Sabhajeet Yadav (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Sabhajeet Yadav (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mumbai’s Kurla Terminus resembled a bustling hive with long queues in front of ticket counters and people all around.

It’s the abject opposite of the solitude runners find in the depths of a run. Sabhajeet Yadav has to reach this station and then catch a train to Uttar Pradesh. In between, two independent journalists have sought time for a chat in the chaotic station.

Our allotted time shrinks as en route to Kurla Terminus, Sabhajeet is stuck in Monday morning traffic.

He calls on arrival.

The man is easy to spot – medium height, broad shoulders, lean build and taut face. You know an athlete when you see one. We head straight for the cafe above the ticket counters and queues, where he sits for the interview.

Twenty four hours earlier, Sabhajeet had just completed a full marathon at Vasai-Virar, a township on the northern edge of Mumbai. He finished second in his age category of 55 and above at the Vasai-Virar Mayor’s Marathon (VVMM), running the 42km-distance in 3:25:51. He is a regular podium finisher at races across India, travelling from one place to another to run during India’s marathon season. At the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), he bagged top honours in his age category in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. He has been winner in his age category at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 (please see compilation at end of story for an overview of his performance at various events). The 2016 SCMM is due in mid-January. But before that Sabhajeet, following a quick visit home will be at two to three other events including the 2015 ADHM. That’s a measure of his running calendar. The 60 year-old now dreams of participating in events overseas, at cities not too far from India’s shores and thereby costing less to access. All this thanks to others, who noticed the farmer from Dabhiya village in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh and decided to help him for Sabhajeet is running more for income than achievement or a quest to know oneself. The prize money he gets augments the returns he and family get from farming.

Sabhajeet Yadav (Photo: courtesy Bhasker Desai)

Sabhajeet Yadav (Photo: courtesy Bhasker Desai)

The central government’s web page on Jaunpur describes the district’s topography as a mix of flat plain and shallow river valleys. According to Sabhajeet, Dabhiya, where he and family live is “ up and down’’ with a river not far off – the Basuhi river. Crops grown include wheat, rice and sugarcane. Years ago, Sabhajeet had a background in athletics in school. But it wasn’t running. He was into javelin, discus and high jump. If you search the Internet, you will find a Rohit Yadav who placed third in javelin throw at the 13th National Inter District Junior Athletics Meet held in Visakhapatnam in 2015. Rohit is Sabhajeet’s second son; he has a daughter and three sons. His sons are into athletics, none of them are however in running. “ They are into the throwing disciplines, mainly javelin. I want them to do well,’’ Sabhajeet said. He reasoned that long distance running requires a touch of adequate years lived on the planet. You have to be a bit old and mature, he felt. Not to mention, have persistence and patience. These aren’t the strengths of youth. Among reasons Sabhajeet runs seeking podium finishes and prize money is to assist his children in their future in sports. From what we understood, the prize money takes care of family expenses allowing some of the other income streams to be used for the family’s future. Initially, his wife was not happy with his idea of travelling around for running events. But as he started to bring home a fair amount of prize money she learnt to accept his ways. “ With my prize money I was able to get my daughter married. It also helped me construct a house in my village,’’ Sabhajeet said. When he is away running, his sons take care of the family’s farming.

Sabhajeet started running seriously roughly six years ago. Between the half and the full, he commenced with the half marathon; then embraced the full marathon as well. He has no problem switching between the two disciplines, which in terms of pace and strategy are as different as chalk and cheese. Initially he had no running shoes. Shoes of any type – old, used, local and gifted – has featured only for the last three years. Practice sessions in Dabhiya are at a local ground. It affords a loop of 200m and whenever he can grab time away from work, the farmer is there, practising. “ I run almost daily. Sometimes for two hours, three hours, even four hours. Apart from farming there is nothing much to do. And there is no concept of a holiday. So I run almost daily,’’ he said. Along the way, he consulted a coach and acquired a few exercises to do that complement his running. As for food – Sabhajeet typically sticks to roti, rice, lentils and vegetables, the standard North Indian fare.

