Article on Philip Earis and his many interests: science, change ringing, stepwells, solar lighting, running and a proposed seaside promenade for Mumbai.
The caretaker of the premises appeared hesitant.
We wanted to see the bells atop the church tower. We had read about them, the subject we were writing about knew of the bells and had mentioned it. Effort made to go up the tower and see the bells may aid the writing – so we felt. We left it at that. If we are meant to see the bells, the universe will make it happen.
The bells were a unique lot. According to reports, they may have been originally meant for a British tradition called ` change ringing.’ The bells don’t work anymore the way they were intended to. Some crucial parts were never installed; some of the components have jammed through disuse. Of eight bells in there, only one has been operated in recent times. In olden days, church bells served two functions – they marked the passage of time; they brought the devout to church. Suspended high above ground in a tower, the sound of the bells was expected to travel far. But there was a limitation. Although the bell was at a height, its mouth typically faced the interiors of the tower with the result that the sound it produced wasn’t travelling out effectively. Wikipedia says change ringing started in England in the early 17th century following the invention of the `full-circle tower bell.’ This innovation allowed bells to swing almost 360 degrees from a fulcrum. The mechanism allowed the mouth of the bells to rotate up; a chime produced so traveled out from the tower. Each bell produces a different sound / strike note. What this note is depends on the size, shape and metallurgy of the bell. Every time a clapper hits one particular bell, the strike note will be the same.
Change ringing is based on a sequence of permutations of different notes; thus a composition involving eight notes, requires eight bells. Hanging from the centre of a bell, the clapper takes a very small – yet measurable – period of time, to hit the bell’s metal side. If the bell is big, located up in a tower and rung using ropes from below, then this time gap between intent in the head and actual chime must be mastered, particularly if you are creating a pattern of sounds with others ringing other bells in the tower alongside. Imagine maintaining the sequence for hours. That is the challenge at the heart of change ringing. Besides mouth-up position allowing the chime to travel far, the full-circle tower bell also provided more refined control over chiming. An idea of long aural sequences played with bells, so far imagined in the head began to manifest physically as change ringing. Change ringing is also done with smaller hand held bells. Videos of change ringing available on the Internet, show people working with bells of various sizes, the ringers knowing exactly which bell and what chime to produce for given sequence / composition. It is an activity seemingly imbued with patterns; mathematical patterns.
England continues to be the centre of the change ringing tradition. In tune with wherever the British went, traces of change ringing can be found across the world. Some time back, an Englishman, staying at Bandra in Mumbai, visited the church we were at and went up the tower to inspect the bells. “ Yes, yes, I know him…a tall, thin person. They just had a baby,’’ the caretaker said. As of June 2016, Philip Earis was part of a small team that holds a world record in change ringing – the longest continuous bell ringing performance. It was done in England, with hand held bells. Philip was born in Huddersfield, a town in West Yorkshire, England. Wikipedia pegs the population of Huddersfield at 162,947 as per 2011 census. The son of a vicar and a teacher, he majored in Physics from Cambridge. “ I was enjoying science broadly, not so much in the narrow aspect,’’ he said, a morning at his apartment in Bandra. Following his studies, Philip went into science publishing. “ My role was to network with scientists and have them write for the journal I was working for,’’ he said. Philip managed a portfolio of seven journals. “ I was never into sports. I didn’t enjoy physical education in school. I did a bit of cycling – that’s all,’’ he said. Philip did try running. But he would get exhausted. Eventually a friend advised: take it easy, take up running slowly. About five to six years ago, he started running regularly, covering roughly six kilometres daily in Cambridge. What brought out the runner in Philip was probably the similarity between change ringing and rhythmic running. Both Philip and his wife, Jennifer (they met as students [she studied mathematics] in Cambridge; they got married in 2011) were into change ringing. The act of ringing a bell repeatedly with perfect timing and in harmony with others to create an enduring aural pattern requires discipline, focus and empathy for a meditative state of mind. The mind settles into a pattern punctuated by periodic change to patterns. Running is not radically different from this. Striding is a pattern; the mind visualizes a given distance overall and alters the patterns you settle into accordingly. And at the back of it all, as with sustaining the effort of bell-ringing for hours is the challenge of sustaining the running for hours over a long distance. It is mind over matter. Both are mind games. Besides Philip, another person from the world record holding-change ringing group is into running. Yet another is an avid hill walker.
