Golf and the fine art of wasting time

THERE’S an old saying that runs thus: old golfers never die, they only lose their balls. Speaking as one who had his first walk around a golf course, I must say that balls are not the only thing that golfers seem to lose.

Golfers lose count of time – they are obsessed with getting a shot right and can walk around for a while before they get down to the business of driving the ball down the fairway. They also get obsessed with the game to the extent that it becomes some kind of life analogy. They talk about strategy, execution, and planning as though golf were akin to the battle of Hastings. In short, there is a certain loss of a sense of perspective.

The only pressure on a golfer to play and move on is the person(s) behind; on a club course, it is considered good etiquette to be one stroke behind. Else. others get held up and on a busy day this can be quite annoying.

I took a walk around the course at the Judgeford Golf Club in Wellington recently during a trip I made to attend a technical conference. Were it not for the fact that the journey around the course was taken in the company of a close friend, it would probably not have been made. But then one can’t turn down a close mate.

My mate plays golf regularly and, in fact, is quite obsessed with the game. He talks about it constantly, likening it to many other things in life, and treating it with much dignity. Out on the course one can see why he and countless others are so much in love with this game: they address the ball as though it were a loved one, they exult over a good drive, they lament a chipped one.

There are some good points about golf from the point of view of one who is unlikely to ever play a round. The walk, about six kilometres in all, is excellent exercise and given that a fair number of middle-aged people work in jobs that call for sitting on one’s backside for eight hours a day, this is a very definite plus.

The course that I walked around is scenic and beautiful, like most of New Zealand. At 9am, it is quiet enough to aid a stream of thought and even though a motorway runs through the course – one crosses by means of an underpass as some part of the course is on either side of the motorway – the noise is not much of a disturbance.

This again was a plus for me – in this busy world of ours, we rarely take a moment to stop and smell the roses. One never hears the birds, one never feels fresh wind on one’s face. Out on the course, there is time aplenty to experience all this and more.

Golf is a game meant for males to network. If women are on the course, it is just an accident. The men play their round, the one who wins feels a mite superior, they all share a drink after the round is over, and a good deal of business takes place around the game. It is not a game for those who are in straitened circumstances – a set of clubs costs something in the region of a few thousand dollars and club membership is close to a thousand.

One needs to have a good amount of time to play regularly as a round can take anything from three hours to eight, depending on how many people are playing and the skill level of the golfers. Par for the course is 72 strokes but most of the golfers I saw in action on the day I went around would not have got through in anything less than 100. A few may have come in in the 90s.

Golfers, thus, form a very exclusive club. They are mostly rich or middle-class males, who have reached middle-age and have grown-up children. Even so, their wives do not take kindly to the idea of a man using a piece of metal to swing wildly at a small round white object – no woman I have seen is actually happy that her partner is spending the better part of a day at the course.

How governments deceive the public

IT’S interesting indeed when government policy is thrown open to the public, ostensibly for a debate to seek feedback on how the policy in question goes down with the masses. Most people misinterpret this to mean that the government is serious about wanting input from the great unwashed.

This is one of the great myths that is prevalent even today.

It’s something like the various ombusdmen set up in some countries to provide an outlet for the public to complain when they feel shafted by companies in some sectors – telecommunications and banking, for example.

Giving a person a chance to vent their frustrations provides a form of release. The ombudsman makes a pretence of listening – a very good imitation, I may add.

In the end, one gets little or no redress unless there is something really wrong going on and the original decision stands.

The same happens with government policy. Some bright spark decides on some policy to garner votes for the next election from a section of the populace which normally does not vote en masse for the party in government.

The best way to pretend that it is being done in consultation is to ask some other person in the party to invite a discussion – these days, that is done mostly on the internet. In years gone by, it was by issuing a white paper and then inviting people to write in with their suggestions, support or objections.

The original policy always includes a little wiggle room, concessions which the government is willing to give anyway. If the public do demand some concessions, the government then gives in on ground which it never wanted to enforce.

The public feels quite good about its activism and celebrates the ground it has gained. The government laughs all the way to the poll.

If the government is unable to get the policy through parliament because it lacks a majority of its own, then it concedes certain things to the opposition and certain others to the public. The wiggle room is always built in to the original draft.