Around the time Sabhajeet took to running, Mumbai based-businessman and runner, Bhasker Desai, was in Ladakh to participate in an early edition of the Great Tibetan Marathon. “ I met this poor but cheerful and smiling 17 year-old schoolboy, Tenzing, a free spirited runner who won the full marathon race way ahead of competition. He was running in cheap worn out Bata canvas shoes and his race apparel that day, was his school uniform,’’ Bhasker recalled. One of Bhasker’s friends, who was with him, suggested that they sponsor Tenzing for the upcoming ADHM in Delhi. “ It felt nice that we could support a talented runner to fly Leh-Delhi,’’ Bhasker wrote in by email. With help from still others, they took care of the travel and stay in Delhi for Tenzing and his school sports coach. The Tenzing episode sparked a thought – why not support some older runners who are talented but constrained by lack of resources and wish to complement their paltry income with prize money? At the 2012 ADHM, Bhasker followed up on Sabhajeet who had completed the race splendidly despite being 55 years plus. “ That is how our friendship started,’’ Bhasker said (for more on Bhasker Desai please try this link: https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2015/04/06/from-zanzibar-to-boston-the-bhasker-desai-story/). When we met him after the 2015 VVMM, Sabhajeet mentioned Bhasker’s support in matters ranging from running shoes to identifying the right events and assisting with the registration process including paying the registration fees. For the farmer from Dabhiya, that meant a lot. But why do people choose to help him? It probably has much to do with his nature.

Sabhajeet (extreme right) with fellow runners; from left: Breeze Sharma, Suresh Pillai, Sanjay Bhingarde, Dnyaneshwar Tidke and Bhasker Desai (Photo: courtesy Bhasker Desai)

Sabhajeet (extreme right) with fellow runners; from left: Breeze Sharma, Suresh Pillai, Sanjay Bhingarde, Dnyaneshwar Tidke and Bhasker Desai (Photo: courtesy Bhasker Desai)

Sabhajeet reportedly began his running career with an eight kilometre-run for veterans, which promised Rs 5000 for the winner. At the time he came to know of this race he was a desperate man with debts to repay following his daughter’s wedding. “ That desperation must have played a role in whatever happened since, for one thing about Sabhajeet is that he is self-made. He is committed to running, has devised his own training regimen and needs nobody to remind him of the required discipline. His farm is small and what he earns from it is little. When there wasn’t enough money from farming, he used to work on daily wages. It was a hard life. Possibly as a legacy of such life, he has no notion of ideal conditions. At a race, he accepts whatever is available as how things are – very unlike many of us who blame poor running performance on this condition and that,’’ a well wisher who didn’t want to be named, said, adding, “ all that we did was help him with travel expense, registration and logistics. The rest is completely to his credit.’’

Sabhajeet is remembered in the running circles of Mumbai and Goa for the way in which he evolved a committed approach to sports, in a village, far away from the anyway poor talent-scouting India’s sports apparatus does. “ He hasn’t had a word of professional input from anyone,’’ the well wisher said. Sabhajeet designed his training regimen for running by himself; he designed the training for his sons, the javelin they use for practise is reportedly home-made and at least one news report said the choice of javelin throw for the sons was also because everyone could share the same javelin. Urban running is notorious for the corporate-inspired fussing over every tiny detail to improve performance. Dietary inputs from overseas; costly shoes, energy gels, gadgets to measure athletic performance, exotic workouts – the list is long. In comparison, Sabhajeet’s ecosystem is frugal. A runner in Goa recalled how Sabhajeet arrived for the local marathon by long distance train with food his wife had made and packed for him. Ahead of race, he stuck to his routine and rituals; ate the home cooked food. It was after the race had been run and he had won that he let himself partake in a meal with friends. Such was the focus; a quiet, rural version of the urban spectacle. At Kurla Terminus, he was light on his feet, whatever he needed in a small bag.

