Delhi via Moscow: Dispatch 2 — BJJ on Jail Road 

William Echols

The heat hits you like an open oven on Thanksgiving Day. Sometimes we throw out metaphors to be poetic. But sometimes, the visceral sensation is so similar, that a metaphor is all there is to explain how it all went down. A forty degree May day in New Delhi, before the monsoon season brings in death by sauna, takes me back to a beachside Holiday Inn kitchen where I cut my first honest paycheck as a dishwasher. But in Delhi it’s the heat that washes over you. Clearly, nearly a decade in Russia has left Yakov Smirnov jokes firmly entrenched in my mind, even if I hated ‘in Russia’ reversal jokes at the time.

A transparent belly dancer aligning her hips with the horizon, a tandoori oven sun opens its mouth and spits fire at you through a haze of dust.

I march on down the wide, tree-canopied lanes of bungalo-dotted ‘New’ New Delhi, until I push on down the staircase for the Barakamba Road subway station, the ‘half-hearted’ sirs of the shoe shine boys, still groggy with streetside sleep, echoing in antiphony with my footsteps.

Thirteen stops, 12 of which are above ground, give me a panoramic view of the center to west perspective on the Delhi cityscape.  The whole thing rushes by like a two-dimensional cardboard box claymation rendition of a town on a television from my youth. Pot-bellied men and women in technicolor saree meet the morning on their terraces, big and small. My heavy eyes feel as dust-filled as the sky. Out of shape drinkers and sometime smokers should never wake up at 6:00 a.m. to do Ju Jitsu on Jail Road.

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In Delhi I try to avert a thousand glaring eyes. In  Moscow I tried to navigate a sea of aggression. And getting back into martial arts after half of my own lifetime had passed me by, I realized one thing very quickly. Moscow, with all of its anger, might have hardened my heart, but it had not hardened my body. Luckily for me, on those days when my attitude had soured enough for me to confuse the former for the latter, I did not have the learn the difference in an uncontrolled environment. The first time an Amerikana screamed fire ant spit through my rickety elbow and arthritic shoulder, I became eternally grateful that happened in a situation where it could all end with a tap.

When my infinitely chill instructor Lakshye, who seemed just as intent on teaching us boxing as he did jiu jitsu, showed us how much more power he could generate using proper technique with his hips by merely planting his quarter-wide knuckle into my chest and pushing off, I winced, and battled not to flench when he opted to do it again. But I also asked myself what would happen if a dude like him started throwing mechanically correct elliptical hammers at my face. And it reminded me of lessons I had learned as a barely mediocre high school wrestler, and yet somehow forgotten. If you go too long without being humbled, while a million stressors, passive aggressive slights, and overt aggressions big and small buffet your psychological defenses like the Kuiper Belt teeing off on Jupiter, your anger can make you delusional. You can become so accustomed to being pissed off that you develop a certain fearlessness, if not for actual combat, than the pageantry of combat that often fizzles out (though, as a litany of YouTube knockout videos demonstrates, sometimes does not.)

Back in high school, there was an incredibly affable and good natured guy on my wrestling team named Mike Snelgrove, who represented , for a lack of better words, the ‘you can’t do shit’ principle. The you can’t do shit principle is what happens when a person you are up against is not only more skilled at every aspect of the fight game, but may also be larger, faster, stronger, tougher and a creature of greater will.

Mike wasn’t the only person on our team who could thrash me, but he perfectly embodied the you can’t do shit principle. He wrestled two weight classes above me, was incredibly strong and compact, highly aggressive on the mat, more skilled, more athletic, more everything. The only reason I even got thrown to the varsity wolves was because our vastly superior 145-er blew out his knee during a freak accident while wrestling Mike at practice. I remember once during a match at Coco High School in Brevard Country Florida, Mike charged this kid like a bull out of the gate, threw technique to the wind and sent his adversary airborne in seconds — bottle rocket-style. It was shock and awe; an overwhelming and irresistible display of force. Every wrestler on both sides of the matt pitied that kid. We were also all secretly relieved that Mike would only issue one execution for that night, and that it wouldn’t be us.

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But there is something more to it than that. There is a Mike Snelgrove in every wrestling room in every high school in the United States. When the Mikes of the world separated the wheat from the chaff, they make it to regionals, then state, then the nationals. The best of them go on to do the same thing in a tiered-university system based on school size. And the procession of elimination continues to both expand and whittle down until unfathomably hard men, men of iron sharpened by iron for decades, clench Olympic gold.

I don’t know what Mike’s maximum potential was. He went to regionals, that I remember, and I have an inkling he went to state but didn’t place, though my memory fails me on that point. But he never went on to wrestle in university. He instead became an Army medic, served in Iraq and tragically died in 2010 shortly after returning stateside. Mike was a good man, he was never a bully and he never, ever preyed on the weak. Even when I was an awkward and overweight 13-year-old transplant  to Florida who could not have cut a sharper contrast to Mike than I did before running and wrestling transformed me a few years down the line, he cracked jokes with me and granted a level of respect that few did at the time. He was that way to everyone, it was his nature. But there was also a savagery in him, and not in the typical sense that he was specifically violent towards other men. There are just some men who come across a bluff and put their nose to the grindstone until they manage to move mountains or die trying. It just so happens that some mountains come in the shape of other men.