In 2013, Philip and Jennifer shifted to Mumbai, where Jennifer would start an actuary practice for PriceWaterHouseCoopers. Philip left his original publishing job. But he had in place his contact with scientists and an appetite to know better, scientists in India, even attempt solutions for local problems that he came across. “ From the outset itself, we wanted to be immersed in India. We didn’t want to be surrounded by a corporate or expat bubble,’’ he said adding, “ coming to Mumbai with a fresh pair of eyes has been helpful. I guess people have an unquestioning attitude at times. A fresh pair of eyes that way can be helpful.’’ One of the areas he got involved in was solar energy. Another area of interest was mapping the existence of stepwells in India and creating a web atlas for them (www.stepwells.org). A May 2016 article in Mid-Day said that in eight months, Philip was able to collate information on about 300 stepwells. He estimates that their total number in India should be around 1500; many of the known ones are in a state of neglect. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has reportedly preserved only 46. Stepwells worked primarily as reservoirs. But given the temperature at the bottom of a stepwell was sometimes up to six degrees lower than at the top, they were also meeting places for people. Over time, depleting water table caused by overuse of ground water and ruin through neglect caught up with India’s stepwells. Many have gone dry. The state of neglect increased under British rule; they considered water from stepwells to be unhygienic.
While in the article Philip has described his interest in stepwells for the Indian solution to an Indian problem (water scarcity) they are, in the context of change ringing, it is hard not to ignore the precise mathematical architecture and repetitive visual patterns that characterize a typical Indian stepwell. Change ringing generates mathematical patterns in the aural dimension. Philip described in a nutshell the change ringing world record he was part of: There were three participants, each ringing two bells, so six bells in total. With six bells, there are 6*5*4*3*2*1 = 720 different sequences where each bell rings once and once only (`permutations’), for example: 123456 or 214365 or 365241 etc. An `extent of a method’ is a way of arranging the sequences such that all 720 permutations appear once and once only. In the record breaking-performance, we rang 100 different extents of methods. According to the historical requirement for change ringing peals, all methods have to be strictly committed to memory beforehand (no memory aides are allowed) and the whole performance must be rung continuously without any hesitation or break. So the big challenge was to continuously recall a memorized sequence for 24 hours at a fast pace and without any breaks.
On the first Sunday of every month, the running group, Mumbai Road Runners (MRR), have their monthly half marathon from Bandra in the suburbs to NCPA in South Mumbai. It is usually well attended. Slow, struggling runners, the authors choose to start earlier than the rest. The first of the runners coming from behind typically catch up with our huffing and puffing selves on Worli sea face. Lost to their rhythm, they overtake smoothly and proceed on, leaving writers in the dust. Among them would be Philip, now recognized as one of the finest amateur distance runners in the city, in his age group. His first race in Mumbai was ` Footsteps for Good,’ a ten kilometer-run organized by the British High Commission. In 2014, he ran his first Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), which was also his first full marathon. “ The first half was fine, the second half was messy. I had to do a bit of walking,’’ Philip said. He then ran the half marathon in Bengaluru in 2014, repeated the SCMM full marathon in 2015, ran the full marathon at Vasai-Virar in 2015 and the full at SCMM in 2016. In between he also ran the Mumbai Ultra, his first attempt at distances exceeding the full marathon’s length. “ I would like to run some of the longer distances,’’ he said.
