radical Humility” leaves it all to the reader, preferring to just inform her on the advantages of being humble, by taking recourse to real life examples.
The book kicks off with an inspirational essay titled “Free yourself by choosing the plain crackers“ by Rebekah Modrak. Fleeing a stifling university culture in Ann Arbor, Modrak spends five weeks in the nondescript town of Aurora in Nebraska. Antithetical to the ubiquity of materialism, Aurora seems to be an exercise in minimalism. While the buzzword in the Ann Arbor was “visibility”, Aurora seems to revel in the concept of “anonymity.” Armed with a University Grant, Modrak embarks on a 5 week residency on a farm, as a part of which she conducts a series of interviews with the townsfolk. Carpenters, custodians, construction workers, senators and mayors alike patiently set out their views and silently glide out of the room with no care or concern for titles or epithets. Leading a life of absolute frugality, the people of Aurora value one tenet of human nature over all else, humility.
In a profoundly moving piece, Richard C. Boothman, former trial lawyer and current Chief Risk Officer for the University of Michigan Health System, explains the importance of and pre-requisite for humility in the healthcare system on the part of both care givers and patients. Highlighting two tragic cases, Boothman underscores the invaluable power and potential of humility to not just forgive, but to heal as well. Lamenting the “deny and defend” culture that has permeated the world of medical care, Boothman bemoans the fact that healthcare has constructed a fortress with its own waiting rooms, its own language and an inimitable social system that encourages usage of buzz words such as “patient engagement.” Ushering in a radical change, Boothman and the University of Michigan decided to bare their hearts and souls to the patients and admit to inadvertent human errors that had calamitous consequences to not just the patients, but their families as well. This astonishingly benevolent decision however created immense backlash, as Boothman informs his reader. While the President of the American Medical Association lampooned Boothman’s actions as “reckless”, a group of famous scholars called the approach, “an improbable risk management strategy.” Monumental testimony to the altruistic strides which healthcare yet has to take.
Lynette Clemetson, Director of Wallace House, University of Michigan, in her essay, “Journalism in an era of likes, follows, and shares” underscores the need for unobtrusiveness in a reporter that would lend an element of humility and dignity to his/her work. Drawing inspiration from legends in the business such as Steven Strasser, David Fahrenthold, Gwen Ifil, Michele Norris, Robin Toner and Michel Martin, Clemetson emphasizes the need to be humble and yet hold on to what one values in an uncompromising manner. “Don’t get in the way of your story”, “Hold onto what you value”, and “check the small details” are her key takeaways.
In a shot, albeit powerful contribution, Mickey Duzyj, the creator of the Netflix documentary series, ‘Losers’, highlights the precocious contributions that are made by athletes who in their own sporting career suffered meltdowns at various stages that ensured that success forever eluded them. French golfer Jean Van De Velde, made a capital meal of his chances at the 1999 Open, thereby covering himself in perpetual infamy. However, banishing this bitter memory away, he championed a more noble cause, and in the process raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for impoverished children in the capacity of a UNICEF Ambassador. Similarly, Surya Bonaly, a black figure skater became an outcast following her tantrums after finishing second in the 1994 World Championships. Now a paragon of humility, Bonaly dons the mantle of a mentor by taking charge of young athletes of colour. She always warns her students that an “obsession towards medals can destroy them.”
“Radical Humiliation” is a modest, unpretentious and honest collection of simple thoughts all of which converge towards one overarching principle. Inculcating and implementing the quality of humility. As Russell Belk, the Kraft Foods Canada Chair in Marketing, and York University Distinguished Research Professor, says in his essay, “humility is largely voluntary; humiliation is largely involuntary. Humility is a choice made with dignity. Humiliation is imposed from without as a result of callousness and prejudice.”
(Radical Humility will be released by Belt Publishing on the 16th of March, 2021)
Juxtaposing wicked wit with admirable irreverence, “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” – representing twelve previously uncollected essays – is Joan Didion at her inimitable best. The oldest and the most recent essay contained within the book are separated by more than three decades, and yet in terms of candor and vigour alike, they are no different whatsoever. Holding forth with resounding clarity on themes ranging from the quality of newspapers to a personal letter of rejection received by Didion after she had applied to Stanford University, Didion is an absolute feast for the reader.
The first essay in the book bemoans the absence of a connect between newspapers and their consumers. “The only American newspapers that do not leave me in the grip of a profound physical conviction that the oxygen has been cut off from my brain tissue, very probably by an Associated Press wire, are The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Free Press, the Los Angeles Open City, and the East Village Other”, writes Didion. While papers such as the East Village Other might even be ambivalent and unperturbed about the actual facts that they carry, they uncompromisingly converse with their readers. These ordinary papers shun pretentiousness and condescension in favour of a startling simplicity that accords to them a certain endearment, from Didion’s perspective.
