Archive for February, 2012

Of insurance and Yuvraj’s bat

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

Mint, 10 February 2012

The commercial stands out effortlessly among all the insurance ads jostling for mind space in tax-saving season. The advertiser has clearly hit the jackpot. It’s just become public that your brand ambassador has cancer—exactly the sort of utterly unforeseen calamity that you have been warning people about for years: anything can happen, so better get insurance. And here your star is even hinting at his illness in the commercial. How much luckier can you get?

Birla Sun Life Insurance is being accused of cashing in cynically on the malignant lump in Yuvraj Singh’s lungs. Senior advertising executives have gone on record saying that Birla should have withdrawn the ad. From the Birla Sun Life corner, Ajay Kakar of the Aditya Birla Group told The Economic Times: “As long as our intention is good and conscience is clean, criticisms don’t matter, especially when they are not based on facts, but perception.”

What are the facts? They are, from what I have gathered from information available in the public domain, quite extraordinary. We should be talking about what Yuvraj was thinking, not the advertiser.

In the commercial, Yuvraj stands in an empty stadium recalling being at the top of the world: India won the World Cup and he was Man of the Tournament. “But life bowls you such googlies…”; he had health problems and found himself out of the team. He ends with the signature line (also used in the commercial aired last year): “As long as the bat moves, you are king. But when it stops…” The average viewer is left shaken, for he knows that the man is undergoing chemotherapy.

Now, please note the timeline. According to Kakar, the commercial was shot in September, to be aired from January through March. At that time, perhaps even Yuvraj did not know about his cancer. He had been injured in a test in England in July and had to drop out of the tour. In November, two months after the commercial was shot, he asked the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) not to consider him for the one-day international series against the West Indies because he wanted time to regain fitness.

In December, he revealed that “a golf-ball-sized tumour” had been found in his lungs, but it was not malignant. On 5 February, one of his doctors in Chandigarh announced that the tumour was in fact malignant, and Yuvraj had travelled to the US in late January for treatment.

The story now becomes really interesting. Kakar says that the commercial, as originally shot, had Yuvraj talking about “injuries” (obviously the finger he broke in England). But in January, some days before he left for the US—when he undoubtedly knew he had cancer—Yuvraj contacted the advertiser and replaced “injuries” with “health problems”.

The timing of the official cancer announcement is also significant. Just a day before, Sahara India, owner of the Pune Warriors, of which Yuvraj was the captain, had angrily withdrawn the team from the fifth edition of the Indian Premier League. The most contentious issue: since Yuvraj had declared himself unavailable, Sahara wanted to bid for an extra player, and BCCI had refused. Clearly, Yuvraj decided to make the cancer announcement immediately to pre-empt rumours about his condition cascading out of the ugly Sahara-BCCI fight. He needed to control the information environment quickly, and did so. The commercial had just started appearing on television.

I have known several cancer patients closely. In India, the disease is treated as a deeply private challenge. Rarely have I seen anyone admitting what was really wrong till they had no option left—when the chemotherapy started, and the patient started losing hair. For a public personality like Yuvraj, news of his illness getting out has huge implications—commercial ones being hardly the least of them.

What is astonishing is his masterful handling of the situation. First, he scotched rumours (already floating) by revealing that yes, he had a tumour, but no, it was not malignant. Second, sensing that news could leak out once he checked into a US hospital, he made a critical change in the commercial that would be airing while he was undergoing treatment. If news leaked out and the commercial was talking “injuries”, it could lead to a trust deficit with cricket officials and sponsors, and make him an object of pity for his fans. But “health problems” made it a win-win situation. If no news leaked out, it would be seen as just an appropriate phrase—he had already spoken about his tumour. If news leaked, the phrase would dramatically boost his heroic image and popularity (the by-product—which he may or may not have spent much thought on—being a jubilant bottom line for his advertiser). And finally, he delivered the coup de grâce, by having the cancer announcement made at just the right moment, crushing the rumour mills even before they started operating.

The controversy on the ethicality of running the ad is redundant. Yuvraj Singh, faced with the most fearful crisis in his life, has just shown us how to brilliantly manage perception, and come out stronger and bigger. We want to see this man, with his wonderful talent and now-evident titanic willpower, back on the field for India, as soon as he thinks he is ready.

Charles Dickens is slow food for the mind

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

Mint, 8 February 2012

As anyone who uses Google knows (and today everything we get to know is through Google), Charles Dickens turned 200 on 7 February (For those who haven’t noticed, the Google doodle for the day was dedicated to Dickens). He is surely the most famous novelist of all time, and certainly the best known English writer after Shakespeare. And the celebrations have been grand.

