Sunday, December 28, 2008

What to say after ‘I Do’

Don’t bother reading this, because in all probability, I didn’t write these hurriedly scribbled words of advice for you. And who needs advice anyway… not you. Not unless you just got married, like two of my cousins just did. In that case, you’ll be busy climbing every tree in the vicinity hoping to find the ‘Fruit of Knowledge’, failing which, you might find every bit of advice rather useful… something to hold onto, albeit briefly – just like rocks on a shoreline that give you hope even as the high tide of holy matrimony sweeps you off your feet and into those turbulent waters. Advice, on such occasions, could be your life jacket to the future…

And why am I just the person to dispense it? Well, if I haven’t said this before, let me say it again… We, my bride and I, got married when I was 21. About as soon as I could. And yes… yes… mujhe unme Rabh dikhta hai… except, of course, when she’s screaming at me for leaving my clothes on the floor and my shoes on the bed (tab unme Mom dikhti hain… and what’s worse, it’s not like Mom has stopped screaming either. The baton wasn’t passed, it just gets flung at me... in twos now!). But that isn’t the point. The point is, between all the baton ducking, we’ve managed to find our way through many a marital mire, thanks to a little luck and a lot of love. And now that ‘tis the season for sayin ‘I do’, maybe I could share my learning with those, who, like my cousins, have leapt before they could look, and help you, even as you try to smell the roses through the coffee. And even if you didn’t JUST get married, JUST pretend that you did… it’ll only help…

1. Don’t Believe That Marriage Changes Anything For It Doesn’t Marriage doesn‘t and isn’t supposed to make you more committed, secure, responsible or keep you in love. It’s merely an announcement that two people, because they’re in love or because they believe they might learn to love, have decided to live together. The two of you have to make the marriage work; the marriage can’t work for the two of you.

Just because you’re married, don’t expect too much of each other. Pretend the marriage never happened and you’re just living-in, two souls in love, bound by nothing but love and friendship. And do keep these two bonds alive, and fresh...

2. Your Best Friend’s Wedding Should Also Be Your Own This isn’t about community weddings and nor am I insisting that you marry whoever your best friend happens to be, irrespective of gender. All I’m saying is that you and your partner should grow up to be, if you aren’t already, the best of friends. Romance and lust are like autumn and spring – short beautiful interludes between blazing summers and freezing winters. They’ll surely return, but just as surely, they’ll disappear in the heat and dust of summers or the cold hard truths of winter. Then, what you’d need most is a friend – someone to stand by you, selflessly, without passing judgment. And if your partner can’t be your best friend, he/she will be someone else’s. You mightn’t like that.

Above all, when you’re both old and wrinkled, your greatest joy would be to sit in a garden in the evenings with your best friend, enjoying a cup of tea, a heartfelt conversation and the beautiful sunset…

3. Beware Of The East India Company Syndrome Partners in a marriage, often inadvertently, become imperialists and colonisers. A husband I happen to know, I’m not going to say who, once complained bitterly about how his wife always chooses which side of the bed she’d want to sleep on. That’s cute enough but here’s what made it worse. “Whenever I get out of bed to go to the loo or for water, I’d always return to find the missus sleeping right in the middle of the bed, splayed out at such an angle that the only way I could get some sleep was by hanging on to the edge of the bed, my legs sticking out like sugarcane from one of those heavily loaded tractor trolleys you see on the highway. When I get to office, my sleepless eyes all red and puffy, colleagues elbow me in the ribs, wink and say ‘you don’t seem to be getting much sleep. Way to go, old chap.’ If only the buggers knew…”

This state of mind is rather common amongst newly married couples. The ‘bed’ incident is only a microcosm of a greater malaise. A partner might not even realise when and how he/she intrudes into the other’s space, so much that things become claustrophobically dire for the other. Trying to control your partner who trusts you, inadvertently or otherwise, is akin to betrayal. Guard against this at all costs, for then the relationship dynamics and the friendship will suffer. If ever in doubt, just ask. You’re best of friends, remember…

