Thursday, July 26, 2012


When the man’s mighty shoulders pushed against the collapsed axle of the cart and day light peeped through between the broken but still breathing body of a man and the underside of the cart, Jean Valjean became a hero in my head and heart. That moment epitomised the strength of sinew and character that Victor Hugo’s miserable hero would need to mine, to get through that epic life and that thick tome. Strength, both of the spirit and of the body seemed so essential for becoming a hero.. And why does a little boy want to be a hero? Is it because he wants to be loved, or is it because he wants to be remembered, or perhaps to be remembered by those he loves…

Speaking of love, it’s not like I go back to that book every day, so my memory’s a little fuzzy on that front but as much as I can remember, the venerable Kamasutra mentions the bull man – a man known for his muscular build, steadfastness of spirit and projecting a general aura of indomitable strength – as the most desirable of men. Here, I must make clear that the bull man isn’t a mere man of strength in the way a power-lift er or a bodybuilder might be, but more in the mould of a battle scarred soldier.. A man who acquired his strength not in pursuit of vanity, but valour. Such is the strength, that makes a bull of a man.

And make no mistake, strength, even in this age of nuclear weapons and satellite phones, is still the most desirable of virtues. Not necessarily physical strength, but the idea of cultivating strength, as a virtue, to be sought, acquired and honoured. But as we catch the tail end of the last few rules of love, the moment begs the question, do we need to be strong to be in love? More significantly, do we need to be strong to live up to love and all its demands?

If you’ve been following the flight path of the rules of love, and I’m honestly flattered giddy if you have been, you’d remember that we took off the runway with the declaration that love, true love, would make you want to strive hard to become a better person. That is a case of the seeker needing to be strong to earn love and attention but we’re now talking about the giver needing strength, to be able to give without falling weak and to be able to hold when the beloved falls weak…

Let me explain that with an illustration…

Your vegetarian wife and your fish-loving mother have a little tiffin the kitchen about mixing up the utensils. They aren’t talking through the day. That evening, you see your parents digging into a pile of fried cutlets and sweetmeats that some well meaning but thoughtless relative brought over as a gift . They are both diabetic and one of them has is battling a stubborn blood pressure condition. Upset, you lose your cool and say a few angry things. Your parents remind you that you are their child and you should watch your mouth. Livid at the idea of them hiding their guilty sweet tooth behind your soaked diapers, you explode and say a few more things. You’re angry, you were rude. But you know you were right. They were wrong… so wrong. You walk into the bedroom fuming… Your wife knows you are hurt and angry. Your parents were wrong to have hurt their own health by eating what they shouldn’t… just as they were wrong to mix up the utensils that morning. But she also knows that you were wrong to speak to them thus. You know that they must be hurting too… Besides the anger, they must also be hurting because that moment reminded them that they were ageing, perhaps even that they were now dependent in many ways, even if not financially… Does your wife have the strength to risk your ire and tell you that all said and done, you were wrong to have spoken to them thus? That if you let this moment pass, they would keep the scars and so you should turn back and tell them why you were upset but before that you must tell them that you were sorry to have spoken thus. Does she have the strength to keep you good?

He gambles, she smokes, he binges, she’s profane… Do you have the strength to keep them strong to fight their demons and shed their shells and selves that make them weak, push them to gamble, smoke, binge and abuse…? More importantly, do you have the strength to take on and tide over the initial resistance, the defiance, the justifications and then the repeated broken promises, the defensive overreactions and counter accusations, for they all shall follow.

Strength, of every sort, defines a loving relationship. Yesterday, while discussing the premise of the piece, I went so far as to say that one just can’t love if one isn’t strong. It raised eyebrows and hackles, but I insisted and maintained that there could be no love without strength. Love has to have the strength to keep me from going down the wrong path. If the resolve to rectify capitulates in the face of a possibly violent or aggressive reaction, it isn’t love but opportunism that defines the relationship. So, when you want to know if what you feel is love or less, look up and look in and ask yourself, is it an eagle or a vulture that flies over your romantic skies..


Thursday, July 19, 2012


It isn’t everyday that you get to meet a great man so when you do, you drop everything else and try and soak in a bit of that greatness… try and imbue your spirit with a little light from the halo.

The man I met yesterday had died long ago, in an internment camp in Weihsien, China. It must’ve been a cold and grey February day. Maybe it was raining too. 21st February, 1945. Liberation was just a few months away, but for now the Japanese held the camp.

Food was scarce and warmth even scarcer. Mud and gravel squelched and crunched as hurried footsteps rushed to the dying man’s bedside. The camp was losing its last light.

