Thursday, January 27, 2011


“Sorry is just a word. The white man might pretend that the wounds have healed because he said he was sorry but my people still suffer…”

In the streets of every big city in Australia, there lurk the shadow people. You don’t see them on the streets but every once in a while you find their tracks, on the billboards, in a name, in the souvenir stores, and every once in a while, playing a big game. These are the ghosts of the Aboriginese, the indigenous people of Australia who were once spread all over the great vastness of the island nation, but now only a relative handful remain, swept away under the fringes of a still predominantly white Australia. Symbols of their culture reverberate in the strains of the didgeridoo (the long hollow pipe that sounds like a musically inclined elephant in heat), in names of cities and streets (Yuendumu, Woolloomooloo), in the colours on a boomerang or on a wall in a gallery, and in the cheers at a footie game (inspired at least in part by the Aboriginal game of Mam Grook) and yet you can’t see them... the Aboriginese have vanished…

Then one day, near Darling Harbour, I see a green flag pinned to the seat of a bicycle. It said, in letters big and black – White Australia has a BLACK past. I wanted to know what it meant, and what it meant to have been a part of that past. As the flag fluttered up a hill and disappeared, I heard the sound of an elephant in heat. I chased the sound and found a man dancing by the harbour. His features were unmistakably Aboriginal. Behind him sat another man, younger and lighter skinned, his swollen cheeks blowing away for what they are worth, into what looked like the trunk of a small tree – the didgeridoo. They told me that a man called Russell Dawson could tell me what it meant, because that past was also his past.

Dawson is Aboriginese; his tribe – The Kamilaroi; and his bush name - Waaji Wallu Doungu Thanni Bunjalong Goomaroi. He is a big man with a big heart. When I called on him in Melbourne, he called me ‘brother’, and I believe he meant it. He thought I would understand his pain because I came from India – a country that had been a colony; a country that was righteous; a country that believed in peace. He greeted me with the words Shanti! Shanti! and I believed I would understand…

Dawson began his story. “You don’t see my people on the streets because there aren’t many who are still around. And that is because up until 1967, merely 40 years ago, we were treated like animals. We, the oldest civilisation on earth, one that goes back more than 40,000 years ago, were classified as fauna, as vermin, by the white administration. White hunters would go out with their guns and hunt our people down in cold blood…for sport. Hundreds of thousands of indigenous Australian men, women and children have been killed, and no one was punished. Weweren’t even worth a butcher’s goat. You ask me, so I’ll tell you but these are difficult stories to tell… they are not old enough yet, and they churn our hate… in many parts of Australia, white settlers would go in groups, round up a tribe, gather all the men and cut off their penises. Our fathers would scream and run and thrash about in pain, while the white man would laugh as he saw them bleed and die. The babies and the young children would be buried alive upto their necks in the earth and then the white man would come in his heavy boots and kick their little heads off . Then white man gets drunk on rum and drags out our mothers. They rape them till their lust is slaked. Then they’d take red hot iron bars and burn them into the women’s vaginas, and beat them to death…” I was quiet. “I know what you are thinking brother..” Dawson said. “You are from India, the land of social harmony, the land of non violence, the land of Gandhi, and you wonder if such barbarism is possible. But it happens. Remember the Nazi holocaust…” Dawson was wrong. I know such barbarism is possible. Because my land is not just the land of Gandhi, it is also the land where Priyanka Bhotmange’s 17-year -old body lay, on the infamous soil of Khairlanji, with ‘rods sticking out of her genitals. It is also the land where almost everyday a dalit woman is stripped naked, or a minor dalit girl-child is gang raped and murdered, and in almost every case, there are no witnesses, and no one is punished. And this story isn’t 40 years but four days old.

Dawson twisted the knife. “India is beautiful. Her people, wonderful. You know the red dot your women wear on the forehead. It is the red land of Australia. Like you, we believe in peace. We have never raped our land or our women. We live in peace with other tribes as equals. If you look at our people, you’ll see we are similar… beautiful and peaceful”, he said with a laugh and a pat.

I smiled and walked away with the realisation that it isn’t just Dawson’s hurt that needs understanding….

