Sunday, June 24, 2007

Lessons from controvercity

“Amsterdam is an amazing city! It has this really nice ambience!! You must go there”, GA was gushing. He had just returned from his honeymoon, and of all the sights and sounds from Champagne to Cologne, all he could remember was Amsterdam. “It has..”, GA leaned over conspiratorially, “ a legal red light area, red lights(!), women on the streets, everything legal”. “ I’ve heard that it’s got these really beautiful canals?”, I asked. “Canals? Oh yeah canals! Yeah, yeah, nice but you’ve got to hear this, they have live sex shows, can you believe that? Really nice!” GA had a glazed look in his eyes. “Really, that’s interesting…”, but GA wasn’t listening. His eyes had that faraway look of a man reliving some past glory. Amsterdam cropped up again in a later conversation with an elder cousin. He had just returned from a vacation to Europe. The Dutch capital was yet again the star of the itinerary. “Oh, it’s really nice”, he said. After a moment’s silence, he added, “They have sex shows you know”. My jaw must’ve dropped a bit for he quickly added, “It’s perfectly respectable there you know, I went there with my wife!”. He had the hurt expression of a diabetic caught with a mouthful of rich creamy chocolate cake in his mouth. “It’s low calorie, and I gave most of it to the dog too” , he seemed to say. “Of course dada! But is that why you liked it so much?, I asked. “No, no, it has…, it has this…, this really nice ambience”, is all he could muster. Nice ambience, eh? This I had to see. So, not too long ago, I was travelling with friends and family and had stopped over in Antwerp (just about a couple of hours from Amsterdam). On a really grey day, while most of the group seemed happier indoors, the missus and I, alongwith some Belgian friends, left for the El dorado of civil liberty – Amsterdam.

Other than the obviously popular red light district, controversial Amsterdam honours homosexuals with a Homomonument and sells marijuana legally in stores and cafes. One can even buy a ‘good death’ – euthanasia, just as legally in this city. It’s a heady cocktail of sex, drugs and death. Understandably, not many seem to notice that Amsterdam is a beautiful city. The bottle-green canals that run through the city and the lovely little boats make it one of the most romantic cities in the world. Along one of these canals, stands a brick red house, where there once lived a young girl who lived a short sad life and wrote a moving memoir, now famous as Anne Frank’s Diary. And then of course, there is the Van Gogh Museum which is impossible to enter because it is always, either too late or too full.

De Wallen, the red light district was a short walk and a long wait away. Narrow lanes, awash in red hue, flanked by shop windows, each with a bed, a chair and a rather friendly lady, pressing against the glass pane as if her parents had locked her in and gone off to the beach, and here she was all dressed up (down?) in a bikini and nowhere to go. Every time we’d pass a window, a resident lady of love would look at me and smile. Her eye brows would dance, she’d wink and…. Phew, for a moment I felt like Brad Pitt in Nymphtown. No wonder this place was popular. There were groups of Americans on a guided tour, walking past posters of all assortments and shades of human and non human couplings, and ushers at theatre gates announcing, “show is on! Show is on! It’s alive! It’s alive!!”. “That’s Dutch for it’s all live”, said my Belgian friend. “Have a feeling they do it on purpose when they see the Americans. Never know what draws them”. Behind the bright lights though, the truth is that having legalized prostitution, the Dutch government ensures that sex workers have both rights and responsibilities. The use of condoms is mandated by law, and human trafficking is limited. Pimping is illegal and prostitutes are protected against exploitation by law. This has ensured that the scourge of HIV/AIDS is contained to such an extent that only 7% of prostitutes are affected, most of whom are drug users and in all likelihood, contracted the virus from an affected needle. A far cry from the situation in India where prostitution is illegal, but trafficking and coercion is rampant and almost half the country’s prostitutes are HIV positive. The writing’s clearly on the wall but someone’s yet to read it (see slip stream).

Back in Antwerp, someone from the stay-at-home group asked us “How was Amsterdam?” “Nice, uncle! Really nice ambience!” we replied, almost in chorus.