Another brilliant essay, and my personal favourite, is the one titled “Why I Write.” Didion makes no qualms about having palmed off the title from an earlier piece written by George Orwell. Way back in 1975, at Berkeley University, Didion gave a rousing lecture under the same title. Rending asunder all ossified and cliched notions espoused by the intellectual and armchair critic alike, on what makes a writer put pen to paper, Didion comes up with a fascinatingly refreshing take on the overarching motivations that spur the practice of writing. “In many ways, writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act”, asserts Didion. In an essay on Hemingway, Didion weaves a paradoxical theme on the craft of writing, a craft that is at once inseparable and yet detached from the writer. “The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence, dictated, or was dictated, by a certain way of looking at the world, way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism distinctly adapted to its time and source.”
The quality of profound detachment manifests itself in another essay titled “My Trip to Xanadu”, where Didion reminisces over William Randolph Hearst’s gargantuan Xanadu estate in San Simeon. Paying a visit to the palatial premises, long after the same was made over to the Government by Hearst’s offspring, with her small niece in tow, Didion is disappointed to see the metaphorical reductionism that has befallen the once awe-inspiring estate. While vestiges of splendour still remain intact, the very essence that lent a surreal mystique to the place and embellished the myths associated with it are consigned to the fickle and fading memories of history. The San Simeon that her astonished eyes viewed from the open windows of her parents’ car, and the aura emanating from its imperial presence is now only an extolled imagination. As Didion wistfully concludes, “make a place available to the eyes, and in certain ways it is no longer available to the imagination.”
An exquisitely satirical essay exenterates Nancy Reagan (this was the time when her husband was the Governor of California), by recounting the elaborately artificial preparations for a scripted photoshoot. If Phillip Roth has his Everyman, Joan Didion undoubtedly IS the Everywoman. The essay on Martha Stewart drives home this fact with a lucidity that is so eviscerating that it makes the reader to literally gasp. “The dreams and the fears into which Martha Stewart taps are not of ‘feminine’ domesticity but of female power, of the woman who sits down at the table with the men and, still in her apron, walks away with the chips,” articulates Didion.
Every parent ought to read the essay titled “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice.” In an era where education symbolizes more badges of honour than an infusion of character, and where – as Michael Sandel illustrates in his brilliant book, “The Tyranny of Merit” – entry into an elitist Ivy League Institution becomes the very end, rather than a mean, Didion’s prescient essay comes across as a much needed panacea. Unable to accept a rejection letter issued by Stanford, Didion contemplates suicide while sitting on the edge of her bathtub with an old bottle of codeine-and-Empirin ready for consumption. Sanity prevails in the end as she brushes away the ominous thought. Upon hearing the news that her daughter’s application to Stanford was rejected, Didion’s father just shrugs and offers her a drink. “I think about that shrug with a great deal of appreciation whenever I hear parents talking about their children’s “chances””, muses Didion. Incidentally in a piece featured on the 7th of July 2014, the “Intelligencer” magazine, informed its dumbfounded readers about a test conducted for 4 year olds by schools in New York City. The “assessment” that was administered digitally (on iPads), and going by the innocuously deceptive and turgid name of Admission Assessment for Beginning Learners(“AABL”), targeted “overachievers” whose parents were particular on their kids attending either Horace Mann or the Riverdale Country School. Defending such assessments by taking recourse to arcane and boiler plate language, Horace Mann argued that such measures were required to ensure that every applicant “for Kindergarten and First Grade at Horace Mann School has completed a standardized measure of reasoning and achievement that is psychometrically valid.” Kindergarten for heaven’s sake!
“Let Me Tell You What I Mean” is worth reading for its magnificent foreword alone. Hilton Als is in his elements as he writes a measured but munificent panegyric on the craft of Joan Didion. Kaleidoscopic in its sweep, and candid in its wake, the introduction by Hilton Als gives the reader the secure belief that Joan Didion is neither for the past nor for contemporary, but for posterity. I am not sure whether the marvelous lady herself would accord her wholehearted consent for such a notion, but I can surely perceive a wicked glint in her eye, upon such a fact being conveyed to her, that signifies a piece beginning to find its contours in her extraordinary imagination.
A cross between a memoir and a campaign manifesto, “Joe Biden” by Evan Osnos is an engaging book of interlude. An interlude that spans more than three decades and separates two presidential bids, extreme in both their outcome and impact. At the time of going to the press, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr was yet to take oath as the 46th President of the United States of America. He had however been anointed as the undisputed Democratic nominee for the race to restrict Donald Trump to just one term. Biden’s emergence as the frontrunner raised more than a few rankled eyebrows. For a young and restless generation that was beginning to tire of the gerontocracy that had permeated the political decision making apparatus, the choice of a man who, if elected would be the oldest man to assume the mantle of the President in the illustrious history of the world’s oldest democracy, would be a slap on their collective faces. However, as Osnos demonstrates in his book, there are more facets to the man than has been ordinarily and otherwise understood, or rather misunderstood.
