Thursday, December 24, 2009


Twenty years ago, I was in ninth grade and quite a loser. I lived in a dream world that I’d doodle in my notebook while the chemistry teacher spoke of Mendeleef and his termite ridden table. It kept me happy but the teacher, who wouldn’t know the Mona Lisa from the Tower of Pisa unless they had valencies, refused to recognise the genius in the runny-nosed maestro before her and routinely banished me to the ‘wall of shame’. I must’ve been okay with a paintbrush in those days because of all the certificates at home but I never heard a word of encouragement from anybody in school, simply because the subjects I enjoyed like ‘art’ or ‘Bible history’ or ‘GK’ were given about as much respect as Jews in concentration camps. But I don’t blame the school. I guess the times were such…

So in this climate of darkness and dismay, my parents and I left for Jabalpur to visit an aunt that summer. There, I met this group of young people in the neighbourhood. There were a couple of boys, younger than me, three girls, about my age and then these two sisters, eighteen and sixteen year old angels… None of them ‘knew’ that I was a loser. Here, I could be whoever I wanted to be. Afternoons and evenings were spent playing ‘four corners’ and after dinner I’d just sit and hear the two girls talk. Until now, I had never known that the world was home to such divine creatures… I was in raptures. I had never felt this about anyone at school but here for the first time, wanted them to like me.

One day I heard one say to the other… “V didi, why do you like Sanju bhaiya so much? He’s handsome but talks a lot…”

“Renu, you should see him playing cricket. When he is batting, the crowd asks him to hit a six, and he does… just like that… I love him… Wish he was a fast bowler like Imran Khan, but as long as he’s playing cricket, I’m happy.” Then she looked at me and asked “Do you play cricket in Delhi?” Well, I was only allowed to field and bowl while the grownup kids batted, but I heard myself say, “Yes I do… I play for my school too,” I lied. “Really? What do you do?” she asked. “I’m a fast bowler, V didi,” I said, and then added “like Imran Khan…” She rolled her eyes, pulled my cheeks and laughed and said “theek hai, I’ll ask Sanju to organise a match and you could play with them.”

Matchday, and I was nervous. I liked drawing. But I did it for myself, without caring for opinions. Exams I believed I was destined to be poor at and never tried to prove otherwise, to myself or to others. Marks, passing, failing just happened. But here, for once, I wanted to be good at something because I wanted others to acknowledge that I too mattered. I ran in and bowled as fast as I could, working harder than I ever had in all my young life. And whaddya know… Sanju bhaiya wasn’t so hot after all… he tonked me around but then I surprised both of us and slipped one through which was too quick for him… it missed the stumps. I didn’t get his wicket but I did have his respect. He was quite sweet actually. Afterwards, both V and Sanju promised to come to Delhi and see me play for my school.

‘Ei moreychey’, how do I get out of this one? I really wanted to see V again but forget the school team, I wasn’t even in contention for the class team. Once in Delhi, I toiled to make it to the school team, and I did… The first time someone picked me for a team was the first time I felt wanted by people beyond family. Suddenly, I was a boy with ambitions. Finally, I understood what confidence meant, what it meant for people to have expectations and for me to live up to them. Success, howsoever minor, woke me up, to things around me, inside me.

That feeling of being wanted, wanting to be liked and being appreciated rubbed off on other aspects of life and except for Mendeleef and Pythagoras, I found most other acquaintances in school, and life, rather agreeable, eventually…

It didn’t matter that I never met V again. And it didn’t matter that I never played for India. What mattered was that long ago that summer day in Jabalpur, I had taken my first step towards self discovery.

We all have ‘gift s’, and gift s whether academic, sporting or artistic, are not necessarily meant to end up as careers. Some are just meant to help us reach out to the world and say ‘I exist’. Perhaps you and I were lucky to find ours but if you know a ‘loser’, then do pull his cheeks and make him feel special, for oft en that is all a child needs to really become special...