Sunday, June 17, 2007

Ready, mate?

Discussing delicate matters like bedroom bonhomie isn’t one of my strengths. You know, reining in vanity while holding up modesty etc. But these days it’s nearly impossible for me to get through a conversation – any conversation – without everyone, and I mean everyone, asking me “Why haven’t you had a kid by now?” From neighbourhood fruit sellers and eunuchs, ‘well-meaning’ family and friends to hitherto delightful students, they’ve all engaged me in seemingly innocuous conversations, and as soon as they sense an unsuspecting mind and a weakened guard, thrust the question in my face. Without a heartbeat of a chance to parry, I’m left feeling the way the great Julius might’ve been feeling when he said ‘Et tu, Brute…!’ Worse, even as I’m struggling with the idea of a dignified response, I can almost read the unsaid remainder of the said question in inquisitive eyes that wonder, ‘or is something wrong?’. Well, I hope to God nothing is, but can’t a happy twosome take its time growing up? Perhaps a more pertinent question to ask is, are we, both I and my lovely partner, responsible enough to be able to parent a child – a child who will ,for better or for worse, share, shape and influence the world in some respect?

It is perhaps a better time to be born than ever before. Cities, unless they’re swimming on oil, don’t get ransacked too often. People, irrespective of colour or gender, can enter parks, hotels and the parliament, at least in theory and George Bush Jr. isn’t going to be in office for long either. But good tidings aside, perhaps the world really could become a better place if we demanded more of the two groups that determine our future more than any other – our leaders and their parents; well, not just theirs but every parent and parent-to-be. Electing a government and having a baby are two most vital public decisions, and while one can rectify one’s mistakes every four or five years in case of the former, mistakes in the second case could haunt both parents and society for a lifetime or more.

Feral children, brought up by animals, display disconcertingly wild, animal-like characteristics and behaviour. They prove that higher mammals, more so primates and human beings, are creatures of instruction far more than instinct, and for our innate humanness to surface, we need a humane environment. And yet, murderers, rapists, paedophiles and even the criminally insane are free to rear children. Many such children will follow in their parent’s footsteps for they know no better. Look around you and you’ll see examples of individuals with the patience of a monkey with mange and the intelligence of a pea waddling past, precocious little lives in tow, and one can only live in hope that the kids would grow to be an improvement on their parents.

An instance that I can’t wipe from my memory is of a couple and a child I happened to observe at the veritable mecca for Delhi bongs – the Shiv Mandir. A closet idolater, I was waiting at the parking lot for my parents when I heard a child calling for her mother. She was sitting in a car, with her father, waiting for the mother to return. The child, not older than three or four years, apparently preferred her mother to her father for she kept calling out for her. After asking her to pipe down a couple of times, the father, without warning slapped the little girl across her face. Shocked, the poor kid started bawling loudly, only for her to be shouted at again and threatened with a rejoinder. I was almost about to intervene when thankfully, the mother returned. Obviously, formal education, financial resources and the lack of a criminal record aren’t enough to prepare one for parenthood. While counselling students, I’m struck by how some have become nervous, insecure wrecks because their parents would demand the world of them, while their only form of encouragement has been to tell them how their sister, neighbour and everything else alive on Earth and Mars was better than them.

Most dog breeders refuse to sell a puppy to a family that would not have time for it and yet no one asks parents if they would have time for their child. Rootless children, brought up in the company of maids and drivers often end up looking for family amongst strangers and happiness in substance abuse. From obesity and alcoholism to mangled pavement dwellers, the price of alienating children from their moorings could be high. Talking of pavement dwellers, their children make some metro crossings look like open-air crèches. Of those that survive the streets, some will grow to be labourers if lucky, others, drug pushers or worse. Maybe nature and Socrates have a point when they speak of only the alpha’s right to procreate. Even without taking things as far, shouldn’t we remember that a human being is far more potent than any hand gun or car, and if a license is imperative to guard against their misuse, shouldn’t there be any to ensure a child’s, and the world’s future? As for yours truly and matters of the family… soon enough, friends, soon enough… just in case someone takes the above too seriously.


