“Say two statements to describe yourself: a truth and a lie. Let the team guess the right one”. A silly but surprisingly effective way to spend a quarter of an hour of an otherwise boring day of sales planning sessions. It was also a chance to get a new perspective about colleagues that we assume to know well. Everyone tried to be clever; a few stated one attribute about themselves super quick while hesitating or scratching the head for the next, which gave them away.

At my turn, I claimed two achievements: 1) represented my college Tennis team 2) hold brown belt in Karate.

No one was right about me. Having to assess the lazy, lean, slouching and unimposing fellow, they all could be forgiven for not associating me with martial arts.

What was your guess ?

Now, I don’t remember any of the karate stances or techniques, and I for sure cannot punch without hurting myself.

My father introduced the 8 year old me to karate. He just didn’t enrol me to a class; he would talk to the karate master frequently; watch me train, as he sat on the side-lines. He would attend every belt ceremony. While he encouraged me to be physically fit – he had built up a few muscles himself – i was a lazy kid looking for excuses. I did well academically and insisted holding a book rather than dumbbells and plates (he had custom-built for me). If only I had 10% of his passion.

Still, I kept up with the karate lessons for the next few years. Getting up at 5:30 am thrice a week, cycling through the dark alleys to the next suburb, I would meet ten more of my sleepish class mates and our no-nonsense karate master smiling at us. He insisted on warming up – made us do knuckle push ups on a hard, sand surface. The actual karate stances (katas) will be taught much later. He emphasised learning discipline, mind control and self-defence, before acquiring skills to flex, punch and kick. “Be alert, block and defend. You will do just fine”.

Occasionally, he will organise sparring – fighting an opponent – and I would be the worst of the class. I did well on theory and trembled on a real combat. I survived quite a lot of those sparrings by employing my defence techniques (A little bruise here and there wouldn’t count).

I once had to face-off against a friend – a bulkier boy who happened to be my mother’s colleague’s son. After the fight, as we both walked back home, my mother spotted a bulge on his lips and wondered if he had hit his face against a wall or something (she obviously ruled out the possibility of me ever hitting another human being). “It was a punch”, was my friend’s reply, a clever usage of passive voice. My mother appeared confused as she took that word for a similar-sounding Tamil term “panju” (cotton). I then narrated to her: As he began attacking, I got nervous, crossed my hands and closed my eyes. Perhaps he lost balance and tripped. His face fell onto my hands, landing his tender lips on my tight fist.

My next “fight” was a real one. During my year 6, a close friend Velan changed character, began teasing and bullying me as he joined a new bunch of mates. He was tiny but challenged me for a real man-to-man fight that evening. I was half thrilled and embarrassed to face-off against my own friend. I was scared too. After school, walking up to the soccer goal post, we looked at each other taking positions. By then, a crowd had formed to witness the spectacle of two bony structures about to create collateral damage.

Velan punched. I moved my limbs in the air, more on impulse. Next thing I noticed, everyone running towards a crying Velan who had blood on his face. I cried much louder – maybe due to the impending loss of friendship, and also the tasty paruppu vada (fritters) his mom serves.

These minor victories were exceptions on an otherwise vulnerable bunch of early-teen years. Feeling physically weak/inferior was part of growing up, especially being amongst intimidating (and bullying) class mates. Karate didn’t help achieve any level playing field with them – I stopped mentioning, to avoid being a laughing stock. Even during the many friendly encounters with my younger sister, I remember being easily out-manoeuvred. She never did any karate and had no fear.

Meanwhile, I quickly progressed from white, to an orange and a green, then blue, a purple and eventually the brown belt. More self-doubt crept in. I looked myself in the mirror, imagining how it would feel to be ridiculed by one and all if I donned a black belt. While dad insisted to keep going, an unfortunate leg injury from a slightly-more-than-minor accident made me miss some classes. That was the excuse I needed to quit, and I never went back to the karate class.

My father was quite disappointed. My karate master too caught up with me once during a neighbourhood event. I evaded all their attempts and buried my face in books.

As I kept focussing on my studies and then, career, I have forgotten the karate kid in me. While my friends pumped iron, ran miles and bent their bones in yoga postures, I didn’t bother to move a muscle. I hit rock-bottom during my early twenties. Once with a group of us – boys (men?) teasing each other, I made a fool of myself announcing my brown belt credentials. One of the guys asked me to show if I had still got it – offering to receive my kicks on his body. The more I pushed and slapped with my slender legs, the louder he broke down laughing, as if he was being tickled. Worse, he was the thinnest of us all.

I did win the truth/lie test at office the other day, but it will certainly be a lie if I claim any karate accomplishment. After all, when confronted, I have had more more losses, hardly any wins and occasional draws.

As I calm down, I do realise that the real truth is somewhere in between. Karate was not all a losing cause.

A few years ago, I caught myself in a road rage incident in Bangalore. My car hit an auto-rickshaw while I took a narrow turn, and it was all my fault. With my wife and kid in the rear seat, I got nervous as the thug-like driver ran towards me, signalling at me to lower the window panes. He hurled a few expletives and began to throw punches at my face. Six or seven hits, if I remember correct. My heart was racing, the girls were screaming, but I noticed him getting frustrated.

All his hits were misses. Turns out, my forearms crossed up and blocked each one of those. My karate master must have been proud.