Sunday, August 31, 2008

A preemptive strike

This story is not about Aruna Shanbaug, and yet, I must tell you her story before I start...

Aruna is 60 years old. By all accounts, she spends her time staring at the ceiling but can’t see a thing. Her teeth are rotting away and her bones have twisted themselves into shapes of their own volition. Those who have known and loved her wish for her death, and yet her life clings on, to what hope, no one knows…

Aruna has been living her life on this municipal hospital bed for the last 35 years, semi-comatose, but whenever she hears a man’s voice, she screams, in fear, in agony and in memory of her last waking hour….

Thirty-five years ago, on a November evening, Aruna, then a 25 year old head-strong head turner, a nurse in a hospital in Mumbai, was on top of the world… she was going on leave, she was going to marry the man of her dreams. In the hospital basement which housed the dog-lab, she changed out of her uniform and was about to leave when she felt the cold steel of a dog chain around her neck… it was Sohanlal, a ward-boy sweeper she had rebuked earlier … Sohanlal assaulted her, tried to rape her… and since she was menstruating, sodomised her instead; strangled her with the dog chain and presuming her dead, left her crumpled and bleeding…

Today, Aruna’s body and spirit, ravaged and broken, lie on that lonely hospital bed while Sohanlal having served a seven year sentence, roams free. Some say he is working in a hospital in Delhi, but you wouldn’t know him if you saw him… he has a new name.

This story isn’t about Nishtha (name changed), and yet, I must tell you her story before I finish…

Not too long ago, Nishtha, in her 20s, was walking past a construction site in Delhi, on her way back home from a mall. Suddenly, a couple of guys followed her into a lane and pushed her against a brick wall… one of them held her neck, and her shoulder, pressing her face into the wall, while the other started fiddling with her clothes…

Five minutes and a few screams later, some labourers had gathered in the lane. With glazed eyes and a gash on her lower lip, Nishtha was panting, standing with her hands on her knees, and at her feet lay a man in his 30s, clutching his groin, writhing and groaning in pain. His face was bleeding from cuts under his right eye and his mouth, and his accomplice had run away… some say it was his screams that the labourers had heard. But could’ve been Nishtha’s screams, said the man who told me this story… “She’s very aggressive when she’s angry… you wouldn’t think a girl as slight as her was capable of such anger… such volume, such violence…”

Nishtha though is your everyday next door girl in every respect, save one. Every other day, for months, she’s been spending her evenings training in something called Krav Maga (read slip stream), but hey, this isn’t about her. This is about you, and about every woman you know and care about… This story is about the time I spent training in the same dojo which Nishtha often frequents (her peers told me about the legend that precedes her) and saw other women too, petite and bashful in repose, transformed into formidable amazons under duress.

Having spent some time studying various martial arts, I realise there are many that offer greater health benefits or cultural moorings, but there perhaps aren’t any that help you feel safer. Martial arts styles like Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai might be as deadly on the streets but they demand high levels of skill and aerobic fitness, virtues, you’ll admit, that are beyond the reach of most of the women we share our lives with. Krav Maga, on the other hand, trains the body, and far more importantly, the mind to handle attackers who are invariably bigger, stronger and fitter. Unlike other martial arts, Krav Maga is not a sport. The training focuses exclusively on real-life situations and on surviving that situation instead of scoring points. I know what you’re thinking, especially if you happen to be the elegant, gentle, feminine type (specifically referring to women here); ‘I don’t need this. I don’t use public transport. I have a driver. And there’s a guard outside, so what could possibly happen to me? Besides, I’m too much of a lady…’ Well, let me remind you ladies, Dhananjay Chatterjee, the man who raped and murdered 14 year old Hetal Parekh was the security guard of her housing complex. Ma’am, you’re safe only when ‘you’ can keep yourself safe.

Surveys of convicted rapists reveal that they look for a ‘soft target’, someone who wouldn’t be a lot of trouble. After three months of Krav Maga, I assure you, any girl would be ‘a lot of trouble’.

