WHERE DO ALL THE BUFFALOES GO?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Pioneers don’t have it easy. Followers do.

Anyone who has run long distance knows the habit of latching on to another so that you are pulled along.

It is a bit like the February 2020 story about the Indian construction worker participating in a buffalo race, who got compared to Usain Bolt. It was simple, tempting math: herding a pair of buffaloes in full trot, Srinivasa Gowda sprinted 142 meters in 13.42 seconds; Bolt’s world record in the 100 meters is 9.58 seconds. Gowda was more realized than media and ministers celebrating him. After all, nobody knows as well as the practitioner. A few days after the unexpected limelight, he infused reality saying – and I quote from a published article – “ I am as good as the buffaloes that run with me.’’

In races and in life, we pick buffaloes to lead us. We also get picked as somebody else’s buffalo. Unlike the animal which runs for its safety or when prodded to race by human, we have our race-buffalo lead us and then when we overtake him or her, we feel satisfied about milestone passed. Is that the end? No. Like virus seeking next host, we start looking for the next buffalo and so on, till a half marathon or marathon resembles a necklace of buffaloes preyed upon. At the finish line, we raise our arms for photo imitating marathon greats. We spare no thought for the buffaloes we should be grateful to. Officially sanctioned pace setters; they get thanked for delivering us coveted result. But the buffaloes we pick at random from our ranks; they are forgotten.

Pace setters are officially sanctioned prompts. You choose the flag displaying the timing you are seeking and trail it as a bus. Elite runners also use pace setters. When going for a record, the pace required to get the record is maintained by the pace setters, who slow down or drop off after hand-holding runner three fourths of the way. That last quarter is in many ways more crucial than the preceding ones because eventually greatness in athletic performance is the capacity to stretch one’s endurance over the whole distance. But sometimes, even without pace setters around, competition and strategy shape certain traits. I remember the commentary of a major marathon in which the commentator seeing visual of one or two runners hanging on opportunistically at the shoulder of lead athlete, quipped, “ well that’s a convenient place to be in, isn’t it?’’ You make a buffalo of the other but don’t wish to overtake and be target yourself. Instead, you stick around at striking distance like an annoying fly and at the right juncture in the race – or when buffalo begins to tire, whichever is first – you finish him off by going ahead.

In running, which is fast but not terribly fast, this specter is still only the stuff of buffalo. Like hound on race track chasing a mechanical rabbit, you are focused on prey measured in terms of distance to cover. That’s it. Cycling is a much faster sport than running. In cycling’s peloton, the habit exceeds buffalo setting pace, to courting aerodynamic efficiency. Tucked in behind the leader, a cyclist faces less wind resistance; it is called drafting. Here, the buffalo’s worth goes beyond accidental or intentional prey driving riders on, to actually making it easier for predator behind to catch up. Sort of like authoring its own doom except, as we know, in cycling’s peloton everybody has a role oriented toward ensuring that given team’s ace cyclist is set up for the final dash. But even the final dash between fierce competitors has its opportunistic moments. They weave, sway, look around; all of them worried who should risk becoming target for the one who makes the break will be hunted.

In all of the above – from chasing random buffalo to pace setter to peloton leader – the winner gets it all. The rest are generally forgotten.

Buffaloes also remind of pioneers. Pioneers ride head on into the wind. There is nobody shielding them; none in front soaking wind resistance. The draft they create is a nice place for the rest to tuck in. Eyes on pioneer, they learn to avoid the mistakes he makes. Some in the drafting lot don’t even wish to win. They just want it easy; getting the same credit or more for easier work done. Some others, latch on behind, hanging around pioneer’s shoulders waiting for the correct moment to unsheathe their knives and strike. In human history, many pioneers have faded to oblivion because they didn’t win. Some were too early for their time; some failed to attract capital because their adventurousness troubled conservative money, some failed because in having them fail we found endorsement for our herded existence. Little by little, the failures build a case till someone drafting and making a break finds a sudden ocean of applause. We shine the light on eventual winners without asking who their buffaloes were. We even make life easy for winners rewarding them with this and that.

No such recognition visits pioneers fueled by passion, who endure hardships. As life by network and business model gains, it is strategy and scheming that have come to matter, not passion. It is the rare follower, Gowda probably one, who acknowledges the debt.

I wonder where all the buffaloes go.

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

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