THE GREEN MANGO

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Photo: Shyam G Menon

“ People say that mangoes remind them of their childhood,’’ Gaytri said.

We were at her farm in Onde, a long drive from Mumbai.

It was mid-April.

A day could be described in one word – hot.

Towards afternoon, a palpable stillness settled on Vrindavan Farm.

No breeze; just the heat, like sticky ointment on the skin.

Both the dogs snoozed.

Gaytri took a nap.

I am stretched out on a bed in the veranda. My eyes rested on my toes; I discovered them, said hello toes, I counted them, I rediscovered them, said hello toes again, I counted them once more – so on. From a corner of my eye I could glimpse the surrounding green. I knew mangoes lurked in that green. An old taste surfaced in the brain. A craving grew. “ Shall we?’’ a little boy within, enquired.

There is a rule at the farm.

If you want to eat mango, you pick one that has fallen to the ground.

It was a bit like being lost at sea – water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.

I remembered the times I had thrown sticks, sent it spinning so that it slashes a mango’s link to a tree branch and drops it earthward. I remembered negotiating long bamboo poles with stick tied to their end like a slanted `T,’ through the dense foliage of a tree, up to a cluster of mangoes and bringing them down. I remembered clumps of leaves – the nests of fire ants – that came down along with the mangoes. You ran off seeing it come down and dashed in to collect the mangoes and move off to safety. Sometimes you climbed a tree, careful not to disturb an ants’ nest, stretched your hands out for the mango and oh hell – the ants got you! I remembered disloyal trees that grew in our compound but extended its fruits to the neighbour. How do you make sure those fruits could be hooked and brought down towards your side and not the equally eager neighbour’s?

Late afternoon, unfailingly that week in April, the breeze revived. Lying in the veranda, I never used the fan during those hot afternoons. It made the arriving breeze distinct. Delightful licks of relief. I saw the mangoes Gaytri had collected and kept on the veranda. I succumbed to temptation. I examined them. They were slightly soft, specks of yellow on their skin like grey hairs of wisdom to a human being. In fruits, they call it approaching ripeness. I come from a family split down the middle in terms of how it liked its mango. No, not the middle, more like lopping off the bulge of a mango, a side – I am that lopped off piece, the minority. Everyone liked their mango ripe and within that, many wanted it so oozy ripe that they loved squeezing and sucking the juice out of it. A ripe mango was often dessert after meals.

Kids loved to squeeze the ripe mango, authoring many a funny moment at the dining table. It is an art that gets perfect with practise and the rookie typically sent fruit juice shooting like a mini fountain toward someone engaged in serious discussion. You know what the Prime Minister should do? Psshhht….patch of yellow fruit juice on the nose. At least once, a cousin managed to send the mango’s seed flying. The adults would glare; the children would try to hush up their laughter and be poker-faced, all serious. The more they did so, the more they laughed. My cousin Manju – she was the queen of such infectious laughter.

I liked that fun. But my preferred style of mango was in minority; in retrospect, a sign of things to come in adulthood, for most of my tastes – from politics to social and cultural tastes – have reduced to minority. I liked the ripe mango on my plate to be firm when sliced. I liked it best when it wasn’t altogether sweet but bore a dash of the sour taste of its wild childhood. And I liked it best – as in best among best – when it was still green; firm, sour, white within and served with salt and chilli powder mixed in oil. The whole idea of climbing up a mango tree was to anticipate this marvellous, simple dish. The vast and sometimes overgrown environs of the house where my father’s younger sister lived, was favourite hunting ground. It had a few mango trees. We – our aunt included – knew exactly when to pluck the mango of such childhood dreams.

At Vrindavan Farm, from gate to farm house, I had seen mango trees. It was all green, green mangoes. I was beginning to feel like a fruit eating T-rex in a paradise of potential prey. Viewed from above, maybe atop the farm’s water tank, you see a procession of violently shaking trees as mango eating T-rex slices through the area. “ Great shot,’’ Steven Spielberg tells me as we discuss my role atop the water tank.

I applied for permission.

Gaytri Bhatia is a NOLS instructor; friend and colleague from work in the outdoors.

Friend, colleague – maybe rules bend? – I thought.

Her rules stayed firm.

It had to be fallen fruit.

She had a valid reason for it – each green mango plucked from the tree, is one ripe mango less by harvest.

I couldn’t be T-rex in a mango version of Jurassic Park.

So T-rex lowered its head to earth and walked around like a cow. The first couple of pickings were so-so. And terribly agitating, for just as you straightened from picking up the best you could find on the ground, your eyes encountered at nose level the choicest green mango still attached to tree and well, laughing in your face. You hoped you had high mental powers to bring the guy down without you physically doing anything that broke Gaytri’s rules; maybe in another lifetime when I am God. The slightly ripe ones I found on the ground, however returned a decent dessert after dinner that night.

The next day, the Gods smiled.

The farm had cashew trees. What all can you do with cashew fruit? – That had become an engaging question. With a kitchen at hand, I was determined to experiment and get a Nobel Prize even if it meant working with a gas mask on to handle the fruit’s pungent odour. In a world winning awards left, right and centre for all the silliest reasons, it is a long time since I got one. So why not – say, the award for surviving the most testing culinary experiment goes to…..?

Out collecting fallen cashew fruit and keeping an eye out for the one thing guaranteed to have me outrun Usain Bolt – the snake, I came across a perfect green mango fallen to the ground. It was wholly legal as per the farm’s rules to pick up and bang on in terms of required hardness. My heart danced and sank all at once. I was in tears. It was a moment of melodrama befitting the dreariest soap on TV. The mango was perfect! In the end the T-rex in me, won. The stomach and its enterprising ambassador upstairs – the taste buds, triumphed over sensitivity and philosophy.

I spent the evening relishing the mango with salt and chilli powder.

Did it remind me of my childhood?

Yes it did; fleetingly.

Then, I turned my back on years gone by and looked the other way, joining an army of people conditioned to do so.

I suspect it is because I am scared.

I fear the mango will take me back to a place I love too much to return to the present.

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

ARRIVED AS TRIATHLETE, LEAVING AS RUNNER

Andrea Reinsmoen Stadler (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Andrea Reinsmoen Stadler (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

“ Mumbai made me a runner,’’ Andrea Reinsmoen Stadler said.

Around us, at a cafe in the city’s business district called Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC), the end of yet another working day brought more executives and financial types to coffee. Outside, the traffic had picked up. Not far from BKC, to one side, lay the edge of an urban congestion that is so typically Mumbai. To another side, lay the busy Western Express Highway, gathering evening’s peak hour traffic. Between population, congestion and rising traffic, you often wonder: how do Mumbai’s inhabitants manage to run? Somehow they do.

Over the last few years, Andrea has emerged one of the familiar faces on Mumbai’s running circuit. She is a powerful runner. Yet the fact is – Andrea, a teacher by profession, didn’t consider herself a runner as much as she considered herself a triathlete.

Andrea, 40, grew up in Quito, Ecuador. As a youngster, she was into all types of sports, from basketball and volleyball to even fencing. “ Any sport – I would go for it,’’ she said. Except two – she didn’t like golf, she didn’t like running. Things changed a bit, when she moved to Switzerland. There she did a lot of cycling, swimming and playing games like squash. Then somebody suggested that she try running as a way to prepare for the triathlon. It was trifle daunting. “ I just thought running was boring. I found it monotonous. Unless you are on a beautiful trail, it’s mentally challenging. I guess, so is swimming. But gliding through water is a much better feeling than pounding cement,’’ she said.

The challenge of a triathlon was however an engaging idea. She liked the triathlon format for the variation in activity it offered, including variation in training. Her first triathlon was in a small town in Switzerland. “ Running is the weakest component in my performance at triathlons,’’ Andrea said.