As Osnos sets out in this stirring portrait of his protagonist, adversity seems to be Biden’s handmaiden. The tragedies that have befell the man make the phrase a litany of woes seem downright mild. Yet he has shown a resilience that is not just remarkable, but preternatural almost, to get his way. As Osnos writes, “Biden’s friend Ted Kaufman told me, “If you ask me who’s the unluckiest person I know personally, who’s had just terrible things happen to him, I’d say Joe Biden. If you asked me who is the luckiest person I know personally, who’s had things happen to him that are just absolutely incredible, I’d say Joe Biden.””
The books starts on a sombre note with Joe Biden collapsing in a hotel room in 1988. Investigations reveal brain aneurism, recovery from which takes seven agonizing months. For many, such a near death experience would have been sufficient for life, to be rendered listless or at least pessimistic. But disaster was not done yet with Biden. He lost his wife and infant daughter, courtesy a horrendous car crash in 1972. His lawyer son Beau Biden with whom he shared a very close bond, was felled by brain tumour in 2015, when he was only 46. How Biden manages to put indescribable personal grief away and yet attend to his professional duties and political aspirations makes for the bulk of Osnos’ book.
Even Biden’s political career has had more embarrassing misses – arguably – than memorable hits. A predominant degree of the former, purely due to his own making. Never known for exercising reserve in his speech, Biden has had some spectacular blow ups. To quote Osnos, ‘Even in Washington, the windbag Mecca, he distinguished himself. When Obama, newly arrived in the Senate in 2005, heard Biden hold forth in a meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee, he passed an aide a three-word note: “Shoot. Me. Now.” ‘ At times, exhibitions of uncontrolled exuberance have also landed Biden in a spot. When emotions were running high and nerves were frayed over implementation of the Affordable Care Act, in 2014, Biden while chatting reporters in Scottsdale, Arizona. spotted a young woman on a bench and strode over to obtain her enlistment for the Act, extolling the features of the same to her. “Do it for your parents! Give them peace of mind!” Biden pleaded. As Osnos hilariously writes, “she nodded gamely, but, after he had moved on, she conceded that she couldn’t sign up because she was a tourist visiting from Canada. (“I just didn’t know if I should say.”).
Biden has himself acknowledged that reticence is not his greatest virtue. He has also worked on inculcating a bit of it too. As Osnos illustrates by way of an example, Biden once held forth in the Senate on a topic regarding oil wells. An opponent duly called him out. “Senator Biden, have you ever seen a stripper well?” Determined not to get caught on the wrong foot again, he started preparing before every talk with a vengeance. He even went to the extent of writing to Hannah Arendt, the political theorist who explored the roots of authoritarianism, once, having been piqued by a paper she read out at the Boston Bicentennial Forum. But he was still a long way away from being the suave, sophisticated and serene speakers such as an Obama or a Clinton. He was also nursing what had almost become a perennial insecurity, in the form of having worked hard to overcome a stutter. He was not comfortable with a teleprompter. He got into the habit of reeling out quotes without attributing them to their rightful originator/s. During his failed Presidential campaign, he quoted British politician Neil Kinnock, but making the quote, on rising from humble origins, sound as if it was his own story. “Around Capitol Hill, people joked, “The Kennedys quoted the Greeks; Biden quoted the Kennedys.” He was getting a reputation as a pompous blowhard, and congressional staffers circulated a spoof résumé with Biden’s picture and accomplishments, including “inventor of polyurethane and the weedeater” and “Member, Rockettes”
But in spite of all the mishaps and misfortunes, Biden punched above his weight in the role of Vice-President to Obama. Occupying a position that has been more derided than deified, Biden elevated it to the status of topical relevance. In fact, Osnos states that Biden was to Obama what Walter Mondale was to Jimmy Carter. John Adams had once proclaimed that the Vice President’s job was “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” Biden used the full spectrum of his experience in dealing with foreign leaders and Obama reaped the full benefits of such an association. Even within the United States, Biden had accumulated the support of formidable allies. ‘His alliances were so varied that he was the only senator who was asked to speak at funerals for Strom Thurmond, the former segregationist, John McCain, the Arizona Republican, and Frank Lautenberg, the Democratic senator from New Jersey, who called Biden “the only Catholic Jew.”’
Even during his presidential bid, Biden’s reputation was attempted to be tarnished by his opponents who used his son Hunter Biden’s business proclivities and an addiction to drugs as weapons to beat Biden with. Hunter’s association with Burisma, one of Ukraine’s largest natural gas producers almost handed Biden in hot water. But typical of the man, he overcame this hurdle as well, thereby going on to become the 46th President of the United States.
