May 24, 2020

Peculiar events in a lockdown

Allow me to list here a few of the more peculiar events of the last several days. I mean, there have been many, and don’t get the idea that these are the most peculiar. I picked them out at random.

* A woman is desperate to get to her home in a distant corner of India. She has her father with her. She chooses her only option: to cycle home. 1200 km, with him riding pillion. You don’t need me to tell you that this is just one more wrenching story from this migrant tragedy that we have blundered into. You’ve seen and read about many many others like this pair.

But what happens with this one? A cycling federation announces that they will call her in for trials, once this lockdown lifts. Ivanka Trump (!) praises her “beautiful” love for her father and the federation’s announcement. Voila: one strand in this blanket of migrant misery has been successfully painted as a heartwarming story of guts and glory that — believe! Just do it! — may even bring India Olympic glory one day!

* PM Modi flew to West Bengal to get a first-hand look at the devastation caused by cyclone Amphan, a great natural disaster. As he should, of course.

PM Modi has also been flying all over the country to get a first-hand look at the devastation caused by the lockdown — the streams of desperate migrants on foot and in concrete mixers and being hosed down with bleach and more, of course — a great manmade disaster. As he should, of course.

But wait. Oops. My mistake. Only one of those flights actually happened.

* PM Modi flew to West Bengal to get a first-hand look at the devastation caused by cyclone Amphan, a great natural disaster. He was met at the airport by the state’s governor, one Jagdeep Dhankar. Two photos have emerged of that meeting and a subsequent one between the two men: this one and this one.

Take a look, for the governor’s posture in both says everything you need to know about him. And I need say no more.

* Out for walks last evening and this morning, I ran into a substantial crowd both times — on foot, scooters, cars, cycles — outside a particular store. I’m talking easily a hundred people, all male. Many without masks. Distancing? Forget it. The owner of the store must have been anticipating trouble, because standing outside the entrance were two hefty bouncers in deep blue shirts, wielding long sticks.

Curiously, the store itself was actually closed. Both times. Were these men waiting for it to open? Likely, but why so long? (Last evening the crowd was nearly unchanged twice that I passed during my walk, 45 minutes apart).

So what does this store sell? Liquor.

There’s a commentary buried in there, I suspect. (Full disclosure: I love my vodka and rum).

May 18, 2020

Turned to beggars, one by one

My friend Nity walked with some migrants. So have some others. Through their accounts, I know second-hand what so many of my fellow-Indians are reduced to in this time of lockdown.

But I also know simply by looking out my window on any given evening, and these days I don’t even need to look, I just need to keep an ear peeled. First-hand knowledge, too. On any given evening, there are anywhere between 25 and 40 people scattered around the nearby junction, waiting for food. From a distance, the women sit like so many dhobi-bundles, the men stalk about like long-legged storks. There seem to be occasional random generous people who stop and hand out food, but there’s clearly also an organized effort by young men on scooters. Two on each, the pillion man facing backwards to make the hand out go more smoothly. I once stopped to ask them who they were: residents of the nearby fishing “village”, really a densely-populated collection of ramshackle and not-so-ramshackle houses. A slum pocket, really. “We just decided to bring food for these people daily,” a pillion rider told me. "These people and watchmen in all these buildings, some of them are not getting any food. Then his partner revved their scooter and they sped off to the south, off to offer food to some others who needed it.

My ear now knows too. Because every evening, a cop comes by on a gleaming Bullet mobike, stops in the middle of the junction and uses his horn liberally to scatter the small horde. Some evenings he goes on with this for a couple of hours: the people he shoos away seem to want to come back almost immediately. From my window, I can see some of them remonstrating with him.

Who are these people and what’s to become of them?

Then there’s our pal A who sells us vegetables at the same corner, and our pal G who operates a taxi and who waits for business at, yes, that same corner too. Both have come by in recent times to ask for a little cash, their shame and anguish at needing to ask evident even through their masks.

What’s to become of us if a lockdown turns too many of us into beggars? Beggars that cops must be deputed to disperse? Beggars who wait for food?

January 26, 2020

That awful moment of parity between the religions

I've covered the ground in this essay before, but two things: 1) It bears repeating, it bears repeating, because the myth it seeks to debunk keeps getting regurgitated. 2) I thought I'd explain the actual mathematics behind the debunking.

So here you are. Myth: Muslims are soon going to outnumber Hindus in India. Debunking: below.

