Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In early 2019, Steve Swenson, former president of the American Alpine Club had visited Mumbai to receive the annual Kekoo Naoroji Book Award from The Himalayan Club. In May 2020, amid lockdown in India due to COVID-19, this blog contacted Steve for pointers on how relevant agencies in the US were advising the climbing community. The following is drawn from links he suggested for reference.

Here’s what Access Fund posted on its website:

We strongly encourage all climbers to help flatten the curve and err on the side of caution. Here’s how you can help:

Follow the lead of your Local Climbing Organization.

DO NOT travel to climb.

Strictly comply with all shelter-in-place and similar orders.

Strictly comply with all closures and restrictions, and follow federal, state, county and city guidelines on social distancing.

DO NOT take unnecessary risks. Don’t be the person that creates more stress and burden for our medical and SAR professionals.

Please understand that climbing areas will still be there once this crisis passes. The best way to return to normal in the shortest period of time is for all of us to do everything we can to stop the spread of the virus as quickly as possible. In many cases, that will mean that we simply shouldn’t go climbing.

There was this observation too on the Access Fund website: Over sixty years of scientific research has proven that being outside in nature, or even just viewing natural landscapes, helps reduce stress hormones, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and premature death. Being in nature also lifts our spirits and helps us feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.

At the time of writing, Access Fund had announced a webinar for mid-May 2020 on the topic, “ Climbing during the pandemic.’’ It was to feature representatives from the outdoor community and the medical fraternity.

On its part, the American Alpine Club posted the following:

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented and impacts us all. Our community must act thoughtfully to “ flatten the curve” to reduce transmissions of the virus over time.

We are concerned about transmission of COVID-19 to rural or gateway communities. These remote towns often have limited access to medical facilities and their closely-knit, interconnected social structures are more prone to the spread of infection.

Please keep places like Bishop, Fayetteville, Moab, Springdale, and Slade as safe as possible by limiting recreation-based travel at this time. If you have a trip planned, please reschedule until we are through this health emergency. This is not the time to head to the desert or rally to your favorite national park for “social distancing.” While outdoor time is necessary for each of us during this turbulent period, we need to stay local and limit our interaction with vulnerable communities.

Consider also keeping outdoor objectives conservative to reduce the load on the medical system. Backcountry emergencies contribute to overloading hospitals and potential shortages of ventilators in intensive care units. As always, be safe out there and mindful of unnecessary risks.

Finally, we all should follow the directions outlined in the CDC’s guide on how to keep yourself and others safe from the virus. It’s necessary that we as a climbing community make decisions from the perspective of the most vulnerable people in our community.

The AAC is certain that the climbing community can be a part of the solution to COVID-19 by taking collective action now.

Some parks in the US have opened for limited use during the day. The website of Washington State Parks provides an idea of how such entities approach the current predicament.

To begin with, the parks have said that parking capacity will be reduced at some urban locations as reducing the number of parking stalls leads to less number of people and thereby, less crowds. Authorities want people to respect closures and visit only parks that are open for day use. The detail of limited restroom facilities at some parks has been mentioned. Before they go, people have been asked to check what is open and what isn’t. They have been advised to enjoy the outdoors only when healthy; if they have fever, cough or shortness of breath, they have been told to save their outdoor trip for another day. If you are healthy and going out, then bring your own mask or bandana. Overnight stays are not allowed. So opt for an outing closer to home. Stick to immediate household members to check any potential spread of virus. Bring own soap, water, hand sanitizer and toilet paper. If upon reaching a park, it is found to be crowded, then go elsewhere or return another time. Avoid crowds. Practise physical distancing (six feet). Similarly, leave at least one parking space between your car and the next. Wash your hands well. Pack out what you pack in. Be kind and respectful to the park staff.

One segment where protocols are still being figured out is that of climbing gyms. Gyms have significant presence in the US.  On climbing gyms, Steve Swenson said, “ no one knows yet what the protocols will be.”  State governments in the US are setting the time frames for a phased approach when different parts of the economy can reopen. “ So it varies from state to state.  In most states, things like gyms (which include climbing gyms) are included in the third phase of reopening which is one of the latter phases.  The nature of what these latter phases will look like and when they can happen, will be determined by what happens with the spread of the virus after the phase 1 and 2 parts of the economy reopens,’’ he said.

