Soji Mathew (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Soji Mathew (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The first time I saw Soji Mathew run was at the 2016 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM).

I was a spectator on the road connecting Churchgate and Marine Drive when the subject of this story flew past to finish fourth in the Indian elite category of the half marathon. A month after SCMM, we sat down to chat.

In school, Soji considered himself a fast bowler. His eyes lit up, talking about Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Franklyn Rose. When children play they assume the names of their idols. Sometimes, it is their friends who choose a name. For anyone keen on bowling fast, the team to worship was, West Indies. He was called by the names of pacers from the West Indies. “ You know a fast bowler’s run-up? That and the general running around on a cricket field – that’s about all the running I did,’’ he said.

Born September 1981, Soji was an only child. His father worked many years with the Military Engineering Service (MES), eventually retiring from it. Home was Mavelikkara, a town in central Kerala. Altitude: approximately 40 feet above sea level. Seen on a map, Mavelikkara is not very far from Kerala’s Kuttanad region, famous for its paddy cultivation in fields lower than sea level. At 7.2 feet below sea level, Kuttanad is the lowest point in India. Life took a turn in eighth standard. During the state’s Onam festival, the youth organization at Mavelikkara’s Cherukole Marthoma Church held an annual running race of three to four kilometres. In Kerala’s rainy weather, the course was sometimes muddy, water laden. “ It was fun watching people run and arrive tired at the finishing line,’’ he said. Eventually, the move from spectator to participant occurred. Although Kerala has produced athletes, like the rest of Indian society, premium adhered clearly to a practical, ` well settled’ life. Cricket being national obsession is perhaps securely conformist. Anything off the beaten track, troubles. Eighth standard-student practising for a local run, elicited the usual questions: what do you get from this; what’s the point in this? That year he came first in the race at the church. “ I got a prize, a glass,’’ he recalled.

Parcels of reflected light, a procession of them, danced on his face as he spoke. It was the metro train passing by on its high perch, under the glare of the afternoon sun. The stainless steel coaches reflected sunlight. We were at a coffee shop on Bengaluru’s (Bangalore) MG Road, close to the metro line. He sipped his cappuccino. Onam falls in August-September. In October, a month after winning the race at the church, the boy participated in the selection process at school for entry into the district level sports meet. He ran a 3000m-trial and finished first. “ It surprised people because I beat the person who had been consistently selected for the discipline,’’ Soji said. Elation, if any, didn’t linger. School boy, wannabe fast bowler, he promptly forgot the whole affair. Life was cricket. Till one morning, dispatched by his mother to buy some meat in the market, he was cycling along when somebody stopped him and asked: weren’t you selected for the district meet? It is today. Go quickly! He was clad in shirt and lungi. Reaching the venue so, he was told to get ready. But he didn’t have a pair of running shorts. “ I borrowed somebody’s Bermudas – you know the big beach shorts. I wore that and ran. It was a 200m-track and we had to do 15 loops. I came first. That is the only time I wept for joy,’’ he said. It was the lone gold medal that year for his school in the event. His photo appeared in the local newspaper the next day. But he was denied entry to the state level meet as he was under-age.

Soji at the Bengeluru Marathon (Photo: courtesy Soji Mathew)

Soji at the Bengaluru Marathon (Photo: courtesy Soji Mathew)

From this stage onward, it was an equal divide between cricket and running. Every year he geared up for the local race at the church. Practice commenced in July, peak monsoon in Kerala. He would run through water. “ People found it odd, tad crazy,’’ Soji said. He ran in his dad’s army shorts, altered to his size. In ninth standard at school, he again won the church race and finished fourth in 3000m at state level in school. By the time he was in tenth standard, he had shifted to senior category and the 5000m, topping it at district level. He had no coach. He ran barefoot; he wasn’t from a wealthy family. But he trained with growing determination. He finished third in the 5000m at state level. Then a second turning point in life occurred, one that fine-tuned his focus.