Thursday, December 17, 2009


I was sitting at a street-side café outside the train station in Geneva, waiting for my train to Salzburg and thumbing through a dog-eared copy of Fodor’s Europe on a Shoestring when I heard a female voice, “I don’t care if this doesn’t look like Switzerland. Austria se nikal ke any place is paradise…”. I turned around and saw a sprightly young lady with frizzy hair that looked like a bunch of spring coils. With her was a tall young man, who also seemed to be from the sub-continent. He looked at me and I smiled. He smiled back. The girl whipped around and waved. I waved and invited them to join us at our table. They were both in business suits and seemed to be heading for a meeting…

We introduced ourselves and took our seats. The two of them were colleagues on a business trip and had just reached Geneva after wrapping up a few meetings in various Austrian cities. And since I was heading that way and had never been there earlier I was naturally curious to know what they made of what I had heard was a spectacularly scenic country.

“Don’t go there!” said Anubha. She, and her colleague Ismail, work with a training and development firm in India and were traveling through Austria, Switzerland, Turkey and Germany, meeting clients. “Don’t go there because that place looks like heaven but feels like hell! I’m glad we took the first train out as soon as we could… I couldn’t wait to get out of there”. Anubha spoke with a lot of animation, her head bobbing and shaking, emphasising her intonations. The coiled spring set on her head shook in rhythm and I was surprised not to hear them jangle. She didn’t look like she needed a train to go anywhere. All one had to do was point her in the general direction of her destination, press her head to the wall, hold her there for a moment, get out of the way and then let her go…

But Anubha spoke with authority and erudition and gradually her voice drew me away from speculations about her preferred means of locomotion… “We were in Innsbruck. It is a beautiful place with sloping roads, cobbled squares and mountain vistas, but what do you do… the *@$# #@*## Austrians do all they can to make you forget all that is good and ensure that you remember only the bad and the ugly”. This girl was seething… it must be all that smoke from her ears that must’ve gotten her hair to be that way… she downed a glass of juice and asked “you have some trace of dignity in you, right?” I nodded feebly… while she rattled on “So what if you are a few shades darker than me (which I was)… does it give me the right to humiliate you and feel superior to you?” There was a pregnant pause, and for a brief flickering moment I thought I saw her toying with the prospect, before insisting “No it doesn’t! ...but who’ll explain that to the Austrians and who’ll tell them that it’s been half a century since the Third Reich fell” Ismail, who’d been quiet until now interjected, “But Anubha, it really isn’t about colour alone…” He turned to me, “I’ll tell you what happened. We were walking along some nondescript ‘strasse’ in Innsbruck and suddenly this group of teenaged boys, perhaps no older than 16 started barking at us. We dismissed it as just a disturbed bunch of youngsters with a dysfunctional sense of humour. But the next day, in a busy market square, there was this group of slightly older boys, all skinheads, screaming at us in German and then as we got closer, they shouted ‘Paki go back! Paki go back!!’ I was shocked and Anubha was scared. In fact she was shaking like a leaf for an hour after that incident. We would walk into restaurants and hotels and people would smile at us and it would all seem fine but every now and then you would feel that behind our backs they were sniggering at us. It was unreal… ”

I was shocked. Modern day Europe, as a continental community, had always struck me as the most law abiding, just, racially sensitive and egalitarian people on the face of the planet. Their history of colonialism, intense nationalism, anti-Semitism, religious intolerance and the centuries of violence fuelled by these deep dark emotions, culminating in the near apocalyptic World Wars had taught them vital lessons in humility and tolerance. This new found respect for peace and diversity has led to most of Europe voluntarily surrendering a fair degree of its sovereignty and congregating as one economy under the aegis of the European Union. Squabbling neighbours had turned into partners for progress. These nations are amongst the first to mediate when wars break out, the first to offer humanitarian assistance when Nature strikes. I had experienced racial discrimination in Europe earlier but it had always been subtle and an isolated incident, frowned upon by others in the community. I was surprised and I said so…

