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