Bestselling author Cass Sunstein in his short, albeit interesting work, attempts to amalgamate the process of regulation with the science of decision theory, with a view to arriving at solutions for improbable occurrences that leave decision makers totally unprepared, such as pandemics and climate change. Underpinning Sunstein’s overarching proposal, is the maximin principle which advocates selecting an approach that eliminates the worst of the worst-case scenarios. As Sunstein himself acknowledges, the maximin principle has come under fire from various economists for certain inadequacies. The Hungarian-American Nobel Prize winning economist, John Charles Harsanyi, derided this principle by arguing that it produced irrationality and even madness. “if you took the maximin principle seriously you could not ever cross the street (after all, you might be hit by a car); you could never drive over a bridge (after all, it might collapse); you could never get married (after all, it might end in a disaster), etc. If anybody really acted in this way, he would soon end up in a mental institution.”
Sunstein works around the limitations of the principal, and after making his assertions regarding the efficacy of the Maximin model with recourse to various hypothetical problem statements, encapsulates his solutions in the form of suggestions that almost seem reductionist in their simplicity and amenability for implementation. These suggestions, inter alia include:
Outcomes that embed within genuinely catastrophic outcomes (potential) and such outcomes are not perceived to be highly improbable, the most optimal manner to maximize net benefits might be to eliminate such outcomes;
In the face of “fat-tail” scenarios, the Maximin principal might be the most appropriate choice. This is because of the fact that the probability of extreme and catastrophic events does not decline sufficiently rapidly to compensate for risk aversion to encountering such catastrophic events; and
Even though under 200 pages, the book is packed with references to concepts that are complex in their sweep and arcane in their wake. Concepts such as Knightian Uncertainty (in its most macroscopic definition, an inability to assign probabilities to various outcomes); Precautionary Principle (a broad epistemological philosophy, used mostly in the field of environmental science that advocates a wait and watch approach before instituting radical innovations, that otherwise might lead to disaster); Principal of Insufficient Reason ( A concept first advocated by Jakob Bernoulli and which asserts that equal probabilities must be assigned to each of competing assertions if there is no positive reason for assigning them different probabilities); and Frequentism (a notion that defines an event’s probability as the limit of its relative frequency in many trials).
Sunstein liberally draws on the works of Robert S. Pindyck in many parts of the book to bolster his propositions regarding the applicability and utility of the Maximin principle. Pindyck, in tandem with Ian W.R. Martin had published a seminal paper titled “AVERTING CATASTROPHES:THE STRANGE ECONOMICS OF SCYLLA AND CHARYBDIS” for the National Bureau of Economic Research. The paper explored the policy interdependence of catastrophic events, and demonstrated that considering these events in isolation can lead to policies that are far from optimal. The authors, going beyond the tried and tested cost-benefit methodology, also formulated a few rules for determining the events that ought to be necessarily averted and events which need not be averted.
Lots of insightful examples highlighting the conundrum faced by the regulatory authorities in formulating catastrophe aversion policies, especially in the case of pandemics and climate change are set out by Sunstein. For example, on account of the raging COVID-19 pandemic, that is wreaking havoc across the world, “closing the schools is not exactly an engine of equal opportunity. And if costly regulation, driven by the maximin principle, is imposed on sources of risk (such as fossil fuels and motor vehicles), it might well impose disproportionate hardship on the poor.”
“Averting Catastrophe”, contains very unique and innovative insights on various aspects of decision making and the improbability of employing probability theory in a uniform and harmonized manner, the book seems to be crafted for a niche audience. The books seems to be for the particular consumption of Mathematicians and policy makers. A subject of such import and magnitude could have been simplified so that everybody irrespective of their chosen career profession conscientiously become “stakeholders” in an attempt to redress the grave grievance posed by events such as pandemics and climate change. That would have been a much needed “Nudge” (no pun intended).
(Averting Catastrophe: Decision Theory for COVID-19, Climate Change, and Potential Disasters of all Kinds will be released by New York University Press on the 20th of April 2021)
A convoluted arrangement of crisscross treaties malevolently kicked in when Gavril Princip, a Bosnian Serb member of Young Bosnia – in seeking an end to Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina – assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the Archduke’s wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Thus, began the first, and what then was the greatest bloodbath in the history of the 20th Century – World War I. There were incredibly brave protagonists who immortalized themselves by virtue of their unbelievable valour and gallantry, none more than the ace fighter pilot, Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen. Popularly known as “The Red Baron”, for he painted parts of his fighter plane red, Richthofen, terrorized the Allied Forces with his heroic feats in the air. When his much feared Fokker Dr.1 Triplane was brought down, on the 21st of April 1918 – while giving chase to a Sopwith Camel piloted by a green eared Canadian pilot, Arthur Roy Brown – and the Red Baron himself fatally wounded, he had notched up a mind boggling eighty kills. He was all of twenty five years old.
