Sunday, December 24, 2006

It’s a li-li legend

Liang Tung Tsai, 45, was dying. The doctors had given him a mere two months to live. One of the highest ranking customs officials in China, his body lay ravaged by an excess of sex, drugs and alcohol. Liang was suffering from pneumonia, a severe case of gonorrhea and an infected liver. On 17 August 2002, TT Liang breathed his last, 57 years after the doctors had made their pronouncement, at the venerable age of 102. The architect of his recovery was a 3000 year old art called Tai Chi Chuan.

When Liang realised that his lifestyle was killing him and modern medicine could only do so much, he started practising the ancient Chinese art of Tai Chi that was renowned for its healing and restorative powers. In less than 3 years, Liang had recovered fully and devoted himself to the art that had saved his life. He went on to master and teach this life giving art. Master Liang remained a paragon of health, vitality and invincible martial skill even in his 80s and 90s.

Master TT Liang’s story is not exceptional. Neither the mid-life crisis that he faced, nor his astounding longevity and puissance. Professionals in every sphere today realise that the globalised globe is a minefield of opportunities and as long as they keep digging, they’re sure to strike gold even as they dig their own graves in the bargain. But life for us rat racers is often a replay of Tolstoy’s ‘How Much Land Does A Man Need?’ and since not every monk has a Ferrari to sell, nursing slipped discs and chronic ulcers while sustaining high growth careers and tumours has become an ever increasing phenomenon. We are the world, where 30 is the new 60. By the same token however, there are ancient, failsafe health and energy management systems that are practised even today, whose practitioners, almost without exception, live long, healthy and balanced lives. Tai Chi for instance, is an offshoot of the Taoist belief system that believes that life is energy and as long as energy flows unblocked, the body would remain healthy and strong.

“I can eat more than you, have more sex than you and I can fight better than you…” Show me a person who wouldn’t want to be able to say that at 80 to 25-30 year olds and I’ll show you a jack-fruit in a suit. Well, keyboard and client pushers of the world, rejoice, for there is such a man who was as good as his word (on most counts at least). Bruce Frantzis, in his surprisingly titled ‘The Big Book of Tai Chi’ talks about one of his teachers, Wang Shu Jin, who then in his 80s said these very words to a young Bruce, who attested the truth of most of what Master Wang claimed and chose not to question the rest. Master Wang claimed that the chi that bubbled in his body was a veritable fountain of youthful vitality.

Last but not the least of the Immortal Orientals is Master Li Ching Yuen. The Guinness Book says that Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died at age 122 in 1997 is the longest lived human yet, but the Chinese claim that Master Li Ching Yuen (born 1677, died 1933) at 256 years of age far outlived Madame Calment. Fit and strong all of his life, Master Li survived 14 wives and practised an art called the ‘eight Brocades’, a series of postures that set the stone for Tai Chi. Many gerontological experts question the authenticity of the records that vouch for master Li’s amazing longevity but even they would be hard pressed to deny the obvious benefits that accrue from the practice of Tai Chi. One of Master Li’s students, General Yang Shen lived to be 98 and would celebrate each of his birthdays with a marathon race up a mountain.

Some issues ago, I had spoken of the benefits of Yoga. Tai Chi shares most of those benefits with Yoga. While Yoga is perhaps slightly more potent because of the inversions and the strenuous nature of the practice, it is also a more intimidating and demanding practice which might be beyond the resolve of most new converts. Tai Chi, with its relatively gentler movements and accommodating life-style principles might just be the solution to sustaining a busy life-style that is currently a candle burning out at both ends. Once upon a time, Chinese emperors harnessed chi to keep their harems happy and their selves alive and today Tai Chi is a bona fide philosopher’s stone that promises to help those it touches live happily ever after... well almost.

The pretext and the text

Healing and martial arts are best learnt from a teacher, not only because they have a direct impact on health and quality of people’s lives but also because many techniques operate at a subtle level which a neophyte might not be able to fathom. Although, Tai Chi Chuan is a gentle art that even the old and infirm can start practising, most human beings have great creative ingenuity when it comes to causing accidental self-injury in even the most innocuous of circumstances.

Unfortunately, the Tai Chi that is being taught in India and most parts of the world is a diluted watered down version of the original martial art. Tai Chi has branched out into many different styles like Yang Family style, Wu Family style and the Chen Faily style but most teachers focus more on the superficial forms without learning or teaching the mechanics of developing subtle internal force called Jin.

But before one goes looking for a teacher, a theoretical understanding of the art would be invaluable. There is a lot of ‘noise’ that clouds the concept of Tai Chi and internal force which might confuse the initiate. However, there are some brilliant books on the subject which could be wonderful introductions to the art for beginners

Tai Chi Classics – This book is a combination of three ‘classics’ by three great masters, including Master Chang San-Feng, arguably the man who created Tai Chi.