Indian deaths in Melbourne continue unabated

A TWENTY-ONE-YEAR-OLD Indian student was stabbed to death in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray a few days back. He is just the latest statistic in a grim tale that has gone for the last 18 months or thereabouts, with one Indian victim after another being attacked.

The police in Melbourne still refuse to accept that there could be a racial angle to the string of attacks and are yet to catch anyone responsible. Australian politicians are keen to try and use spin to convince people that the senseless violence is due to anything but an underbelly of racism in Melbourne.

There are some plain truths which people just refuse to understand. More and more countries are becoming heterogenous in terms of populations; as more and more people join a population, it is obvious that everyone will not like everything which the others do. Hence, a sense of restraint develops, a sense of being willing to let the other do his thing, as long as he lets you do yours.

If it were not for this pattern of behaviour, there would be pitched battles on the streets of every major city every single day. We would all be out there fighting like dogs over scraps of meat.

Much as each of us claims to be his own man or woman, the things which we learn to abhor, the things which we come to acknowledge as being harmful to social cohesion are defined solely by our leaders, those in authority and those who can influence public policy – politicians, religious leaders, social leaders, academics, the media, police, the army and so on.

A simple example: two decades ago, it was dangerous for gays or lesbians to even hold hands in public. Gay-bashing was not frowned upon and homosexuals were treated as though they were social pariahs. That kind of sentiment has largely gone away – due to public utterances by those in authority and a constant driving home of the message that they should be accepted as people with an alternate lifestyle.

In the case of the violence against Indians, we need educated people to stand up and condemn the racism that is fuelling these incidents. Instead, the politicians and police are in denial. They just refuse to say it out loud. Nobody has been arrested for any incident. The police must be about the most incompetent in the world, considering that they always say they are investigating the hundreds of cases that have piled up over the last year and a half.

And the irony is that right here in Victoria we have a sterling example of how some plain speaking can quell racist rhetoric and drive it underground. In the late 1990s, a woman by the name of Pauline Hanson started spouting hateful racist drivel against Asians. Her ravings were not criticised by the Liberal prime minister of the time, John Winston Howard. Instead, he chose to treat her utterances as some kind of view held by a section of society.

The Victorian premier of the time, Jeff Kennett, a Liberal too, took the right stand. He condemned Hanson’s statements in no uncertain terms, calling her a danger to society and a loony case who needed to be driven underground. He said her attitudes had no place in a modern society like that in Victoria and that they would damage business and the economy.

At every opportunity, he spoke out and did not mince his words. In large part due to his efforts, Hanson disappeared from public life after a few years. He had the balls and the conviction to call it as he saw it and he was right.

If he was still in politics and leading the Liberals, I would even go so far as to vote for the party in the state elections which are to be held later this year. Labor, which is in power, is the party of spin and media management. The situation will get worse if they come back to power but one has to see what the Libs offer before deciding to back them.

Meanwhile, more Indians will continue to suffer in Melbourne.

Catches win matches. But then you knew that…

WHAT do you say to a wicketkeeper who has just cost you a Test win against Australia in Australia? If you are a good diplomat, you take the blame for the defeat yourself.

Australia won the second Test against Pakistan by 36 runs in Sydney yesterday. Michael Hussey, who made a gritty 134 not out, was dropped thrice – on 27, on 45 and again on 52. Even if he had been caught the last time, that would have saved 82 runs.

In all three instances the culprit was Kamran Akmal, and the bowler to suffer was Danish Kaneria. For good measure, Akmal gifted 13 runs to tailender Peter Siddle who hung around with Hussey in a partnership of 123 for the ninth wicket – he was dropped on 25 and went on to make 38.

After Australia won the game, the Pakistan captain Mohammad Yousuf took the rap himself, saying that his dismissal – he charged down the pitch and hit a ball back to Nathan Hauritz at a million miles an hour – was the turning point as he was the most experienced player and should not have gone after the bowling in that manner when it was not needed.

Indeed, that is one question that has yet to be answered: Pakistan had about three and a half hours on day four and the whole of day five to score the 176 they needed to win. Why were they in such a blue hurry? Why was the target treated as though it was a one-day target?

