AN EXPERIMENT IN PUNE – PART 1

???????????????????????????????

In 1997, two climbers from Pimpri-Chinchwad near Pune visited Bikaner in Rajasthan, at that time the only town in western India to have an artificial climbing wall.

Bikaner represented the new face of climbing. Its wall was ambassador for sport climbing, especially competitive climbing. Artificial walls were common overseas. Yet in the world’s second most populous country with a rising tide of urbanization and growing chunk of youth in its demography, the late 1990s played host to only a few isolated walls. Mumbai, India’s biggest city had none; as did Pune. On the other hand, away from the Himalaya, Maharashtra was among states actively engaged in rock climbing and mountaineering. It had a tradition of climbing rock faces and pinnacles in the Sahyadri (Western Ghats). In 1988, it had produced the first civilian expedition to an 8000m-peak with climbers reaching above 8000m on Kanchenjunga before retreating. A year after Shrikrishna Kaduskar and Surendra Shelke visited Bikaner – in 1998 – the first Maharashtrian would reach the top of Everest. Sport climbing especially competition climbing on artificial walls – was a missing piece in the state’s climbing mosaic.

Shrikrishna Kaduskar (Photo: downloaded from Facebook page)

Shrikrishna Kaduskar (Photo: downloaded from Facebook page)

Shrikrishna and Surendra resolved to get their home town a climbing wall. However they had more than a wall in mind. They had fashioned an approach – what they felt was best suited to both popularize a culture of climbing walls and keep them easily accessed by the public. Pimpri-Chinchwad, just outside Pune city, was the industrial hub of the region, home to many big engineering and manufacturing companies. It also had one of the wealthiest municipal corporations in India. On return to Pune, the duo submitted a proposal to the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC) to build a wall. Then and now, climbing was and is a small sport in India, challenged for financial support. Shrikrishna and Surendra had set themselves a particularly tough assignment for not only were they seeking infrastructure in climbing, they were also seeking its approval and execution by local government. They ran from table to table and meeting to meeting, pushing things through with sheer passion till at last – in 2001, the wall came up near the Annasaheb Magar Stadium in Pimpri-Chinchwad. En route, they also addressed a related problem. Climbers are notoriously self-centred. Selfish would be wrong word to use, for that they aren’t. The thing is – climbing by its very nature is all about limiting the world to immediate environment. Climbers are doers. If you don’t climb, there isn’t any climbing – it is that simple. This often limits the merit they see in imagining / co-operating beyond immediate goal to be achieved. Consequently, the culture of outdoor clubs, mountaineering clubs and climbing clubs in India are full of stories on how they couldn’t come together on one platform to get important things done. Egos intervene. Personalities clash. Shrikrishna and Surendra belonged to a particular club – the Moraya Giri Brahman Sanstha. They knew the wall would succeed only if they got everyone aboard. So, the duo worked towards forming the Pimpri-Chinchwad Mountaineering Association (PCMA), comprising participation from all clubs. PCMA became the active face of the wall, running day to day operations. Looking back, you could say this was how the story of competition based-sport climbing in Pune began. And certainly therein, the story of a group of youngsters, first appearing on the scene as school students, later fetching podium finishes at national level competitions.

To those in Pimpri-Chinchwad, sport climbing was both new sport and a spectacle in the neighbourhood, for there is something intrinsically fascinating about climber moving up a wall. It contrasts one’s own safe stance on the ground and climber’s progression up vertical surface, so unnatural to the human being. The PCMC climbing wall, like any other, had fixtures on it – there were artificial holds; metal anchors, metal nuts and bolts. Additionally, when climbers arrived to practise, there would be their belongings ranging from water bottles to wallets, karabiners and other hardware kept by the side. The wall had no lockers. Not even for the group gear used on the wall. Everyday Shrikrishna brought group gear to the wall and took it back. The wall’s locality was not far from urban slums and its typically desperate population, growing up in denial, seeking the slightest route to scarce money. Theft became common. Personal belongings were lost. Climbing holds disappeared from the wall, as did nuts and bolts and sometimes, anchors. The thieves had no idea what the metal devices were meant for or even the actual composition and value of its expensive alloys. It was sold as scrap for a quick buck. On the other hand, it is the stated policy of any local government building infrastructure that access to the facility should be equal for all and it should benefit the local community. Slowly, the youngsters hanging around, unable to contain their curiosity, began climbing. “ For us, it was also definitely a way to get around the problem of theft. As their ownership of the activity increased, the locals urged those stealing to stop doing so. They knew who were doing it,’’ Shrikrishna said. I remember the PCMC wall as a simple, tall structure with a climbing wall on only one side of its framework (later a second wall was added). Next to it was the local swimming pool owned by the municipality. Between the two facilities was a long, low granite wall, basically the edge of the land on which the pool stood. This stone wall was also used by the climbers. They traversed it – hanging on with finger tips and perched on their toes – building up endurance. Typical of India, this creative mix of available options confidently hosted new ideas. It was all fuelled by interest, raw interest. During my days in climbing several years ago, I attended a clinic on sport climbing here. That was the first time, I saw the PCMC wall.