Photo: by arrangement

Photo: by arrangement

From Switzerland, she shifted to Dubai where she continued participating in triathlons. “ Then I did the 2004 Dubai Marathon. It was painful. The last 30 minutes was a torture. I couldn’t walk properly for a week after that. I didn’t want to run a marathon again,’’ Andrea said. She was certain that one of the expectations she had from any physical activity is that she be able to return to a normal life after indulging in it. “ The Dubai marathon episode was also when I decided that if I am to do something, I should train for it; I should be prepared for it. Not just finish but finish well, injury-free and be able to continue with my work and family,’’ she said.

All this was in 2004.

While running irritated Andrea, the triathlon continued to engage. She had a podium finish in the Half Iron Man (1.5km swimming, 90km cycling, 21km running). “ I used to tell people, I run only to finish the triathlon,’’ she said.

From Dubai, Andrea moved to Minnesota in the US, where she continued to participate in triathlons. In the US, she found herself a trainer and trained under him for two years. She placed fifth in a Half Iron Man. Following that, the trainer pointed her towards the Minnesota marathon, which was just a month away. Recalling old experiences, she was reluctant. But the trainer gave her a plan. She finished that event in 3:48 hours, injury-free with no aches or pains. “ After that race, my mom, husband at the time and daughter took a nap. I was wide awake, ready to do something else with my day,’’ Andrea said.

In 2008, she left the US for Mumbai, India, where she secured work as a teacher at the American School. Andrea said she had the habit of searching much on the Internet for a profile of whichever place she was moving to, especially in terms of prospects for the physically active life. When it came to Mumbai, there was a lot of slip between the cup and the lip. The physically active lifestyle was definitely around but the overall congested environment in which it resided was something the Internet hadn’t prepared her for. For the first time, she was also staring at an activity calendar very weak in triathlons and strong in running.

Andrea realized she would have to change.

Photo: by arrangement

Photo: by arrangement

Initially she was staying in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, running regularly on Carter Road. One day, she met Giles Drego, a well known trainer. “ He was my first contact here in running,’’ Andrea said. Giles encouraged Andrea to sign up for races. She ran her first Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), India’s flagship event in running. She participated in the smaller events too. The first time one of the authors of this piece saw Andrea was in fact at a 10km-hill run in Thane. “ Anything that was open for participation, I would go for it,’’ she said. Once she got into the groove of things, she began liking the Mumbai world of running.

“ I look forward to races here because of the people,’’ Andrea said.

She put that observation in perspective:

Running in Mumbai is hard for most expatriates. The infrastructure is not quite what they are used to. Andrea felt that way many times. What compensated was the human connect. The help she got from other Mumbai runners had her come out to run even in the extreme heat and humidity of the city. According to her, at first it was the knowledge that Giles would be out either training or walking his dog and would wave and say hello that kept her going. Then she met a runner, Anil by name, who daily ran 15km. He would wave and say hello. Little by little she met Mumbai’s runners and they included her in their runs. Once as part of training, she needed to do a 30km-run before work. She messaged runner Purnendu Nath about it. Within an hour he had a route figured out with people meeting her at different stations to run alongside and bring food and water, all the way to her school. “ I was amazed by the willingness of everyone to come out and help,’’ she said.

Similarly, what struck her most about the Bandra-NCPA run are the people who volunteer their Sunday morning to wait for runners at different points with water and refreshments. “ They have big smiles and are full of encouragement. The community here is just so giving, more so than in other countries I have lived in. It might be things you do naturally in your culture but it is these gestures that made me want to continue going out in Mumbai,’’ Andrea said.

Running in Ladakh (Photo: by arrangement)

Running in Ladakh (Photo: by arrangement)

Not long after she reached Mumbai, Andrea had to go through a divorce, a painful phase for anyone. Around this time she trained intensely, prepared well and successfully completed a 100km-run in Ladakh called Zen Challenge. “ The 100km-run was something that came at the right time in my life. I wanted a challenge. I love challenges. This was one. Training was hard as I had to find time to fit in all the hours of training I did. At that time, it seemed doable. I won’t do it again,’’ Andrea said. Although she trained hard, she didn’t resort to any special training for running at altitude. She just made sure that she reached Ladakh ten days before the event to acclimatize well. The Ladakh experience left her very happy. “ I saw myself as a triathlete. Mumbai made me a runner. I wouldn’t have otherwise done 100km anywhere,’’ she said.

For the observer though, there is an interesting side to Andrea’s run in Ladakh. Much of this district tucked in the mountains of Karakoram and Himalaya is above 9800ft elevation. Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where Andrea grew up, is the highest located capital city in the world at an elevation of 9350ft. Although she took up running seriously only after leaving Ecuador, in some ways, Andrea would seem a child of altitude. (For an article on an ultra marathon in Ladakh please visit https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2013/10/19/an-ultra-marathon-from-the-sidelines/)

Reema Agarwal is a runner, yoga instructor and nutritionist. Her initiation into running happened in 2010, in the US. In 2012, she moved to Mumbai. She met Andrea during an open house session at the American School where her son studies. Their conversation drifted to the topic of running. “ I think Andrea is one of the best woman runners here. Unfortunately, I have not been able to train with her because her pace is much faster than mine,” Reema said. According to her, Andrea is not only a good runner but also a very helpful, knowledgeable and humble person. “ She comes from a different country and a different culture. Yet you will never hear her complain about anything,” Reema said.

On Cotopaxi (Photo: by arrangement)

On Cotopaxi (Photo: by arrangement)

When she came to meet us, Andrea had a large bag along. That – she said – was how she went to work every day, lugging along what she needed for her training sessions. She had to be creative about her training schedules and plans being a working, single mother with two daughters. “ I train myself without having a race in mind. I can run a 21km-half marathon anytime. That is how my body is prepared now,’’ she said.

Her emphasis on training and her focus evokes the image of a person with a structured approach to life. “ This structured approach has been developing; I guess more so when I was studying in Switzerland. I can’t pinpoint when it started. It has transferred to my work. Part of it is because I enjoy it,’’ Andrea said. Her appetite for the active lifestyle also saw her visiting the climbing crags at Belapur in Navi Mumbai and the small bouldering wall at Mumbai’s Podar College.

June 2015, on completing her stint as teacher in Mumbai, Andrea Reinsmoen Stadler moves back to Ecuador.

She looks forward to continue pursuing her interests with a new one added to the list – mountain climbing. During Christmas holidays in 2013, she had been to Cotopaxi (5897m), Ecuador’s second highest peak.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon are independent journalists based in Mumbai. The dates of events and timings mentioned herein are as provided by the interviewee. Where photo credits say `by arrangement,’ the photos have been sourced from Andrea.)

THE CONSTANT RUNNER / UPDATE

Dnyaneshwar Tidke (Photo: by arrangement)

Dnyaneshwar Tidke (Photo: by arrangement)

April 21, 2015: Navi Mumbai based runner, Dnyaneshwar Tidke, completed the full marathon  in Boston in 3:00:57 hours.

At the just concluded 2015 edition of the prestigious event, he was ranked 404 among men in his age group of 40-44 years.

The men’s section of that age group had 2392 runners.

His overall rank was 2839 and within the men’s category, 2679, data from the event website showed.

Don’s best timing to date for the full marathon is 2:53, which he achieved at the Pune International Marathon in December 2011.

For more on Dnyaneshwar, aka Don, please see https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2015/04/11/the-constant-runner/

The winner in Don’s age group at the 2015 Boston Marathon, Danilo Goffi of Italy, had a timing of 2:18:44, which translated to 15th place overall and 15th within the men’s category.

The top finisher overall in the men’s category, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, had a timing of 2:09:17. The top finisher overall in the women’s category was Caroline Rotich from Kenya at 2:24:55.