In January 2015, Sabhajeet had reached Mumbai for the annual SCMM with a badly pulled calf muscle. He was limping. “ We took him to a physiotherapist. But what can you do on the eve of a race? He nevertheless went on to win in his category. He is clear about that – he has to run, he has to win,’’ the earlier mentioned well wisher said. In an article in The Times of India, after the 2014 SCMM, V. Anand pointed out that in 2012 and 2013 Sabhajeet – a winner in both years – had slept on the concourse at Mumbai’s CST railway station as he could not afford a hotel room. In 2014, after this was brought to their attention, the organizers provided him accommodation. Those who know him believe a season of running pays Sabhajeet more than he can manage in a year of farming. Over the years, with debts repaid and house built, he has begun shedding some of the earlier desperation and started to enjoy his running. “ It is good to see that,’’ one of his supporters said.

Sabhajeet at the 2015 Vasai-Virar Mayor's Marathon (Photo: by arrangement)

Sabhajeet at the 2015 Vasai-Virar Mayor’s Marathon (Photo: by arrangement)

According to Sabhajeet he is still the only one regularly running in Dabhiya. Nobody else has taken to the sport despite example at hand of one among them travelling around and earning podium finishes. Do they know of his achievements? “ Yes they do. Once in a while, my name appears in the newspaper and they get to know,’’ Sabhajeet said. In the early days of his running, things weren’t so. The sight of him practising was amusement for others. With victories, an element of respect has emerged. Among things he must now attend to is getting a passport. He doesn’t have one yet and his aspirations include running overseas.

We are now terribly close to the assigned time of departure of Sabhajeet’s train.

The conversation is wound up.

A final photo is taken.

Interestingly, it is we who keep reminding Sabhajeet that his train will leave shortly. He is lost in talk about running. The subject evidently engages him.

As we descend the stairs to the ticket counters, the din rises.

A handshake, then a namaste and Sabhajeet joins those proceeding to the platform.

A few days after our meeting, Sabhajeet won in his age category at the 2015 ADHM.

Sabhajeet Yadav / some of the races he won with timings therein:

2011 – Airtel Delhi Half Marathon – 1:31:48 – senior veteran category

2012 – Full Marathon at Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon – 3:25:08 – senior veteran category

2012 – Airtel Delhi Half Marathon – 1:33:41 – senior veteran category

2013 – Full Marathon at Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon – 3:21:54 – senior veteran category

2013 – Airtel Delhi Half Marathon – 1:28:16 – senior veteran category

2014 – Full Marathon at Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon – 3:25:39 – senior veteran category

2014 – Full marathon at Shriram Properties Bengaluru Marathon – 3:15:38 – age category of 55 years and above

2014 – Airtel Delhi Half Marathon – 1:28:29 – age category of 55-65

2015 – Full Marathon at Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon – 3:28:40 – age category of 55 years to less than 60

2015 – Full Marathon at Shriram Properties Bengaluru Marathon – 3:20:34 – age category of 55 years and above

2015 – Airtel Delhi Half Marathon – 1:31:00 – age category of 60 years to less than 65

Source: Timing Technologies

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Please visit https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/half-or-full-thats-the-question/ for the story of Kamlya Bhagat, a runner – albeit much younger – who, like Sabhajeet, runs to support his family.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Footprints are the stars of suspense and mystery.

Depending on context, a footprint can be much more than the trace of a foot or boot-sole on earth. A common contextual feeling among hikers for instance, is: I am not lost, I am not alone! Provided of course, whoever walked by is good company. Can you be sure of that? A footprint on earth is also imprint in restless brain. It is what it is and then, it is what you make of it. Or is it what it is because of what you make of it? Ha! – says Holmes, that solver of mysteries. Eyes closed; head thrown back, palms joined, a mocking smile on his lips, the triumph in needling Watson with his occasional barbed quips showing through.

One thing I know – I can’t be Holmes, for there is nothing as delightful as watching the character from far. Inhabit him and you trade that perspective for the hound’s nose glued to a trail. I’d rather be Watson capable of seeing Holmes or better still – the reader of a book or viewer of a TV serial showing them both, for Holmes with Watson alongside, is one of the finest character portrayals there is.

In my case, Holmes is an imprint in the brain.

Nobody means Sherlock Holmes more to me than the late Jeremy Brett.