4. Last but not the least, The Bedroom Brawl Sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking the idea of marriage must’ve been someone’s idea of a cruel joke. A man and a woman have near opposite body rhythms when it comes to ‘getting cosy’, if you’ll pardon the euphemism… You see it’s a bit like the rains and the river. One is programmed to manifest itself in short bursts and a trifle indiscriminately while the other is programmed to stay its course, relatively speaking, and go on and on… and yet they’d die without each other. To cut a long and rather interesting story short, the bedroom offers a couple its greatest challenge because of the physiological, psychological and evolutionary differences which, once surmounted through a bit of educated understanding, could become the bedrock of the relationship. There are other more opportune platforms to understand the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the birds and the bees, but your key words are ‘understanding, patience and passion’. Understanding would take a while coming, so meanwhile be patient and don’t let the wait dim your, or your partner’s, passion.

This isn’t the last word and you will have to swim in these waters on your own, but if this piece keeps you afloat for a while, it would’ve done its bit…Stay in love, stay together and God bless.

UNTYING THE KNOT

“What are the grounds for your divorce?” asked a judge to a woman who’d filed for divorce. She replied, “About four acres and a nice little home in the middle of the property.” Jokes apart, alarmingly skyrocketing divorce rates across the world are severely testing the institution called marriage. So, what’s driving this disturbing trend? Well, there’s the familiar ‘seven year itch’ syndrome (biological studies suggest that humans’ preference is to pair for about seven years before changing mates) but here are three of the most leading causes:

INFIDELITY: It is often the symptom of all problems, a physical manifestation of problems elsewhere in the marriage. An affair or a one night stand, it has been cited as overt grounds for divorce in over a third of the cases in the US and some studies indicate it might feature in over half of all failed marriages.

COMMUNICATION: It is an essential for a successful marriage, but the lack of it can happen because of lethargy, suppression of emotions or plain absence of effort leading to frustration, resentment and ultimately the irreparable breakdown of the relationship.

COMPATIBILITY: ‘Made for each other’ can quickly become a nightmare, if wedges are driven between couples because of their incompatibility (and possibly detrimental competition) on the professional and consequently financial fronts.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

…AND YET, YES WE CAN!

On the night of November 26, when terrorists stormed the Taj, in a room on one of the floors, there was one of India Inc’s bright young beacons lying on the floor, alive, but terrified, confused and unsure. Next to him on the floor lay others, some bleeding, others perhaps weeping… A wall away, they could hear the crack of assault rifles, the cries of victims as they crashed lifeless in corridors and rooms and the deafening sound of explosions. As the acrid smell of the carnage wafted in with the smoke, panic set in. How much longer before the terrorists enter our room? Will they kill us all? What do we do? Questions raged in every head, including the young CEO’s… “We did not know what to do? We tried barricading ourselves inside the room… but it was rather flimsy…” he said on TV, after he was rescued the next day. He thanked providence and his spiritual practice for carrying him through those harrowing hours, for there was little else to bank on.

That same evening, in another part of the hotel, seven South Africans were dining in one of the restaurants when they heard gun shots inside the hotel. When they realised that there were terrorists in the hotel, they spoke to the other diners and told them who they were – bodyguards in the country on an assignment, protecting international cricketers – and explained that they had the training to handle this situation. “People remained calm”, one of them told a news channel, as they moved more than a hundred people out of the restaurant. “…it had a large glass area which could have been dangerous…” They switched off the lights to retain the element of surprise and then the other guests were herded into a conference room which was then barricaded by the South Africans with relatively sturdy objects like refrigerators and heavy tables. The bodyguards had armed themselves with what they could – cleavers and knives and were considering various possibilities when they realised that the building was on fire. They knew they had to evacuate, checked to see if it was ‘all clear’, got word through to the security personnel that they shouldn’t shoot and finally through the fire exit, guided 120 hostages to safety (including an old woman who was carried in a chair, down 25 flights of stairs!)

