Thursday, March 10, 2011


On International Women's Day, I woke up to the story of a forgotten woman hitting the headlines. Aruna Shanbaug has spent the last 37 years trapped inside a body that is decaying bit by bit away as we speak. She is suffering for the sins of another while the world wakes up every now and then to her plight and wonders if her right to die is greater than her duty to live... But the more important question is 'Ladies, if you were in Aruna's shoes that fateful day, what would you have done? Could you have done more? I hope it is a question you never need to answer, but God forbid, if the question were to ever stare at you in a dark lonely corner, may the story that follows reveal the powers you hold in your head, your heart and your hands. Th is is an old one from the vault but one I'd like to repeat over and over again, especially on a day like this, because you need to know and believe that there is nothing fair about being the weaker sex. You can be as strong as they come and by the time you are done with this page, I hope you will know that this isn't just a comforting cliche but a palpable truth. And then every day could be a happy women's day... at least for you!

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 municipalhospital 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, 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 off er 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, Dhananjoy 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. Aft er 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.


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