On Understanding Talent…

Rohit Brijnath, in The Straits Times.

 

BUY a postcard. Type a tweet. Write an e-mail. Send it to Roger Federer and Michael Phelps. Don’t have to be profound, don’t have to go all gooey. Just say this: Thank you.

Thank you for reminding us that even as we watch sports, compare records, decipher tactics, we only think we understand talent. In truth, we don’t. Not its range, not its ferocity, not its meaning.

Phelps – about to compete in the Pan Pacific Championships – doesn’t race for 20 months, his muscles go limp, his technique dulls, and then he records among the fastest times of the year. It’s like those guys in school, who partied, never slogged, and then turned up at the exams and aced them. It’s freakish, it’s incomprehensible, and it makes you reconsider the entire notion of sporting prediction.

Federer is cut from a similarly mysterious cloth. Last year, people cried retire, now he’s US Open favourite; last year he had 45 wins all year; this year he leads the tour with 49; last year his record was one title, twice finalist, now it’s three titles, five-times finalist.

Watching these men is akin to attending a class in appreciating genius at a sporting university. We learn that rapidly rating players in some mythical “greatest ever” list is foolhardy, for we haven’t yet witnessed their body of work. When Federer first won Wimbledon in 2003, Milos Raonic, whom he beat this week, was 12; when Phelps first won Pan Pacific gold in 2002, Chad le Clos, who is the 100m butterfly world champion, was 10. Yet they push on.

We learn that their talent exceeds our belief, their idea of challenge always eclipses ours. If we had 58 golds like Phelps (18 Olympics, 27 world championships, 13 Pan Pacific) we’d happily quit; but it’s because Phelps has 58 golds that he believes in 59. Their lives are a mad pursuit of the impossible and a celebration of it.

We learn that this athletic twilight, where both men stand, tells us as much about talent as their prime did. Then, as they performed with an effortless genius, we thought, Dear God, what talent. But it’s now, really, when skill flows as if from a spluttering tap and still they compete, that we understand how staggering their talent is, how they’ve managed to nurture it and reshape it.

“Earlier,” said Federer, after he’d won Wimbledon in 2012, “it (winning) just comes”. Later, he added, you have “more respect for the game”. Because you have to reinvent it.

At breakfast last week in Singapore, Martina Navratilova, asked if she judges players solely on grand slam titles, firmly replied: “No.” Everything matters, she said. Tour wins through the year, No.1 ranking, head-to-head, how they play the game, consistency, but one more thing: How they adapt.

Phelps, 29, can’t replicate the workouts of his youth so he has to train smarter. But only the exceptional can reconfigure their rusty sporting machines, tuning them to find one more fast lap, discovering themselves how far they can stretch this rubber band of talent.

Federer’s 33-year-old legs have run more than most, not just in tournaments played but in how deep he reaches into every tournament. You can’t measure him, for instance, just with Andy Murray’s age, 27, but in matches: Federer has played 1,196, Murray 601.

So he’s slower and his press conferences are littered with words like “tired” and “rest”. But he compensates with idea, with tactic, with net play, with a new racquet. This transition is a talent.

So he’s patchy in matches, rhythm gone walkabout, break points frittered, yet he’ll steal a set from nowhere, as if the only glue he has is his joy and will. And this is a talent, too.

Federer always had a juggler’s feel for the ball and Phelps a mermaid’s affinity for water. But talent, they’re telling us, is more complex than hand-to-eye skill and arrangement of feet. Hard work is a talent. Recalibrating goals is a talent. Deafness to a cynical world is a talent. Stubborness is a talent.

But perhaps the most beautiful talent is hunger. That nothing is enough, no stroke, no shot, no cup. That when it is finally done, racquet and swimsuit packed away, there is no regret. Because talent, every last ounce of it, hasn’t been wasted, only exhausted.

And so Phelps may not win gold at the Pan Pacs this week. And Federer, currently riding the fortune of an injured Nadal, a confused Djokovic, an inconsistent Murray, may not win the US Open across seven five-set matches.

Just don’t tell them that.

Just don’t tell them they’re “almost back to their best” for it is meaningless. For there is no going back any more, only forward. Travelling to the extremities of their beaten-up and brilliant selves to find the very best they can be now. And occasionally even finding it. That is a talent.

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The Future Shows The Way …

Last week, Tara Tripathi Sarkar performed a big act. In the Straits Times this morning, Rohit Brijnath wrote about it.

