Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Recovering from a shin injury seemed apt time to catch my first sight of many people running together.

Although based in Mumbai, a city renowned for its annual marathon, I hadn’t watched any running event cast so. The closest I got to the spectacle of people-in-motion was during early morning jogs in cantonment towns in the Himalaya, when my very slow self would be overtaken by groups of soldiers running by.

Last weekend changed that.                                  

I wanted to support my friend who had taken to running in her fifties. I have been on mountaineering expeditions. I know what an uphill task is. She was tackling an uphill task in life albeit in a different sport. She had enrolled for a run in Pune. It is an interesting city; a mix of the traditional and the modern with much young blood for physicality. Mumbai on Maharashtra’s coast and Pune on the western margin of the Deccan plateau are cities distinct by character. Past 4.45AM, my friend and I walked to the venue. Early morning there was very little traffic. The October weather was pleasant. Mumbai after the rains was prone to heat and humidity. Pune, 1840 feet above sea level, was neither hot nor cold. The train journey in had been lovely. A post monsoon explosion of orange coloured blossoms graced the countryside bordering the railway tracks. It was Sunday. Yet I suspect Pune woke up more casually than Mumbai, India’s nonstop financial capital. No tea stall was open. No vendor of India’s wake-up beverage had parked his cart close to the venue to tap the early morning market of people out walking and running.

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Photo: Shyam G Menon

The street lights shone like yellow orbs. I liked the sight of runners converging on the ground near Pune’s BMCC College. Some walked alone; some came in groups, some walked leisurely, others walked fast, some jogged. There were young people, children and middle aged people. Assembled on the ground, they were soon lost to pre-race stretching and warm-up. I wished I could be like them. But I was getting injured too often to run enjoyably for long. Some weeks spent running and I am back on the bench nursing pain. Further, contemporary running’s fierce sense of purpose was intimidating. I am not exactly your trail blazing-type to hold my ground before Running Inc’s gladiators, their measurement by timing, the races you participated in etc. It reminds me of everyday rat race.  

My friend entered the ground. I wished her luck and took my place on the road as spectator. Three old women, local residents who used the ground for their morning walk, arrived. They were politely apprised by the volunteers, of the ground being closed that morning for all except runners. The women took it stoically and walked off to choose a place to stand by and watch the run. At quarter to six, roughly a dozen motorcyclists on their Harley Davidson bikes rode in. Not quite apt – I remember thinking so, clearly. Yes, the bikers looked impressive as an advance party for the runners. But surely a lot of engine, noise and fossil fuel-burning were hardly best ambassadors of running. Events imagine differently and one day we may comprehend how sport by event management changed the idea of sport. Close to 6AM, the national anthem was played. A band of traditional drummers began playing. Right on time, the motorcycles thundered out from the venue on to the road with the runners who must have been pacers for the half marathon, right behind. At their heels, came the half marathon column.

It was an eerie feeling. On a regular day, you noticed the passage of a single runner on the road as mere passing visual. But a large group of runners brought the same feeling to my neighbourhood, as a passing herd. A herd of human beings running by produced a consistent shuffling sound and magnified sense of breath, like something big moving. It was like a passing rustle, soft yet pronounced by the many feet striking the ground. I wondered what it must be like to be within that column and enveloped by the sound of that breathing, striding organism. This was running’s equivalent of cycling’s peloton. I recall the seriousness of many runners. Each appeared to be in a private world, likely imagining the distance to sustain the effort. Or, more likely they were trying to keep such thoughts at bay for nothing worked as well in running or any endurance sport as a blank mind nestled like a marble in a bowl of rhythmic movement. Yet a blank mind was tough to achieve. The more you tried to achieve it as an achievement, the more the mind thought and produced baggage in the head! You have to be naturally happy running – that’s the Holy Grail, the Zen of it and all of them would soon be chasing Zen. How funny – the roundabout ways in which we recreate natural impulse only to find it synthetic due to the underlying compulsion. Or perhaps, the more fundamental question is – does man move at all without compulsion, without prey to chase or bait for attraction? Lost in such thoughts, I forgot to take out my camera and click on time. By the time I did, the column had tapered. Amid this, I thought I had missed my friend go by. Then just as I looked up, there she was!

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Photo: Shyam G Menon

After the runners were on their way, I walked around in the area looking for a tea or coffee stall. A small roadside shop called `Coffee Stop,’ which I had hoped to visit and seemed ideal for freelance journalist’s pocket, was closed. At Gopal Krishna Gokhale Chowk, not far from a bustling lot of newspaper boys loading their bikes with printed news that would inevitably be mere paper by evening, I found a tea vendor and his cart. It was the typical cart on wheels with beaten aluminium sheets on wood for kitchen platform. The vendor served good, hot, masala chai. Then, I stepped into an adjacent eatery, which had captured my curiosity. Cafe Goodluck (yes, they wrote good luck so) was on the ground floor of an old building. It had been there since 1935. Its serving sealed its place in my heart and wrapped up those early morning hours in Pune, in a cocoon of contentment. The cafe gave me the best bun-butter (locally called bun-maska) I have had away from Mumbai’s Yazdani Bakery. The Mumbai bakery’s bun was in a class of its own. Goodluck compensated for its more ordinary yet tasty bun, with a big sized-serving. I liked restaurants that fed their customers knowing that food was meant to sustain life. It is a value I admire in these days of hunger by economic inflation.

Freelance journalists know that hunger very well.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)                   

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