Tomorrow’s papers will insist that not much has changed in these three years, but someday it will…it has to. This Birnam Wood too would move one day. Until then, Happy Republic Day…


Thursday, January 20, 2011


I had something else in mind for today, something dreamy and lyrical that spoke of dead trees and the full moon, of long lakes and the last loon, but alas it wasn’t to be…for I ran into an old favourite - Professor Kaku (uncle), at a dinner hosted by him last night. Now PK is not your everyday professor. He has been a popular, much loved and decorated academic who has been teaching economics and philosophy at various universities for decades now. When he speaks, people listen. So, when he spoke to some of us last evening over steaming plates of luchi (flatbread) and aloor dom (Bong potato preparation), I choked back a silent protest and heard him out. In begining, he was speaking on the rather interesting subject of paranormal phenomenon with a fair bit of authority, borrowed undoubtedly from his many studies of the subject and his proven method of reading and ruminating. All was well while we delved into instances of near death experiences, ghosts and ghouls and the sort. The professor dismissed some and deliberated upon others and then the conversation veered towards miracle cures, hypnosis and past life accounts which were duly shredded and shot down. Personally, I was open to the idea and the possibility but had no evidence to counter or confirm the professor’s perspective and so I divided my focus between the man’s fascinating dissections and our hostess’ equally fascinating ability to transform the modest aloo into a delicious work of art on a platter.

And then, without warning, the topic slid into what threatened to be a conversational quicksand – yoga! I had just stuff ed my mouth with more aloo than I could chew as I looked around, open-mouthed, at the round table pulling down and dismissing the great art, the great path as a mere set of calisthenics. I felt I had to do something. It was like watching Draupadi being disrobed in court and having to choose between being a silent and helpless Yudhishtir or the valiant saviour in Krishna. For the sake of posterity, let it be said that since the occasion demanded a miracle, I tried hard to levitate in the presence of the gathering and put to rest all doubts about the powers of a true yogi, but perhaps I was weighed down by the not inconsiderable helpings of aloor dom and I confess I didn’t try too hard in light of possible impolite accidents in mixed company.

However, let it also be said that I was not content to remain an impotent Pandava under the circumstances either, and therefore mustered a mild protest. Mild, because the professor is, like I said, an ‘old’ favourite, and I didn’t want to come on too strong. And there was also the small matter of the professor’s reputation of not suffering fools with a smile and coming down with a heavy argumentative hand on opinions that poked him without much apparent merit. Aft er all, the professor was the veritable mountain in his circle from which would flow all knowledge, sustaining those who lived on its banks even as it emptied into the ocean of our lives. So, as you can imagine, going against the flow wasn’t easy. I tried sharing my own perspective a few times but PK was blowing like a raging tornado and my arguments were flung aside like dry leaves in the wind. I gave up, but yoga, as the odd faithful might have noticed, is a dear subject, and even if posthumously so, as far as last night’s conversation is concerned, for whatever it’s worth, here’s my defence of the great art, the great path.

Now, I was used to defending against people pooh-poohing yoga as a ‘fi tness activity’ for the old and the infirm but what the professor said just knocked me out of my socks, for PK insisted that practicing yoga would lead to errr… ‘a smaller brain!!’ Now, I’m assuming the good professor meant that as a metaphor because though I had read about excessive exercise leading to atrophy of other almost as vital bits, but this one was a doosra from nowhere. Professor was trying to say that yoga, perhaps by virtue of being a physical activity to begin with and secondly because of its said goal of moksha and liberation through detachment was about withdrawing from the world and therefore using one’s faculties as little as possible as one progressed on the path, thus losing one’s cognitive abilities through disuse.

Now let’s look at the evidence. Modern research in the area of neuroscience suggests that not only does yoga (which incidentally means not just asana but the complete practice of breath, postures and movement, combined with meditation) improve and direct the flow of blood to the brain, especially the frontal lobe that deals with awareness, concentration and focus but scans can show how the practice of yoga can enhance brain functions within weeks of starting a practice. In fact, yoga has been used successfully to reverse some of the effects of Alzheimer disease and memory loss in patients and has been shown to be a more than reliable preventive tool.

