Late November 2017.
Although nearing 6AM, it is dark as we walk from the house to the quiet road passing through Vikramgad Khand.
The village is perhaps three kilometers from the market in larger Vikramgad, a settlement between Wada and Jawahar. The quintet of four boys and one girl walked briskly to a small node ahead and then hung back to limber up. Roughly ten minutes later, the sound of runners’ feet approached from behind as the quintet trotted past at a relaxed steady pace. It reminded of every marathon’s initial phase – that rhythmic sound of feet striking tarmac and sense of pack when a bunch of athletes run by. There was no traffic on the small road save an occasional two wheeler. Once in a while the darkness was breached by torchlight or the approaching red glow of a lit beedi; farming chores commence early in these parts. Then two middle aged men came by on their morning jog. As the rising sun slowly made its presence felt, a lady walking briskly, appeared; followed by the sight of a man warming up for his jog, another who jogged by and then paused to do push-ups on the road. Dinesh Mhatre had said the day before that Vikramgad early morning has its growing share of walkers and runners. We were roughly 90 km away from Thane and maybe 120 km from Marine Drive, the showpiece of Mumbai’s running.
Over two months before this dawn at Vikramgad Khand, we had waited near Thane’s bus depot for the leader of the quintet. The atmosphere was humid. People and vehicles dashed about like packed atoms. The person we wanted to meet had got stuck in Bhiwandi, a dusty township associated with the textile industry, famous for having the most number of power looms in India. That meant he was just half way through to Thane, where we had agreed to meet around noon. We used the time to locate a quiet eatery to have lunch at once our subject for interview arrived. Almost two hours later, two young men met us at the Thane bus depot. When sat down for lunch, Dnyaneshwar Morgha had no hesitation choosing rice over roti. In Vikramgad Khand, where he lived, that’s what he did – he cultivated rice.
Vikramgad Khand is hilly terrain. Born April 1994, Dnyaneshwar is the eldest of three children; two brothers and one sister. His parents are farmers. They own some land. Life was tough, growing up. The family didn’t have much money. What saved the day was a simple flower, small and among the most beautiful in the Indian subcontinent. Southern and western India, including the state of Maharashtra where Vikramgad is, is home to the jasmine. While Dnyaneshwar studied in the local school till the twelfth, his parents often came to Thane seeking livelihood. They sold jasmine flowers at about twenty rupees a kilo, making roughly sixty to seventy rupees daily for the family to live on. It also meant that unlike in the case of the affluent lot paying school fees every month or every term, Dnyaneshwar and his siblings could pay their fees only in an erratic, aggregated fashion depending on income flow and what little the family saved. Needless to say, once he was old enough to work, Dnyaneshwar began doing agricultural work.
Aside from he being the elder of the siblings, one reason for the urgency Dnyaneshwar felt in taking charge of his life was that drinking was common in the community he belonged to. His parents were no exception. The habit takes a toll on human being’s ability to work. “ They are not well now. So, they don’t work,’’ Dnyaneshwar said of his parents. He does not touch alcohol. It is not that he hasn’t. There was an instance in the seventh standard, when he drank toddy. His teacher, “ Diwan sir’’ punished him. After that, he has stayed away from drinking. When we met him, Dnyaneshwar having completed his twelfth and got married, was into a routine of working his family’s agricultural land and taking ahead the admission for graduate studies he had secured at a college in Ullhasnagar. His sister was married. The rice the family cultivated was being consumed at home itself. There was no share of it being sold in the local market. Dnyaneshwar met his family expenses and the fees for his education using the money he earned from running. His younger brother Rohidas was in the twelfth and also a runner.