The most interesting one by a distance (literally) was British Council’s Global Dickens Read-a-thon, with 24 countries participating in a 24-hour reading marathon. It kicked off in Australia with a reading of Dombey & Son, went on to Malaysia with The Pickwick Papers, then to China, Ukraine, Japan, Korea, India (Nicholas Nickleby), Russia, Kazakhstan, to finally end with a reading from Dickens’ last — and unfinished — novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood in the UAE.

But does anyone read Dickens anymore?

Claire Tomalin, one of Dickens’ many biographers, has already expressed despair publicly. “Today’s children have very short attention spans because they are being reared on dreadful television programmes which are flickering away in the corner,” she told the British newspaper Daily Express. “Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel.”

Well, Dickens hardly wrote stuff that has you turning the pages breathlessly. Comparing thick-book with thick-book, one must admit that he was no Stieg Larsson. But what about J.K. Rowling, none of whose last four Harry Potter books clocked in at less than 600 pages? Don’t we all know that each of these could easily have been 50% thinner? One cannot deny that Rowling was so much in love with the universe she had created that she strayed from the basic plotline repeatedly to devote page after page to every little whimsical detail she had thought up. Children didn’t mind. And I do believe that once one gets into the rhythm of a Dickens book, one finds much fewer digressions than in, say Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix (766 pages). Yes, I know: the language may seem arcane today, and often, the tone may sound overwrought (understatement was — to, well, understate the point — not Dickens’ forte).

Yes, Dickens is slow food for the mind (even though most of what he wrote was written at demonic speed, to meet weekly deadlines that would have today’s writers rioting in the streets). He needs to be savoured; he is impossible to consume in hurried gulps. And perhaps the best way to introduce a child today to him is to let her experience how exceptionally funny a writer Dickens was. The image of Dickens that the casual reader is familiar with is that of the man, who, through his writings, fought the injustices of the Victorian social, economic and legal systems. That he did, but he also provided as much sheer entertainment as any writer before or since. To anyone who hasn’t read Dickens in the original, I would simply say: Read The Pickwick Papers. I offer you a lifetime warranty: Whenever you feel truly depressed, pick up that book, open it to a random chapter, and read. If that doesn’t cheer you up, at least for some time, you need serious medical help.

All right, I opened the book randomly, and this is what I got:

“English girls not so fine as Spanish — noble creatures — jet hair — black eyes — lovely forms — sweet creatures — beautiful.”

“You have been in Spain, sir?” said Mr Tracy Tupman.

“Lived there — ages.”

“Many conquests, sir?” inquired Mr Tupman.

“Conquests! Thousands. Don Bolaro Fizzgig –- grandee — only daughter — Donna Christina — splendid creature — loved me to distraction — jealous father — high-souled daughter — handsome Englishman–Donna Christina in despair–prussic acid–stomach pump in my portmanteau–operation performed — old Bolaro in ecstasies — consent to our union — join hands and floods of tears — romantic story — very.”

“Is the lady in England now, sir?” inquired Mr Tupman, on whom the description of her charms had produced a powerful impression.

“Dead, sir — dead,” said the stranger, applying to his right eye the brief remnant of a very old cambric handkerchief. “Never recovered the stomach pump — undermined constitution — fell a victim.”

“And her father?” inquired the poetic Snodgrass.

“Remorse and misery,” replied the stranger. “Sudden disappearance — talk of the whole city — search made everywhere without success — public fountain in the great square suddenly ceased playing — weeks elapsed — still a stoppage — workmen employed to clean it — water drawn off — father-in-law discovered sticking head first in the main pipe, with a full confession in his right boot — took him out, and the fountain played away again, as well as ever.”

“Will you allow me to note that little romance down, Sir?’ said Mr Snodgrass, deeply affected.

How many writers we know can beat that?

The most well-read friend I have once dismissed Dickens with the off-hand comment: “There’s no subtext in Dickens, and anything without subtext can’t be literature.”

I say: Damn the subtext. Read Great Expectations, and know what a perfect novel is.

Dickens’s last words, as reported in his obituary in The Times, London, were: “Be natural, my children. For the writer that is natural has fulfilled all the laws of art.” I am quite sure he did not say this as he lay dying. But the words surely encapsulate what he believed in as a writer, and what has brought so much joy to untold millions for so many years. Pure natural joy.