And what of the assumption that yoga, ideally, is about dissociating from those around us, withdrawing from life and living alone on a mountain in search of salvation? Well, to that I would say, to each his own, Kaku. The yogic ideal of moksha is not a life of nothingness but a life of freedom – freedom from disease, from ego and so on. A freedom that can only be attained when one is at peace with oneself and that is possible only if one is healthy and has cultivated relationships that bring peace, given as much as one received, not in mere material terms but emotionally and spiritually and has become great enough to accept one’s smallness; free from the laws of disease and death as much as from the pressures of commerce; to love and serve and to know – without ego or prejudice, that is the goal of yoga.

And detachment as an ideal does not mean to love less, but to love more, not selfishly or in isolation; to not let success go to one’s head nor failure to one’s heart, nor rejection to one’s ego but to look at all three as mere signposts that help us evolve. And who is to say that it is only those that go up a mountain are ‘withdrawn and detached’. All one has to do is knock a few doors away to find a husband too attached to a TV set, a mother too attached to a career, or a son too attached to another city to care for anything else. Most luminous yogis of yore, from Vishwamitra to Agastya, and even the mythological yogic ideal of Lord Shiva have all known love and family and joys that come with it.

Lastly, one only needs to look at some of the greatest minds to have shaped our lives – Edison, Mozart and the great Leonardo of Vinci who have spoken of the ‘meditative state’ as being their most inspirational and creative state to clinch the argument from PK. In fact, da Vinci’s greatness is attributed by experts, amongst his other virtues, to his adherence to Corporalita – his focus on the balance between mind and body, for the key to mental acuity hides in the contours of the body.

Now if only I could find a way to make Kaku read all this. Actually, on second thought, it’s better if he doesn’t, for Kaku always makes a strong comeback. But I have a sinking feeling he will read this… Kaku reads everything.


Thursday, January 13, 2011


I’m in pain. It’s not mortal agony just yet but it still hurts, and leaves you feeling oh so empty. And no wonder I feel empty. I haven’t eaten since morning. It’s not like I couldn’t… it’s just that I didn’t! I’m at a Sunday barbecue and every once in a while I see liveried waiters marching in purposefully, cradling shiny handsome platters in their neat whitegloved hands. And as they walk by, the nose follows in the smoke-stream, inhaling aromas that speak of sensual pleasures, of juicy roasted hams that’ll melt in your mouth and exquisite fillet mignons, of smoking grilled lobsters and golden chicken wings dipped in deliciously full-bodied barbecue sauce. Ah, the undying ache of unfulfilled dark desires that leave you aching deep inside.

I look, longingly, eyes smouldering with desire, but I don’t touch. Instead, I tear myself away from the warm, happy and sizzling meat counters and drag myself towards the vegetarian cold and green vegetarian counter. Ah cheese, and baby corn… and ah yes some more cheese, and then they have broccoli, and I did I mention some more cheese and then of course there’s chick peas and there you go… yet more cheese. I oscillated between cottage cheese and blue cheese and sampled some gooey cheese with a bit of smelly cheese, threw another long look at that leg of ham and then sat down at the table and stared reproachfully at the lumpy mass on my plate. My friends at the table were busy chewing on succulent pieces of chicken breasts and I happened to see my reflection on a pair of sun glasses. Th at grave expression on my face that seemed to say “darn! Now what do I do with you?” seemed strangely familiar. Now, where had I seen that expression earlier? Was it…no, not that...or was it…? No, unlikely… No…no…it was…it was… ah yes, it was my math tutor from school!