In “Red Baron”, author Terry Treadwell, regales his readers with a very moving and nostalgic pictorial tribute to this incredible man, who even today is not just talked about in awestruck wonder but also literally revered and worshipped by every aspiring young airman thirsting to make a mark and carve out a nice for himself or herself. While neither a panegyric nor a biography that extolls the prowess of Richthofen, this small yet engaging compilation captures the various shades of the ace pilot in the form of sepia tinted lens. While the pictures are punctuated by a brief history of the illustrious life of the German, there are detailed appendices depicting his scalps in chronological order and also the various honours and awards that were bestowed on him.
Hence, there are pictures of a vibrant and confident Richthofen posing elegantly near his various flying machines, engulfed in spontaneous joy with his Great Dane Moritz and the ace pilot showing off some of his kills. The book also contains snippets that are extraordinary in their revelation. The Red Baron underwent a near death experience when, on one of his brave forays, Richthofen suffered a serious head injury wound on 6 July 1917, near Werwick, Belgium. A bullet hit the back of his head and gouged a small hole. He was pitted against a formation of F.E.d two seater fighters of No.20 Squadron RFC. The impact triggered disorientation and even temporary partial blindness. It was only a miracle that enabled the Red Baron to land his aircraft in a field. Multiple surgeries had to be performed for the splinters to be extricated from the region of impact.
A great part of the book is dedicated to examining in critical detail the exact cause of the death of the War’s greatest combat fighter. This is a matter of rousing debate and intense deliberations even to this day. Richthofen perished as a result of a violent chest wound, courtesy a solitary bullet, entering his visage from the right armpit and exiting next to the left nipple. Even though, theories speculate that the bullet might have been fired by Brown, in whose pursuit Richthofen was intensely involved, Brown’s attack was from behind and above, and from Richthofen’ s left.
The most credible theory however is the one that attributes the kill to gunner Sergeant Cedric Popkin. Popkin, an anti-aircraft machine gunner with the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company, was using a Vickers gun. On two occasions he let loose at Richthofen’ s flying machine. The first burst was released as the Red Baron came hurtling straight at his position, and subsequently from the left of the aircraft.
Richthofen was such a prize scalp that everyone wanted to possess a share of the glory pie. Conjectures and surmises on that one eventful bullet have at their centre, multiple protagonists. While a documentary on Discovery Channel put forward the scheme that Gunner W. J. “Snowy” Evans, a Lewis machine gunner with the 53rd Battery, 14th Field Artillery Brigade, Royal Australian Artillery, a few other theorists credit Gunner Robert Buie, from the same Battery as Evans for the shot. The pedestal upon which the young German pilot was placed by his opponents could be gauged when following his death, a lone British aircraft dropped canisters over German territory containing the message, “Rittmeister von Richthofen was fatally wounded in aerial combat and was buried with full military honours.”
The book also contains rare pictures of Richthofen with his mentor and ace German fighter pilot Oswald Boelcke, who not only fueled The Baron’s ambitions but also took him under his tutelage. Very soon, the protégé, broke the record of his master. Unfortunately for Richthofen, Boelcke died during the course of a combat causing devastation to the morale of the young gun.
(Red Baron: A Photographic of The First World War’s Greatest Ace, Manfred Von Richthofen – Terry C. Treadwell will be released by Pen & Sword Books Limited on the 31st of March 2021)
Inglorious epitaphs were penned when India folded up in spectacular fashion for a paltry 36 in Adelaide. Exactly a month following this debacle, epigrammatic paeans are being scripted, some by the same scathing pens, as India has incredibly managed to not just come back from the dead, but also inflict upon the hosts their first ever defeat in Brisbane since 1988. History, in general is biased against interludes, choosing to focus instead, on beginnings and ends. Yet, it is interludes that bridge zenith and nadir, and link triumphs with tribulations. The pause between the humiliation at Adelaide, and proudly holding up the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Brisbane, has been for Ajinkya Rahane’s ragtag assemblage, one punctuated by injuries, interspersed with battles of attrition, sprinkled with yet more injuries, and assailed by off the field provocations and uncivil riling. Yet, this motley crew, choose to embrace such an eventful hyphenation in its stride, preferring to concentrate more on cause, than be rattled by consequence. This Eckhart Tolle kind of serenity that put mind over matter lent a surreal equilibrium between sagacity and success. The skipper himself, has been a purveyor of equanimity. Possessing a perpetual sagely demeanour, he has demonstrated that he could be impervious to pleasure and impermeable to pain.
