Girish Bindra (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A logistics business keeps you on your toes.

You must ensure your vehicles are in good shape and available to haul cargo; find cargo, make sure the cargo is delivered on time and manage the cargo transit environment with its plethora of paper work, which in India – land of forms, taxes and toll plazas by the dozen, is never easy. Finally, there is that vigil over one’s vehicles being on Indian roads and surviving the traffic. Logistics is not for the faint of heart. That modern work place – the smartphone – didn’t spare Girish Bindra even in the depths of a 48 hour-stadium run. Transporter by profession, he is currently among Mumbai’s leading ultramarathon runners. “ On the second morning of that stadium run, I was answering calls from work,’’ he recalled. We were at a coffee shop in Chembur, not far from his office and its modest fleet of trucks and trailers plying the roads of western India. It was quiet in the café compared to the busy road outside. The road led to Navi Mumbai and destinations like Pune, Goa and Bengaluru beyond.

From the Veterun Half Marathon in Pune (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

Most runners have a story, one that harks of transformation. Girish too has one. More than just a story, for anyone who has run in Mumbai these past few years and crossed paths with him somewhere on the road, it is a small movie of transformation playing out in front of you. In appearance, Girish is now an absolutely fit person. He reminds of a triathlete, which he isn’t yet. Two to three years ago, he was visibly on the heavy side. Somewhere in the time elapsed since, his persistent physical activity saw him get past that point of no return for fat to continue sticking around. He transformed to athletic build. The Girish of old was actually heavier than the Girish we met for the first time on Mumbai’s Marine Drive, a couple of years ago. Born October 1973 in Mumbai, Girish is the middle child among three siblings. The family lived in the Mumbai suburb of Sion. “ My father ran a transport business. He is now 78 years old. He is my inspiration. Both my parents are diabetic. For the last forty years, they have lived a simple life and stuck to their daily walking,’’ Girish said. He attended school at AMK Premier High School in Sion, studied commerce at Podar College in Dadar and pursued his cost accountancy and chartered accountancy. Life nudged him towards taking over his father’s business, which he eventually did; merging it with a transport business he himself founded to merit the fleet size he managed when we met him. Apart from playing cricket in college and being good enough to be included in the Podar College-team twice, Girish had no other involvement in sports. In 1997, he did what many in India do – he went in for an arranged marriage. Five years later, he was a well looked after-93 kilos. Concerned, in 2002, he joined a gym. He was regular with his work-outs there. The main goal was to cut down weight. But 11 years ago, in 2006, a crucial twist happened in Girish Bindra’s life.

Girish with his elder son, Hriday, at Matheran in 2003 (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

Girish was at his sister’s place in Ahmedabad, when for the first time ever, he got convulsions. In the course of one night, he got three epileptic seizures. The subsequent medical investigation revealed cysts in the brain and neurocysticercosis, a major cause of acquired epilepsy. It is a serious condition. Neurocysticercosis is a form of cysticercosis, a parasitic infection. The onset of the infection was attributed to excessive intake of salads. Doctors advised strict rest and no work-out at the gym, for one year. Every day, Girish had to take 20-22 tablets. “ I was quite depressed,’’ he said. The changed lifestyle was unbearable. He had come to enjoy his daily work-outs at the gym. He used to do weight training and exercises for cardiovascular fitness. To compensate for the lack of gym visits, Girish started going for walks at Five Gardens in Matunga. One of the oldest instances of planned urban development in Mumbai; it is an area now popular with walkers and runners. During his days of walking there, Girish inevitably came across the specter of others running. “ I thought why not give it a try,’’ he said. Slowly, he progressed from walking to a bit of running. But he got tired easily. “ Three hundred to four hundred meters of running and I would be a panting mess,’’ Girish said. Improvement was gradual. In six to eight months, he reached the stage where he could jog 8-10 kilometers. Running and its accompanying gift of endorphins helped Girish combat his depression. In turn that enhanced the pace and quality of his recovery from neurocysticercosis. His doctor – Dr Ramesh Patankar – was happy with the progress, Girish said. In retrospect, a seemingly insignificant factor may have also helped. Many of us commit the mistake of focusing excessively on the upper body while working out. That is the physical landscape of our vanity. The legs are typically forgotten. Girish didn’t do that. At the gym, he had invested effort in exercising his legs too. So when the time to run came, his legs were in a position to cope with the strain. Girish’s interest in running gathered momentum. The seizures had happened in 2006. By 2009, Girish was off medication. By 2010, he was also free of the half yearly medical check-ups doctors wanted him to do. In between, in 2008, he registered for the half marathon segment of the 2009 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), now called Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM).

From the 2016 12 hour-stadium run in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

“ That run was my first half marathon. It was the most I had run till then. I found it tough. I finished in two hours, 55 minutes. However notwithstanding the difficulty, I enjoyed it very much. It was a liberating experience, I felt very positive,’’ Girish said. There was no looking back after that. Girish began running regularly. He kept up his regular visits to the gym too. In 2012, he signed up on Facebook to be part of Mumbai Road Runners (MRR), one of the biggest runners’ groups in the city. The introduction came through Runners for Life (RFL); MRR had a relay on a five kilometer-route in Navi Mumbai, which Girish subsequently went for. He liked the outfit and became a regular on their practice runs. Through the network of friends he gained at MRR, his got introduced to more events in running. In 2013, he registered for his first full marathon, signing up for that year’s Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon (VVMM), an event on Mumbai’s periphery loved by runners for the fervor and scale of its cheering. In as much as VVMM greets you with infectious cheering, it tends to be a hot and humid race. The 2013 edition was notoriously hot and humid. Girish got cramps after 30 kilometers and had to walk the rest. He finished in five hours 27 minutes. As paradigm change from the half marathon, Girish said, he had no difficulty embracing the full marathon. “ I genuinely like to run. So for me, it was an invitation to run more, do more of something that I anyway enjoy doing,’’ he said.

At the 2017 IDBI Federal Life Insurance Half Marathon in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

At the 2017 Tarblazers Half Marathon in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

According to Girish, since 2012, he has participated in more than 45 half marathons and 11 full marathons, including the well-known races in Mumbai, Vasai and Hyderabad. His best timing in the half marathon was 1:35; in the full it was 3:43. It doesn’t stop at these established distances. Girish had done 20-25 races over the 10 kilometers-distance; his personal best was 43 minutes, eight seconds. He had also done 12 ultramarathons, including those spanning distances of 75 kilometers and 100 kilometers. He had two 12 hour-stadium runs (one each in Mumbai and Hyderabad) and two 24 hour-stadium runs (Bengaluru and Mumbai) under his belt. The 2016 24 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru, where he placed second covering 182.8 kilometers, had qualified him for the world 24-hour endurance championship due in Ireland in 2017. He got to know of his qualifying only much later and so could not go. However in 2017, he achieved another personal milestone, ending fifth in the 48 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru, covering 252.8 kilometers. This repertoire, spanning 10 kilometers to ultramarathons and 48 hour-stadium runs, can be found among amateur runners but it is not something people persevere to retain. Most gravitate towards a chosen discipline or two. Girish has no such plans yet. “ I love speed as well as mileage. Whatever it is, I work to give it my best. I am a fighter in life. I have seen what I went through; there was that medical condition, I also overcame financial difficulties in my business. I don’t want to repent not having tried anything,’’ he said.