On the event’s website, as per numbers quoted under the category ` countries of citizenship represented,’  India had 19 runners enrolled of which, 18 started the race and 17, completed it. Corresponding figures for India under the category `countries of residence represented’ were 10, 9 and 8 respectively.

In terms of timing, Don topped the list of Indian runners under the citizenship category.

The other Indians in the list after Don were Abhaya N Menon (Falls Church, VA, USA) – 3:03:41, Ashok Nath (Bangalore) – 3:04:26, Sunil M Menon (Hyderabad) – 3:05:39, Dharmendra Dilip Kumar (Jersey City, NJ, USA) – 3:17:11, Thomas Bobby Philip (Bangalore) – 3:30:08, K.C. Kothandapani (Bangalore) – 3:38:06, Jitendra Rawat (Jersey City, NJ, USA) – 3:38:17, Roopali Mehta (Mumbai) – 3:44:49, Vaishali Kasture (Bangalore) – 3:48:54, Neera Katwal (Bangalore) – 4:07:06, Praveen M Bahadduri (Wayland, MA, USA) – 4:14:09, Ruiban F. Coutinho (Ashland, MA, USA) – 4:35:02, Mehar Kaur (Cambridge, MA, USA) – 4:47:03. Akshay Singh (Cambridge, MA, USA) – 4:52:22, Ranganath Papanna (Medford, MA, USA) – 5:17:01 and Udayaditya Chatterjee (Boston, MA, USA) – 5:26:36.

Altogether the 2015 edition of the event had 30,251 runners on its rolls. Of the lot, 98 per cent finished the race.

Incidentally, the fastest time by an Indian in a marathon – the national record – remains still in the name of the late Shivnath Singh.

In 1978, he ran the marathon in Jalandhar in a time of 2:12:00.

Singh passed away in 2003.

His obituary in the Times of India noted, “ At the trials for the 1976 Olympics, Shivnath running a marathon for the first time, stunned everybody by clocking 2:15:58. In Montreal, the Naib Subedar defied sore and painful shins to finish as the best Asian and 11th overall out of the 71 who finished the marathon. For almost three-fourths of the race, Shivnath was up in the front with the best. He was alongside American Bill Rodgers, a Boston marathon winner, and Finn Lasse Viren who was trying the marathon after winning the 5,000m and the 10,000m for the second time. The field also had the 1972 Olympic champ, Frank Shorter, and the eventual winner, Waldemar Cierpinski of East Germany. Cierpinski clocked 2:09:55 and Shorter 2:10:45.8. Shivnath ended 11th with 2:16:22.0 which was only a little slower than his then best of 2:15:58.”

(The authors Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon are independent journalists based in Mumbai. The photo used in this report was sourced from Dnyaneshwar Tidke. The timings and rankings mentioned are sourced from the event’s website and as at the time of reporting; race data usually takes a while to settle down.)

“ WHY NOT EVEREST?’’

Dr Murad Lala (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Dr Murad Lala (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

“ My take in life is that whoever I see as a hero – I see that person as somebody who had the right opportunity to do something and grabbed it. I will respect that person but not idolise him.’’

Meet Dr Murad Lala.

He was born in 1963, in Secunderabad, the youngest of three brothers.

His father was a pilot in the Indian Air Force, who passed on the credo that no matter what you choose to do in life, you should try give it the best shot you can. Dr. Lala studied at Lawrence School, Lovedale, Ooty. He wasn’t a very academically oriented student. The school emphasized all around development of the individual. Outdoor activity was part of school life.

When it came to college, given his desire to be a pilot, the youngster shifted to Bengaluru. There, while doing his BSc, he became active in the National Cadet Corps (NCC), going on to represent Karnataka at the annual Republic Day parade in New Delhi. He was adjudged the All India Best Cadet (Air Wing). Thanks to that, the state offered him a seat to study medicine or engineering. He picked medicine, enrolling at the government medical college in Bellary. He would periodically come to Bengaluru to continue his lessons in flying and pursue getting a pilot’s licence. Eventually he took his Private Pilot Licence. Following his MBBS he did his MS in General Surgery and MCh in Surgical Oncology from the Kidwai Memorial Institute of Oncology in Bengaluru. For some years thereafter, he worked at Tata Memorial hospital in Mumbai. Later, he shifted to Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai, as a Consultant Surgical Oncologist.

The old bug for the active lifestyle entered the frame every time Dr. Lala travelled out on fellowships or training workshops. Thus he did skydiving in the US and deep sea diving in Australia. Back home, he teamed up with his paediatrician wife Dr. Mamatha Lala, to race in the Raid de Himalaya car rally thrice. Murad drove their Maruti SX4; Mamatha was navigator. In the third attempt in 2009, they finished third overall. The rally route taking them through the Himalaya and over some of its high passes was Dr Murad Lala’s introduction to the Himalayas. It sparked off the idea of climbing mountains as a new line of adventure, particularly attempting the world’s highest peak, the 8850m-high Mt Everest.

Next pit stop for the Lalas was however in an entirely different direction.

Dr Lala near Island Peak base camp during the Tripe Crown Expedition (Photo: courtesy Dr Murad Lala)

Dr Lala near Island Peak base camp during the Tripe Crown Expedition (Photo: by arrangement)

In 2010, there was a vacancy for a doctor aboard the Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica, where India has maintained a base station for several years now. Realizing that six months away from work would be impossible for him, Dr Lala encouraged his wife to apply. Dr Mamatha Lala applied, trained for life on the frozen continent with mountaineers from the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and finally did that stint as expedition doctor in Antarctica. Dr Mamatha Lala was aware of her husband’s desire to attempt Everest. While training with the ITBP, she asked around for inputs.

Armed with the information and wanting to train before climbing any mountain, Dr Murad Lala wrote to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) expressing his wish to do the Basic and Advanced Mountaineering Courses offered by India’s government run mountaineering institutes. The best known of these training institutes are run in league with the armed forces. The imagination at work has traditionally straddled a few key aspects – among them emphasis on youth, performance and potential livelihood. The then 49 year-old Dr Lala, got the same reply others in that age group have been receiving: the institutes don’t cater to over-aged people.

I asked Dr Lala, what the physician in him thought of the establishment’s response given many middle aged Indians these days live an active life filled with physical activity. He said he couldn’t make sense of it.

On the other hand, those wedded to pure ethics in mountaineering would wonder why someone who hasn’t climbed a mountain before should choose Everest for first peak. “ Why not some other peak?’’ I asked Dr Lala. “ Why not Everest?’’ he asked in return. It is a debate that divides climbers sharply. Dr Lala wasn’t thinking of Everest without homework. He knew that amid all the mountaineering stories surrounding the peak, Everest by its normal route is not a technically difficult mountain to climb. “ This is not K2, which I know I shouldn’t try,’’ he said. Everest is a test of endurance that is additionally, a well guided ascent now.

With training denied by officialdom in India and still wishing to climb Everest, Dr Lala turned to the Internet. He contacted the Canadian company Peak Freaks (http://www.peakfreaks.com/). They had a training program for the novice wishing to attempt Everest; they first put you through an expedition called the Triple Crown Expedition which involved climbing three peaks of lower elevation – Island Peak (6145m), Pokhalde (5806m) and Lobuche East (6119m). In October 2012 Dr Lala did the Triple Crown Expedition with Peak Freaks. It was structured in such a fashion that the participants got trained in the fundamentals of climbing as the expedition progressed. At trip’s close, the team leader would assess and decide who is eligible for Everest. Of 13 people who started out, three completed the training. Dr Lala was one of them. He was told by the team leader that if he wished, he could attempt Everest with Peak Freaks in 2013. It left him with mere months to prepare. There was also the hurdle of securing finances and two months-leave from work.