In a cricket match, wherein he was bowler for crunch-over, he got smashed all over the field by the opposition. That ended the cricket-phase. His attention trimmed to focus on running. To do his eleventh and twelfth standards (those days it was called pre-degree), the runner shifted to Pamba College in the adjacent Pathanamthitta district. Having done well in running at school level, he got admission to college through the sports quota. “ As with many others, for me also college was a sudden flush of freedom. I became active in student politics, one of those assistants to union leaders, ’’ Soji said, mimicking the classic photograph Indians are so used to seeing; assistant leaning in from the side to be in leader’s photo. Amid new found freedom, in his first year at college, he was told that having been admitted via sports quota, he would have to participate in MG University’s upcoming cross country race. He bought a pair of PT shoes, his first running shoes. He participated in the event without any training and finished eighteenth. Luckily for him, those were days when colleges kept a look out for talented sportspersons. Despite the finish down in the pecking order, his running was noticed by officials from SB College, Changanassery. This was to prove the next turning point in his running career.

SB College offered him free education plus no mess fees, no hostel fees. “ That instilled a sense of responsibility in me. I had the urge to give something back for what they did,’’ Soji said. Mr Chidambaram – the college’s coach, was Soji’s first coach. He told the young runner: I will train you. But executing what you learn effectively is your onus. Soji shifted to SB College in his second year of pre-degree (today’s twelfth). That year he came first in MG University’s cross country race. He also placed second in the 10,000m at the university’s track and field meet. At the All India Inter University Athletics Championship in Amritsar, he finished fifth in the 10,000m. He continued at SB College to do his graduation (BA). In the first year, he topped the MG University cross country race, was seventh in cross country at the national universities meet, emerged first in 10,000m at MG University and fifth at national university level. In his second year of the degree course, he became the record holder in 5000m and 10,000m at state level in the under-22 age category, a category that no longer exists. That year he was however plagued by injury. Recovering from it, in his final year, he placed second at MG University in cross country and fifth at the national university level. He also won the 10,000m at MG University in 32:04 (according to Soji, a record that still stood as of February 2016) and finished first in 10,000m at the All India Inter University Athletics Championship held in Jamshedpur with a timing of 31:18.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Following this outcome, Soji was called for the national camp by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI). It was a five month-camp, held at the high altitude training facility of Sports Authority of India (SAI) at Shilaru in Himachal Pradesh. Each person is unique; generalizations must be avoided. Still, generally speaking, hill people have good endurance. Some of India’s best distance runners hail from the hills. As do, some of the world’s best; Kenyan and Ethiopian runners are associated with their country’s highlands. The best training spot for distance running is a mix of altitude and fine weather affording long training window. World over, high altitude sports training centres typically straddle mid elevations, neither too high, nor too low. Data on the Internet places Shilaru at 2420m (close to 8000 feet) above sea level; Mavelikkara at 13m (43 feet) above sea level. For Soji, used to Mavelikkara, Shilaru was his first taste of running at altitude. He struggled initially (he did a mix of running and walking), then, slowly found his groove. At the cafe, the Shilaru experience reminded him of an observation from his school and early college days.“ Back then, we used to say in Kerala that none of us from the plains and coastal areas of the state can beat the distance runners of Idukki and Wayanad districts. They were typically the state’s best. Idukki and Wayanad are hill districts with plenty of ups and downs,’’ Soji said.

As part of the national camp, he had to run a 10,000m race in Chennai, where he finished second. Loyola College extended him an invitation to represent them at the A L Mudaliar Athletics Meet, an important event in the city’s sports calendar. Joining Loyola for his post graduation, Soji represented them in the 5000m and the 10,000m at the A L Mudaliar Athletics Meet. He finished first in both. In his first year MA, he also applied for a job at Southern Railways. That didn’t come through to his satisfaction. But Western Railways stepped in. He moved to Mumbai as a Ticket Collector (TC) in 2004. Sportspersons in TC roles are typically put to work on suburban trains or given station duty as that provides them time to train as well. Mumbai has one of the world’s busiest suburban railway systems. Soji checked tickets on the city’s western line. In 2005, following a fifth place finish in 10,000m at the Federation Cup, he was selected once again to the national camp. From 2005 to 2011, he was at the national camp on the strength of his performance in 5000m and 10,000m.