Aldous Huxley, in A Brave New World discusses ‘The World State’ – a controlled world with a nonexistent family system – a world where children are bred in bottles. The theory draws inspiration from Plato’s Socratic Republic that has the Guardians (comprising of philosophers and warriors) at the helm. Their children are brought up in a community by chosen ‘volunteer parents’, who are progeny of a secretive, state controlled system of matching ‘alpha’ mates to ensure the best offspring. Such a system will, Plato opined, help in arriving at a society, the components of which will have what ought to be theirs – knowledge for philosophers, honour for warriors, and for commoners, the goods and pleasures they desire, in controlled moderation, as ensured by the Guardians.

These loveless worlds are not the answer we seek, but nor does our random rearing promise us much joy. Perhaps the trick is to bring ourselves up before we consider bringing up our kids.


Sunday, June 10, 2007

The hole in my head

Robert Young Pelton, amongst other things, is also an author and a journalist. The kind you can’t describe without bringing into mention a dash of steel and the unmentionables. Pelton has a habit of running into people with issues – you know, the kind who use ammunition belts to hold up their pyjamas and don’t mind using a blood-dried dagger to pick their teeth, ears and other bodily orifices. Pelton, who has made a living off his encounters with genial folk like those from FARC and the Taliban, once ran into a bloke called Bob Denard. French born Denard was called Gilbert Bourgeaud as a child and Said Mustapha Madjoub as husband to a Comoran girl in the Comoros. Between the two, Denard went to Africa, cut his teeth at the high-stakes business of mercenary warfare and was left standing while a litany of governments and rebels played musical chairs to the sickening tune of skulls cracked open by machetes and Magnums. In the Comoros however, Denard, with a tiny private army had staged a successful coup and practically ruled the islands. Pelton mentions how, when he first met Denard, he took Pelton’s hand to the dimpled crater on his head and said, “Here, feel the hole in my head”. Boyish bravado is typical of most mercenaries (an unpopular word, now replaced by the more acceptable Private Military Company/Contractor or PMC).

Traditionally, mercenaries were soldiers of fortune who would happily slit any throat as long as they got paid for it. If captured, they did not enjoy Prisoner of War status and a summary execution was the usual fate. And yet, so lucrative is the business of war that organisations like Sandline International and Executive Outcomes (EO) became immensely profitable businesses by supplying private armies to oil-rich, weak-kneed governments and corporations. In the 70s and 80s in Angola, Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA rebels stayed afloat in the war against the government with the help of American dollars and the South African army. The same UNITA, in the 90s had to face off against their one time allies – former South African regulars now employed by EO – who were now fighting for the Angolan government. After the cold war, mercenaries became unpopular, even illegal and many private armies disappeared, their philosophy sustained in spirit by the Mujahideen. They travelled across the globe for faith more than fortune, as they fought against the ‘enemies of Islam’ in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kosovo and then Iraq.

The Iraq war proved to be a shot in the arm for mercenaries on both sides of the political faultline, as Mujahideen fighters from the Muslim world as well as PMCs from Europe, South Africa and USA descended on the second largest oil reserves of the world, to make the most of a bloodbath. While the excesses of mercenary Mujahideens like Zarqawi have been well documented, what deserves mention is that a lot of the wanton aggression in Iraq, including some of the events at Abu Ghraib, for which coalition regulars got blamed, had been perpetrated by trigger-happy American PMCs who couldn’t control their weapons, their emotions or their hormones. Ex SAS John Geddes, now a British PMC, wrote of an incident involving a British PMC column headed for Baghdad. With Union Jacks fluttering like butterflies in a garden, they came across an American PMC column that started shooting at them. The Brits jumped out and started waving, hoping that that would stop firing, and thankfully it did. The British convoy leader, unable to restrain himself, asked one of the trigger happy Americans why he was shooting at a convoy that was flying the Union Jack. Nonplussed, he replied that he thought it was the Iraqi flag. And as Geddes mentions, it didn’t occur to the idiot that even those flying the Iraqi flag were supposed to be on his side. Boorish behaviour has been the calling card of mercenaries across time and space. From the Barbarians who raided China, to the war vets who took and switched sides in Africa, to the Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries in Kashmir to the PMCs and insurgents in Iraq, almost all have invaded with a view to plunder. And sooner than later, they end up making enemies of their staunchest defenders. Without accountability or responsibility, they take what they can and often destroy the rest. There is nothing glorious about killing strangers for money, and whether they do it in the bye-lanes of Fallujah or Florida, most deserve to be treated like criminals.