Fanaswadi (aka Fanaswadi-Valap) is a small dusty settlement some distance from Panvel on the outskirts of Mumbai-Navi Mumbai. In the summer of 2015, we reached Fanaswadi to meet Kamlya Bhagat. A runner hailing from poor circumstances (in 2016 he won the SCMM half marathon in his age group), he was financially challenged. During the course of the conversation, he mentioned how other runners had helped with shoes and registration fee for races. One such intervention by fellow runners could be seen in the space outside his small house and the trail leading up to it – a series of solar powered lamps. Fanaswadi didn’t have electricity. Solar lamps made sense. That was where we first heard of the English runner dabbling in solar energy; subsequent enquiry yielded the name – Philip Earis. A July 2015 article in DNA newspaper about Philip further pointed out that his work had brought lighting to slums in Worli, the Bandra Reclamation area, Gilbert Hill in Andheri and Prabalgad, a village off Panvel albeit in a direction different from Fanaswadi. In the months that followed, Philip’s name would emerge in not only such assistance provided but also in cases of introducing deserving athletes from poor backdrops to Mumbai’s running community. Dnyaneshwar Morgha is an example. Philip described how he met Dnyaneshwar: I first met Dnyaneshwar at the end of a half marathon in Bandra in December 2014. I was originally supposed to be running in the race myself, but the day before the race the organizers phoned me up to say regretfully they were disqualifying me, and they feared any non-Indians running could be a safety risk and need extra permission etc. As the race was taking place near my apartment I went along anyway to watch and cheer on the runners. The winner was this very small and young runner, who glided along at great speed and seemingly effortlessly. His huge talent was obvious to see, and yet it was also apparent from a quick conversation with him afterwards that he had so much untapped potential – he didn’t have any coaching and wasn’t even really following a training plan. I tried to get his details but there was some mistake in the phone number, and it took me a further year to finally track him down. Philip believes that India has a lot of talent in distance running but it needs to be discovered and nurtured. Resource crunch aside, an overview of the Cambridge Half Marathon he provided, hints at the difference in running between here and overseas. Cambridge, where Philip commenced his running, had an ambiance conducive for running. Wikipedia pegged the 2011 population of Cambridge at 123,867 including 24,488 students. Having become a regular runner, Philip once participated in the Cambridge Half Marathon. “ Nearly 7000 people took part in it, which is high if you compare it with the total population of Cambridge. What’s more – the average finishing time is under two hours,’’ he said.
Following Asia’s largest marathon settling in as annual event, Mumbai has become India’s running city. However, for all that reputation, Mumbai running is despite the city’s congestion and traffic. While SCMM happens once a year, events like MRR’s Bandra-NCPA run (and others of the same ilk) keep the running movement alive. Mumbai is a coastal city. On the map, the route from Bandra to NCPA would seem a run by the sea. In reality it is not so. With several million people in the city and residences, office complexes, apartment blocks and slums packed into limited area you are visibly by the sea at only four spots on MRR’s iconic monthly half marathon. You have a small bit of polluted estuary near Mahim, the Worli sea face, the Haji Ali stretch and finally Marine Drive. Unlike Mumbai, many other coastal cities have successfully maintained seaside promenades. Philip’s “ fresh pair of eyes’’ helped. In league with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Philip has a project submitted to municipal authorities for a long seaside promenade on Mumbai’s west coast that would be aesthetic, engaging local communities and open for running, walking and cycling. Called `BayLine,’ it visualizes a 15m-wide, 24km-long pedestrian pathway along the seashore, linking Haji Ali and Versova in the city. The proposal is rooted in the observation that 52 per cent of daily trips in Mumbai are done on foot with pedestrians accounting for 58 per cent of accident deaths – that underscores the need for pedestrian focused infrastructure, which the BayLine is. According to Philip, much of the connectivity for creating this promenade already exists. The onus of seeing BayLine through may now shift at least in part to the local running community (who along with communities residing by Mumbai’s sea coast, walkers and cyclists would be among stakeholders), for Philip Earis and family are due to return to England by mid-2016. MRR has dedicated the Bandra-NCPA run of June 5, 2016, to Philip.
We asked Philip what his impressions were of running in Mumbai; what he would like to remember? He responded: My biggest impression is of the dedication and determination of runners here. Mumbai is a very hard city to run in – the heat and humidity are invariably tough, and sometimes almost impossibly so. The traffic, badly-paved surfaces, air pollution, and lack of open space and good running routes all pose many problems. And yet thousands of runners still motivate themselves to get up before dawn and incorporate running into their busy lives. The enthusiasm shown by runners – of all speeds – is inspiring. It is wonderful to see the ongoing growth in running culture in the city. My twin hopes are that this growth can both continue and ensure the running community is more reflective of the city’s population as a whole (recreational running is currently skewed towards the wealthy and well-educated strata of society), and moreover that runners can join together and make their voices heard to push for a much better deal: more open space, better runner-friendly facilities (like the BayLine), and a focus on reducing Mumbai’s dangerous levels of air pollution.
The caretaker of the church listened as we said Philip would soon return to England and we needed to write an article, for which the excursion up the bell tower would help. “ Come,’’ he said. The church was closed. He brought forth a set of keys and opened the main door giving us a glimpse of the lovely interiors within. Immediately to the right of the main door was a small passageway, spiraling tightly in claustrophobic diameter to the top. It had steep steps. Roughly two floors up, the steps yielded to a rusty ladder, above which was a cobwebbed platform of steel with more stairs going up the church tower. Some bit of continued climbing and one stood right below the heavy bells, made in England over a century ago. We were inside the bell tower of Afghan Church in South Mumbai’s Colaba.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)