Soji finishing a race in Kochi (Photo: courtesy Soji Mathew)

Soji finishing a race in Pondicherry (Photo: courtesy Soji Mathew)

If you are an athlete training for 5000m and 10,000m on a regular basis, you are deemed in line to attempt a half marathon. The weekly training mileage you put in is adequate. The year Soji shifted to Mumbai had marked the debut of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). It would grow to be India’s biggest marathon. In 2010, Soji ran his first half marathon at SCMM and finished second in the Indian elite category with a timing of 1:06:40. In 2011, he placed second in the Indian elite category again. In 2012, he won in the Indian elite category at SCMM, finishing first in the half marathon with a timing of 1:05:26. At the last SCMM in January 2016, he finished fourth. At the Vasai-Virar Mayor’s Marathon (VVMM), he was second in the half marathon in 2013 and 2014. Additionally, he has been third at the 2009 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, first in the 2015 Bengaluru Half Marathon and first in the half marathon segment of the Wipro Chennai Marathon held in January 2016. His personal best in the half marathon was at the 2014 Delhi Airtel Half Marathon, which he ran in 1:04:58. Soji has run the full marathon twice. At the 2004 Travancore Marathon in Kerala, he placed sixth with a timing of 2:35 and at the 2010 Pune International, he placed third with a timing of 2:23.

Going ahead, Soji would like to focus more on the full marathon. For this he will need to increase his weekly mileage. He also believes he should gain strength (he is a thin, wiry individual) and train at altitude for a meaningful shift to the full. Now a Deputy Chief Ticket Inspector (DCTI) with the Railways, the basket of events this distance runner addresses for his employer is big. Besides the above mentioned podium finishes at various running events, he was also second in the 2009 World Railway Cross Country Championship held in Czech Republic. There is even a third place in steeple chase at the 2010 World Railway Track & Field Meet in Pune; that’s the only time he ran a race in steeple chase. All put together, his repertoire spans 5000m; 10,000m, cross country, half marathon and full marathon. Age naturally moves the athlete away from the shorter distances to the longer ones. Soji is currently well established in the half marathon. He knows that going ahead, he must move to the full marathon. That requires commitment to chosen discipline. He must focus. However, within the Railways, the inter division sports meets matter. They are prestigious events in which, athletes are expected to compete and bring laurels to their respective divisions. Courtesy this requirement, Soji has to tackle a basket of disciplines instead of focusing on a chosen few or even one. He wishes it were not so. In contrast, in the armed forces, from where many good distance runners emerge to dominate the marathons at Indian cities, you are allowed to focus and specialize.

Soji at a race in Kochi (Photo: courtesy Soji Mathew)

Soji at a race in Chennai (Photo: courtesy Soji Mathew)

A seemingly quiet person lost to the world of running, Soji speaks with a stammer. We met after a series of phone calls over a few months, trying to figure out a mutually convenient instance. February worked for him – he was hanging on in Bengaluru (arguably the best Indian city for runners to train in courtesy its weather), busy season over, a month of relaxation to savour before training starts all over again sometime in March. I could sense that the runner in Soji wanted to continue in Bengaluru. He stayed in rented accommodation, away from the city centre and close to SAI’s training facility. It entailed cost – accommodation, athlete’s diet etc. Prize money won at races helped compensate some of the expenses. I asked if aside from the Railways, anybody else supported him. He said he received encouragement from the Kerala based-running group Soles of Cochin. They egg him to do better; suggest apt races, provide shoes. In world by specialization, we live in categories, judging ourselves by our performance within those severely competitive silos. When we met in front of the Deccan Herald office on MG Road, Soji had a question and he posed it sincerely, “ Why do you want to write about me? I am an average runner. There are many who are better than me.’’

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please note: all race timings and the names of events are as recalled by the interviewee.) 


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

A story from many years ago about the first bicycle I rode in the mountains:

It was a simple bicycle.

No gears, painted silver and red, odd size.

