Thursday, April 25, 2013


I began this story in a number of ways and then crumpled each sheet of virtual paper and tossed it in the bin. That’s because I couldn’t find a way to approach the story in a manner that was respectful and honest without being blunt, repetitive and preachy... But I couldn’t do it. And so here it is - earnest advice that will be blunt, repetitive and yes, a trifle preachy.

Some time ago I had recounted Aruna Shanbaug’s tragic story. For forty years, Aruna has been lying in a vegetative state on a hospital bed after she was brutally sodomized and nearly choked to death with a dog chain. And poignant though her story be, the unfortunate truth of the day is that today I could pick up a new story of sexual assault, as vicious or worse, every other day.

But in that same story, I had written about Nishtha, a woman I had met in my first ever Krav Maga class who had actually used her skills to survive an assault against not one but two attackers. And that really still is the point of the piece.

In a world where cultures collide every day, violence often smoulders under the polished veneer that masks our primal instincts and fears. But a few steps here, a wrong turn there and we risk crashing into the molten magma of road rage, rape, street brawls and murder. The long arms of the law are ponderous and slow, and justice is nearly always delayed if not denied. In a society that is thus, there are no deterrents for bullies and the depraved, nothing that arrests the bristly brutish hand of lascivious rage from groping, grabbing or crushing that and those you hope to preserve and protect in the innermost private sanctums of your world. Nothing, indeed nothing but the little strength that you hold in your hands and they hold in theirs…

It is time you empowered yourself, and those you hold dear. And I don’t mean it in the metaphorical sense of the word but in its very real and physical avatar. You, even if you are too slow for golf and too tired to walk, and too busy to breathe, yes you too ma’am, even if you are usually always at home and have a chauffeured car to call your own, and yes your children too, be they boys or girls, even if they are only five years old... Yes, you, even you, and especially if this isn’t you… I urge you all to strengthen your mind, body and spirit, because sooner or later, this world of ours, the real red zone that flows below the flimsy innocuous crust we have constructed our toylands over, will break out and touch us, and when that happens, we better be ready to fight for our lives and the lives of those we hold dear.

And when that moment comes, I assure there is no system, no martial-art, no training that is better designed to protect your world than Krav Maga. There are systems that are better at building the muscles or even character perhaps. But when it comes to learning how to train to use your bare hands to defend oneself, there are few systems, if any, that come close to the battle tested moves of Krav Maga.

Born out of the desperate need for unarmed Jews in Central Europe to learn how to defend themselves against marauding groups of anti-Semitic hooligans, Krav Maga’s techniques were reviewed and refined after each encounter. After the end of the Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel, Krav Maga became the handto- hand combat system of choice for the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). Today, counter-terrorist units, special operations operatives and sky-marshals all over the world are trained in this system of combat.

But don’t let the fact that such hard core professionals find Krav Maga invaluable dissuade you from recognizing the value of this system. Krav Maga was created to empower a motley group of middle aged men and women with the wherewithal to defend their own selves and their children against multiple attackers armed with sticks and clubs. From there it evolved into a system that allowed newly recruited soldiers drawn from all walks of life and levels of fitness, with little time to train in a hand to hand combat system, to become proficient at handling a great range of highly stressful combat situations. On many occasions, soldiers are taught specific and relevant Krav Maga techniques just the night before an operation. And since the techniques are natural and based on the body’s instinctual responses, each technique becomes easy to retain and easy to trust even under extreme stress and even in a state of disorientation, with minimal repeat training.

Do you see the value of the system now? Every time you step out of that mall and onto the street; every time you walk back alone to the car park late in the evening, your footsteps echoing in the empty basement; every time you are chased by a car or a bike while driving back home at night; every time you wished you weren’t alone and had someone to lean on, someone to hide behind, someone to protect you; every time, you will feel a little safer, a little stronger, a little more sure of yourself, with a little bit of Krav Maga under your belt.

It is the only system I know that has specifically designed systems for women and children, helping them identify threats and hopefully avoid them without engaging in a confrontation. And as the degree of assault escalates, the system provides relatively easy techniques to counter each level of threat. Most importantly, it prepares the mind to believe that it can find a way to fight, even if there is pain, even if there is fear, to not give in, to not give up but to keep fighting and looking for an escape route. That alone is more than half the battle won in most cases because the attacker isn’t expecting a fight.

