Friday, July 15, 2011

Fighting Words

Tell him I’m going to smash his teeth in,” were the first words I uttered with conviction that morning.  “Hun Hau,” were the probably the second, gesturing to the dumplings on my plate as a dark purple shiner gained territory around my eye socket.
It’s a good idea when you travel to keep your cool.  You could have easily be offended by a misunderstanding, you might cause someone to lose face (which carries more weight outside of western culture), and, most importantly, the law rarely smiles on belligerent foreigners.  In India, there is another variable to consider.  Indians are generally a peaceable people.  Trouble will generally not find you.  If it did, you're not dealing with people who have thrown a lot of punches in their lives.  If you're a reasonable fit man and have had a scrap or two you'd be the betting favorite to win a fistfight against the average man on the streets of India.  But you will not be fighting a man on the streets of India.  You will be fighting all Indians.  Mobs form quick here and, as anyone who has recklessly caused a traffic accident could tell you, they are extremely violent and short on mercy.  You won't worry about the police arriving, you'll be praying they come faster.
I've only had three brushes with brawls in my travels.  In Shanghai, a relatively safe city, two drunks toppled out of an alley bar just as I was walking by at 2 A.M.  "Hello, hello!" they kept chanting as they walked behind me, keeping up with my accelerating pace.  When one grabbed my arm I spun and cracked him in the face, then took off in a sprint as he floundered back into his buddy's arms.  His face crumpled, his friend's mouth pursed in a giant O.  Probably just drunks being drunks, but when it's two against one in the middle of the night you hit first.  Another time I found myself in a bar in Riga, two sheets to the wind, when a monstrous buzz-cut commando sat in the stool next to me, pulsating vibes of trouble.  I avoided eye contact, but in a couple minutes he was staring right at me.  "Hey.  Hey you.  Where you from?"  "Hey.  You me... we break," he said smacking a closed fist into his other palm.  "I don't understand," I replied with a big stupid smile.  He returned it with a smile of his own, most of the teeth missing.  "We break!  We break!," he said again throwing short hooks and jabs into the small space between us.  "I'm sorry man.  I don't understand.  You are Latvian right?  I love Latvia.  Riga very beautiful.  Nice street.  Nice church.  Nice girls!" I offered with a laugh, desperate to change the subject.  He flat stared at me for five long seconds, considering options.  "Ok," he finally said thrusting out a meaty open hand, "Friend."  This is how it's done.  If you do fight, make it hard and fast and then leave the scene with haste.  But preferably confuse your would be assailant until you can diffuse the aggression.  This was not the pattern I followed in India. 
 We had returned from the state of Orissa with a swagger in our steps and our first episode of a new travel show in the can.  After being on a creative roll of filming, writing, and planning our return to Kolkata was buoyed by a balloon full of energy that had began to escape at a squeak and then, by the fourth day of inactivity, like a flatulent blast.  Unable to resist the draw of free accomodation I’d posted up in New Town, a.k.a under-development town.  High rise buildings springing up slowly from swampland and cow pasture on the extreme edge of the city.  When it rains the muddy roads connecting these concrete skeletons to highways turn into moats.  In a way it captures a reality of India:  cutting edge technology and engineering for the individual, banana republic infrastructure for the public.  It was here, and just then, in this upper-class-isolation-post-festival-cooldown moment, that the region’s world renown microbes rammed down the gates of my immune system and sacked my body like barbarians in Rome.  It was bound to happen, planning to make it through a trip to India without getting sick is like planning the Caribbean without sunburn, Russia without vodka, or Brazil without dancing.  The odds are heavily against you.
I was on the cusp of recovery when the producer announced he’d lined up a full day of shooting.  We had a plan!  We were back in motion!  We were out the door on the way to the action when a cowboy cabbie cuts us off and pulls a stunt.  To be fair, he had a beef.  We’d called for car service the night before.  The guy overslept.  So we called a taxi stand 10 minutes down the way.  20 minutes later I was chomping at the bit.  The forces of evil were conspiring to hold me inactive in this compound another day.  I’d already said my long goodbye to the toilet… going back now would be awkward.  “Jump the first cab we see on the street!” I admonished.  So we did, and then the taxi stand guy caught us.  I’m not going to pretend to understand Bengali, but I do know the difference in tonality and gesture between, “Hey sorry we’re late,” and “Get your ass out of this other taxi right now or else.”  The guy started in on me first, finger waving and barking, and then, unsatisfied with a blank sunglass stare, moved onto the producer and his girlfriend in the backseat.  That’s the moment I snapped like Shia Labeoaf.  I don't believe the two native speakers in the back translated my desire to give the guy some quick dental work, but he definitely picked up on my tonality and gestures, not to mention English vulgarities are fairly universally understood.  I got out of the cab.  It was going down and i was ready.  Mounting frustrations had found an outlet.  Our entourages separated us.  It was anti-climatic.  But not two hours later I had my sweaty arms clasped around a man’s knees, springing forward to drive him to the ground.
Fighting another man, mano a mano is always serious business, but when you step into a cage to do it the intensity doubles down.  The X factor, however, was the camera, and my announcement that I was hosting a show.  No intensity level was discussed, but I assumed these variables might soften the hard reality of two men sealed into a dirt pit.  As soon as our arms grasped, I knew I had assumed wrong.  With a twist of the hips I was tossed to the ground.  Hard.  Too upright.  The secret to wrestling is leverage.  You've got to get low.  We returned to the center of the cage.  I squated and then exploded for the man's knees.  I wrapped my arms around his sweaty legs and drove forward.  For a moment I thought I had him.  Then he reached over my back, clasping my underwear in an iron grip, lifted my legs out of the soil, and piledrove me into the dirt. 
This ass-kicking, of which I was mainly on the receiving end, was official.  Cops, community leaders, and my said entourage lined the outside of the cage and squealed with glee as I got flipped, spun, and pushed around like a genetically inferior caveman.  And make no mistake, by the end of a Kushti wrestling match, dressed in a soiled loincloth and caked with mud, you look like you timewarped in from the Paleolithic era.
There is a lot of leverage in a healthy pot belly