A person of average height traveled the road bordering our camp like a stiff Victorian gentleman. His knees nearly knocked against the handle bar to avoid which, he had to keep himself straight and proper on the seat. A tall person would have to be at the rear edge of the seat or off it on the luggage rack. The bright paint served to distract from the cycle’s manufacturing quality; the frame was heavy steel, the joints bore crude welding marks. It wasn’t a solitary specimen in remoteness. There were similar others in Mori, a settlement on the banks of the Tons River in the Garhwal half of Uttarakhand.

Dayal, who worked in the camp kitchen and owned the cycle, took good care of it. But there was only so much he could do to domesticate an animal rather wild from birth. When the cycle arrived, most of the male instructors at camp and the one or two ladies who could cycle were elated. Here was an engaging way to stay occupied after work, particularly if you weren’t the type who could keep on playing volleyball till eternity. I don’t like games. Squaring off to compete and then determining a winner and loser from the contest, never appealed to me. I think the value of competing must be understood in context. I am unsure of competition’s value as an ethic, in our crowded, congested times. At Mori, I used to run to keep myself fit. It provided solo time. But given a slightly weak left leg, cycling seemed better option than running. It was human-powered and not much different from trekking, you moved along taking in the ambiance. There was the Tons River always in sight by the snaking road, beautiful people and village children, who no matter how many cycles they had seen could never resist chasing one. Thanks to all this, the bicycle excited.

The cycle though, had other ideas.

It punctuated every trip with a slip of its chain.

You began the excursion with fanfare; a group of village children for escort. They would gather around in anticipation and then trot alongside, a laughing, giggling bunch of boys and girls. As the cycle started moving and you settled into a small procession on the road, the chain would slip dispatching the legs into a couple of quick spins. “ Gaya, chain gaya,’’ the older of the children would shout as break-down replaced procession for novelty. The two kilometers from camp to Mori usually featured at least a couple of such injuries to one’s pride. To their credit, the children were quite sympathetic to cyclist’s plight. They didn’t mock; they sat down on the road observing the cyclist put the chain back in place. When the job was done, they got up, happy to resume the procession. In due course it was possible to figure out who had been cycling from the grease on their palms. Following one too many chain-slips, the bicycle was hauled to the doctors. We stood in a circle around it, scratched our chins and put our heads together.  Its ailment was diagnosed as a sag in the chain. Everyone concurred. Its chain did have a sagged appearance like what happens to a man’s tummy after too much time with beer and idleness. “ Clipping a chain link should solve the problem,’’ cycling’s medics decreed. Mori didn’t have a cycle shop. But there was a man who fixed everything. He was the local go-to for anything in need of repair. Our cycle was admitted to his care. The quack clipped and the bike’s sagging, jingling belly popped right back in. The bicycle came back looking athletic, sudden run-away muscularity to its stance thanks to new belly-tuck.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

What neither the quack nor Dayal – or for that matter any of us – knew, was that the cycle’s real issue was attitude. I am yet to hear of a psychologist for bicycles – a bike whisperer. We needed one for the bicycle was challenging our capabilities. The damned chain continued to slip, to the point that fewer people now courted the bicycle and those who did, returned unsure if the experience was best called cycling or greasing. We cycled slowly, delicately, Zen-like attention in each pound of pressure applied on the pedals. All focus was on avoiding a chain-slip. Rather unconsciously, a new world opened up. Where cycling had previously been an offshoot of daily exercise, thanks to the extra attention, it now became meditation. We became monks on wheels. Our mind withdrew from the world we were cycling through to total focus on neural pathway between brain and precisely exerted force underfoot.  The village children no longer ran alongside shouting. They walked solemnly like little priests for a new order of self realization and world peace. Wisdom on Wheels: The Cycling Monks of Mori – we may well have become that hadn’t a rebellion against pattern, as old as the universe, struck.