Independence for both men and women - the freedom to roam, alone, while at work or play - can only be truly ours when not accompanied with fear or trepidation. Learning to defend oneself against a reasonable range of threats when on one’s own is a small price to pay for that freedom.

I urge you all to earn that freedom, for your own sake and for the sake of those who love you, by learning how to defend yourselves, through Krav Maga or any other form of protection training. The notion that our world is safer than it used to be is a notion that shall never be true, because as long as society is weighed down by unequal opportunities and unequal abilities, there will always be attempts to redress the balance, surreptitiously, systematically and at times violently.

It may at times be beyond us to make our world a better place, but it is definitely within us to make ‘our world’ a safer place.


Thursday, April 18, 2013


Yes, yes, I know I had promised to write about my adventures in Gobar Goho’s akhada this week but I can’t help but interrupt the series and celebrate this… Palpur Kuno is finally going to get its own lions!

After all these years of lobbying and litigation, those at the helm of this leonine resurrection have finally managed to pull it off. I have been doing my bit for the cause, mind you. Putting in a good word here and another one there, and now that it is finally going to happen, I feel that this victory is as much mine as it is theirs.

For a long time now, wildlife activists have been fighting for the cause of establishing a new home for the Asiatic lion. The Gir sanctuary in Gujarat, the last home of the Asiatic lion is bursting at the seams with lions today. There are just far too many of them for their own good in the park. Humanlion conflicts, territorial fights in the overcrowded confines of the sanctuary and the ever-present threat of disease or disaster wiping out the last surviving population of this great predator have made it imperative that a new home be found for the lion.

But for those not in the know, all this euphoria over shift ing a few big cats a few hundred kilometers might seem rather misplaced. So let me break it down for you by taking you back to how it all began…

Once upon a time, as recently as the 20th century, three subspecies of lion roamed and ruled the earth. The African lion in sub-Saharan Africa, the Barbary lion in North Africa and the Asiatic lion whose reign extended from Asia Minor and across the heart of India and right up to the plains of Bihar.

The lion in those days was a king indeed.

Proud and brave, he strode over thorn and bush and over the great plains and the grassland, his great maned head held high. But alas his pride spelt his doom, for in open country, the lion became easy game for rifle wielding trophy hunters who wiped out the Barbary lion from all over its range in the Atlas mountains.

In Asia, the big cat fared little better. Hunted to extinction across most of his reign, the beginning of the 20th century saw the last dozen or so Asiatic lions cowering in a small pocket in Junagadh. These lions too would have gone the way of the Barbary lion and into extinction if the Nawab of Junagadh, would have had his way when he invited Lord Curzon for a lion shoot.

However, when Lord Curzon realized how critically endangered the lions happened to be, he politely refused to shoot and urged the Nawab to protect the lions. And so, at a time when there were 10 to 25 rupees bounties on wild animals like tigers and lions across most countries and even in India, Junagadh had already begun its march towards conservation.

The years rolled by and now, Gir is home to more than 400 lions. Besides issues of overcrowding, the fact that all these lions have emerged out of a small gene pool of a handful of lions, makes them perhaps a trifle more vulnerable to diseases and epidemics that could wipe out the entire population of Gir lions. For this reason, it would be akin to committing ecological hara-kiri if efforts weren’t made to sprinkle the lion population over different geographical zones.

Wildlife bodies set the ball rolling in the right direction and identified Palpur Kuno in Madhya Pradesh, a habitat that was once part of the Asiatic lion’s range, as the ideal reintroduction site. However, the big cat’s home state, Gujarat, wasn’t so keen on sharing its pride and refused to give up its lions.

However, just about two days ago, the Supreme Court directed the state of Gujarat to release a few lions for them to be reintroduced into Kuno. This is the first step for the lion in reclaiming its old lands and a much needed shot in the arm for conservationists struggling to protect the lion.