I heard about both these incidents on the same day and the contrast hit me hard between the eyes. Our young CEO was lucky, but

there were many others who stumbled upon their deaths because while they too did not know what to do next, unlike the CEO, the dice just didn’t roll their way. And yet, I have a feeling that if there were a handful of other professionals like these South African heroes – people who had some notion of what could be done to save their own lives and those of others around them, perhaps many more would’ve walked out alive from the Taj.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again - we are a people under siege and we’re practically on our own. It took a nine hour long ‘quick reaction’ for our commandos to be brought to location (and that they had to be brought there in ‘BEST’ buses, tells you about India’s ‘most terrorised’ city’s levels of preparedness). You might rant and rave, and light enough candles to pave the Marine Drive with wax, but you can bet your last recession-hit rupee on it that nothing, absolutely nothing is going to change if anybody with a voice (and that’s not you or me) in this great dysfunctional democracy can help it. There could be more terrorists tomorrow, and there could be more bombs; there could be cyclones, tsunamis and earthquakes, but help would only reach once it’s too late for most.

But we can’t remain helpless, at the mercy of the guy with the gun, whichever side he might be on. Just like the South Africans, instead of letting ‘terror’ paralyse us, surely, we too can prepare ourselves for such an eventuality. I wanted to know if there was anything I could do if I was stuck in a burning building with ruthless gunmen on the prowl? Is there anything we could do to hold the fort and save lives (including my own) until help finally arrived? Turns out, yes, we can…

I asked two of India’s most well known security consultants and martial artists – SWAT and Krav Maga Chief Instructor (India) and veteran Karateka Vicky Kapoor and Shaolin and Police Kung Fu and Kali Master Kanishka Sharma – the same question: what can a lay civilian can do in a 26/11 scenario? Apparently, conscription helps. A country that has had to fight insurgency almost since the day it was born would obviously do well if every citizen was also a soldier. “…it builds a sense of nationhood… makes you more aware as citizens”, says Kapoor. Well, but that’s not an option for now… what else?

“Be aware!”, echoed both masters. Here, it would be pertinent to note that both have been responsible for giving extensive close quarter combat (CQC) training to various law enforcement agencies, the military and some of its elite units. It seemed a generic directive, but as the South Africans proved, it was the one trait – being aware of one’s environment (moving away from glass areas, fire, checking for exits, and finding resources for barricading an area) that saved more than a 100 lives.

“Secondly, you should always stay low – you might escape both bullets and heavy smoke”, urged Vicky Kapoor. “Krav Maga (used by the Israeli Defence units) was designed to counter hostage situations”, he elaborated, as he showed us how he would’ve handled armed hostage takers even if handcuffed “and while most Israelis would’ve made difficult hostages because they’ve served in the army and trained in CQC, most of us Indians are neither trained nor aware. Even if you can’t get army training, every school, RWA and organisation should run programmes that run basic first aid. Doctors trapped in one of the hotels saved the lives of a wounded few with basic first aid techniques. Perhaps many others could’ve been saved. Teach people what to do incase of a fire or an earth quake. Offices have fire extinguishers but who knows how to use them? In case of a fire or explosion, more might die in a stampede. Simple evacuation drills could save lives. Martial skills could be infinitely useful, but the rest is basic and should be mandatory training for each and every Indian. Wake up, and take charge of your lives. No one else would do it for you”, he concluded. Incidentally, Vicky Kapoor has been training security teams in some prominent hotel chains in the aftermath of 26/11. Kanishka echoed the same thoughts. “We’re usually too busy walking like zombies to notice our surroundings. Why is that man so nervous? Whose bag is that? Where are the exits? Which is the closest hospital? I’m not saying you should be in a state of paranoia 24/7, but be aware of your surroundings. And be careful before you start a self defense course to prepare yourself for hostage situations. They work…” he said as he demonstrated how even an unarmed hostage could, at the right moment, “with the right training”, disarm an armed assailant and get out alive “… but you must understand that combat martial styles, like Kali (a martial art used by the Filipino Marines) begin where most martial sports (Tae kwon do and sport Karate are sports which’ve banned lethal techniques, focusing instead on scoring points) end. Their aim is to train to finish the opponent (even if armed), not score points and this distinction is very important when you choose a martial art for self defense. Presence of mind, common sense and even the ability to engage hostage takers in a conversation, a negotiation, could save your life. If that fails, train the mind and the body with self defense skills and you might still come out alive.”

