December 6, 2020

Sabak

(c) J. Singh, 2017

Baghel Kaur looked up at the board in excitement. She was at the regional Gatka championship games, and there, high up on the large board was her name, amongst the list of contestants. She felt a wave of excitement wash over her. She loved practicing and learning Gatka, the traditional Sikh martial art. She had been studying it for years, and with dedicated practice and training, had been steadily improving her skill and technique. And now, finally, here she was. Competing at the regional levels. If she won the matches here, she would advance to the nationals. The thought of it made her giddy with excitement.

The organizers of the games had instituted rules and established a structure around which they built the tournament. They had morphed Gatka into a type of martial sport, one which a contestant learned and practiced. And then contestants would gather and compete for points, earned by various achievements within the game. There were different skill levels and difficulties. Beginners might be graded upon just being able to stay in the ring and on their feet. Intermediate levels might use wooden props for swords, while advanced levels would use actual swords and other weapons.

Baghel was somewhere between the intermediate and advanced level. She knew she could wield the sword, but her instructor advised caution and told her that she still had plenty of time to practice and perfect her art. There was no need to rush. In the meanwhile, she could still compete in the games.

A group of her friends had come with her, some to participate in the games, but most were there for moral support and to cheer her on. She huddled in a circle with them now and talked excitedly of the upcoming events of the day. The atmosphere felt like that of a festival or gala. There was music in the air, people milling about, contestants preparing for their eventual turn in the ring, food vendors with their stalls serving fresh hot food, and kids playing in the grass. On the large main stage, a man with a microphone belted out announcements and game scores. On the ground at various places, contestants sparred with each other for practice. It was a lively and energized environment.

Soon, it was Baghel’s turn. She felt giddy with excitement as she tied the bib on with the large numbers 101 printed on it. She was stretching and getting ready to step into the ring, while her friends gave her encouragement.

“You’ll win this easy peasy!” said Kulwant with a wave of her hand. The others nodded enthusiastically.

Baghel glanced at the ring, and her opponent, who was already standing at the ready, swinging a long wooden staff around, almost lazily. She seemed to be an expert.

Baghel finished tying her waistband on tightly and was ready to step into the ring. And that’s when she heard him. His voice was deep and rich, the kind of voice that carried the weight of authority. It sounded masculine and confident and certain. But it was not the voice that gave her pause, it was the content of the speech.

“… they just aren’t, they’re not strong enough. That’s why girls can’t compete with boys. They have their own ring, which is bigger and allows for more room, the rules are also easier and more relaxed, it’s all just to compensate for their weakness. No way that a girl could compete with a guy in the same ring and win. Just not possible.”

Baghel swung around angrily, bristling at the words she was hearing. She scanned the crowd, searching for the owner of the voice and the words it was espousing. She found him, standing just behind her friends, standing with arms folded and talking with his friend, oblivious of her.

When she set her eyes upon him, her face fell. She looked down in pained disappointment. He was handsome, attractive, and tall. He had a full beard, was wearing a blue dumalla and was laden with weapons. He seemed quite unaware of the impact of his statements. His friend, similarly dressed, was quietly nodding in agreement. Baghel stood there uncertainly for a moment, her emotions churning. How could someone dressed as a Sikh be speaking in such a way?

She didn’t hear the chime of the bell indicating that the contest had begun. Her opponent advanced into the ring, swinging the wooden staff with force. Baghel’s friends were screaming at her, “Turn around! Get in the ring! The round has started!” She couldn’t hear them. She just saw the expressions on their faces and their wild gesticulations, as if in some sort of slow-motion replay. Just behind them, the Singh stood with that smug, offending smirk on his face.

Baghel felt nauseous. Disgusted. Disappointed. Sad. And then, angry. The anger welled up in her and rose until it burst out. Just as her opponent reached close enough to engage, Baghel swung around and tumbled onto the ground into a rolling somersault. Her opponents staff came down in a rush of wind, and landed on the ground with a loud smack, missing her entirely. Behind her now, Baghel rose up, her arms came around and her hands found their grip on the staff. There was a collective gasp of wonder and surprise from the gathered audience - this was not something you see every day in a Gatka match.

Baghel disarmed her opponent and sent the staff flying out of the ring. It was hand-to-hand combat now. This was where Baghel excelled. She had years of training in various open hand techniques, and was very comfortable with it. Her opponent seemed unsure, diffident, and hesitated.

It didn’t take long for Baghel to bring her opponent down onto the ground. Once, twice, and then three times. The contest was over. She had won. They hugged, and her opponent graciously accepted the defeat.

As she walked back to her cheering friends, she scanned the crowd behind them. She couldn’t see the Singh whose remarks she had overheard before the match. She was still seething with anger, and wanted to question him.

“What’s wrong?” Kulwant saw the scowl on her face, “you won!”

“No it’s not that match,” Baghel grumbled. “You head that Singh?”

Kulwant’s face fell. “Oh, just leave it,” she said, “forget about him.”

“Did you see where he went?” Baghel pushed the matter.

“In the open practice field,” Kulwant nodded in the direction of the field. “Hey, where you going?”