Tai Chi for Health and Self Defense – Written by TT Liang, the one-time living embodiment of what miracles Tai Chi can work, this book would inspire readers and practitioners with the sheer intensity of the author’s experiences.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

Big cat on a hot tin roof

The last of our tigers, says BBC Wildlife, might end up as trimming on a nouveau rich Tibetan’s choupa or as bottled tonic in a traditional Chinese medicine store. Doomsday prophecies about the tiger’s extinction have been doing the rounds ever since 1973, when Project Tiger was launched to try and save the Indian tiger population that had dropped from tens of thousands to less than 2,000 tigers. Today, numbers have fallen below 1,500 and even as you read these words, a tiger is being skinned by a poacher in at least one of India’s ‘sanctuaries’. Every few months, a poaching gets reported, disturbs the dust gathering on the Tiger Task Force’s files and before you know it, the dust would’ve settled and the wind would’ve died without a pug-mark to show for all the whistling and whirling. Last year in May, Sariska – the first sanctuary to be listed under Project Tiger – lost its last tiger. Dr. Manmohan Singh landed in Ranthambore to express solidarity and commitment for the cause of the tiger. Since his visit, another seven tigers have gone ‘missing’(an increasingly popular euphemism with forest officials) in Ranthambore.

But really, shouldn’t that be the least of India’s worries? With a government that is juggling votes between suicidal farmers on one hand and suicidal bombers on the other, does it really matter if the only big cats that remain in the country happen to be the ones that get chased by the neighbourhood dog every afternoon? Well Gandhi once said “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” but its impossible to build a case for an endangered ecology by invoking an extinct ideology. And so what if I were to remind a billion busy Indians that the tiger isn’t just a big striped cat that prowls in the dappled light of a jungle trail but a regal emblem of our natural heritage that is being pimped away by a lethargic and corrupt officialdom. If we let the last tiger die, with it too might perish all that we cherish in each other – courage, dignity, grace… and perhaps even that most definitive of human virtues – compassion.

But what would a poor cow herd make of dignity and compassion when he has lost his cows to the tiger and his grazing grounds to the national park. Sitting by the roadside, selling what he can, he sees tourists by the Gypsy-full drive past his crumbling hut, the hungry cries of his children drowned by the busy chatter of weekend wildlifers. The fancy hotels get their ‘fat’ clients and the tourists get their stories and ‘shots’. Everyone is happy and the cowherd is forgotten. With nothing to gain and everything lost, when presented with the opportunity to make a year’s wages from a day’s ‘bloody’ work, not many in the cowherd’s shoes would let their traditional animistic beliefs stand in the way of a little profit. Thus a poacher is born who for less than a thousand rupees would kill a tiger by poisoning, shooting or electrocuting it. The same tiger, could be worth Rs 60 lakhs or more by the time it reaches the end of the distribution chain. Skins, bones and blood, all destined for one market – China, and while diplomacy, education and awareness programmes will do what it can, the faultline lies closer home. Unless local communities have a stake in the forests and their fauna and a share of the commercial proceeds through tourism, either through market mechanism or a co-operative system, the tiger and its neighbours would always be at loggerheads. But once involved as stakeholders, the forest communities would look upon the tiger as an ally who can transform their lives and that of their children and thus fight tooth and nail to defend it against poachers and habitat loss. And really, it doesn’t take much to ensure a tiger is worth more alive than dead, because the going rate for slaughtering a tiger is a mere $15. South Africa, with half of India’s ecological wealth, receives 10 times the number of tourists and earns almost twice as much through eco-tourism. All it’ll take is a little commitment from the powers that be to ensure a trickle down effect to the satisfaction of all parties concerned. There is hope yet for the tiger as long as we keep doing our bit, reminding the government of its responsibility toward both the tiger and the people it shares its domain with. May beyond lore and legend, echo the tiger’s roar/forever etched in heart and mind, and the forest floor...

Short takes on the big 3

India is bursting at the seams with its billion strong demographics. Forests become farmland and rivers get dammed – on the anvil of development, environment and ecology be damned. India’s threatened wildlife is not only a valuable natural resource but an invaluable heritage that needs to be protected for the world and its generations.

Tiger tiger... where? One glimpse of the royal beast is what they desire, when they trek in from the farthest corners of the globe. Its majestic bearings inspiring a swell in the soul unlike any other, this magnificent beast has been at the receiving end of a dastardly trade in its organs and parts. Thanks to conservationists and appeals by community leaders, the decimation might yet stop. India’s parks like Ranthambhore and Corbett could suffer a fate similar to Sariska’s if nothing is done, and fast. If the tiger goes so would our forests, its denizens and life too would follow.

