Samar Farooqui was the last speaker at a recent conclave of experiential educators on the outskirts of Mumbai.
He had a Power Point presentation.
That soon slid to forgotten backdrop as Samar’s demeanour, moulded by slackline, took over.
Like the line – at times still, at times swaying and bouncing to provide momentum for a gymnastic trick – his talk was honest and focused, yet delightfully spontaneous.
Samar’s talk was capped at conclave’s end by a demonstration of his craft.
A day after the conclave, I called him up for an appointment to meet.
It was a chat on the move, beginning at Stadium Restaurant in Mumbai’s Churchgate and concluding on a segment of Marine Drive marked by two trees with a story to tell.
Born 1990 in Mumbai and brought up in the city, Samar grew up with affinity for sports and the outdoors. Staying at Haji Ali, as a child he used to go for morning jogs at the nearby Race Course. By the time he was in the sixth standard, he became the youngest participant in a 3000m race that year at his school. He was also active in cricket and football. His mother, a teacher who was active in the National Cadet Corps (NCC), introduced him to outdoor camps. When he was in the eleventh grade, Samar got to work at a camp run by a city-based outdoor company. “ It was the first time I got paid for such work. It wasn’t something I expected. It just happened. But it made me think, going ahead why not this for livelihood?’’ Samar said. He kept working for the company – Outbound Adventures, managed by Andre Morris. Through Andre, he met Jehan Driver and worked for Jehan’s company, Quest Adventures. Somewhere in the middle of all this, he finished his twelfth and joined college to graduate in mass media (BMM). He did not come across as very attached to classrooms and college; it wasn’t uncommon for Samar to bunk classes and take off on a hike or climb.
At Quest Adventures, Samar’s responsibilities included guiding inbound tourists on their exploration of India. In February 2010, his clients were two ladies from New Zealand. Ahead of this trip and as part of preparations, Jehan and Samar visited AVI Industries, the shop retailing outdoor gear in Matunga. There they were shown a slackline. Not knowing the sport at all, they still bought it for the core idea appeared very simple – a length of suitably designed webbing (unlike a rope, webbing is flat), which can be appropriately tightened and tuned to required tension between two points, usually two trees. Critically, the webbing used is dynamic, in other words – it stretches like an elastic band, providing the person on top the ability to generate adequate momentum for performing tricks. Once installed, you balance on the slackline, walk on it as in a tight rope act; you also do tricks on it as you get better. For safety, depending on the height and what he is doing, the slackliner stays attached to the line with a leash, one end of which is tied into his harness. If he falls at height, he does not get detached from the line. At Kashid beach, about 130 km from Mumbai, Samar, Jehan and the clients from New Zealand tried out the line. Samar was hooked. But it would be sometime before he devoted himself to the sport. Although he had enrolled to study media management in college, a new idea gnawed at Samar.
Internet searches for alternatives in education had introduced him to adventure tourism studies in New Zealand. It was tough convincing his parents, who were justifiably concerned of Samar’s atypical choices. A close cousin worked on them; they soon came around. Funds were a problem but his family helped. In July 2010, he reached Queenstown in New Zealand’s South Island via Auckland. The flight from Mumbai transplanted Samar within hours from South Asia’s monsoon humidity to South Island’s cold. It was his first trip overseas. He presented himself at Queenstown Resort College for the 18 month-diploma course.
NZone Skydiving, one of the biggest operators in skydiving in New Zealand, had its office in Queenstown. Samar was enamoured by sky diving. Although the first six months at the college were devoted to theory, he started visiting NZone and connecting with them. “ I was ready to do anything to be around skydiving,’’ Samar said. In the second tranche of six months, his college directed him to a bungee jumping facility for internship. But he was set on skydiving and luckily, his passion and persistence from the preceding six months paid off – he secured an internship at NZone. But he had to settle for a compromise. The drop zone is where all skydiving action is. Samar secured the interview for work at the drop zone without his college involved in the frame. Result – he was placed on the shop floor, not at the drop zone he yearned to be at. Still, Samar benefited from the experience. One thing he learnt was the Kiwi style of presenting adventure to clients; you don’t conceal danger, you state it. “ That way the customer learns to be at peace with reality,’’ Samar said.
