I have been listening to a fascinating podcast called “the military history podcast.” I am not a military buff but this one is interesting because it links military things and objects to other aspects of life.
Given the civilised, urban environments that most of us live in, you would think that martial arts would be redundant. After all, it is not as if we walk on the streets deflecting attacks everyday. And yet, the world is obsessed with martial arts. They are thriving, with new ones being created every year. The latest craze in India is krav maga, created for the Israeli defence forces. Krav maga uses everything available at hand, including vessels, nails, sticks and the odd piece of furniture, for self-defence. It is stunning to watch.
Like most people, I lie back on the couch and watch martial arts movies. The irony is not lost on me. There I am, feasting on potato chips, watching nimble, lithe men run up walls, somersault and punch their way out of trouble. It is as if the intensity of their activities balances out the horizontal reality of my inactivity.
I prefer watching martial arts movies to fashion shows. Somehow, the heroes of martial arts seem accessible – unlike the long-limbed supermodels, with their sunken cheeks and sultry eyes. One is genetic; the other is skill, which can be learnt. Or so I’d like to think.
When watching Jackie Chan, I can almost deceive myself into believing that, with enough practice, I can be like him. Of course, that is not true, as my frequent yet chastening encounters with martial arts prove.
On a trip to Japan, I enrolled in martial arts classes. Aikido is impossibly elegant. In Kyoto, there is a sensei named Yoko Okamoto who does amazing things. She throws around men who are twice her size; whirls and twirls her way through multiple incoming attackers and emerges successful. I became interested in aikido because it seemed to offer the benefits of exercise and meditation. It had the grace of dance and the added benefit of self-preservation.
Aikido is suited to women because it involves taking the force and momentum of the attacker and turning it back on them. It is not like samurai wrestling, where you have to lift a 90-kilogram man over your head and throw him on the ground. It is not even like boxing, where you use your muscular strength to punch your opponent senseless. It doesn’t require tools like sticks and swords. All aikido requires is a nimble body and a centred mind.
Most martial arts classes begin with stretches, and so did mine. It was the tumbling that was difficult. Although you may think that a martial art is about fighting, it also is about falling – or, rather, learning to take a fall. As I tumbled and fell, I realised several things: how unfit I was, that falling is difficult and that falling without getting hurt is almost impossible.
It was galling when the instructor said: “Enjoy the pain.” I felt like slapping him. He must’ve read my thoughts in my murderous eyes because he said, “Go on; do it.” I rose to punch him only to find myself whirled into a somersault and flat on the floor: a cushioned floor, thank goodness.
As someone who is mildly obsessed with martial arts, I spent my free hours watching practitioners of parkour, aikido, judo, krav maga and other forms. Although most people associate the martial arts with Asia, the etymology of the word hints at its European origins. Martial arts come from Mars, the God of war in Greek mythology. Europeans quickly devised instruments like swords and shields that would help them attack. Asians, on the other hand, became masters at close-range combat and using the pressure points of the body to maim and kill.
I don’t maim and kill. I’d like to think that it is because I don’t have the killer instinct, but that’s not really true. Most martial arts are not about killing. Aikido, for example has the lofty, compassionate goal of self-protection without injuring the attacker. One master said that the goal was to make your attacker your friend. But, I asked, what if you wanted to attack your friends? His shining, wise eyes looked puzzled. “I have never encountered this question,” he replied.
I love the philosophies of the martial arts. This is good because it is likely that I will never be a good martial artist. I can fake the moves all right, but when it comes right down to it, the thing that I’m best at is one I practice every day: lie down on the couch after dinner, pop open some popcorn, and flip on an Asian martial arts movie.
Shoba Narayan is the author of -Return to India: a Memoir