#20 to #24 (2016)

An omnibus of a post for the book’s that didn’t get an individual one back in 2016…

#20 – A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces – David Davidhar
Extra-ordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present

A fascinating anthology of stories from a wonderful collection of writers. One of my laments was the realisation that I’ve been brought up on tons of British ‘literature’ as a kid, American stuff growing up but the Indian exposure is limited – almost incidental. This book could be the ‘rediscovery of India’ for a lot of urban nouveau-riche middle class foks of this era. I didn’t understand every story, not each of them are easy to read and some are more relate-able than others but there is something to be picked up about our country from each, something which can’t really learnt through a history book. What is a must is to spend some time online after each story, to understand the background and for some of the more abstract ones, the meaning and the context as well. Only then would one appreciate something like Ismail Chugtai’s ‘The Quilt’.

Fully intend to read this again sometime, one story every night.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★★
Readability : ★★★★

#21 – The Last Mughal – William Dalrymple
The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857

I’ve been a William Dalrymple fan-boy for a long time, ever since I heard him speak in Jaipur back in 2013. Read a lot of articles by him, heard him speak quite a few times as well but it was a matter of personal disappointment that I hadn’t gotten around to reading a full-length work. And after being behind the eight-ball in October, had almost given up on it for 2016 considering the size of his tomes. Bought The Last Mughal almost on an impulse and took it with me on a holiday. Lugging around a book as heavy as this on a back-pack across Vietnam is not something I regretted for one moment, and this is a testament to the writer. More history than historical fiction, heavy on facts with footnotes abound, this is nonetheless a stunning work which told me more about the 1857 War of Independence than anything I studied in school or any movie – whether involving Aamir Khan or not. Crucially, in an era where the narrative from both sides can be starkly different, retains objectivity most of the time. More importantly at a personal level, managed to spark off a renaissance of interest in this era and genre which will hopefully percolate into the coming years. This is not light reading by any means, but this is exactly how heavy reading can be made fulfilling & captivating. #Fan.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★★
Readability : ★★★★

#22 – The Creation of Wealth – RM Lala
The Tata’s from the 19th to the 21st Century

A book I’d been gifted in 2011, something I started reading more because I hoped some derivatives could be drawn from it into some work related projects. Perhaps the most disappointing of the books I read this year. Firstly, it’s more of a fact-finder than a book you could read, the narrative is missing. The structure the author chose didn’t work for me – going sector by sector – would a chronological approach been more appealing?  Secondly, the style of writing is very juvenile. If it was intended as a textbook or a children’s work – it may be perfect, but then the content also needs to be structured similarly. Thirdly, the tonality – almost, if not completely a hagiography. A more objective, critical assessment would certainly have been more convincing. Especially since I was reading it just as the house of cards was collapsing in real life with Cyrus Mistry and Ratan Tata trading barbs.

My biggest grouse is that the book just got boring after a point of time – something I’d attribute to all three reasons above. For the history of a group which has had such a pivotal and interesting story over the last 100 odd years, that’s truly unfortunate. A useful ready reckoner on the history of the Tata’s, something I’d gift to a high school kid who was doing a project on this, but hardly recommended for anything beyond.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★

#23 – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie

I’m going to borrow from a review on GoodReads on this. I went into this book with a bit of an attitude considering it’s been rating among the top 100 books you must read or on some such list. In other words, it means that this is the Dame’s best work – the one Christie you must read over all others. As a yuuuge Agatha Christie fan, who must have read at least 80% of her works, I wasn’t so sure. By some serendipity – I hadn’t actually read this one. (I wasn’t so sure that I hadn’t, you tend to forget the titles but recall the story once you start reading it). So I thoroughly enjoyed the build-up, the characters, the red herrings and wonderful ability Christie has to take us along the journey but still surprise us in the end. And since I’ve read Endless Night, I’d already decided that it surely wasn’t going to end in ‘thaat’ manner. A most delightful surprise.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★★★★