The last six months of his course were spent in reviews back in the classroom. Two days after he gave his exams, Samar was hired as Site Operations Manager by Magic Memories. He was located at Agrodome in Rotorua, North Island, which offered visitors an experience of farming in New Zealand. His job revolved around photos that tourists could take back with them. The job also saw him posted at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, roughly 140km from Rotorua. He used his time on North Island to further his interest in skydiving. He dived with Taupo Tandem Skydiving, located about 82km from Rotorua and 150km from Waitomo. “ Different skydiving schools have different training methods. The deal at Taupo was that after 25 jumps you got an ` A’ licence. The first jump is a tandem jump, the ones thereafter are solo. I did about eight jumps, so I didn’t get a licence,’’ Samar said.
After Waitomo, his next major stop with Magic Memories was Milford Sound in South Island, about 290km away from Queenstown. But before Milford Sound, Samar paid a short visit to India; on this trip, he did some groundwork for popularizing slacklining. Milford Sound was an opportunity to reconnect with rock climbing. While studying in Queenstown, Samar’s close friends had been college mates Anton Westberg and Gustav Holmquist and a friend he met through them, Banjamin Lagermalm – all from Sweden, all rock climbers. It wasn’t uncommon for the quartet to bunk college and steal off on climbs. When Samar moved to Milford Sound, Anton and Gustav were also there working. In their company, Samar did his first multi-pitch rock climbs at Milford Sound. His stint with Magic Memories paid well. “ I did really well at this job, right after college this was good bragging rights,’’ Samar said. The money was useful; that’s how he had funded his skydives on North Island. The downside of his photography-job was that over time it became routine. “ I enjoyed sales and the idea of selling ice to Eskimos. But after a point in time I felt burnt out and tired of the paradigm,’’ Samar said. He didn’t feel good about that. The hope was – somehow this would all lead to more skydiving and hopefully, a job therein. Sadly that proved tough.
Following his stint with Magic Memories, Samar returned to Queenstown. He approached NZone and other skydiving companies. But it was the off season, job openings were limited. He was not only seeking work in skydiving, he wanted to be at the drop zone. That was a tall order. According to Samar, his final phase at Magic Memories and the futile search for vacancies in skydiving soon thereafter, was a trying period. Pleasant distraction was his constant companion – his slacklining kit. His skills on the line fetched positive comments. To recap, after that taste of slacklining on Kashid beach, Samar had continued practising. Slowly his skills developed. When he arrived in Queenstown for studies, the season was drifting toward winter; not the ideal time for slacklining outdoors. In the summer of 2011, he ran into some people slacklining on the beach. They became another community to hang out with, besides the rock climber friends from college. Free time, stolen time – it went into these pursuits. By the time he hit that post Magic Memories phase, he was a decent slackliner. To keep himself afloat, he worked at a call centre, did construction work and even worked as a bouncer. Samar calls this phase one of “ self discovery.’’ It was also a stage when he had more time on his hands. Samar started pursuing an intense slacklining routine. “ My favourite thing to do still is – plug in some music and go slacklining. I enjoy it, it channelizes my excess energy,’’ he said. Further, off late the airiness of the slackline has become a fine intermediate to two activities that fascinate Samar – skydiving and base jumping.
Queenstown was generally supportive of the small slacklining community Samar belonged to. As people realized that these youngsters were focused on growing their skills and lived a life around it, a social niche evolved. Samar and his friends began organizing meet ups for slackliners from elsewhere in New Zealand. At Samar’s initiative, the team set up slacklining for the American Express Queenstown Festival; they were covered on TV, they slacklined to collect funds for charity – a set of possibilities suddenly showed up. Then Samar got injured; a bad ankle-twist acquired while attempting a back-flip and trying to put a cap on at the same time. He was out of the sport for four weeks. It was May 2013. He decided he should head back to India and take his chances in life; grow awareness about slacklining and somehow figure out a way to earn a living from it. In July, he returned to Mumbai.