I know what you’re thinking? What good are martial skills in the face of a bullet. Well, if someone wants to shoot you, he will and there’s nothing you can do about it. But in a hostage situation, escape if you can. And if you can’t, wait. There might be a moment when the terrorist comes close enough for you to act. I hope such a day never comes, but if it does, you might as well be prepared… See you in the dojo then… PS Mr CEO(s), do remember to organize fire safety, first aid and evacuation drills in the office. It might save more than just one life…

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bravehearts against the apocalypse

Looking back on the years spent wondering ‘what would I be when I grow up?’, I don’t have regrets about the various windows of opportunity that I might have stared through for a while but then left them behind, unopened… none save one… And that regret was acting up like a dull ache from an old war wound when I saw those images of commandos being air dropped onto Nariman House…

When I was about 13, I moved from my catholic missionary ‘boys-only’ concentration camp to what I hoped was liberation and freedom in the co-educational world of Central Schools (an anglicised moniker for the staid old Kendriya Vidyalaya). While my mates at the ‘missionary’ drew inspiration from the entrepreneurial spirit that had driven their families from post partition penury, to way up the socio-economic ladder towards plenty and prosperity, the boys in KV cared for one thing, and one thing only – life in the ‘Academy’ (the National Defence Academy). That, I suspect, had to do with two things. One, most of them had been brought up on tales of valour in the family and joys of life in the ‘mess.’ And two, you didn’t have a Chinaman’s chance with the girls unless you happened to be preparing for the NDA… because for them, cricketers weren’t man enough and movie stars were mostly pansy dandies… so unless you were training to be an army officer like her daddy, you could forget about asking any of them even the time, least of all for a date.

So after watching “Top Gun” Cruise taking their breath away, I declared that I too would become an air force pilot or, after some heavy duty persuasion from the Gubernator, maybe a commando. I dropped my cricket kit and went running with the boys, cranked out push ups and pull ups, watched “Platoon” and debated about the comparative virtues of the three forces…

That was a wonderful time and we spoke of how wonderful it’d be if we all made it to the ‘Academy’ together until… until one of the NDA hopefuls did not turn up for school. The year was 1989 and news came in that his father had come back wrapped in a tri-colour from Sri Lanka. Soon there were others who did not turn up for school. It was a gloomy winter, and when our friends returned, they seemed unrecognisable – gone was that enthusiasm which had fired our dreams. In its stead raged bitterness, anger and a sense of betrayal. We heard about how intelligence failures and political ineptitude had left our troops vulnerable and how some of our best soldiers had to pay with their lives because some one else sitting at a desk just wasn’t smart enough to back him up. Later, one of the boy’s uncles was heard complaining about how political indecisiveness and foreign policy misadventures by our political leaders result in the needless destruction of this country’s ‘only heroes’. It was a feeling echoed by others.

The ‘Academy’ never happened. Some of us studied engineering, others management, and all those women who couldn’t see beyond men in uniform settled down happily with power dressing executives and one of them even a psychiatrist. After that winter, none of us spoke of the ‘Academy’ ever again and I have a feeling it wasn’t just us. The IPKF mission did nothing to diminish the valour of our forces, and some like the Marine Commandos (MARCOS) returned as veritable super heroes. But the Lanka operations made it apparent to many Indians, including na├»ve romantics like us, that irresponsible and unintelligent governance can reduce the best fighting units to mere pawns in a bout of political eyeballing.

Some of my closest friends are serving in the ‘forces’ and they are amongst the people I admire and respect the most. In fact, in the presence of a battle-scarred soldier, irrespective of nationality, I always have this debilitating sense of awe and humility – I almost don’t feel man enough in their presence (and I’m pretty sure it’s because those snooty army daughters had scarred my teenaged psyche in school). And yet, since that winter, I’ve remained disillusioned with the idea of a career in the forces. All that awe and humility was always tinged with liberal doses of pity. For who knows how they’ll meet their end… would it be on a garden chasing their dog and the grand kids, or would they instead get blown up by an IED that had been planted by the very terrorist who they had apprehended and handed over to the cops only for the local politician to have him released in no time.

