December 6, 2020

Imtehaan

(c) J. Singh, 2016

Baghel Kaur was nervous as she bowed and then stepped onto the mat. At the far end of the large hall sat the five stern-faced judges, still and immovable like statues. In front of her was the man who would be conducting her black belt testing, Jonas-sensei. He didn’t seem as intimidating as the judges, but was nevertheless strict about his expectations for following the rules of the test. The judges were watching, after all.

Thoughts flashed across Baghel’s mind and consciousness. She silently recited her supplication “Sri Bhagauti ji Sahai!”

Jonas-sensei directed Baghel to the center of the mat. His face looked haggard, with too many lines for someone his age. His hair was graying unevenly, giving him the look of someone who was both young and old, depending on which angle you were looking from.

Baghel stood in the center of the mat, her arms stiffly at her sides, and bowed towards Jonas-sensei, and then again in the direction of the judges. Her test had begun.

Jonas-sensei knew what she would be required to demonstrate. Without any forewarning, he launched into the test, silently coming at her with a predefined movement. Baghel responded instinctively. She had performed this move hundreds of times, and knew the technique intimately. Jonas-sensei tumbled onto the mat behind her, curling up like a ball and rolling, and then coming out of the roll and back up on his feet so effortlessly and smoothly that it looked like he was floating. Without delay he turned back toward Baghel and came at her with another move. This time she sidestepped the attack, swept down with her arms to deflect the blow, and redirected all the forward momentum back onto him. As expected, he lost his footing and slammed down onto the mat. Less than a second later he was up again and initiating the third attack. Out of breath, Baghel took a step back to gain her composure. She couldn’t hear it, but she felt a collective sense of disapproval from the panel of judges. That small step backwards might cost her points in the test.

Jonas-sensei saw it too, and pressed his advantage, lunging forward in a different attack. But Baghel knew this one well. She liked it and had playfully practiced it with her brother at home. She spun around Jonas-sensei just as he reached her, twirling like a dancer, until she was almost behind him. Reaching around with both arms, she firmly grabbed his shoulders and then dropped her arms like a stone. She remembered her training clearly. “Fall like a stone,” her instructors voice during their training, “how heavy is a ship’s anchor? Imagine you are that anchor, and you are dropping. There is nothing that can stop you or slow you down. You are going down, and whatever you are anchored to is going down as well.”

Jonas-sensei lost his balance amidst the push and pull of force of his own forward momentum and Baghels anchoring. He teetered, arms flailing outward, and then tipped over, falling backwards. Baghel stepped out of the way and let him come down onto the mat. He was instantly up again and launching into the next attack.

She was getting tired. She could feel her muscles aching and her breathing was coming heavier now. She wiped the sweat from her forehead and tried to stay focused. Jonas-sensei didn’t seem to have slowed down at all.

After several more techniques, Jonas-sensei stopped, turned to face the judges, and gave them a quick bow.

“We have another student testing today,” he informed Baghel, “I will conduct the start of his test now, and then we will conclude your testing. Please sit and observe.”

Baghel bowed and sat at the edge of the mat, grateful for the reprieve.

A lanky boy with bright orange hair bowed and stepped onto the mat. He stood where Jonas-sensei indicated, turned to the panel of judges and bowed. He was testing for a different belt. Baghel wasn’t sure, but it seemed like it might be green or blue. The test would be a fairly standard drill covering all the techniques that they were supposed to know at that stage of their training. It should be straightforward and uncomplicated.

Jonas-sensei began the test in much the same way as he had done with her. He stepped forward simulating a simple attack, presenting his arm in a long, swooping motion. The orange-haired boy received the entire arm with both hands and continued the arc, then swiveled about, ducked his head, and dropped to one knee. He flung Jonas-sensei over his shoulder, sending him tumbling and rolling.

Baghel smiled as she watched. “Nice move,” she thought. The boy’s form had been close to perfect.

He sprang up to his feet as Jonas-sensei walked back towards him, ready for the next attack. Jonas-sensei nodded, acknowledging the boy’s attention. He reached into his pocket and produced a blindfold, which he tied over the boy’s eyes.

“Now,” said Jonas-sensei, when the blindfold was securely over his eyes, “can you see anything?”

“No,” replied the boy uncertainly, with more than a little sense of trepidation in his voice. Baghel frowned. She did not remember any blindfolds being used when she had been tested for the green or blue belts. Or any belts, for that matter.