One day, the Zen Master in me lost his marbles. I got bored of being gentle and meditative. I metamorphosed into a head banging rock star. I wanted speed, I wanted the wind in my hair or more accurately the few strands of hair on my bald head, and I wanted to work up a sweat. The children were left behind as I zoomed off on the uphill road leading to Netwar. The bike lunged like a horse breaking into gallop. The trick was to cycle with full contact and uniform pressure on the pedal at all times. It was the jerk of a break-and-resume pattern that typically caused the chain to slip. Not far from camp was a steep uphill climb and although the simple cycle had no gears, I made it up without any erratic jerks to the pedaling. Out of sight of the children – they had given up their pursuit by now – and out of sight of the camp, I halted to allow my hard breathing to slow down. Ahead, a gang of soot stained workers were repairing the road. Road repair crews in the Indian Himalaya are a story by themselves. The bulk of these workers hail from elsewhere, typically the states of eastern India (not to be confused with north-east) and sometimes from Nepal. You find them working in small groups. The road repair crew on the road to Netwar stopped their work to check me out. My bulging eyes and hard breathing, no more resembled monastic peace. Aware of being studied, I pulled myself together and got back on the cycle. I went past the repair team, turned the corner and then, the bicycle gifted me a chain-slip. Problem corrected and cycle positioned on a clearly uphill road, I whispered a small prayer, then got  down to getting self on two wheels moving.

The chain held, it held for some time, it seemed to hold longer – that was when I suspected a tremor in the handle bar. Was it beginning to lower? I felt a slouch gain on me. As with most bikes, the cycle’s handle bar was gently curved, dipping at the centre and rising towards the ends. Slowly, ever so slowly but ever so surely as it always does when things go wrong, my shoulders dropped lower and lower in tune with a handle bar that had come lose. Undone from the central clamp, it was dropping down. My posture resembled that of a buffalo. Even with head raised, the crown of the head, horns and neck tracked a straight line to the animal’s spine. Aerodynamic – yes, but aerodynamic with dancing handle bar was surely no recipe for cycling. And the cycle’s handle bar was dancing; having slipped down, it kept swinging forward and backward, it was also sliding sideways. When it struck, the sideways slide made man on cycle lose sense of symmetry and with it, direction. You drifted into travel at angles. The only way out was to grip the handle bar dead center, where it joined the head tube, making sure there was equal lengths of steel to either side. Your palms served as central clamp. But that made you wobbly on potholed winding roads. The traction of uphill helped. Somehow, I made it to my destination, the first major bridge on the road, at best two kilometers from camp. There I took stock. I had no tools, nothing. The solution to check the slipping and sliding handle bar was to wedge something into the clamp holding it. I inspected twig after twig from the roadside till I found one good enough to jam into the clamp. It appeared to hold. I could spare my hands the onus of being clamp. Going downhill would also keep the chain problem sidelined. The world seemed good. However, I had gravely under-estimated the bike’s capacity for creativity.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Bonding with the cycle, the rattle from the road traveled up its rim and spokes like hot gossip. It darted up through the fork and onto the clamp designed to keep the handle bar in place. The twig started getting pounded. It threatened to dislodge. I pressed the twig in; the pressure broke it. Now I had no means to maneuver the twig in place. What remained of it inside the clamp was squashed and poised to get ejected as chewed up twig bits. I brought my hands as close to the bar’s center as I could in an attempt to keep it clamped in. That’s the beauty of a cycle. Everything about it is simple, when things go wrong you improvise. Nothing complicated, only very simplified complications, as the next problem showed.

I was going downhill, my hands on the center of the handle bar. It posed a simple question: do I quit using the brakes, which are located at the ends of the handle bar? As the bicycle and I gathered speed, I shifted hands to apply the brakes and the lose handle bar having ejected the squashed twigs, gifted me a slouched position. It happened suddenly as the tips of the handle bar dropped low with that central clamp loosening. Then I discovered another little devil in the bag of tricks opening up. The smart little cycle had a weak back brake and sharp front brake. If I wasn’t adequately tactful, the front brake would send me flying. Wonderful! By the time I reached the road gang I was a mess, anything but Zen and trying my level best to look composed. The workers looked at me curiously. Something about my apparent cool and calm must not have convinced. I don’t blame them; I was worried. I needed my composure badly because at camp, it wouldn’t be a road gang of rank strangers who I would never meet again in my life, to cope with, but a bunch of high school students I required to spend the next week with. They would be scrutinizing my descent. If I got off the cycle and pushed it, that would mean I had failed in something as simple as cycling. Thanks to relentless competition, today’s students speak just two words – winner, loser. Who wants a loser as teacher at camp? Perhaps I was forgetting myself. I too was once student in school thick with competition. We have forgotten – failure is the biggest teacher there is. Like a general returning victorious from battle, I had to reach camp on the horse’s back. Just short of the final downhill slope and before becoming visible from camp, I jammed two twigs in, kept one hand near the center of the handle bar and the other on the front brake-lever. It was getting dark, so nobody got a close view of the strange shifts to position I kept making to retain balance. We arrived in one piece. I quietly informed Dayal of the handle bar, parked the bicycle near the kitchen and withdrew to my tent.