But all that changed on 27th November, 2008, when I saw these modern day ninjas storming Nariman House in a bid to not take lives but save them. And don’t let the Israeli Defence Minister and Curry King Ghulam Noon’s criticism of our commandos mislead you. Indian special forces like the NSG, MARCOS and the Para Commandos are amongst the absolute best in the world, and I’m not the only one saying this. John Geddes, ex British SAS (Special Air Service – the mother of all Special Forces units) and now a celebrated and battle hardened PMC (Private Military Contractor) wrote pretty much the same thing in one of his books. And thus the regret…

There were brave people amongst the hostages, some of the hotel staff, but while these were heroes by chance, these soldiers are heroes by choice and design; heroes of not just this moment but of this nation. And while I wouldn’t agree with what my classmates had said about our sportsmen and actors, who happen to be this nation’s ambassadors and cultural flag-bearers, there’s no denying that these masked crusaders, much like comic book super heroes who save the day and then disappear without a trace, are the only real action heroes of our times. Looking back, I feel it’s a shame we gave up on the Academy, for lousy bosses notwithstanding, there’s nothing like saving lives for a living, especially if you have the skills to put your own on the line and get out alive. Nevertheless, the SF are better off without us, and here’s to our gallant men in black. May they continue to save our face and lives, and may they live long and prosper… God bless them, and a billion more…

The slip stream

Methods behind the madness

The Mumbai siege proved the state’s failure on all fronts – political leadership, security, intelligence – except one: concerted action by our own ‘top guns’ in the moment of crisis.

The training schedule of the Indian Special Operations Forces like the National Security Guards (NSGs), the Marine Commando Force (Marcos), and Para Commandos would suggest of a torture order, so much that the drop-out rate of the candidates is around 60-80%! Consider the NSG. Created around the time of Operation Bluestar for intense counter-insurgency operations, NSG recruits are subject to severe physical and psychological tests through the training period. For e.g., incumbents are required to chart a 780-metre obstacle course complete with gaping chasms and vertical scaling, all in a maximum of 25 minutes, which some accomplish in nine! Awaiting at the end of it is a target shooting session with a partner standing right next to the aim. Reaction times of the commandos are conditioned to be as low as 0.26 seconds.

Marcos are trained for swift amphibious assaults, considering they are mostly reserved for maritime operations, and are referred to as ‘water hens’ or ‘crocodiles’ for their abilities. Para Commandos are proficient at conducting aerial recces and are experts in HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) parachute jumps.

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

On god’s blind side

Toby’s an interesting character. He once learnt to ride a motorcycle while on a trip to Kathmandu and then bought his own– “a Royal Enfield, what else” and rode his iron steed all the way back home to “England, where else…” He now runs a voluntary organisation called Flying Kites that has been working with children in Kenya. But this is not his story. He’s merely the voice of the ‘greek chorus’, in a drama that is staged every day in the frame of our car windows…
I met Toby in a restaurant in Delhi. He was digging into baklavas and speaking passionately about an upcoming trip to India’s coal-belt. He was in India to make a film about street children, the ones we meet everyday on our way to and from work, begging for “ek rupaiya” or rubbing a greasy cloth on the windshield or brandishing ugly burns and wounds wrapped in flies and rags, hoping you’ll part with that “rupaiya”. And he was going to the coal-belt to find out what prompts so many children to leave the sheltered environs of their villages in the region and head for the capital’s streets. There seems nothing right about that choice, and yet, everyday would find scores of waifs, between 6-14 years of age, alighting from the train at a station in Delhi, in search of a ‘better life’- a life that in all probability will be over before they touch 30. Toby wanted know why…

“One of the boys I met at the Old Delhi Railway Station told me how he got here…” recalled Toby. “While back home in his village orchard, while up on a tree, he had dropped a mango on his father’s head who was sitting under the tree… His father dragged him to the railway station, bought two tickets for Delhi and once there pushed him out onto the platform and left him… ridiculous… maybe he was lying…” and maybe he wasn’t, for haven’t stranger things happened between parent and child?