It is important to note that Girish’s journey in running never had a coach in it, save four months of training he did with Raj Vadgama. For someone navigating his route by himself, Girish has done remarkably well. He reads up on running. He listens to his body and appears to have struck a healthy balance between actual running and strengthening his body. At the time of talking to us, his weekly mix was approximately three days of running and four days in the gym. He used to cycle but has since given up on cross-training; a judicious balance between running and working out was his mantra for continuing the journey. “ The strengthening exercises and stretching I do at the gym have helped me,’’ he said. His recovery after strenuous events is good. At the time we met him, Girish was not following any special diet. He liked his food as tasty and wholesome as they came. The largely self-taught runner had also doled out training plans and tips on training to his friends in the sport. “ It gives me immense pleasure to be of use like that,’’ Girish said.

At the 2017 24 hour-stadium run in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

With Kiranpal Singh Dhody at the 2016 Veterun Half Marathon in Pune (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

Chittu Shetty, 50 years old in 2017, had met Girish through MRR’s practice runs. The two used to pass each other while running on the road. Chittu was always doing long runs and Girish had been noticing it. When the two got talking, Girish offered advice. “ He is a very approachable person; somebody who is willing to help. He gave me tips on resting and improving my speed. I followed it and my performance in the half marathon improved. I used to finish running 21 kilometers in 2:15 or so. I was able to haul that up to 1:53. Similarly in the full marathon, he gave me tips like the right stage to have an energy gel. My personal best in the full is now 4:23,’’ Chittu said, when contacted. MRR runs were the context to meet Girish, for Ritu Kudal too. As of 2017, she had been running for six years. For the first four years or so, when Ritu stayed focused on the half marathon, Girish provided her periodic tips on improving performance. In 2016, she decided to train for the full marathon segment of the 2017 SCMM (now TMM). That needed a whole plan and Girish provided her with a comprehensive training plan, starting in July-August 2016 and leading up to the race in January 2017. “ It was a good plan; one that really helped me. I finished strongly and did not suffer any cramps,’’ Ritu said. Her opinion of Girish was similar to Chittu’s. “ He is a very down to earth person, very grounded,’’ she said.

For Girish, quality of training matters more than quantity. The number of days in a week that he actually runs remains pretty much the same; it hasn’t altered despite portfolio of disciplines ranging from ten kilometers to the ultramarathon. Within that, intensity and mileage may go up depending on whether he is training for a ten kilometer-run, a half marathon or a full marathon. During the course of a regular week, he can be usually seen doing hill work-out every Wednesday near Mount Mary’s Baslica in Bandra, speed intervals every Friday at Five Gardens or on the Eastern Express Highway and long runs of 20-30 kilometers every Sunday, commenced either at Shivaji Park or Nariman Point. Not long before we met him, Girish completed his course in marathon training from Exercise Science Academy (ESA), Mumbai. Officially therefore, he is now a certified trainer. It is a line of work that he would like to grow. Japanese athletic equipment manufacturer, Asics, is set to start its running club in Mumbai from October 2017. Girish said that he has been selected to work with them as a coach.

Latter half of the 2017 24 hour- stadium run in Mumbai; feet covered in blisters, younger son Sahaj for company (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

In terms of races ahead, Girish had registered for the 2018 Comrades in South Africa. He admitted that work pressure denied him the chance to travel and run at various locations, he would otherwise love to. A destination like Ladakh for instance, requires runner to include a proper acclimatization schedule. Many days away from work is tough for transporter juggling the responsibilities that go with trucks heading this way and that. Well supported runs at easily accessed locations, at altitudes not drastically different from Mumbai’s, are therefore easier to handle. But one wish still defies this time constraint authored by business – at some point he would like to attempt Badwater Ultramarathon in the US.

For all the personal supervision Girish must do in his business, he maintained some clear switch-off points in his daily work schedule. His running is always in the morning. For regular runs, he is up at five in the morning. On days of long training runs, he is up at 3.30-4AM. After his running, he heads to work. Every evening he heads from office in Chembur to his gym in the same suburb. By about 7.30-8PM, he makes sure he is home for time with his family. Girish has two sons. The eldest, he said is creatively inclined. Except Girish, nobody from his family is into running. In much of the narrative about his running, that world and the world of his family don’t overlap. However, during the 2017 24 hour-stadium run in Mumbai, his wife, Rashmi came to see it and after Girish developed a bad case of blisters on his feet, which reduced him to walking, his younger son joined him on the 400 meter-track, keeping him company for some of the mercilessly repeating loops. “ That felt good,’’ Girish said.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Many decades ago, two significant developments happened near simultaneously, in my extended family.

Two uncles, two comic strip heroes and a bunch of school going cousins – that was the context.

My uncle Narayana Pillai got me Flight 714, my first title from the series showcasing the adventures of Tintin. Until then, the only illustrated narratives I was familiar with were the ones from Marvel, DC, Indrajal and Amar Chitra Katha. They had strong following among school students, to the point that classmates with bound volumes of comic books were important people to know. I didn’t have bound volumes. Although my mother helped out by borrowing bound volumes from a local lending library, in general I suspect, my parents and grandparents held the view that comics, while popular, made for simplified narrative requiring less imagination. Reading was encouraged, purchase / borrowing of wholesome books approved. Days when the cousins got together typically featured a morning or afternoon of painting. Imagination was encouraged. A picture may speak a thousand words but the mind gets useful stretch if it can paint a picture from a word or a theme, perhaps even nothing – that seemed the approach. Into this ambiance landed Flight 714 and at the house of my cousins – Rajeev and Manju – thanks to another uncle: Sachidanand, a handful of books featuring Asterix.

It took me a while to warm up to Tintin. But you guessed it right – it took no time to like Captain Haddock. Who can forget “ thundering typhoons’’ and “ blistering barnacles’’? I also remember liking Skut for no stronger reason than that he was a pilot in Flight 714. Those days I shared a craze for aircraft with my cousin Jayu. Both of us had those small, thick Observer books with plenty of fighter planes in it and we spent time piecing together our respective air forces, which then competed for supremacy in the sky. We also made model aircraft from cardboard, Jayu being infinitely better at the job than I. Flight 714 thus landed at the correct time. My mind was ready for adventure. What attracted me to Tintin were also perhaps the size of a Tintin book and the average length of a story. Uniquely, it was bigger in size than the regular comic book. It told a full-fledged, long story spanning continents, sometimes taking two issues to finish; a sort of early introduction to the graphic novel format that would become popular decades later.