Ravi’s struggle in contrast was more severe. But the outcome was top notch. He had mentioned of a unicycle long ago. The day he was expected at camp, I returned from a hike with students to see a blue unicycle on the ground near his tent – small single wheel about knee high in diameter with a straight fork attached to it. Now a fork isn’t born nasty looking. In this case, a slim seat was all that stood between the fork-end and that critical piece of the human anatomy resting on top. Not for me, I resolved, then and there. Historically, the unicycle was our bicycle’s cousin, many times removed. Long ago, when England was ruled by Queen Victoria, Dayal’s steed had a great-great-grandfather abroad called Penny-Farthing. It was one huge wheel in front with a small one behind; the cycle’s name derived from the way these sharply contrasting wheels resembled the penny and farthing of prevailing British currency. Since wheel size directly affected speed and distance covered, some truly large wheels were built. The rider, seated atop the front wheel, could be five feet above the ground.

Personally, I cannot fathom its design just as I cannot fathom the madness in balancing on one wheel. But that didn’t stop the blooming of penny-farthing fans. Sample these two – in 2007, long after the model had faded out, a gentleman was reported riding a penny-farthing around the world; another in California attracted attention from the local police because his five foot-high perch prevented him from stopping at traffic intersections.  Lights turn red, vehicles stop and there goes man on penny farthing right through it all! While the obvious question that should bother anyone staring at the penny-farthing would be how the hell you touch the ground, cycling history does admit to riders expressing discomfort over the rear wheel lifting off when braking sharply. That’s the only thing that bothered the devout. In retrospect it all appears to have been less about personal discomfort and more about a quest. For the outcome of rear wheel lifting off was the outrageously simple hypothesis – why not use just one wheel? See, I told you, cycling is all about simplicity. The unicycle was living proof of that – a seat atop a wicked looking-fork on a single wheel.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Ravi’s initial attempts were hardly cycling. Clutching the post of the volleyball net for support he would mount the unicycle and half a pedal later, be thrown off his seat at the tip of that straight fork.  Ten days of persistent practice must have gone by before he could cycle some distance. Then he shifted to the road. I was a bit jealous for the unicycle took away some of the villagers’ attention from bicycle and me. We realized that our fans were fickle. The children couldn’t take their eyes off the unicycle. Soon, Ravi’s brief one wheeled-forays into the world beyond camp grew into extended trips nudging the kilometer mark. Finally, he was ready to cycle all the way to Mori. I followed at a distance on the bicycle watching people stop and stare at unicycle passing by. In the following days, Ravi cycled much farther (he has since become accomplished at the unicycle; in Ranikhet where he lives, he is known as ` circus uncle’) but one incident stayed etched in memory. Ravi had just left Mori for camp and I was trailing behind when suddenly a youth hopped onto his bicycle, pedaled fast one way, whipped around, came back and attempted to whip around again – he went sprawling right there in the market place. His friends sitting at a nearby shop, laughed. “ What are you? You fall trying stunts on two wheels and that guy went by calmly on a single wheel!’’ somebody quipped.

