Tuesday, December 22, 2015

China Daily - a fragment

For some reason I was digging through my folder of unfinished novels, and I ran across this fragment. In the end, I lost faith in this project. It seemed fake to me, a book that a Chinese person should be writing. I'm not sure if that's valid but I can say I have not read any such books, except for Sid Smith's Something Like a House, which I reviewed for FEER (and saved for posterity here).

Anyway, a few more chapters survive. The book was to be a picaresque comedy about the Beijing Posts and Telecommunications Boxing Team, based on the experience of a couple friends I knew when I lived in Beijing. Somehow it was going to end with the Tiananmen Square incident.  There was really a guy named "Patriot Zhang," though he was not a boxer.

Here goes:

VI. Train

The constant travel – “This moving train car of a prison” the team called it – was the worst part of being a Post. Zhang hated the anise-flavored watermelon seeds everyone ate and spat on the floor. He hated the smell of instant noodles, or, to be precise, the smell of the plastic sachets of congealed fat impregnated with flavoring that came with instant noodles. He disliked chatting. He loathed playing cards. He despised track-side scenery, all foundries and fallow fields with plastic bags hanging in the weeds. Worst of all, he could never sleep. The 18 hour return trip to Beijing from Shenyang—to which they had flown from Seoul on a rattling China Northern Airlines plane—promised to be terrible, as usual. Coach Wu was in a bad humor because he felt Gao and Fat Liu had humiliated the nation, and there was no sign the idiotic penis remarks were going to cease. Even Chen had joined in.
Long-distance trains offered three kinds of berths, which for political reasons were not named first, second and third class but soft sleeper, hard sleeper and hard seat. Only cadres and foreigners booked the 4-berth soft sleeper compartments, which were as expensive as flying. Businessmen, schoolteachers, state factory workers, soldiers, criminals, and what Zhang took for wretched unwashed Russians but in fact were European adventurers all took hard sleeper, where each had a cramped bunk to himself and shared a small table, a small thermos of hot water and a small window with five other passengers. Hard seat was reserved for peasants and professional athletes.
At the station in Shenyang, peasants outfoxed athletes horde: 0, leaving Fat Liu crammed next to the toilet, which had a broken door that wouldn’t close, and the rest of them to carve out territory from the aisle amid the farmers’ tremendous carryalls. Never mind the seat assignments: the attendants were good for nothing but collecting tickets and fining those who overslept their intended destinations, and even if the staff had been more competent, when it came to territory nobody could prevent a farmer from winning a war of gradual attrition. They consumed prodigious amounts of peanuts, watermelon seeds and diesel-scented liquor, the internal combustion of which resulted in poisonous farts. They opened their mouths fist-wide to pry out uneaten and unsavory scraps of pork, even teeth of the deepest black, and carelessly wiped it (the pork) on the seatbacks or flicked them (teeth) across the compartment with a forefinger. They blew their noses on the window curtains or, if those were too crisp, in their hands. And if you still didn’t yield, a farmer would fall into a deep, snoring, drunken sleep, a silk thread of drool spooling endlessly from his cavernous maw onto you, his mattress.
As soon as the attendant checked Zhang’s ticket, exchanging it for a metal chit with his seat number, Zhang retreated to the dining car, where he planned to bribe the supervisor with his 25 yuan bonus to let him stay the night through. In the dining car the first and second class passengers were thrown together at mealtimes (the third class brought its own food), but it was now empty except for two or three smokers in sharp, foreign-made suits. The kitchen staff busily set to work preparing box lunches for the trolleys, and the supervisor, a man with a mole on his cheek, counted the change in the cash box.
Zhang took a place in the far back, behind a table of idle waitresses, where he hoped the supervisor would ignore him. No one seemed to pay any attention until a businessman of middle age entered, glanced around the car and made straight for him. Zhang decided that the man must also have wanted to avoid the supervisor, because his eyes widened with surprise and then narrowed in annoyance when he found Zhang camped in the bribe-avoidance booth. Judging from the quality of his shoes and glasses, the man was Overseas Chinese. He nodded and sat down at the table next to Zhang, where he would be judged and sentenced by the supervisor in an instant.
Sure enough, the supervisor sent a waitress on recognizance. Zhang had hoped to secure a half-finished plate to pick at and thereby hold his money until nightfall, when the dining car closed and it would be necessary to bribe the supervisor to stay on. Now he would be forced to order something or go back to the hell of the hard seat carriage. Zhang was busy contemplating the cheapest item on the menu when the businessman demanded the woman’s attention: “Miss, I want to order food.”
“Wait your turn,” said the waitress. “This sportsman was here first.”
Zhang made a self-deprecating gesture.
I am inviting him to join me,” the man said in what Zhang decided was a Taiwanese accent. He moved over next to Zhang and proceeded to order sliced pork and scallions, fish-flavored eggplant, stir-fried spinach with garlic – here he paused to ask Zhang whether he liked century eggs and found he did – and a plate of century eggs, very black and very bitter. “And bring us two bowls of rice,” he said. “You eat rice?”
Zhang, who did not have to make weight for several weeks, nodded. When the waitress had gone, he thanked the man and introduced himself.
“Mao Chen,” the Overseas Chinese said, proffering his business card. “But you can call me M.C. You speak English, right? Good. English is the global language.” He spoke in Chinese, except for those aggravating initials. “I live in France, so I speak English with a French-Chinese accent and French with a Chinese accent. Have you changed your ticket? Yes? Do you think they’ll check tickets in here? I haven’t changed mine and I’ve left my passport with my luggage.”
Zhang was even more convinced that M.C. was Taiwanese by the way he aped foreign manners and bossed people around.
They have to come back through here when they finish with third class,” Zhang said. “But I doubt they’ll check our tickets. They’re assigned by carriage.” After each stop, the conductors collected passengers’ tickets, checked their passports and gave them a metal chit with their seat assignment on it. They kept the tickets from each carriage in a wallet, so they knew where everyone aboard was meant to get off, and before each stop, they came around and took the chits back and returned the tickets. One had to produce a ticket at the station to be allowed off the platform. The system had practically eliminated fare dodgers, except for during Spring Festival, when the crowd simply mobbed the attendants and scrambled over the turnstyles.
