IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

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!

Applause!

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.)

AN EARLY MORNING IN PUNE

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.)                   

BOULDERING COMPETITION AT PODAR COLLEGE

The second edition of the annual climbing competition held on the bouldering wall at Mumbai’s Podar College, happened recently. The wall is built and managed by Girivihar, the city’s oldest mountaineering club. For some of the participants, the event was an ideal warm-up ahead of the west zone competition in surat. the wall is a small one, wrapped around a pillar on the edge of an inner courtyard on the college’s ground floor. participants for the competition were largely from mumbai and pune. as ever in indian climbing, it was a small gathering of the committed. the youngest person to turn up and watch was a small child with mom and dad bringing pram along. the oldest was most likely 92 year-old pio linhares, whose son, franco, is the club’s former president and a regular climber at the wall. 

Here are some photos:

juniors

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LADIES

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AND GENTLEMEN

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climbers, cameras and overall view

IMG_0254IMG_0282IMG_0312

PEOPLE

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results:

men’s final

1. aziz

2. Vicky

3. tuhin

women’s final

1. siddhi

2. mayuri

3. anjali

Juniors (boys’ final)

1. akash

2. sachin

3. bunty

(The author, shyam g menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. All the photographs herein were taken by the author.)

COFFEE WITH THE BEAST

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Several months ago, we were walking around Matunga in Mumbai when near Madras Cafe and Mysore Cafe we hit a zone filled with the aroma of filter coffee.

I like coffee.                                 

I could have tracked the aroma like a sniffer dog to the origin.

Imagine a man sniffing so and finding his way straight into a cafe, onto a chair, maybe all the way into the kitchen, into the coffee section and right next to the person making coffee. The person turns around and finds a face close to him that is all nostrils flared to smell and eyes shut contemplating visions inspired by the aroma! Startled – depending on his nerves, that may be an understatement of likely reaction. Like many good things in life monetized by man to beyond reach, coffee too is increasingly the stuff of world apart. Tracking coffee’s aroma could mean invitation to puncture your purse handsomely. These days, memories of my airport nightmares with coffee intervene and discipline the olfactory excitement. A cup of coffee costs over a hundred bucks at the airport. For no good reason save long held perception of air travel as sign of success – that’s the tragedy. Bigger tragedy is that there are people willing to, often craving to, indulge such imagery.

The aroma of coffee at Matunga first reminded me of the tricky airport. Then, it provoked anticipation of fancy coffee shop packed with youngsters enjoying more pocket money than I earned as income. We called it new India. Time to look away – I told myself. That was when I saw a board on the pavement saying `kaappi,’ which was how coffee was called in South India, where the brew had traditionally been popular. “ Hold on,’’ my senses ordered, checking the airport imagery. Board said ` kaappi’ not `cappuccino.’ It felt encouraging. This was probably an entrepreneur yet untouched by new India or someone defiantly opposing it, a revolutionary of the old order still fighting for the cause of affordable `kaappi.’ I went closer; a smaller sign within the shop said: introductory offer – filter coffee for ten rupees.

Red flag in the face of the airport bull!

I dove in.

My friend followed.

The shop was just a few days old. We settled into our chairs, appreciated the ten rupee-coffee and took in that outpost of a rapidly fading world. In my head a revolution bloomed. From that shop a movement for cheap coffee shall roll out onto the streets of Matunga, spread across Mumbai, shame those vendors at the airport and eventually warm a whole world. There was something fundamentally wrong in pricing the basic things of life so high and then calling it economic growth. I asked the young entrepreneur how much he would sell the coffee for, once the introductory phase got over. “ Maybe fifty?’’ he mused. I nearly spilled my filter coffee. Then I reasoned – revolution in new era would be different, pricier. Besides, fifty was better than hundred. In the preceding months, inflation having routed India’s ten and twenty rupee-currency notes had begun gnawing away hungrily at the edges of fifty, sending shivers down the spine of a hundred. Fifty rupees seemed okay although it made you wonder how expensive life until then would seem if viewed at current cost. Years ago at home in Kerala, I would ask for coffee or tea and it just appeared; no questions asked. Thousands of rupees had gone into keeping me alive. My parents must have struggled. Given our new consumerist ways, millions were probably going into keeping a new generation alive. The same way I never thought of all this when growing up, I am sure today’s youngsters don’t think of all this.