What I remember most is however something else.

Maybe it is a larger Malayali trait, maybe it is a family trait – I don’t know which of the two is correct –we had the tendency of analyzing experiences. At near fifty, I understand childhood better now. It is a phase when you have the luxury to do something because you feel like it; no analysis in the mix. Impulse and intuition are not unfashionable. Our passage to adulthood is fueled by just the opposite. We become adults by analyzing to make sense, till we become armchair analysts of all that is alive and stirring. Expectedly, my extended family put Tintin and Asterix under the scanner. The emergent fascination among the children for these two series triggered discussion among the adults. It was a discussion revolving around idea, story and artwork; we had no clue of such political details like Tintin’s origin in a Belgian newspaper identified with far right views. I remember the outcome. Asterix stayed ahead because its illustrations were bolder and had more flourish. Asterix stories with their play on characters’ names were also more deeply imagined and as the more sophisticated, layered comic book it was respected that much more because childhood is after all stepping stone to more sophisticated adulthood. None of that bothered me. I like Asterix. But Tintin is special. Something about it appealed to childhood’s idea of adventure.

My uncle probably noticed the brewing interest. His work took him often to other cities in India. Occasionally, it also took him overseas. Almost always, he returned with another title from the Tintin series. All the titles were displayed on the back of each book. So it was easy to identify what you hadn’t read and hunt for it. Tintin made me do crazy things. One of them was my scale drawing of a rocket. I arrived an evening with my father at the house of Rajeev and Manju. Their father – Govindan (he was a physics professor) – smiled and indulged me with his time and patience as I explained how my rocket would work. It was all well illustrated in the drawing on large graph paper – the fuel tank would feed the engine and my rocket would escape Earth’s gravity and be moon-bound. Why shouldn’t it? I had a rectangle with dials on it, labeled ` control panel,’ another rectangle with pipeline attached, labeled ` fuel tank’ and yet another one marked ` engine.’ That last rectangle ended in a nozzle copied from one of the jet engines in my Observer book. In retrospect it’s a good thing I didn’t join the Indian space program.

In those days of economy yet to open up like now, each Tintin bought traveled to multiple homes. At every home a kid or two eagerly lapped up the contents. Sometimes titles got exchanged at school; I will lend you my title if you lend me yours, which I haven’t read – that sort of deal. And unlike, regular comic books, which few bothered if they got misplaced or torn through lending, deals over Tintin and Asterix were deals of honor. Misplace or mishandle, you risked being branded unreliable for life. That adds a touch of mystery to how my Tintin collection – all titles acquired save four; that’s 20 out of 24 – fared, once I reached college and employment beyond. Back home in Thiruvananthapuram, not one title survives. I hope some kid; somewhere is still reading what I collected and drawing rockets and submarines. Slowly as Tintin titles became more easily available in India, we started buying the books ourselves (a visit to Kochi was always incomplete without dropping in at PAICO). One by one, we collected the titles mentioned on the back cover of every Tintin book. Then the search commenced to at least access and read titles not mentioned there; titles mentioned in Tintin lore or in conversation among his devoted fans. Meanwhile, my uncle’s children, Lakshmi and Hari, also grew interested in Tintin and started their own collection.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

I never outgrew Tintin. I can still pick up a title and enjoy browsing through it. In my adult life, the arrival of Steven Spielberg’s film on Tintin was a much awaited event. My favorite character was Captain Haddock and I was utterly curious to see how he would be on celluloid. I was disappointed and it isn’t Andy Serkis’s fault. My curiosity was in seeing which actor would pull off that role well and being an avid watcher of Hollywood films, I had even attempted some casting in the mind. As it turned out, the movie was made using motion-capture technology. That put it neither here nor there. It reminded me of the title: Tintin and the Lake of Sharks. Of all the Tintin titles I had, this one – assembled using stills from a 1972 animated film – had attracted me the least. When it comes to converting comic books to movies, I am not a fan of hybrid. After all, Tintin is not a Jungle Book, wherein modern animation technology makes animal characters life-like rendering the film a classic. Tintin sits firmly in the world of people and it surprised me that the producers deemed hybrid imagery, acceptable. I felt that was a letdown, considering Tintin has been portrayed before on stage and several other comic book heroes have been adapted brilliantly for the big screen.

In early August 2017, Lakshmi mentioned that a prominent item at Hari’s home in California is a poster of Tintin. Among his favorite shops is one where he picks up “ his Tintin stuff.’’ It made me wonder: what made her father Narayana Pillai, pick up Tintin books in an era of closed economy in India? Laskhmi’s own take on it was that her father bought it for the children in the family but he wasn’t above reading it on a flight himself! But then, unlike today when the media floods you with trends instantly, those days a comic book hero from Belgium was as distant as Belgium itself. You were compelled to read about Superman, Batman, Phantom and Mandrake because they were around. But Tintin? He didn’t have any PR machinery promoting him in the Indian media. It left the question: how did Narayana Pillai born and brought up in the Kerala of the 1940s and 50s, come to know about Tintin? He had never shared those details. A day into recollecting my thoughts around Tintin, I called up my uncle at his home in Aluva. Now in his mid-seventies, he laughed upon hearing that the phone call from nephew nearing fifty years of age was connected to his Tintin purchases from long ago. There was no loss of time in recollecting details. The bulk of the Tintin books were sourced from a book shop at the Mumbai airport of old, which my uncle visited during his business trips. “ I used to look for illustrated children’s books. That’s how I came across Tintin. I flipped through its pages and felt the characters in the book were interesting. The hero was a young journalist. When I bought my first Tintin, I had no idea how it will be. But from that one book, we moved onto many more, possibly the whole lot…Hari’s collection is still here,’’ he said. Further, in as much as he bought the books for children, he loved reading Tintin himself.

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


Make no mistake – this is not a gentle book on how to swim or improve your skills in the sport. This book is about competing and winning against some of the world’s best. Michael Phelps likes to compete. It took him all the way to titles at World Championships and the Olympics. Beneath The Surface – his autobiography – is an action packed-ride.