At the start of the Khumbu Icefall, Mt Pumori in the backdrop (Photo: courtesy Dr Murad Lala)

At the start of the Khumbu Icefall, Mt Pumori in the backdrop (Photo: by arrangement)

In Mumbai, Dr Lala’s search for sponsors fell flat. But amazingly, his request for leave was accepted. The hospital he worked at got sufficiently enthused about his endeavour and made a contribution to the expedition kitty as well. The rest – a sizable amount as the whole budget was around three to three and half million rupees – was put together from his resources and savings. Then came the issue of how a busy cancer surgeon will train to be physically fit for the expedition. He jogged at night after work; began walking the long distance from where he stayed to his place of work, he started climbing the stairs of his tall hospital building daily, he used every opportunity he could avail at work to snatch a move or two of recommended exercise. Dr Lala also visited Altitude and Pilates, a gym in Mumbai that offered the facility to train in a chamber capable of simulating high altitude. He did all this training as much as he could. He picked up some essential gear like his backpack, from AVI Industries in the city (for more on AVI Industries please see https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/avi-industries-the-fortitude-of-the-lone-shop/), worked at the hospital till the eve of his departure and then flew from Mumbai to Kathmandu on March 28, 2013, Everest in mind.

At Kathmandu, he met his new team members. He also shopped for the remaining personal gear he had to have in place. He bought La Sportiva mountaineering boots meant for high altitude climbing and for warm wear, he bought locally made stuff reputed to work as well as the expensive big brands. The team then flew to Lukla and trekked to Everest Base Camp (EBC). At EBC, before starting the climb, there was a prayer meeting (puja) after which the clients were taken to the Khumbu Icefall to learn techniques required for crossing it, including how to handle the ladders bridging the icefall’s massive crevasses. There was also an acclimatisation overnight stay at Kala Patthar (5644.5m), a high point in the vicinity of EBC, known to offer fine views of the Everest massif. The day before formally commencing the ascent of Everest, the clients were allotted personal Sherpa guides. Dr Lala’s constant friend for the ascent was Mingmar Sherpa who had already climbed Everest six times. Asked what a Sherpa guide will do and won’t do on a commercial expedition to Everest, Dr Lala said that while they were there to help the client, it is the client’s onus to get himself or herself to the top. This matched the emergent scene on Everest outlined by Dawa Steven Sherpa, Managing Director, Astrek Group, at the annual seminar of the Himalayan Club (for that report, please visit https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/everest-may-get-costlier/).

Negotiating a crevasse on the Khumbu Icefall (Photo: courtesy Dr Murad Lala)

Negotiating a crevasse on the Khumbu Icefall (Photo: by arrangement)

The ascent was tough on the Mumbai doctor. “ For me everything was a struggle,’’ Dr Lala said of his climb up the mountain from EBC and the first major challenge en route (in some ways it’s most formidable) – the Khumbu Icefall. The team leader had set out clear rules for safety. Turn round times had to be respected and cannot be compromised. There were time limits for each stage of the climb, failing to meet which you turned back. You had to be able to reach Camp 3 and be comfortable there without oxygen. Else, you could be asked to turn back for early oxygen use typically betrays poor acclimatization. “ I always kept myself within the aerobic zone. I never tried to catch up with anyone ahead of me and start panting. I proceeded at my slow pace. I was always the last in the group, it had been so even in the hike up to EBC,’’ Dr Lala said. The group had started out from Kathmandu with eight clients. Within the first week of commencing ascent, three turned back. The remaining five soldiered on. “ As it happened, we were five persons from five different continents,’’ Dr Lala said.

Given their slow pace, Dr Lala and another climber were always the first to leave camp for a day’s ascent. The impact of some of these experiences on the doctor, planted on Everest from Mumbai with just the Triple Crown Expedition in between, can be imagined. At Camp 1, the team was caught in a blizzard for three nights. “ I found that very unnerving. It was total white out during the day. Supplies were limited and there was nothing to do except stay in the tent,’’ he said. The toughest portions of the ascent for him were the Khumbu Icefall, the Lhotse face, the summit push from Camp 4 and the Hillary Step. Thanks to his slow pace, Dr Lala had to leave Camp 4 for the summit an evening at 7PM with the temperature at -36 degrees. He recalls being exhausted within half an hour. Around 9PM, his headlamp – with a new set of batteries in it – failed. It could not be revived. The lack of sufficient light made the climb even more difficult. In the middle of all this his electric toe warmers were also not working (much later it was traced to the apparatus not being switched on). “ The ascent was a battle with physical fatigue. I was wondering how to put the next foot forward,’’ he said. If the team failed to reach the feature called `the balcony’ by 6AM, they would have to turn back. They reached the balcony by 1AM, well ahead of the cut off time for that stage – 6AM. The climbers rested here to change oxygen cylinders and have a quick snack. Then they pushed for the South Summit (from where you get to see the main summit), tackled the Hillary Step with its traffic of the season’s climbers and reached the summit of Mt Everest.

Approaching the summit, early morning May 19, 2013 (Photo: courtesy Dr Murad Lala)

Approaching the summit, early morning May 19, 2013 (Photo: by arrangement)

Dr Lala was on top by 9.10AM on May 19, 2013. Those who reach the summit are reminded to take photos with their goggles, helmet and oxygen mask off for identification (needed for certificate). The Mumbai doctor went through all these moves. “ I just wanted to get down. With my mask off and thereby no bottled oxygen to breathe, I was beginning to feel breathless up there,’’ he said. The descent commenced at 9.30AM and the team was soon engulfed by clouds. “ For me, the descent was also a struggle,’’ Dr Lala said. By the time, he got back to Camp 4, it was 6PM. The whole summit effort had taken 23 hours. Next afternoon he reached Camp 2 and the following day he made it safely back to EBC. That was when he allowed himself to accept the realization that he had successfully climbed Everest. He gave away most of his gear to the Sherpas with first choice on everything reserved for Mingmar. On May 28, he reached Mumbai, seven kilos less in body weight. June first week, he was back at work at Hinduja Hospital.

In the early flush of celebrations and reports in the media, Dr Lala was portrayed as the first Indian doctor to climb Everest. In the ensuing months, Dr Lala discovered it was incorrect for there were doctors from the Indian armed forces who had been up there much before him. He is the first Indian civilian doctor to climb Mt. Everest. Not that it matters to him – he said he did not climb Everest for any record or recognition. The only use of such distinction is – had he known of this likelihood, it could have been a means to market his Everest-attempt and find sponsors, something he drew a blank on in early 2013. I quizzed him some bit on the lack of purity in climbing Everest as a client in a commercial expedition. “ I was going there to do something I wanted to do. My take in life is that whoever I see as a hero – I see that person as somebody who had the right opportunity to do something and grabbed it. I will respect that person for what he or she did but I won’t idolize the individual. Just because I am an ordinary person, it does not mean that I can’t have an extraordinary dream, ’’ Dr Lala said.

On the summit of Mt Everest (Photos: courtesy Dr Murad Lala; Photo montage: Shyam G Menon)

On the summit of Mt Everest (Photos: by arrangement; Photo montage: Shyam G Menon)

A question valid in Dr Lala’s context is whether he is a mountaineer or an adventurer. Although he took his pilot licence, it has since lapsed. He did skydiving and deep sea diving but is neither a skydiver nor a deep sea diver in the real sense of the term. He did the Triple Crown Expedition and climbed Everest but whether he is a mountaineer or not would be lost in debates about what makes one a mountaineer. A likely answer lay in a development almost a year and a half after the Everest climb. The five clients on Everest – one from each continent – had bonded as a team. They kept in touch. Over July-September 2014, four of them including Dr Lala, applied to orbit the planet with Virgin Galactic. Founded by British industrialist Sir Richard Branson one of Virgin Galactic’s stated aims is space tourism. The results of the application and selection process were due in December 2014. Unfortunately, the company lost a spacecraft in an accident in October 2014. The results of the selection process never came. The proposed trip has been put off, Dr Lala said. For those still wondering whether he is a mountaineer or an adventurer, the application for space travel should provide a clue.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Where ` by arrangement’ has been mentioned in photo credits, the photos have been sourced from Dr Murad Lala)

THE CONSTANT RUNNER

Dnyaneshwar Tidke

Dnyaneshwar Tidke

Entering the housing colony in New Panvel, we asked for the house we wished to go to.