#24 – And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

Nothing like reading an Agatha Christie classic on a winter afternoon to unwind and relax. This is the only book on this list I’d actually read before. It was a bit of a cheat-code up my arsenal, I’d bought it in the middle of the year but decided to read it only if the targets weren’t being met. It helped that I kind of knew the end but didn’t necessarily remember it very clearly. And so on the 31st of December, the perfect coup-de-grace to the year, a knockout punch of nostalgia and Christie-mystery.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★★★★

NYRs 2016 : A recap

So 2016 has come and gone, and 2017 is here. I started of the year with two major resolutions, and I chose them to be specifically centered around two things I enjoy doing : reading and watching movies. I set myself what I thought then were reasonable targets – a movie every week and a book every two weeks. So that should make it 52 movies a year and 26 books. Looks manageable when you view it from the vantage point of early January.

Somewhere around the line, the one book every two weeks became two books every month – so shifting the goalposts from 26 to 24. In my defense, this was done in the middle of the year around June and not at the fag end to meet the end-of-years targets like conniving sales managers have shown the way in doing. Eventually, I huffed and puffed  and made it past the finishing line on the last day thanks to some careful planning. I’d bought an Agatha Christie I’d been aching to re-read much earlier in the year, but I’d cleverly kept it aside for a ‘low-hanging-fruit’ to be used for a late win. I think I was at 19 books (completed) around 17th December, after which I had this glorious idea to pick up the largest behemoth of a book I’ve read all year – William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal. Fortunately, I was on vacation where I had enough time to eke out to read it over the course of maybe  a week. The last 4 days were finishing three other large tomes which were lying half-red after which I dashed through the morning of the 31st of  December with ‘And Then There Were None’. After this I spent the rest of the day polishing off whatever I needed to from ‘A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces’ from David Davidhar (making adjustments for the fact that I had read almost half of Business Adventures, a tremendously textbookish work which balanced against the four or five short stories from David Davidhar’s anthology). So yes, such wow. Much relief.

I’d actually anticipated watching this many movies may not be all that difficult if I adjust for any TV Series I watch, considering proportional time. I lost count somewhere down the road, hopefully I can set that straight – but I probably ended up with somewhere around 25. And, I only watched the Game of Thrones season for the year over 2016, in addition to a few episodes of The Crown on the 31st of December. So no, even counting those – I wouldn’t have gotten even close. I was determined to not add any TV movies unless I watched them end to end, I can only recall  Date Movie sometime early in the year and Ted2 somewhere in the monsoons. So this was a massive misjudgement, in many ways.

I think my calculation would have been that I watch a movie at least every alternate week in the multiplex nearby, so that’s 26 – I’d have expected to do a few movie marathons and then maybe add the time for TV series. Should be close to that magic number. I realise now I severely overestimated the number of movies I watch in a cinema hall – the figure over the course of the year is probably closer to 15 to 18 if I had to hazard a guess. I could probably have watched some more, but some weekends there wasn’t anything half-decent to watch, on others there were other commitments. And you spend a surprising number of weekends travelling every year I’ve realised (this number has probably increased). I’m glad I realised somewhere two-thirds of the way down the line that this target wasn’t going to be met and I didn’t push myself to watch crap and achieve it. A gracious defeat is how I look at it in my mind.

Of course, one of the other reasons to do this was to write more often. Under pressure with other pursuits, the writing’s been sidelined and postponed. But I do hope to write about as many I can – at least the books over the next few weeks while the memories are still fresh.

What did I take away from this (especially the reading one)? That even for something you think you love, you have to bend your back and dedicate time to it. That there are a million distractions, and you must be able to shut them out to achieve them. That writing reviews/expressing thoughts isn’t as easy as it seems. And finally, there’s a sense of achievement at the attaining of a target – I think I’ve proved my point to myself, that this is something I could achieve. Having said that, I’m not pulling this stunt again for the next year (or doing it with a lower target such as 12 books) for a few reasons : firstly, it takes away the ‘take-away’ or joy of reading once you have to speed-read. Secondly, it takes a lot of compromise – and maybe there are other things I should pursue for a year now and visit this experiment in 2021.

Allie Brosh – Hyperbole and a Half (#19 of 24)

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Credit: https://effusionsofwitandhumour.files.wordpress.com/

This is a very difficult book to write something about. I actually found myself avoiding writing because I honestly was not sure what to write! It’s really nothing like anything you’ve ever seen or read before.