What good is it for the gentlemen amongst us, you ask? I asked my instructor the same question… He said “Remember IC 814; if I’d been on that plane with some of my students, I don’t know about us, but the hijackers wouldn’t have survived the hijacking (incidentally, sky marshals on various airlines have been trained in Krav Maga). Moral of the story – if you are a man, Krav Maga prepares you for heroism, and if you are a woman, it prepares you for life, without fear, and with dignity.

Lethal weapon

A relatively recent form of martial art, Krav (meaning combat) and Maga (meaning contact) is an Israeli form of martial expression. Developed first in the 1930’s in Hungary and Czechoslovakia by a man called Imi Lichtenfeld who first taught the hand to hand combat techniques (that borrow elements from other martial arts) to the Haganah (the underground Jewish army). Later with the establishment of the state of Israel, Imi became Chief Instructor of the art at the Israel Defense Forces School of Combat Fitness.

Developed and refined over time, Krav Maga today finds itself as the official defense and combat system of the Israel Defense Forces, the Israeli Police and other Israeli security and intelligence agencies. In fact every soldier in the Israeli army undergoes training in the discipline as part of his/her training. What is interesting to note is that Krav Maga only opened doors to the world as late as 1980 gradually gaining popularity outside of Israel, especially the US where the following year experts from Israel gave demonstrations at the FBI Field Office and the agency’s training centre in Quantico.

Today Krav Maga remains the favoured choice of security forces in many a country and individuals who like it for its practical application and for the fact that there are no set rules or specific clothes, uniforms or competitions.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Pride and its prejudices

17th February, 1871; Paris: A little boy sees the victorious Prussian forces march out of the city they had just captured… crushing his pride and the pride of the entire French nation under their heavy boots as they stomped past. The tame French surrender in what came to be known as the Franco-German wars were to haunt France for a long time to come. As the little boy grew up, stalked by the ignominy of this defeat, he rationalized that France lost the war because it had become a ‘flabby’, physically and spiritually. Born of this sense of humiliation was a movement that has become the repository of geo-political complexes and conquests – the modern Olympics.

That little boy was Baron Pierre de Coubertin, and to put Orville Schell’s Newsweek article in perspective, it isn’t just China that runs in the Olympics on an anabolic called an ‘inferiority complex’. In a world where wars had begun to lose their romance (it was a period that saw two of the worst ever, yet there was no glory for the aggressors), the Olympics became the battleground for national pride. Countries could establish supremacy without losing or claiming lives to satiate the ego of a nation. Who knows, perhaps the glorious contests between the Soviet-bloc and USA where to a certain extent, instrumental in staving off a real war during the Cold War period, for when Zbigniew Pietrzykowski took on Cassius Clay in the boxing ring in Rome, 1960, or when American sprinter Eddie Hart chased after Valeri Borzov in Munich in 1972, it wasn’t just a clash between individuals but a battle between two ideologies.

Unlike soccer or tennis, most Olympic events, like track & field, swimming and weightlifting, are more about athletic absolutes like strength, speed and endurance, rather than skill. And it takes years of expensive research with respect to bio-mechanics, training methods and nutrition coupled with a supportive infrastructure that ‘takes care’ of its athletes to roll out an assembly line of champions across disciplines. I spent some time at the Australian Institute of Sports in Canberra recently, a state of the art training facility where athletes across disciplines have dedicated their lives to ‘the pursuit of gold’. Walking down a corridor with larger than life cut-outs of Olympic champions Michael Klim and Petria Thomas, I was reminded of one of India’s cradles for Olympic hopefuls – Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. There, after doing time at the cricket ‘nets’, I would sit down with national athletes in the canteen and hear them lament their lot, complaining about rusty gymnasiums, nepotism and an apathetic administration. I remember asking once how they hoped to win medals under the circumstances and was told “medal ka kya karna hai, ek naukri to milley…” And I don’t blame them. In a country where legends like KD Jhadav, India’ first ever individual Olympic medalist (and it’s a pity his name needs an introduction) and even the legendary Dhyan Chand lived out their lives in penury and obscurity, what right have you or I to demand commitment to such a nation, or its pride. When I see Australian athletes, representing a population not much greater than Delhi’s, focused on medals to add to their list of nearly 400 Olympic medals, while our athletes worry about landing a job with the Railways, I understand, and say, ‘way to go’, for we, especially those who run sports in this country, don’t deserve any better. And an Abhinav Bindra, or even an Akhil or Jitender winning a couple of more golds, wouldn’t change a thing about sports administration in this country.