There are men like that everywhere, and we often cannot tell it just by looking at them. Sometimes telltale signs of cauliflower ear, crooked noses and scared faces give it away, but not always. There are some beautiful men out there who can fuck you up.

For me and many others, there is something about actually training in combat sports that makes you far less aggressive in your everyday life. You become acutely aware of the you can’t do shit principle and it sticks with you. Delusional teenagers and delusional men can fantasize about throwing haymakers at any opponent and knocking his ass out cold. Some secretly believe they could pull it off on pro-fighters. Madness, pure and utter madness. But during my second lesson, when a guy who was slightly bigger than me completely manhandled me, purely with technique, I had no room to imagine what I could have, would have done. I’d done everything I could and it wasn’t enough. He had free reign to impose his will on me any time he wanted. He also wasn’t a master. He’d been rolling for 6 months. Six months gave him that advantage over me, at least on the ground.

Imagine someone who’s been doing it for 6 years. And a lot of men have done it a lot longer than that. I’m not even talking about those who become professional fighters.

You have no idea how helpless another man can make you feel until they force you to play a game where you scantly know the rules. That knowledge is humbling. It’s also ironic. The better I become at defending myself, the less I want to have anything to do with any type of physical altercation, no matter the reason. There are too many variables to manage, too many consequences, and a logical unwillingness to find yourself in a situation where a tap is not going to forestall a snap. Better to just let whatever is troubling you go and save it for when you really don’t have a choice. Funny how the 17-year-old version of my self that had never stepped foot on a Moscow street could have told me that. Funny how we can find a way to keep learning the same lessons over and over.

My friend Charles once saw a guy take a ‘non-lethal’ pistol shot to the face after an altercation over nothing on the Moscow metro. He got off at the next stop. The pool of blood and the man face down in it created an interesting semantic argument about the meaning of the word lethal. Charles was cured of his Moscow commuter aggression. He keeps it where it belongs; the London tube. Sometimes it takes an extreme act of violence to cure a man of his delusions regarding the consequences of his anger. Sometimes all it takes is BJJ on Jail Road.

Delhi via Moscow: Dispatch 1

William Echols

Delhi will give no quarter. That’s not how it works. Perhaps somewhere off in walled-off compounds, the cacophonous hustle, bustle, blaring babble and bluster of humanity is beaten down to ambient noise — assimilated into the droning hum of air-conditioned palaces. I live in the wide-landed tree canopied streets of central Delhi; I can almost imagine what that would be like —peace. Sometimes the sing-song chatter of the orange-faced, black-masked mynahs is the most noise I contend with.

Sometimes it’s pigeons scrapping claws across stacks of air conditioners in the throes of dead, read-eyed passion. Sometimes it’s the suicidal washing machine filled-with-rocks sound of my upstairs neighbor’s air-conditioner unit that beats back the birds and traffic like a John Deere racing a short track on a gravel lot.

A bus hurdles down nearby Barakhamba Road; engine roar seemingly red-shifting forever until auto rickshaw bleats punch holes in the rumble. The leaves continue to rustle soundlessly through glass. The palms stand at attention. The partially eclipsed gulmohar paints an orange aura of flame around the evergreen leaves. A wire dangles overhead.

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The first time I came to India, I realized the volume on life was just turned up. It is one of the few places on earth that makes Moscow feel relatively empty and easy. I remember walking those tritone streets in the dead of winter upon my return; metallic-silver skies with white snow screens hanging between achromatic gray soviet tower blocks. The sidewalks were wide, the people sparse, though they still manage to bump into you in that Russian way (or ride your soles despite you being the only other soul on the street; least a strangers internal burden not find an external resting place.) But then that angry spirit pushes off beyond a snow drift, his footsteps muted by packed-powder and swallowed by the wind.

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Courtesy: Tanya Dikareva

India forces upon you a kaleidoscope view of the world, through some of the pebbles filling space between the light-reflecting mirrors end up being desiccated shit. Okay, a lot of them in fact. Though in these parts, sometimes that which appears to be diarrhea sprays of shit, like the stained colonnade corners of Connaught Place, are in fact sunbaked streaks from passerby paan spitters. spitting_paan-spit-and-sleeping-dogs_flickr-artist-in-doing-nothing That description might not bode well for the gift shop spiritualists who imbue the brown-skinned extras in their poverty porn with some superfluous form of hyper-humanity. Yes Jessica, you are the dog whisperer, and they are your anthropomorphized pets. Just eat pray love honey, eat…pray…and love.

