Saturday, 21 May 2016

F1: Where are the Women Drivers?

When John Oliver ripped into FIFA prior to the 2014 World Cup, he gave us the Sausage Principle: If you love something, don’t find out how it’s made.” Detail after detail of the murky workings of football’s top body, it turns out, are clearly at odds with the pure, emotional surges of passion that define the global devotion to the war-substitute ‘beautiful game’. John Oliver certainly did nothing to kill anybody’s passion for football (not even his own), but I must confess to being left embittered. Which, all said and done, is a rather mild reaction compared to the scale of injustice one is aware of.
Corruption in sport is disillusioning to various degrees and takes away from the discipline and toil of the people who make competitive sport great. The shining stage which the talented young athletes of the world occupy exists against the background of a ruthless, wealthy business class that has found the best way to milk our love of real-life drama for their financial gains.
It doesn’t help, then, when you realise that in addition to the financial murk that operates behind the scenes, the most popular sports are also the site for a far more fundamental, viscerally offensive endorsement of sexism.
I’ve been a Formula 1 fan for sixteen years now, and as I write this I realise that makes up about one-fourth of the sport’s 65-year history. In that time the sport has built a bigger footprint across the world, its circus travelling to shiny new circuits in countries like India, China and the UAE. There is finally a non-white world champion, and the nationalities that have raced in the sport are no longer confined to Western Europe. F1 has finally seen, with varying success, the participation of drivers from countries like India, Mexico, Indonesia and Malaysia.
But where are the women drivers?
It is telling that F1’s bosses, in their quest for diverse markets and audiences, have completely bypassed the inclusion of more women on the roster of the pinnacle of open-wheeled racing. This in spite of the fact that F1 is a sport for agile individuals with quick-thinking brains and fast reflexes. Attributes that do not necessitate a separate women’s championship, as good women drivers, trained well, continue to win in the lower Formulas, a stepping stone into F1.
You could be forgiven for thinking that there must be a “physical” reason why women don’t make the cut. Turns out, though, that it’s not as great a deal as it’s made out to be. Training right helps all drivers prepare for the G-forces they experience at very high speeds. Drivers who build less strength outpace their competitors by working on endurance. A difference in muscular strength, therefore, does not rule you out as a race-winner.

Susie Wolff, ex-Williams test driver. Image courtesy the Sydney Morning Herald

The only genuine disadvantage that may impede a racing career is economy. Racing requires access to cars and karts from an early age, so it is understandable why the bulk of F1 drivers have come from the world’s most prosperous countries. A lack of girls entering karting competitions and the junior racing formulas may also explain why significantly less than half of all racing drivers are women. But Formula 1 has seen only five women start a Grand Prix as opposed to over 820 men since it started in 1950.
Which brings us to attitudes. The Old Men of Formula 1 have a knack for sexism which helps them come up with gems of insensitivity. Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s chief executive, said women “wouldn’t be taken seriously” when asked about bringing more women drivers into F1.
It is pretty much a case of the jocks keeping the paddock to themselves. In the non-driving aspects of the F1 circus, women professionals are a visible presence, reflecting their greater participation across professions. One of India’s best motorsports writers for example. Or team bosses like Monisha Kaltenborn and Claire Williams.
Legendary drivers, meanwhile, have done little to help make the sport more gender inclusive. The greatest driver to never have won a world title, Sir Stirling Moss, said the difference lay in the mind games. According to him, women lack the mental strength for the sport. What a relief, then, that he did not add in the popular jibe of women being bad drivers.
This explains why the maximum women you see at race weekends at the “Grid Girls”. Unfortunate for a sport which prides itself on being at the cutting edge of innovation.
If you thought it was just the ancients who hold regressive views like this, you’re sadly mistaken. The once up and coming Mexican sensation, Sergio Perez, once said he would prefer that women stay in the kitchen rather than drive in F1.
The sport hasn’t got to where tennis is, so it will be some time before pay parity between men and women is debated, and an F1 start does a Novak Djokovic on us.
There are signs of a greater change, though. Carmen Jorda, the Renault F1 test driver, is 27, so she does have a chance of a race seat. An outside chance, but it exists. Meanwhile, the last driver to drive in a practice session on a race weekend, Susie Wolff, has launched the Dare to be Different campaign to bring more women into motorsport.