“ Tidke?’’ the woman said inquiringly, turning to face us from the conversation she had been having at the kitchen window of her neighbour.

“ Haan…over there, see the cycle? That door,’’ she said.

By now a big black dog had begun barking at our intrusion into the quiet environs. Two other dogs, closer by, raised an eye brow to glance at us and then went back to sleep. Reaching the door near the parked bicycle, we rang the door bell. A man dressed in track pant and T-shirt opened the door. He had the light build of a dedicated runner; his eyes seemed tired and peaceful at once. We were ushered into a frugally furnished, neatly kept room. Meet Mumbai running’s “ Don.’’

Dnyaneshwar Tidke was born in March 1974 at Malakoli village in Nanded in the Marathwada region of India’s Maharashtra state. His father Dhondiram Tidke was a farmer. Life was tough. Agriculture in these parts depended on timely rains and the monsoon had its vagaries. Dnyaneshwar studied up to the tenth standard at the village school. A generally quiet person, he was neither exceptional at studies nor was he pronouncedly into sports. Then something happened. He failed in the tenth standard. Although he cleared this hurdle in his second attempt, the failure and his subsequent ability to pass through hard work stayed engraved in his mind. When it came to his twelfth standard exams at school in Ahmedpur, Dnyaneshwar secured 96 per cent marks in physics, chemistry and mathematics, a high enough score to be admitted for chemical engineering at the Laxminarayan Institute of Technology (LIT) in Nagpur. College was his first time away from Malakoli. “ It was a different experience,’’ Dnyaneshwar said. He developed a penchant for physical activity. He frequented a gym. The college was on a hill. He used to run loops around it. Crucially he developed a craving for physical exertion and exhaustion. It was the beginning of the first half of Don’s life. Its credo – life’s problems solved by a simple solution founded in how he cleared his school exams and the physically active life that followed: if you can’t get something, then, hard work should help you get it. When you work hard you become tired. So, if you are tired it also means you did the required hard work to get what you want.

(Left) An old photo of Malakoli (Right) Dnyaneshwar (second from right) with his father Dhondiram Tidke, mother Bhivarabai and sister, Neetha (Photos: courtesy Dnyaneshwar. Photo montage: Shyam G Menon)

(Left) An old photo of Malakoli (Right) Dnyaneshwar (second from right) with his father Dhondiram Tidke, mother Bhivarabai and sister, Neetha (Photos: courtesy Dnyaneshwar. Photo montage: Shyam G Menon)

Following his BTech, Dnyaneshwar’s first job was as temporary lecturer for a year at the government polytechnic in Mumbra on the peripheries of Mumbai. Once the stint was over, he returned to Malakoli. In 2000, he got married. For the next few years he stayed put in Malakoli, in what he described as some sort of funk, the bright spot therein being a daily 10km-run with a swim thereafter in a distant village-pond. That faith in physical activity as means to find equanimity, groomed in college, was slowly evolving into a daily discipline. He would in between come from Malakoli to Kalina in Mumbai, where he stayed at a friend’s place and hunted for a job. The everyday running continued; this time it was from Kalina on the eastern edge of the city’s western suburbs, to Juhu beach on Mumbai’s west coast. Around this time, he worked for two to three months at a logistics company near the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) in Navi Mumbai, India’s premier container port. While there he saw the advertisement for the 2006 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). He enrolled for the full marathon with no proper idea of what it entailed. Luckily even as he enrolled for the marathon with insufficient grasp of the subject, he secured his first proper job – Assistant Production Officer with Modhera Chemicals, a company in Turbhe, Navi Mumbai, manufacturing specialty chemicals for the textile industry. The family moved to rented accommodation in Panvel, Navi Mumbai. He chose Panvel both for its proximity to where he worked and also its proximity to industrial zones, just in case he was forced to seek employment afresh.

Dnyaneshwar trained for his first SCMM, sticking to his daily 10km runs. Then, prompted by the 42 km-length of the marathon and its disparity with his daily runs, he ran 35 km three days ahead of the event. In a personal madness, likely traceable to challenges in high school and the habits he picked up in college, he didn’t want to merely run, he wanted to win. On race day, he reached the starting line late. Wanting to win, he commenced running without sparing time to pin his bib. He held it in his hand instead. Half way through, he was stopped by the police who mistook him to be an intruder running without the official bib. He showed his bib and continued. But no matter how hard he tried the pack leaders remained way ahead while Dnyaneshwar got progressively exhausted. He was still struggling to reach the half way mark, when he saw the leaders going in the reverse direction after the half way-turn. He noticed their pace and efficiency. Past the half way-mark, at Shivaji Park, Dnyaneshwar quit. His first SCMM was a DNF (Did Not Finish).

Dnyaneshwar Tidke

Dnyaneshwar

To confront the challenge of preparing for his next SCMM, he applied his longstanding credo – work harder. What he overlooked was that he was employed and working long hours. “ I used to get tired from work and then go for a run,’’ he said. This routine plus the daily running strained him. Then in a repeat of 2006, in 2007 too, just ahead of the year’s SCMM, Dnyaneshwar ran 35km to be ready for the marathon he badly wanted to do. Fortunately, he completed the race in 4:30 hours. But he found his energy dipping past the 30km-mark. He was in a trap, a vicious cycle. He didn’t want to run the half marathon; he wanted to run the full. He wanted to win and the only thing he knew to win was to work harder. The harder he worked, the more he got tired. The more he tired himself, the less he could run. In 2008, his timing at SCMM exceeded five hours. He was ill for almost a month before the run. He had none to advise him, no friends in running. Meanwhile, another problem was hot on his heels – he wasn’t eating properly. With too much running and long hours at work to somehow balance, he was ignoring food intake not to mention, nutrition. “ My thinking then was – to run a marathon well, you must run a marathon every day,’’ he said. Eventually medical complications caught up with him – among them, fall in his platelets count. Dnyaneshwar was hospitalized soon after the Mumbai marathon. To complicate matters, his elder son had been diagnosed with a heart problem.

Whatever the problems in his life, Dnyaneshwar’s recipe for cure remained the same – running. “ Exhaustion felt good. It cleared the head,’’ he said. In 2009, he missed registering for the SCMM. Although he didn’t run at the event, he stayed in training. Asked whether he consulted his doctor on how to recover, he said he resorted to self administered recovery. The hospitalization had however tempered the old blind faith in furious activity. He was being watchful. Overall across these years, a Dnyaneshwar-day went somewhat like this: wake up at 4.30AM; run till 7.30AM, leave for work at 8AM, be back home by 7PM. That was a typical day; repeat it every day. There have been atypical days too. When he commenced formal training with a coach, there were days when he got back home at 11PM before starting the crushing routine all over again. The most engagingly atypical one was this – he would run in the morning from his house in Panvel to Sanpada roughly 25km away. At a shop selling fruit juice in Sanpada, where he would have kept a change of clothes stashed, he would change and proceed to office. “ No matter what, everyday he will go for a run,’’ his wife, Surekha, said. At the 2010 SCMM, he got his first genuinely encouraging result. He finished the full marathon in 3:58, his first sub-four hours-timing.