Considering the fact that the Indian team was more a nomadic band of the walking wounded than a well-oiled fighting machine, it was a veritable miracle that eleven cricketers with fully functional limbs lined up to the strains of the Indian national anthem on the 15th of January. Only the captain, and the dour Cheteshwar Pujara had played all three previous tests. Ample monument to the injury woes of the touring team. Making their daunting debuts were Washington Sundar and T. Natarajan. As seems to be the unfortunate wont of Rahane, he promptly lost the toss and Tim Paine had no qualms in electing to bat first. Paine had mockingly dared Ravichandran Ashwin during the course of the latter’s epic resistance at Sydney in the Third test, to lock horns with the Australians at the Gabba. Ashwin’s truant back further exacerbated the uncomfortably long list of the injured and hence he was restrained from taking up the gauntlet thrown at him by Paine. The Gabba, also known as the Gabbattoir (a clever take on the sombre word Abattoir), was Australian cricket’s metaphor for invincibility. The last visiting team to scalp a victory over the Aussies at the Gabba pulled off this feat more than three decades ago. Analogous to tech speak, if the Gabba was a Digital Fortress, then the Indian team was attempting to hack a state of the art technology using archaic tools such as punch cards and outdated language in the form of BASIC. But what is cricket after all, if not sticking to the basics?
Despite the fidgety Marnus Labuschagne chalking up a frenzied century, and Tim Paine contributing an assured 50, the rookie Indian bowling outfit managed to prevent the Aussies from going on the rampage, curtailing the innings to 369. Before the Test began, an astounding statistic doing the rounds on social media, captured the yawning gap, nay chasm, in experience separating the two teams. While the combined Indian bowling attack of Mohammed Siraj, Navdeep Saini, Shardul Thakur, and Natarajan had 14 wickets against their name, their competitors in the form of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon had collectively notched up a gobsmacking tally of 1013 wickets in international cricket! Statistics though, can be overwhelming only for those who opt to peruse them! From the stirring performance of India’s bowlers, it may be safely inferred that in both attention and attitude, the young pacemen were far removed from such weighty numerical details. While Natarajan and Shardul accounted for 3 wickets each, it was the 21 year old Washington Sundar who was a revelation. If not as exotic as his name, his bowling was engaging enough to outfox three obdurate Australian batsmen, including the run machine Steve Smith (Sundar’s first wicket in Test Match cricket). The sorcerer seemed to have found his apprentice.
In reply, the Indian innings was soon reduced to 186 for 6 after a refreshingly breezy start, in the wake of some relentless hostility from Cummins and Hazlewood. With the prospects looking as bleak as the ominous overhang of the notoriously dark Brisbane clouds, Shardul Thakur, joined Washington Sundar at the crease. The predators were all set to finish their prey off. The ability of India to bounce back from adversity has undergone a Kafkaesque metamorphosis in this series. What earlier was an occasional feature now seems an ingrained habit. Gabba was no exception to this newly sculpted norm. Sundar and Shardul held the formidable Aussie attack at bay for a frustratingly long time as they proceeded to add 124 invaluable runs for the seventh wicket, a record for India at Brisbane. While Sundar drove and flicked with elan, Shardul pulled and cut with panache and flair. When Pat Cummins finally got a ball to nip and peg back Shardul’ s stumps, India had progressed to 318, trailing the Aussie total by just 51 runs. Expectedly, when the tail failed to wag and after Sundar too perished trying to accelerate the scoring, the end was nigh. The final wicket fell with India conceding a lead of 33 runs.
In trying to force the pace, the Aussies went for some quick runs in their second innings. Smith and David Warner were aggressive, and Marcus Harris lent a token glimpse of his potential. A total of 294 meant that India had to score the highest ever fourth innings score at the Gabba to notch an improbable victory that would put them on the same pedestal as Sir Viv’s powerful squad of 1988-89 in terms of records. In the alternative India could just forget about getting 328 runs and play out time. From an Indian perspective, a draw was as good as a win, since they would be successfully retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in the event honours were evenly split. Siraj donning the mantle of the lead fast bowler in only his third test match, picked up a memorable five-for emulating the earlier exploits of Josh Hazlewood.
The fifth day began on an inauspicious note for the visitors as Rohit Sharma departed without even flattering to deceive, edging one from Cummins to Paine. What followed next was an extraordinary passage of play. The fearless Shubman Gill struck some rasping blows, while many a rasping blow did more than just strike Cheteshwar Pujara. Like an incorrigible pugilist thrusting his face forward in spite of being repeatedly punched towards oblivion, Pujara absorbed knock after knock employing inexplicable technique and exhibiting incomparable courage. Eleven stinging deliveries made unsympathetic contact with random parts of his anatomy. Ribs were rattled; fingers were rapped. Elbows and shoulders gamely attempted to stand firm against the onslaught of a barrage of short pitch deliveries that rose like hooded cobras. But the most dangerous ball of them all left Hazlewood’ s hand with a devious purpose, and angled into the right hander’s helmet with such violence that it almost executed an unbelievable 360 degree spin. A visibly angry Hazlewood was in no frame of mind for niceties, glaring at Pujara before asking, “Did you see that one?” But neither was Hazlewood John Cena and nor was the occasion an elaborate arrangement of fiction. An unperturbed Pujara nonchalantly signaled for a replacement helmet and proceeded to grind away. He was a gigantic sponge that absorbed, assimilated and accounted for all that was hurled at it. Even though Pujara’ s exploits might not have been a replica of Brian Close against the fearsome West Indian pacers, there surely would be blue saucers to sport as a badge of honour in the ice bath. The Australians were left to tackle a new breed of resilient cockroach that could be stamped, sprayed, smote and swiped, but never killed.