I still remember my first meeting with Holmes. I was approaching middle school. Readers Digest was popular those days. Once in a while, the magazine sent out a list of the books it published, which readers could buy. There was a thick blue book with fiction abstracts and a red one. I ordered the red; my cousins procured the blue. The blue had chapters from Sherlock Holmes. Ours was a family appreciative of the creative arts. On weekends, the cousins gathered to indulge in some form of creativity. Initially it was painting; slowly that gave way to each one getting serious in some chosen passion – dance, music, reading, writing, painting, football, aero modelling, films etc. It continued till tenth standard, maybe some more. Then life, like water poured down a funnel, was recast in service of livelihood. It is like the story of mineral water; once was free, flowing water, now eminently saleable in bottle. By the time we finished college, we were just that – saleable.

Somewhere in the period partial to creativity, an evening at their house, Manju and Rajeev kept me spellbound by their narration of The Speckled Band. That was my first Sherlock Holmes story and it came from the blue book. Not exactly fond of snakes, the snake in the story left an impression, strong enough for me not to forget either the story or my cousins’ narration. For several years, Holmes stayed just that in the head – a story. I came across his collected adventures at other households in the extended family but the youngster in me wasn’t keen on a character set decades back in the past. My mother told me that Holmes was even a case of character brought back from the dead by popular demand. Such had been his impact. It failed to register for I wanted modern characters. Time passed by. The shape of Indian cars changed; the shape of household appliances changed – among them, the television. Colour TV arrived and with time, cable TV.

Among programmes telecast was the Granada TV series, ` The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ with Jeremy Brett as Holmes. It changed everything for me. I found myself keeping my appointment with the telecast that opened with unmistakable violin-notes. A simple, bare tune that resonated of an era gone by and told you clearly – get ready to be transported back in time. It was a fine series with good performances by not just the lead actors but also those making special appearances as important characters in each episode. In my opinion, the series was one of those productions in which the average quality across episodes stayed pretty high. Brett and his committed, intense portrayal of the detective grew on me. Above all, for someone sold on ` modern,’ I found myself enjoying the eccentricities of ` period.’ Everything, from conduct to language – it lingered distinct in the slower pace of the past, it cut a style. Holmes had style! When the series ended, I acquired a thick volume showcasing all the Sherlock Holmes adventures and set about reading it. There is still stuff I haven’t read, stuff I forget. I am glad it is so for it lets me get back.

Thanks to the Internet, I have sampled different actors as Holmes. None inhabited the character or created Holmes like Brett did. I don’t hold portrayals strictly accountable to what the author prescribed in every little detail. No, I don’t. That is probably why Brett impressed me so much. I was a blank slate for although I had read some of the detective’s adventures, characterization is picked up easier from an enacted piece than a written one. Brett provided a face to a figure, voice to a brain, life to a character and mannerisms, even arrogance, for recall; plus intensity. For all the logic Holmes attributes to his ability to deduce, Brett infused a crucial contrarian element to his Holmes – a touch of mystery. The sum total of what he offered as Holmes was a portrait of deduction as much enigmatic and enticing as a case delivered as question mark. It was the perfect package for imprint by image. The man was a genius; perhaps more accurately – it was acting genius unleashed by defining role. No Basil Rathbone or Peter Cushing for me and definitely no Robert Downey Jr or Benedict Cumberbatch; it has to be Jeremy Brett. Like imprint in mind authoring perception of footprint, Brett became Holmes for me. David Burke and Edward Hardwicke did an excellent job essaying Dr Watson in the series. I am partial to Burke. His Watson showed the spunk to stand up to Holmes, a sharp contrast to say, the rather bumbling Watson of Nigel Bruce.

I am not a researcher on Holmes or an academic knowing every detail of every story. I have also not been to London and Baker Street. I am sure learned discussions on Holmes and Brett may hold opinions different from mine. My journey with Holmes continues in occasional readings of the book, still enjoyed as return to character and language and every once in a while – recourse to YouTube where the old Granada series survives and Brett comes alive as Holmes to the fans he made.

Brett died in 1995.

He was born November 3, 1933, three years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, passed away.