“Why should you be surprised?” chimed Anubha. “Austria is the country where Adolf Hitler was born. It is a country which has always been notoriously anti-Semitic and xenophobic, long before the Holocaust.And Hitler, the Austria born German might have walked out on the country of his birth and returned only to conquer it, but even long after his death, while every Christian in Europe looks upon the dictator’s legacy as a shameful stain on the face of Europe, Austria still holds on to those hateful ideals by backing extreme right wing parties… parties that would be banned in Germany today… parties uncannily similar to Hitler’s Nazi party in terms of original ideology. And Ismail, what is that chap’s name… The Nazi President? ” I turned to look at Ismail… “Kurt… Kurt Waldheim. This man was born in a village near Vienna and after Hitler’s army annexed Austria, he joined the Nazis and while he denied being party to any of the crimes of that time, thousands of Jews from areas in his jurisdiction were sent to the death camps of Auschwitz. And after the war, while Nazi officers and party members all over Europe were being tried for war crimes, this man became the President of Austria. His blatant anti-Semitism even stopped him from condemning the heinous murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. So in a country which has celebrated the murder of innocents, should we really be complaining about a couple of catcalls?”

What about local authorities and the police? Couldn’t you have reported these guys? “The police are Austrians too aren’t they?” said Anubha. “In fact I’m glad the police didn’t show up. Otherwise our scars might not have been emotional ones alone.” It turns out that since 2003, a couple of African men have been beaten up and killed by the police. One of them, Seibani Wague, a Mauritanian student, was pushed to the ground and crushed under police boots. We all fell silent after that…

It was late. Engrossed in the discussion, I had forgotten about my train to Salzburg. I had missed it. But at least for now, I didn’t really regret it. I exchanged e-mail addresses, paid the bill and left . Austria’s picture postcard beauty surely had more to recommend it than just xenophobic conservatism. But for now everywhere I scratched about Austria, beyond the Mozart memorabilia, all I could find were accounts of Austrian racial intolerance. It has been some years now since that day and I still haven’t been to Austria yet. And I’m yet to meet a traveller from that land of unbridled natural beauty whose tales will draw me to that land again. Wonder what it is about the past that some of us, from the barren mountains of Waziristan to the green valleys around Vienna, from the streets of Harare to the deserts of Darfur, cling to with such passion, such pride and such hate, that it holds us back from embracing the new… or the neighbours…


Thursday, December 10, 2009


Murugun P is a rather unassuming man. Neither tall nor short and of a slim sinewy build, if you saw him walk along the dusty streets of Delhi’s eastern corner, you wouldn’t think he warranted a second look. Other than the fact that his thick moustache, wavy mop and baked bronze looks make him stand out as a slice of southern exotica in this obviously northern, near rural settlement in this area straddling the Delhi-Noida border, there is nothing about the man that at first glance, you might find ‘arresting’. And yet he is a rare treasure to those who’ve known the power of this man’s touch. Murugun is a master practitioner of a dying art and its once grand traditions – the martial art of kalaripayattu.

Long ago, while in junior school, I had chanced upon my neighbour’s stack of Amar Chitra Kathas (ACK). I was so fascinated by the stories of valour and victory in those painted pages that while my friends played through that long summer evening, I sat on a bench in the park and read through that bound volume … I owe my sense of history and mythology to the ACK series and practically all I know of forgotten heroes like Surya Sen, Banda Bahadur and Chhatrasal to this evening with the comics. One of the stories, I remember most distinctly from that day was of a burly man, who fought off countless enemies beating the most impossible odds with his martial skill and by swinging a bladed belt like weapon called the URUMI. It was the tragic story of a Malayali folk hero, Thacholi Othenan, said to be one of the greatest kalaripayattu (‘kalari’ means gymnasium and ‘payattu’ means fight or exercise) practitioners of all time. That was my first introduction to kalaripayattu and its potent powers.