Going back to the question of infrastructure and athletic absolutes, the economic and military might of the greatest nations in the world at a given point in time, can be judged from their medals tally at the Olympics. For instance, in the early 1900s, Great Britain was at the height of its powers - an empire where ‘the sun never set’ and predictably enough in the 1908 Olympics, GBR won twice as many medals as the next best, USA, to finish on top. In the 1930s, Hitler had galvanized a resurgent Germany into one of the most powerful nations in the world. And in1936, Jesse Owens’ heroics notwithstanding, Germany finished on top of the medal heap. After WW II, the two most powerful nations in the world, USSR and USA dominated the Olympic medals tally until perestroika. Then USA became unbeatable in a unipolar world, until China emerged as a worthy contender, both in the global as well as the Olympic village. Moreover, you’ll consistently find permanent members of the UN Security Council and most G-8 nations consistently amongst the top 10.

In light of this indicator that separates the men from the boys, how are we to reconcile our crowing over a single Gold, our first in 28 years, and our only individual gold ever with our ambitious assumptions about being the next global super power?Well, there is hope. A Foreign Policy article calls India ‘the world’s worst Olympians’ primarily because our results are especially poor keeping in mind our enormous potential, and phew, our obvious economic might. And here’s a moot point – Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal was the result of sheer private enterprise, commitment, dedication and ambition, unfettered by those in public office, and similarly, our economic growth too perhaps owes more to private enterprise than public policy. But this nation can only go so far on ‘private steam’. It needs committed political will and leadership to become a ‘secure’ nation on both sides of the border as well as to prove across disciplines, that we’ve finally arrived. It is up to our leaders to change for the better, failing which, it is up to us to change our leaders, for peace, and for pride.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

And Buddha Cried

Buddha was finding it difficult to sit on the cold steel chair. His head hurt, his back was sore, his eyes were dry and his heart, cold. Sitting in that tiny blue room, Buddha waited. On the table in front of him sat three empty cups, chipped and stained, just like the walls around him. In the cup closest to him, he could see a fly struggling to escape the sugary bog at the bottom of the cup. Buddha tore a strip of paper from his notebook and fished the fly out… and then he waited some more.

Just hours ago, Buddha had been walking towards his tutor’s house, when he heard a familiar voice… “ Buddha, wait… !” Looking up, he saw a head dart in from a first floor window. It was Babu, his friend, a fellow ‘gang member’. Babu couldn’t contain his excitement. “Come, I have a plan!” What happened next was still a bit of a blur for Buddha. The tuitions forgotten, the two reached the parking lot of a theatre and ‘got to work’, stashing their newly acquired ‘loot’ in the satchel that contained Buddha’s unused notebook.

With the satchel bursting at the seams, the two friends started off on their last ‘job’. Just then, footsteps…. The two friends turned and saw a bunch of parking attendants running towards them… “Woh dekho chor, saale. …. Pakdo saalon ko, maaro!” Buddha and Babu ran hard and Babu made it past the gate first, followed by Buddha. “Phew! Made it” thought Buddha, and just then he heard a crash and felt a tug. Entangled between his shoulder and a prone bicycle, its wheels still spinning, was his satchel. Metres away, sprawled out on his stomach, muttering curses lay the rider. With his pursuers closing in, Buddha tried to disentangle himself and run, but before he could, the mob caught him. Babu, meanwhile, had disappeared.

At this point, his memory becomes a patchwork of curses, cuffs and the warm salty taste of his own blood; he remembers a thick fleshy fist catching him by the scruff of his neck and pushing him onto a yellow motorcycle, crushed between two coarse, rather odorous, khaki shirts, to the local police station, and a rather thick stick. “Kaun tha therey saath, naam bata? Nahin batayega?!” Thwack, went the stick on Buddha’s bare legs.