Just to clarify, I loved it and had a thoroughly enjoyable time reading Hyperbole and a Half. What is it about though? Well, it is about a 20 something (I guess) girl who shares life-experiences and stories, and her perspectives on various personal events. Two things which distinguish it from the millions of other younglings who may also attempt such a stunt.

First, she has a razor sharp ability and eye for self-introspection. It is quite magical actually the way she gets into how you (we all) think and then put it in words. It leads to thoughts and experiences which are universally relateable and almost the kind of things which you may be embarrassed to express yourself, but which actually feel nice to read once you see that someone else also feels that way. I actually think this is a big part of why this works so well. The topics include her dogs, her childhood incidents, how dogs behave, battling depression, self-identity issues and really mostly topics which seem to be quite ridiculous if you’d asked someone to write about them. But all this expressed in a dead-pan, poker-face tone (if you can imagine that) works, and how!

Secondly the pictures. Oh my God, the pictures. She actually calls her tales ‘picture-stories’ herself, however these are pictures unlike anything you’d expect. We’ve been a little more conditioned to poorly drawn comics and cartoons in recent times, what with Southpark or even minimalistic work like XKCD. But Brosh’s work is bad. It looks like pictures drawn by a 4 year old. A 4 year old without too much talent i.e.But in fact it’s so bad that it’s actually good, it’s cute and the more you read it the more it grows on you. By no means do I want to say that it’s not intelligent work or that imagination isn’t being used in the bad-pictures. It’s just remarkable how something which would normally be assumed to be a terrible weakness for a comic writer (?) has been turned into one of her USPs and biggest strengths in fact.

I’m guessing most of the stories in the book are also available on the blog. And this is a slightly pricey book – what with colour pictures in it. I’d still recommend it in a heart-beat. It’s probably good for self-introspection. And if that doesn’t work, it’s definitely good for a lot of laughs – irrespective of your age.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★★★★

Vince Flynn – American Assassin (#18 of 24)

My adventures with audio-books hit a bit of a road-block after the wonderful reading of The Martian I heard last time. (I’m not counting some Sherlock Holmes stories, wonderful as they were as a complete book.) So when a couple of long bus journey beckoned, I thought it was the perfect time to dive right into a right ol’ potboiler. I had an app with a limited library but The #1 New York Times bestseller for Vince Flynn and the solid ratings on GoodReads were good enough indicators that this should be a fun ride.

American Assassin was the title to be picked up because it was the first in the Mitch Rapp series, although not the first one published. I felt I might as well start properly at the beginning. Mitch Rapp is essentially James Bond + Jason Bourne + Ethan Hunt all rolled into one, and with a nicer more humble personality to boot. This we’re told without too much precursor. This is also annoying because there is zero grey to his character, making him a template, unrealistic superhero. He can do anything physically, is as courageous as could be, has a temperament which his bosses can’t sustain. He’s thoroughly unrelatable in other words.

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Dark events in his past – his girlfriend died in a hijacking – have left him thirsting for vengeance and he is enrolled (how? that we never know) in a secret program that the CIA runs. The first part of the book is about this training program and the war against a bad-ass Jack Nicholson like boss and how respect is grudgingly earned. Then they’re thrown on the field into a couple of missions, first in Berlin and then in Beirut. There’s a motley bunch of Russians, Syrians, Palestinians, Arabs – all different flavours from the cookie-cutter villain factory who need to be defeated (and they will be, whatever the odds). And I’m not even getting into the one-sided missions and the overdose of God Bless America.