PMCs in Iraq make up a bigger contingent than the British forces. South Africa has been increasingly wary of the high number of South African PMCs and the firepower they command and Jeremy Scahill’s book, Blackwater: Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army warns of the ills that could stem from letting private armies grow unchecked. There are almost 100,000 PMCs engaged in Iraq, making almost $1000 a day, much more than the average American soldier, helping the Bush administration sustain an unpopular war and its tenuous positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Time to remind a hole headed American about another mercenary they once had eating out of their hands – a certain Osama bin Laden.

Soldiers of fortune

Mercenaries have been in existence for over 3,000 years, maybe more. Maybe because hiring highly trained soldiers to do one’s dirty work just makes so much sense. If you have the money that is, because these guys aren’t exactly at bargain basement prices. But still, starting from ancient Egyptians to present day U.S.A, governments all over the world have found them to be a useful and a convenient tool with which to further their political ambitions. Due to the nature of their work, mercenaries care little about nationalism, patriotism or any other irritating ‘isms’, except for capitalism. So history records Greeks fighting against Greeks while in service of their Persians masters. Such instances are innumerable in the saga of mercenaries.

Among the most famous mercenary outfits is the French Foreign Legion. Formed over 150 years ago, this small band of hardcore soldiers, collected from all over the world, has fought in numerous wars, local conflicts and many other little known skirmishes. Over the years this outfit has maintained its reputation as a dangerous, committed and capable force. The British too have a tradition of hiring mercenaries; for instance the Gurkhas, who continue to serve Queen and country (although no longer as mercenaries). In recent years mercenaries have been active mainly in Africa where they are directly or indirectly involved in dozens of coup attempts (successful or otherwise) and are partly to be blamed for destabilizing the region. PMC’s like Blackwater or Sandline are the modern day mercenaries. These are being extensively used in Iraq by the U.S. military, as they are the only viable solution owing to the manpower crunch, and the need to keep things quiet.


Sunday, June 3, 2007

Agony and ecstasy

Of all the bodies in the world, almost no-body you know would be able to distinguish a Reg Park from a Central, Hyde or any other park, and that really is tragic. For of all the billions of bodies that walk the world and the billions more that now rest in peace, Reg’s was once the best. Reg Park, a British born body builder, who played Hercules in a couple of forgettable movies, is one of the greatest physique artistes of all time, who had a physique that looked like it had been hewn out of granite. Reg was the inspiration for the man responsible for attracting millions, in bills and bodies to the iron game – a man who features in the list of TIME’s 100 most influential people, the sitting governor of California and the only Republican with a soul – Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the gubernator doesn’t quite cut it with my wife.

As a teenager, after giving my genes more than their fair share of time and faith, I got sick of waiting for the promised surge of post pubescent hormones that seemed to have been hijacked by the neighbour’s daughter and entered a local gymnasium instead. I went in looking like Kate Moss, only thinner, and uglier (I learnt that after the epiphany that is marriage, one realizes that there are only three kinds of women – ones that you are related to, those that you are married to and the decidedly ugly rest of womankind – isn’t that right, hon?) and emerged a few magical months later looking like a fair imitation of Michelangelo’s David. OK, ok! Perhaps it was more like the figure across the Madonna’s lap in the Pieta (and I mean no disrespect, Holy Father!), but hey, at least it’s a start. Compared to Kate Moss, anything is a start. The fact that women my age, who often took pity on me and half considered picking up and offering the crumbs that they had just thrown to the canteen dog in school if they saw me, treated me as a near equal, was a victory in itself. Armed thus with a couple of second hand body building magazines and new found manhood, I accosted a kind, angelic woman -the only one who’d give me more than just the time of day or crumbs from the dog (and is now paying for all that kindness by standing up to the challenges that come with becoming the newest member of the Banerji household) with a poster of the Austrian Oak’s rendition of a ‘most muscular’. ‘That’s how I’m going to look’, I told her as I unraveled the masterpiece in black and white. She almost threw up and since she was quite used to me, the offending party had to be Arnie. Then and there, I folded up my Mr. Olympia dreams. Like the millions who enter the iron temple seeking physiological salvation and then turn reluctant heretics, I too turned to tamer pursuits, like picking up the TV remote instead of vein popping poundage for instance.