Gill proceeded on his merry way, even taking Starc for 16 off an over before perishing to Lyon, and falling just 9 short of what would have been a magnificent century. Gill and Pujara had seen India safely through to lunch and Rahane, within moments of arriving at the crease made his intentions pretty clear. Busily accumulating runs, he sashayed down the pitch to Lyon depositing him deep into the vacant stands. However, Rahane’s egregiousness got the better of him as he nicked one to Paine in attempting a ramp shot. The stage was set for Rishabh Pant. The pudgy wicket keeper might have been the hero of Sydney, but he had some unfinished business to attend to. Starting off sedately he put only the bad balls away, nudging, patting, flicking, tapping and even shouldering the rest. His intrepid state of mind was on dazzling display when he strode down the track and smote Lyon back over mid on for a huge six. The fact that the previous delivery had after landing on spun away from the batsman and evaded both wicket keeper and first slip seemed not to have influenced Pant’s attitude, even a jot!
Two deliveries into the new ball with still a 100 more runs to get, the unflappable Pujara’ s immoveable resistance finally met its match. That tireless warrior amongst all bowlers, and the highest wicket taker in the series, Pat Cummins trapped India’s No.3 leg before. The workhorse, to his credit had shun all forms of gamesmanship in favour of nagging line and length and was reaping rich rewards for his unwavering commitment. But it took not just the resoluteness of Cummins, but also the benefit of an Umpire’s call to send the battered and bruised gladiator back to the pavilion.
When Mayank Agarwal soon followed Pujara, after scratching around for an unconvincing and visibly uncomfortable score of 9, the Australians had their tails up. India still had 63 runs to get for what would be an epochal victory, with 5 wickets in hand. They had 13.2 overs in which to attempt the impossible. For the second time in the match, Washington Sundar was asked to prove his mettle and account for his character. This he did with aplomb. Initially showing the makers name of his broad blade in immaculate defense, he opened up his shoulders at every given opportunity thereby playing the perfect foil to Rishabh Pant, who by now was looking positively in the zone. When Sundar imperiously pulled a ball of searing pace from a wayward Cummins for six, it was obvious for everyone watching that the lad was here to stay. Meanwhile, displaying an exquisite blend of controlled aggression, Pant dispatched the Australian bowling to every part of the ground. The Indians who were supposed to be flattened on the green grass within the confines of a ‘fortress’ were making the Australians look like a ragged and confused pound shop variants of Rip Van Winkles, who after a long bout of involuntary torpor, had visibly lost all their bearings. When Rishabh Pant drove a ball to the mid-off boundary to finally seal an epochal series retaining victory, it was the bruise to an inflated Australian ego that would more likely than not, have induced more pain than the ones littering Cheteshwar Pujara’ s body. The digital fortress had not just been breached, but had been rendered obsolete as well with no room for an upgrade.
The philosophy of the interludes had made possible the transition from boys to men. The practice in the interlude had altered self-doubt to an iron clad self-belief. History would do well to more than merely book end interludes or consign them to a minuscule footnote in fine print hidden by the more alluring chronicles of initiations and outcomes. The time in between the test matches in the indelible Australian series has been one such seraphic interlude. An interlude in which a band of brothers decided to reinvent themselves, reimagine possibilities and rewrite history.
Former England captain, the late Trevor Bailey, once predicted that the ninth Nawab of Pataudi would turn out to be as prodigious and incandescent as Sir Garfield Sobers. As a school boy at Winchester, this talented son of an illustrious father (Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi, along with Ranjitsinhji and Duleepsinhji were the only cricketers to have donned the national colours of both England and India in cricket), set the turf alight by going on to break every perceivable record, including that held by Douglas Jardine for the most number of runs. Then misfortune and fate contrived to put paid to what otherwise would have been a sparkling career. A car accident left him completely devoid of eyesight in his right eye. In his typical undaunted fashion, ‘Tiger’ – as he was fondly addressed by teammates and friends alike – shrugged this tragedy aside and went on to change the very façade of Indian cricket in more ways than one, ways the impact of which reverberate even to this day.