Phelps starts human. At journey’s start there is that worry common to many of us – fear of water. It soon fades secondary to purpose found in life for hyperactive youngster. There is nothing like buckets of energy meeting well defined purpose. Notwithstanding humor and casual writing style, I found the book intense. It sticks to subject and packs in details. It isn’t just timings in finals that find mention; the timings in practice, at trials, heats – all get cited because at this level of competition every sub-second shaved, counts. A portrait of the world’s greatest Olympian and athlete comes alive in that space. I read this book to know more about Phelps, an icon in my times. He had his idols – the Australian great Ian Thorpe finds ample mention. Mark Spitz, a legend by 1972, thirteen years before Phelps was born, makes an appearance. Given its central protagonist heads for the Olympics, you also get a glimpse of the Games and life at Olympic Games villages as seen through the eyes of a young, rookie Olympian, progressively moving on to – as seen by a star.

What struck me after reading the book was how much running dominates our idea of athlete. With no disrespect meant to the greats of track, fact is – Phelps has a breadth and depth to his swimming that makes glories elsewhere seem like a side act.  He competes in distances ranging from 100m to 400m and that includes the individual medley, which requires you to be good at all four strokes used in swimming. He also participates in the relay; a discipline that brings out the thrill in being part of a team. He is a winner across these disciplines. Phelps tackles packed schedule with multiple swims – ranging from heats to finals – sometimes happening on the same day. If you dwell a bit on the level of competition at these races, the timings returned and the laurels at stake – you realize how energy sapping these performances are on participants. Not surprisingly, you are also introduced to swimmers swimming down after an intense session in the pool. It helps lower the lactic acid build-up in their body. And lest one forget, you cannot swim to such elite timings or face packed schedules at races, if your training sessions don’t push you to the limit. All this goes into the making of a top notch competitive swimmer. However for some reason, in our mind, swimming does not command the profile track athletics does. When we are asked about the greatest athletes ever, our mind quickly seeks names from the list of track athletes. Phelps talks of the popularity swimming enjoyed in the Australia of Thorpe’s time. He wishes the same was possible in the US and rejoices every time signs of it emerge.

The autobiography embraces the reality of sponsorship and media. It describes how sponsorship, media and publicity are handled such that an athlete’s focus on his / her work is not disturbed by distractions. It casts light on the suggestions Phelps received on how to handle the media. Above all the book gives you a ringside view of what a coach means to athlete and how their bonding and collaboration work in modern sport. Phelp’s achievements are as much his as they are of Bob Bowman, his coach. Together, they work on perfecting Phelps’s techniques, hone his competitive instincts, smash world records and make the swimmer, the most successful Olympian yet. As important as Bowman in Phelps’s journey to greatness is his family. His mother and two sisters (both sisters are swimmers) are there for him. It clearly shows that while success has often been depicted as a person’s battle against odds including lack of family, the reverse can also be true – supportive family works. After 23 gold medals won at the Olympics, you don’t need more proof; do you?

This is an interesting book. It is tad heavy on details around timing but it tells you what champions are made of, what their ecosystem is like. The book’s weakness is also pretty much the same. You get to know a lot about competitive swimming; not much about what human engagement with water through an act called swimming, means.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In early September 2017, I read a news item from Kerala that spoke of a state based-adventure outfit wishing to put women from South India on top of Everest.

It made me sad. Not because Everest is unworthy of aspiration but because it captures our attention at the expense of other equally worthy if not worthier objectives.

To begin with, in May 2014, Malavath Purna, a 13 year old-girl from Telangana had successfully scaled Everest. She was at that time the youngest girl to ascend the peak. That’s sufficiently record-making for South India if you ask me. Maybe then, the adventure outfit’s reference was to people from Kerala. While anyone is free to raise the required funds and attempt Everest, it is a fact that in mountaineering, Everest is equated with guided mountaineering as long as one is attempting it by its frequently climbed routes. The most important factor in guided ascents of prized peaks is whether you – as client – can afford the cost of permit, gear rental charges and the fees of the guiding company. In Everest’s case that is a big amount. Everest tests your stamina. It also tests your purse.

A guided climb of Everest by the normal route does not automatically make you distinguished in the company of mountaineers. Discerning climbers will seek details and they know well that challenging peaks are available elsewhere too in the Himalaya. On the other hand, alpine style ascents on Everest or climbing it by less frequented routes are ideally tackled by experienced climbers for they are quite difficult.

If you can raise enough money to climb Everest; then directing those resources to any other part of the Himalaya will yield plenty of peaks of lesser height that cost less to climb. Should Kerala structure a mountaineering program that puts the focus on less known Himalayan peaks, it would do climbing a service. Some of these peaks are genuinely challenging. Ascents on them have been the stuff of award winning mountaineering. For those who define adventure differently from courting a tonne of risk (I belong to that category), these lesser mountains and their landscapes also harbor much wild beauty and solitude. Currently they don’t fascinate Indians as much as Everest because we and our media are still in the early phase of mountaineering. We haven’t got under the skin of climbing. We remain awestruck by Everest. That’s why the world’s highest peak, climbed by many and their guides every year, continues to attract. A good example of its popularity and symbolic value is betrayed in the experience of a well-known mountaineering club from western India. Having climbed Everest successfully, this club tried raising funds to climb other peaks. It didn’t work. It was easier to find sponsors for yet another Everest expedition with adjacent peaks included. Among mountains, Everest fetches sponsors and when it comes to money to attempt other peaks, Everest done or Everest too in the frame, is the stamp that fetches sponsors.

It doesn’t end there.

When individual aspirants fall short of funds for Everest, they borrow. Some even take bank loans. For these folks, a trip to Everest and summit missed means investment lost and life in debt. Such stories have been reported in the media. Further, government departments awarded promotion at work against Everest ascents recorded. Potential recognition of this sort, which has nothing to do with climbing, inspires its share of unrealistic expectations, not to mention fraud. I climbed Everest but didn’t get due recognition – is a complaint sometimes heard. Meanwhile, a husband and wife team from India was shamed not long ago for faking their summit photo.

Given several states have already seen their residents ascend Everest, I wonder if yet another Everest expedition or creating a training base for those aspiring to climb such a costly peak, deserves priority. Sure it can be a business opportunity, for those seeking guided ascents up Everest are clearly people willing to spend money for it. However if one is imagining sport with support from state exchequer in mind, then I submit what Kerala must do is something else.

As a coastal state, it must embrace water. It must encourage disciplines like swimming, distance swimming, sea kayaking and sailing. Water rarely gets the attention it deserves in our imagination of adventure although it forms 70 per cent of the planet and is deep enough to sink mountains. In his autobiography, American swimming legend Michael Phelps states his admiration for Australia. Down under swimming was one of the most popular sports, a position unheard of for swimming elsewhere. Phelps wanted this to happen in the US too. Access to water and sea is Kerala’s real gift. There is nothing wrong in wishing to meet the Himalaya. In fact, there is nothing wrong in anything you choose for adventure – it is your instinct, your choice. Just that in Kerala’s case, it would be a tragedy to hanker after the Himalaya far away, and merit in the process, guided swims and sailings in the Arabian Sea lapping at one’s feet.