Dreams have always fascinated human beings. A dream is a succession of images, ideas, emotions and sensations that usually occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep – that is how Wikipedia explains dreaming. Various cultures have responded in their own unique way to our tendency to dream. In another section, Wikipedia added: in the late nineteenth century, psychotherapist Sigmund Freud developed a theory that the content of dreams is driven by unconscious wish fulfillment. According to Dnyaneshwar, turning point was in the ninth standard. He claims he had a dream of himself running. By then his relation with his parents had touched a low point. As liquor took its toll, whatever was being earned as livelihood got squandered. Nothing reached the children. “ We would mix masala powder in water and have it just so we had something in our stomach,’’ Dnyaneshwar said. The already fragile relation snapped, when one day, he declined to get liquor and was told to leave the house. For the next few years he stayed with his uncle.
Most of us wouldn’t take a dream seriously. Why should we, when the mind keeps running movies in the head for no particular reason? Dnyaneshwar however clung to what he had dreamt. “ I latched on to that vision because my predicament was desperate. If I don’t try to make my own path I will get sucked into how things have been for the past several decades,’’ he said. Following that dream, for a year, he trained diligently. He ran to forget his personal situation; he ran also because he hoped the madness would bring him something better. He ran between the hours of 2 AM and 5 AM. He ran barefoot on the road. It wasn’t long before others in the village took note. Communities may have been originally formed to take everybody along for the journey. But one of the problems in community is how difficult it is to follow your mind if what you wish to do stands out from the norm. Comments fly easily. Dnyaneshwar said that when his running was discovered by others, he was laughed at. It was to escape such judgement that he embraced the darkness of the truly early morning hours. Out of sight is out of mind. The only person to run with him was his friend, Kaluram. But Kaluram quit after a year. Dnyaneshwar was back to being Vikramgad Khand’s runner in darkness. Then a race over five kilometers was announced in the village of Kudus nearby. He participated in it and finished in third place. As prize he got Rs 1500. “ That was a lot of money for me,’’ Dnyaneshwar said.
His first formal half marathon happened in Vikramgad itself. It was an event organized by Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, an outfit that works among tribal communities. He secured first place in that run. This was followed by a half marathon in Pen, where too Dnyaneshwar finished first. Then he was dispatched for a few days to Pune, where a “ national level competition’’ was due. At this competition, Dnyaneshwar finished first in the half marathon with a timing of one hour, fourteen minutes. That win fetched him Rs 30,000 as prize money. “ I had never seen so much money in my life,’’ Dnyaneshwar said. The person Dnyaneshwar has kept in touch with at Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram is Satish Chavan. According to Chavan, following his win in that half marathon in Pune, Dnyaneshwar told him of his desire to run at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM, now called Tata Mumbai Marathon – TMM). It was the biggest event in running, much written about in the media and automatically, magnet for runners. “ Dnyaneshwar wanted to run but he didn’t know anything about how to participate at the running events he had heard of,’’ Chavan said. As he scouted for details on how to register Dnyaneshwar for SCMM, Chavan found that there was a plethora of running events around, not just SCMM. For the youngster from Vikramgad therefore, his first race in the Mumbai region was one of the editions of the Thane Varsha Marathon, wherein he ran the 10 km-race. He secured first place there with a timing of 31:22. Dnyaneshwar’s friend Dinesh keeps him informed of upcoming races in Mumbai. As regards the big annual marathon in Mumbai, Chavan said that Dnyaneshwar has had two outings so far at SCMM’s half marathon. On both occasions podium finish eluded him. Chavan continues to help. Given his association with Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, Chavan has links to potential supporters. With their assistance, he has provided 5-6 pairs of running shoes to Dnyaneshwar.
Sport is a great leveler. Runners are known to help each other. Running in Mumbai expanded the pool of people willing to help Dnyaneshwar. Among those who saw him running at an event and tried to assist, was Phillip Earis, a runner from England who lived in Mumbai for a few years till mid-2016. In 2016, he had written in about the first time he saw this runner from Vikramgad Khand: I first met Dnyaneshwar at the end of a half marathon in Bandra in December 2014. I was originally supposed to be running in the race myself, but the day before the race the organizers phoned me up to say regretfully they were disqualifying me, and they feared any non-Indians running could be a safety risk and need extra permission etc. As the race was taking place near my apartment I went along anyway to watch and cheer on the runners. The winner was this very small and young runner, who glided along at great speed and seemingly effortlessly. His huge talent was obvious to see, and yet it was also apparent from a quick conversation with him afterwards that he had so much untapped potential – he didn’t have any coaching and wasn’t even really following a training plan. I tried to get his details but there was some mistake in the phone number, and it took me a further year to finally track him down.