F1’s isn’t entirely surprising though. Recent deaths due to head injuries prompted F1 to try out better head protection for the cars, with ‘purists’ blasting the move saying it takes away the risks, and thus the thrill of the sport. There persists the uber-masculine narrative of knights going out to battle, the risk of death adding nobility to what they do. No surprises, then, that women who could be champions continue to contend not with questions of racing talent, but to be “taken seriously.”

Monday, 2 May 2016

We are a ‘sensitive’ nation. Or are we?

The times of today are the times of the offended. Judging by what we see on social media, where all of us write through a large number of platforms available to us, I suppose you could say ours is a ‘sensitive’ society. Given, though, that there is so much that happens in the country daily with the potential to offend, hurt, disgust or enrage us, what we choose to make the most noise about is a sign of where our priorities lie.

An offhand analysis would suggest that our greatest allegiance is to symbols and appearances, whether or not we understand what they mean. Artificial constructs of a happy, cheery, country whose problems aren’t really to be dwelt on.

No attribute of India, perhaps, is misappropriated as much as diversity. In our collective imagination, diversity exists for all practical purposes as little more than a colourful tapestry of rituals, clothes, traditions, facial features and cuisines. What our understanding of diversity does not include is that such physical diversity often extends to points of view. Points of view where what is sacred to one people is anathema to another, and the whole point of sharing this country is that we work on the most harmonious ways to live together.

Instead, all we do is co-opt this diversity for our tourism and cricket adverts, or to show that all of India, divided on countless lines, at least drinks the same soft drink and prefers the same motorcycle. Incredible, isn’t it, the splendour of our India? All hunky-dory until we question the ‘unquestionable’.
The teacher who taught me as a kid, and therefore whose teachings I cannot question, gave me a certain idea of India that is set in stone. To question it makes me an ingrate, and I am duty bound to ‘give it’ to those who do not see the country and its symbols in the way I do.

This collective business of ‘giving it’ to the anti-nationals, ‘nailing it’ with memes and counter-memes has built for us an atmosphere of fear and created a prison of the mind. Weapons are abandoned in a university bus with a threat to the lives of two student activists. Whether or not the threat is carried out (may heaven forbid the latter), where does it leave our universities, where to dissent and debate is indispensable towards building a stronger democracy?

In a classic display of the crude, reprehensible masculinity which really is the root of a lot of social conflict, a fringe politician with a penchant for polarizing the electorate on religious lines says he will not say “Bharat Mata ki Jai” even if a knife his held to his throat. It bears mention that no knife, even a metaphorical one, was held to his throat at that point. Look at the hate it has precipitated in the past few weeks, and how it has subsumed all other issues of debate. Then we have an FMCG entrepreneur and yoga instructor posing as a spiritual guru, who says he would behead those who do not say Bharat Mata ki Jai. This same person, mind you, abandoned a rally of his followers in disguise at the first threat of police action.

Go back to February, and you will remember the headlines being dominated by a “journalist” who started the #PakstandswithJNU hashtag, anticipating Hafiz Saeed’s need for the same. A decorated police officer and the country’s Home Minister accepted this as “evidence”.

What all this noise cloaks is the real problems that successive governments leave unaddressed, both the one led by the puppet PM whose personal integrity was a cover for the slimy dealings of his subordinates, and the one led by the incumbent mild-mannered, self-effacing man of iron who got his name pinstriped all over a suit.

When we do talk of ‘real’ problems, we talk of the ones our idea of India resonates with. The liquor baron who fled the law with billions in unpaid debts. The money stashed offshore by people of political and cultural eminence. Somehow, we miss out on the fact that over a million children die every year from causes that are easily preventable, and that a few litres of rainwater is all that lie between a farmer and the noose he has kept in a corner. All this while a minister finds it beneath himself to travel 40 km by road, preferring to use a chopper whose landing site costs 10,000 litres of water to prepare.

We fixate, instead on the demons who cheer the loss of our cricket team, to the point of wanting them injured or worse. We think that the army, deftly handled by civilian governments to function as their tool, is an otherworldly institution above reproach. We forget in our ire against the “invader” that if India truly must be governed by those who are its ‘original’ residents, first choice would go to the Dalits and the tribals. No one else.

We build a narrative where the soldier dying in the cold, the PM sleeping only while travelling, the emotional pull of what we were taught as children, is over and above all other considerations. We the beneficiaries of a benevolent state, unwilling to see that the comforts we live with, have come at the cost of the worst violations committed on fellow citizens. In condoning the worst we can do as humans as long as we don’t see it, our sensitivity and imagined compassion does not put our leaders in the dock. It implicates us most of all.