***

Myths need busting, and often over and over again. Often too, it’s a futile exercise, because to some, the myths are more seductive than any busting. Yet especially in this fog of accusations and hatred we’re living through right now in this country — the wrangle over the CAA and NRC, I mean — it’s especially important to keep on with the busting. I’m going to attempt just that in this column, but by using some of what this column is about: mathematics.

I’m repeatedly amazed at how much of the defence of the new Act is couched in terms of extreme hatred of Muslims. That by itself should be a red flag, a sign of something amiss. Yet the hatred keeps flowing. And too often, it finds expression in population numbers. Muslims are increasing their numbers, goes this argument, much faster than Hindus. Which means, goes this argument, that the time is just around the corner when Muslims will outnumber Hindus in India.

This is supposed to be a terrifying thought. One scare-monger spelled out his fears about this in an article, long before we had even heard of the CAA: “Non-Muslims now rarely venture into areas of India where Muslims are in large numbers, fearing unpredictable, irrational behaviour or violence directed at them.” Given that kind of fear, the prospect of Muslims actually outnumbering Hindus in this land, this man wanted his readers to believe, is self-evidently a horrible one for us all.

Well, it is indeed a horrible prospect, but not for the reason the haters like him hold tight to their puny chests. Let me explain, using numbers we actually have rather than empty rhetorical flourishes like “where Muslims are in large numbers”.

In August 2015, the Registrar General and Census Commissioner released population data by religion from India’s 2011 Census. Taken from there, consider the population growth of the various religions in the decade 2001-2011. The Hindu population increased by 16.8% in those ten years, Muslim by 24.6%, Christian 15.5%, Sikh 8.4%, Buddhist 6.1% and Jain 5.4%. The result, as of 2011, was that 79.8% of Indians were Hindu and 14.2% Muslim. Other faiths each accounted for far smaller fractions of our population, which the Census found was just over 1.2 billion.

That is, in 2011 we had about 958 million Hindus in India, and 170 million Muslims.

With me so far? Now if we assume the same growth rates persist (which we cannot, but I’ll return to that) — 16.8% per decade for Hindus, 24.6% for Muslims — we can project both populations to the time in the future when Muslim numbers will equal Hindus. When will that be?

To answer that, we need some relatively elementary, if a little involved, arithmetic. Bear with me as I explain.

Here’s the issue: the 958 million Hindus are growing at a rate of 16.8% every decade, and the 170 million Muslims at 24.6% every decade. One decade from now (or actually from 2011, but let’s not quibble), the two populations will have increased by these amounts:

Hindus: 958m x 16.8% = 161m
Muslims: 170m x 24.6% = 42m

That is, one decade from now the respective populations will be:

Hindus: 958m + 161m = 958m x 1.168 = 1.119 billion
Muslims: 170m + 42m = 170m x 1.246 = 212m

Since we assumed the growth rates don’t change, we can do just the same calculation for the decade that follows. The increments in those ten years will be:

Hindus: 1.119b x 16.8% = 188m
Muslims: 212m x 24.6% = 52m

And thus the respective populations two decades from now:

Hindus: 1.119b + 188m = 1.119b x 1.168 = 958m x 1.168² = 1.307b
Muslims: 212m + 52m = 212m x 1.246 = 170m x 1.246² = 264m

We could keep doing these laborious calculations for decade after decade, of course, searching after every iteration for the point when Muslim numbers will equal Hindus. But no doubt you recognize this growth as equivalent to the notion of compound interest — and we know how to calculate that. Thus, three decades from now, the populations will be:

Hindus: 958m x 1.168³
Muslims: 170m x 1.246³

And to generalize this, some number “n” decades from now, the populations will be:

Hindus: 958m x 1.168ⁿ
Muslims: 170m x 1.246ⁿ

So now we ask, for what value of n will these two be equal? That is, we want:

958m x 1.168ⁿ = 170m x 1.246ⁿ

Rearrange this equation:

958/170 = (1.246/1.168)ⁿ, or 5.635 = 1.067ⁿ

I wouldn’t hold it against you if your eyes are glazing over by now. Lots of calculations, I know. But we’re almost done. Your high-school mathematics memories will tell you that at this point, we use logarithms, and that gives us:

log 5.635 = n x log 1.067, or n = log 5.635 / log1.067 = 27.