Surendra Shelke (Photo: courtesy Shrikrishna)

Surendra Shelke (Photo: courtesy Shrikrishna)

In 2002, wall in place, Pimpri-Chinchwad hosted its first west zone competition. Those going in for the final rounds at the nationals were selected through zonal competitions. That was the norm. Around 370 participants arrived at the PCMC wall. In the ensuing competition, not one climber from Maharashtra qualified for the nationals. It was a humbling experience, one that showed where the state stood in the sport. But a large competition in town had its own silent impact. “I saw that 2002 competition and decided to start climbing,’’ Suresh Kohare, who hails from an underprivileged backdrop in the neighbourhood of the wall, said. He joined the ragtag bunch of climbers from the local community, now regularly climbing and slowly maturing. The training at the wall was totally free of cost. “ We charged them nothing,’’ Shrikrishna said. As the abilities of these youngsters became visible, Shrikrishna and Surendra visited the localities they came from, convincing people to send their children to climb. Luckily, there was one participation model available to tap and which the PCMC to its credit, made available. The municipal corporation ran schools in the region and most of the underprivileged students studied at PCMC schools. These schools had policies in place to promote participation in sports. The PCMC formally recognized climbing as a sport to support at its schools. To this date, it is the only municipal corporation in India to have done so, Shrikrishna said. That recognition for climbing also meant students good at the sport merited financial support – for example, they got a nominal travel and daily allowance when they travelled to other places to participate in climbing competitions.

As they visited the students’ houses, tackling the parents was hard work for Shrikrishna and Surendra. There was the obvious risk all parents saw in climbing and in the subsequent quest to affix responsibility they saw Shrikrishna and Surendra as where the buck stopped. The PCMC had students sign an indemnity bond but in reality parents saw the duo as being responsible. Needless to say, this was dicey. But the duo persisted as there was underlying passion to do something in and for climbing. Then there was the whole question of – what do you get from climbing? Remember, these are questions posed by people already living utterly difficult lives, in localities beset with social problems ranging from drinking to gambling. According to Shrikrishna, some of the best climbers that the PCMC wall produced never advanced further because their family compulsions saw them trade climbing for regular means of livelihood. Nevertheless, from 2002 onward, the duo ensured that a team of 30-40 local students participated at every annual west zone competition. The experiment secured result in 2005, when for the first time, two or three climbers from the PCMC wall, graduated to participate in the nationals with Somnath Shinde emerging a medal winner in lead climbing in the junior category. Following this, Shrikrishna and Surendra began to think – why not use the PCMC wall-model to set up more walls in Pune, even elsewhere in Maharashtra?

The PCMC wall in better times (Photo: courtesy Shrikrishna)

The PCMC wall in better times (Photo: courtesy Shrikrishna)

In 2005, they – under the aegis of the PCMA – submitted a proposal to the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC). In 2008, after much scouting, the duo was shown some vacant space in the premises of the Shri Shivaji Vyayam Mandir in Pune’s Shivajinagar. It wasn’t perfect for the space assigned for the wall was trifle cramped. But Shivajinagar was centrally located. Plus they got complete support from the local representative to the PMC, Balasaheb Bodake. In 2010, the Shivajinagar wall opened. It has both lead climbing and speed climbing walls. Soon after inauguration it shut shop for 3-4 months as the PMC took that long to approve the rates the PCMA could charge those reaching the facility to climb. By then, there was also another sad story to cope with. The old PCMC wall, from where this whole story commenced, had shut down reportedly due to the corporation insisting that the PCMA assume onus for security as well and not just daily operations. This caused a drift. Shut down and neglected, things have again gone missing from the old wall, Suresh said. Climbers from the PCMC wall now travel to Shivajinagar in Pune, to climb. On the bright side – there is one full fledged sport climbing wall available for use. Talks are on to restart the PCMC wall, Shrikrishna said.

(…..TO BE CONTINUED)

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

AN EXPERIMENT IN PUNE – PART 2

???????????????????????????????Early January 2014.

It is supposed to be winter in Pune.