Dnyaneshwar at the 2014 Bengaluru Marathon

Dnyaneshwar at the 2014 Bengaluru Marathon

Arguably, it was in 2011 that Dnyaneshwar’s life in running began to change. That year the second half of Don’s life started. Some 20 days before that year’s SCMM, while out on a practice run in Navi Mumbai, he met Praveen Kumar, a runner from Bihar. Praveen was in the city specifically to run the SCMM. He was being supervised by a coach. Dnyaneshwar talked to them and in the process got his first taste of formal, structured training for a marathon. Despite a dose of unexpected confusion in the following days for distraction (Praveen apparently went missing and was found only after the SCMM), Dnyaneshwar returned a timing of 3:21 at SCMM. He was also able to do this without any stop in between. “ I felt good,’’ he said. But through the preparation for the race and the running itself, he had aggravated a case of shin splints. Following this race, he chanced to post his timing on the website of Runners for Life. As runners took note of his timing and one runner spoke to the other, word reached Navi Mumbai Runners (NMR) of the promising runner in their midst. According to Dnyaneshwar, M.K. Srivatsan and Vignesh Eashwar of NMR put him in touch with the well known coach, Daniel Vaz, who recommended rest and icing for the shin splints. Later Dnyaneshwar joined one of Mumbai’s regular Bandra-NCPA runs and met Giles Drego, another coach. Eventually he settled for Savio Dsouza as coach, his first formal training arrangement for long distance running. As he stayed in Panvel far off from the city, he would meet his coach one day of the week and keep him posted of his activity, over phone, the remaining days. “ I learnt to give food and nutrition the required importance,’’ Dnyaneshwar said of lessons from this phase.

In August 2011, he raced under Savio’s guard for the first time at the Hyderabad marathon, returning a timing of 3:11. He placed third in the open category. It was Dnyaneshwar’s first podium finish. He got Rs 15,000 as prize money. “ It felt good,’’ he said. Then in December 2011, he ran at the Pune International Marathon completing it in 2:53, his first sub three hours-performance in the full marathon. It was also his personal best. However at the 2012 SCMM, his timing increased to 3:04. It was in part due to the congestion caused by half marathon runners as at some point their route merged with that of the full marathon.

Meanwhile a new set of problems arose. His parents had been ailing for some time. With only a younger sister for sibling and nobody to really take care of his parents in Malakoli, Dnyaneshwar moved them to Panvel. The circumstance prompted him to shift from rented premises to owned premises. To do so, he sold a portion of his land in the village and used the receipts to purchase a house. “ Amid all this, in 2012, my training suffered,’’ he said. Aside from SCMM, the only other event of note he participated in was a marathon in Mumbai’s Borivali National Park where he came first. At the 2013 SCMM, he returned a timing of 2:56, something he managed because he was allowed to run in the elite category and avoid the growing congestion of runners. Months later, in May 2013, both his parents passed away within a week of each other. In June 2013, Dnyaneshwar suffered a motorbike accident with injury to his left ankle. It forced him to rest for 2-3 months. Finding it difficult to sit still, he turned to swimming for relief. Dnyaneshwar rebounded from the accident with the Vasai-Virar marathon (3:12); the Goa half marathon (1:23), the 2014 SCMM full marathon, which he finished in 2:58, placing sixth in the amateur category and the Bangalore marathon where he placed sixth at 3:00. On the injury list, he dealt with a groin injury that year and a second motorbike accident.

Surekha and Dnyaneshwar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Surekha and Dnyaneshwar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Savio was national champion in the marathon from 1984 to 1988. We spoke to Savio for his assessment of Dnyaneshwar. “ When Dnyaneshwar approached me he was already clocking a timing of 3:15-3:20 hours in the marathon. I made a few changes to his workout for running such as adding speed workouts and increased distance among others. The training helped him. In the first event he participated in after he began working with me, he was able to complete the marathon in improved timing. He has the potential to improve further in terms of timing. I think he can touch 2:45-2:42 hours. He is a strong runner and works quite hard. Unfortunately he had a motorbike accident last year. After he recovered, he had to start his training all over again,’’ Savio said. Besides acquiring a sustainable running format through formal training, the other major change is that Dnyaneshwar has found friends. They gave him a nickname – Don. That’s how he is known in Mumbai’s running circles. “ I don’t know how that name came about. I suspect it is because of my pace, ‘’ he said laughing and alluding alongside to the popular Bollywood movie by that name with its famous dialogue saying it is not just hard to capture its hero, a don, it is impossible to catch him. The real highlight of 2014 was something else. A group of runners – among them a wealthy businessman – saw him run and broached the question: why not Boston? The qualifying time for Dnyaneshwar’s age group for the 2015 Boston Marathon was 3:15 and he had a finishing time at SCMM that was well within the limit.

“ I don’t have the money,’’ Don replied.

Both money and help have since arrived. When we met him on April 10, Don was set to fly to Boston on April 16 for the 2015 Boston Marathon, his passage put together by friends and well wishers in running, including that businessman. This is Dnyaneshwar’s first visit abroad. He said he had also spoken to Bhasker Desai, who ran the Boston Marathon thrice, for tips on how to prepare (for more on Bhasker Desai please visit https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2015/04/06/from-zanzibar-to-boston-the-bhasker-desai-story/). Most important, unlike the mad days of before when he ran hard close to race days, Dnyaneshwar was in the taper down phase of his preparation. “ For good result, systematic training is required,’’ he said, hard earned wisdom resonant in the words.

UPDATE / April 21, 2015:

According to race results available on the Boston Marathon website, Dnyaneshwar Tidke completed the full marathon in 3:00:57 hours.

He was ranked 404 among men in his age group of 40-44 years. His overall rank was 2839 and within the men’s category, 2679.

Don’s best timing to date for the full marathon is 2:53, which he achieved at the Pune International Marathon in December 2011.

The winner in Don’s age group at the 2015 Boston Marathon, Danilo Goffi of Italy, had a timing of 2:18:44, which translated to 15th place overall and 15th within the men’s category.

The top finisher overall in the men’s category, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, had a timing of 2:09:17. The top finisher overall in the women’s category was Caroline Rotich from Kenya at 2:24:55.

On the event’s website, as per numbers quoted under the category ` countries of citizenship represented,’  India had 19 runners enrolled of which, 18 started the race and 17, completed it. Corresponding figures for India under the category `countries of residence represented’ were 10, 9 and 8 respectively.

Altogether the 2015 edition of the event had 30,251 runners on its rolls. Of the lot, 98 per cent finished the race.

October 2015: Running the full marathon, Dnyaneshwar Tidke finished third in his age category (40-45 years) at the Sriram Properties Bengaluru Marathon 2015. His timing was 03:00:38.

(The authors Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon are independent journalists based in Mumbai. The timings quoted are as provided by the interviewee. Where photo credits have not been shown, the photos have been downloaded from the Facebook page of Dnyaneshwar Tidke and used with his consent. )

FROM ZANZIBAR TO BOSTON / THE BHASKER DESAI STORY

Left: Bhasker Desai (Photo: Shyam G Menon) Right: Photo taken likely in 1962, showing Bhasker at far right with his family on Pemba Island, Zanzibar. His eldest sister Sudha went to a boarding school 30 km away from home and the family had gone to see her off (Photo: courtesy Bhasker).

Left: Bhasker Desai (Photo: Shyam G Menon) Right: Photo taken likely in 1962, showing Bhasker (far right) with his family on Pemba Island, Zanzibar. His eldest sister Sudha went to a boarding school 30 km away from home and the family had gone to see her off (Photo: by arrangement).

“ It was a medical issue that got me into running,’’ Bhasker Desai said.

March 2015. We are at a cafe at the Inorbit Mall in Malad, a Mumbai suburb.