You can’t imagine the nausea. Can’t feel the fatigue. Can’t touch the sores in the mouth. Can’t experience the diarrhoea or constipation. Can’t see what this drip of a chemotherapy drug does to the body. Except the hair. Always, in movies, in photographs, we see the hair gone. Falling in clumps from the head, vanishing from the eyebrows. It’s as if cancer leaves you naked, stripping away so much of you. Even vanity.

And so, in an attempt at visible solidarity with cancer sufferers, people shave their heads. It is a bare statement to raise funds for necessary research. It is painless and symbolic, yet I have failed to do it myself, as if the superficiality of vanity and the real absence of courage are stilling me.

My grandfather fell to lung cancer, dying in slow, painful motion, and so, yes, like you probably, I know this disease. I also know Thomas Jefferson’s words: “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act”, and yet I don’t act.

But Tara Tripathi Sarkar did. And it’s why she’s better than me.

In a friend’s dimly lit study, Tara sits, one leg folded on the chair, arms semaphoring, two gold stars glinting in her ears, the room illuminated by her smile and the light reflected from a head with no hair. She’s healthy, loves dogs, fitness and movies and didn’t know what the word “vanity” means. She’s also shaved her head, cried when her hair fell out, and has raised $4,055 so far through St Baldrick’s Foundation.

Did I mention she’s 13?

At 13, you’re supposed to be unaware, Snapchatting after lights out and dreaming of Justin Bieber. You’re not supposed to be capable of taking a leap over the chasm that separates intent from action. It is the most telling of human acts: to not merely be good, but in fact do good.

Let’s be clear, this is no junior saint at work, no overdeveloped conscience in a precocious head, no child who read deeply on kids’ cancers and felt compelled by a rush of empathy. Discovery of the self is far more complex, it is about the first, tiny steps a person takes beyond his own, safe world.

And so Tara stepped out. And on her own.

Parents everywhere push their children towards virtue. Help a neighbour. Support a cause. But there is a substantial and separate beauty to the act that originates from a young teenager’s self, an idea to try something that is not coerced nor suggested by the parent. Where there is no adult hand to lead – in Tara’s case her parents were supportive – but only a childish one that reaches out tremulously to experiment on its own.

Tara is hardly the only child of her age in this city to shave her head and only representative of a breed. She’d heard about heads shaved for a cause. A friend told her she was going to do it. And she discovered St Baldrick’s Foundation, a charity that funds research for cures for childhood cancers and which has been supporting Duke-NUS’ Paediatric Cancer Research in Singapore since 2011.

So she sat, was shorn, was scared a little (what will people say?), yet emerged as an adventurer who’d made an early exploration into the idea of compassion.

The shaved head, for some, is a defacing of the self and is an idea that can alarm parents. People will stare, they’ll laugh, you’ll be that most terrible of things – different. You’ll stand out in a way we’re not sure you’re ready for. But perhaps we underestimate both the resilience of our children and their sensitivity.

Her head, Tara tells me, is an object of fascination, rubbed like a magic lamp. Respect has come her way, talk of bravery, a contribution from teachers in her school, stares, and yet also the awareness that “it’s OK to be bald if you’re a girl”. In a small way, perhaps not yet entirely digested by her 13-year-old brain, she is starting to appreciate the beauty of difference.

This is surely what we want, children who are sensitive to the differences, of colour, look, privilege, that percolate within a society. No one is advocating schools alive with unfettered self-expression and no boundaries, but blind conformity will suffocate the beautiful bits of individuality that make us so human.

It is where St Margaret’s Secondary School erred last year by chastising the brave girls who shaved their heads for Hair for Hope and did not wear wigs. To cover them up was to miss the point.

Growth as a person lies beyond the degree. As a parent of an older child, I wish for her a fine job, a stable marriage, but if I haven’t stressed the value of decency, the strength of integrity, the ugliness of bigotry, if I haven’t provoked her capacity to care and encouraged a spirit of adventure, then I have failed.

For that, in many ways, is the more real education. As Tara’s father, Mr Jyotibrata Sarkar, says: “It’s not a grand, noble step, but I thought it was a big step and I wanted her to take that step. To know there is a world beyond you and that it’s not always about you.”

Already, at 13, Tara is appreciating the power of the symbolic act, for if she wished to raise $400, now it is 10 times that figure. Already, she is negotiating feelings she is unfamiliar with: “I did feel I was doing something for somebody else. It’s a different kind of happy than doing something for yourself.”