Kerala has produced good swimmers who topped nationally. A couple of them also participated in the Olympics. Kochi has a marina. It is hometown of Commander Abhilash Tomy KC, the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation of our planet in a sail boat. Did this translate into policy supportive of water sports in the state? I doubt it and by supportive policy, I don’t mean events (that’s tourism). I mean training and empathy for those wishing to court water. I have also not heard of any endeavor from Kerala that is the equivalent of an ` adventure’ on water. Further, for the record: swimming cannot be substitute for regular climbing as means to be good at mountaineering. But it provides physical fitness and cardiovascular health; both essential for any endurance based activity, including mountaineering. There is a lot that focusing on water can yield – it can help you excel on land, if land still be your chosen medium for adventure.

If you are in Kerala and can call upon government, companies and people to contribute resources, what would you attempt for adventure – Everest or a long distance swim or voyage?

Think about it.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The only character I have come across in my readings who avoids boredom like the plague is – Sherlock Holmes.

It took me years to understand why I liked him so much. I credit the delay to our rationalization of the boring as essential ingredient for successful life. Boring is our Voldemort; we don’t speak of it lest we lose livelihood. In such a world – one that increasingly ignores what it means to have a brain – Holmes makes it alright to be you. His continued existence, even as fictitious character, assuages the sense of uselessness you accumulate for failing due to your own capabilities. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Holmes. But many others have contributed to his splendid evolution since, into an emblem of being alive.

Between film and television, I believe it is the latter that got Holmes right. The late Jeremy Brett is the best Holmes I have seen. By that I don’t mean staying true to what the creator of the character wrote; I mean more bringing the character alive. However Brett’s Holmes is in a context from the past. There have been later reinterpretations of Holmes; attempts to position him and his stories in more contemporary ambiance. My initial fling with the two TV series – Sherlock and Elementary – made no impression. I couldn’t accept Holmes as super warrior adapted for digital age or Watson as a woman. I mentioned this the last time I wrote about Holmes on this blog.

With more episodes watched, things changed.

I am intrigued by the nature of connect these series have had on me.

The connection is inspired less by Holmes and more by his immediate and extended ecosystem. That, I believe, is where the portrayal was tweaked for renewed appeal. The two series, while retaining Holmes’s known traits added new possibilities, particularly in the interplay between him and those around him. Embedded in the interplay are moments we quickly empathize with.

In social response familiar to those staying single, the detective-doctor duo of Sherlock is sometimes mistaken for being gay as they are inseparable friends. When it comes to Holmes’s life and work, Watson, his wife Mary, Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, Molly Hooper and Mycroft – all form a protective ecosystem, alternatively frustrated by the consulting detective’s sharp insight delivered bluntly and admiring it. Moriarty vacillates between being an evil character outside of Holmes to being the stuff of his own mind; a natural and inevitable counterbalance to the faculties he possesses. In Elementary, Watson is a lady doctor who accepts a position as sober companion keeping an eye on Holmes, cast as a recovering drug addict. Elementary has Holmes based in New York and assisting the NYPD. In both TV series, the police as a whole are not welcoming of Holmes. But Lestrade and Captain Gregson, as individuals, are very supportive.

There are two major factors common to both these TV series.

In an episode from Elementary, as Holmes sits nursing a fever and the NYPD texts of a dead body found in an abandoned building, Watson reminds a Holmes eager to leave for crime scene that the police don’t pay him for his services. “ Watson, you should know by now that boredom is far more dangerous to my health than any fever,’’ he replies. As scathing and unforgiving are his observations of boring world, equally strong are his slides to vulnerability. Unlike the old Holmes with cocaine and Irene Adler for vulnerability, here the vulnerabilities are many and the occasions when they are on display are also many. There is a pronounced degree of seeming misfit. You have characters being publicly sarcastic of Holmes. Recall Sergeant Sally Donovan and her word for Holmes – Freak? The name calling doesn’t hurt Holmes. It hurts us Holmes fans.  In Sherlock, he cracks up (remember the episodes around Watson’s wedding?). In Elementary, he often stands there like a person wronged. As Watson’s tenure as sober companion drifts to a close, Holmes admits in a moment of weakness that his life rendered dry and impassive by the science of deduction is not how he wanted it to be. He says that he would miss the collaboration with Joan Watson if she went away. What stifles a more direct plea for help and understanding is ego. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller – both fantastic as Holmes reinterpreted – have captured this struggle well. I found myself lapping up episodes from both the series.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The above mentioned vulnerability, which probably strikes a chord with many, has been critical to Holmes’s continued evolution and presence in our lives. I suspect the reason it strikes a chord is because so many of us, while hardly as intelligent as Holmes or given to deduction, are nevertheless in terribly boring situations and unable to do anything about it. Our capabilities are wasted. We are intellectually alone. Society attaches little value to insights beyond the mundane. Money favors that which matters for its growth and mundane fits the bill eminently. Money also likes stability. If you aren’t naturally wired for enduring this combination or lack compelling reason to tow its line, you risk becoming outcast. For some of us at least – the ones declining to endure such boredom or asking questions about it – our vulnerability stands exposed. We wish for Watsons and Molly Hoopers to emerge by our side. We crave supportive ecosystem, even if it be four or five people, which is all Holmes has. From attracting us by his riveting brilliance as consulting detective, Holmes has transformed through the past few decades to attracting us for how he pays for his brilliance – there is his loneliness, there is his isolation. Given perspective is a product of subject and beholder, Holmes’s transformation is equally a commentary about the beholder. It is a state of the world report.

Brett’s Holmes was a wonderfully engaging portrait. We peered through time into the goings on at 221B Baker Street; it was a period of syringes reused and carriages drawn by horses. In contrast, the Holmes of Sherlock and Elementary remind us of contemporary predicament. He becomes a figment of our straightjacketed brain navigating environment dismissive of its insight and creativity. The ecosystem offered by Watson and Holmes’s few other friends keep him as what he is while Moriarty, cut from the same fabric, represents what can dangerously be.

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


Khurshid Mistry (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The discoveries of middle age and after are interesting.

It’s the stuff of new life.

Khurshid Mistry was 44 years old when she commenced a serious pursuit of athletics.

What she likes to do most is – sprint.