No, northern India is a place of anger, quirk and dirt. At times there is mockery in their smiles — they are not always laughing with you. The open wound of partition pumps through Punjabi blood, which, like paan spit, features heavily in the Delhi palette. But yes, there is love too. In all places there is love.

Forget about pony-tailed narcissists karate chopping their way to the heart of India à la Shantaram. Love was neither created not perfected here. Religion is often reduced to the same type of brow-beating, rain-made genie lamp rubbing superstition that you would scoff at if it came from a Christian grandma in a minivan. But deep down, it’s the same old shit. In India, as everywhere else, the one true religion of the poor is hustling. The one true virtue: pragmatism. Luckily for the guru industry, goras buy snake oil in bulk. guru-630x354——————

I used to say that Moscow took a lot from me, but it gave me a lot back in return. But there is something I’ve noticed that, in the physical reality of India, differentiates itself from Russia. In Russia I was able to compartmentalize my beauty; to keep my red, yellow and blue from turning into an infinitely less appealing composite tone. As of yet, India keeps taking me on a tawny turn and forces me to pick my diamonds from among the muck. The is no shrine free from the waft of latrine or pungent particulates puffing your eyes fuck-pigeon red. Delhi always demands its pound of flesh and starts cutting before the meal is over (and sometimes before the meal begins.) majid22 After years in Moscow, I often said I was living in a city of ghosts. They were my ghosts, from my own life. I had spent enough time there to have street corners turn into beacons of hiraeth; empty nooses of nostalgia waiting to catch my neck. I began to feel like I was an ash tree in a cemetery, tree fingers casting shade on steles and pushing roots beyond bodies. But in Delhi I feel like a water lily on black water, floating on the surface of something opaque and impermeable. It could be sewage, it could be sacrosanct, it could be both.

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The high, ceilinged, modern and massive office space feel of the Barakhamba Road metro station gave me a false sense of security. It was mostly empty.  Maybe that the crush of humanity above me had not yet taken to the trains and tunnels I thought. Three stops later and hands pulled me into a rugby scrum pack as we clashed head on with the testudo formation trying to break out lines and push onto the train. I wanted to tell them there was a better way, but then my head phones got ripped out of my ears and as i turned around, a woman offered a smile to complement her elbows in my kidneys. Never turn around in a stampede.

From that point on the inertia takes you over and you just ride the wave onto the escalator. Then the eyes find you, and they never let you go. You are ejected into the open sewage smell of the ‘moonlight market’ in Old Delhi, where a few neo-colonial buildings are mostly overshadowed by the crumbling cardboard box feel of not-so-high rises being quartered by a massive tangle of cross cutting wires. One giant hand on that mass of cable could make the whole thing rise or fall depending on the decision to push or pull. A hand just like that had found its way to neighboring Nepal. majid20 The Red Fort frames the street in the 40 degree head-hazy distance. The street food, stray dogs, rickshaw drivers, shoppers, walkers, errant tandoori-baked tourists; dust clouds, ammonia stench, soot, exhaust and wet shits, mosquito-coil cancer, camphor, and incense burn a miasmic dust cloud swirl in a Mughal urn.

So you dive into the swirling dust like Pig-pen being mauled by the Tasmanian Devil, make a b-line through a sea of makeshift stalls, and find yourself in the splendor of the Jama Masjid, where beggars line stair cases ascending to the northern gate.

The candy cane minarets of red sandstone, white marble and perfect gumdrop domes are glorified by the blue sky. The over head eagle swarm is awe-inspiring. The legion eyes swarming on you, less so. The massive stone courtyard sucks up the sun and cooks your feet for those stupid (or tough) enough to ignore the trail of cloth snaking its way around the complex. I plead stupidity. While walking back through the madness on sole-burned feet, i caught a glimpse of what Delhi will likely be to me during this strange intermission in my life. majid4 In Moscow, my relationships formed around the principle of the sculpture hall of the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum; many of the figures were only plaster replicas of the real thing, while a small, small number were genuine works of beauty cut from sturdier stuff.

At the very least, all of them had form in the sense that I understand form. Reach out and touch it. Sometimes the plastic arts chose the medium of stone. But on the dilapidated backstreets of a dead dynasty’s heart, the sculptures were crushed to dust and scattered like ashes. Rather, the occasional glints of sapphire, emerald and amber eyes, alabaster smiles, and betel-juice grins were all varied pieces of stone and glass flung my way; tesserae to paint a picture of human connection in a sea of chaos.

The figures do not stand, this mosaic is fleeting by design; you can never call on the same configuration again. Moscow is going to take some processing, even if it did feel like a cemetery at times. The thing about cemeteries though, is there may be death in the soil, but there is life above ground. The sun shines overhead, birds perch on tombstones, and the living walk among the dead. If I had once been an ash tree in a Moscow cemetery, it wasn’t always the ghosts rustling me leaves. No, sometimes it was two pigeons fucking. 3343323072_29270b3691_b