“Uncle Eric! Uncle Eric!” squeaked a little boyish voice. Choked with emotion, another little hand would have nudged the blond man, still only 43 years old, as he lay in bed, drifting in and out of consciousness, trying desperately, yet respectfully, to wake him back to life. ‘Uncle Eric’, if conscious, must surely have turned to him and smiled as the downpour muffled the sobs that racked the camp. As his thoughts turned to God and he mumbled away the last few breaths in prayer and blessings, it wasn’t just his family and friends that wept in his wake in faraway Scotland. As a group of inconsolable Chinese mourners lowered the casket bearing the golden-haired missionary into the ground, these words - ‘The Flying Scotsman Eric Liddell – 16th January 1902 – 21st February 1945’, hastily etched, stared back at the mourners until the earth swallowed it all up – man, wood, words and prayers, but nay, not his undying legacy.

While little hands pressed the earth six feet above the handsome form of Eric Liddell, on a race-track somewhere in England, another man in a suit was reminded of that name. “Eric Henry Liddell – the flying Scot indeed”, he must have thought.

A man though he was and only a year older than Liddell, he still must have shed a silent tear or two that day for he owed his greatest achievements to two names alone. One was Eric’s, and the other, his own – Abrahams! Harold Abrahams!

Harold Abrahams was an English Jew. His father had emigrated from Poland. While Christian England had ostensibly welcomed him and his family into the country, his name and his faith still raised an eyebrow, and through a patronising tone or a social denouncement, in good humour or otherwise, often reminded him that he may well be English but hardly an equal.

Harold Abrahams spent his adolescence striving to prove himself. That hunger in his eyes and that fire in his belly led him to the army and then on to Cambridge where he studied law. Even there, his name drew in prejudice but that is not the reason why he is here in our story. He is here because he ran with his name and wrapped it around a legend – a legend that still rings a bell at Trinity College.

The Trinity Great Court Run – running round the 400 yards of the Trinity court within the 43 seconds it takes for the college clock to strike noon – has remained an insurmountable challenge for even the world’s best runners. Fewer than a handful have risen to the challenge in the last 500 years and legend has it that Abrahams rose to it faster than the fastest.

Harold Abrahams ran to prove, he ran to erase, he ran for glory, he ran to be acknowledged. To him running was about winning as much as it was about fighting. He ran not because he was happy but because he was angry, with fate, God and man, and he must have been angry with God, fate and man that day too when he heard that Eric Liddell had entered the earth, long before his time, the way he would finish his races, long before his time.

Abrahams first saw Liddell at a 400 metres race against France’s best athletes where he tripped and fell but then got up and powered his way through a score and more meter-deficit to win. He was in awe of the sublime force that coursed through Liddell’s veins. And he wondered where it came from…

He wondered about that power even more when Eric shook his hand and sincerely wished him well before a race and then left him in the dust, crushed and defeated, as much by the man as by the idea of losing to him.

Both Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell had made it to the British Olympic squad for the 1924 Summer games. Harold was training like a professional athlete long before professionalism ‘tainted’ (as the purists, not I, would say) the amateur spirit of the games. He had a trainer, Sam Mussabini, who had polished his technique to the point where his time in the 100 metre dash was better than Liddell’s. Abrahams knew that his hour was at hand. He would beat the Americans who held the records in the dash but more than that, he wanted to beat Liddell.

But the evangelical Eric Liddell cared little for settling scores. He just ran for the joy of it, and for God, to ‘honour Him’. And God, it seemed, was not so happy about him running. The 100 m heats were drawn for Sunday, the day of Sabbath. And Eric couldn’t imagine running a race on the day set aside for rest and honouring God through prayer.

From Harold Abrahams to the Prince of Wales, they all urged and insisted that Liddell reconsider, for King, country and countryman, but Eric’s mind was made. Abrahams was crestfallen. He knew not what he was chasing more. A gold medal and a world record or vengeance, but Eric assured him that he needn’t worry about his victory being incomplete. He told Abrahams that his current race times were much better than his own. Abrahams was sure to defeat him even if he did take part in the race. Now, how big a heart does a man need to be able to reassure a vanquished rival thus.

Eric Liddell did not run the race he had waited his whole life for. The 100 metres dash at the Olympics is arguably the show-piece event of the great games. Harold Abrahams won that race.

But Eric Liddell’s greatness was a flame that burnt too bright to not light up the Paris games. Eric’s name was entered in the 400 metres race and though not his best event by any stretch, Eric decided to run for God if not for glory. Little was expected of Liddell but Eric went on his marks, got set and boy, did he go. Eric Liddell ran like a blond streak that cut through the day and its misgivings and breasted the tape for gold in world record time. I met the legend of this man last night at the Gielgud theatre in London where they were playing a stage version of Chariots of Fire, the Oscar winning 1981 classic.