The aroma of coffee at Matunga first reminded me of the tricky airport. Then, it provoked anticipation of fancy coffee shop packed with youngsters enjoying more pocket money than I earned as income. We called it new India.

I resumed sipping the brew.

The shop was tiny.

If I walked six paces I would hit the wall.

“ Can’t you price a big cup for fifty and retain a smaller cup for ten, even twenty?’’ my friend asked.

“ That’s possible. But we have to pay forty thousand as rent here,’’ the young man said. I am recalling that figure from memory. Take it as near about.

My revolution died.

A populace roaring “kaappi, kaappi’’ was replaced by a muffled `kaappi’ lost amid roars of `cappuccino,’ `espresso,’ `Ethiopian,’ `Columbian’ and imported what not. The idea of `kaappi’ won’t lend itself it to ridiculous pricing to cover costs. The idea of fancy coffees will. That’s why they proliferate, even if it meant drinking the unfamiliar and saying: wow! I knew that everywhere in India, the beast of real estate lurked nearby. But still – for the sake of that young man, I felt like telling the beast, “ come on man give us a break!’’ I felt ashamed of the legacy of my generation; even that of my parents’ generation.  No matter what the reason, what legacy is it to have the beast shaping every step of the way? In India real estate was an absolutely cynical equation constantly benefiting from the country’s immense population. Packaged as great investment, it is essentially the cynical endorsement of a fundamental truth you need no brains to gauge. With so many standing on it, land automatically turned precious in India.  A roof above your head became a race with one’s purse, the needs of others and the speculation and avarice of more others who saw it as opportunistic investment. These trends shaped imagination and an Indian life had become the stuff of living by such opportunistic imagination. You could almost say – to be born, was to immediately abet opportunism for you represented a new set of wants in what was already a casino of wants. What legacy is it to suck the world clean of enjoyable life leaving mercantilism behind? Like residue on a kitchen sieve, a boring mercantile mentality would be the residue of our times should somebody sieve our existence.

I felt sorry for the young man. He wanted to serve us coffee. We wanted it too. It was such a simple thing. But all of us – customer and service provider – seemed alive in the wrong time for simplicity. The young man looked trifle uncertain as my friend quizzed him of plans ahead. “ Maybe I will sell fruits alongside. No; idli, vada and upma, some cookies too. I have a kitchen,’’ he said pointing to what seemed no more than a small stone slab fixed to the side wall. He had forty thousand to pay every month; plus raw material cost, labour cost and then, hopes of own income. It was a tall order. He smiled as he spoke. We smiled encouragingly.

Before we left, we wished him luck. 

I felt sorry for the young man. He wanted to serve us coffee. We wanted it too. It was such a simple thing. But all of us – customer and service provider – seemed alive in the wrong time for simplicity.

I wondered what the beast sipped – coffee; tea, cocoa, hot chocolate? If it had shape, I would have hit it with whatever I had – my bag, umbrella, whatever. But I knew that the beast would only be amused. It would turn around and ask, “ why hit me when self flagellation is what you need to do?’’ Outside the small shop, we melted into the evening’s whirlpool of people and traffic at King’s Circle. It resembled the swirls in a giant cup of frothy brew, stirred with spoon for someone to drink. I could imagine the beast readying for its invigorating, daily sip of crowded, congested us. We were its affordable ` kaappi.’ Thanks to us, its ways seemed guaranteed.

A week ago, I walked by the same place in Matunga.

Neither young man nor coffee shop was around.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. A smaller version of this article was published in The Hindu Business Line newspaper.)