One of the alluring parts of the young is that they are often absent of artifice, carrying with them a simple directness. And so Tara won’t allow us to lift her up as some glittering role model, and says: “It feels good, but it’s not as big a deal as other people make it out to be.” Her hair, she calmly points out, will grow back and, in her most profound moment, she adds: “I can’t say I understand how (kids with cancer) feel. I am not going through all that.”

There is, we’re learning, no prescribed age to make a difference. And a difference is being made. As Professor David Virshup, director, Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Signature Research Programme at Duke-NUS, says: “The survival rate for certain types of childhood leukaemia beyond 10 years from diagnosis is more than 70 per cent compared to less than 10 per cent in the 1960s. These young philanthropists are leading us in the belief that we can do better, and we must.”

For Prof Virshup, and every researcher, Tara matters. All these young kids who take a stand matter. Every fund and dollar matters. But for us it also matters because there cannot be anything more vital than to encourage the humanity that inhabits our children. For in a single act they can understand, and so do we, that when hair falls off, often people grow.

Long before A Gran Plan was even a plan, she and I, as much in love with cinema as we could be – watched Good Will Hunting. And within it, this scene stayed on loop – over and over and over again. Till we knew it.

Notice the cockiness of  Matt Damon’s Will Hunting at the start, the assured sadness of Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire, his delicate balance of counsel, admonishment and imploration as the camera lingers on him, the ambient sound underlining why this scene could have been done indoors but was better done in the real world. Look at when the camera returns slowly to include Will Hunting, his eyes just that bit shifty as a tenuous bluff is called, that hint of a gulp which one tries to disguise at a time like that but never really manages,  and notice too when the music comes in serenading the dawn of truth…

It’s a magnificent scene, brilliant in almost every aspect of film making and we remember seeing it often. Every viewing brought out a new perspective, a more exciting debate, a fresh nuance.  Its great quality is that even seen in isolation, the power of the dialogue (for Matt Damon’s fragile silence never allows it to be just a monologue) holds you and educates you.

But what lingers really is the gist of it: that experience is the only real intelligence…

***********

At the start, A Gran Plan was, as far as I know,  a nameless, featureless pursuit.

There were children who were attending a film appreciation workshop at Playacting and the grand plan was that the workshop would culminate in a film. Perhaps a short film, but something which exposed them to the art and craft of structuring a tale and then transferring it from vivid imagination to eloquent images.

That was all.

Every dream  has nubile beginnings till it gets nurtured by a desire which derives perhaps its greatest strength from its own innocence.

***********

Sangeeta had been toying for a while with the idea of the story which ultimately became A Gran Plan. The original premise was that it be staged somewhere, like some of her earlier works. As the film appreciation workshop developed, so too did the idea that perhaps this story could form the backbone of something bigger. Even at this stage though, its horizon was limited to doing it with a scratch crew and adult cast, almost entirely locally.

My sense is that the growing confidence and enthusiasm of the children fuelled  and emboldened the dream.

One reads and hears often of the meticulous planning and effort that goes into first ventures. A Gran Plan was none of that. What was the plan? Who was the audience? How was it going to get out there? None of these questions were asked.

All that was answered was a feverish desire to chase a dream.

But about a year later, it was conceived, written, named, sourced, directed, edited. Six months later, it was awarded.

***********

Along the way there were many – too many to mention, too important to forget – who bought into the dream and invested, among other things their time and other equally hard earned resources. As the dream grew, so too did their investment. As the dream faltered – for all dreams do – their resolution provided it with strength and their strength provided it with resolve.

The shared money, the time with the kids, the houses to shoot in, the beds to sleep in, the clothes to borrow, the schedules to coordinate, the tips on the weather, the visits to the hospital (that’s another story), the meals for the crew, the efforts at cleaning up, the liaison with the music director and singer(and so what if Shreya Ghoshal was his undying, unsolicited, unprofessed love), the late nights, the early mornings, the dialogue, the arguments, the debates, the celebration … they all contributed.

The only thing better than a dream is a shared dream.

***********

Being a part of or at least being around a film crew is perhaps something which should be on every bucket list.  This lot come together from diverse backgrounds, different age groups, unique skill sets and almost always have strong opinions on everything from the color of the set to left wing socialism. And yet, they somehow magically and implicitly believe in the Director and the actors on set. Its a very safe place.