M.C. asked to see Zhang’s chit, and when he had inspected it put it down on his side of the table, next to his chopsticks, rather than handing it back. Zhang meant to ask him for it right away, but M.C. began to tell him a story about the first time he had seen the Eiffel Tower and it seemed impolite and paranoid to interrupt. Then the dishes began to arrive, century eggs first, and M.C. ordered them each a bottle of beer. Zhang decided all he need do was be sure to remember the chit when they finished and M.C. headed back to his berth.
They were snacking on the final dish when the door leading to the hard seat carriages opened and the attendants passed through to return to their between-car posts. M.C. began to move the metal chit back and forth like an indecisive chess player and finally left it uncovered on the edge of the table next to him just as the attendants passed. So, that was what M.C. had been after, Zhang concluded, but then reflected that M.C. had gone to an awful lot of trouble to avoid spending a thirty-yuan on a third-class ticket, and bought a sixty-yuan meal in the process. And, even if he had managed to get aboard without a ticket in Shenyang and somehow was able to avoid the conductors for the rest of the trip, he would have to produce a ticket in Beijing to get out of the station. Maybe M.C. did have a ticket, but had forgotten his passport at his berth and was too lazy to go back for it, Zhang decided. In any case, he didn’t like to be used, especially by a Taiwanese know-it-all.
With a beery, self-satisfied look, M.C. began to expound the benefits of living abroad. The overseas Chinese, who were all trying to be Americans from tiny satellite dictatorships, were worse about this than ordinary foreigners, who all had delusional fantasies about submissive women, kung fu and traditional medicine.
You might not live any better, measured by material standards, but you have a feeling of freedom, that you can do whatever you want and nobody will pay attention,” M.C. said. “You don’t have bribe your boss or treat him to dinner to get cleared to change jobs. Nobody but criminals has a personal file. The police pay no attention to the old ladies of the neighborhood watch.”
Zhang, who had heard that feeling of freedom nonsense before, poured the last of his beer into the glass and waved at the waitress to bring another one. He gave a noncommittal grunt.
M.C. changed tact. “Patriot,” he said. “An interesting name.”
I was born in ’70,” Zhang said. “Ten years earlier and I’d have been ‘Steel.’” Just about every man born during the infamous backyard furnace effort to support the Great Leap Forward was named Steel, Iron or Metal, just as those who, like Zhang, were born during the Cultural Revolution, were called Patriot, Hero, Lei Feng, Rocket and Space Conqueror.
But you do love the motherland, don’t you?” M.C. said slyly. “As an athletic hero of the state and so on?”
We must help the country to stride forward boldly into modernization,” Zhang said, mustering up a winning grin. “It’s our job to promote international friendship and cultural exchange and to provide an example for the world of China’s development.”
M.C. looked at him closely, but apparently could make nothing of his expression, for he didn’t pursue that line of questioning any longer. Instead, he rambled for a bit about the boundless varieties of pornography available in Western countries. When he finally rose to leave, he tried to take the metal chit with him, pretending to scoop it up without thinking.
Zhang grabbed his wrist. “That’s mine,” he said. “I need it to show the attendant and get back my ticket when we arrive in Beijing. You’ll have to change your ticket with the person in charge of your compartment.”
As M.C. apologized, Zhang again wondered what he was up to. Maybe he didn’t have a ticket, and hoped to exchange the chit for Zhang’s before they got to Beijing. His suit would certainly stand out in hard seat. Every farmer in the car would notice.
I’m terribly sorry,” M.C. replied. He lay the chit on the table, and Zhang released his wrist. “They might have thrown you off the train! Please, why don’t you take my ticket, and I’ll take your place.” M.C. produced a soft sleeper ticket and held it out. His face was red from the beer. He mopped his forehead with a crumpled napkin. “Please,” he said.
Done,” said Zhang, capitalizing on the idiot’s embarrassment without hesitation.
It’s a lower berth. Cantonese newlyweds above, whispering and giggling. I consider myself lucky.”
Have you seen the hard seat carriage?” asked Zhang, rising from the table. “I recommend you stay right here.”
He went directly to M.C.’s soft-sleeper compartment, where he was pleased to note another example of the man’s stupidity. The couple who shared the chamber were not newlyweds at all. One was a Hong Kong businessman and the other his mainland mistress. They were both crammed into the same overheard berth with the blanket tucked up their chins so all Zhang could see of them was their faces. The businessman blinked at Zhang with the confused eyes of someone who has just taken off his glasses. The girl giggled.
Zhang sat down on the bunk underneath theirs, where at least they wouldn’t be staring at each other, and took out the tattered China Daily, now eleven days old, that he was in the process of decoding. He was a few paragraphs into an article about the propaganda ministry’s policy on bad news. The girl above him immediately began to whisper.
You don’t love me…. No, you don’t. If you loved me you’d want me to be happy….. You’d want me to have an apartment, like my sister’s boyfriend bought her.”
Zhang tried to ignore her wheedling and concentrate on the newspaper article. The Ministry of Propaganda had announced a call for more bad news. Apparently they’d determined that all the rosy reports were making people skeptical. That was certainly true, but Zhang didn’t understand what effect they imagined for the more bad news announcement.
I hate you. You never do anything for me. You left me sitting in that room all day. Of course I was talking to the security guard. Nobody else paid any attention to me. No, he’ll hear us. Stop, I don’t like it that way” --
The door opened, startling the lovers. A foot thumped against the compartment wall. The attendant brought in a fourth passenger. He looked like a small-time criminal or a plainclothes agent of the Ministry of State Security. He glanced across at Zhang, sat down on the opposite bunk, and began watching the newlyweds as though they were television.
I haven’t exchanged my ticket,” Zhang told the attendant. He gave it to her and showed her his temporary passport and his identity card.