Bhasker was born in November 1952, in the town of Wete, on Pemba Island, Zanzibar. Pemba Island is the second biggest island of the Zanzibar archipelago. The famous channel which separates the islands from the coast of Tanzania (of which Zanzibar is now a part), got its name from Pemba. The Pemba Channel is rich in marine life and is considered today one of the world’s best preserved spots for game fishing. Zanzibar, ruled in the past by Omani kings, has historically hosted a non-resident Gujarati trading community. Bhasker’s grandfather was the first from his family to settle in Zanzibar, in 1905. Bhasker studied till the fifth standard in Africa. Given the growing political unrest in the archipelago preceding its formal union with Tanzania, Bhasker’s studies post-fifth standard happened at a boarding school in Nargol, South Gujarat. He went on to do his textile engineering from IIT Delhi and worked for Bombay Dyeing and Mafatlal, both big names in the Indian textile business.

In 1994, he quit his senior position at Mafatlal to commence his own business straddling three lines – garment export to Europe, supplying linen to five star hotels and being an agent for imported high density and low density polymer powder. Bhasker’s wife, a senior executive with the Tata Group, was based in the US from 1999 to 2005. With their son also studying and later working in the US, Bhasker managed the business in Mumbai and shuttled between India and the US.

In his years at IIT Delhi, Bhasker had run the 1500m at inter-hostel competitions. He also liked playing football. However life as businessman in Mumbai was decidedly sedentary.

Bhasker’s triglycerides level exceeded 900.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Triglycerides are a type of fat (lipid) found in our blood stream.

The Mayo Clinic website offers an easy-to-understand explanation. When we eat our body converts any calories it doesn’t need immediately into triglycerides, stored in our fat cells. Later, hormones release triglycerides for energy between meals. If you eat more calories than you burn – especially easy calories like carbohydrates and fats – you may have high triglycerides, a condition called hypertriglyceridemia. The American Heart Association recommends that a triglycerides level of 100 milligrams per decilitre (100mg/dL) or lower may be considered as optimal. The Mayo Clinic website deems 150-199mg/dL as ` borderline high,’ 200-499mg/dL as ` high’ and 500mg/dL and over as ` very high.’ High levels of triglycerides increase the risk of heart disease. To lower triglycerides level, change in diet and lifestyle, including physical exercise, is the usual approach.

Bhasker started frequenting Mercury Gym in the Mumbai suburb of Goregaon, doing weights and running on the treadmill. Without medication, the triglycerides receded to 450. One of the gym members noticed that he ran well on the treadmill and suggested that he train for the upcoming edition of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). Bhasker enrolled for the half marathon with roughly 40 days to prepare.

In 2005-2006, when high triglycerides got Bhasker thinking of exercise, the sprawling mall we were in wasn’t yet part of Malad’s landscape. It was vacant land bordering the nearby creek. That’s where Bhasker started training for the 2006 SCMM. On event day, he finished third in his age category with a timing of 1:45 hours. By the time he was thus initiated into long distance running and liking it, his triglycerides level had dropped through consistent physical activity to 200-250.

Bhasker with wife Nina and son Neeraj, Lake District, UK, 1990 (Photo: courtesy Bhasker)

Bhasker with wife Nina and son Neeraj, Lake District, UK, 1990 (Photo: by arrangement)

Bhasker’s son Neeraj lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. Newly married, he worked as an Assistant Vice President with the Bank of America. He was also passionate about the environment and was the youngest director of a NGO called Carolinas Clean Air Coalition. Roughly seven months after Bhasker ran his first SCMM, in August 2006, Neeraj died in a road accident. With her son now no more, Bhasker’s wife Nina, moved back to Mumbai. She also secured a job in the city with the Tata Group. The family had been adding two new floors to their house in Goregaon; the construction had been temporarily stopped because their future, when Neeraj was alive and Nina was working in the US, had seemed more US-headed than India-based. With Neeraj gone, Nina lost interest in the construction. With some coaxing from Neeraj’s friends in the US, Bhasker and Nina resumed work on the house.

January 2007 and yet another SCMM, approached. Bhasker had registered for the half marathon. On January 17, Nina passed away in hospital, the result of a slip and fall she suffered while supervising work at the house under construction. Three days later, Bhasker ran the half marathon; he decided to run the race for his wife and son, finishing it in 1:47. It took Bhasker all of 2007 to come to terms with the personal loss he had suffered. “ It wasn’t that I was crying or anything. It was more that my wife and son had given me so much of a sense of direction in life. That was suddenly gone,’’ he said. There were other losses too in 2007 – his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, his uncle’s son, they all passed away. “ It was a terrible year,’’ Bhasker said.

Bhasker running at events in Mumbai and Bengaluru (Photos: courtesy Bhasker)

Bhasker running at events in Mumbai and Bengaluru (Photos: by arrangement / Photo montage: Shyam G Menon)

Once again, SCMM provided leverage for a restart. Bhasker resumed his running with another half marathon in the 2008 SCMM. He ran a half marathon in Delhi. The running calendar then wasn’t as busy as it is nowadays. There weren’t as many events. 2009 was Bhasker’s first busy year in running. It started as usual with SCMM. Then he ran a half marathon – part of an event called Tibetan Marathon – at Leh in Ladakh, the very northern part of India, tucked in the high mountains of the Karakoram and the Himalaya. In Leh, he met Ken Skea, one of the foreign runners enrolled for the race. Ken encouraged Bhasker to attempt the Boston Marathon in the US. It is the world’s oldest and best known annual marathon, one of the six World Marathon Majors (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York City). You cannot participate unless you meet the assigned qualifying time for your age category. The qualifying time for Bhasker’s age group at the Boston Marathon was 3:45 and the then 56 year-old Bhasker hadn’t yet run a full marathon. Much work was in order.

Around this time, some other changes were happening. Born into a traditionally enterprising family that had ventured out two generations ago and made its wealth in farming, Bhasker had also put in several years working at companies and founded his own business. After the demise of his son and wife, he slowly started taking a backseat at work. The business tapered to just one line of work; his company is still supplier of linen to one of India’s biggest chain of luxury hotels. The company became more a source of income for its few employees. On his part Bhaskar did not hesitate to use his resources to help less privileged runners. Gradually the Bhasker known to Mumbai’s running circles – the man given to running, enjoying it and inspiring others by his enthusiasm for it – began taking shape.

Ken Skea and Bhasker (Photo: courtesy Bhasker)

Ken Skea and Bhasker (Photo: by arrangement)

Bhasker’s performance at the 2010 SCMM full marathon was affected by a calcareous heel spur problem. He finished in 5:05. Boston demanded 3:45, which meant he should ideally finish at some noted event in at least 3:40. Bhasker turned to Giles Drego, one of Mumbai’s leading coaches in distance running, for guidance. In September 2010, he started following the training chart Giles provided. Ken Skea also pitched in to help with a training regimen for Bhasker. In October 2010, at Ken’s suggestion, Bhasker ran the full marathon at Athens completing the course in 4:05. “ The half marathon is a journey, the full is a destination. That is the difference,’’ he said of his learning. In December he ran the full marathon at Sabarmathi (Ahmedabad), bringing down his time to 3:45. Then he registered for the March 2011 full marathon in Washington DC.

In February 2011, Bhasker decided to hike up Kilimanjaro in Africa. The group he was with was doing the normal route. Feeling fit and with upcoming major marathon events in mind, Bhasker ran between one camp and the next. But he had overlooked an important aspect. High mountains are home to sickness caused by altitude. While its onset varies from person to person and with how well a person is acclimatized on given trip, it is not to be trivialized. Acclimatization – ideally gradual acclimatization – is important. At 19,341-height, Kilimanjaro is a high peak. It is the world’s highest free standing mountain with a history of unsuspecting trekkers, moving up fast because the passage is manageable and then ending up with mountain sickness. That’s what happened to Bhasker. Eventually he reached the summit. But he was in a bad shape. After return to Mumbai, he ran the half marathon in nearby Thane. “ It was a bad run. Kilimanjaro had knocked me out,’’ Bhasker said. Now he was worried about Washington DC.