She has been a consistent participant and winner at Masters Athletics, where enrollment is restricted to people over 35 years of age. In Mumbai’s community of amateur runners, she stands out for the unique mix of events and training she does. The amateur running calendar in Mumbai is largely made of marathons, half marathons and 10 km-runs. The biggest event therein is the erstwhile Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), now called Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) thanks to change of main sponsor. This is the event that got Mumbai running, gifting it over time, the country’s biggest amateur running community. TMM occurs every January. That’s when runners try to peak. Khurshid also runs at the event; she does the half marathon. Thereafter, while the local crowd drifts to a more relaxed schedule or attempts things closer to their heart, Khurshid commences training for the 100m and 200m. These are small distances compared to a 10 km-run or a half marathon. Except, these are distances that demand considerable training, particularly if you are the sort determined to excel. For the first half of every year, from just after the Mumbai marathon, Khurshid is completely focused on sprinting. In the second half of the year, she trains to run half marathons; the last of which signaling the switch back to sprinting, is the annual Mumbai marathon. Khurshid, a vice president at UTI Mutual Funds when we met her in August 2017, has been a podium finisher at all the half marathons (she had done 18-19 half marathons) and most of the sprint events she participated in.

Khurshid running at the 2017 National Masters Athletics Championship in Lucknow (Photo: courtesy Khurshid Mistry)

Born 1963 in Mumbai, Khurshid grew up in the city. She attended Queen Mary’s school at Grant Road, where her tryst with sports began. She was a regular at the inter school sports meet. “ I was really good in sports,’’ she said. Over time, she has indulged in running, swimming, cycling, horse riding and a variety of games. At Lala Lajpat Rai College near Mumbai’s Haji Ali, where she was next, her participation in sports continued although devoid of systematic training. By now studies had begun to matter. For the next more than 20 years, aside from aerobics and swimming to keep fit, she stayed off deliberate participation in any sports. UTI Mutual Funds was her second job and once there, she stuck on. In 2007, UTI Mutual Funds decided to take part in the annual Mumbai marathon, scheduled for January 2008. In November 2007, those interested – Khurshid among them – commenced training under the watch of city based-running group Striders. In January, Khurshid completed her first half marathon comfortably. Praful Uchil, one of the founders of Striders, told Khurshid that she seemed the type who would do well in sprinting. “ At this age?’’ Khurshid asked. Praful assured her she would be able to do it. Soon after the Mumbai marathon, there was a corporate sports meet (it was called Corporate Olympics) which happened at Priyadarshini Park (PDP) in South Mumbai. A 20 acre-recreational complex with facility for sports, PDP has a synthetic track. At the corporate sports meet, Khurshid took part in 100m, 200m, 400m and the long jump. She won in all four. It brought to focus the merit in what Praful had said earlier. Someone who likes excelling at what she does, Khurshid’s predicament required a road map. Two developments – the first one, three years before Khurshid was born; the other, when she was three years old – had set things rolling for what she could do bearing in mind Praful’s observation. There was a way ahead for middle aged sprinter.

At the National Masters Athletics meet in Rohtak (Photo: Khurshid Mistry)

In 1960, Milkha Singh aka The Flying Sikh had finished fourth in the 400m final at the Rome Olympics. It has remained a high point in men’s athletics in India, ever since. For much of the twentieth century, general life in the world’s second most populous country stayed obsessed with making a career and earning a livelihood. Sport, athletics included, wasn’t a priority. A decade and a half into the twenty first century with India’s GDP among the top ten in the world, things are slightly different. Activities like running and cycling are catching on. Yet older people leading an active life, is still culturally new to India, where typically you live to support your family and then once you retire from work, you progressively fade. In Europe, Australia and New Zealand, as early as the 1930s, middle aged athletes used to participate with the younger lot in cross country races and road races. Some did well. Bunching together performance across wide disparity in age and then judging to find a winner is unfair. But the sporting spirit is such that an opportunity to run – even if it is a race – attracts. That’s probably what brought senior runners to these early races where people elder by age could participate.

When Khurshid was three years old and yet a child in Mumbai, the push to get older people involved in athletics gained proper structure. In 1966, David Pain a civil lawyer based in San Diego, USA, started organizing ` Masters Miles’ at indoor and outdoor competitions with the minimum age for participation set at 40. According to Wikipedia, he and similar minded others soon launched the US National Masters Championship, where everyone 40 years and over competed together. The first such meet held in July 1968 at San Diego attracted 186 athletes. The second meet saw 200 people participate; it also introduced 10 year-age groups across all disciplines. Inspired by these meets, participants founded their own Masters meets elsewhere in US and Canada. A movement began, which acknowledged the athletic spirit resident in those middle aged and over. Two other trends contributed to the movement strengthening further. Colonel Kenneth H. Cooper was a doctor in the US Air Force. He introduced the concept of aerobics. In 1968, Cooper’s book aptly titled Aerobics was published. A few years later, its popular mass market version New Aerobics followed. Cooper’s writing helped fuel the American craze for running. As running became a craze, it became more inclusive, embracing the senior age groups as well.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The second catalyst for Masters Athletics was a trend acquiring formal shape in New Zealand. Arthur Leslie Lydiard had represented New Zealand in the men’s marathon at the 1950 London Olympics, finishing thirteenth with a timing of 2 hours, 54 minutes. He became an athletics coach. Lydiard was a strong proponent of running for general health. At a time when the popular belief was that running is bad for one’s health, Lydiard encouraged easy distance running emphasizing its cardiovascular benefits. The word for it was ` jogging’ and its etymological origin appears wrapped up in other ideas for one of the early sentences Wikipedia cites is from William Shakespeare’s comedy Taming of the Shrew (authored between 1590 and 1592), wherein he wrote: you may be jogging while your boots are green. At that time, the word apparently meant: to leave. Whatever, Lydiard is credited with starting the Auckland Joggers Club. Among those, who in the 1960s got to run with Lydiard’s joggers was Bill Bowerman, American track and field coach and co-founder of Nike, the well-known footwear brand. According to Wikipedia, Lydiard organized for Bowerman to go jogging with one of his club members, Andy Stedman, who had survived three heart attacks. Bowerman, who was in his fifties, struggled to keep pace with his companion, who was 20 years his senior. On his return to the US, Bowerman took jogging to Hayward Field – one of the world’s best known track and field stadiums, in Eugene, Oregon – and eventually to the masses. So goes the story. All this – the senior runners of the 1930s, David Pain, Colonel Cooper’s books, jogging and Lydiard and Bowerman’s initiatives – dovetailed into sustaining Masters Athletics. The first World Masters Championship was held in August 1975 in Toronto, Canada. Two years later, in 1977, the World Association of Veteran Athletes was formed. It later changed its name to World Masters Athletics. In 1978, when Khurshid was 15 years old, India took the first major step towards recognizing the athletic ability of its older people by setting up the All India Veteran Athletic Association. The first national meet of this association was held in Chandigarh to lukewarm response. Things improved considerably over the next two years. In the following years, the word ` veteran’ got replaced with `masters.’ Today the Masters Athletics Federation of India (MAFI) is affiliated to the larger World Masters organization. MAFI’s website credits the genesis of the Indian push to include older citizens in athletics, to Milkha Singh.