“Defend yourself!” Jonas-sensei issued the warning quickly just as he launched into the next attack. The boy couldn’t see where the attack was coming from, and he was facing the wrong direction. He was entirely unprepared, and he went crashing down onto the mat.

He quickly jumped up to his feet, trying to listen for any sounds, trying to determine which direction the next attack would be coming from. But Jonas-sensei moved stealthily, and attacked quickly. Again, the boy went crashing down onto the mat, this time crying out in pain as he landed.

“That was awful!” Jonas-sensei shouted at the boy.

The boy scrambled to his feet, arms up, facing this way and that, constantly turning and shifting his position in response to the sounds he was hearing. But he was totally unprepared to deal with the situation. Jonas-sensei misdirected him, then grabbed hold of his arm and sent him tumbling head over heels onto the mat.

“Do better!” Jonas-sensei berated him, even as he stumbled while trying to get back up.

Baghel shifted uncomfortably. She could see how the boy had already failed his test. And she didn’t particularly like the way Jonas-sensei was verbally intimidating the boy. She knew the boy had good technique, she had seen it in his first move, when he had not been blindfolded. And this blindfold thing, was it new? She had never seen it in any test she had witnessed.

She sat observing as the boy tried hopelessly to execute a technique, any technique, but failed miserably every time. She felt something in the pit of her stomach. Something was terribly wrong here.

She glanced at the panel of judges. She knew that if she said anything, or even made any movement, it would count against her. She had been preparing for this test for years. She did not want to jeopardize it. She was acutely aware that her own test for black belt was not over yet.

She sighed and looked down at the mat. For some strange reason, memories of her Nanima (maternal grandmother) came into her mind. She remembered how her Nanima would tell her stories as she tucked her into bed when she was six years old. She would tell her about her heritage and her history, tales about brave warriors who fought for justice and righteousness. Fearless men and women who stood for truth and equality of all mankind. They had faced insurmountable odds, and the most heinous torture and cruel treatment at the hands of tyrants. But they had never once shirked from their commitment and dedication to truth, justice and love. They had boldly faced the sharp edge of the enemies sword and had driven back the darkness and evil that had threatened to envelop the land.

“My dearest Baghel Kaur,” her Nanima’s words echoed in her ears, “you are named after a courageous and brave warrior. You have her name now, you must honor it by the life you live. Always do what is right. Always speak out against injustice. That is the true way of life.”

Her eyes filled with tears as she remembered her Nanima’s words from so long ago. Her sweet Nanima, all wrinkled and old, who was no longer in this world, with the smile of an angel, had planted this seed in her long ago. She had never forgotten her Nanima’s words.

She knew that the actions she was about to take next meant she would fail her test. But the black belt somehow didn’t seem as important now anymore. There were more important things to stand up for.

She stood up quickly and ran a few steps towards the judges. She heard Jonas-sensei’s voice behind her, telling her that she was interrupting and curtly instructing her to sit down. She ignored him and faced the judges. She stood at attention and gave a quick bow.

The judges glared at her angrily for such an obvious breach of protocol, and a complete insult to everyone present.

Her heart was thumping loudly in her chest and she could hear her blood pumping.

“Sensei!” she said in a loud voice that echoed through the great hall, “this test is unfair! It is wrong to test him with the blindfold, he cannot demonstrate his mastery of technique without knowing the form of attack!”

As soon as her words had escaped her lips, she felt a relief inside her, a complete release of all the built-up tension and discomfort. She could feel her Nanima smiling warmly at her.

The judges appeared to be furious. None of them said a word, but they slowly rose to their feet, one by one. Baghel swallowed, she realized that she may be asked to leave the dojo. She mentally prepared herself for what was to come.

Jonas-sensei and the orange-haired boy had walked over and were watching as the judges made their way to her. They all stood in a line facing her, their faces strict and serious.

And then they bowed. All of them. To Baghel.

She gasped in astonishment. The judges were bowing to her. She couldn’t believe what was happening.

“It was all your test,” Jonas-sensei explained. Both he and the orange haired boy were smiling. “We never took a break in your test. The break was your test. It is not about technique, or skill, or how many times you practiced a particular move. It is about having the heart and the courage to stand up to injustice, when you have everything to lose, and nothing to gain.”

Tears were streaming down Baghels’ face as she sank to the floor.

The judges spoke.

“You have passed,” they declared, producing the belt that they were going to offer her. “We honor you, Baghel Kaur, with this belt.”

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