“@#%*! Chori kabse kar raha hai?” thwack. Somehow, all through, he does not remember feeling any pain. “Kahan Rehta hai?” Buddha was quiet again. “Murga banao c#*$*#$ ko!” Thwack, thwack went the stick again. Buddha could feel an excruciating throbbing pain in his legs and his back. Buddha lied about his address. “Jhoot bolta hai saala!” thwack, thwack thwack… Buddha gave in…

At this very minute, while Buddha waited on that cold steel chair, a policeman was knocking on a door. But while he waited, Buddha was surprised he hadn’t cried. He was after all a child, barely nine years old. Until now Buddha hadn’t felt either guilt or shame, just a stubborn resolve to be as difficult as possible, like a primal animal that thought nothing of the future, only living and fighting for its present. But now, as he saw his mother walk into the police station, Buddha looked away, afraid to make eye contact. One of the constables, in one smooth motion turned the satchel upside down, and like a hail storm beating against a window pane, car logos… three-pointed Mercedes stars, Toyotas and dozens of Maruti Suzukis tumbled and clattered onto the floor and the table… Buddha saw the expression of mild indignation on his mother’s face turn into disbelief and shock. “It’s just a game Ma… just a game,” Buddha pleaded, as his mask melted away. He was nine years old again, scared and embarrassed. He expected her to scream at her, to tell him what a ‘good-for-nothing’ he happened to be, but she became very quiet... She apologised to the policemen, and assured them that she’ll ensure better conduct from her only son and to their credit, the cops did not drag the issue and let Buddha and his empty satchel go…

That evening, many many years ago, as my mother and I walked back from the station, I remember wishing I could somehow make her understand that the only reason I did what I did was because I believed that was all I was good at… this is all that my peers noticed about me. I knew everything I was bad at and no one told me what I might’ve been good at till I found this game. I was braver and quicker than them and had the logos to prove it.

For a change, those who sniggered when my math teacher announced my scores were looking upto me… wanting to be with me… and that’s what I wanted, not the logos. But I couldn’t say all that, didn’t need to I guess. Though I’ve never asked her, I’m sure she’d known, or at least felt all that I wanted to say. So, in front of our house, she looked into my eyes for the first time and said “ You’re not a bad boy. You’re a good boy. I know it, I believe it… now you have to know it; you have to believe it. Do you?” The dam broke and I wept like the child I was. Through the tears, I nodded, and promised to be as good as she thought me to be.

It’s been 23 years, and every day, I still try and keep that promise. And I’ll tell you this, if anybody ever disappoints you, don’t tell them how bad they are; tell them how good you know they can be, and more often than not, they’ll become that ‘good’ and better… it works, just ask my mother…

The second coming

When Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Misérables, was caught and turned in to the Bishop for stealing his silver, the latter rescued him with these words: “You no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!” Can a brush with the ‘bad’ prove seminal to one’s course of life?

• Hip hop singer Akon’s best hits, whether Trouble, Konvicted, or Locked Up, have smacked of his trysts with the law. It was behind bars, allegedly for auto theft, that he decided to switch gears for good. Often prefacing his songs with the utterance of ‘Convict’, Akon, can’t seem to go away from his ‘humble(d) beginnings’.

• Gregory David Roberts, or Shantaram, is better acquainted with Mumbai than most Mumbaiikars. A promising Australian academic who turned to thieving to support his heroin addiction, Shantaram was one of the most wanted men in Oz when he escaped to India. Here he dabbled in the mafia, smuggling, and even co-fronted a mission to Afghanistan in the 80s, before he was extradited back to Australia, where he penned Shantaram while serving sentence in a manner of purging himself.

• Author Jeffrey Archer was set to run for Mayor (London) in 1999, when he was found guilty of perjury in a case of sexual misconduct from which he had walked free twelve years back. There followed an exit from politics, along with more writing in the form of Prison Diaries and lately, A Prisoner of Birth.