Many years later, I went to see a Kamal Hassan movie called Hindustani. In this film, Senapathy, the main protagonist is an ageing freedom fighter who has taken to providing summary executions to corrupt government officials. The old man uses his martial skill and knowledge of marmaati, a branch of kalaripayattu, to ‘immobilise and neutralise’ his targets. In certain scenes, Senapathy has to merely poke his opponent in the torso for the whole body to go limp… it was almost magical. I wondered, if this was mere cinematic fantasy or did kalaripayattu masters really possess such lethal skills. I was in college then and I went looking for a kalari where I could learn and explore the art but unfortunately, there were none that I could find in Delhi. However, I did find a book, ‘When The Body Is All Eyes’ written by a theatre professor, Phillip Zarilli. This book was an account of the author’s study of the kalaripayattu tradition, history and practice. And in that book, I found an interesting account that lent credence to the ‘touch of death’. Zarilli had witnessed a kalari master catch a large live rooster and gently press a vital spot. Immediately the rooster collapsed, as if dead. And yet, minutes later, the master poked at another point and the rooster jumped back to life, none the worse for wear.

So this wasn’t magic after all. My search for a kalari master continued and even on a trip to Kerala, I asked around and spoke to various organisations about the art and its branches in the north of the country… unfortunately, I couldn’t find any beyond Bangalore. In fact, I was disappointed to discover that kalaripayattu, even in its home state had been reduced to an ornament… beautiful forms practiced for demonstrations and cultural shows, with a very few masters teaching the underlying techniques that made the art such an effective form of self defense. But even the great masters, I was told, were apparently doing their best to smother the spread of the art. Secretive and conservative, these masters are “tradition bound relics of an era that’s long gone and they refuse to part with true knowledge that they’ll take to their graves with them.” Zarilli’s book told of one such who had used this very knowledge of pressure points to heal a boy, the doctors had given up on and yet had used a sari to cover the boy’s body while he worked on it so that no one could see what he was doing… “I will only reveal the secret of one of my students, and that too when I’m on my death bed,” he had told the author.

I first saw Murugun at a demonstration where lean oiled and muscled bodies jumped and battled with swords and sticks and while spectacular to watch, the elaborate movements seemed to be of little use for combat situations. Noting my skepticism, Murugun showed us a few techniques where an unarmed man took on armed assailants and this seemed far more impressive. Later, I asked him, why kalaripayattu was nowhere near as popular as other martial arts. “It is difficult… it has so many aspects. Kalaripayattu is the mother of all martial arts. Bodhidharma took this knowledge to China and from there it spread all over, but you see all the other arts have picked up different aspects of the art and made it simple… so you have Judo picking the joint lock techniques while Kung fu picked the strikes… but kalaripayattu is everything; strikes and locks, weapons and sticks, health and fitness, healing massages an above all, the healing techniques. The same knowledge of pressure points, when used with violent intent, can kill, while when used with goodness in one’s heart, can heal the deadliest of diseases. It is this knowledge that we need to preserve most.”

Murugun, though young, is an acclaimed master in his field and has students from all over the world learning at his kalari. A modest man, he admits that he had to deviate from tradition and dilute the esoteric and the mysterious elements inherent in kalaripayattu and give his students a far more practical and ‘easy to use’ art form in order to popularise it. However, he insists that the methods of the traditional masters are ideal, because the traditional method demands greater discipline and emphasises a sense of duty and discipline. This ensures that when the secrets are revealed to the students, he has the moral strength to use them responsibly. The flip side is that it makes the process too slow, ambiguous and demanding for the majority and most students shift to other, simpler martial arts.

I asked Murugun, like I have asked many other martial artists of an account when they had to use their skills for good effect. Every teacher, I’ve met from every martial art around the world has spoken of a time when the master himself or a student of his has had to use his skills to save his life. And yet Murugun said “A good martial artist, and definitely a good kalari practitioner should never have to fight… if you walk on the right path and are true to the martial way, trouble will avoid you unless you go looking for it. I’ve been living in Delhi for 13 years and never have I been tempted to fight. But I will tell you of a man called Rajkumar who had to be carried in here by two men. He couldn’t walk and he was in a critical state because his body couldn’t pass urine. His doctors were with him and they said they’ll operate on him immediately, unless I could do something about it. I got to work on him and within minutes, he had passed urine and it took me two more days to get him to walk on his own… so much more satisfying than beating up people on the streets, no?” I couldn’t agree more.