Another runner Phillip helped was Kamlya Bhagat, whose background is similar to that of Dnyaneshwar. He lives some distance away from Panvel, a township south east of Mumbai (Vikramgad Khand is north east of Mumbai). Older than Dnyaneshwar but a fellow race horse counting on running for a fair amount of his income, Kamlya won the half marathon at SCMM (now TMM) in his age category, in 2016 and 2017. Incredibly, Dnyaneshwar missed registering for the 2018 TMM. He had entrusted the task with someone; it apparently got overlooked. His personal best in the half marathon was 1:08 clocked at the 2016 Vasai Virar Mayors Marathon (VVMM). In early 2017, Dnyaneshwar became the recipient of the Runner of the Year award given by Mumbai Road Runners (MRR), one of the biggest running groups in the city. Srivatsan Mambakkam, senior runner from Navi Mumbai, was on the jury that selected winners of the 2016 awards. “ In Dynaneshwar we had a runner who clocked 1:08. I think the attributes we appreciated in him were – he was young; fast, consistent in performance and returning good timings at events featuring decent competition. VVMM for example, is quite competitive,’’ Srivatsan said. Dnyaneshwar’s streak of good timings has continued. At the IDBI Federal Life Insurance Mumbai Half Marathon of 2017, he finished first in the half marathon with a timing of 1:09. In November 2017, he romped home first in the Western Naval Command (WNC) Navy Half Marathon, clocking 1:09:37.
Dnyaneshwar races almost every Sunday. He said that he trains under Aman Chowdhury. Given coach is in the Mumbai region and ward in Vikramgad, the instructing is on the phone. A typical day for Dnyaneshwar starts at 5 AM. If he has run 21 km at a race on Sunday, then he dedicates Monday for a recovery run. On Tuesday, he does an easy five kilometers, including 200-400 m sprints. Wednesdays are meant for working out. On Thursday, he and everyone else in his team, run together at race pace. Friday reverts to easy running or running an easy 21 km in case he has a half marathon to race on Sunday. Saturdays are devoted to rest. He also takes rest all of May. In the running calendar that is usually a month with few races given the heat of India’s summer. In 2016, Dnyaneshwar said, he made anywhere between one to two lakh rupees from running (one lakh is equal to 100,000). He said he puts some of the money aside in a bank account.
The attraction for running is hard to understand in a conventional way. Most runners don’t stress over returns from running because returns from regular physical activity are priceless. But that is not how the Indian circumstance wedded to money and sedentary life, views things. For example, several runners we spoke to while writing articles for this blog, mentioned of families and parents puzzled by the sight of runner paying money to register for a distance run that left him / her exhausted. Who pays to get punished? Who pays to seemingly lose investment? By the same yardstick, the easiest route for respect by running is when it yields result admirable by conventional logic – when it fetches you money. At his house in Vikramgad Khand, Dnyaneshwar showed a prepaid gift card, part of his winnings at a race. On the wall was what it bought him – a TV. On his wrist was another prize from running – a runner’s watch. The house he currently lives in – a modestly big properly built house – that had been funded with money borrowed from others and prize money from running. Medals from races adorned the walls of the living room; a clutch of trophies graced one corner of the clean, tidy floor. According to Dnyaneshwar, when he started earning from running, those around him began seeing his madness in a different light. Respect for running and curiosity for the sport crept into the frame. Others also wanted to run. Dnyaneshwar now informally coaches other runners in Vikramgad. The first of these wards was with him when we met in Thane; they were both heading to a race in the Mumbai region, scheduled the following day. Twenty one years old, Amit Bhagwan Mali started running when he was in the tenth standard. He and his friends were playing cards in the village one day, when Dnyaneshwar arrived with trophy and prize money. “ I decided I must also race,’’ Amit said. His father is no more. He