I wonder what our bicycle thought of the unicycle. Animals can be jealous; they can put on a show. Never heard of cycles behaving so but with all that chain-slip, lose handle bar and funny brakes, I just can’t be sure any more. I was posted at Mori for close to two months. My days on the bicycle passed by with small enjoyable adventures. Before I left Mori, the universe however served up some sad news. As the camp was winding up, we heard that one of the members of the road gang died in a case of electrocution. An overhead electric line had snapped and fallen on the road.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

It was a hot day.

Tired, we sat on two survey stones by the road, watching the relentless traffic. Ahead was the regular 20 km-long choke section of our weekend route, where traffic would be at its worst. Cars and massive trucks would barrel down on us. It depressed; made us think of the contemporary predicament in cycling.

My friend worked at a bank. He liked to cycle. One of his recent posts on Facebook was that wonderful news from Germany about the first section of a proposed 100 km-highway meant exclusively for bicycles, opened. According to a related news report, the fully commissioned highway is hoped to take 50,000 cars off the road every day. What adds significance is that Germany is both one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of automobiles and home to the legendary autobahns of motoring. Supporters of the cycling highway say: such projects can’t happen without the state’s backing. There is rising awareness in cities abroad that more cars can be unwieldy. Neither my banker friend nor I can imagine the same happening in India. Here, we value power as measure of having arrived in life. Two wheels aren’t powerful enough. Absence of engine worsens it. When you are out running or cycling and behold an automobile on the road, your greatest worry is how that sense of power and its display by driver will unfold. You on two legs or two human-propelled wheels and person steering engine-powered platform with four wheels or more – these are distinct class categories in the hierarchy of power. For us, two legs and two human-propelled wheels are bottom of the pyramid.

Between more cars on the road and more cycles on the road, the latter doesn’t impress because it isn’t as big an industry or employment multiplier as automobiles. Critics have pointed out that the social costs of the automobile industry are in the negative in some countries. Equally real is planet of seven billion people (1.2 billion in India) with accompanying need for jobs. In the closing part of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty first, several developing countries eyed car manufacturing projects as means to create employment. As pollution and climate change take hold with consequences for the auto industry, I wonder what governments are thinking now.  Notwithstanding last year’s scandal of a major German automobile company cheating on emission norms, governments will likely persist with the old paradigm. Vehicle numbers in India will increase with corresponding rise in pollution and congestion. The convincing alternative is embracing certain ideals just for the sensible ideals they are. Having fresh air to breathe and less congestion around is not something to balance with our survival. It IS survival. But when did ideals and alternatives guarantee quick return on capital? As the rat race tightens and the cost of doing business goes up, all that matters is return on capital. “ We are obsessed with return on capital,” my friend said. The tried and tested, old wine in new bottle – such approaches flourish. Room for experiment shrinks. Everything surrendered to return on capital is meaningful change also slowed down alongside. A 100 km-cycling highway may be a bad financial investment. On the other hand, it represents a clean, interesting future.

Every February as the union budget approaches, my mind goes back to a budget some years ago which hiked tariff on imported bicycles. It was meant to stop cheap imports. But it hurt anyone eyeing the imported premium varieties for enjoyable cycling, in an Indian manufacturing scene that hadn’t stirred out of its comfort zone of making utilitarian models. Since then, to the credit of the local bicycle industry, it has grown a presence in the premium segment. The evolution is slow; there is no urgency. My friend and I wondered: have we seen any advertisement, any social campaign by the Indian bicycle industry on promoting cycling and a cycling friendly-environment? We weren’t talking of posters advertising cycle trips at a bicycle store or a few bicycle stands with commuter bikes in a few cities. We weren’t talking of celebrities endorsing cycling or sponsored cycling events and races. We weren’t talking of those from the bicycle industry regularly participating in Delhi’s Auto Expo, billed as Asia’s biggest automobile show. They typically showcase very expensive bicycles that serve as statements for brand building.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Cycling, like running and unlike motoring, is environment friendly and keeps you healthy. We were talking of a generic campaign for cycling that is comparable to how India promoted the consumption of milk and eggs. The automobile industry never tires of pushing its case. Even today, despite the social costs of motoring being unbearable in some places, the industry aggressively markets itself. Has the bicycle industry been as vocal as the auto industry when it comes to protecting and promoting the idea of cycling? Do they ask for bicycle lanes; do they ask for motorists to respect bicycle lanes and be aware of cyclists on the road? That is quite different from guarding domestic turf through import tariffs in the union budget. Did the bicycle industry promote cycling or highlight its virtues nationwide when the country was following the news about Delhi’s odd-even scheme, the first serious intervention in India against air pollution? Aside from the routine photo of a senior government official or celebrity on a cycle, we couldn’t remember seeing or hearing anything substantial. Times of auto industry questioned don’t seem opportunity enough for bicycle manufacturers to assert their case? It appeared so. Interestingly, some months ago, the CEO of a bicycle company said in the course of a conversation that the Indian cycling experience has to be improved for growing the bicycle market, particularly the premium segment. After all, we invest in a bicycle to enjoy the experience of being out with it.

