TRANSFORMED

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.)

THE TINTIN YEARS

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.)   

A PEEK INTO A CHAMPION’S ECOSYSTEM

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.)