Overcome by nostalgia and empathy, I felt sorry for that sorry little plate and choked down some chunks of cheese and a mouthful of ferns and weeds. I kept at it till I gagged and then gave up… giving up meat wasn’t easy. For those of you who have always been vegetarians and for those of you who’ve never considered giving up scavenging, here’s an analogy that could perhaps help you understand how blue one gets when one decides to give up eating meat after having been a connoisseur of ‘fine meats’ for most of one’s adult life. Imagine this…you are back to being 20 something and are single and alone at a beach resort in Goa, or Ibiza if you will. The sun and the sand and the rush of the surf as you would know is a heady cocktail… you spend the days by the beach and the nights at the taverns. The whirling blur of toned bodies, intoxicating rhythms and the whiff of the sea floods the senses...Then one evening in the pool you are gently undulating into a relaxing backstroke and accidentally bump into someone. Disconcerted, you turn and come face to face with this rather attractive young lady (actually feel free to choose a gender that suits your mood at the moment) in a saffron sarong, rubbing her forehead where she got poked by your elbow…you apologise, she smiles…there’s small talk as you both wade out, and then you remember to look away…you hope you made the right impression. Looks like you have…she’s smiling at you next morning. You meet, you talk, you preen and dance…Then you feel like you have known each other forever. You love the way she makes you feel and you know there’s no one who made you feel this way before. You share your nights and your days and that time and space you wish that time would stop, but nay, the grains of sand are always shift ing, slipping and sliding into unwanted tomorrows. Before you know it, it’s time to go… You promise to keep in touch but life has plans all its own, and as it twists and turns into the alleys of time. The years roll by and you get busy. Friends and cities come and go and memories of that enchanted holiday so long ago gather dust and mist. But every now and then, on balmy nights and breezy days, you hear her voice and see her smile…you miss her so and long for the warmth of her touch…you feel a sudden lonely pang and wonder where she might be. But you’re all grown up now and too busy to fall in love, so your folks find you a nice agreeable young lady and you marry her to live happily ever after. You move into a bigger house and life is good. You can’t complain.

You are leaving for work one day, while sending texts in a hurry and bump into someone accidentally. You turn to apologise and (I too apologise for the corniness…) and whaddyaknow… it’s her again, rubbing her shoulder as she looks up and smiles that sweet gummy smile you had once known so well. The clock turns back in a hurry and freezes, till your wife calls out and asks if you are fine. She’s your new neighbour, and she’s unattached, still.

Now imagine the pain that’ll wrack your heart everytime she waves at you, smiles and walks by. Th at is the pain I feel at Sunday barbecues and tandoori dinners when I’m stuck with a plate of cheese while you are tucking into those plates of well done steaks and tiger prawns that I had once known so well.

So if it really hurts so much, why bother, you ask? Well, if I haven’t said it often enough, here’s one more reason why. A colleague of mine, a staunch PETA type who would’ve happily posed nude for one of their campaigns, if not for the fact that he’s so hairy he might actually look like he’s campaigning ‘for fur’, once declared that a non vegetarian’s sins are no less than the sins of a rapist. After a dramatic pause punctuated with a few ‘how could you’s, he went on to explain that since most of mankind, except for perhaps the Eskimos, eat meat purely for sensual pleasure, they are no better than those vile men who rape and ravish a weaker individual to satisfy one’s carnal appetite, for little more than pleasure.

I had to admit that logic, though distant, wasn’t absent in the argument. And if one were to say that it isn’t fair to equate the rights of fellow human beings with that of lesser fellow creatures, isn’t it the same mindset which allowed white man to rape, enslave and even murder blacks, browns and yellows for centuries without guilt because they were considered lesser beings? And isn’t it the same mindset of assumed superiority that encouraged the upper castes to ruthlessly exploit the lower castes in this very country? And isn’t it obvious that it is only a matter of time before we also come to realize, or more appropriately, before we have the honest courage to admit, that those we kill and eat for our pleasure today are also creatures with equal rights to life and liberty even though they be very different?

But when that day arrives, I wouldn’t want you to look at your plate the way my math teacher looked at me so I’ll go looking for some vegetarian delights in the coming weeks so that you can see the light without losing your appetite…bon appetit!


Thursday, January 6, 2011


It was the 8th of January and it must’ve been a cold night in Netanya (Israel). An old man was lying in bed, wrapped in quilts and sheets. There were people surrounding the bed and the mood was somber and grave. There was something vigorous about the old man even as he lay there in bed. The liquid grey eyes looked tired under the rugged brow but the rest of him lay there like a coiled spring, like a big cat in repose. The broad shoulders, the strong chin and those gnarled fingers that looked like digits you wouldn’t want wrapped around your neck or wrist, all seemed to suggest a man of great but contained strength, but those tired grey eyes were at peace with the world around them. As the night wore on, tired heads leaned against the wall and nodded off into a disturbed sleep while others wearily walked into an adjoining room waiting for first light… any light.