American Assassin is not a terrible book – it just seems more cut out for a Hollywood movie or a young-adult literature genre. There’s some interesting parts about Beirut and if you’re particularly aware of the geo-political situation there in the 80’s and 90’s, you might be able to connect the dots, some nice details of intensive training routines and torture mechanisms – but it all grew stale for me pretty soon. I could never really get stuck in to the book, it’s solid if unspectacular. Perhaps a good first attempt for a young first-time writer. But for someone as experienced as Vince Flynn, it tells me that this is not an author after my own tastes.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★
Education Quotient : ★★
Readability : ★★★

RK Narayan – Under The Banyan Tree & Other Stories (#17 of 52)

My first memories of RK Narayan are unlike most Indians of my generation – not the TV series Malgudi Days set in the eponymous town of Malgudi, but a small set of stories called Swami and Friends which I must have read in primary school. And although I don’t remember the finer details, it was a book that has stayed stuck in memory, a young boy crazy about cricket as he grows up in a town middle-class India.

RK Narayan’s wonderful set of short stories – Under the Banyan Tree, is what I’d like to classify as comfort reading. Because it seems achingly relate-able, warmly inviting and enticing the reader into its world, minus the shame of a voyeur. It is set in a milieu of the 1950’s to 1980’s I assume, in small towns across South India – which is I’m sure a world away from the India which we inhabit today. And yet, it draws you in with the constants of everyday life, the way we think and interact with each other – those which may never change – which is why in the opening note Narayan speaks about the timelessness of short stories.41704z0bp8l-_sy344_bo1204203200_

The prose is simple yet elegant, the characters are often weird or flawed but definitely believable. Most of these stories are what they call ‘slice-of-life’ tales – there is often no head or tail, no moral at the end, no lesson to be learnt. It’s just a colourful and detailed picture into the life of people around you.

I read it over the period of a month – in cabs when stuck in traffic, in the nights before I dozed off, in crowded metro trains and never once did it seem to be a task to read it. I could pick up a story from anywhere and it would happily crackle to life, reinvigorating the dormant data-point from the recesses of my mind. I wished it could go on and on and I could return to it whenever I wanted something comfortable, which reminded me of home – like dal-chawal and ghar-ki-chai – this is ‘comfort literature’ at its very best.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★
Readability : ★★★★★

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (#21 of 52)

Karan Johar movie’s are an event by themselves. So ADHM can not exist as just ‘ADHM’ – but it is Karan Johar’s ADHM which means that any views and opinions about the movie must be looked at objectively through that lens. In fact it’s impossible I’d say – especially with a movie embroiled in as much controversy as this – to not view it through that lens.

I’ve always had a soft corner for Karan Johar the person – maybe it’s the cooliyat and poshness which has a halo effect, but also I think there is a tendency to root for him because he always seems like a bit of an underdog (yes I am aware how full of irony that statement is) with his young age (once upon-a-time) and vibe of vulnerability, effeminate mannerisms, under-a-cloud sexuality, the number of pot-shots he’s subject to etc. So I quite enjoy Koffee with Karan, I don’t mind his columns on NDTV and think he’s quite brave about it and I therefore always seem to want to like his movies as well.

I was too young to be aware of the macro-environment around Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, but I think I liked it then because quite frankly it was cooler than any other Hindi movie I was then aware of. I recognized how silly Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham was, but I had fun I remember (my dad did not, this also I remember). I went out of my way to watch Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (see my review here from 2006) – and I don’t know whether I was being subconsciously defensive, but 18 year old me seemed to like it and I still think it was a mature effort. Student of The Year I was massively disappointed with (there was 0 surprise in the movie if you’d watched the trailers) – but I look at that as an anomaly in the KJo universe – it’s so different from most of his other movies. Long story short, I had expectations from ADHM. Not to be blown out of the park but that this should be an interesting take from a seemingly intelligent man at least.

After ADHM however, I’ve kinda lost faith in Karan Johar. Because this movie was quite frankly a ridiculous ego-trip, attempt at pretentious intelligentsia with enough wink,wink…nudge,nudge while catering to the masses at the same time. So the rest of this piece is going to read like a rant. You’ve been forewarned.