This is a November.

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


Kaustubh Khade (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kaustubh Khade (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mid November, 2015.

Secured atop the car was a long, narrow kayak.

The car was in the parking lot of a set of apartment blocks in Powai, best known as location for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai. In some other countries, a car with a kayak on top would be common sight. Mumbai is a metro by the sea. But it shares India’s inertia for water sports, puzzling given the country’s 7,500km-long coastline. There are thousands of fisher folk, who venture out to sea for livelihood. There is the navy and the merchant navy too. But recreational sailing, canoeing, kayaking – all these are still evolving in India. It contrasts an ancient past in which, Indians engaged with the sea. Some, who investigated the phenomenon, have attributed the Indian preference for terra firma to religious strictures that discouraged ocean voyages. It may also have much to do with a heavily populated country’s insistence that everything people do in manic rat race make sense. Livelihood makes sense. Sport for livelihood may also make sense. Sport for sport sake makes no sense. Who knows? What Kaustubh Khade does know is that the drive from Powai in Mumbai’s north east to South Mumbai’s Chowpatty, with kayak on top of his car, attracts attention in island city surrounded by sea. Cops, curious about both kayak and its length exceeding Kaustubh’s mid-sized sedan, stop him and question regularly. “ I am now used to it,’’ the computer engineer said. His is a white kayak, an EPIC 18X model; the names of his sponsors and `Paddle Hard’ – a brand and concept he is promoting, posted on it.

Kaustubh expected none of this.

He has a couple of dolphins in Goa to thank for the turn his life took.

Born 1987 to parents who are doctors, Kaustubh grew up in Mumbai. He has an elder sister. By 1991, the family was in Powai. During his days at the Hiranandani Foundation School (HFS), he was an athlete into sprinting. He also played rugby and football. After tenth, he shifted to the Kendriya Vidyalaya at the IIT campus, a phase associated strongly with sports. “ We played football at least half an hour to an hour every day,’’ he recalled. Next stop was the IIT itself, but in Delhi. Kaustubh and his sister, who elected to pursue engineering, stood out in their extended family dominated by doctors. “ At a very young age, I saw my father give an injection to a kid. The kid was howling. I decided to do engineering,’’ he said laughing. At IIT Delhi, he continued his passion for football but it was marred by recurrent knee problems. Passing out from the elite institute, he secured his first job via campus placement. He was back in Mumbai.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In 2010, Kaustubh went on a dolphin safari in Goa with his friend, Sarang Paramhans. They noticed that the motor boat they were on was scaring away the dolphins. To be less invasive and closer to nature, they decided to shift to a two person-kayak. Kaustubh had briefly kayaked before on the Ganga in Rishikesh. That hadn’t stuck in mind. But being out at sea on a kayak with curious dolphins for company was a life altering experience. So strong was its spell that on the way back to Mumbai, Kaustubh stopped at a boat shop at Panjim in Goa, to buy a kayak. Rajiv Bhatia, who owned Rae Sport Goa (the company is headquartered in Mumbai), quizzed Kaustubh for previous experience in kayaking. The young man confidently quoted Rishikesh and Goa; Bhatia brought him down to earth. He asked Kaustubh: why don’t you train properly in kayaking first and then if you still wish, buy a kayak from Rae Sport?

Kaustubh signed up for a kayaking course with the company in Mumbai. He pursued the sport diligently. Over time, he graduated from the regular kayak to the surf ski variety, a pretty fast kayak, narrower and longer than its brethren. In 2012, Rajiv asked Kaustubh whether he wished to participate in the national championship for dragon boat racing, due in the city under the auspices of the Indian Kayaking & Canoeing Association (IKCA). It was designed to select a national team in the sport. Unlike kayaks, the dragon boat featured 10 rowers in five rows of two each. Additionally, there was a person to steer and a person to drum, which was the means to set a rhythm for the rowing. In some ways, it was a miniature version of Kerala’s famous snake boats. Weighing 200-300kilos each, the dragon boats were imported canoes. Kaustubh was interested. Rajiv Bhatia set about building a team. At one end of South Mumbai’s Marine Drive, on Chowpatty, is an organization that goes by the name: Pransukhlal Mafatlal Hindu Bath & Boat Club. Strong paddlers existed there. So a team including these paddlers was formed. Then, the unexpected occurred. Maharashtra, the state of which Mumbai is capital, decided not to participate in the national championship. Where would the Mumbai team go? An engaging solution was found: they would represent Goa! “ Our team was a melting pot,’’ Kaustubh said. It was a good team; they trained regularly for three and a half months.