Mumbai’s Marine Drive, right next to the Arabian Sea, has always been a popular spot for people to catch the sea breeze, relax, cosy up, walk, jog, maybe just sit and wonder what one is doing in Mumbai, where one is in life. Samar liked to slackline at Marine Drive. On the promenade, opposite the small junction where the road from Wankhede Stadium meets the main road, are two trees. As was his routine, Samar set up a slackline between these two trees and commenced practising. While he was on the line he heard a noise across the road; something like a collision. Noticing that two motorcyclists had hit each other, he got off the line and went to help. It was a minor collision, the bikers said they were alright and went their separate ways. But as Samar was getting back to his slackline on the promenade, a policeman accosted him and said he was the source of what went wrong. Had slackliner not been there for distraction, the bikers wouldn’t have hit each other. Taken aback by the argument, Samar pointed out that although he had nothing to do with what happened across the road he had got off the line and offered assistance to the bikers. The policeman asked if Samar had taken permission to put up the slackline; the trees, he highlighted, were public property owned by the municipal corporation. Samar had no such permission. He had assumed that the simple sport he was pursuing was simple enough for others to accept it in an equally simple fashion. The regulars of Marine Drive, used to seeing Samar on his slackline, supported him in the argument. But the argument was fast devolving into a clash of perspectives. The slackline was removed. Samar was arrested and taken to the local police station. The cops busied themselves framing appropriate charges. At the same time, some policemen who had seen him slacklining before on the promenade complemented him on his skills. Eventually, when the matter moved to Court, Samar discovered that the charges against him included obstructing pedestrian movement and blocking sunlight. He was let off with a fine. By then however, Samar’s predicament had reached the media. The incident was reported and Mumbai slacklining, riding Samar’s arrest for blocking sunlight, found itself in the spotlight. Soon, Samar was back on Marine Drive, slacklining. The police, he said, have a better understanding of his craft now. They realize that he means nobody any harm; they let him be. There is however a sting in the tail he needs to be wary of. He was let off with a fine and the condition that the fine would double if he repeated the offense. Do you give up slacklining or stop popularizing it because of that? Samar has decided to take his chances.
Pooja Mehra is a forty year old mother of two children who runs a cafe – the Cafe Bella Vita at Celebration Sports Club in Andheri. She has a background in sports; she played badminton for many years and is a trekker and distance runner. Two years ago she was running on Marine Drive when she came across Samar and his slackline. After seeing him on the line, she asked if she could try it. The experience hooked her curiosity. She looked up the Internet for more information on slacklining. Homework done, she called up Samar and asked if he would teach her to slackline. Since there was much distance between where they stayed, they set about looking for a place to set up a line at a mutually convenient location. Eventually they found a good spot on a footpath in Juhu. Pooja’s first lessons in slacklining happened there. Then they shifted to a spot on Juhu beach, adequately away from the eyes of crowds (that can cast pressure on someone learning something new). Pooja learnt to walk the line, turn on it and sit on it. “ I fell many times. But you pick yourself up and work hard to improve. It is not an easy sport,’’ she said. Overall, she took about 15 classes from Samar. Then with Samar’s help, she acquired a slacklining kit so that she can keep practising. The kit is portable; you can carry it around, take it wherever you go. But finding a place with good anchor spots for the webbing and enough safety should you fall is tough in Mumbai. Adding to the problem is low awareness of the sport. On the other hand, there are many places away from the city which are good for slacklining. Pooja carries the kit with her on family holidays. She sets up the line. Her children have tried slacklining and she said it is a nice way for the family to bond.