Beijing?” She took a metal chit marked 20B from a leather case and put the ticket in its place. She gave the chit to Zhang and repeated the process with the new man. When she’d given him his chit, she replaced the hot water thermos with a full one from the corridor and banged out.
The thug or secret agent now directed his crocodilian assessment at Zhang, who again tried to focus on his newspaper.
You an athlete?” he inevitably asked.
Right. I’m a boxer.”
What team?”
Beijing Posts and Telecommunications.”
American boxing?” He emphasized American as though he were accusing Zhang of treason.
Zhang folded the paper. “Olympic boxing.”
Of course. You mind taking a photo with me? For my kid.” The man gestured at a cheap instamatic camera.
Zhang moved over next to the thug, who gave the camera to the businessman’s mistress. She held it in one hand and kept the covers pulled up to her chin with the other.
My son will love this,” the man explained dully. “Are you famous?”
Zhang grinned crazily, winked and, secretly hoping it was some unknown obscenity, gave the thumbs up signal he’d learned from the giant. The camera flashed.
No, I’m just a boxer on a municipal industry team. Nobody’s heard of me.”
I see. Anyway, an athlete has a good life, right? Traveling all over the country in soft-sleeper berths, chatting up wide-eyed girls and leaving a trail of broken hearts. Your name in boldface in China Sport.”
Had he been sober, Zhang would have agreed or perhaps even more likely, responded with the ubiquitous national grunt that could mean everything from “You said it” or “Do go on” to “Not exactly” or “Stop talking shit.” But he was drunk, so he told the truth. “Maybe ten years ago it was like that, though I doubt it. In any case, it’s not at all like that now. In an Olympic year everybody gets a little bit excited over you, as long as you don’t explain just how unlikely it is that you’ll make it from the municipal level up to the national team. You might chat a girl up through a dormitory window or in a hotel elevator sometime, but there isn’t much you can do about it, with the coach, political educator, the informant monitoring your every step. As for traveling all over the country! Touring the motherland’s third-class hotels and collapsing gymnasiums, more like. Prisoners of the train. It’s like…it’s like Spring Festival week every month, crammed in hard seat. Only no noodles, no beer and no peanuts, with the weigh-in to look forward to. This was the first time they let us out of the country”--
He stopped. He realized that he was leaning forward from the edge of the bunk, his fists clenched at his sides. He hadn’t exactly shouted, but he had definitely raised his voice, an observation he made with some dismay as he watched the man’s sly smile widen with a slight twitch of his lips.
So life as one of our nation’s sportsmen doesn’t suit you?”
No,” Zhang emended. “It’s not that it doesn’t suit me. I—er—I—ahem—I’m just a little frustrated with the slow progress we’re making in our march toward modernization.”
The man leaned back against the wall of the compartment so that his face obscured by the shadow of the bunk above him. He faced the window and looked at Zhang askance. “So your criticisms of the state are motivated by boisterous nationalism,” he said.
That’s probably true,” Zhang stammered. “Only I hadn’t meant to criticize the state. I was just talking nonsense.” He could feel sweat trickling down his back between his shoulder blades—that cold sweat again. He was now certain he was dealing with an agent of the MSS.
The secret policeman watched him. In the berth above, the businessman and his mistress shifted positions restlessly, now and then thumping the wall with an elbow or heel. They no longer whispered. Zhang opened his wilted newspaper again and tried to read it, but found himself instead studying the page, wondering if the agent was still watching him and fighting the urge to look up and see. He read the same paragraph over and over again. Readership is down for many newspapers, including the China Petroleum News, the Communist Youth Daily, Chemistry with Chinese Characteristics and others, the Ministry of Propaganda announced today. Only the People’s Daily remains unaffected, retaining a circulation of 6.3 million dedicated readers.
After some time, the woman began to whisper again, wheedling about her sister’s apartment. Southerners are fearless, Zhang thought, remembering the old saying, “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”
You studying English?” the MSS agent said finally. He indicated Zhang’s China Daily. “Planning to go overseas?”
For personal development,” said Zhang.
Again silence. Then: “What made you decide to take up American boxing?”
Sorry?” Zhang said, pretending not to have heard.
Chinese kung fu not good enough? So you went in for boxing?”
It’s not American boxing. It’s Olympic boxing. Anyway, I didn’t have much choice in the matter. I was at the Beijing Sports Middle School to be a hurdler – this was in ’86 – and the coach told me I wasn’t going to be taken up to the senior league.”
If you’re traveling with the team, and the rest of them are in hard seat, what are you doing in a luxury berth?”
It occurred to Zhang that the agent was looking for M.C. That would explain why he had been so anxious to swap his soft-sleeper ticket for Zhang’s place in hard seat, an act that Zhang had stupidly dismissed as mad. For an instant, he thought of saying he found the ticket left behind in the dining car, but then he considered that the agent’s next step would be to speak to the staff there, who were certain to remember his idiotic Big Red Machine tracksuit.
I swapped seats with a stupid overseas Chinese in the dining car,” he said. “He was embarrassed that he almost took my seat number by mistake and wanted to save face, I suppose. I went along. Losing face is one thing, but the hard seat carriage….” He grimaced. There was no reason to repeat M.C.’s ramblings about the feeling of freedom one has living outside China or his leading questions about his patriotism.
The agent produced a flimsy badge – not unlike the pathetic tie-pin Zhang had been given by the American military officer – and demanded to see his identity card. He noted his name and address. When he asked the couple in the upper berth for their identification, the Hong Kong business man had to reach across to the opposite bunk for his pants, and the blanket fell away to reveal that his mistress was topless.
The train was held up at the next station for M.C. to be taken off by the secret policeman. Zhang watched through the carriage window as he was led off, his wrists cuffed behind his back, by two ignorant People’s Liberation Army soldiers. The secret policeman walked behind and glanced back toward the train every few paces. When he caught sight of Zhang, he boxed the air for a moment, grinning. Despite the comfortable berth, Zhang did not sleep more than a restless hour or two for the rest of the way to Beijing.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The many meanings of horns