Strangely, it is pleasant and there is no need for a sweater. Global warming, I tell myself. It is an odd world, mine. There was right then freezing cold in the US, complaints of cold winter from North India, yet this lack of cold in Pune, 1800ft up from sea level. I am at the Shivajinagar wall to meet Ajij Shaikh, perhaps the best result yet from the original PCMC experiment. To talk, we go inside the wall. The design of this wall included what was amiss at the PCMC wall. Here you have rooms to store equipment under lock and key. The first floor appeared make-shift stay-over for climbers. They rested between climbs on a row of crash pads; tired, sleepy youngsters, seemingly oblivious to everything except life lived hold-to-hold. The second floor was a bouldering gym. Then, you had the ladder well leading straight up to the top of the wall, helpful to install climbing ropes et al. The whole thing reminded me of a tree house. Perfect getaway, if all you wanted to do in life was climb, rest, climb, rest…so on. Ajij, 22 years old, is here every day. As are other promising climbers like 18 year-old Vicky Bhalerao. Both these names as well as some others from Pune, were familiar to me from their regular participation at the annual climbing competition held by Girivihar in Mumbai.

Ajij owes a lot to yoga – that is clear.

Ajij Shaikh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ajij Shaikh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

He began his story so, remembering Vivek Sable, his yoga teacher at school in Sant Tukaram Nagar. He recalled the yoga sessions, his competence at it and eventually his participation in yoga competitions right up to representing Maharashtra at national level contests. “ It made my body flexible,’’ he said. Sometime in middle school, he reached the PCMC wall for a week of climbing. At its end there was an inter-school climbing competition and Ajij topped it in the under-13 category. One of the coaches at the wall, Sudhir Tambe, told him that he showed promise. But for the next two years Ajij, never returned. He was doing too many things – from yoga to athletics – and fitting the climbing wall into his daily schedule starting from home in Mahatma Phule Nagar was too tough. Ranjith Shinde, who was also coach at the PCMC wall, was the next person to remind Ajij to climb regularly. This led to a participation in the zonal competition. However it was after he finished schooling that Ajij got around to speaking seriously to Ranjith and expressed his intention to climb competitively. Unfortunately by then, the PCMC wall had closed. So he started climbing outdoors; this included the environs of Duke’s Nose (a prominent rock feature near Lonavala), the Plus Valley area and rocks near Ferguson College in Pune. There was also a small artificial wall in Pune, he could access.

Rock climbing is done with special climbing shoes with rubber soles that generate adequate friction besides holding the foot in such a way that the climber is able to direct his power to the big toe. Ajij and his companions from similar underprivileged backdrop had none of these luxuries. He climbed with Fitness shoes, a tight fitting women’s shoe from Bata, which in appearance, resembled a climbing shoe. The lack of personal equipment made competitions attractive. Typically at events like the annual climbing competition held by Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club, Girivihar, climbing gear was part of prizes given away. However with practically no personal gear, the prizes that Ajij and his friends won were never kept personal. They were shared with anyone from the group competing at high level and needing good equipment. In turn, this meant that wear and tear of equipment, like climbing shoes, was pretty fast. When it came to personal equipment, it was therefore like being on a treadmill.

In 2008, Ajij reached his first nationals. It was his last year in the junior category. In Delhi, he saw Praveen C.M, a gifted climber from Bangalore, triumph in the senior’s lead climbing, speed climbing and bouldering competitions. Ajij was in awe of Praveen. He was also cast into a deeply introspective mood, which reminded him of his personal background and left him in tears. “ I cried,’ he said. Ajij was the eldest of three children; his father – now moved to Saudi Arabia – ran a small hair cutting saloon in Pimpri. He didn’t talk much of his family but when asked he admitted that they don’t quite know what climbing is or what he does despite trophies in the house. The family was poor. They lived in one room. Had things gone on as they do in such underprivileged circumstances, he would have been forced to quit studies by the seventh standard and seek work. Seventh standard was a Damocles Sword. Ajij thinks it was yoga that saved him. He travelled to participate in yoga competitions and that exposed him to places and people away from Pune. It helped him convince his family that he should remain at school, something useful when it came to his later interest in climbing. Such passing details gave me the impression that the 22 year-old had grown to being a bit of an island. According to Ajij, 2008 was his year of change. Among other things, he resolved to face his life thinking positively and figuring out how to improve his climbing, including fundamentals – he actually had a fear for heights.