Fourteen states turned up for the nationals held at Marine Drive. Team Goa did well in the time trials based on which the national team was announced. Kaustubh found a place in it. The new team trained for a week in Mumbai. A highlight of 2012 was the training Kaustubh received in Mumbai, from Oscar Chalupsky, twelve-time world champion from South Africa. He taught the fundamentals of kayaking. “ Unlike popular perception, kayaking is not an upper body sport. It actually uses the whole body. Oscar taught me that,’’ Kaustubh said. The Asian Championship was due at Pattaya in Thailand around March-April 2013. Kaustubh would report for practice at Marine Drive from 7AM to 9.30AM; then attend office, report for practice in the afternoon, go back to office and then report after work for evening practice. The balancing act was tough; he was under review at work. His office wasn’t appreciative of the national team and Asian Championship-bug. One day he was asked: what will the office get from this craze? “ Following that exchange it became easy to quit the company,’’ Kaustubh said.

The kayak on top of the car (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The kayak on top of the car (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Thirteen countries participated in the Asian Championship. Across events for men and women, India won six silver medals and three bronze. In the races Kaustubh participated in, India won two silver medals and one bronze. “ We participated in every race. At one stage, we had just got off a race requiring 10 paddlers, when the coach came and said we had to rush for the race featuring 20 paddlers,’’ he said. The championship lasted three days. On return, Kaustubh resigned his job. He would move on to attempting unsuccessfully to start his own business in Bengaluru and transit through employment at a second company before signing up for the firm he currently works at; a start-up commenced by youngsters fresh out of IIT. Start-ups can be hectic. Kaustubh spoke of his life, one eye on his cell phone. We were at a cafe in Powai.

After the 2013 Asian Championship, Kaustubh decided to focus on sea kayaking with emphasis on surf skis. Back in Goa, he had fallen in love with kayaking for the way it allowed the paddler to experience what he was doing with that sense of being close to the elements. Kaustubh explained his later transition to the surf ski, “ what I experienced in Goa is also why I moved to surf skis. Compared to the surf ski, sea kayaks and leisure kayaks are more stable. They kill the joy in every wave.’’ A precise instrument, the unstable surf ski is the most technical kayak in the larger sea kayaking discipline. He decided to participate in the next edition of the Asian Championship in Thailand on surf skis. He started training for the event’s 22 km-run over December-January at Mumbai’s Marine Drive. With the bay not long enough, he managed the required distance by doing laps. However things went wrong in Thailand. The surf ski issued there was a lot more unstable type than what he had trained on. Realizing the futility in racing in that kayak class, he switched disciplines and raced in sea kayaking. He finished fifth out of 17 participants in the 13km-sea kayak race. After this episode, Kaustubh stopped competing. “ Training for competitions had become difficult given the pressures of office and working life,’’ he said.

Around this time, he read the book, “ Fearless’ by Joe Glickman. It was about German kayaker Freya Hoffmeister’s 2009 journey, paddling around Australia. The book left him wondering if something similar was possible in India. He visualized a long term plan: kayak around the Indian peninsula from Mumbai to West Bengal with the Mumbai-Goa leg as first portion to attempt. On the globe, the ocean is a huge mass of seemingly similar blue. In reality, depending on the scale of one’s expedition, it is a collection of different weather patterns – seasonal and unseasonal, underwater geographical features, dissimilar coastlines and a different culture beyond each shore. As Kaustubh found out, navigating the limited distance of Mumbai-Goa itself entailed consolidating 17 separate maps. Complicating matters, threats to India’s security have robbed the surrounding seas of their innocence. This enhanced the importance of official clearances for kayakers trying to paddle personal dreams to success in the waters around India. Getting approvals and stitching the logistics together as efficiently as possible is half the work done in any expedition.