The Many Meanings of Horns

Stay in your lane! Coming through. Oh, baby! Fuck off. 18! And I know what I want. It is okay for me to drive on the wrong side because I am going to the temple. Watch out! I am a human being. Asshole! Don't pull out. Side! Don't you dare. This motorcycle is blessed with magical powers protecting its rider from death by DTC bus. Old man on a Chetak! Hot girl, I compel you to look at me. Jackass! Sorry. Can't you see I have a my pregnant wife-a baby-my elderly mother-my elderly father-my elderly grandmother-my elderly grandfather-all my elderly and/or infantile relatives in my care/on my Chetak scooter? Not sorry, Motherfucker. I ran over seven people just like you last night. Vive la Revolution! I'll kill you, bastard. Chutiya. I don't care if you are going to temple! I will only be driving on the wrong side for a few seconds. I am turning right from the far left lane. Bhenchod. I want to go straight but I am in the turn lane. Ambulance! NSUI rules! I am the driver of a very important person who is going to a very important meeting the significance of which will forever elude me but I do not want to get fired. BJP rules! Why do nice girls hate me? Don't stop in the middle of the road! I am letting out my pregnant wife-a baby-my elderly mother-my elderly father-my elderly grandmother-my elderly grandfather-all my elderly and/or infantile relatives, asshole. I hate Dinesh Mohan. Hot girl, you are even hotter because you are riding a pink Scooty. FUUUCKKKKK! I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore. Are you trying to kill me? Hot girl, you are crushing my soul. I hate Sheila Dikshit. Legless man, you are going to get yourself killed if you don't gimp out of the intersection before the light turns green. Legless man, I feel your pain but I have no change. Legless man, I am not convinced you did not cut off your own legs to ensure a long and prosperous life as a legless beggar. Congress rules! That tin pot with a little oil in the bottom is not helping to convince me! I am pulling over to get some of that pink stuff the Sikhs are giving away because it is free and it is my god-given right to break all traffic laws to get free stuff. I hate Narendra Modi. DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT. I WILL NOT ONLY THINK ABOUT IT, I WILL DO IT, ASSHOLE. Why do I even live here? This road is for motorized vehicles only. AVBP rules! This DTC bus will crush your dented Maruti Swift like a bug and I have no control over where it is going because it is a speeding missile running out of control toward the general vicinity of the bus stop. You almost killed me. I hate Rahul Gandhi. Nothing will happen. Adjust. Mataji, please do not lie in the turn lane lazily swishing flies with your tail. I AM LATE FOR WORK. Don't worry, I am a professional. Dickhead! We are going to-coming from-celebrating Bunty and Deepti's wedding! Gujjar boy-Jat boy-Punjabi boy in the house. I hate Arvind Kejriwal. Go! Kya, yaar? Your car is on fire. You dropped your dupatta back there. Hot girl, you should not be out after dark without at least three male relatives. Auntieji on a Chetak! Mercedes-BMW-Porsche-Audi first. The light is green. I am like that only. I am taking my son-daughter-boss's son-boss's daughter to the board exams. That pink stuff the Sikhs are giving away free is no excuse to stop in the middle of the road. It's free! Legless man, I have told you a million times you're going to get yourself killed. Contortionist-girl-putting-yourself-through-a-small-wire-hoop-over-and-over-again, you're going to get killed as well and anyway I consider that activity to be child labor. Are you looking at me? The light was red! Are you blind? Am I invisible? Your fault! Why do you even live here anyway?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

India's Holy Cow Vigilantes

By Jason Overdorf

Newsweek (November 2015)

Outside the 150-year-old Tangra Slaughter House in Kolkata, India, a line of cows stretches down the lane alongside the arched, colonial-style building. There are no fixed prices for beef here, so the noise of a dozen shouted negotiations fills the air. But it's not all business as usual. Photography is prohibited, at least for today, and I'm allowed inside only after agreeing to keep my notebook in my pocket and not ask any questions. The beef-and-leather business is sensitive in the country where “holy cow” is not a throwaway phrase.

“People are scared,” says Syed Faiyazul Haque, a supervisor at a Kolkata tannery. “There’s an atmosphere of fear.”