A lot of the crew for A Gran Plan were a result of cold calls and cross referenced chats. Each arrived at various stages of the film, many on the first day of the shoot. You would never have seen someone buy-in and commit as fast and as much to something which was unknown.

The degree of suddenness of the commitment and bonhomie is eclipsed only by the abruptness with which it all ends. As the movie completes, they vanish just as soon as they had arrived, leaving pretty much only the Director holding the baby.

But there’s a beautiful lingering.

***********

The last time she played a central character, Farida Jalal won the Best Actress Filmfare Award even as the film, Mammo, won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi. There were days in the A Gran Plan shoot when the crew and onlookers applauded her takes, only to be astonished when she would ask if she could give another take.

But as you sit to watch the film next week, notice too,  the cinema newbies – like Tania Mukherjee, particularly in the closing stages of the film.

Also, take a look at the kids – all acting in their first film. While you enjoy their dialogue and banter in helping set up the film, keep a close eye on the dinner scene or the scene at the end and watch the expression of their silence.

And most of all, watch Ollie. Oliver Kennett’s role has dialogue, a gamut of emotions never easy to portray and long pauses in scenes where its just him and Farida Jalal. In many ways, you’ll see that he walks away with the film. If I could have a Dollar for each time you’d want to hug him….

***********

Sangeeta thrives in the slipstream of doubters. Those who prophesize failure are the ones that inhabit her shrine. In itself, that is a romantic concept, but as the best advice of all time goes : Don’t try this at home.

Nevertheless,  her journey from scripting a story to making the film was a long, hard road and often a lonely battle. The parts I remember are really the good ones – the joy when Farida Jalal said “Yes”, the first shot that morning, the prayers before the first shot every day, the lyrics arriving from Jaideep Sahni, the first cut of the song by Shreya Ghoshal, the first look at uncut footage, the first cut, the first reaction from friends, the first private screening on a big screen,  the thrill of filling up festival forms, the acceptance at all those festivals, the excitement of heading off to New York and LA to attend the festivals, the call that day from New York saying she’d won the Mira Nair Award for Rising Female Filmmaker and that Farida Jalal had won Best Actress at Harlem, Ollie’s award as Best Child Actor, the trip to Delhi to attend the Delhi International Film Fest, the big cake by the Taj the next morning when she’d won Best NRI Film

There were other days too. A lot of the film was shot at home, it was edited entirely in the study and all those days of the process were a swarm of busy, lonely struggles. And that was before it was complete. The saga of trying to sell it in Mumbai was another story altogether – Aside from the fancy distributors who wanted to know if there was any “masala” (Sir, its Farida Jalal, a family and kids!) which you could forgive but not ignore, most of the rest of it was painfully cliched “It-is-great-but-its-in-English” or “It-is-great-but-what-can-I-do-with-it” or “Have-you-considered-serialising-it-for-television?”. The pain of an unreleased, completed work is a terrible downer.

But ultimately, it is here.

A Gran Plan releases in Singapore next week.

Sometimes, one sees a work ethic, a pursuit of a cause or a devotion to a dream and the surprise isn’t that there is success, but that there was ever any doubt.

The Trailer of A Gran Plan here.
The Song (sung by Shreya Ghoshal, lyrics by Jaideep Sahni, Music by Kabir and Kaizad) here.

Book your tickets here.

Postcards from a dream..

The Sounds of Sport…

From yesterday’s Straits Times, this Rohit Brijnath piece on the sounds of sport.

THE cheapest object in Formula One is now its most useless. It is a Survival Kit I once bought in Singapore for $2, which promised not to protect me from injury but to ensure my sanity was retained. The kit included ear plugs – vital in a sport so full of itself and swollen with sound – but now they are redundant. A sport once famously loud is now whimpering and has about as much machismo as Optimus Prime after being gelded. It’s as unseemly as boxers blowing kisses in the ring.

The sound of the car reflected the testosterone of racing, its noise speaking of power if not pollution. In the scream of acceleration was felt effort, in the auditory invasion was felt raw emotion, in the insistent whine of the car you could literally hear a rival coming. Fast in our memories almost always had to sound furious.

Now we’ve got meek machines and the spectating experience is confused because sound is so integral to a sport’s personality. It is akin to handing cricketers an aluminium bat which might provide a pathetic clunk, not the sweetness of wood meeting leather ball.

