We were around seventy people killing time in a large, bare classroom at a school in suburban Mumbai.
Every fifteen minutes or so, a group of volunteers would come and whisk off two or three from the room. At regular intervals, a round of applause, sometimes shouts of encouragement, reverberated from the outside. Fervent shouting meant the competitor was battling in the arena, sustained applause meant he had done damn well. Once in a while, a moan would emanate. Its meaning was well known and dreaded.
What would my fate be? I thought.
Barring another person – a veteran climber – everyone else in the room seemed well below thirty years of age. They were mostly college students or youth in their twenties, early twenties. Preparation had been diligent and designed to peak for the zonal climbing competition. Fit gladiators, all. A lot of people in the room were shaking out their limbs, limbering up or trying to focus. Once in a while somebody would get up and trot around the room, a few hops and stretches added for warm-up. Occasionally the door frame attracted and a climber or two did pull-ups. The person next to me was wiping his climbing shoes. He cleaned every nook and cranny of its sticky rubber; then inspected it closely to make sure. What if one particle of dust was what made the difference?
Here and there in the room, the people with the best chances relaxed in a heap of cronies. It was funny – anyone capable in India became an emperor. There was careful pattern to the talk of king and crony. The hangers on would massage the champion climbers’ ego – “ you are a wizard; you are strong,’’ so on and so forth. The champions in turn did that old feudal trick of courting the underdog. They would cite inadequate practice and better preparation by foes. Everyone wanted to win, badly so. From the quiet ones preparing in their minds for battle to the hangers on enticing the champs up cliffs of sycophancy to the champs fighting off the unwanted adulation – all wanted to win. Why not? We live in the age of ambition and competition.
I knew most people in the room but didn’t have anyone to really connect to. I was in my late thirties then, average climber and participating in the zonal competition partly to find out if I could belong to climbing at such level and partly to challenge the negativity in my head. I had wanted to take part in the competition but didn’t feel like because I was sure I would place at the bottom. Who wants a bottom dweller? But that seemed a case of me being unfair unto me, plus fear of failure.
So in I went.
Those days, every weekend was spent climbing. Soon after I registered for the competition, preparations began. I had to do what I could. I was employed at a newspaper. After work, I frequented a friend’s house to train. Abhijit Burman aka Bong had a tiny climbing wall made of a single plywood sheet fitted with artificial holds. This was his old house, before he acquired a new place where he built a wall such that he seemed to be living under it. And that was before he lost his living space to climbers moved in to live under his wall! I trained my way. Young people do a lot of dynamic moves. It featured lunges and leaps. It was the popular climbing style. I was too much a bag of injuries to risk that. Besides I didn’t like dynamic moves. They make for great visual. But outside competition environment and pre-protected sport routes, most climbers wouldn’t do it. Yet that’s what competitions strive to be – great visual. It is activity squeezed into spectacle format. Without it where’s the fun for participant and arena? Not to mention business model, for media and sponsors don’t go where there isn’t spectacle. All sports therefore have their competitive half. We may have run originally as hunters engaged in lengthy pursuit of prey. But there is no competition on the planet more engaging than ascertaining who is the fastest runner around even if you can hold that pace for only less than ten seconds. The stadiums of ancient Greece and the arenas of ancient Rome are thus among the longest standing truths about human behavior. They have since hardened into markets deciding how sport should be. My upcoming zonal competition was a tiny, tiny version of that legacy by market.
Twice or thrice every week, I finished work early and took the suburban train to my friend’s house for an hour or two on his climbing wall. On the day of competition, parked in that classroom of gladiators, I knew my efforts to prepare had been very little compared to the training and goals in my neighborhood. So I kept quiet and rested. Till the numbers in the room dwindled and the airy classroom was so thick with the wait that it started to suffocate like a prison. The bars on the windows looked like the burly rods of a jail. I had sat in chambers like this before when I was a regular competitor at college in extempore speech contests. You went through a period of isolation before the competition but that was rarely for more than an hour, including five minutes to prepare once topic was given in isolation within isolation. With seventy climbers listed and mine being the last number to be called, it was a wait from morning till evening. I was mad with restlessness by the time I reported at the wall. Forget the climbing wall; I could have walked through brick and concrete to taste freedom.
A voice announced my name on the loudspeaker. I fastened my harness, picked up my chalk bag and approached the wall. I was nervous. I don’t know how competitors manage to wave to crowds and such. My deduction now is – they wave to get the nervousness over and done with. Once the world is acknowledged and elegantly pushed out of your head, all that remains is climbing. My head was full of several worlds asking – what the hell are you doing here? A few of my friends cheered and the sound system switched to loud, thumping Hindi film music. People started clapping in anticipation of spectacle. I made a threaded figure of eight on the rope incorporating my harness loop also into it. Its safety knot locked off like a mute button silencing surrounding world.
Now there was no escape.
What next for reluctant warrior?
Suddenly my average climbing ability was all over me and embarrassingly so, for I had additionally walked into the spotlight. It was like being on the poster of `Chicago’ with no dancing skills at hand. I could imagine the flair shown by the others. The youngsters would have danced and pirouetted their way up from hold to hold. That’s what all those ovations I heard in isolation had been.
They must have been fantastic.
Will I be as good as them? The well trained climber, having prepared for weeks, works his way elegantly from hold to hold up the wall, till on that roof high above the ground – oh watch this ladies and gentlemen – he executes a one hand-hang, rests a while in a figure of four, chalks up his hands, shows off the power in his abs as he assumes the horizontal, calmly clears the roof and waltzes his way to the top!
In retrospect and after watching several competitions, I have realized that aside from being a great climber, a winner on the wall is usually someone who can channel the encouragement from the audience into a positive flow of energy for climbing. Someone who enjoys climbing and who just enjoyed it better given all those people sitting around. You just shouldn’t get shaken up. My existence was different. I enjoyed climbing; climbing at my pace. I didn’t enjoy people as easily. At the wall, I was shaken and stirred, down to the tip of my roots. And my thought at that point was – what the hell am I doing here? I just didn’t believe that I could do anything. I didn’t study the route properly and all I remember is mumbling my readiness to the person belaying. Then I blindly climbed a few moves up, found myself wrong footed for the next move and lost interest.
I came off the wall.
A moan of disappointment went up from the audience. But it didn’t linger long. A new song blared loud on the sound system. The competition had concluded and it was now time for the results. I knew where I stood in the list. I quietly packed my rucksack and left the scene. Some weeks later, Bong, who had been part of the competition’s organizing team, handed me a certificate that said I had taken part in the zonal. It is there, somewhere in my cupboard.
The day after the competition, I was back to being newspaper reporter in Mumbai’s rat race. Save one friend at work, nobody knew where I had been. Several months after this competition, I participated in another one. It was far more informal and internal to my climbing club. It was on natural rock. I finished a respectable fourth I think, in that much less challenging field.
I have since taken a clean break from competitions.
Fourth place seemed apt for honorable exit!
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The zonal competition mentioned in this article happened several years ago.)