Monday, 15 June 2015


To speculate about life in a time different from ours is an engaging, amazing activity. To me, it certainly explains why we love going back to the trope of medieval style dramas, and why we visualise in painstaking detail our interpretation of life in the world(s) of the future.

This begs the thought: if the workings of every age, era or epoch other than ours fascinate us so, is not our time today going to be an endless source of fascination for those who come after us? We know how the generations before us thought of the lives of us millenials, and we've given them a mixed bag in return. Outdone some of their expectations, matched up to some and fallen short on some others. But what of the generations that will succeed us in the running of this little blue orb suspended in the heavens?

Granted, the technological advancements of our day give us the power to transmit a huge, huge proportion of our lived history to our successors. But try as we might, there is a limit to how much the intended vision of our history is taken at face value by the people to come, for who can correctly predict the backward-looking glances of those people to whom this amazing digital age of ours will be shockingly primitive? 

While we are at the threshold of a fossil-fuel free civilisation, they might build a future of a technological proficiency unforeseen even by the greatest scientists and science fiction writers of our time. They will also see, through our popular culture, what we thought of the lives that would be lived hundreds or thousands of years after our time. How much of it will prove mere fancy, and in what things will our expectations be entirely outdone? After all, we've not done too bad. Look at your handheld touchscreen phones. In our childhood, the fact that they would be a reality, as well as cheap and accessible, would have seem far-fetched. So would the vision of Mars, which thanks to our efforts today is a planet exclusively inhabited by robots, one of whom tweeted about its entry into the planet's orbit.

We have, like those before us, built impressive symbols of our time. Buildings. Machines. Vehicles. Weapons. But it is an unstable world, prone even in this more civilised time to unprecedented upheaval. To say nothing of calamities caused by nature. Time and again we have and will prove ourselves capable of horrors that will be as much a part of our history as all the beautiful things we leave behind. What we want to leave behind may not exactly be what the future inherits. Plane graveyards may survive while great statues are razed to the ground. Old nuclear reactors may live on as abandoned hulks while little sign may remain of great palaces and tombs and towers. The possibilities are many. Data banks with more "relevant" details may be wiped out, while stray time capsules with more personal recollections and pop-culture references may somehow survive. Now, wouldn't that be amazing.

Time, however, has a great way of showing us how little we matter. We know, for example, that the few thousand years of our dominion over the earth are a mere blip in the exponentially longer history of the known universe. Astronomical differences in time may reduce our millions of advancements, made over centuries and centuries, to just a footnote in the histories of what might eventually end up to be an interstellar society. 

Given the odds we have surmounted to reach where we are, in the face of all logic and common sense, who knows how far we may yet reach, and the extent to which we push the bounds of that which is possible? And one day, tens of thousands of years into the future, if and when the descendants of our race, or one as yet undiscovered, do come across our history, will our time and our stories be only a short footnote? "Mostly harmless?" Or perhaps a faded memory of Old Earth and no more. 

Will a hard disk with all episodes of Game of Thrones be all that lives, or a docket of state secrets, or a definitive book of physics, religion or literature? Of the many, many things that form each a cell of our varied, many-layered, ever-evolving civilisation, what will survive? And what will those who look back at us make of it? That is something I'd give anything to know. 

Tuesday, 6 August 2013


I like being alone.

This isn’t to say that I’m a loner or a misanthrope, who stays away from the society of fellow humans out of an inability to connect or (perhaps) a strong sense of dislike. This isn’t one of those “I walk in the rain so nobody can see I’m crying” admissions either. It is something I’ve wanted to write about for a long while, though. And yes, it is a rather self-indulgent exercise. If you’re going to read through to the end, I’m really thankful. It is very kind of you.

I count myself luckier than most when I think of the people in my life. Again, it’s not an army of well-wishers come to soothe the ‘lonely’ me, it is a large, diverse group of people I have a lot of fun with, a very army of folks I can turn to at every moment of need. The companionship of family and friends is a treasure that I value, and not the least because it makes me value the exact opposite: solitude.

A large part of my soul dwells in my ‘alone-time’, periods of time where I am solitary. On my own, shut off from everyone I know. It is an aspect of my life that enriches it beyond measure, and I have often found that the lack of solitude when needed has been an indicator of the doldrums.

But seeking solitude is not necessarily the offensive, cold exercise many people think it is. It is not pathological either. Once you immerse yourself in the joys of solitude, you will find many a kindred soul. My most rewarding friendships, indeed, are with people who understand the mutual need of alone-time, people who are there at the times that matter, people who I go months without meeting, but when we meet, we pretty much pick up from where we left last time.