At the erstwhile Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, now Tata Mumbai Marathon (Photo: courtesy Khurshid Mistry)

At the half marathon in Delhi (Photo: courtesy Khurshid Mistry)

According to Praful Uchil, in late 2007 when employees from UTI Mutual Funds were training with Striders for the 2008 Mumbai marathon, he had occasion to run with Khurshid and observe her style closely. “ You can make out from a person’s running style, stride length and the extent of high knee action whether they will do well in sprinting or distance running. Khurshid’s style indicated ability to sprint,’’ Praful said. It is not unusual to come across such middle aged people. “ They may be among those natural sprinters who stayed undiscovered when young and still retain the style,’’ Praful explained. In his career as coach, he has encountered other similar cases in Mumbai. Encouraged by Praful’s observation, following the corporate sports meet at PDP, Khurshid trained and took part in the national meet for Masters Athletics. She topped the sprint disciplines she enrolled for, there as well. Then she hit her first stumbling block. Given she had recommenced her running after 20 years with a half marathon and Mumbai’s amateur running scene revolves around its annual marathon, she decided to train for the following year’s half marathon. She was plagued by injury. “ Training to sprint and training to run a half marathon – they don’t blend,’’ she said. She realized that she required making a choice. She gave up plans for the half marathon and decided to focus on sprinting. It was so until 2012, when she slowly made her way back to the half marathon, training carefully and systematically for it. In the process, Khurshid is in now among few runners of her age in the city, doing both sprint and distance running. The 2013 Mumbai marathon was her first half marathon as an individual participant. She would go on to run all the editions of the event since then till now (August 2017), restricting her participation to the half marathon. She has also run half marathons at other locations like Delhi, Bengaluru, Goa, Amaravati, Vasai and Satara.

From the Asian Masters Athletics Championship in Malaysia (Photo: courtesy Khurshid Mistry)

Training to sprint is an intense affair. But sprinting comes naturally to Khurshid; it does not weigh her down. Her sprint training is done at PDP on the synthetic track there. Her coach at PDP is Deenanath Maurya. Every morning she leaves home for PDP, trains there, returns home, heads to office, works out at the office gym after work and then goes back home. That’s her schedule, six days a week. She trains twice a day; running in the morning, strength training and core workout by evening. In the eight years since she returned to running with that 2008 Mumbai marathon, she has had five stress fractures on the foot plus one hamstring tear. When injury strikes, she gives up running completely. “ A stress fracture usually takes six weeks to heal,’’ she said. But the trick she needs to master every year is the transition from sprint to distance running. After the Mumbai marathon, when Khurshid starts her training for sprint disciplines, it doesn’t take long for her to regain her comfort with running fast. What she struggles with is the switch to distance running from sprinting in the second half of every year. “ When I come off a sprint season and head into half marathons, my capacity for endurance is zero. Every year I have to start from scratch. It takes me at least three months to get my endurance back,’’ she said, describing her unique predicament in a city where most people are into distance running and measuring their daily training runs by the kilometer. In contrast, every morning for the first six months of the year, Khurshid is on a 400m synthetic track at PDP, typically running shorter bursts given she competes in the 100m, 200m and 400m disciplines at Masters. What makes the transition particularly challenging is that in the switch from sprint to half marathon, the time Khurshid needs to regain her endurance robs her of the ability to fully utilize the events of the marathon season. This would be simple enough if your goal is to be recreational runner; run for fun overlooking performance. It is tough when you are determined to do well. Both adequate time for training, and ramping up with enough patience to avoid injury, matter. “ It is a difficult thing to do – straddling both sprint and distance running,’’ Praful said.

At the International Meet, Brunei (Photo: courtesy Khurshid Mistry)

Khurshid does not hide her desire to do well. Probably realizing what she is up against in terms of risk of injury, she does not run at every event showing up on the horizon. She picks and chooses. “ Everything in training depends on what is the competition I am gearing up for. I don’t do many events,’’ Khurshid said. In sprint season – which she finds easier to handle – she usually moves through the state, national and international level of competitions under Masters Athletics. In marathon season, it is typically not more than one half marathon a month with occasional departures to two half marathons. Ever since she started going for Masters, she has been a podium finisher in her age category all the way up to the Asian championships. In April 2017, she achieved a longstanding dream – she participated in the World Masters Games in Auckland, New Zealand. She qualified for the final in the 100m and 200m sprint disciplines but couldn’t secure a podium finish in the final. She finished fifth in 100m and sixth in 200m. Khurshid is very happy that she could participate in the world championship. That had been a goal in her Masters Athletics journey. Since 2008, Khurshid has won gold medals in 100m, 200m, 400m, 4 x 100m relay and 4 x 400m relay at seven state level and seven national level Masters Athletics meets. Additionally, she secured one gold medal at the Asian Masters Athletics meet held in Malaysia, five gold medals at the international meet in Brunei and one gold medal and two silver medals at the international meet in Johar, Malaysia. “ Khurshid is primarily a sprinter. But she manages to run half marathons very well. The training for each of these is difficult. She does the training with much dedication.  Very few people can do that,’’ Pervin Batliwala, among the best known senior marathoners in Mumbai said.

From the Masters Athletics World Championship in Auckland, New Zealand (Photo: courtesy Khurshid Mistry)

Between sprint and endurance, Khurshid wants to focus on the former till she feels it is no longer reasonable to continue. We use the word `reasonable’ because in her case, giving what she is doing, her best shot, matters. “ Till I can do sprinting, I will keep doing it. Endurance can be pursued at any age. Sprinting is my forte. Why shouldn’t I do what is my forte for as long as I am capable of doing it well?’’ she asked. Besides, she confesses to being a bit impatient in wanting to see the outcome of a race she started. With sprint events, the result is available soon. “ I sometimes find the half marathon never ending,’’ she said. For now therefore, there is no thinking of the full marathon. If Khurshid is to do it, then, she will need to train well, train with focus; train for at least one year. “ I am a perfectionist. I do only things I am good at. Otherwise, I don’t do it at all,’’ she said. If she shifts to the full marathon in lieu of the half right now, the problem is – that will reduce her overall speed and compromise her ability in sprinting. She does not want that. She takes injuries in her stride, rationalizing, “ with time, I have learnt to take care of them.’’ As for her drive to sustain the current mix of sprinting and half marathon and excel at it, she attributed that to her innate character. “ I used to tell my father that I want to achieve something in life,’’ she said.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Remembering Freddie Mercury

July 1985.

News of the concert had been brewing for a while.