Yet this grousing has had an unintended benefit, for it has alerted us again to the soundtracks to which sport unfolds. In boxing, pictures reveal an assault but the thud of glove on flesh brings its own audible violence. In football, there are microphones behind the goal, as if amid the shouting one might hear the whisper of ball being caressed by net. Table tennis, with its squeaking sneakers, is merely a mix of clicks and ticks but certainly no pings or pongs.

To turn down the volume on a TV during sport makes it one-dimensional, akin to erasing the background clatter of cutlery and music rippling in and out as actors converse in a movie. Sound enriches the experience, which is why cricket often has mikes in stumps, six on the fence and on each of its 32 cameras. The Olympics, always the show-offs, use 4,000 mikes for how else would we hear scuttle of feet and hum of cycle.

Dennis Baxter, sound engineer at many Olympics, has spoken of mikes under the flight path of an archer’s arrow, on the gymnasts’ uneven bars and on the hand-rail of a diving board. As he told The Atlantic: “You can hear their hands. You can hear their feet. You can hear them breathing.” You are there. Beside the divers. Hearing them perform. Allowed partial entry into their world.

Sound in sport, through the vuvuzela, is a clue to culture. Sound tells us instinctively which sport we are watching. If it’s calypso music in the stands, it must be cricket. Sound tells us where we are. Oooh go the genteel Wimbledon crowd; boo go the more easily offended French at their Open.

Sound is the athletes’ friend and their reassurance. They stand on pool decks and huddle in competitive corners with headphones on, using music and motivational tapes to shut out a braying world and either calm the nerves or arouse an emotion. Their world is full of fine vibrations and subtle notes which constantly offer hints about form and clues to rhythm.

Saiyidah Aisyah, rowing gold medallist at the recent SEA Games, listens – subconsciously during competition, attentively during training – to her oar cutting water. “It should make a soft splash and when you release an oar (take it out of the water) it must be as silent as possible,” she says. If the sound is not pure, “your technique is not right”.

Tennis players, those mobile detectives, interpret the sound of ball on a rival’s stringed instrument to rapidly decide how much spin has been attached and pace appended to a shot and thus deduce where it might land.

Sound is how cricketers tell timing and also learn about their sporting deaths. When they miss a ball, they are still looking forward, and it is rattle of ball on stumps behind them that signals their departure. “It’s the most horrible sound,” laughs former India captain Rahul Dravid, but 2008 Olympic shooting gold medallist Abhinav Bindra has his own version of hateful noise.

Shooting is so still, so clingfilmed in concentration, that in this cocoon the ear hears more than it requires. “When I have a panic attack,” says Bindra, “or am very nervous, I can hear my heart pounding. It is a filthy sound.”

One day, with a tiny mike placed on his chest in competition, his heart’s sound may be relayed to us along with its rate. One day, there will be no secret sounds in sport and sadly, every audible mystery will be unveiled – from a miked-up cricketer’s tactic to a golfer’s chat with a caddie.

Yet even as the experience of sound evolves, there is one whose effect is unchanged. A sound piercing and unmusical, heartbreaking yet joyous. A sound whose arrival is cheered one day and whose delay is prayed for the next. Nothing in sport is as beautiful and yet as ugly as this sound of the full-time whistle.

 

On Listening ..

Rohit Brijnath in yesterday’s Straits Times.

 

In my school perched on a northern India hilltop, the wind at night rushed furiously through the trees and sounded to me like a fleeing cavalry of galloping ghosts. I remember this. I remember reading to the percussive sound of a monsoon rain, the unkind swish of a teacher’s cane, the clinking cans which were the milkman’s xylophone, the beseeching caller from a distant mosque.

Even as we grow older, the music of our youth never dims. Sound, after all, is essential to our personal histories, as if we are connected by a string of strange notes to another time and forgotten places. As children, our ears seemed as open as our minds, but as busy adults caught in a cacophonic planet, we have forgotten how to listen.

People wail online and harangue on Twitter and righteous opinion is hurled at us like tossed confetti. The television debate is often a poor version of the Gunfight at the OK Corral where angry rhetoric is fired from predictable positions. There is a lot of telling, but not much listening.

A wise fellow given to clever anagrams once shuffled the letters in “listen” and came up with “silent”. Sometimes, to do one requires an embrace of the other. To listen is to open up my world to receive from yours, it suggests I can be enriched by what you say, it means I must suspend my belief that I know it all and empty myself of preconceptions. Listening is a quiet and lost humility.