There we have it. At those growth rates, it will take 27 decades, or 270 years, for the Muslim population to catch up to the Hindus.That is, the hate-mongers are quaking in their shabby boots — and asking us to do so as well — about something that will happen as we, or actually our descendants many generations over, close in on the 24th Century. Are you really going to worry about what might happen in the year 2290 AD?

But even if the haters do quake about that, let’s ask another question: assuming these growth rates, how many Hindus and Muslims will there be in India in 2290? In other words, what is 958m x 1.16827?

Answer: 64 billion. 64 billion Hindus and 64 billion Muslims. Think of it. This, in a nation that today has a total of 1.3 billion Indians. This, meaning 100 Indians for every single Indian living today: 100 Indians crowding that spot where you sit reading this, 100 Indians jostling for the tiny standing space you occupy in the 8:27 Churchgate fast, 100 Indians sharing one seat to watch Deepika Padukone in a rerun of Chhapaak, just as they were going to do this week. This, and remember we have not accounted for Christians and Sikhs and Buddhists and other varieties of Indians, not forgetting other denizens of India such as cows and dogs, cars and bookshelves, trees and playgrounds.

This is the mirage-like prospect that a deep-seated hatred drives people to dream up and fear.

The truth should be apparent. The really horrible, fearful prospect is not that Muslims will outnumber Hindus. Instead, it’s that hundred-fold increase the calculations above suggest. If we are actually going to rack up numbers like those, we will have died out from overcrowding long before getting to that moment in 2290 AD, that dreadful prospect of Hindu-Muslim parity.

And here’s what makes that prospect even more mirage-like. The reality is that we cannot assume the same growth rates — Hindu 16.8%, Muslim 24.6% — will hold indefinitely. In the earlier decade, 1991-2001, Census 2001 figures showed that the Hindu and Muslim populations increased by 19.9% and 29.5%, respectively. Those numbers decreased to 16.8% and 24.6%, respectively. Obvious from those numbers is that growth rates are decreasing. There’s nothing unusual here; this is exactly what happens as a country develops. (Note too that the Muslim growth rate declined faster, decade to decade, than the Hindu growth rate). So since the country has continued to develop since the 2011 Census, the 2021 Census will certainly show further declines in these growth rates. That means even greater population projections than 64 billion, an even longer time to population parity than 270 years.

Welcome to the overcrowded wasteland of 25th Century India, perhaps. The pity is that the hatred in too many of us reduces us to such a wasteland right now.

January 25, 2019

Srinivasa Ramanujan: The 1729 Man

A math column I wrote in December 2012 for Mint, reprised here.

***

What I've been doing all morning is, I've been trying to come up with some numerically interesting factoid about the number 125. It's what you get when you cube 5 (5 x 5 x 5, or 5^3), but that's kind of ordinary, no? Well, you can write it as the sum of two squares in two different ways:

2 x 2 + 11 x 11 = 4 + 121 = 125
5 x 5 + 10 x 10 = 25 + 100 = 125

Now that's promising. But is 125 the smallest number that can be so expressed? No, because 65 is the sum of the squares of 1 and 8, as well as the squares of 4 and 7.

Hmm. Maybe 125 is the smallest cube that can be written as the sum of two squares in two different ways? It certainly is! Now we're talking!

Yet what exactly are we talking? And why am I pursuing this pointless pastime?

Well, the great mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan would have been 125 tomorrow, December 22nd. Mathematicians all over India -- and indeed the world -- are celebrating his life. Delhi, for example, hosted a major international Ramanujan conference this week. And I suspect all who attended -- anyone, in fact, who knows something about Ramanujan -- will know the story about him that prompted my quest with 125.

This story: he was in hospital in Putney, England. In walked GH Hardy, his mentor and a fine mathematician in his own right. He told Ramanujan that he had come in a cab whose number, 1729, "seemed to me rather a dull one." (I get the feeling Hardy and Ramanujan rather liked playing around with numbers).

The sick Ramanujan disagreed. "Oh no, not at all!" he said. "It is the smallest number that can be written as the sum of two cubes in two different ways!"

Of course he was right. Here are the two ways:

1^3 + 12^3 = 1 + 1728 = 1729
9^3 + 10^3 = 729 + 1000 = 1729

And 1729 is indeed the smallest such number. And because of this incident, it is now known as the Ramanujan-Hardy number.