In July 2013, when Samar returned to India, there was a small slacklining community already existing in the country. The main two points for the faithful to gather were Slacktivism in Delhi and Slack.in, which hosted members from Bengaluru (Bangalore) and Pune. The whole community at that time must have been around 300 people-strong in India, of which about 10 per cent, Samar estimates, would have been active slackliners. Samar started Slacklife India in Mumbai. From a Facebook page it has since evolved into a company called Slacklife Inc. Along with that Samar has become a professional slackliner, someone whose income comes from practising and promoting the sport. Samar has appeared on Indian television, in such programmes as ` India’s Got Talent,’ ` I Can Do That’ and ` MTV HE Ticket.’ It helped promote the sport. Wikipedia’s page on slacklining mentions the sport’s many styles or categories. For now, the styles relevant to India include the basic slack lining format; trick lining, mid lining and high lining. Trick lining involves the execution of tricks on a line while mid lining and high lining involve slack lining at various heights with room for tricks there too. Mid lining and high lining, because they need height, may be set up across buildings, structures, rock faces etc. As the sport grows, new lines are being set up. These are essentially places where a good line can be; a physical line materializes only when you actually put one up for your use. You have to have an eye for a possible line to put one up. Some of the high lines around Mumbai-Pune-Nashik are a line across a quarry in Pune (it was pioneered in September 2014 and that first line was called Jugad Line because it was improvised [jugad means: makeshift] for want of adequately long webbing and therefore sketchy. Samar emphasizes that such joined lines should be avoided), Mid Line Crisis in Taminighat and Life and Exposure in Nashik. One of Samar’s highpoints since returning to Mumbai was participating at the Urban Highline Festival in Lublin, Poland. At this event, he was the only slackliner the organizers had ever seen from India.
Bhupesh Patil is a young slackliner from Nashik. In May-June 2015, Bhupesh was at Naneghat where a crew of climbers from Omniterra, a company anchored by Mumbai based-climber Mangesh Takarkhede, was assisting the advertisement shoot of a popular soft drink. Here, Bhupesh met Richard Khear (Richie) from Mumbai, who was into rock climbing. Late August 2015, a tragedy occurred in Miyar Valley, Himachal Pradesh; an area now gaining currency for rock climbs at altitude. Richie who was part of a two person climbing team descending to base camp after a day out on one of the climbing routes on Castle Peak, suffered an accident while abseiling. He plunged a significant distance down and lay badly injured on a rock ledge that was still very high up from the ground. By the time rescue teams reached him, which was almost a week later, Richie was no more. The news rattled Mumbai’s climbing circles for Richie was well known and popular in the small, tightly knit climbing community. Rock climbers and slackliners are a similar lot. While tight rope walking has an old history (including in India), slacklining is relatively young and reportedly owes its origins to rock climbers (Wikipedia claims it was pioneered by a young rock climber in the US). The two sports are all about balance and heights, they share a relation with webbings and ropes and they bond in the realm of focused action or what some may call – mind over matter. Badami in North Karnataka is one of India’s major rock climbing destinations. On a trip here in 2015, slackliners had noticed the potential for a new line. The second time Bhupesh and Samar were in Badami in 2015, they set up this new high line. Bhupesh walked it first and named it ` For Richie,’ in memory of Richard Khear. Samar followed him on the same line.
When you sit on Marine Drive facing the sea, you sense horizon and distance in a city that usually denies you both thanks to its numerous buildings and congested, trapped spaces. Depending on what you are, you may or may not have appetite for distance, horizon and the lure of exploration they inspire. I asked Samar what it is like being out on a slackline. He tried to explain; he failed, I failed. The whole thing is about narrowing down existence to life on webbing. If you are asked to explain such moments of nothing in the head, it challenges language. Slacklife and livelihood by slacklining occupies Samar’s time now. That’s what brought him to the experiential educators’ conclave. Experiential education is all about experiencing things and learning, processing the experience. Basic slack lining is an activity anybody can try and quite safely too, for the line is not very high from the ground. Won’t it sit well in the pantheon of activities experiential education leverages? Samar believes it will. Further there is promise in India for slacklining; the country is overwhelmingly young, the right demography for active lifestyle. The path he has chosen is promising; not easy. For now, it is pretty much like the seaward gaze from Marine Drive. There is the distance, the horizon and from self till horizon stretches one long, thin webbing exploring the unknown; life on a line.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)