In the first innings, the Pakistani openers had batted carefully, eschewing all flamboyance, and raised a partnership of 109 which, to a large extent, served as the foundation for their first innings total of 333. They added 70 runs in 33.5 overs on the first session of day two, going from 14 for no loss overnight to 84 at lunch.

In the second innings, they played with panache and gay abandon, maintained a run-rate of 5 – and were both out by the time the total reached 51.

It is easy to see how the abundance of Twenty20 cricket has made many players unable to stay at the crease for a long time. In the shortest form of the game, making 45 off 15 balls is enough. But in a Test, one must make those same 45 off 90 deliveries and stay around so that partnerships are fostered.

Pakistan has always been a nervy unpredictable side. They are something like the West Indies, which once collapsed from 156 for one to 202 when chasing 208 for victory against Australia in the World Cup of 1996.

The result of either series played this summer will, thus, not be reflective of how competitive the games were. The first game in each series wasn’t overly contested, but the others have been fought tooth and nail. We don’t yet know what will happen in Tasmania but it is a good bet that Australia will win again.

Test cricket can be exciting. But the crowds ain’t there…

AUSTRALIA has just pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat to register a 36-run win over Pakistan in a fantastic Test match played in Sydney.

But there were few people at the ground to see the game even though it was gripping stuff with more twists and turns than a corkscrew. It’s all because the administrators are greedy and charge atrocious entry fees.

Last Saturday, Victoria and New South Wales played a Twenty20 game in Melbourne as part of the annual inter-state Australian tournament. The entry fee was just $10. A crowd of 28,000 turned up, a respectable number which would fill at least three-quarters of any cricket ground in the country apart from the MCG.

When it comes to Test matches, the Australian cricket authorities make a profit even before the first ball is bowled because of the money from TV rights. Thus, they are really not bothered whether people come to see the game or not. There is no incentive for them to keep prices low so that the stadium gets filled.

The attitude is that people can come and see the game if they want. There is no coverage on TV in the city where the game is played so the public really has no option. Australian radio was pretty good as far as Test commentary went but these days it is ordinary and quite trivial; many people have given up on it as the commentators are self-absorbed, ignorant and, at times, quite redneck in their utterances.

The numbers attending Test matches are falling rapidly. In a big ground like the famous MCG in Melbourne, it really shows as the ground can hold nearly 100,000. When a quarter of the ground, mostly the cheapest seats and the members seats, are the only ones occupied, then you know that the public have been driven away successfully.

Another reason why people stay away from Tests is because of the over-zealous security people. In many cases, the only thing that one has to be wary of is the security people themselves who are officious to the nth degree. The enjoyment of being at the cricket has gone.

The administrators of the game are not overly concerned. They continue to try and deny that there is a problem by employing spin of which even Shane Warne would be proud. They pretend that there is no problem and then the need to talk about it automatically goes away.

In many ways, the fact that Australia won today will serve the team badly as several problems will remain unaddressed. A spinner who does not deserve to be in the team took five wickets – not a single one by bowling well but all due to false strokes by batsmen. There will be no questions raised about him.

There are a couple of players in the team whose position needs to be scrutinised but that will not happen either. There is a captain who should not be playing due to an injury – the man is 35 and his performance and decisions need some questioning. That will not happen.

Mediocre performances by mediocre players also serve to drive the public away. Test cricket is supposed to be the pinnacle of the game but this is more like a trough. And the administrators? Oh, they are too busy laughing all the way to the bank.

Building community in an Indian village

WHEN people talk about India these days, they talk of a modern, powerful country that has an impact on world policy. They talk of an economic superpower. They talk about a country that has a techno focus, one that can influence policy even in the United States.

But then such people do not know the real India. They have never lived in the country, do not understand what numbers such as a billion mean, and have no idea of the meaning of poverty in its real, stark and ugly sense.

One year in the real India is enough for a city-bred person to understand what the country is really all about. And though the example I cite is all of 29 years old, India is still very much the same. Nothing has changed in its heart, the village.

I spent 1980 working in an Indian village for a rural development agency. I went in as a wide-eyed innocent and came out with my eyes fully open, and understanding the real meaning of the word cynicism.

Access to running water is one of the major problems in India, even in the big cities. The village in which I worked was supposed to serve as the beacon for others by implementing a project to supply water for its people.