The beginning itself did not seem fresh – this was exactly how 2 States had been played back with Arjun Kapoor as a narrator. A shrink at least makes sense to go into memories, why you would do that for a magazine interview…but this is in the overall scheme of things – a minor quibble. Anushka and Ranbir meet while on a night out in town, a premise in itself I never understood. She kind of picked him up to make out with him, then decided this wasn’t fun. So normal people leave. Madam however invites the guy over to travel across town. Then she without rhyme or reason, calls his girlfriend a gold-digger (she may have been, but this had zero reason established), fights with her, then again calls Ranbir out for another double date and so on until they’re both single, and become best friends rather too quickly. Quick recap now: Hot-ex comes into the picture. A seemingly independent, strong, free-spirited girl who was giving gyaan about love crumbles in a minute against character. Heartbreak Hotel ensues. Spurned Ranbir finds a cougar Aishwarya (of course with a cool profession like a shayar, no one can be a banker or HR manager in a Karan Johar movie no?) to hang out with (read: sleep with). Seems to learn something, but actually learns nothing. Learns some lessons on one-sided love from cougars ex. Pursues Anushka again who is now married. Channels this grief to make music mean something (again borrowed from Rockstar). Becomes successful singer. Anushka leaves hot-ex in meanwhile. Reunites with Ranbir. Some more lessons on one-sided love. Exit scene.

Okay – so where does one start the litany of complaints which I left out mid-way? I am grateful I read an article the morning I watched the movie in which Yash Johar explained why all characters in his movies are rich: ‘So that the focus can be on emotions and not on the economies of everyday living’. So that’s Ranbir and anyways, he ‘wants to be’ a singer. But WTF is Anushka Sharma up to for the whole movie? Not once do we get an inkling of what she is doing or what she wants to do except for attend Bollywood dance classes in the middle of the day. Likewise the not-so-successful shayar in Vienna. The only guy with at least an interest in earning a living is the relatively bad guy (smoker, tattoos, grunge-profession like DJ – yep all stereotypes met).

On that note, why is this whole movie shot in random pretty European cities? Shoot anywhere you want – but at least build some connection of the city to the plot. London has nothing to do with Ranbir (Ayan) and Anushka (Alizeh) – they could have been rich brats in Delhi. Why in blue hell is an Urdu poet/shayar (what’s the difference?) in Vienna of all the places? If you wanted to force-fit Vienna into the story, at least make Aishwarya’s character (Saba) an Austrian temptress from whom the kid learns a few lessons.

But wait. What lessons? Again I totally missed the point or take-away of the whole Saba track. Was it just to tell Ayan that he’s still besotted with Alizeh? The only lesson about iktarfa pyaar that came in actually came from her husband. The whole breakdown, the epiphany, run to the hotel – what did it tell him? The way Ayan reacted after being turned down, was that not enough of an indicator for Alizeh to understand he’s never going to grow up? But at least we stuck to the whole no means no part here.

And what was the deal with Saba anyways – as they say in MBA lingo – WIIFM (What’s In It For Me)? Was she just looking for a boy-toy initially? Side note – why was Ayan singing Hindi songs with goras in the middle of Europe? And oh – the denouement (I overuse that word) with that convenient exit option – Cancer. Where could we have possibly have seen that before? And what exactly happened at the end? While I appreciate the fact that at least like KANK, there was no forced happy ending – was this a sad ending?

I personally think one-sided love is a wonderfully interesting topic to make a movie upon. The most underrated Indian gem around this is a 2011/12 movie Ek Mein aur Ek Tu which even though was a rom-com handles the issue with a bit more nuance than ADHM. This movie fails in my mind because of more than a few reasons. One the characters other than Ayan are ridiculously one-dimensional. It is just difficult to take any of them seriously when they behave, talk and react like most people would not. Especially both the key women. What are they smoking as a Firstpost article asked us? At least Ayan is a petulant kid who know’s he’s a petulant kid.  The other for me was the whole set-up – the whole London, Paris, Vienna sojourn, the aimless wandering which just kept gnawing at me even though I knew it should not be a big deal. The dialogues are stilted. Anushka whom I really like has over-acted. Aishwarya is weird at times. And Ranbir seems to have played this man-boy too many times in his career already.

There are pieces of the movie that work – the outbursts, the raw-ness of the emotion, the maturity of confessions, two wonderful songs in the second half and of course some killer one-liners. Also the fact that for a mainstream mein mainstream movie like this, there are risque choices – Ayan and Alizeh making out minutes after they meet, the refreshingly un-judgemental way in which Saba has been portrayed. But all of these are buried so deep under a labyrinth of ridiculousness that they’re a glass of water to a man in the desert. They’ll help you go a little further, but hardly going to help you recover to safely.