What touches me about this story is though Ramanujan was seriously ill that day, he was sharp enough to remember, and tell Hardy, this little nugget about a random number Hardy mentioned. And so, to mark his 125th birthday, I thought it only fitting to search for some nugget like that about 125. (Seeing as I've got other plans for his 1729th birthday).

Though I think I have to admit: 1729 is a more interesting number than 125.

Ramanujan's life-story is too well-known for me to spell it out here. Suffice it to say that when this clerk in Madras sent some of his homespun mathematical research to Hardy in 1913, Hardy saw genius in it and invited Ramanujan to work with him at Cambridge. What followed was an intensely productive five-year collaboration and friendship between these two remarkable men. For me, something of that relationship is captured in a famous tale about how Hardy rated his own and other mathematicians' raw talent for mathematics. On a scale of 0 to 100, Hardy awarded himself 25. And Ramanujan? 100.

But despite Hardy's respect, England took a toll on Ramanujan's health. In 1919, he returned to India. In April 1920, at just 32, he died.

I wouldn't presume to dissect Ramanujan's mathematical work here. The great majority of it ranges far beyond both my understanding and ability to explain. But what I do understand are his efforts to calculate the value of π (pi) that intangible number that tells us the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. Much like Roger Federer used to rack up Grand Slam tennis titles, Ramanujan churned out formulae (the better word is series) to calculate π. One of them turns out to look like this:

1/π = 5/16 + 376/65536 + 19224/268435456 …

Take my word for it: those three terms alone give a value for π accurate enough for most purposes you might imagine. Other Ramanujan formulae have been used to calculate π to millions of digits after the decimal point.

All of which is fascinating and remarkable enough. Yet to a layabout like me, Ramanujan's real appeal lies in that story about 1729. Because in a quiet yet substantial way, it speaks for the way his mind worked. It speaks of his curiosity and passion for numbers and mathematics. It tells me that when you constantly search for and find wonder in the smallest things -- who would have thought, 1729? -- you prime yourself for greater things. And Ramanujan achieved some great things indeed.

That's the lesson I take from the life of this young genius from Kumbakonam.

As of last year, his birthday is observed as National Mathematics Day in India. So celebrate it tomorrow. Celebrate an exceptional mind. And if you stumble on something interesting about 125, please let me know.

February 29, 2016

The watch and the film star

The question I have is, should I blame the film star? I played tennis with him this evening. Good session, apart from two things.

One, I can't get my mind to trust my right knee enough while running, even though I feel no pain in it. Hard to explain or understand, but there it is. So I can't get my footwork right, so I can't get my shots right. So that was frustrating.

Two, I served only double-faults. I'm not proud.

Session done, I walked back to the apartment. Looked at the time and noticed that my watch had a small film of water droplets inside the glass. Which sometimes happens if I have been sweating a lot. I usually put it under a table lamp for five or ten minutes and it clears. Trouble is, no table lamp in this apartment.

I looked for alternatives. Found a lamp on the wall that would do the job, except nowhere to place the watch near enough to it. So I hit on possibly the most brilliant idea I've had in my entire life to date: let's wrap the watch around the bulb.

Which I did, and went off to have a shower.

When I emerged, there was a slight but definite burning smell. I couldn't place it, so I put it down to my hyperactive imagination.

But then I remembered. Ran over to the lamp. Strap totally melted, some of it is still stuck firmly to the bulb. Watch partially melted and badly warped -- or in a word, destroyed. Stuck forever at 732. My favourite watch too, a bright blue face with a single big "2" on it. 

Hard to comprehend just how stupid I was, doing this. But there you are. Watchless for the next couple of weeks. Brainless, always. And no, I can't blame him.

June 23, 2015

John and the phone scam

My university buddy John wrote recently from the States. He has found an intriguing way to ... well, perhaps I'll just let him explain. Here is his mail, verbatim.

***

Hi Dilip,

There is a phone scam that has been going around in the US for a number of years. Someone calls (always from an Indian call center with a lot of noise in the background) saying they are from Microsoft, and they noticed that your PC is spewing out packets and harming the performance of the Internet. They then ask you to walk through a sequence of steps that if done would give someone the ability to completely control your Windows machine remotely and install all sorts of malware and what not.

The first time they called me I had been taking a nap, so I naively  asked which of my machines was causing the problem, and told them I have Mac computers so it could not be me. After I hung up, I Googled to see what the exact scam entailed and it made sense.

Since then, I've had great fun toying with these guys, and there is a connection to you.