There are numerous problems in trying to implement such a project in a village. First, there is the problem of a common language; people tend to speak a variety of dialects and addressing them in a tongue that they all fully comprehend is a task in itself. This village was on the border of two Indian states and its geographical location meant that the language issue was even more complicated.

I did not speak fluently in either of the two major languages that the villagers spoke and this was a third problem. After months of patiently trying, and much coaching from my servant, I was finally able to communicate in language that could be understood.

Then there was the factor of money. Villages tend to look at outside agencies which come to work with them as suppliers of largesse. They want all the money to come from the agency and do not believe that they can contribute anything. This was not helped by the fact that the outsiders (in this case me) dress differently and have motorised vehicles to get around when all the villagers have is their bullock carts, the occasional rickety bicycle and the village bus that threatens to fall apart at every turn.

The situation is certainly not helped by the numerous Catholic priests who build huge churches in such villages and proceed to bribe people into becoming Catholics by involving them in food-for-work schemes to build their own houses – provided they adopt Christian nomenclature (Basaviah becoming Peter, for example) and attend the Sunday services.

The caste system in the village complicated things even more. I was forced to sit on my motorcycle and drink my daily cup of morning coffee – the coffee shop had two sets of seats, one for the upper castes and one for the lower castes and the owner would never let me sit in the seats meant for the latter. I did not want to identify myself with either, so I took the uncomfortable but wise option.

And then there were two types of glasses at the coffee shop, stainless steel (meant for the lower castes) and glass tumblers, meant for the higher castes. I took to taking my own mug to the shop to drink that morning cuppa!

The lad who used to come by and clean my house taught me another lesson about caste when he refused to wash my clothes; he said he was not a dhobi (laundry worker) – that was a lower caste than that of carpenter or achary to which he belonged.

I convinced him that there was nothing wrong about it by making him sit nearby while I washed the clothes myself. He was incredibly upset by this, as I, his boss, was doing work, that he considered too menial even for himself. He said he would wash the clothes but that I should not tell anyone about it.

But back to the water project: I spent months talking myself hoarse about the value of unity. About the value of combined labour. About the incredible human potential that the people had. About the fact that money was secondary to what they could achieve if they decided to work together. When you have as many castes in a single village as there are fingers on one’s hands, it is incredibly difficult to sell this idea of unity.

But after seven months of talking, arguing, brow-beating, angry outbursts and pleading, they finally came around to my side and agreed that they would hold together as a community so that the project would go through. We had about a month of talk about the location of the two taps in the village before the issue was settled. (There were umpteen arguments about why the main tap should be closer to the abode of Basaviah and not near that of Kariyappa, or why Singanna should have to walk less for his water than, say, Kurumi.)

Finally, I had enough paperwork showing the village contribution to convince the project head that we could ask our drilling team to come down from Bangalore and start looking for the best place to drill. Once the van arrived, there was a massive change in the attitude of the villagers. I guess at this point they realised that it wasn’t all talk, that this newcomer was talking about something concrete and that a supply of running water wasn’t just a pipe dream.

The drilling team was looked after well by the villagers. Maybe too well. They drank too much watery tea, ate too many roasted groundnuts, and had half the population drop in merely to wish them well. It was an exciting time for the villagers.

After the pipes were laid, the villagers had to build a little shelter for the pump that would send water to the two taps in the village. They were used to making their own bricks and promptly set to this task. The night that the kiln was fired, they invited me over and under the cover of darkness served me some of their own hellbrew and chicken curry. There was no liquor sold in the area due to prohibition.

I guess that that was their way of telling me that I was really one of them. On Christmas Eve, the headman invited me to his house for lunch. And the same evening, I was the guest of honour at a function held to celebrate the fact that running water was just a few weeks away.

These were moving occasions, especially when one realised that a few short months before this the villagers had been fighting tooth and nail and had been unable to see that there was a community benefit in keeping their own little disputes under wraps.

Sadly, a few months after the project was completed, I decided to leave myself due to ructions within the agency. The villagers wept openly when I called for a meeting to bid them goodbye. I broke down myself. One of them pushed a small note into my hand; I later discovered that it was a 20-rupee note, two days hard labour for him.

Building community within that village was a rewarding task then. It remains a rewarding memory even now.