Incidentally, Palpur Kuno, the place ear-marked for the reintroduction of lions has also been shortlisted for a cheetah reintroduction project. The Asiatic cheetah, now found only the desert regions of Iran was once abundant in India. Along with hunting, habitat-loss and loss of prey base, one of the most unique reasons in the history of wildlife extinctions has to be the trapping of wild cheetahs to be trained as hunting assistants in royal hunts. Nawabs and other royalty would keep trained cheetahs in their hunting stables even as recently as the 1940s. One can still find archival films that have captured these hunts. Hooded and carried on bullock carts, these cheetahs would be released near a herd of unsuspecting blackbucks and then a spectacular high-speed chase would ensue, often resulting in the cat tripping and biting the animal’s neck in an effort to strangle the animal. Meanwhile the nawab’s hunting attendants rush to the fallen buck and dispatch it by slashing its throat with a knife. The cheetah is rewarded for its efforts with chunks of meat from the kill. Unfortunately, these cheetahs did not breed in captivity, and by 1947 India had lost her last cheetah.

Since, the Iranian subspecies is too vulnerable and the African cheetah is genetically identical to the Asiatic subspecies, Laurie Marker, the Jane Goodall of cheetah conservation has suggested that India should reintroduce African cheetahs to restore the world’s fastest land mammal to the Indian landscape. The transfer was supposed to have happened last year but the Honourable Supreme Court of India suspended the project, urging the Ministry of Environment and Forests to first focus on the successful reintroduction of our own Asiatic lions to Kuno.

While I find the idea of seeing cheetahs racing across the plains extremely exciting, not only is the court order ethically pertinent but also environmentally sound. To first introduce cheetahs to a habitat, allowing them to flourish at the very top of the food chain unimpeded by its greatest natural enemy, the lion and then once it has settled in, to suddenly shock them by releasing lions into their territory could potentially destroy both the cheetahs and the reintroduction project.

On the other hand, cheetahs brought in from Africa would know the rules of engagement as far as lions are concerned. When eased into an ecological framework which already has lions in it, the cheetahs would make the transition naturally and co-existence, in the long run, especially with Asiatic lions not familiar with cheetahs, a far greater possibility.

As things stand today, sooner or later, the plains of Kuno should be reverberating with both the roar of the lion as well as the charge of that spotted streak of greased lightning. And with the forests of Kuno also serving as corridors for tigers wandering in from nearby Ranthambore and packs of wolves, as well as a healthy prey base, this little known park could soon become the most exciting wildlife hotspot in the country. After the terrible lows of Sariska and Panna, here’s to some exciting new chapters in India’s intriguing romance with her wildlife… Cheers to that!


Thursday, April 11, 2013


The wards of Goabagan, tucked away in an apologetic corner of Kolkata are mildly depressing. Old, once stately mansions with peeling paint, walls wet grey and green and windows with rotting wooden shutters give way to shacks and street corner hand pumps. It was going to be a long wait.

Here, the ‘officially embarrassing’ hand-pulled rickshaws pull everything from housewives returning with groceries to cardboard cartons full of clinking bottles. And in the hot afternoons, they line the pavements, where our rickshaw puller sleeps away the mid-day sun curled up in his rickshaw, a coarse cotton gamucha wrapped around the head and pulled over the eyes and their cotton vests rolled above their half-full bellies. Under the rickshaw, sleep dirty yellow and brown pariah dogs, one eye half-open, long tongues lolling, panting away the heat.

The hours pass and I’m waiting still… Shanties and hovels with tiny grilled windows line the streets of this part of Goabagan. From one, an old face, creased and thin, stares listlessly onto the street below where two girls amuse themselves with badminton rackets. Amused too are a bunch of young men lounging across the street, warming up to the early evening’s entertainment and adda, with tiny glasses of sweet over-boiled tea and some greasy munchies wrapped in oil soaked paper.

Time, in Goabagan, except for the scrap merchant weighing his paper stacks and the rickshaws that had found patrons, seemed to move slowly, almost reluctantly. And time was moving just as slowly for me. I had been staring at the red brick building in front of me for the last two hours but the fat old lock on that rusty green gate was still doing duty. It was almost five in the evening.