But Liddell’s legend wasn’t done. The stage actor who played Liddell, Jack Lowden, went on to talk about Liddell’s life away from the track. Eric had been born in China and had promised his missionary parents, that he would get his degree and return to China after the Olympics. And true to his word, he let go of what could have been a glorious athletic career and returned, to work tirelessly for man and God; helping people wherever and however he could, whether it was teaching young people about life and the Lord through sports and games or by giving away his meager rations to someone hungrier.

The war came to China with the Japanese forces and Eric and his ‘parishioners’ were interred as prisoners of war in a camp. Here too, Eric served ceaselessly, his will and his prayers, carried him through the crushing exhaustion and a lethal tumour. Scotland and his family wanted him back and the Japanese offered him safe passage back home. He must have been tempted. He was human after all. But his Lord wasn’t done with his tests. He sent him a pregnant woman who told him of her woes, her pain and her suffering, and Eric could see that she needed to go home to be happy. But did it have to be at the cost of his happiness? He didn’t know. But he did know that he was meant to take her pain and so he did. He gave the papers to his freedom to her and she left with tears in her eyes and joy in her heart. Liddell knew he had just given away the rest of his life to a stranger and there must’ve been that hollow heavy feeling in the gut, that dull throbbing ache that comes with great loss, but there would have been a faint smile on his lips – for though it had been too great a price to pay, but he had won yet again, and this was a race not many would have wanted to run.

But Eric Liddell is not most people. Most people don’t have his gifts and most people don’t have the courage or the conviction to run through life or a race with the power and grace of the ‘Flying Scotsman’.

The Olympics are here again, but nearly a century later, here we are, still clapping for you…, Eric.


Thursday, July 12, 2012


Neon tights, spectacular scenery, those calves that look like pairs of bustling armadillos trapped inside a balloon and the screaming fawning hordes that line the route of the third greatest spectacle on earth - the Tour de France! No, I don’t blame you for dusting that old cycle in the attic and oiling it this Sunday. I won’t stop you if you declare that you intend to cycle the five kilometres to the woods and back every other day either. In all probability you had said it in a moment of hormone riddled weakness. But it is when you kit out in those tights that threaten to roll down on their own, unused to the challenges your generous contours present, and put foot to pedal is when I will gently tap you on that pudgy arm, pick out this story from a while ago and urge you to read before ye ride, for they say if you ride too long, you mightn’t ride much at all...

A trip to a Swiss ski resort in the summer can be an unnerving experience for most men. Zermatt is a quaint little town at the foot of the iconic Matterhorn made famous by skiers, snowboarders and other winter lunatics of a third kind. But even in summer, there is little respite for fragile male egos on this mountain paradise.

Sputtering and wheezing like spasming asthmatics, my wife and I climbed (hauled her and clambered up might actually describe it better) a tiny grassy hillock. But before I could bask in the glorious light of athletic prowess and my wife’s admiring glances, we were passed by a bevy of obscenely well-muscled mountain bikers in neon pink and green tights (looked like absolute pansies if you ask me, but my wife was so busy looking, she didn’t bother asking) as they rode up an impossibly steep slope, and with such ease that they even turned to wish us a cheery ‘bonjour!’ without even breathing hard. As I watched my wife watch those pansies in pink ride off, I ran after a straggler, kicked his dainty lycra clad behind off his fancy bike, shook him hard and screamed into his ear “You know what?! There are only two kinds of cyclists; those who are impotent and those who will be. So which one are you?” Actually I didn’t really do that but if they weren’t so darn big, I just might’ve. As we left the bouncing behinds behind and trudged our way along the trail, I repeated those famous words to my wife, and just to confirm that I wasn’t just being jealous, I confessed that the smart quip wasn’t mine but a respected urologist’s named Dr Irwin Goldstein who wrote these words for the Bicycling Magazine. And fellow husbands, if you’ve ever had a sinking feeling tinged with a dash of livid green while you watched the lady of your life oohing and aahing at dashing polo players as they rode past, tell them I told you about Hippocrates who described the Scythians thus, “They are the most impotent of men, (for perhaps) the constant jolting of their horses unfits them for intercourse.”