In that time, the newspapers had made Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats names to know. I knew nothing more of them. All-knowing by instant search wasn’t yet in. Google’s birth was another thirteen years away; easily accessed Internet even more. Being curious about universe and welcoming of world, I memorized the names for conversation with musically inclined friends. Geldof was the main organizer of the upcoming Live Aid, a massive rock concert to help victims of the famine in Ethiopia. It was to be held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia. The event was to be broadcast live across 150 countries; India was one of them. Some of the world’s biggest bands were heading straight to our living room. Television in India was young those days; colour TV younger still. There was only one broadcaster. Single broadcaster catering to the tastes of 780 million people (India’s population in 1985) meant that something fitting your taste on screen was both fleeting and a household event. Rock concert on TV was very rare. That year – 1985 – had seen the release of Brothers in Arms, the album that made Dire Straits a phenomenon. Thanks to Thiruvananthapuram’s music collectors and the network of the interested, we used to make up for Google’s absence and somehow access the music. I liked Dire Straits; they were expected to play at Live Aid as was Led Zeppelin in a much awaited reunion. D-Day was July 13. We watched the telecast together, as a family.

What I remember best from that telecast is what has since become famous as the greatest live performance in the history of rock music. We gazed in amazement at the TV screen as the people gathered at London’s Wembley Stadium (over 70,000 were present that day) raised their hands in the air and clapped in unison to Queen’s Radio Ga Ga. Then Freddie Mercury put them through a few vocal improvisations and they sang as he did, note for note. By the time the band was concluding its set with We Are the Champions, the Wembley crowd was swaying like a forest in the wind. On stage, Freddie Mercury was brilliant. It would be revealed later that Queen’s sound engineer may have tampered with the volume limit assigned to speakers, making the band the loudest act of the day at Wembley. If so, the band was unrepentant about it. Unlike many of the other bands at Live Aid who reportedly took their performance casually, Queen had come prepared and rehearsed. They intended to leave an impression. They did just that. Journalists writing on rock music have since compared it to one of those defining moments a lifetime of existence gravitates to. Freddie on stage at Live Aid was in such a moment.

Live Aid is supposed to have reached over a billion people. The world’s human population in 1985 was 4.8 billion. That would put the event’s TV viewership at close to a quarter of humanity, in days preceding Internet, Facebook, Twitter and human swarms trolling to enforce `like.’  Twenty minutes of Queen was Live Aid’s undisputed high point. As many would conclude later, Queen at Live Aid is rock music’s greatest live performance yet. Rock bands connect to audience through the technical proficiency of their musicians and through their front man. Queen was well balanced in this regard. Those writing on Queen have noted that none of its four members – Freddie, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon – could dominate individually, a trend capable of destabilizing bands. Further, each of them has contributed to writing one or the other of Queen’s many hits. Yet as often happens in rock music, the charisma of the front man influences a band’s perception by the public and Queen was no exception. Freddie Mercury was an electrifying act. Born Furrokh Bulsara on September 5, 1946 in Zanzibar, his father hailed from Bulsar, also known as Valsad, a town 150 km north of Mumbai. His mother was from Mumbai. Freddie spent most of his childhood in India (he attended school in Panchgani, 240 km away from Mumbai) before moving back to Zanzibar and then in the wake of the Zanzibar Revolution, onward to England. On November 24, 1991, a little over five years since that day at Wembley for Live Aid, Freddie Mercury passed away due to complications arising from AIDS. He was 45 years old. In 1996, at the opening of a photo exhibition on the life of Queen’s lead singer, the band’s lead guitarist, Brian May, would say (video of quote available on YouTube),“ to be truthful I am against recreating Queen in any other form as I think without Freddie it would always be something less than what it was.’’

Live Aid was also an opportunity to see U2, two years before they became a smash hit (and one of my favorite bands) with the album, `Joshua Tree.’ Queen and U2 warmed up to me differently. U2 peaked with my own advent to rock music-loving age, my craving in ever lonelier world for music as companion. I fell in love with Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For the first time I heard it. It remains a favorite even now. Which seeker in the head can resist such a song? Queen on the other hand, took time to connect. Notwithstanding their popularity, I found the architecture of Queen’s music stiff and set in an ecosystem that was very European and British.  They felt like a group hang-out. You bonded over their songs. For example, it isn’t music you seek in We Will Rock You, a song so evocative of tribe; you seek belonging. Long after Live Aid, I had friends who swore by Bohemian Rhapsody and We Will Rock You. I found Bohemian Rhapsody an engaging mix; it was baroque, operatic and rock. But a sucker for the traveling spirit, I wanted something less rooted. Perhaps something less grand and more portable? As a young journalist in Mumbai enjoying life’s early flush of hard earned income, I also remember sitting in pubs and singing along to I Want To Break Free. I outgrew that. More to my taste were songs like Breakthru and The Invisible Man. But over time, it was another Queen number, A Kind Of Magic, which remained in head enduring life’s ageing process. I love its barreling sense of momentum, soaring vocals and surface-skimming lead guitar; it gives me a feeling of hurtling along to somewhere and nowhere in particular, all at once. Above all I love the unbridled energy that characterizes Freddie’s rendition of this song at the July 12, 1986 concert in Wembley, a year after Live Aid. It is an image of absolute confidence. The video of the performance (available on YouTube) reminds you of Live Aid. It smacks of sensing opportunity. Just past the 45th second as Freddie launches into the song, he looks towards the audience, through the haze caused by the fog machine, tad uncertain of what to expect. A minute and couple of faint smiles later, he looks to the camera and you see that glint of acknowledgement; he knows the audience is in the mood for magic.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Twenty five years after Freddie Mercury’s demise, at a book fair near Navi Mumbai’s Vashi railway station I picked up Lesley Ann-Jones’s 2012 biography of the singer. My curiosity for it was the same as for a book on running, climbing, cycling, swimming or any such activity. Why should rock music be seen differently? Its all life; its all universe. Among other details, the book noted that Freddie’s first band was the `Hectics,’ formed at school in Panchgani by a 12 year-old Freddie and his schoolmates. An artistically inclined person given to sketching, he later took a diploma in art and graphic design, in London. His idol in rock music was Jimi Hendrix. According to the book, as successful rock star, Freddie rarely elaborated on his early years in Africa and India. On the other hand, it suggests that prolonged separation from his parents at so early and sensitive a stage in life, thanks to his schooling in distant India, may have impacted Freddie and contributed to the performer and person he became later in life. For long, Queen was a favorite with rock fans in Mumbai. Now a new generation and their music have taken over. Not to mention, Bollywood. The last big act in town was Justin Bieber (he was born three years after Freddie Mercury died). Movies have been made on artistes like Jim Morrison, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. In 2010 a film was announced on Freddie Mercury’s life. In the years since, the cast and producers underwent change. When last reported in the international media, Egyptian-American actor, Rami Malek, was set to play the role of Freddie.

Live Aid happened 32 years ago.

Had Freddie Mercury been alive, he would turn 71 years old, this September 5, 2017.

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