That’s because at least three Muslims suspected of eating or transporting beef have been killed in recent weeks. Hindu nationalists have been campaigning for a countrywide ban on slaughtering cows, which they consider holy animals, and religious tensions are rising.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pushed the issue of cows to the center of its campaign for elections in the northeastern state of Bihar during October and November. The aim seems to have been to consolidate the Hindu vote by casting Muslims as the chief enemy, and thus counteract divisions among high- and low-caste Hindu voters who favored the party’s opponents. Yet Modi’s party suffered a crushing defeat. The BJP and its local allies took just 58 out of 243 assembly seats in the Bihar polls.

Muslims and many secular Hindus across India celebrated the election result, expressing hope that the prime minister who came to power preaching economic development, not Hindu triumphalism, would return to that message. But for beef and leather traders, and perhaps for India’s bid to attract more foreign investment, it may already be too late.

Traders involved in the leather and beef industry in Kolkata say vigilantes have stopped large numbers of trucks transporting cows, hides and carcasses since the anti-cow slaughter campaign accelerated last month. Many transporters are reluctant to take the risk, after a trucker accused of carrying cattle carcasses was killed in October by a Molotov cocktail in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Because one carcass or hide looks much like another, not even the unrestricted buffalo trade is safe. And the charged atmosphere makes it all too easy for local police and inspectors to demand payoffs.Despite the cultural taboo on killing cows, slaughtering them for meat and hides is legal in five of 29 Indian states, including West Bengal, where Kolkata, the former capital of British India once known as Calcutta, is considered the center of the trade.

“This is a reflection of anti-Muslim propaganda in India,” Udayan Bandyopadhyay, a political scientist affiliated with the University of Calcutta, says of the recent attacks. “In order to gain mileage, the [Hindu nationalists] are making a partition in society between Hindus and Muslims.”

Even in ordinary times, the country’s meat-and-leather trade is a strange business. Last year, India, which is 80 percent Hindu, emerged as the largest beef exporter in the world. Combined with leather, the industry is worth some $10 billion. How's that possible?

It is partly because under a system drawn up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the meat of Indian water buffaloes, which Hindus do not consider holy, is classified as “beef.” Exporting cow meat is banned, though cowhide accounts for around a third of India’s leather exports. Yet in Kolkata, tannery workers say the mix of buffalo hide to cowhide has fallen from 50-50 to 80 percent buffalo in recent weeks. Since the first attacks on transporters in September, buffalo-processing factories have also been facing shortages.

“Our drivers are stopped while they carry buffaloes. There is fear among drivers,” says DB Sabharwal, a Hindu, who's secretary of the All India Meat & Livestock Exporters Association.

In most states, and sometimes even in Kolkata, that's technically illegal. Along with bans on cow slaughter and the consumption or possession of beef, various states have made it a crime to sell or transport cows out of their jurisdiction if they are destined for the butcher. In states where cow slaughter is legal, a “fit-for-slaughter” certificate is required to document that the animal in question is more than 12 to 14 years old or “permanently incapacitated for breeding, draft or milk due to injury, deformity or any other cause,” according to the Ministry of Agriculture. But that rule too is frequently flouted, according to people opposed to killing cows.The domestic market is more complicated. While cow slaughter is permitted in only five states, the animals are everywhere. There's no separate meat industry. But a mammoth dairy industry and the traditional use of draft animals means there are more than 190 million cattle in India, compared with about 90 million in the United States. As tractors replace bullocks in agriculture, around half of these animals are becoming a drain on the farmers' resources. And while Hindu nationalist organizations have set up nursing homes for hundreds of thousands of superannuated cows, it's no surprise that many farmers prefer to sell them rather than put them out to pasture.

The result is a tortuous path of payoffs, smuggling and don't ask, don't tell. The not-quite legal nature of the business means there are no large firms buying cows and shipping them to Kolkata—or smuggling them to Bangladesh. Animals pass through a chain of transporters before they’re sold for slaughter. Then middlemen collect meat and hides into the larger consignments needed by the leather businesses and other industries that rely on tallow and other by-products, says Shahid Akhtar, managing director of a leather goods manufacturer called Elrich International. “Those people will have problems now,” he says. “The police or vigilantes will confiscate the items, then corruption will increase. This has started to happen.”

It's not clear how devoted to the issue Modi is, or how beholden he'll be to the larger, parent organization of the BJP—a uniform-wearing cadre of activists called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose second “supreme leader,” Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, was an admirer of Adolph Hitler.

It's not all Hindus vs. Muslims. Middle-caste Hindu merchants dominate the leather export business. Some lower caste Hindus eat beef, though many have adopted high-caste food taboos in a bid to avoid discrimination. So do many of the country's dozens of indigenous tribes. Many self-declared secularists and atheists partake too—some viewing it as a badge of tolerance or rationalism. Yet Hindu nationalists and some ordinary Hindus look on killing cows much the way devout Muslims view drawing cartoons of Muhammad—something they say Indian secularists would never countenance.

Modi's critics still blame him for the tardy police response to the 2002 riots that killed at least 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus when he was chief minister of Gujarat, his home state, though he was exonerated in court. Opponents have taken him to task for delayed and wishy-washy public statements in response to attacks on churches, belligerent statements from Hindu nationalists and the recent cow-related violence. For instance, he waited 10 days to speak out against the September 28 lynching of a man wrongfully accused of eating beef.