So all that saddle-bound machismo is good for is a shriveled manhood. Thank god for small mercies and smaller saddles. Anyway back to the good doctors Hippocrates and Goldstein. You see, I wasn’t too bad on a cycle not too long ago. In fact I planned to ride all the way to Ladakh and show up my neighbour who believed he was an adventurer just because he happened to have been to that moonscape in the mountains on a motorcycle. So I started training and researching for my epic journey and possible career as a cycling professional. Initially, all I would read about was how many millions these riders would earn, how the Tour de France was the third largest sporting event in the world and how Lance Armstrong became a legend and…

Hang on Lance Armstrong, did you say?! The guy who got testicular cancer? Yikes! Was there a connection? And then came an article that quoted the venerable Goldstein claiming that there was possibly a link between the pressure exerted on a male cyclist’s perineum (that’s the name for the place you couldn’t imagine there might’ve been a name for between the well… er… and the umm.. unh…; well we’re talking about a saddle, so you know where’s what) and impotence. Yes you read it right. Cycle too many miles and you might end up shall we say a little ‘soggy’ down there. The theory is that tiny flint like saddles, whether on a horse or a bicycle, ‘traumatise’ the perineum and might damage the supply lines of the male reproductive organ, resulting in temporary or even permanent impotence. (However, the concern over cycling causing testicular cancer is as yet unfounded.) Millions of hours and dollars of research later, softer saddles with more accommodating designs seem to be a solution according to one group while others – including Dr Goldstein at a relatively recent conference – insist, that Dr Goldstein was wrong in his hypothesis the first time round and cycling perhaps always was as healthful as it was initially trumped up to be.

Incase you are waiting for the last word from yours truly before resuming your morning rides around the children’s park, here’s the consensus – Cycle less than three hours a week and you get to enjoy all the benefits without having to worry about ‘going soft ’. Europe loves cycling and is (coincidentally?) creaking under the weight of an ageing population with low birth rates. The Chinese cycle everywhere possible and yet one in four earthlings is Chinese and as for the Swiss, can’t really blame them for cycling everywhere. I mean when their buses have routes called “Extra fahrt” and insist on having “fahrt plans” for their passengers, I can understand why they eschew public transport and risk the dreaded ‘I’ everyday. The jury’s out on this one so stick to the 3hrs/week fahrtplan gentlemen, and as for the ladies, don’t you get too smug now. You never know what I’ll dig up next


Thursday, July 5, 2012


Two rules still to go, and yet I must take a break and tell you a little story; there’s half a moral lurking in there I’m sure… The other night, I hurried off to make a pending payment to my long suffering cell-phone service provider. The night was calm and so was I… must have been the yoga workout that or the conversations… I rushed to the payment booth, but it wouldn’t take a card. I asked around for an ATM booth and the kindly security guard, reeking of hooch and sweat swayed in, waved his arms in all four directions and mumbled something incoherent in a language enriched by the dust from the cow belt… And so I went out of the doorway, got into the car and drove around for a while till I found an ATM booth, withdrew money and still steeped in that ‘I’m in love with the world’ reverie, took a u-turn towards my profoundest lesson in road-rage…

As I moved up a gear, from a blind turn, less than 20 metres to my left, a biker shot out of the darkness and swerved away from the car even as I screeched to a stop. The biker’s helmetless head cocked to the right, a cell-phone sandwiched between ear and collar and with a cigarette dangling between his lips, hardly seemed to take note of the wailing brake-pads, his hair-raising brush with death, or the incredible feat of hand-eye coordination by yours truly that saved his life.

I bristled a bit at having been ignored thus but then that dreamy spell - perhaps a good way to describe that feeling would be sweet love’s aft er-glow - took over as I moved into gear and drove up alongside the wayward biker. Dressed in a greasy tee and well worn shorts, he wouldn’t have been a day older than 28. Hair gelled into tines, tallish with limbs lean but sinewy, he looked like someone who had enough going his way to afford a little cockiness. He’d remind you of an extra from a hinterland gangster flick.

He was still busy talking on the phone while I coasted alongside and so I rolled the window down, honked, and made a polite suggestion/observation… “Dekh ke chalao… abhi gaadi ke neeche aa jatey!” One hand let go of the bike’s handle and held the phone as the extra looked up, turned, and with the bike still in motion, shift ed his gaze in my direction, frowned, curled his upper lip and snarled “toh?! Main kya karoon…!” and with that he went back to his phone conversation.

I was taken aback. Th rough all my battle-scarred years spent navigating Delhi’s roads and rage, never had I met such a response. Some have been unapologetic, others rude and accusatory, but no one had been this dismissive. I wasn’t used to this. I had slowed down to speak to him and so I picked up the pace again and drove up to him, closer than before and at an angle that forced him to slow down. “Arrey, main bhale ke liye keh raha hun… I didn’t mean harm. You would’ve gotten hurt. Chot lagjati tumhein….” I said, with the faintest of frown. But it didn’t go down well with our biker. His ego bristled and his face contorted into a furrowed scowl as he bared his teeth and growled “nikal le yahan se… chal, chal nikal le…! Get out of here or else…!”