Baghel had taken off running towards the field. Kulwant scrambled to follow. She caught up with Baghel just in time to see her confront the Singh. Initially, he was a bit taken aback at Baghel’s aggressive posture. But once he learned what she was upset about, he laughed it off.

“Then why don’t they allow mixed matches?” he retorted, “That would be the fair thing to do!”

Baghel glared at him.

“Fine,” she said, “you want a mixed match, you got it.”

“What,” he laughed, “I wouldn’t want to hurt you.”

“You just worry about yourself,” Baghel stepped in front of him.

“Alright,” he conceded, “but remember, you asked for this.”

The small group of people surrounding them widened into a circle to give them room. He was bigger than her, stronger. She was lighter, petite, and slender. But that meant she could move faster. She grinned at him as they eyed each other. They both held wooden staff’s in their hands.

And then, in a flash, he attacked.

He charged at her incredibly fast, moving in an arc and swinging his staff in a wide circle in front of him. It was clear that he wasn’t holding back. Baghel reacted a second too late, and brought up her staff to counter the blow. They both spun around and exchanged positions while the loud crack of the wooden staff’s echoed in the air. A collective gasp of awe arose from the small crowd. A self-appointed scorekeeper shouted out the points, which were nil for both contestants.

Baghel scowled. She had an ulterior motive for winning this impromptu match, which was not sanctioned by the games committee and was probably breaking most of the rules of the tournament. But she wanted to prove this guy wrong. She wanted to show him just how wrong he was. At this moment, she wanted that more than any medal or even advancement to the national competition. Right now, it felt like an injustice, and she wanted to set it right.

He had a smug look on his face. As they warily circled around warily, he grinned and mockingly winked at her. So he’s over confident, Baghel thought to herself, Good! Stay that way, you’ll make a mistake because of it. She paid close attention to his feet placement. It seemed to be just slightly irregular. She looked closely, and noticed that he was taking shorter steps with his right foot, and it was throwing off his balance for just a split-second. He compensated and always regained his strong footing, but there was that brief moment at every step where he seemed just a little wobbly.

Baghel planted her feet firmly in the ground. She was going to have to be fast, and deliver strong, forceful strikes. And she would have to be precise. She took a deep breath, and for a moment, was perfectly still and silent. She closed her eyes, and in her mind’s eye, she pictured herself launching into the attack, leaping high up into the air, the staff pointed down at her opponent. She saw herself land and make contact at just the right moment, sending her opponent reeling. She saw him get up, but unable to regain his proper footing and she pressed the attack. She saw herself advancing, swinging the staff for a second attack, then third, spinning around, gaining ground, firmly establishing her territory in the ring. She saw him lose his balance, and then finally tumble and fall.

She opened her eyes, having told her mind that what she envisioned was going to happen. She took a small step back and then jumped up, both hands swinging the staff with as much force as she could muster. She must have been screaming something too, because she remembered the looks of utter astonishment of the faces in the crowd. Even her opponent was taken unaware. He managed to turn to face her and raise his staff just in time. But it was not enough. As she landed, their staff’s struck and he took several steps back, visibly shaken. Baghel didn’t give him time to recover. She was out of breath, but she immediately advanced, swinging the staff as hard as she could, placing one foot in front of the other as she herself spun around. This was the classic attack pattern. She had practiced it countless times, as she was sure that he had done also. What she was counting on was taking advantage of the weakness of his stance, and to not give him any time to regain a solid footing.

And so she kept charging, even when she herself was out of breath and could feel her muscles protest and her body starting to weaken from lack of oxygen. She kept charging. She didn’t give him a second of respite. One attack followed by another. And then another. And then another. He was lifting his staff to fend off the frenzy of attacks, and finally he lost any semblance of proper footing and was teetering back and forth very precariously.

Baghel grinned. She saw her chance. It was now. She jumped forward so she was closer to him. She swing her own staff out of the way, holding it length-wise along her body, and reached out and grabbed his staff with her right hand. His eyed widened in surprise. It was only for a second, and then he recovered. But a second was all it took. His stance was so poor that he had no balance at all. Baghel smiled and winked at him, and then gave one strong push. He tumbled backwards onto the ground, and his staff, loosened from his grip, fell aside.

The scorekeeper shouted out the points which indicated victory for Baghel. Kulwant came running up to hug her.

“You did it!” Kulwant was cheering.

The Singh stood up and dusted off his sleeve. The crowd had begun to disperse, but Baghel was still standing there, watching him in silence.

“Alright,” he nodded, “you proved yourself. Girls can do anything that boys can do.”

“It’s not just that,” there were tears in Baghel’s eyes. “You have the full saroop of a Singh. It’s something I deeply respect. Hearing you talk like that about girls while maintaining the saroop, that broke my heart.”

He looked down at the ground, visibly pained.

“You’re right,” he replied, after thinking for a moment, “I made a mistake. And you have taught me the lesson. Will you forgive me?”

He stood in front of her with the palms of his hands pressed together. Baghel softened. Wiping her tears away, she nodded.

When the tournament judges learned of the impromptu match, they were both disqualified. Baghel would not make it to the nationals. But she was content in the knowledge that she had been able to enlighten at least one person. And that was far more fulfilling than winning the national competition.

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