A Tusker’s Travails: Both revered and reviled. Worshipped as an incarnation of Ganesha and slaughtered brutally for its tusks, the elephant in India has come into conflict with man as its traditional migratory routes have given way to farms and plantations. The so-called wildlife sanctuaries – Puranakote, and Kuldiha forests – of Orissa have witnessed the slaughter of nearly 10 elephants in recent months.

Horn Please: The horned snout of the largest of the Asian species of rhinos, the Great One Horned Rhinoceros, was cause for merciless mayhem in Kaziranga until a few years back. But with the courage and commitment of the rangers and co-operation from the proud locals – which ought to be a lesson to be taken home – the population of Rhinoceros unicornis is well on its trudge back.


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Nuts about mutts

I’m sure she’ll forgive me for saying this, but my wife seems to have a bit in common with every Chinese leader since Mao (but you’re far prettier, dear). I’m not saying this simply because they’re all great dictators, with vision and charisma who have done a very good job of giving the world outside the general impression that their charges are happy with the general state of internal affairs, but also because they’re all very efficient at quelling in-house rebellions.

Emboldened by the Chinese dog owners protesting last week at Tiananmen Square against the ban on big dogs (taller than 14”), unregistered dogs and the one dog per family rule, I, an inveterate dog lover if ever there was any, couldn’t help but murmur a protest about the ‘no dog in the family’ rule at the family Tiananmen – the dining table. While the Chinese protesters turned out to be all heart, I ended up as chopped liver.

However, this being the Chinese Year of the Dog, I’m willing to push my luck a wee bit more and build a case for every closet dog-lover who would love to bring a Tommy, Jimmy or Moti home but is biding his time, his tail between his legs. And while we are at it, do forgive me dear reader if you feel like you are caught in the middle of some heavy-duty domestic crossfire, but how is a soul to preach and practice all that is good and great when he doesn’t even have the right to choose his best friend? (Just a handy phrase dear…)

Dog discovered man long before man discovered the wheel, and was the first to be domesticated by man (where else but in China) and while every other animal had to be trapped, or broken in, dog and man chose a mutual association where each recognised the advantages of associating with the other. But beyond that, there has been a mutual kinship between the two – a mystical synergy that the early man shared with the first wolf-dog that is evident even today.

It’s common knowledge that there isn’t a more reliable and committed security system in the world (against not just physical assault on person and property but also bombs, cancerous growths and seizures) than a well trained dog but what makes this relationship so special, so unique and so enriching is the effect that the loving presence of an unquestioning, unflinching four-legged friend can have on one’s psyche and one’s physiology. Every survey in the world, whether it is conducted by the US Department of Health, a German socio-economic study, or a UK-based research group, has come to the same conclusion – irrespective of age, ailment or habit, pet owners live longer healthier lives, recover faster from debilitating cardio-vascular ailments and diseases like Alzheimer’s and have far greater control over stress and blood pressure levels (keep reading honey, and if you still haven’t changed your mind, there’s more). These studies have also established across ethnic and economic groups, that children, who grow up with a dog in the family, have higher levels of self-esteem, are more confident and more compassionate as adults. And if you are wondering about rabies and worse, don’t because there are vaccines available for both your dog and you. In fact, non dog owners are more likely to get bitten than those familiar with canine behaviour.

The dog has walked for longer than any beast and further than many men in the march of civilisation and it is a pity that there are those amongst us, bereft of the joys of such unconditional love and companionship (come on dad, mom, honey, it’s just a column). Dog lovers of China (and here I refer to those who love them as pets and not on their plates) count me in as a comrade in your crusade for justice against the dogged determination of your leaders. As for me, honey, I realise that revolutions have never worked in India, so like Gandhi, I’ll go get a goat instead, and who knows that might get your goat too… and then we’ll all live happily ever after.

A friend in need – indeed!

Man’s best friend has been living up to his reputation from the very first days of the association. Some, like Balto, the Husky mix that led a sled dog team to deliver a diphtheria serum to Nome, a town battling an epidemic, through blinding blizzards during the Alaskan winter of 1925 and Hachiko, the Akita that waited for 10 years at Shibuya station for the return of his dead master, who had died after leaving him at the station have both been immortalised in sculptures that stand even today. There have been superdogs like Roy the Alsatian, who rescued a toddler from a 40 ft high ledge and Caesar, the war dog that had saved countless lives during combat.

Then in the early 1800s, Barry, a Saint Bernard from the Hospice du Grand in Switzerland is reputed to have saved more than 40 people trapped in their snowy graves during avalanches and storms and to this day, Barry stands proud, mounted in the Natural History Museum of Berne. And a legend as great as any canine in history is Endal - the ‘Dog of the Millennium’ – a Labrador Retriever owned by Allen Parton, a wheel-chair bound war veteran. Not only does Parton depend on Endal to fulfil even the most complex daily chores, like withdrawing money from an ATM but Endal has even transformed the hitherto gruff and bitter Parton into a more amiable and happier person. “I owe everything to Endal,” said Parton. “Endal brought us (his long suffering family) together again.” Love, devotion and trust, this bond between man and beast has all that is noble and worthy of admiration. May this friendship live long and forever.