Errr, ahem… at this point, I must take you to an early autumn morning from a few years ago. I was supposed to pick up some friends and make a long drive to the dry and dusty industrial bottom of NOIDA. I was in a tearing hurry… I went up a fly-over and sidled into the overtaking lane (yes, that’s the one on the right, ladies) and hurtled away toward the horizon. But while coming down the over-pass, my path was blocked by a sedan trundling along at the pace of a snail on sedatives. I was in a rush, this was the overtaking zone, and he should’ve been on the far left at this pace, so though I’m usually not one for honking, on this occasion I felt I was justified in a bit of a holler and a hoot… The trundler wouldn’t budge. I wondered if I should nudge… I balked, in favour of another holler… he swerved a little, made way and then, just as I was about to pass, closed back in. Oooh! He was upset! I didn’t have time for this though, so I honked a long honk again, and soon as he moved away, closed in and squeezed my way in. Like he’d done earlier, he tried to swerve back in and close the gap, but this time I stood my ground and pressed forward. The sedan’s bluff had been called, and the driver straightened out along my flank while I overtook the car. I glared at the bespectacled driver, who was about my age (read youthful), and he glared back.

I sped on ahead and forgot all about him until I saw him growing big in the side view mirror. He hadn’t liked being honked at and now, he wanted to give me a taste of my own medicine. So be it, I thought. Honk away pal, I won’t budge either. He blared away and I couldn’t care less. I stayed the course and even slowed down a little. Th at mustve really gotten his goat. He honked and swerved and tried to overtake from either flank but I had no time for games. And so I sped off. The sedan gave chase but I had a schedule to catch and I was sure the kid would tire of this game. But he screeched and swerved in dangerously close. I ignored him for as long as I could.

And then he did it. He hurled an expletive and shook his fist. Then he overtook my car and fish-tailed in front. I had to brake really hard and I was livid. I find it very difficult to ignore rudeness or abusive behaviour and so I rolled the window down and screamed “so a fight’s what you want, is it? You want to fight? You want to...? You want to?” I don’t know about you and I don’t know about him but I was shocked with what I had just said... Every kid gets into fights, at school, in the playground, and slightly messier affairs as we grow older and then realize that our clothes and faces could do without regular rearrangements and so we resort to posturing. And yet, here I was, all pumped up and ready to swing and swing hard too. Must’ve been the martial arts grading matches I had been preparing for. Evidently, I wasn’t preparing my mind the way I should have... I was embarrassed. Anger spent, I just stopped the car, looked back and waved an apology and drove off.

I must confess, I’m glad I did that because when I looked, I saw that the sedan’s driver had come out and he was one crazy critter. Way above six-feet tall, wide as a barn-door and as cantankerous as a bull in the corrida. I’m not saying I was scared Honest, I wasn’t! But you know, without anger to fuel your fists, the effort, especially against a jaw that square suddenly didn’t seem worth it. I pulled over and waved at his car as it drove up. I wanted to apologize. But he didn’t see me. Or maybe he didn’t want to. He drove off.

That night, in the face of another rude jibe, I sensed that old fire flicker inside but the mood of the night was too heavy and happy to let it flicker for long. The fire died out and I just smiled at him aand said “main aapke bhale ke liye keh raha hoon... Here I’m trying to help you stay safe... aur tum tewar dikha rahe ho... And you are shoving this attitude in my face!”.

I didn’t know how he would react but I felt calm, in control. I had done nothing wrong. I was speaking rather politely, under the circumstances and I had said all the right things. Mr Biker went a little “huh?!” I repeated my words. The gent motioned for me to wait, spoke a few words into the phone and I wondered if he was calling reinforcements. I was ok with that. I had said nothing wrong. I wasn’t going to scoot now. I was pretty sure I could reason my way out even if he had called his friends. The man put the phone aside, popped his head in through the window and in a still gruff voice, said “kya bola maine...?” I said “It’s not what you said as much. It’s how you said it that was rude... Tareeka galat tha... Usse bura lagta hai... Gussa aata hai!” Actually, it was also what he said, but I didn’t want to nit pick. If you don’t mind my saying so, the man seemed to have soft ened.

The biker broke into a bashful smile. “Kya bola maine... What did I say? Bura laga aapko... ? You felt bad? Sorry bhhai... Sorry!” I smiled back at him, waved and said “sambhal ke chalana! Drive safe!” With that, I drove off feeling more chuffed with myself than I would have if I had knocked him out cold with a hook.

Drive safe!