I pretend that I am following their commands, and they ask me to bring a command line prompt and tell them what I see. Then they ask me to type stuff and tell them what I see. At a certain point, I tell them "the screen says B H E N C H O D.... What does that mean?" They are astonished and asked me to read it back three or four times. Then they get really angry. I've been called a "bloody bastard" and more.

The connection is that you taught me this word and its meaning more than 30 years ago, and said that it is quite powerful. You were right!!! :-)

This just happened again on Friday. The caller denied knowing what the phrase meant, even though he was clearly rattled. I told him I would Google it "to see what this error message stood for". I then said "it says you are a sister f******". He then insisted that the "you" in the Google result referred to me and not him. I could barely contain myself, and pretended to Google it again, and said "no, it is saying that it refers to you" and he got even more upset.

This is a really sinister thing they are doing, so I don't mind wasting their time.

Thanks for teaching me that phrase! :-)

John

June 19, 2015

What if they gave a triple-century and noone came?




The new issue of Wisden's quarterly of cricket essays and long-form writing, The Nightwatchman, is out. I have an essay in it, about watching the Ranji Trophy final at the Wankhede Stadium in Bombay last March.

Sadly, the issue is only available in print or e-book versions. You can buy it at their website, which I urge you to do. But I'm hoping you'd like to read my essay -- it is appended below.

Comments welcome!

 ***
 What if they gave a triple-century and noone came?
The Ranji final in a time of the World Cup
 

When Karun Nair got to 300, late on the third day, I looked around and counted as best I could. It wasn’t hard. The great majority of cheering spectators was in the Sunil Gavaskar Stand alongside me, but a small, disproportionately vociferous lot was to our left in the Divecha Stand – between us and the pavilion, where the cricketers emerged from and disappeared into. But don’t be fooled by that phrase “great majority”: in a stadium that can seat something like 35,000, those present here numbered about… 125.

If Nair had scored two runs for each man – the audience was mostly male – who watched him reach his triple ton, he would not have reached it. Luckily he didn’t approach his task quite like that. But that count might just have summed up this match.

There were other ways the lack of interest in the 2015 Ranji Trophy final hit me. The first morning (8 March), for example, I arrived at the Wankhede Stadium at 9.15am – 15 minutes before the start. The gate was locked and a guard in a smart dark-blue uniform asked why I was there. “For the Ranji match,” I said. “Ah, but then you might as well go have some tea and take a nap,” he replied. “The match won’t start till about 10.30 or 11.” When I told him the scheduled start was 9.30, he looked disbelieving, but reluctantly opened the gate for me. I was the first fan in the Gavaskar Stand, though Divecha had an already voluble handful, waving green and gold flags.

Two days later, I arrived at the stadium ten minutes before the start. How many in the stadium, you think? Not just in my stand, but in the whole complete stadium. Including me, the count was – get this – one. Have you ever been the sole spectator in a massive stadium? It’s breathtaking. I urge you to try it. Maybe at next year’s Ranji final.

This dearth of fans has persisted at Ranji games despite tickets being free, which by itself says something about the state of long-form cricket in India. The Ranji final is effectively the Super Bowl of domestic cricket, but those who run Indian cricket know they cannot ask would-be attendees to cough up even a nominal amount – there’d be no attendees at all then. So it’s free, but the administrators are stingy about where they allow us freeloaders to sit: only in the east (Gavaskar) stand, subject to the fierce afternoon sun, and side-on to the pitch so there’s no way to get a sense of bowlers’ spin or swing.

Imagine the Wankhede as the face of a watch, with the pavilion at 9 o’clock. Throughout this match, the arc from 9 clockwise to 6 had absolutely nobody in it. The arc from 6 (where I sat) clockwise back to 9 had – at its most crowded – 150 spectators.

Thus did Karnataka and Tamil Nadu do battle for the Ranji Trophy. Which itself brought on one last niggle about those who run Indian cricket: why did they schedule this match at, of all places, a neutral venue like the Wankhede? Why not in Bangalore or Chennai, where home-team enthusiasm, if nothing else, might have swelled the crowd to – dream big, son! – 200?

***

It’s now commonplace to bemoan the steady sidelining of the Ranji Trophy. How is this sedate form of the game to compete with the razzmatazz of the IPL? (No free entry to IPL games, in case you were wondering.) Or with the World Cup, going on at the time in Australia and New Zealand?