After a few demonstrations, sessions and a lot of research, I’ve begun to realise, kalaripayattu is not for everybody, who wants to wear a belt and break bricks. However, it’ll always have its faithful few who’ll keep it alive… and kicking, into eternity…


Thursday, December 3, 2009


Readers who might have stumbled on to this page in the past might have noticed that I regard canines with a certain degree of affection. While a child, I remember going for walks with my grandfather, with a book in my hand… I’d bought it at my school fete with lunch money… it had paintings of dogs of all kinds. I’d trundle behind my grandfather and watch people as they walked past, some with their dogs, and I would try to identify the breed by comparing the specimen to the picture… if confident of a positive match, I’d walk up and ask the owner… “Excuse me uncle, is that a Doberman?” Once when I got it right, the owner bit his lips, his eyes welled over and he nodded… Cinderella could not have nodded with greater emotion when approached by the prince and the glass slipper… perhaps I’d been the only one to notice...

One winter afternoon, while I stood on a string cot, reaching across the wall trying to squirt the juice from an orange peel into my neighbour’s sleeping eyes, just to see if he woke up with a start or a curse, I heard them bark… strays, good friends of mine, barking insistently and incessantly… I dropped the peel into that long gaping yawn my neighbour had embarked upon that very moment and rushed to the gate where I saw a glorious sight… tall, taller than any dog I had seen, with heads held high, walked two massive canines, both elegant and powerful, dwarfing the blonde-haired woman who held their leashes as they walked past… one of the dogs stopped its regal walk and turned its regal head and looking at me straight in the eye, for a moment seemed to ponder… ‘what is this creature, with eyes so wide and a mouth even wider?’ (it is an expression that I was to see later on that pretty little English teacher’s face when she was walking out of class the first day she taught us in that all boys school; and then on my wife-to-be’s face, everyday, as she’d walk past our gate, swinging her pigtails, on her way back from school. She still gives me that look once in a while when she catches me staring at her at some get-together… anyway, back to the dogs)

I rushed back to pick out that book… I flipped through the pages but couldn’t find one that resembled these magnificent creatures. I rushed out of the gate… I couldn’t see the dogs but I could hear the pack of strays… I followed the sound… Ah, there they were, five scruffy curs with hearts of gold but very little steel, considering that they were consistently maintaining a respectable distance from the two towering figures that loped along ahead of them, ignoring the pack’s raucous rancour. I called out “Do they bite?” The owner turned as did the dogs… smiled and shook her head. I walked up and had to almost stand on my toes to reach out and touch the great head of the dog that had looked at me… “What breed are they?” I asked… “Great Danes!” she replied. “Where are they from… they are so tall… so good looking…?” I gushed. “They are from Denmark! And I guess they are just like the Danish people… very tall and very good looking,” she remarked. “I guess dogs and people from the same land look very similar… you see I’m from England and I look like a Bulldog!” Then she scowled like one, laughed, and walked away with those gigantic Danes. “Izzat so?”, I wondered and looked at the mangy mongrels that had gathered around and were wagging their tails and licking my hand, forgetting all about the Great Danes they’d been chasing.

A decade and a half later, I was finally on a plane to the land of the tall and the beautiful – the Danish capital city of Copenhagen. Looking down at a lonely blue-black pool locked in by barren red rocks from the port window of the plane (the map said we were on the Afghan-Iran border) I wondered how it would be… I knew better than to expect to see Great Danes rummaging through the bins and running astray along the streets of Copenhagen (the dogs actually are of German origin; the name had just stuck with them). But, the people? Would they turn out to be the way that Englishwoman from so long ago, and every travel book I’ve read since, has said?