Two Kushti wrestlers doing the dirty
Wrestling in India goes beyond sport and into religious devotion.  Practitioners live together, train together,  and follow strict guidelines of diet, duties, and denial of certain worldly pleasures.  You can wallow around with a fellow wrestler in tighty whiteys, but doing so with a female is strictly off limits, inside a cage or out, for your entire career.  When you enter the cage you offer a puja, a prayer, to Hanuman, the monkey god.  Judging from Hanuman's muscular depiction he was probably the king of the throwdown, an asset that no doubt made him the ideal alley in Rama's quest to kill the demon Ravana.
The rules seem similar to freestyle except weight classes be damned.  When I lost to the lightweight, they gave me a middleweight.  When I couldn’t budge the middleweight a heavy decided he’d show me a trick or two.  The experience was the ying to my yang.  After having 3 different guys own me my gas tank was empty and my aggression gone.  Twenty minutes in the mud akhara had cleaned my soul out as efficiently as yesterday’s microbes had flushed my pipes.
I took a rinse off in the river Ganges (which is like sobering up by drinking a beer) and we headed for Chinatown.  The Sino-Indian war almost put an end to this community, but there were still some holdouts, maintaining temples and cooking scrumptious dumplings on the streets.  It was munching a fish filled delectable, eye socket throbbing, when I realized that occasionally an aggressor is a good thing.  The microbe in your stomach or the muddy Indian who’s got you in a headlock gives you a chance to work something out and emerge a new, stronger man.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How to Play the Foreigner Card to Save Bodily Injury from Blunt Weapons

What can you do when a Japanese police officer pulls you over for speeding, when priests catch you in the bell tower of a church in Poland, or a muscle bound Latvian commando wants to smash your teeth in at an underground bar?  You start speaking English!  The he-doesn't-know-what he's doing rational combined with the I-don't-want-to-struggle-through-this-dialogue dread packs a one two punch that'll squeak you out of most jams, or at least lessen the severity of the consequences.  Two days ago, it kept my skull intact.

The Rath Yatra festival in Puri draws up to a million pilgrims from all over India.  The sight of the god Jagannath, emerging once a year from his temple for a ride, brings all the boys to the yard; and the chance to pull his whip puts them into a religious frenzy.  By yanking the 220 ropes attached to the god's chariot, or even touching one, your sins are absolved.  Woot!  Having a questionable balance on my karmic chart made this sound like an attractive deal.  Sashi, the producer of the show we were filming, also thought this a fantastic idea.  I get to the ropes: Good TV!  I get trampled: Also good TV!  So into the human stew I push, squirm, and slide.  4 ropes means 8 sides of possibilities, right?  Not so fast.  One side of each rope is patrolled by cops, their special guests, and cheeky Indians who think a grab of the ropes is worth a crack from a baton.. and cracked they got. 
The chariot stopped for a moment, and, unbeknown to me, the line when slack with a slight curvature in it.  I pressed forward.. 5 feet of flesh to the rope, 50 feet of bodies behind me leaning their weight into reaching the prize.  Then horns blew, the crowd let out a roar, and the ropes began to tighten.  Our nook in the curve became a trap.  The thick twine clotheslines the first row of devotees and sent the second row back like stones in a slingshot.. I saw a gap and leapt.  If there was any point to the little amount of jump-roping I've done in my life this was it.  The line snapped like a bowstring under my feet and I came down to the pavement on the other side.  What a difference this other side.  One minute I felt like a man in a mosh pit, the next thing you know it was as spacious as St. Peters in low season.  What was a quest is now a cakewalk.  Turning around I grabbed the rope easily.  A handful of other guys made it under or over.  They now put their hands alongside mine.  We looked at each other with the camaraderie of accomplishment glimmering in our eyes.  We did it.  Then the cops came.  The sound of rattan hitting someone's back made me turn.  A tall wiry man in a khaki uniform had a baton lifted above my head, ready to drive its weight down onto my sorry ass.  I let go of the rope and shot my hands up.  "Wait!  Stop!," I barked with authority, and then quickly tacked on a whoopsy shrug and a dopey smile.  He froze.  Then, coming to a decision with the stick still raised, gave a get-outta-here jerk of his head, and brought the baton down with fierce precision... onto the guy next to me.  Whack!