has to look after his family. They too are farmers. At the 2017 IDBI Federal Life Insurance Mumbai Half Marathon, Amit had a podium finish in the 10 km-run with a timing of just over 32 minutes. Doing well at that event, was also Dnyaneshwar’s brother, Rohidas. Once you get into running, a world opens up. At a race in Kalyan, Dinesh met Amit; the latter didn’t get the event’s branded T-shirt and Dinesh gave him his. Through Amit, he met Dnyaneshwar. Dinesh said he now spends most of his days in Vikramgad Khand, his training base. He travels periodically to visit his mother who stays at Angaon, a village near Bhiwandi. Dinesh specializes in the 10 km-run. At the 2016 IDBI Federal Life Insurance Mumbai Half Marathon he had run the 10 km-discipline in 33 minutes placing second. Closer to our meet-up in Vikramgad Khand, he had finished first in the 10 km-run of the Navy Half Marathon with a timing of 32.38 He hopes to graduate to the half marathon. When that move should be – he counted on Dnyaneshwar to advise him.
According to Amit and Dnyaneshwar, running has slowly picked up in the Vikramgad area. Around 10-15 boys are now regular runners. They also spoke of Ramji Gangda, 57 years old, who runs regularly. However, conservative family and society restricts the number of girls in running, Dnyaneshwar and Amit said. Marriage happens early in tribal communities. While by and large boys get to do what they want, it is tough for girls. For now, barring exceptions, running doesn’t fit in with the priority of things as imagined by parents. A few girls from one of the adjacent villages join in as the runners go by, the two youngsters said. Chavan painted a more optimistic picture. He said that in the pool of runners from tribal communities in the region, there are now at least 8-10 girls. The lone girl in the quintet starting the run from Vikramgad Khand was Kavita Bhoir, yet to touch 18 years of age but already getting podium finishes in the 10 km-run and the half marathon. She had finished first among women in the 10 km-run, part of the Navy Half Marathon held mid-November in Mumbai. Her timing was 42:25. She had also tried her hands recently at the half marathon; an event in Pune. “ I didn’t feel anything. It was quite easy,’’ she said of her first half marathon, tad puzzled by the experience and unsure if it was the appropriate thing to say. She had a podium in that race too. Kavita hailed from the same region as the others but like Dinesh, had house and studies in Angaon.
When the quintet that ran out from Vikramgad Khand got back to where it started, it had grown in numbers. There were new faces joined in from the nearby village. The youngest was a girl, 14 years old and taking part in five kilometer-events. The eldest was Dnyaneshwar. They concluded their run with some exercises, making sure they did the cool-down and stretching out of sight from Vikramgad Khand. They wanted to avoid the gaze of society and its established ways. Speaking to Dnyaneshwar, Dinesh, Kavita and Amit on the walk back to the house, it was clear that what they all struggled with was a generation gap. Born to the present and its age of opportunity, they felt the need to have a sense of direction, accomplish something. Failing which, they feared they would be engulfed by the age old life lurking all around. Dnyaneshwar said he would like to continue working in the field of running. The subject interests him. He doesn’t charge anything for the training and sharing of experience he does in his village. About his own running currently straddling the half marathon and races over less than half marathon-distance, Dnyaneshwar said, he intended to wait for some more years and then try his hand at the full marathon as well. As we neared the house we had left two hours earlier, a figure – hair combed, dressed in clean clothes and backpack on shoulders – approached. It was Rohidas. Having finished his run, he had gone ahead of us, got ready and was now heading for his classes. Like elder brother Dnyaneshwar, he too counted on running’s prize money to fund his studies.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Timing and position secured at races are as said by the interviewees. This article is based on conversations with Dnyaneshwar and his friends in Thane and Vikramgad Khand.)