I had no idea till last week who Zeno of Citum was – a Greek thinker, who else – but he wrote: “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.” It is simple mathematics that Anton Casey might have applied. If he had read aloud his puerile Facebook posts, the words percolating within, their implication digested, he might have deleted them and stayed happily anonymous.

Casey didn’t listen to himself or his prejudices, neither did some members of the online mob who flayed him. Few of us do these days, despite growing up to Simon and Garfunkel’s 1965 warning about “People hearing without listening”.

On the Net, irate comments to articles often have no connection to the topic at hand, just wild rants about imagined slights. Already amidst the tragedy of a missing plane there is irrelevant innuendo about meteors, aliens and Bermuda triangles. Who knew the human race needed so badly to be heard?

Listening is learning, it is reflection, it is an art worth reacquiring. It is not only about the words we hear, the tone we recognise, but also in the languages of the bodies we read. In a teacher’s still stance and stern face, we have all listened to disapproval.

As Evelyn Glennie, the profoundly deaf percussionist, wrote, listening is linked to sound, yet also feel. She would put her hands on the wall when a teacher played notes on the timpani – it produces a lot of vibrations – and found she could “distinguish the rough pitch of notes by associating where on my body I felt the sound”. Low sounds in the legs, high sounds on face.

Listening is not all seriousness, it is whimsy and pleasure, it is the hoot of laughter, the melancholic whistle of the departing steam engine, the crow cackling out a soliloquy. Perhaps it was easier as a boy for I had no mobile phone, no computer game, no iPod, no TV. So I had to listen to the world, if not my mother.

Now, with headphones on, few care to eavesdrop on the world. It is as if we choose not to experience life. Part of it is understandable for urban sprawls echo with the dull sound of rumbling car and groaning crane. It is why we must flee now and then into nature to listen to the planet.

In thick jungle, over the tranquil sounds of murmuring river and humming insects, it is the monkey’s alarm call and rustle of the panicky deer taking flight that help build a picture of a tiger prowling through his domain.

But even in cities we can find fulfilling music or at least find places to listen to ourselves, order our thoughts and restore our sanity. It can be found in morning runs when we are attentive to every beat of heart and gasp of lung and have conversations with our deepest selves.

It is discovered in kitchens, where a friend tells me sound is integral to his art, for he is attuned to the tales told by every spluttering spice and sizzling seed in his oily pans. It is found by the sea and in the quiet depths of the Botanic Gardens, where if you wait you might hear a leaf fall.

There is much to listen to if we care to and if we also accept that all of us are carriers of tales. Years ago, I found myself captive to three old men – their hearing faulty, their zest enchanting – as they exchanged tales of India’s freedom struggle and spoke compellingly of legendary figures from my schoolboy textbooks whom they had met. We were in a hospital waiting room and escape was impossible. I had to listen and then I was grateful for this was an oral history of my land.

The sentences of old folk can meander like a kite on a windy day, but listening is patience. It is waiting as a grandfather stitches memory together and tells tales of a different Singapore that will be lost with his passing. You cannot appreciate a nation’s present if you haven’t listened attentively to its past.

Yet old folk must pay attention, too, for the young are restless messengers of new ideas. In conservative nations an outdated hierarchy of speech persists, wherein women and children must be the listeners, not the listened to. It is underpinned by conceit for it suggests every voice does not matter, when of course it does.

We need not check our hearing, but only recalibrate our ability to listen. So read aloud a passage from a lyrical book. So remind yourself at parties, as I should, of the writer Russell Baker’s warning:

“When you’re talking up a storm so brilliant, so charming that you can hardly believe how wonderful you are, pause just a moment and listen to yourself. It’s good for the soul to hear yourself as others hear you, and next time maybe… you will not talk so much, so loudly, so brilliantly, so charmingly, so utterly shamefully foolishly.”

I am trying to open my ears. It is why two months ago – to the laughter of my daughter – I pressed a stethoscope against her stomach. My mind closed the door on every distraction and I waited for it, this faint yet frequent sound which a doctor friend had told me about. There… yes… I swear I heard it… did I? Maybe it was just my imagination, but it scarcely mattered. I was listening for my granddaughter’s heartbeat and listening to life.

Of Memories, Loss and Love ..

Rohit Brijnath in this morning’s Straits Times.