I believe there is an integral part of our souls, our personalities, that must never be defined by other people. An element devoid of inhibition, an assertion, however small, of an aspect of ourselves that is projected as it is, ‘take it or leave it.’ Time spent alone, in the depths of one’s own thought, trying to know and understand oneself better, that is what complements the benefits of associating with other people to shape us into the people we are, and the people we want to be.

Solitude has led me to a lot of the things I treasure most in life. Walking and travelling on my own, for example. It is at the beginning and the end of a journey, that a traveller is defined by people, places and associations. The time it takes to navigate between those points is a period of suspension, a little window where you belong to yourself and to no one else, where there is no need for you to be anybody but who you are.

When you are alone you don’t have to lie to yourself. Whether or not you do so really does determine who you are then. A solitary walk is therapeutic for exactly this reason. Devoid of another physical presence, the individual processes their own thoughts the way they like.

But solitude and the society of other people are essentially complementary. In a situation as close to ideal as possible, each teaches the value of the other. Hence my assertion that one must be ‘solitary’ and not ‘lonely’. I spend days on end alone, sometimes, my connect with people around me barely more than superficial, but it helps to know that a kind voice is not far away. There is the internet, the phone, the neighbourhood. Solitude will teach you to love those who care for you even more, because no misery is greater than when you look for a kind face, and find none.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Return of the Iceman

When Kimi Raikkonen won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last weekend, I was ecstatic. True, I have been a loyal Ferrari fan for 11 years, and it is my fervent desire to see Fernando Alonso drive the Prancing Horse
home to a title. But Raikkonen is my favourite driver, and the joy of seeing the good old Iceman lead
the field in an amazing display of racing prowess, after quite a few seasons, was a joy I cannot put into
words. It did not matter that his colours were the black and gold of Lotus.

Some pairs of eyes have a cold intensity, their inner fire not easy to miss. Very few Formula One fans
who have seen Kimi Raikkonen would be unaware of this. When I started watching the sport in 2002,
Michael Schumacher had the sport in a grip of total dominance, poised to win a fifth world title behind
the wheel of arguably the best Ferrari ever to hit the track. Raikkonen, a 22 year-old already famous for
his prodigious talent, was driving a McLaren.

Reliability issues mercilessly dogged the man expected to continue Mika Hakkinen’s legacy, his car
breaking down more often than not, the sight of Kimi jumping over barriers and walking alone to
the pits a very common one. The season ended with Schumacher as champion, his record-equalling
championship sealed in France with many races to go.

Then came 2003, a season I will never forget. Three drivers took it upon themselves to give Michael
a run for his money: his brother Ralf, the Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi. The Ferrari was
equally matched by the BMW-Williams and the Mclarens, and Schumacher was never too clear of his

The fiercest challenge was mounted at the end, Raikkonen-in spite of just one win to Schumacher’s
six, a hair’s breadth away on points. The Finn was prevented at the end by a superb drive from Rubens
Barrichello at Suzuka, helping Schumacher to a sixth title by a lead of just two points.

But Raikkonen had proved his point. He was a force to be reckoned with, and along with Fernando
Alonso, was seen as one of the drivers who would lead the sport in a short time.

Schumacher won his last title in 2004, losing it to Alonso in 2005 and 2006, the latter season an
intensely close-fought one, before he took a bow. And something amazing happened. Raikkonen signed
up for Ferrari.

2007 bettered 2006 in terms of bitter rivalry. Lewis Hamilton exploded onto the scene, joining McLaren
with Fernando Alonso for a teammate. Unlike most teams, the two drivers were put at par, with an
equal chance to take a shot at the title. Ferrari started a lukewarm season, the Silver Arrows leading the
pack as it was established that the Prancing horse was certainly not the best car on track.

Hamilton and Alonso dominated the season, Kimi plowing his way some distance behind. The two
McLaren drivers bred an intense rivalry, which turned bitter when the team put its weight behind
Hamilton. The suspense and drama was incredible, and the title went down to the last race. With
Hamilton on 107 points, Alonso on 103 and Raikkonen on 100, the Iceman needed a win to score the 10
points that would offer at least a slim chance of competition.

The race ended as dreams do, the most improbable result translating to reality. Kimi won, and Hamilton
and Alonso ended down the grid scoring 2 and 6 points, their scores tied on 109. The Iceman beat the
principal contenders by one point, and how.