As I’d once written in a previous column, I often wonder what one ought to do when these kids, from butt-naked toddlers to cocky teenagers, surround one’s car, their filthy happy faces, belying their bleak existence. Does one give in and give them money, or does one pretend, inspite of the persistent knocks on the window, as if they just don’t exist? Or does one holler at them for ruining the car’s paint-job with their grimy hands? “Maybe you’re better off not giving them any money. Once in a while, there might be a guy who’s starving and could really use the money, but most often, these kids, even if they’re starving, would only spend it to buy glue… to sniff it and get a high,” said Toby. “There are a few NGOs striving to rehabilitate street kids, taking them into rescue homes but the kids don’t want it. They’re just too hooked to their life on the pavements” sighed Toby with a sense of resignation. “One of these kids… he must’ve been 11, had puncture wounds running all along his arms… heroin! Through our translator, I suggested that we could take him with us to a ‘shelter’ and he could be tended to. While our translator spoke, the kid smiled at us. Then he seemed to get rather excited and we felt he was ready for deliverance – we would be saving a soul after all. But alas, it wasn’t to be, for even as our translator spoke, his expression darkened and he walked away. Apparently, he got excited because he thought we might be interested in buying the drug. But when he understood our offer, he was disappointed. About 30 percent of these street kids have already been to various homes and have in fact ‘escaped’ back to the streets. These children prefer the hazards of living on the street to the claustrophobic security of a ‘home’.”

These streets dehumanise these kids. Innocent urchins, mostly boys, many girls, reach the station and find their way to various night shelters. There, these mean streets drag them through a baptism by fire where these vulnerable children are sexually exploited by older inmates and even outsiders with ‘local influence’. Physical abuse and further exploitation, even by those they ought to have turned to for protection, strips away every layer of dignity until they’re left with nothing. “The child inside is dead before long. They act like cold hard adults before they hit their teens. But at times the glue brings old repressed emotions back to life, and like the Kosi, these dammed emotions erupt and all the shame, hurt and indignity consumes them. One boy at the station had a deep six inch long gash on his forehead. Once in a while when ‘high’ he would break down, cry and bash his head against a wall. When I met him he was being restrained by his friends but he wriggled out, and in tears, ran to the tracks and started bashing his head against the tracks even as a train hurtled towards him. His friends and I had to wrestle him away, and just in time too… he lay for about an hour in their arms, sobbing and screaming till his emotions subsided… At least they had each other…”

Many of them will graduate to petty crime and some, if they survive long enough, will graduate to worse. But there are some, admittedly a rare few, who’ve truly turned the corner. One of them, for instance, had become a promising photo-journalist and Toby feels that it is amongst them that we can find our future leaders and change agents–people who’ve crawled out of the city’s dark underbelly and into the light, for who’ll know better than them what it takes to get there, and thus show others the way.

“I had come here hoping to ‘free the children’ from the factories and the streets. But once here, I realised that freedom for them meant giving them opportunities and choices. And it is possible… But we need to ensure that these opportunities, especially education, reach every village. And in our cities, rehabilitative care needs to be more sensitive and it needs to add value and meaning…”

But until that happens, the streets of this great country will stand mute testimony to our collective failure as a humane and civilised society.

Mean Streets

The plight of street children visits us in moving montages as we weave our way through traffic. But a deeper understanding of their stark world, an understanding that can help us help these blighted souls, can be attained through some of the most powerful works of literature and filmmaking. In fact, even to watch/read the following would require us to step out of our comfort zones:

City of God: A great book; a greater movie. A gut-wrenching tale of pre-pubescent protagonists in the slums of Rio de Janeiro – a veritable hell on earth – playing out their destinies of violent crime and exhilarating redemption. Feel it shake you up.

Salaam Bombay!: Mira Nair reconstructs the life of homeless street kids in Mumbai with help from the real subjects – 10 to 12-year-olds struggling in the shadow of Bombay’s glitzy lights, their raw emotions retouched in drama workshops with the filmmaker.

Street Kids: The Tragedy of Canada’s Runaways: This, if you thought street urchins to be the bane of the third world alone. Written by Marlene Webber, though much of it is in the words of those deemed the godless ones, it is an excruciating recount of causes and effects of life under the sun, unprotected and unforgiving.

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