Fifteen minutes went by at those two survey stones.

We drank water and had some snacks.

Then, we resumed cycling.

If you sample the list of the world’s top box office hits, you will be amazed by how many movies therein are the stuff of fantasy. We love escaping a reality beyond our control. At the start of the 20 km-long choke section, I indulged my pet fantasy: magically erase all that traffic with a special effects-wand and imagine one long stretch of road with just joggers and cyclists on it. Wannabe wizard traded fantasy for reality, the moment the first big truck rumbled dangerously close by.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

One day many years ago, when I was in school, a tall, bearded man became our teacher.

He taught us English.

In a stiff educational ambiance wedded to syllabus and academic performance, he sometimes came to class with the book he was reading. Small things like that, triggered curiosity. Compared to other teachers, he was young. Quite approachable and a bit of a misfit in those days of strict discipline at school, he was a hit with us. From the way he dressed, to his informal, relaxed style of talking while taking classes, the way he reminded us to be quiet, as opposed to commanding us – everything was different. Occasionally his reluctance to be assertive meant a slightly chaotic class but we were delighted to have a ` cool’ teacher. He didn’t work long at the school. His tenure was brief. He moved on.

Post college, I tried unsuccessfully to be a copywriter. In the desperate aftermath of losing that first job, I was accepted as student for a course in journalism. It was a case of grabbing what came my way to stay afloat. Months later, I found myself a journalist. I met my old English teacher just once after leaving school and that was several years ago. I was home in Thiruvananthapuram on holiday and his house then was a kilometre or less, away. In the years following that stint as teacher, he had become a prominent journalist. I called on him because I wanted to say hello to someone I respected in school and in whose chosen profession, I found myself in. He had worked at The Indian Express, Mathrubhumi, News Time, The Statesman, The Independent and India Today. He was also associated in between with BBC Radio. But what would make him a household name in Kerala was ` Kannadi’ (mirror), a popular programme he produced and presented for Asianet, a leading television channel in the state. He eventually became Editor-in-Chief of Asianet News. I met him in the early phase of ` Kannadi,’ as a student he had taught at school during his pre-journalist days. We didn’t meet again. In the years that followed I also disconnected my cable TV because the whole business of news and breaking news had become unbearable. Amid that, while travelling on work or at other people’s houses, once in a while, I caught snatches of ` Kannadi’ on TV. Early morning of January 30, 2016, I received a text message informing that T.N. Gopakumar was no more.

I remember T.N. Gopakumar as my old teacher. The deep, rough voice from ` Kannadi’ and that unmistakable style of sentence-delivery, was there even then but cast as my school teacher, it is a Gopakumar in a non-media setting I came to remember. Someone who was intellectually leagues ahead of his students, probably wondering what he was doing in our class and yet, amused by it. I was lucky to have a couple of teachers, whose impact exceeded syllabus. Gopakumar is one of them but with a difference. In his case, the impact is tough to articulate because it was both an impression and an impression over a short period of time. The closest I can articulate the impression would be – he made you want to grow up, have a head full of ideas and a book to read. News reports said he was called `TNG’ in media circles. For his students, he was ` T.N. Gopakumar sir’ or ` Gopakumar sir.’

He will be missed; not just by television viewers and the media fraternity but by his old students as well.

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