He did see a decline after that, his motivation put under the scanner. Sensing it was time for a break,
Kimi left open-wheel racing and moved to the World Rally Championship. His return to F1 in 2012
sparked interest, the hopes of fans and experts rising after Michael Schumacher’s lackluster return.

Kimi won’t be World Champion this year, but he is third in the standings with two races to go, his name
frequently among the points even though he has just the one win. Typical of the man. He symbolizes the
raw racing spirit of an earlier time, that survives in just a few others like Alonso, or rookie Sergio Perez.

It was amazing beyond words to see Kimi on the top rung of the podium. Here’s to a real title challenge
next year.

Welcome back, Iceman.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Aseem Trivedi controversy: how intolerance of dissent gave us a new 'leader'

No one mucks up timing like our government. There’s nobody else for deflecting the real issue of a debate by mistimed action. Look at the Aseem Trivedi incident.

A cartoonist, ‘incensed’ by the graft rampant all over the place, uses his art form as a tool to express his angst. A lot of it is frankly uninspiring and rather ordinary. There is only so much creativity that goes into imagining Parliament as a toilet bowl and politicians as turds. Trivedi’s wolf-representation of our national emblem, however, rings truer as a work of lampoonery. But move further, and there is a problem.

You see it when you come across the ‘Gang Rape of Mother India’ cartoon. A politician and a bureaucrat hold a hand each of ‘Mother India’, inviting ‘the devil’ of corruption to rape her.

In all honesty, why has no one blasted this one for the barely-veiled misogyny? Angst is one thing, and its spawning due to the mess our country is in is more than understandable. Resorting to slander cheapens the dignity of a political stand, which is why our public figures, no matter what their manner of speech in private is, must avoid expletives in front of their followers.

Why must cartoons be any different? If you ask me, Aseem Trivedi, a doubtlessly well-meaning fellow citizen of my own generation, uses his angst to cloak the ordinariness and poor taste in his cartoons. Definitely in the half-dozen that I have seen.

But he is, today, a symbol to those who resent censorship and draconian sedition laws, thanks to his arrest for ‘dishonouring’ our national symbols. What his cartoons deserve is a debate on their content by those who come across them, the recipients free to like or dislike what they see, free to praise or criticize what they represent. Empowered with the freedom of expression, the exposition of his dissent is a right, and he is free to defend himself against any who may feel offended by his work.

I don’t believe that any of the cartoons would drain the ‘patriotism’ of Trivedi’s admirers and cause them to do something ‘anti-national’. It is not his cartoons that have undermined the sanctity of our Parliament. That gets done when our lawmakers disrupt House sessions, engage in scuffles, tear each other’s speeches, throw microphones and chairs.

Whatever the merit of Aseem Trivedi’s ‘Cartoons Against Corruption’, when he puts them up on the internet, they deserve to be there. To be seen, accepted or rejected. But to ban them altogether goes against the grain of the freedom to express oneself, essential to any democracy.

It might be of use to remember Voltaire here: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Review-Red Jihad: The Battle for South Asia

To those of you who have followed my earlier posts, I apologise for the longish hiatus. In this post, I will try inducing you to read Red Jihad: The Battle for South Asia by Sami Ahmad Khan.

A word about the author. He is a hoopy frood. A really hoopy frood, pardon my Doug Adams-ish. Meaning he is a nice guy, and fun, the latter infectiously so.

The book.

The pace is gripping. With a marked adherence to (and occasional divergence from) a clearly defined chronology, the book successfully captivates you with the feeling that things are on the move. A lot of things.

India and Pakistan juggle a fragile peace between themselves in 2014, their leaders being the first shock you will get when you begin reading. Yasser Basheer, a Pakistani militant, joins forces with Agyaat, an Indian Maoist insurgent, as they try to bring the two South Asian neighbours to the brink of an all-destroying war. Which is where the geopolitics gets complex. More countries get drawn into the quagmire, and the suspense builds as much as the action thrills.

You appreciate as the author guides you through the multiple abbreviations, codes and security networks as he builds an image of our security agencies that is a far cry from the forlorn depiction the news media dishes out to us. Soldiers work on their briefs, often cold and calculating but always devoted to their cause. Civil servants and politicians hold their own in a web skillfully woven.

Khan's kept the chuckles handy, too. There's a lot of serious business about, but there are liberal doses of dry wit for a little breather when you need one.

It is a good read, and we hope that there are many more to come. We could do with more Indian spy and covert-operation fiction on our shelves.