The short answer has got to be: there really is no competition. I found that out for myself the night before the game started. A friend was over for dinner and I mentioned my cricket-watching plans. “Oh, so you’ll see all those cheerleaders, then?” she asked. (Let’s leave aside her cricket illiteracy on several counts.) When I explained there would be no cheerleaders, she wrinkled her nose and looked bewildered: “Why are you going, then?”

Was this a commentary on cricket: without cheerleaders, this match could hardly be much of a spectacle? Or was this a commentary on me: she could not believe I would make the effort to attend an event free of cheerleaders?

Either way, the point was made: the Ranji tournament – even the final – interests few. This is a difficult pill to swallow when I wallow, as I often do, in the nostalgia of too many days of my youth spent listening to cricket on the radio. All long-form then, of course. My Rajasthan college campus came to a standstill, I remember, for a few days in the mid-1970s when Delhi hosted Bombay in a Ranji final. I no longer recall who scored and who picked up wickets. I do remember several stellar names in both teams: Gavaskar, the Mankad brothers, Solkar, Gidwani, Bedi, the Amarnath brothers, Madan Lal. Bombay won a gripping, seesawing match in front of a full house whose baying we could hear, on our tinny medium-wave sets, all the way in Rajasthan. The match divided the campus right down the middle: the guy in the room behind me was a Delhi fanatic who yelled good-natured abuse at me in the middle of the night through the little grille that separated our rooms. Staunch Bombay fan that I was, I went one-up – I flung eggs through the same grille. Ah, the passions the Ranji Trophy aroused. Once.

Though both have impressive Ranji résumés, neither Bombay nor Delhi made it to the final in 2015. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, fierce southern rivals, did. Both teams were also stacked with stellar names: Murali Vijay, Abhinav Mukund, L Balaji, Vinay Kumar, Abhimanyu Mithun, KL Rahul, Karun Nair, Robin Uthappa. If this had been the mid-1970s all over again, they’d have played in front of another baying full house. But when you have 150 or fewer, the baying is rather muted.

***

The elephant in the room – or at the Wankhede – was that the Ranji final happened smack in the middle of the World Cup. So the stands were empty not only because cricket fans have lost interest in the Ranji Trophy, but also because they were following goings-on – 50 overs at a time – in faraway Australia and New Zealand. So it was a wonder by itself that, during the World Cup, as many as 150 people turned up to watch a Ranji game. That wonder was what pulled me to the Wankhede.

Most of the much-anticipated league matches of the Cup – India–Pakistan, Australia–New Zealand, Australia–England – were done by the time the Ranji final came around. But there were still games every day, including an India game (against Ireland) on the third. I travelled to the Wankhede each morning feeling slightly sorry for these Karnataka and Tamil Nadu cricketers – some of whom had probably hoped to be playing for India, all of whom probably wanted to watch Cup games on TV. How were they going to focus instead on this match?

In the asking of that question lies the certainty that I’m not – could never have been – a professional cricketer. Cup or no Cup, these 22 men played out an intense match filled with superb batting, bowling and fielding performances, including a spectacular reflex catch at silly point that made me long for an instant replay. One-sided though the match was – a Karnataka victory seeming inevitable as early as the second day – there was verve and vigour on display throughout.

But if that described the players’ approach to the game, the audience cared significantly less. Day one passed with regular updates about the nearly simultaneous Australia–Sri Lanka game, an evidently more attractive proposition than either this match or New Zealand–Afghanistan, also that day. Amid the regular sharing of scores in the stands, a friend sent me a text: “Maxwell going berserk against SL!” My beeping phone caught the attention of a thick-set older man nearby. “What’s the score?” he asked, automatically assuming that if I was getting text messages while watching the cricket, they must be about the World Cup.

If Maxwell was going berserk somewhere in Australia that day, Vinay Kumar and his merry Karnataka men were running roughshod over Tamil Nadu. Wickets fell with depressing regularity. Normally that’s the kind of cricket I like – give me regular wickets any day over batsmen dominating the game. But perhaps my otherwise-dormant Tamil roots made this procession disheartening. Only their captain and opener, Mukund, showed any spunk. A curious inwardly-bent right knee is his initial movement as the ball leaves the bowler’s hand. Surely not what the coaches suggest? But he defended well – and stroked several boundaries too – on his way to 35. He must have been dismayed, though, as he watched teammate after teammate capitulate. Across the aisle from where I was sitting, three Tamil speakers who had travelled from Madras (they used their city’s old name) were reduced to glum automatons after a vocal and cheery start. They shook their heads in silence, despair mounting with each wicket. Tamil Nadu subsided to 134 – a barely adequate score in T20, let alone the five-day game. After this first-innings train-wreck, their hopes of winning the Trophy hung by a fingernail.