Well, here’s how it went… The immigration officer at Copenhagen airport was an improved version of Burt Reynolds, the female police officer looked like Nicole Kidman, the taxi driver no worse than Nick Nolte and all around me I could see the cast of a host of soaps from Star World. Heck, even the old-timers looked as good as Helen Mirren and Clint Eastwood. Everybody around me was tall, well groomed, stylish, only occasionally garish and impossibly healthy. Danes could have their neighbours as pin-up stars in these parts.

After settling in at the Ascot, I went out for a walk. It was a glorious day in a glorious city. The houses were large and neat, the lawns clean and green and the waterfront that ran alongside the street side cafes had tall masts and expensive sailboats hanging out in the harbour. Walking around Copenhagen was like walking around in a Richard Curtis rom-com where everything was beautiful, no one died and everybody’s rich. Forgive me for over using ‘filmy’ metaphors but there really are no worldly parallels for the perfection that is Denmark in June other than the make-believe of Hollywood or the mythological bliss of Mount Olympus.

Stroget, or ‘pedestrian street’ is a stretch in the heart of the city where cars aren’t allowed. On either side are stores that range from the ‘exclusively designer to the kitschy golden arches and discount stores. But that is not what makes that street so special. On weekends, as you start walking down Stroget, you’ll hear the lilt of a panpipe and a note from the Andean mountains. Turn to look and you’ll see a long-haired Peruvian Indian playing the pipes. Walk a little further and you’ll see a Chinese musician stringing an oriental ballad on his fiddle, then a dread-locked Jamaican drummer belting out his own rhythms while further ahead a Cameroonian dance troupe performs for a crowd. All these musicians from all over the world had descended on this little more than a kilometer long stretch to serenade success and sell a few cds. Further up, magicians and street performers… this was like a modern day European version of the bazaars from the Arabian Nights. I walked on and suddenly the urban sophistication gave way to sylvan splendour… meadows and lakes and stone and brick farmsteads. Led by the vistas, I followed the trail until I found her… There she sat, friendless and forlorn, on a solitary rock by the bay, Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘Little Mermaid’. This statue is perhaps Copenhagen’s most famous landmark and although a popular tourist haunt, the statue was all by herself this evening, as beautiful and sad as her story.

While returning, I noticed that more than half the city seemed to be commuting on cycles, in lanes meant specifically for cyclists. I had tried cycling to work in Delhi, but climbing flyovers while tailing commercial vehicles belching poison clouds dampened my enthusiasm. But here, it would’ve been such a breeze…

Visibly green by now, I got to know that the Danes only work 37 hours a week. Somebody should tell the Danes to hang a big dirty shoe at the city gates because it is impossible not to envy these ‘shiny happy people’.

It was the month of June and two days into my three-day stay. It was 2100 hours and yet the sun was still glowing in muted glory… I entered a restaurant. Strangers turned, and smiled… I felt welcome. I sat down at a table by the window and gazed at the city as it walked past… Copenhagen was the first stop on a month long tramp through Europe and already, the city had spoilt me. I couldn’t figure out how a once primitive northern corner of Europe that was home to the Vikings could become this living breathing image of picture-postcard perfection. Unable to resist the temptation, I asked this of the Hulk Hogan look-alike who was downing beer by the barrel at the next table. “A balanced perspective!” he said. “Zat perspective made our Viking fathers as good at business and exploration as they were at looting. Ze same perspective ensured that when the Nazis marched in, we surrendered without too much bloodshed and yet managed to save all our Jews, and it is zat which makes Denmark a progressive nation – economically as well as environmentally…” and he went back to his beer.

Thumbing through books about the country, I discovered another interesting balancing act that these great Danes have managed with élan - figuring right at the very top on the lists of both ‘the world’s happiest nations’ and the ‘countries with most suicides’. Now, that’s a balanced perspective if ever there was one… Here’s hoping the world too finds a balanced perspective when it meets in Copenhagen for the climate summit this week.