In a drawer in his bedroom, inside his neat house, next to his wallet and his watch, lies the card. It is like any other card, a piece of folded, white cardboard. It is like any other birthday greeting, full of wishes from her and exclamations of love. Yet it is like no other card because he doesn’t know if this is her last love letter to him. Not because she is going anywhere but because her memory is. She isn’t falling out of love with him, it’s just that she just might forget how to love him.

This is not a Valentine’s Day- approved love story. It has no happy ending, but then love stories often have elegant beginnings, it is their conclusions which are rarely tidy. Relationships fray, romance fades, companionship grates, disease calls. It’s when you know love isn’t a one-off bunch of exquisite flowers, but a grittier and more persistent virtue. Love is cleaning diapers, it is hard work.

This love story is about two people: Raj, 67, a man built of chunks of muscle and wit and gentleness; and Bobbie, 63, an elegant woman whose beauty has not yet been sanded away by time. They met in 1978 in Kolkata, travelled to another land, had a son, then three grandchildren and live amidst movies and books in a corner of Melbourne.

It is a neat and familiar suburban picture, except for this: Raj loves Bobbie, and Bobbie has dementia. Every year he gives her a Valentine’s Day present. Now she doesn’t know what the day means.

Raj cannot precisely summon the day when the threads of his wife’s logical brain and memory began to fray. Was it summer when she began to repeat herself? Was it spring when she watched television and kept asking the same questions?

He can’t remember, he just knows that over seven years, like a slow, unfixable leak of reason and recall and feelings, Bobbie’s momentary lapses have turned into a dreadful pattern. She knows the way back home from the shops but cannot recognise friends. She has forgotten familiar tastes – she relished curries, now she abhors them – yet rises in delight when her son steps through her door.

The death of neurons turns the brain into an erratic, clumsy machine which no potion can fix and no surgery can mend. Your wife is there before you and yet a terrible theft is under way, a hollowing out of her which you cannot stop. It imprisons you in a vice of confusion, helplessness, sadness, yet within this changed life Raj has not forgotten how to love Bobbie. He has just gently renegotiated the terms of this romance.

He is her listener. And so she will speak, and repeat, every day from a similar script, yet he will never silence her. He is her chef. He will wake at 5.30am to make her lunch and then return from work to put together her dinner, faithfully putting on a plate all that she likes. He is her compass and he is her detective. When she says her mouth is burning, he will investigate and find she has used detergent, not mouthwash.

He is her guide and he is her friend. He will take her shopping and stand mute as she gathers endless items and then pays the incorrect sum because prices and mathematics elude her. He just inclines his eyebrow at the shopgirls who are now his accomplices in a compassionate routine: surreptitiously they will put away items, yet never ruin her day.

In books, love is built of a scaffolding of shared words and sharp dialogue. In films, two characters meet, tenderness is expressed, feelings are returned and they bend for a kiss. Here, love is more silent and undemonstrative, here there is a limited exchange of the normal vocabulary of affection, for Bobbie cannot easily express emotion. So, on almost every day, nothing is taken by Raj, but only given.

It is as if he has embraced the idea embedded in the author Anne Morrow Lindberg’s words on changing love: “Relationships must be like islands, one must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits – islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, and continually visited and abandoned by the tides.”

But then sometimes, for no apparently scientific reason, the tide turns. Sometimes, from nowhere, Bobbie loves him back.

Last year, Raj comes home on his birthday to find a bottle of bluish liquid waiting for him. “It is what you like to put on your face,” she tells him. She has bought him mouthwash, but she thinks it is after-shave. It is what he used to like, now it’s only the colour that remains with her. She also gives him a tracksuit, but it is small enough to fit their grandson.

It doesn’t matter to Raj: He just thinks of her walking to the shops, he imagines her rummaging through her memory, he considers her gesture – and then he sits down, this friend of mine, and he weeps. Her buying this bottle, he knows, is a profound act, for it is as if love has transcended dementia, as if for this brief, wondrous moment it has defeated the disease.

Love – even if it is quick flashbacks, sudden shards of recollection, unconnected pieces from a past – is possibly among the last of Bobbie’s memories. Old memories of this greying, bespectacled man who has spent a life alongside her, memories so deeply imprinted they are still defying erasure. On a recent night when I visited, when he bid her good night, she took his hand and kissed it, once, twice, four times, seven times. She never did this before, but these days she does and he cannot explain it. Except to say that he is grateful.

It is when he tells me about the card, the one he now keeps in his drawer. On Jan 4 this year, as she always did, she gives it to him. It is his birthday but she has bought him a wedding card and it is a beautiful mistake.