Arun Shourie, once one of the BJP's most respected leaders but now marginalized under Modi, believes the prime minister’s silence was deliberate—and it was interpreted as a green light by rowdier sections of the movement. After an incident of inter-religious violence occurs, other members of the BJP and affiliated organizations keep it alive by making provocative statements, Shourie said in a televised interview with a national channel. Only after weeks pass does Modi comment, and then it is to say something cryptic. “It almost comes out as if it is by design,” said Shourie.

Supporters reject such criticism. “To defame Modi, a negative campaign is coming from the so-called secularists,” says Surendra Kumar Jain, All India Secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Hindu nationalist group leading the push for a national ban on cow slaughter. Vigilante action has to be understood in the context of the failure of law enforcement, he says. “Suppose a woman is being raped? Will you stand by and wait for the police?”

It's not only the beef and leather industry that is at stake. India has climbed in the World Bank's ease of doing business rankings and has replaced China as the most popular destination for foreign direct investment since Modi came to power in 2014. But both the devastating loss in Bihar and the flirting with sectarian strife could further derail his plans for the economy.

The vituperative atmosphere will make it more difficult to reach a consensus with the opposition. And the election loss itself means Modi is drifting further away from a majority in Parliament, where several proposals for big bang economic reforms have already withered and died.

“Along with a possible increase in violence, the government will face stiffer opposition in the Upper House as the debate turns away from economic policy,” Moody's Analytics said in a November report. “Modi must keep his members in check or risk losing domestic and global credibility.”

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Blood, guts and glory: India's boxers hit pay dirt

They got India's first pro-boxing event off the ground. We go behind the scenes with the man who may well be the Don King of India
By Jason Overdorf
GQ India (November 2015)

An hour after the scheduled start time, Jaisingh Shekhawat, the 30-year-old chief organizer of India’s first professional boxing event, burst into the improvised pre-fight green room in a panic, his brow beaded with sweat. “What the hell’s going on?” he snapped at coach Mahavir Singh, busy supervising a last-minute briefing of the nine Indian match judges. Shekhawat caught me watching him and winced. “Mismanagement,” he said ruefully, juggling his portfolio and walkie-talkie.

All around the green room – repurposed from the drivers’ waiting area in the basement parking garage of Delhi’s Select Citywalk Mall – the fighters displayed a monastic calm. Punjabi heavyweight Gurlal Singh, to fight Haryana’s Vikas Hooda in the first of four scheduled matches, stood in the corner like a B-movie Hercules as three hangerson laced up his groin protector. Thai super bantamweight (55.3kg) Khunkhiri Wor Wisaruth was taping the hands of American super middleweight (76.2kg) Clinton Smith, while Smith’s opponent for the night, 13-time national champion Dilbag Singh, casually slipped on a glove and sunk a joke-hook into a friend’s belly to test it out, punctuating the punch with his devilish, 100-watt grin.

If anyone here had reason to sweat, it was Shekhawat, a slim, slicklooking guy with brushed-back hair and gold hoops in both ears. The delayed start put his newly formed North Indian Boxing Association (NIBA) at risk of failing to complete the programme before 10pm, when the permit for the outdoor plaza upstairs would expire. If the authorities shut them down before the end of the main event — a 12-round contest between Indian Neeraj Goyat and Filipino Nelson Gulpe, competing for the vacant World Boxing Council (WBC) Asian Welterweight Championship - the dream of bringing pro boxing to India would be confirmed a fiasco.
Already, one of the biggest news stories to emerge from the farcical pre-fight press conference the day before was a Hindustan Times article headlined “Nothing professional about pro boxing’s India debut”. And tonight, WBC Asia head Patrick Cusick was still fielding basic questions from the judges and referees about pro-level rules and scoring – which differ widely from the amateur game.

Maybe it didn’t show, but more than a year-and-a-half of work hung in the balance.

Jaisingh Shekhawat was always a boxing fan, and participated in a few state-level tournaments before getting into the marble business in his home state of Rajasthan. He had long thought there was a potential market for professional boxing in India, but it took the drive of his old trainer Mahavir Singh (best known as the coach of Olympic bronze medallist Mary Kom) and Neeraj Goyat (arguably India’s keenest pro) to get the idea off the ground. With six professional fights in China and Thailand, as well as a brief stint in India’s Mixed Martial Arts Super Fight League, 23-year-old Goyat had made connections with foreign managers and WBC officials while he was abroad. So when he emailed WBC head Cusick about a licence to hold events in India, he got a response.

Slowly, things came together. Ruling out a stadium – fearing nobody would turn up – the team decided on a free, open-air event that would draw a crowd from passersby. They convinced Cusick they weren’t just blowing smoke, and completed the paperwork to obtain the WBC licence. Handshakes were made with top boxers whose amateur careers were over and who wanted to go pro. Rahul Gokhale of Serendipity Marketing Solutions was pulled in to manage the event. Most importantly, Rakesh Naudiyal, a former international amateur boxer, convinced Kashmiri Marbles to come on board as their major sponsor, contributing around ₹10 lakh rupees – about a fifth of the event’s total budget.

Yet, when Naudiyal told me about it all, I was skeptical — not least because they were approaching me for advice.

I’ve been a hack boxer since learning the basics in a Beijing gym that doubled as a karaoke bar and brothel in 1998, picking up trainers in Boston, New York, Hong Kong and Delhi as I’ve moved around. I’d also venture I’m probably the biggest boxing fan on the Subcontinent. But that’s where my expertise ends. (Full disclosure: Naudiyal has been my friend and training partner since 2005.)

