“My parents must have had something else in mind when they named me Jannat Gul (flower of heaven),” Gul, a Hapkido black-belt, says jokingly.
It is quite obvious when you look at him that Gul is no dandelion. His steely gaze and soldiered body speak of years of toil, pursuing something that does not come naturally to Pakistanis, let alone considered a serious career or lifestyle option in this part of the world.
Gul was born and raised in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and his family moved to Karachi “around the same time when Bhutto was executed” after struggling to make ends meet. Karachi, to his father, not only offered the prospect of a better future but a chance to reconnect with family members who had migrated years ago. It also meant a higher cost of living for this family of nine.
“We had to hit the ground running when we moved. The presence of extended family in the city provided comfort but, understandably, no financial assistance. For my parents, it was a daily struggle to feed their seven children, four sons and three daughters, and save enough to pay the rent each month. Being the eldest of the sons, I started work early, often juggling two to three different jobs in a day,” Gul recalls.
He landed his first “real” job at the age of 15, working as a lighting technician in 1983 for Video Spot, a famous Karachi video-production house of the early 1980s. But even he was not quite ready for what followed.
“There were two guys, Aurangzeb and Lala, who used to come to work dressed in all black. At first, I thought it was because of Moharram but then one day they came to work with nunchakus. Needless to say, I was curious. I followed them after work to where the Benazir Park now is and started accompanying them regularly in the weeks to follow when I saw them flying around and doing splits. It was stuff that I had only seen in movies and had not imagined possible for Pakistanis to even attempt. I soon discovered what they were doing was Bando style karate.”
Bando is a form of martial art native to Burma and is an assimilation of karate and judo. It also teaches combat with weapons such as swords, knives and sticks. Bando was introduced and spread in Pakistan by Grandmaster Ashraf Tai in the early 1970s. It is a little known and little celebrated fact that Tai has not only represented the country at the highest level internationally, but also faced off against some of the greats, including Don “The Dragon” Wilson of the United States.
“No one quite knew of Sir Ashraf until one day he took on several guys alone outside Capri Cinema. He became a legend after that. In fact, he started his own training centre somewhere close to the cinema after the famous incident,” Gul says with pride.
Gul’s foray into the world of martial arts appeared short-lived after Aurangzeb, his co-worker, “disappeared” in 1984. He kept up with whatever little training he had had and dropped out of school during this time, working “several jobs a day” to support the family. Also, he never missed a Bruce Lee flick.
Lee’s popularity had well and truly reached Pakistan during this era as the BBC puts it in a feature on Pakistan Cinema Art: “The impact of Bruce Lee’s films was felt outside as well as inside the cinema. Martial arts schools kicked and punched their way into mainstream Pakistani society as all young men in the 1970s and 1980s tried to emulate the king of kung fu.” The Pakistan Karate Federation and the Pakistan Taekwondo Federation propped up around this time, while the national Wushu Federation had been formed much earlier.
Gul’s father, a disciplinarian himself, did not mind that his son sometimes walked around “looking like a ninja” as long it did not keep him from his work and the “temptations” of big city life.
“My mother was not so fond, however,” Gul says pointing to the parts of his body that would bruise after sparring with overeager partners.
“She was a simple woman and could not understand how getting beaten up could be part of some training. She went on a mission to get me married and put me in another direction.”
Then one day, in the winter of 1988, Aurangzeb returned and changed the course of Gul’s life for the second time. This was a different Aurangzeb, though, Gul recalls. Calm, self-assured and not too talkative anymore. When he finally opened up, he described how a chance meeting with a Chinese dentist, Chin Yong, in Saddar had finally given “meaning” to his life.
Yong was trained in Shaolin Kung Fu in his native China and found an avid student in Aurangzeb. However, it was an art that required lots of patience and Aurangzeb, after consultation with his family, dedicated himself completely to learning from his ‘master’.