Inside she scrawls a message in her altered handwriting, but this year, like last year, she signs off in a way she has never done before. She writes, “Your wife, Bobbie.” Is she reminding herself who she is to him? Or is she telling him, Raj, please, don’t ever forget who I am to you?

The Road Less Travelled..

Rohit Brijnath on the honour of completing a marathon. From this morning’s Straits Times.

EVERY athletic tribe, on casual examination, presents a particular image. Golfers look slothful and ice-skaters emotionally fragile. Marathoners, in contrast, seem like earnest, obsessive-compulsives who think War And Peace is light reading and the 100m is less a race than a short joke.

The marathoner, a deliberate fellow with a disdain for hurry, takes a 100 metres just to settle his water bottle on his hip. Usain Bolt, quick and flirty, might be fun to watch but his 100m race lacks the legend of the marathon.

No 100m runner requires mid-race alcohol rubdowns as occurred in the 1896 Olympic marathon. No 100m runner has been attacked by a defrocked priest during a race as happened at the 2004 Olympic marathon. And no 100m race is as frequently interrupted by hoaxers, short-cutters, Elvis impersonators, impostors and pranksters as the marathon.

Last weekend, in the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore, a runner left the course after 6km and then reappeared at the end. Even if a finisher’s T-shirt was his only motivation, sportingly it made no sense. Why feel the need to finish a race when you have first abandoned it? What pleasure lies in symbolically completing the incomplete race?

But this journey to 42km and 195 metres, under a spectating sun, has always led people astray. No traditional race in sport is as long, and so solitary, leaving an athlete too much time to think. Runners lose their bearing – at the 1908 Olympics, a dazed Dorando Pietri entered the stadium and set off in the wrong direction – and occasionally their moral compass.

Some get to the finish line legitimately with blood in their shoes and some arrive at the end looking oddly cool, having ridden an air-conditioned bus over half the distance. In 1904, at the Olympics, Fred Lorz was declared the winner till he admitted his prank involved an 11-mile (17.7km) car ride. Then, reportedly, it broke down, so he had to run.

The marathon’s length beckons both short cut and ingenuity. In ancient times, no one filmed the runner quaffing a brandy. Now they are snapped by iPhones, tailed by TV cameras and tracked by smart chips. It is hard not to get caught, yet mankind is an unstoppably original species.

In 1999, for instance, the Motsoeneng brothers handed over their race number to each other in a roadside toilet and exchanged places mid-race during the Comrades Marathon. It was the perfect crime but for a minor error: A photograph revealed they wore their watches on different arms.

The marathon is intriguing because it is a race of honour yet it is uniquely open to deceit. Real marathoners know their pain, their miles covered, their timings. They know what they have invested, what they have endured and that everything must be earned. They know the short cut demeans every sacrifice they have made. This is the no-bull**** sport: Here it is fine to try and not finish, but not to finish without adequately trying.

Honour matters for marathoners are not imprisoned in a stadium – they can leave the road to pee and the route to flee. So they must live by a code. Most do, but not everyone does in this crowded race of 16,000 people, where amateur and Haile Gebrselassie run the same course on the same day.

Not everyone moves out of the way. Not everyone makes their way honourably to the finish. Amid so many, the vain and the unsure, the T-shirt wanters and the braggers, there will always be some who don’t fully comprehend the idea of the marathon.

But they must learn. The beauty of this race lies in its spreading blisters, its diarrhoea in the bushes, and in people still running despite all that. Its beauty lies in respect for the road, in pulling limping strangers along, in being part of a family of pain, in just finishing.

Not everyone will know this, but in those race kits given to runners lies a perfect platform to influence. Just add one page on which marathon tradition is recorded, history recounted, etiquette suggested, values noted. Some will toss it, others may read it, and perhaps an idea will travel widely like an echo: Running builds health but also character.

Legend tells us this race was born from a moment in 490 BC when Pheidippides ran a great distance to carry news of the Greeks’ victory in the Battle of Marathon. “Be joyful, we win,” is one version of what he said.

His words are accurate about soldiering, but don’t quite fit this race of peaceful citizens. The marathon isn’t about winning, for only one of thousands can. Victory lies simply in going the distance. And to suggest you have finished without completing the journey is to gently cross the wrong line.

Rohit Brijnath’s other piece on running, love and inspiration – here