The idea wasn’t to get rich, everybody agreed. It was to give Indian boxers an opportunity to showcase their talent. Most of the team had volunteered their time, and apart from outside contractors like Gokhale, nobody expected to make a rupee off the event. Shekhawat certainly had no illusions he was going to be the next Don King — the notorious American promoter who dominated professional boxing from 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman through the reign of Mike Tyson in the Eighties — known as much for his slimy business deals as his lightning shock of hair and hi-glint smile of pure evil.

“At the India [amateur] camp, there will be 40-some boxers in every weight class,” said trainer Mahavir Singh. “But only the top one gets the chance to compete in the Olympics. The second, third and fourth guys don’t ever get an opportunity. We want to provide a platform for them.”

My first meeting with Shekhawat, in April this year, was like a Chinese fire drill. Naudiyal was late, so Shekhawat, Mahavir and I stood around in the blazing sun outside the PVR Cinema hall in Basant Lok Community Centre. Neither was comfortable with English, so I was stuck with my “idhar se left, udharse right” taxi Hindi until Kamaljit and a few others turned up. Finally, we tramped up four flights of stairs to a stuffy office that was smaller than an aloo tikki cart. A steady string of beefy guys filled it up until Naudiyal arrived, whereupon we hit critical mass and moved downstairs again. Scouts were dispatched to find a more suitable spot, which turned out to be a McDonald’s. So I viewed the crew’s laptop PowerPoint presentation and dispensed my wisdom, such as it was, over fries and a Coke at a curvy first-floor banquet table.

“As they like to say in America, ‘styles make fights’. You don’t want two match technical boxers who’ll spend the whole night playing defence,” I told them, among other non-pearls.

With that meeting as context, my experience of the pre-event press conference was very different from that of the Hindustan Times writer. I was just gobsmacked that they had actually done anything. “With no money!” exclaimed Naudiyal’s friend Arun Kunal, owner of Add on Entertainment, who’d volunteered to handle public relations.

Patrick Cusick looked out over the audience of reporters gathered at The Lalit hotel. “We’ve been watching the development of boxing in Asia for the last 15 years,” he said. “Ten years ago, we went to China, and now they have their first world champion. We believe India can progress as quickly, if not faster.”

Ninety minutes after official fight time, after countless announcements that the first bout was going to start “in a few minutes,” the announcers were running out of material. “Hurry up and light the lamp,” said one, once they’d wrangled the obligatory-but- not-really-important VIPs onto the stage. When tapers were finally put to the aarti, Shekhawat looked like his doctor had just informed him that his biopsy was negative.

Despite the delays and the 40-degree heat, the crowd hadn’t given up. The 350 ringside chairs for invited guests were full. By the angles of their noses, seemingly every boxer in North India was in the house. Curious onlookers were lined up 20 rows deep in the plaza beyond the guest area, and another dozen rows packed the mall’s first floor balcony.

A hesitant cheer went up as the first fighter, Haryana heavyweight Vikas Hooda, was announced. A thin plume of fog sputtered from the smoke machine, then nothing, as Hooda jog-stepped through the archway and raised his fists in the air.

The thing was finally underway. Somebody must have told Hooda and Gurlal Singh that the fans wanted a knockout, because they hammered hooks to each other’s ribs with no more thought to defence than a couple guys chopping down trees. With the first big blows to the head – sweat flying like shooting stars under the lights – the crowd was hooked. After four workmanlike rounds, when Hooda, in his pro debut, was announced the winner, the emcee didn’t have to exhort the crowd to cheer.
Next up, 13-time All India amateur champion Dilbag Singh squared off against American Clinton Smith. It was the kind of mismatch typical for a top amateur’s debut in the pros – where the idea is to get your guy some easy wins and build up his reputation. Smith was listed in the programme as having 18 wins and 5 losses, but in fact he was a Muay Thai and Mixed Martial Arts fighter. A gristly, tattooed 39-year-old with a shaved head and goatee, he’d told me in the green room that he had five pro Muay Thai bouts, two MMA, but he’d “more or less never boxed before.” Once Dilbag figured that out, it was a matter of Smith being tough enough to avoid a knockout. By that measure, he acquitted himself well. Between rounds, a freshly mohawked Dilbag winked at the ring card girls and grinned at his buddies in the peanut gallery. Smith barely laid a glove on him.

By the time Delhi’s own Balbir Singh was introduced for his super bantamweight bout with Thailand’s Khunkhiri Wor Wisaruth, a veteran of 11 pro fights, the crowd had gotten into the swing of things. The loudest roar of the night rose as Balbir pranced out of the now functioning fog.

From the opening bell, it was clear Balbir didn’t think the stringy Wisaruth had the punching power to keep him off. He bullied the smaller Thai around the ring, winging wild punches and pushing Wisaruth to the ropes, until the Thai drew him into a clinch to get his bearings. When the Indian referee separated them, Balbir let go a hook that caught Wisaruth on the chin. The Thai stumbled back and dropped to the canvas, and the crowd went wild. Even by professional boxing’s more liberal rules, “hitting on the break” is illegal, and Balbir’s punch had the look of a premeditated, flagrant foul. But the Indian referee acted like nothing had happened and gave Wisaruth an eight count when he popped to his feet. For a second, disbelief passed over the Thai’s face, then the realization that he was in the stewpot for a bit of “home cooking” – a staple of professional boxing.

A minute later, Balbir floored him again, this time with a shoulder block, and again the referee pretended nothing was amiss. Wisaruth tried to stick and move after that, but Balbir put him on his back with a straight right in the second round, and seconds later, another right put Wisaruth down and out.