In this short compilation, edited by the preternatural cricket writer Suresh Menon, glorious facets of this gallant beacon of Indian cricket are revealed to an excited reader. What makes this book all the more relevant is the fact that it is more a clinical dissection of the genius of the man both on and off the field, than a forced panegyric. Contributors include Tiger Pataudi’s contemporaries as well as opponents. There is a stirring and poignant foreword penned by Tiger’s wife, Sharmila Tagore, not to mention two equally eloquent reminiscences, courtesy his daughters Saba and Soha Ali Khan.
Vijay Merchant, one of India’s earliest batting greats and also former Chairman of selectors recounts the unfortunate and untimely circumstance that led Tiger Pataudi to assume the mantle of captain at a tender age of twenty one. Selected as an understudy to Nari Contractor on the Caribbean tour of 1962, Pataudi was reluctantly thrust into the limelight when a nasty bouncer by Charlie Griffith not only felled Contractor but also ended his career. Thus, a young scion was left to handle experienced cricketers older than him by almost two decades. What happened next was the stuff of legends. As Bishen Singh Bedi, that glorious off spinner, remembers, Pataudi became the glue that bound the players together. In an era where provincialism and geography mattered more than meritocracy and mettle, Pataudi drilled into his team the singularly necessary mindset that it was an Indian team, and not a Karnataka, or a Tamil Nadu or a Delhi team.
He was also a captain who walked the talk. Never one to take refuge behind his irreversible handicap, he adjusted and adapted his game to overcome adversity in a manner only he could have conceived. The result was a few innings of spectacular import and gravity. The feisty and scrappy Australian Ian Chappell writes with a sense of awe on one such essay of absolute class and calculated risk taking that left an Australian attack dumbstruck. In the 1967 Melbourne Test, Pataudi already hampered by a serious leg injury dragged his visage to the crease after an attack led by McKenzie had India in absolute tatters at 25 for 5. Pataudi decided to take the bowling by the scruff of its neck and proceeded to score an imperious 75. With one temporarily nonfunctional leg and a permanently impaired eye, the nawab had proceeded to provide a regal exhibition. Similarly, Ray Robinson waxes eloquent over the 203 not out amassed against Mike Smith’s touring squad in the 1964 series. After ploughing through 97 overs for his century, the nawab cut loose and ravaged the English attack comprising of Parfitt and Smith, among others to smash 103 runs off only 40 overs. If this reads absurd to the unsuspected, living in the age of instant gratification and immediate results, this was an era where ODIs were not even a concept, let alone T20.
Pataudi was also a fielder par excellence. Constantly on the prowl, the cover area was his kingdom and he was the unsurpassed monarch of all he surveyed. Quicksilver to the ball and possessing a bullet throw, he was a veritable nemesis to the quick single. However, after his calamitous accident, he could no longer rule the roost close-in. As was his innate wont, he converted this impediment into an opportunity and became Indian cricket’s best outfielder.
Pataudi was also not beyond the occasional prank. Possessing a wicked sense of humour, he could be a nightmare for an innocuous teammate. During the course of a Caribbean tour, Pataudi and Farokh Engineer put on Caribbean accents, telephoned their teammates in the rooms and clamoured for everyone to rush to the reception in whatever garb they were attired in, since a hurricane was headed their way. “The sight of a bunch of Indians in their pyjamas, dhotis and shorts searching for a hurricane in the reception area….was one of the highlights of a tour where we lost all five Tests.”
When it came to tactical acumen, Pataudi was way ahead of his time. When conventional and received wisdom dictated the presence of two seamers, irrespective of quality (or an absolute lack of it) and two spinning options, Pataudi upended conventions by fielding a troika or even a quartet of spinners! Even if wicket keeper batsman Budhi Kunderan had to wield the new ball just so that it becomes old, then so be it. The outcome: a spinning quartet of vintage quality the likes of which had never been seen before and would arguably be never seen again. Bishan Singh Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagawat Chandrasekhar and Srinivas Venkatraghavan were all provided wings by Pataudi to soar hard and high and by Jove, did they soar!
As Rahul Dravid informs the reader, Pataudi also fought for the player’s cause and was at the forefront of an attempt to form a players’ association. Even though such an endeavour did not come to fruition, its objective was more or less accomplished with the Board enhancing the remuneration and compensation of the players.
The book contains a plethora of anecdotes and is permeated with enduring memories. While the book might have contributed a lot in dispelling a great deal of reverential myth associated with Pataudi the man, it also embellished in great deal the aura – deserving by every stretch of imagination – attached to Pataudi the cricketer. Every contributor seems to have endorsed a universal attribute of pride and fortune that ensured that they were in some manner or other tied together with a colossus who strode through the world of cricket. A true prince in philosophy, principles, practice and pedigree.