Sanjeev Kumar (in front) and Dev Dutta; from their 2005 expedition (Photo: courtesy Sanjeev Kumar)

Sanjeev Kumar (in front) and Dev Dutta; from their 2005 expedition (Photo: courtesy Sanjeev Kumar)

Kaustubh’s idea was not new. Almost ten years before, on December 25, 2005, two kayakers – Sanjeev Kumar and Dev Dutta – had cast off from Mumbai on a voyage around the Indian peninsula to Kolkata. As per their log, they were forced to terminate the trip 28 days later, at Kannur in Kerala. The log mentioned suspicion among the locals of two strangers in a kayak pulling in from the sea. Pestered for two days and worried that the trend could continue along the entire Kerala coast, the duo decided to stop the Kerala leg and resume in Tamil Nadu. However, according to the log, the Tamil Nadu government had just then begun a search for Tamil Tiger operatives, who had earlier clashed at sea with the Indian Coast Guard. Given the circumstances, they concluded, Tamil Nadu waters too may be risky to venture into and wrapped up the expedition for the time being. One thing was clear from this testing of the waters – proper official backing and approvals, make a difference.

With a view to meet an official from the state’s tourism agency, Kaustubh attended a seminar in Navi Mumbai. The Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC), which has resorts along the Maharashtra coast, decided to support his kayak trip. According to Kaustubh, the MTDC coming aboard made things easier with others in the approvals-frame. The Maharashtra Maritime Board extended support and soon thereafter, the Indian Coast Guard cleared the trip. A few private sponsors stepped in to support the expedition. As a NGO to support through the expedition, he picked Magic Bus, which uses sports and games to work with underprivileged children. It was an ideal fit; Kaustubh loved this NGO’s work. In October 2014, Kaustubh applied for sabbatical from work. He also ordered a kayak – the EPIC 18X, we saw strapped to the top of the car. It is a hybrid of the sea kayak and the surf ski with chambers to hold gear and supplies. He had thought of a December departure. But that didn’t happen. The kayak reached Mumbai on January 26, 2015.

Kaustubh casting off from near the Gateway of India, Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Kaustubh Khade)

Kaustubh casting off from near the Gateway of India, Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Kaustubh Khade)

Meanwhile, the expedition’s challenges hit home. Although experienced kayaker, Kaustubh’s experience to date had been in protected waters. The sea off Mumbai’s Marine Drive has a reef that acts as natural breakwater. Compared to the outer sea, the bay is calm. Paddling from Mumbai to Goa, Kaustubh wouldn’t be way out at sea as in a sea crossing but he would definitely be beyond natural protective barriers close to the coast. And he would be on a matchstick of a craft, bobbing out of sight in the slightest of ocean swells. His parents Monita and Kisan Khade had been supportive of his foray into kayaking. For them, anything except football, which would have damaged Kaustubh’s knees further, was welcome. To contain the risk, they stepped in. One of the sponsors had recommended a support vessel accompanying the kayak at sea. He now offered to fund it. Monita elected to be on the support vessel; Kisan would drive along the coast meeting up at every halt. Kaustubh concedes, sponsors and support vessel may have taken off some of the spontaneity otherwise inherent in adventure. Halts weren’t a case of pulling in from the sea and camping self-supported; support vessel additionally meant, searching for a suitable jetty, something a kayaker wouldn’t think of.  Further, the easily visible support vessel attracted attention. Kaustubh spoke of the police occasionally coming out to inspect. “ The letter from the Coast Guard, which we had in the support vessel, always worked. What was interesting was how the police would come to check, looking all serious and later, after we had showed them the requisite papers, take photos of the kayaker paddling on,’’ he said.