The old man closed his eyes and smiled a half smile. The room had become a little stuffy and someone opened a window to let in some fresh air. The salty breeze wafted in from the Mediterranean and reminded the old man of a day nearly 60 years ago…

The Pentcho was no ocean-liner. It was an old riverboat that was being tossed along the waves like an old haggard lion that had been surrounded by a herd of wild buffalo and was being passed on from one angry pair of horns to another. It was a long way from home and a young man stood on the deck and held on to the railing, drenched in the salt and the spray, thinking of the home he had left far behind. There were friends and family and the streets and stores he had known since he was a child that he knew he would never see again. It was a land he had loved but that land had betrayed him and driven him away.

The time was 1940 and Europe was in the eye of an evil storm. Anti-Jewish sentiments whipped up by Nazis, Fascists and their supporters across Europe had resulted in incarcerations, mob violence and mass murders that left Jewish communities across Europe feeling vulnerable and violated. He was reminded of his father who had been a police officer in his native Bratislava, in Slovakia. He had taught him how to wrestle and how to box and how to walk with dignity. He thought of the numerous wrestling tournaments he had won, the plays and the ballets on stage and the thunderous roar of the crowd that always seemed to follow him. But now it was all gone. The roar of the crowds had been replaced by the baying of a mob. The very people who had clapped for him now stood in corners, armed with clubs and knives, waiting for him or any of his people. The police and the anti-Semitic mobs hounded him and his community like wolves and he remembered patrolling the block with his friends, rescuing those who were attacked, fighting and defending his people against these marauders.

He realised that fighting on the streets against armed assailants was a world away from fighting in competitions. He fought hard but knew he couldn’t fight for everybody. Therefore, he started teaching those who would learn how to defend themselves. He realised that the weak and old people needed to learn how to protect themselves far more than the strong. So, he modified his techniques, made them simple and based them on natural human instincts and normal everyday movements which were easy to learn and more importantly, remember and repeat when under attack. For a while the resistance stood firm but later it all went out of hand. In fact, when the local administration and the army got involved in the persecution of the Jews, the community was left with no choice but to leave. Many left when they could while some found it difficult to tear themselves away from their homes. He was amongst the last to leave on the Pentcho, one of the last boats to leave the coast of Europe, packed to the brim with Jews desperately hoping to escape the toxic shadow of the Holocaust before it consumed the continent.

Lying in his bed all these years later, he was reminded of that day when he had left his home with nothing but the wet shirt on his back and headed for the Promised Land. Here in Israel, he became a hero. His brilliant martial abilities and perceptive skills as a teacher endeared him to the Israeli Defense Forces where he became Chief Instructor. He trained the new nation’s greatest soldiers and laid foundation for Israel’s national security. But his greatest gift to the world was yet to come. Aft er retiring from duty he started teaching civilians the art of self defence as he had come to know it. He called it Krav Maga (Contact Combat).

For 88 years, he had fought opponents in the ring, fascists on the streets and fate on the boat but he did it all so that “one could walk in peace”. And on January 9, 1998, he was at peace, with his past, his world and his life. He sighed a long deep sigh, held the hand closest to him and gently let go. Imi Lichtenfeld, champion wrestler, Jewish resistance fighter, a pillar of Israeli society and the creator of Krav Maga breathed his last exactly 13 years ago but his martial moves and philosophy have left behind a legacy that has made the world a safer place.

Sky marshals on planes, commandos in battle, law enforcement officers from New York to New Delhi and civilians like you and me walk in peace today because of Imi Lichtenfeld. I walked into a Krav Maga training centre three years ago and had the opportunity to learn from masters that had been trained by Grandmaster Imi himself. I have seen wimpy boys and delicate ladies transform into bold and confident urban warriors who know how to take care of themselves and their loved ones with a calm courage in the face of daunting odds.

On this New Year’s day, when I read about a 17-year-old being raped and murdered, her face smashed beyond recognition, I know that more oft en than not, it is a crime that could have been prevented. Six months of Krav Maga and most girls would be too hot to handle for an aspiring rapist. This New Year, I hope and wish for you lives in the lap of love and peace, but if you ever need to raise an arm to protest or protect, I hope you would have tried a little Krav Maga… for there’s nothing quite like it to help you walk in peace.