Thursday, September 8, 2011


Dates… I hated them while studying history in school. They ruined the story for me. And dates, I loved them when I waded into love. I looked forward to them, counted them, remembered them. I came to realise that whether I loved them or loathed them, in this life, there was going to be no escaping them.

Every month and week has its fair share of them. There are these private, insignificant dates that my life depends on not forgetting, like birthdays, anniversaries and yet to be kept promises. And there are those that are like ornate gravestones in the churchyard of time, marking the passing of one that mattered, one that ought to be remembered. There was one that went by last month – the 15th of August, when India awoke ‘to life and freedom’. And there is one coming up on the 11th of this month that is a bit of a gash on the butt-cheek of time…it still doesn’t let you sit down and say ‘I’m at peace with my world’.

But why am I pouring this soppy gruel down your page? Well, that’s because there’s another important date coming up – the 25th of October. It is the day when the Bolsheviks stormed into power in Russia in 1917 (the actual date is November 7th according to the Gregorian calendar but since the Orthodox church in Russia in those days kept time with the old style Julian calendar, the Russians still call it the October Revolution). And let us not potter around about the exact date for it really isn’t the point here. The point is that the course of history changed irrevocably that day, or so you think. But the truth is that all these dates, be it the 15th of August, the 11th of September or the date on which sprang the October Revolution, they all owe their existence to other forgotten dates that impregnated the seeds that flowered into days that shaped our world. This story is about one such date… one that lies forgotten, like an unmarked nameless grave. A celebration of an underdog from history’s date-file…

The year should be around the late 1800s and the month really isn’t important. Just picture a train running through the heart of Western Europe. Let me help you with that. It’s the dining car of a train thundering through from let’s say Cologne to London. It’s evening and you can see the countryside, fields of green and amber and blue skies streaked crimson and gold rolling out of your window and meeting far away in the horizon. Clumps of willow and birch stand like old ladies conferring at a tea party in the soft light of a setting sun. Every few miles, you see a farmer in a blue or brown beret ploughing the field behind a large draught horse. You look away from the window and take in a view of the carriage, the wooden panels, the embroidered drapes that look rich and feel cheap, the ornate little chandeliers, the heavy tables and the chairs that seem a size too small and the liveried waiters waiting on them and you wonder if you belong in here. You hear a little voice fading away and look outside the window to catch a glimpse of three little boys running with the train, their woolen jackets and shorts and schoolboy cap are all you can see as they stop to pant and wave their hands at the passing train and all the fine people who they can see but know will never meet.

The dining car is filling up now and the table next to you is taken by a middleaged German couple. The man is not very tall but heavily built. His hair seem to have known the discipline of a comb once but it’s all forgotten now, like the memory of a strict father that fades as a child grows out of his home and town. But it’s the whiskers you’d notice first, an unkempt explosion of hair and will that refuses to be tamed, almost like an embodiment of the man’s spirit. And his eyes, they seem to know what no one knew and believed what few understood. This man was hard to miss. The lady with him was of an aristocratic bearing, and seemed to be a gentle foil for the man’s obvious fire. The couple settles down next to you and they both smile and greet you and those around them. Supper is soon underway. The train is hurtling across France and it is dark outside. In the inky blackness, you can still see the silhouettes of the trees and the woods in the distance if you strain really hard but most of the passengers are busy eating or talking. But then everybody stops doing whatever they were at and stare when another passenger who enters the dining car with a spring in his gait. He is a very young man of middle height, a Prussian, but something in the twirl of his moustache, the twinkling eyes and the sculpted beauty of his contours suggested that the passengers were in the presence of a luminous star. All the seats were taken except for the one next to the middle aged couple and with a smile and a flourish, the young man walks up to the table, greets the pair and takes the last available seat. They strike up a conversation and soon it is all warm and nice, unlike the country outside that was simmering with the heat and dust of unrest and political change.

Suddenly, a loud explosion tears through the car and derails it. Anarchists had blown up the train with explosives lining the tracks. The lamps blinked, tables crashed, people screamed and there smoke billowing above leaping flames that had engulfed the upturned carriage. The middle aged couple had been crushed under a table and both of them seemed to have lost consciousness. Flung far away from them was the prone form of the young Prussian. In the light of the flames you could see the form stir and gather strength as it rose, slowly, but surely and then the man stood up, ran his hands over his muscled and seemingly indestructible form, dusted his trousers and must have been looking for his wallet when he heard a moan. He turned towards the sound. The Prussian saw the pile of splintered boards and tables and followed the sound to the place where the injured couple lay. With a vigour that would have done Hercules credit, he lift ed and tossed boards, tables and the beam that had trapped the pair underneath. Seeing that they were conscious, he gently helped them to their feet and the man and the woman thanked the young fellow for saving their lives. The man with the beard extended his hand and introduced himself.... “My name is Dr. Karl Marx and this is my wife Jenny. Thank you so much for saving our lives and for the pleasant conversation during dinner. We will always remember you....” The young Prussian smiled and shook the extended hand and said “My name is Frederick Mueller and I work as a model for artists.. It was nothing... how could I turn and run away from someone who is lying helpless while his life is in danger.... But we should make haste for the fire is almost upon us....”

With that, the young model guided Dr. Karl Marx and his wife away from the scene of the accident. As the flames flickered and spread, you could see the three silhouettes hurrying away into the inky blackness of the night. At that time, how were they to know that while one man’s books and ideas were soon to change the world, the other was going to take London by storm as the strongest man in the world... A man the world would come to recognise as Eugene Sandow, the one who would single-handedly start the body building revolution with his great strength and hitherto unseen sculpted physical beauty. Indeed, strange are the ways of fate and chance. I came across this incident in a book written by the great Bill Pearl, a physique champion from the 1960s. And although some details about the dates are a little fuzzy and the authenticity of the story thus gets a little diluted, I found it a story worth sharing and so here it is, hopefully garnished just right for you to wonder..... What might have happened to the Berlin Wall, to the October Revolution, to the war in Vietnam or to the cold war chess in Afghanistan, if Sandow had not had the nerve, the strength and the courage to rescue Dr. Marx from under the debris that fateful night? No one remembers that date today and yet it was the seed for so many others. So let’s hear it for the underdog be it one from a date-file, your life or the mirror, for in their own little or not so little ways, for don’t they all matter?


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