The lad at the local tea-stall said that the gates should have opened by now. But they hadn’t and so for the umpteenth time, I reread the proud little words on the tin plate nailed to the brick wall that declared that this indeed was hallowed ground. It seemed a little incongruous that a monument as venerable could lie in a corner so forgettable and yet, so it was. For beyond these walls lay Gobar Goho’s gymnasium/akhada. And who is Gobar Goho? Like the tin plate so proudly asserts to this day, he was the “First Asian to win the Light Heavyweight (wrestling) Championship” of the world.

This happened way back in 1921 in the United States. And for a nation still shackled to the imperial will of Great Britain, it was a moment that fortified her faith in the vigour of her people, and emboldened into a flame the shouldering embers of downtrodden pride.

Gobar Goho is a name I would come upon oft en while researching about India’s wrestling tradition. Along with ubiquitous references to the Great Gama, there would be this name that would spring up, infrequently, but assertively. Not as well known but about as respected and so on a day when deadlines weren’t as constrictive, I wiki-wandered in search of Gobar Goho. I was stunned with what I found.

My parents have been proud Bengalis, and I have been brought up on bed-time stories recounting the glorious achievements of those illustrious souls that I happen to share my mother-tongue with. Tagore and Bankim, Boses Jagdish Chandra and Subhash, poets and freedom fighters squeezed in cheek and jowl with Mr. and Miss Universes and film-makers like Ray and Sen. While basking in all that reflected glory might have been important for middle-class India without access to post liberal opportunities, I wonder how my parents missed out filling me in on the man my father recently remembered as “ Ah yes, Gobar Babu!”

Jatindra Charan Goho or Guha was his real name. As I waded through his tales of taking down the biggest names of his time, Ad Santel, the Scotch giant Jimmy Esson and perhaps the greatest of them all, Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis with his famous move, the radda, what struck me even more than his achievements on the mat were the social values and circumstances that created this hero of Olympian proportions.

More than six feet tall and weighing in at a well muscled 130 kilograms, Gobar Goho was a giant of his times. Fortunate to be born in a time in Bengal when wrestling was considered as important an art for the scions of the well heeled to master as poetry and music, Gobor went to learn the moves of the mud and mat from Ambu Babu (Ambika Charan Guha).

Wrestling, though a sport with rural roots in most of India, entered Bengal with famous pehelwans from the northern Gangetic plains like Kallicharan Chaubey and Khosla Chaubey. And here it was adopted by the educated upper class of Bengal as a scalpel that sculpted both body and spirit.

Ambu Babu’s family was amongst the first to embrace and establish this art in Bengal and he also established the state’s fi rst akhada.

And what an akhada it must have been for in its mud had rolled and wrestled the youthful bodies of Swami Vivekananda, Swami Brahmananda, Jatindranath Mukherjee aka Bagha Jatin, one of India’s brightest and most luminous lights of the freedom struggle (who had been described by Gandhi as “a divine personality”), and of course our man of the moment, Jatindra Charan ‘Gobar’ Goho.

What a pilgrimage for every Indian this akhada in Masjidbari street would have been. This akhada was the fi rst of many such akhadas that became popular in Bengal in the early 1900s. And what was nurtured here wasn’t just strength in body and mind but a passion for nationalism and revolutionary ideals that fuelled the freedom movement in the region.

But alas the Masjidbari street akhada could not last through the hard times that wracked India in the last decade before independence. And so in 1936, Gobar Goho took the fl ame that his forefathers had instituted on Masjidbari street and lit up this little corner in Goabagan, rebuilding the akhada here as it stands today.

I do not know how it must have been then but today the akhada is just a sad forgotten relic of a once glorious and noble past.

Abandoned by all but a faithful few, the kid manning the tea stall mentioned that a handful of wrestlers - ageing octogenarian disciples of the long dead master as well as some strapping young converts - still wrestled in its mud pit. But decay and impending death seemed to be crawling along the crumbling walls of this socio-archeological pariah.

Is it doomed to disappear, taking with it its forgotten tales of victories and valour? Or will it survive and inspire yet another generation of heroes? Th e answer perhaps lay behind that locked door and ah, someone’s at the gate… Maybe he has the key. But then that is a story for another day…