Sunday, December 3, 2006

Done to death

22-year-old marine corporal Tim Jeffers would kick any rear end very hard that has a front end speaking in favour of assisted termination of life, or at the very least I’m pretty sure he would’ve liked to if he could have. Unfortunately he can’t because he lost both his legs, his right eye and suffered horrific head injuries that necessitated the removal of a portion of his skull after being blown up in Iraq by a roadside bomb this May.

When brought in, Jeffers’ doctors had very little hope and were prompted by the severity of his injuries to consider terminal action. Luckily, Jeffers survived the attack and the ‘well-meaning intentions’ of his doctors. In a recent National Geographic story, the soldier from Salinas, radiates with desire for rediscovering his ‘life’. “I am (still) the same person (inside)…” he says.

On the other side of the Atlantic, doctors are seeking the right to ‘kill’ premature (22 weeks or less) babies because the babies might develop severe future complications, find usually futile efforts to save them “invasive” and “stressful” and more pertinently, “disable” the family. Euthanasia, a form of social, staggered, at times voluntary, genocide, is always a step taken in a moment of weakness by the sufferer or the surrogates. Whether we admit it or we don’t, the honest truth is we choose euthanasia because we want to move on, because we are sick of being in a situation we can’t help, because the lie of being in control of our lives is laid bare every time we see a loved one in apparently unbearable pain and are forced to imagine and endure the same, interminably. We want death to come because not only does it liberate the patient but also those who can’t be patient any more. Everything seems to have a shelf life, even an emotion, and expire it must. Whether it is a dog, a son, a husband or a father, it is only a question of degree.

But life has rights, and hope. If the doctors at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology have their way then surely they would find it appropriate to clinically terminate children like the Thalidomide generation from the 60s when 10,000 American children were born with phocomelia as a result of their mothers having taken the drug while pregnant. Born with severe deformities like tiny flipper-like appendages instead of limbs, doctors with the license to kill would’ve surely recommended ‘destroying’ the entire generation, in search of a ‘dignified ideal’, and many parents, fearing a ‘disabled life’, would’ve reluctantly but surely acquiesced. These doctors should go and ask phocomelics like actor Mat Fraser, MBE artiste and photographer Alison Lapper or one of the finest opera singers of his generation, Thomas Quasthoff, if they would’ve preferred dignified termination as a foetus or infant or are they happy to have endured indignity as children and yet emerged as beacons of hope for mankind, disabled as it is.

For every unfortunate Terri Schiavo or Venkatesh, there are others who suffer in silence, awaiting death without hope or the hopeful beside them, and yet they endure, not only because miracles happen but simply because death isn’t a solution. We do not understand it and therefore cannot ethically offer or impose it as a solution. Euthanasia is not a release from pain as much as a release from hopelessness, both in the patient and in those around. But isn’t there always hope?

This debate really isn’t about the law but about ethics. Holland allows euthanasia and films like Million Dollar Baby, popular soaps and even national dailies are taking up cudgels for those who want the right to kill those who want to die. But euthanasia is not an answer but a question that tickles the very root of our being – our humanity. May you or I never have to face such tough questions in life, but if it is to be, I sincerely hope that one will find the strength to hold on to hope and humanity, whether it is for a father, a husband, a son or a dog. God bless!

Death-wish warriors

“The terminally ill are a class of persons who need protection from family, social, and economic pressures, and who are often particularly vulnerable to such pressures because of chronic pain, depression, and the effects of medication.”

Beyond the doom and gloom, here are a few reasons for hope, even for those who may feel that there can’t be any.

Alison Lapper: Born with the grossly-debilitating medical condition called phocomelia, Alsion Lapper survives with limbs barely longer than seal-flippers. Abandoned and institutionalised since 7 weeks of age, Lapper is one of the brightest members of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (AMFPA), has given birth to a perfectly healthy baby boy and today, her sculpted figurine radiates inspiration from the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square.

Janice Elsner: Janice is a victim of muscular dystrophy too and is confined to her wheelchair, clinging on to the hope of seeing her teenaged daughter graduate. Almost 50, Janice wasn’t supposed go past 20, but there, she hangs on still...

There are countless others, aware of the creeping shadow of death and yet they smile and live, by choice. Some, like Jason Mitchener, a ventilator-dependent 36-year -old author and speaker, have become heroic talismans against the ‘for euthanasia campaigns’. Hopefully, these heroes will inspire those amongst us who can stand by them when they might need us most in their moments of weakness, instead of thrusting the burden of our suffering on their shoulders and condemning their claim to life.