Kaustubh embarked on his trip from Mumbai’s Gateway of India, on February 14, 2015. Waking up every day at 5.30 AM, he would enjoy a fine spell of kayaking from 6.30 AM to 9.30 AM. Then the sun blazed. His worst hours would follow. The paddling would go on till about 1 PM, when he would draw ashore. The remaining part of the day, he rested and blogged, something he had to do as per the modern paradigm of expedition, sponsors and media. Dinner was at 7.30 PM; lights out by 9 PM. It went on so, relatively smooth except for Day 12.

Paddling on Day 12 (Photo: courtesy Kaustubh Khade)

Paddling on Day 12 (Photo: courtesy Kaustubh Khade)

On Day 12, fresh out from a rest day, Kaustubh was paddling on to Ratnagiri. Two thirds of the Mumbai-Goa journey had been completed. Spirits were up although it was a pretty hot day. The plan was to stop en route at Pawas. But the support vessel wanted to look for a jetty at Purnagad further south. It added another ten kilometres to the day, already trying due to the heat. When the team reached Purnagad, they found that while the place did have a jetty, Purnagad was tucked a bit inward and away from the sea. It raised concerns on how the tide may impact locally. Therefore the team paused for lunch at Purnagad and around 3.30 PM set off again with a plan for the kayak to hit shore at Godavne, with night halt for everyone at Ambolgad. Kisan Khade would come to fetch Kaustubh and take him to Ambolgad, dropping him back at Godavne the next morning, to recommence his paddling. That was the idea. However, after the support vessel pushed off for Ambolgad, the weather turned nasty and the sea became rough. Three to four kilometres out at sea, Kaustubh’s kayak almost capsized. He nevertheless managed to crash-land at Godavne, the culmination of a particularly long day spent paddling. He was exhausted. The wave that crashed him onto the beach had also swept off the contact lens in his right eye leaving him half blind. Godavne turned out to be completely different from what the team had imagined. It was an isolated beach surrounded by steep hills. There was no way Kaustubh could haul the kayak singlehandedly to the road. With no prominent path coming down to the beach, his father wasn’t also around. Bereft of any communication device (the cell phone was on the safety boat), a new worry started – was his father not here because something happened to his mother who had proceeded ahead in the safety boat?

Tired, Kaustubh lashed his kayak to a small tree stump and set out to find a way up. It was late evening; darkness was approaching.  Packing up the items he could carry, he walked six kilometres along the beach. He ran into four men high on liquor. Somehow he convinced them that he needed to use their cell phone. Finally, he got through to his girlfriend in Mumbai who assured him that his parents were fine. By then two people on motorbikes came looking for him. They took him to the assigned guest house for the night, where he rejoined his parents. Earlier in the day, Kisan Khade had come to Godavne. He had found a goatherd’s path down to the isolated beach but not finding Kaustubh anywhere went back. It hadn’t seemed a place to land. Meanwhile, the locals informed that leopards frequented the Godavne area. After a brief rest, the team returned to Godavne, somehow scouted a path down to the beach and hauled the kayak up. The following day they rested in Ambolgad. The next leg of the trip was commenced away from Godavne. Tough times persisted. The Tarkarli-Vengurla stretch should have gone smoothly but stiff headwinds slowed progress. Finally after 14 days of paddling (excluding rest days), Kaustubh reached Morjim in Goa, the end of his journey. He had kayaked 413km; the expedition was admitted into India’s Limca Book of Records as the longest ` solo’ kayaking by an Indian paddler in the shortest time.

Reaching Morjim, Goa (Photo: courtesy Kaustubh Khade)

Reaching Morjim, Goa (Photo: courtesy Kaustubh Khade)

Kaustubh has his eyes on the larger trip around the peninsula. “ This was clearly a pilot,’’ he said of Mumbai-Goa. He imagines that the remaining journey, slated for 2016-2017, would happen in two phases – one to kayak down the west coast and another to kayak up the east coast. The two coasts are different in character.  The east can be rougher, not to mention – its capacity for extreme weather. That aside sponsorship will be the biggest challenge. And somewhere amid all this, he also wants to participate “ at least once’’ in Hawai’s Molokai Race. As for that kayak atop the car, still oddity in India’s financial capital surrounded by the sea, it rests when ashore in a garage owned by a friend who stays in the same building as Kaustubh.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)