India’s first pro boxing card had its first KO.

Now for the main event: Neeraj Goyat vs Nelson Gulpe for the Asian welterweight championship.

A good-looking and charismatic kid with an easy smile and a mop of curly hair, Goyat was the reason the programme had come together. Unlike most Indian boxers, who quit the game as soon as they get a sports quota job, Goyat was hungry. Though he didn’t have the pedigree to match Dilbag and Balbir, at just 23 he had more years left in his prime. With six fights in China and Thailand, he was already India’s most experienced professional. And along with Dilbag, he’d inked a deal with Las Vegas-based Guilty Boxing to cover his living and training expenses. On the other hand, with two wins, two losses and two draws, he didn’t have the kind of record for people in the fight game to call him “a prospect”. And he hadn’t done anything to merit being invited to fight for the WBC’s vacant Asian welterweight title apart from being born in India. (At 8-4-0 and 3 KOs, Gulpe was a little more legit.)

“I’ve been fighting at super lightweight (63.5kg), but there was no vacant title in that weight class,” Goyat had told me a couple hours before fight time, tucked up to his chin under the blankets in his hotel room, Mujhse Dosti Karoge blaring from the TV. “That’s why I played welter weight this time.”

In the greater scheme of professional boxing, it’s a meaningless belt. The WBC Asia is to the WBC what Italian basketball is to the NBA, and even at boxing’s highest level, an alphabet soup of competing sanctioning bodies plague the sport (the World Boxing Association, the International Boxing Federation, the World Boxing Organization and on and on).

“It’s just to get India on the map,” said Kiwi referee Bruce McTavish, a veteran with more than 100 title fights on his resumé. “It’s showbiz.” But for Goyat, a win would mean an end to being treated like Smith or Wisaruth: “an opponent”, expected to lose. “After this event, people will come to me to fight,” Goyat told me. “Organizers will ask me to come to their countries. Sponsors will come to us.”

A victory might even earn Goyat a fight in Vegas. His promoter, Guilty Boxing chief executive Puneet Dureja, a non-resident Indian with 25 years experience in movie and television distribution, has purportedly signed a deal with America’s CBS Sports Network to stage a series of international fight cards featuring boxers from ten different countries over the next 12 months.

From the opening bell, Goyat took the fight to the taller Filipino, whose punches looked sluggish. Goyat pushed Gulpe back to negate his longer reach, but let Gulpe control the distance and ate a couple four-punch combinations for it. But in the end, he went back to crowding the Filipino, ducking and weaving when Gulpe tried to fire back. The strategy worked.

Compared to Balbir’s knockout, Goyat’s lopsided technical win, drawn out over 12 three-minute rounds, was an anti-climax. But in other respects, it was exactly what Shekhawat’s NIBA and the WBC needed.

When the scores were announced, Goyat’s supporters lifted him onto their shoulders in the centre of the ring and thrust a microphone into his hand.

“I’m India’s first professional boxing champion!” he shouted out in Hindi.

“If the fighters come prepared and the main event is handled in a professional manner, then it will be a success,” Cusick had told me the day before, and at that moment, a success is what it was. It was only a day or two later that the real cracks started to show. Rumours swirled that one of the main sponsors had reneged on a promise to provide ₹15 lakh and Shekhawat hadn’t been able to pay the fighters. Then Rahul Gokhale, of Serendipity Marketing, wrote me to accuse Shekhawat of stiffing him on two of the agreed ₹5 lakh fee for arranging the venue, promotional materials and managing the event.

“NIBA used my office infrastructure, manpower and consultation services for two months, and apart from that the event cost is also not paid. All commitments regarding the payment failed, and now everyone is absconding,” Gokhale wrote in an email.

Shekhawat took my call a few minutes later and assured me he was not absconding. He was very much in town, and had sent Gokhale a WhatsApp message offering to meet.

“I haven’t disappeared. I’m very near his home,” Shekhawat said.

He didn’t deny that they’d agreed on five lakhs. But he said he was withholding the final two lakhs because he wasn’t satisfied with the job Gokhale had done. Among the issues: Gokhale had promised an aluminium scaffold for the light system, but had provided an iron one; and the LED lights hadn’t been functioning for the first match. The crux of the matter, though, was the delay.

“The show was 90 minutes late. I was searching for him, where is Rahul, where is Rahul? He was nowhere to be found.”

Gokhale disagreed. “As far as I was concerned, the event was quite seamless,” he said. “Nothing went wrong.”

According to Cusick and McTavish, none of the foreign fighters complained that they had not received their money. However, it wasn’t clear if those amounts matched the sums that the team had bandied about in their discussions with me – which included match fees of as much as one lakh and post-fight bonuses ranging from₹50,000 to 5 lakh for the winner of the main event.

“As far as my purse I was given exactly what I was promised, no haggling,” Smith wrote in an email. “I am not at liberty to discuss [the] total... But I will say I hope they call me again.”

When I called Goyat, he was more cagey. The organizers had given a cheque for his match fee and the ₹5 lakh bonus for winning the title to a friend in Delhi. But he wasn’t bothered about cashing it, he claimed.

“I didn’t fight for the money. I fought to make history,” said Goyat. “This is the first professional boxing championship to be held in India. I don’t want it to be the last.”

Unpaid bills, dodgy match-ups, an incompetent-if-not-crooked referee — to the uninitiated, all that might sound a bit, well, unprofessional. But to the boxing cognoscenti, where this sort of scheming is more common than not, it may be a hint that Shekhawat and India’s newborn pro boxing industry may already be punching above their weight.