SINGAPORE: One by one, they said no. He approached about five different gyms, and while the responses were always “nice and encouraging”, the message to Logaraj Raju remained the same: “Martial arts isn’t suitable for you.”
Raj, as he prefers to be called, was born with a brachial plexus injury. Nerves in his left shoulder were damaged while he was being delivered, leaving him with extremely limited mobility in his entire arm. He can still move his fingers and hold things with them, but the limb cannot be extended and is permanently locked in a 90-degree position.
None of this, however, meant much to Darren de Silva when he accepted Raj into his Fight G Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Academy in 2002.
“Martial arts is not only for the able,” the head coach and owner declared.
“When Raj came to me and asked ‘With my condition, can I train?’, I told him: ‘In your mind, that’s a condition. Everybody has to develop power in two arms. You can focus on that one arm and make it the best arm ever, better than anybody else’s one arm’.”
So Raj, who’s in his 30s, began learning the kickboxing form of Muay Thai before venturing to Brazilian jiu-jitsu ground fighting and then MMA.
Now a “permanent fixture” at Fight G, he trains with everyone else - and is treated like everyone else - in regular classes. There is no “special treatment” for Raj, and even the gym’s competitive fighters are “welcoming” to him.
“Whatever happens, I go back to Fight G to seek salvation, because there’s always been a sense of belonging,” said Raj. “It’s the one place where nobody doubts me; nobody questions my abilities.”
“I DIDN’T HAVE A FANTASTIC CHILDHOOD"
Much of his life prior to discovering martial arts was filled with exactly those things - insecurity and uncertainty. And it stemmed from having to fend for himself as the youngest child to now-deceased parents who “were never there” for him, said Raj.
“There were a lot of factors. My disability was one - my parents were very elderly and came from a very old school of thought. So there was a lot of neglect.”
The otherwise chatty man was not keen to discuss the topic further, but did let on he was now completely cut off from his relatives.
“To me, they are the most irrelevant people in my life. Family is supposed to be one of the pillars for any individual. When that has failed, pretty much it’s going to be very difficult.”
The struggle started as early as in primary school - where Raj was severely bullied. “Without going into details, let’s just say I didn’t have a fantastic childhood,” he said quietly. “All my parents knew was to tell me to go to school, but what I was going through, how to solve those problems - there was never a solution.”
“There was nobody to help… I was too young to find an alternative. So I just refused to go. And when my parents couldn’t make me, they just left me as it is. I dropped out in Primary Six.”
“THEY WERE JUST TRYING TO EXPLOIT ME”
Raj’s teenage years were spent “not going anywhere” and he started working odd jobs as young as 15. But just stepping out of the house to go for an interview often seemed an insurmountable task.
“I had a huge lack of confidence. I would just be thinking - I have no education; I’m physically-challenged, and so on,” he recounted. “It was only at 20 that I really started to explore things to do, thanks to the Internet.”
As an avid cyclist, gym-goer and “outdoorsy” person, Raj resolved to start his career in the sports industry, and as a fitness instructor. He obtained the necessary qualifications and certificates, but it was not to be.
“Sadly, it’s quite hard to get a job as a trainer if you don’t look physically fit. The gyms look at you and don’t want you because you’re not the ideal image for selling a membership,” he said matter-of-factly.
“One gym employed me, but they were obviously just trying to exploit me by paying me less.”
So the bullying never really stopped for Raj - though on hindsight he sees this as “positive”.
“I wouldn’t be motivated to learn martial arts. Whatever these people did to me may be wrong, but it gave me the foundation to do something different,” he smiled.
During his fitness instructor course he struck up a friendship with one of de Silva’s students - and when the latter learned of how other gyms were rejecting Raj, he passed along the address to Fight G.
“WHY AM I EVEN DOUBTING MYSELF?”
De Silva now wryly admits it was a “risk” to take on Raj as a student - but has no regrets.
“It’s one thing to turn away somebody after they’ve tried out; it’s another thing to turn away a person without even a trial,” he said.
“I felt I’d try my best to teach him in a modified way, by mixing and matching different techniques to suit him, then see how it goes. He managed to cope, so why not keep him?”
This faith has reaped dividends for Raj. “The more I trained in martial arts, it sparked something in me - if I can do this, why am I even doubting myself in all the other areas in my life?” he said.
“My self-confidence went up and I wanted to upgrade myself, so I decided to make a big leap to a private IT diploma. I applied, gave it a shot and passed.”
He also picked up the sport of shooting in 2007. Despite having one good arm, Raj chose to begin with the air rifle, and had to learn to trigger off with his weaker left fingers while supporting the heavy weapon with his stronger, master right hand.
He later switched to the pistol and achieved a silver medal at the 2015 ASEAN Para Games held in Singapore. The same year, he became an accredited shooting coach and now trains a handful of private students.
Raj also runs his own one-person IT company, though business has been “slow” and “doesn’t quite pay the bills” for the single man living in a rented flat. To ease the economic strain, de Silva has been voluntarily training him for free the last few years.
“He’s got a lot of financial issues, and his family is not around. For us to take money from him would be wrong,” said the Fight G boss. “Just because of these things, why stop him from pursuing his dreams? So we decided to sponsor him.”
“If I can help change Raj’s life, out there maybe somebody else in the same position will look at him and think he can do it too. Then I’ll be happy.”
“WE’VE A LONG WAY TO GO"
That his life has been altered for the better is of little doubt to Raj - even if he still has to contend with a public gaze that can be unforgiving at times.
“I still get stares. After all these years, I’m not really bothered and I’ve learned how to handle it, but as a society we’ve a long way to go to learn how to interact with different types of people,” he said plainly.
“For example, there’s this stigma that a person with a disability is unhealthy. It’s not true. When I was seeking employment, somehow people couldn’t get their head around my physical impairment. They were confused by it.”
Raj observed: “We’re a first-world society and we still lag behind in understanding what is really a simple thing like a disability.”
“It’s also about lifestyle. An individual who’s busy at work is not going to give a thought about all of this. They can’t give you that minute to learn about another individual who’s more challenged.”
“And because of that, the failure is often in letting a disability overwhelm a view of a person - rather than just exploring the individual and learning who he or she actually is.”
(Photos: Justin Ong)