But Tamil Nadu perked up within the hour, as did the men who had travelled from Madras. Their fast bowler L Balaji – best known for his feats during India’s tour of Pakistan in 2004 – carved through Karnataka’s top order. It was probably his wide, ready smile that endeared him to our western neighbours: he was the most popular member of that team, “Balaji, Balaji” screamed by full-throated crowds at every Pakistani stadium. He had a reasonably good tour, but hasn’t played much for India since. Today, with his gentle run-up and explosion through the crease, he worked up some serious pace to take three wickets – his pacer partner Parameswaran took one – leaving Karnataka, at an overnight score 49 for 4, pondering the vicissitudes of cricket. One afternoon, you’re walking on cloud nine because you’ve gone through Tamil Nadu like a knife through hot butter. Not long after, Tamil Nadu returns the favour.

***

The next morning, though, things don’t start well. Not in the stands, not out in the field for Tamil Nadu. I reach the Wankhede as the first over of the day ends, turn to two young men fiddling with smartphones and ask: “Who bowled that over?”

One responds: “Kya maloom, sab toh kale dikhte hain!” (“Who knows, they all look black!”)

When I express some disgust at this, his friend rounds on me: “What, are you from Tamil Nadu? Who do you support?” There’s the implication that, being dark myself, I must back those darkies from TN. Whatever.

In the middle, Karun Nair and Abhimanyu Mithun, the nightwatchman, hold firm. The Tamil Nadu fielders clap each other’s efforts, urging their bowlers on to make inroads into Karnataka beyond 49 for 4. But the score chugs along smoothly, Mithun responsible for most of it.

About half an hour into the day, a large group of boys in school uniform appears behind me. “Who’s playing?” they ask of no one in particular. The skin-obsessives have a swift reply: “It’s India and Pakistan, playing a Test match.” Much backslapping and chortling that they have managed this snappy answer. The schoolboys mill around for a while, then turn and leave.

Soon after, a huge lbw appeal persuades the umpire to raise his finger, slow and studied, and Mithun walks off reluctantly. Replacing him is KL Rahul, who made a smooth century for India against Australia in the recent Test series. With pink highlights on his shoes, blue and pink gloves, and several fluorescent green patches on his bat, he is quite the vision: when Rahul runs, it’s like a small carnival of colour cavorting down the pitch.

And he runs a lot. For Rahul and Nair proceed to bat Tamil Nadu into submission. No more wickets fall that day, which ends with Karnataka at 323 for 5 – nearly 200 runs in front with centuries to both batsmen. It is a skilful display from the Karnataka pair – who never once look in trouble – but for this fan of bowling and wickets, it is a stultifying passage of play.

Soon after lunch the following day, as India battles Ireland over in Australia – amid more score-sharing – Tamil Nadu has their first wicket in over seven hours: they stop Rahul in full flow at 188. But by then Karnataka has 470 on the board, Nair has swept past 200, and there’s no doubt where the Trophy is going this year. Time to declare, surely? Yet much like an Energizer bunny, Karnataka just motors on and on and on. Even the few folks in attendance are baffled. One or two actually shout out loud: why are they batting on? The milestones drift past: Karnataka’s 500, 600, Nair’s 300. Time to declare? No. Nair is out for 328 the next morning. Now? No. Karnataka reaches 700, captain Vinay Kumar gets a century. Maybe now? No.

Tamil Nadu finally bowls Karnataka out for 762 – 628 runs in front. What was the point of piling on such a huge lead, except to keep Tamil Nadu toiling in the oppressive heat? Who really cares that – over the remaining day and a half – Tamil Nadu slashes their way to 411 and still loses by an innings and plenty?

Not too many in the thin audience, that’s for sure. A man, his wife and a kid — all in orange, oddly — walk past me and down to the bottom row. Their backs to the cricketing action, they take a number of selfies. In the middle of it all, she takes a call, nodding her head furiously, the other two looking impatient. Then they’re gone. Ah, the passions the Ranji Trophy arouses.