Bhasker with Bill Rodgers. To the left and right are  brief autographed messages from Rodgers (Photos: courtesy Bhasker. Photo montage: Shyam G Menon)

Bhasker with Bill Rodgers. To the left and right are brief autographed messages from Rodgers (Photos: by arrangement. Photo montage: Shyam G Menon)

Ahead of the run in Washington DC, Bhasker put in time at his sister’s place in California. He joined a gym and regularly ran ten kilometres. In Washington DC, he met the running legend, Bill Rodgers who is a former American record holder in the marathon and has won the Boston Marathon and the New York City Marathon four times. Bhasker waited in queue to meet him and was delighted when Bill Rodgers wrote “ Lets run forever’’ on his photo and “ Bhasker – see you in Boston,’’ on his bib. Bhasker completed the Washington DC marathon in 3:41:16. That gave him his ticket to Boston. He remembers with gratitude a young pacer for the 3:40 time-category, who encouraged him at times of struggle. “ That young man and Bill Rodgers – they made Boston happen for me. I was very happy,’’ Bhasker said. He is believed to be the first person from Mumbai in his age group, to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

According to Bhasker, though he embraced structured preparation in the early stages of his journey to the Boston Marathon, he has by and large been an unsystematic runner. “ There are the serious runners. I am the unserious runner!’’ he quipped, adding, “ I don’t advise what I am doing for others. It works for me. It needn’t work for others.’’ He claimed there was no method to his madness. There are interesting details – for example, despite podium finishes in India and participating in major events overseas, Bhasker runs quite technology-light. He straps on a watch – that’s it. It would seem a free bird-attitude amid the growing tide of gladiators. But at another level it helps lighter one’s concerns, enjoy the journey and trust a good journey to deliver a decent result as opposed to a pressing need for result deciding the quality of the journey. Is the apparent absence of method then Bhasker’s madness? He smiled, played with the question and let it slip away.

Bhasker (center) at the 2014 Boston Marathon (Photo: courtesy Bhasker)

Bhasker (center) at the 2014 Boston Marathon (Photo: by arrangement)

The real Bhasker, it seemed, hovered in the space between contrasting points in his observations on running. “ On a race day I like to give my best. There is no denying that. I don’t glorify being the last runner; I don’t glorify the podium finish either,’’ he said. He also said, “ I wish people would run for the fun of it, the health and the happiness. I feel very relaxed after every race.’’ Close to a decade in running and now in his sixties, Bhasker also admitted he was beginning to appreciate the merit in systematic training. Yet he stopped short of wholeheartedly embracing the approach and the possibilities systematic training may open up. “ I will never go for the ultra marathon. That requires rigorous training. I am not ready to compromise my lifestyle for it,’’ he said.

In Mumbai, Bhasker is noted for his popularity with young runners. Austin Dsouza, 30, who works as manager at an MNC, has been running for the past two and a half years. He has known Bhasker for around two years. “ Pappy is a fierce competitor and will never give anything less than 100 per cent. At the same time he will be easy going and humorous. He will go great distances to care for us puppies, always adding zing to every occasion. People like him, who inspire others, are rare. I remember when he was asked to speak to a bunch of MBA aspirants at an institution that had partnered for a race he was the only one on the panel who made the kids laugh and believe running is fun and for everybody. He inspires people on the track and off the track. Often after a race, we have at least five runners walk up to him and thank him for being an inspiration,’’ he said. According to Austin, he and his friends call Bhasker `Pappy,’ Bhasker calls them back, `puppies.’

Bhasker’s first Boston Marathon in April 2012 was eventful. He reached the city in good shape, ready to run. On race day, Boston recorded high temperatures. Bhasker did well up to the half marathon-mark; then he cramped up. He finished with a timing of 4:20. He fainted twice and was eventually carried off for medical attention. In 2013, by when he had moved to the 60-64 years age group, Bhasker completed the Boston Marathon in 3:46. In terms of qualifying to run at Boston, he did so in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and his eligibility remains for 2015 and 2016. But having run the Boston Marathon three times, Bhasker believes it is time to move on. Between 2011 and 2013, he must have run about 15 formal marathons including much running overseas. In 2013, the tragic bomb blasts at the Boston Marathon happened 20-25 minutes after Bhasker had finished his run. That year in Boston, he was placed 205 out of 950 runners in the 60-64 years age category. Back home Bhasker has been a podium finisher on many occasions. “ Podium finishes are always in India,’’ he said illustrating how an Indian podium finish compared to runners’ performances overseas. Meanwhile continuing with his running, Bhasker ran the marathon in New York in 2013 and the one in Istanbul in 2014. He ran in Pattaya, Phuket, Philadelphia, Geneva, Lausanne (Bhasker considers Lausanne a fine marathon destination – small town, great weather, great cheering) and Kuala Lumpur. Back home he ran the much loved Vasai-Virar marathon near Mumbai and the marathon in Dholavira, Gujarat. By February 2015, Bhasker had notched up on the average 15 marathons in 15 months; in some months there were more than one. When we met Bhasker in March 2015, the next major run on his itinerary was a marathon in Utah, scheduled for June.

Bhasker Desai, March 2015, at the cafe in Malad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Bhasker Desai, March 2015, at the cafe in Malad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Was it three cappuccinos or four? The exact count escapes memory. It had been a long time chatting at the cafe. Somewhere along the way, Bhasker had mentioned and it was there in the journalists’ notes, a key to understanding the man and his affection for running, “ I think running makes you a better person. Running is a great way to socialize. I am a one man-family. Running has been a nice way to increase my family; have a group which connects with you.’’

Ram Venkatraman has been a runner for long. He is one of the founding members of Mumbai Road Runners (MRR) and a person who knows Bhasker well. “ Bhasker is a mindless, aimless runner in the sense that he does not run for personal glory like personal best, podium finish etc. He has the same passion for running that we all have. He is an inspiration to many. He also does his bit for underprivileged runners by helping them with shoes, accommodation and race fees without making a fuss about it. He is truly a legend in the running world of India,’’ Ram said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Please note: the timings mentioned are as given by the interviewee.)

GOING FOR A SIXTH

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu, the Indian mountaineer who has climbed Everest five times, left for Nepal on April 4 to attempt climbing the world’s highest peak yet another time.

This will be Love Raj’s eighth visit to Everest.

He was on the peak previously in 1998, 1999, 2001, 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2013.

He reached the top successfully in 1998, 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2013.

He was conferred the Padma Shri award in 2014 (for more on Love Raj please see https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/everest-to-the-east/).

Speaking to this blog before he left for Kathmandu, Love Raj said that finding sponsors had been tough this year and so his climb will be self supported.

Over the years as his experience on the mountain grew, Love Raj had begun counting less and less on external assistance for his work on the mountain. In 2013, he said, he had availed help only on summit day, that too because the job of taking a photograph on the summit as proof of having reached it is a lot easier with one more person along.

This year, the resource crunch has been much harder and therefore the plan is to do the entire climb without any external assistance. He will do the camping, cooking and climbing by himself.

It won’t be a solo climb; it will be a self supported climb.

The actual climb from base camp should commence past April 15, 2015, he said.

May is usually the favoured month for reaching the top of Everest.

This time too Love Raj will be doing his bit to improve awareness about the environment and spread the message of keeping the mountain clean.

UPDATE: Following the devastating April 2015 earthquake in Nepal and the subsequent closure of Mt Everest, Love Raj’s planned attempt was called off. He was at Everest Base Camp when the earthquake hit. He returned to Delhi in May.

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