★★

MS Dhoni : The Untold Story (#19 of 52)

It was quite baffling as to why an active cricketer would indirectly produce a movie about himself, before his playing days are over. I have to be honest and admit I thought it was crass to say the least and of all the people – not something I’d have expected from MS Dhoni. This is after all a man who famously shuns the spotlight, who in his golden moments has more than once stepped aside and let the others take center-stage. So uncharacteristic to say the least. However this is India, we’re talking about cricket and MS Dhoni is a remarkably reticent man – so the ‘Untold Story’ is something you would look forward to, despite your raised eyebrows.

Neeraj Pandey is a director whom after the wonderful Special 26, expect to get the setting right. Which he does as we start off – Ranchi in the 1980’s is wonderfully nostalgic even if you didn’t stay there. And while parts of the growing-up story are a bit silly (suddenly the whole school turning up for an unknown batsman doing well?) there are parts which are great, will resonate with everyone – the hard-nosed coach, the dad who want’s you to study more, the friends who are the most important thing in the world. This then takes us to the most powerful stretch of the movie – the battle between what one believes the world owes you and what the world really owes you. The opportunity to play with Indian Railways, the frustration of a life doing something you don’t thing you’re meant to do, your peers moving ahead and the hard calls that need to be taken – the whole Kharagpur chapter is the high point of the movie.

But after that it goes down-hill, and how. It’s almost like Sushant Singh Rajput gets on the empty train before the interval – little knowing that the train in the movie is heading towards a train-wreck of epic proportions. There are two long romantic angles complete with their own songs, which totally suck any momentum out of the movie. And the Untold Story of the cricketing career is almost forgotten – no captaincy, no IPL, no number 1 in tests and anything which is remotely interesting. Instead we get the usual suspects – the a few early games with the family cheering him on (which was nice), 2007 WC exit (very bad, nothing behind the scenes), T20 WC win (see previous)  and straight to the 2011 WC final (1 dressing room dialogue with Kirsten) – with an exaggerated, one-sided and factually incorrect ‘drop 3 seniors’ part added to create just the requisite controversy.

Even this may have been alright considering creative liberties and time constraints of an already 3 hour movie had there been a semblance of an attempt to not make this a hagiography. Alas, that is not to be with any nuance possible furiously cut away to the backward-point boundary. In a profession like the one MS Dhoni is in, with the position that he has and how much it matters to the country he’s in – it is difficult to not be a polarising figure. But  even Dhoni’s most ardent fans and advocates would admit that he has his shades  of grey, parts to his personality  which may not make sense to the world outside but there are reasons to it. This is not even considered though as Demi-God Dhoni is as close to perfection as you may. He always remembers his friends however big a star he becomes, never drinks, even when frustrated is respectful to his parents, perfectly romantic without appearing stalkerish (drive down to Aurangabad suddenly?) any kind of girl and so on. A little bit of weakness, a touch of vice, some quirks and moments of introspection would have added some balance to this extra-saccharine dessert.

Sushant Singh Rajput is great – as someone said he’s got the fine line between imitating/mimicking and getting into the character perfect. Except for the parts where some cheap CGI has put his head on to the real deal – was that EA sports look necessary? This and factual inaccuracies like the Tendulkar poster going back a decade make the the direction tackier than I’d have expected from Neeraj Pandey.

The  other part which weirded me out was the willingness of someone to take major (not minor) creative liberties with his own life! Basic reading tells me that there’s a brother who is completely ignored, the first love story was before even an India debut was made, there was a family connection to  his current-wife (with the meeting in the hotel highly exaggerated), he’s not in touch with any of his friends from his old life (take this with a pinch of salt). And of course it’s his life, his story and there’s nothing technically wrong with changing it to make it more masaaledaar but it just seems a bit – uncomfortable.  Not to mention then get you thinking about the veracity of the rest. Anything for a buck then, even if you’re one of the richest sports-persons in the world.

★★