The truth however is that iron game made a man out of me. It was like being bitten by a radioactive spider and though protracted, the transformation was almost as spectacular. It set me up for other, more esoteric, enriching pursuits but undeniably, the dumbbells and barbells added steel to my soul. And the transformation was as much within as without. As you see your sweat and toil in the gym being rewarded by tangible gains in strength, shape and size, the surge of testosterone and endorphins is matched by an even greater surge in self belief. The notion that one can influence one’s destiny is embedded into the psyche forever. Some of the greatest names in the sport are buried under layers of anonymity with the freakier stars of today (some like Ronnie Coleman weigh in excess of 300lbs while under six feet and possess the physical grace of a pachyderm on two legs in heels on an ice floe) alienating weight room enthusiasts and turning the majority off this great sport with their grotesque, overblown proportions. But that shouldn’t take away from the premise and potential of body-sculpting. Every sport needs to evolve and unfortunately, for a sport that combines the aesthetics of visual and performing arts with monastic martial vigour, the winds of trends blew it in the direction of a debilitating by-product – size. Debilitating not just for the aesthetics those artistic marvels like Frank Zane and Steeve Reeves defined the sport with, but also for the athletes who, in their quest for size, became victims of protein and steroid abuse. Champions like Mohammed Benaziza, Andreas Munzer, Tom Prince and Mike Matarazzo have all suffered irreversible organ damage, with the first two succumbing to their excesses.

But for every Matarazzo who suffers, there is a Dennis Newman who survives leukemia and attributes his victory over the disease to his bodybuilding lifestyle. Of even greater relevance to us are the testimonies of people like Bill Pearl, Roy Hilligan and Jack La Lanne who are training with iron even in the golden twilight of their lives and have a physique with strength and vitality to match that’ll put most people less than half their age to shame. And you’re never old to start, as the Harvard Medical School testifies that even ‘frail octogenarians’ derive tremendous physiological benefits even if they start strength training at an advanced age. James Dean once quoted from Knock On Any Door that he’d like to ‘die young’ and ‘have a beautiful corpse’. It’s a comforting thought that once you’re in the iron game, it doesn’t matter how old you are, for you know you’ll always have a beautiful corpse.

The Lanne to Elysium

Jack La Lanne is 92. He spends most time speaking to people half his age about the joys of a fitness lifestyle and then proceeds to show them ‘the way’. Born to French immigrant parents Jennie Garaig and John La Lanne in San Francisco, California, on 26th September 1914, he transformed himself from a sugar and junk -food addict into a muscular TV fitness star. Inspired by nutritionist Paul Bragg’s talk, 15 year old Jack discovered the world of diets and dumbells and become one of the fittest men of his generation. Jack often celebrates his birthdays, including his 70th, by swimming across bays, channels and harbours - handcuffed and shackled - while towing 70 fully laden boats on ocassions.

Today with wife Elaine, he teaches his fitness systems to athletes, bodybuilders, disabled geriatrics and the general public worldwide. Awarded the Horatio Alger Award from the Association of Distinguished Americans, he even has a star in his name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. While the maxim ‘bigger is better’ is driving professional bodybuilding, the real essence and value of the bodybuilding lifestyle shines through the example of Jack La Lanne who claims he can’t afford to die, because “it’ll ruin my image”.