Ajij on the PMC wall (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ajij on the PMC wall (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In 2010, the Shivajinagar wall was built. Ajij took up a job at the wall, looking after day to day operations. What it really did was keep him at the wall for long hours of practice. By this time, he was also focussed on only yoga and climbing having realized the value in pruning down many interests to a few he could properly handle. In between, to make ends meet, he worked with wedding caterers helping to serve food and clean up after functions; he also worked at private companies doing odd jobs like packing. In 2010, he came third in a competition in Mumbai. Then there was an open national competition (not the formal nationals, which requires selection through zonals) at Mussoorie, where Ajij was second and Praveen was third. He smelled potential – he could do something. On return from Mussoorie, he intensified his practice. Besides practising at the Shivajinagar wall, including at the bouldering gym on the second floor inside the wall, Ajij also did extended endurance sessions on the granite wall near the old PCMC climbing wall. He qualified at the zonal competition in Bhopal and headed to Delhi for the nationals. In the initial rounds, he did badly and scraped through to the finals. Then he amazed everyone to emerge first in the senior’s lead climbing event. He repeated this triumph in 2011, 2012 and 2013 – making him a four time national champion.

In 2012, Ajij participated in the World Championships in France. It was the first time he flew in an aeroplane, his first time overseas, including catching trains in France and reaching eventual destination; all this, alone. The experience overwhelmed. He arrived too late for one event and messed up his chances in the other. Managing France with no French and just some English to get by was difficult. Overwhelmed – was the word. He breathed easy when Viraj Bhide, a climber from Mumbai studying in Paris, intervened. In 2013, Ajij participated in the Asian Championship in Iran. He hopes to travel to Spain in 2014 to participate in the next World Championship. According to him, he received no help from any sponsor, for these trips. Friends and others helped with money; he also borrowed. Later, he worked with outdoor companies to pay off what he owed people. “ I don’t have any regular sponsor. What I have understood is that you need to be set up for it properly,’’ he said, trifle bitterly.

Ajij has a point. There are others who have managed to get support even though their ranking at the nationals in their respective sport hasn’t been first. In the youngster’s eyes, they had a good “ set up’’ and hence the progression to sponsorship. But there is also the angle that youngsters tend to expect more from the world without proper self assessment first. Thanks to proliferating media, the sport has become very brand driven. Top brands are coveted. “ A sportsman in need must be willing to go along with whoever offers support even if the brand that needs him is still a struggler,’’ a senior climber said. Interestingly, Ajij did make one observation – he does not feel comfortable with climbing as imagined by sponsors. He does not like the compulsion to prove because you have sponsor to impress. He would rather just climb. That’s spiritually close to the sport’s ethic and undeniably the purest approach. But it is likely impractical – at the very least, tough – in modern competitive sport. It can be circumvented only if the public domain is dynamic in financial assistance, which is doubtful. Not to mention – climbing itself is not prominent in India, gets easily misinterpreted and yet more than any other activity captures the idea of victory with its imagery of climber moving up. “ When we go abroad, we are expected to bring back medals. But people should understand the difference in resources and training between here and overseas. They must also understand that the more you travel around and compete, the more comfortable you become with the competition format. That is critical to perform well,’’ he said.

Vicky Bhalerao (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Vicky Bhalerao (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

This problem aside, what exactly did climbing mean for Pune’s underprivileged youngsters, now successfully pushing their names in sport climbing?

We were all now sitting in front of the Shivajinagar wall. With the question of what climbing meant for them, the youngsters hit a wall; the sort of wall that thought typically runs into in a sport too action oriented to think. Does this regimen of action help you forget your troubles, the hard life back home? – I asked. “ That is probably true,’’ Vicky, who was sitting near Ajij, said softly. Vicky finished third in senior’s lead climbing at the last nationals. He has previously been national champion in junior and sub junior categories. Earning a podium finish at the nationals in his debut year as senior, he is considered to be a strong talent, somebody to watch out for. When I met Suresh, he too had felt that line of reasoning may be correct. Being at the climbing wall and climbing helped you forget other depressing things. It kept you in the zone, you had fun.

Vicky in the bouldering gym within the PMC wall (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Vicky in the bouldering gym within the PMC wall (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Suresh also told me of what happened to Somnath Shinde. Working with an adventure gear company, Somnath used to help maintain a climbing wall at the premises of the Indian Army’s Bombay Engineering Group (BEG), in Pune. Soon he expressed a desire to join the army. His first attempt failed. He succeeded in the second attempt. Now he represents the army at climbing competitions. Similarly, another talented climber from the group, Indraneel, had moved to Surat, to manage a climbing wall at a school there.

For the older Shrikrishna who along with Surendra imagined the PCMC and PMC walls, climbing faded from his life, prematurely. That’s the price he paid for devoting time to grow climbing. “ In the outdoor community, everybody wants to climb. Nobody wants to do the kind of work Surendra and I have been doing. If we had a hundred people ready to undertake such work, things would have been different and I would still be climbing. So the complaint that government does little for the sport is only partly correct. We are the ones who hardly do anything,’’ he said.

That’s something to think of.

 (CONCLUDED)

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