Please note: In India, all sports, outdoor pursuits and climbing gyms have remained suspended or shut since commencement of lockdown. At the time of writing, the lockdown was still in force. The ground realities of life and the challenges faced in tackling disease are very different in India, compared to the US. The contents of this article are presented for thought and discussion by those related to outdoor pursuits, who recognize the need for evolving best practices in these troubled times.

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


This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the film. No copyright infringement intended.

There is life, and then, there is how you should live life.

The first is a blend of existence as it is and world as perceived by our sense organs. The second is a blend of individual sensory perception and opinion from the human collective; in fact, more of the latter. Most of us get entangled with the second approach. We are busy living life as it should be lived. Till one day, you wake up and ask yourself: what did I do to my life? My one shot at existence?

That one day came to octogenarian Edith (Edie) Moore in the phase following her husband’s demise. Her daughter, with whom she has a strained relationship, plans to shift Edie to a retirement home. The elderly woman resents it. The juncture invites reflection. Following a wild childhood that she thoroughly enjoyed in the company of her father, Edie had got married to George, a man with a very controlling nature. Thanks to him, she had been unable to go on a climbing trip with her father to Suilven, a mountain in the Scottish Highlands. Two days after their argument on the subject, George got a blood clot that rendered him invalid; “ he never walked or talked for thirty years until he died. And dad died not long after George had his stroke. So that was that, I never went.’’ Edie took care of George and her daughter but in the process, was denied her own life. Now in her eighties and beset with her daughter’s plans for her, the widow decides to take up that old trip to Suilven.

This is the premise of the 2018 movie, ` Edie.’

It is a beautiful film with Sheila Hancock in the role of Edie and Kevin Guthrie (remember him from ` The English Game’?) as Jonny, a young man who offers to lead Edie up the mountain.  What makes this film particularly meaningful is the way the narrative mixes straightforward story telling with contemplation on what happens to us in life. Sometimes the choices we make, hijacks our journey to the expense of all other possibilities. This is what happened to Edie in her younger days. She was reduced to being care giver and taken for granted. In her old age, she is a concoction of the rage in discovering that her best years were wasted, the frustration of being unable to feel young again (and be honorably treated while trying it) and eventually, the delight in undertaking an almost monastic pilgrimage to Suilven, a motif capable of restoring dignity to her existence. This is not an outdoor film in which, the rules of wilderness are strict and unflinching. There is an element of affection for the main protagonist, a sense of nature and heavens being supportive. But it doesn’t matter for the underlying warmth and compassion of this movie shot in great landscape, is refreshing.

This is a good film to watch (I saw it on Disney-Hotstar) especially in these days of lockdown due to COVID-19. Stuck at home and counting the hours, we have been reflecting on life. There is an Edie in each of us, seeking release.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

This is an article by invitation. Bhasker Desai, 68, is a Mumbai-based businessman and amateur runner. He has been in the US since mid-March 2020. Amid COVID-19, states there have had varying degrees of lockdown. In California, where Bhasker is at present, there is a shutdown; not a complete lockdown. At this blog’s request, Bhasker wrote in of running’s new normal as experienced there; he also applied his mind to imagining how the new normal may play out in Mumbai.

I am currently in San Bernardino County, southern California. This state has a shutdown but not a complete lockdown. One can venture out any time for a walk / run apart from drive down to pharmacies and grocery stores. Wearing mask and keeping safe distance of six feet is mandatory when out to pick essentials. But there are no such specific guidelines for runners who have access to trails, roads, sidewalks and parks, which they share with walkers and cyclists.

I go out for a run, twice a week; each session lasts 45 minutes to an hour. I run solo for I have no runner friends here. I see very few runners out and about. When I do find someone, it is usually another solo runner. There are walkers too, out for fresh air. They are typically seen in pairs, group of friends and quite often, a family of adults and children. Most of them wear masks. Where I live, I have yet to see runners wearing masks. I suspect they must feel uncomfortable wearing a mask and running. The mask gets wet from breath and sweat; breathing becomes tad difficult.

May 10, 2020: an empty street in San Bernardino County, southern California (Photo: Bhasker Desai)

In general, people wear masks when out. So I am unsure how welcome to others, the sight of runners not choosing to wear one is. After all, we do huff and puff more than them and that does not help alleviate the concerns of these times. However, every time I see passersby, I make sure I am more than ten feet away. I even jump to the edge of already empty roads (very few cars are out), let people go by and only then, get back on to the path. Some people wave to greet or show approval. When you are greeted so, for a moment it feels like old times! It reminds you of times when people joined you to enjoy the camaraderie; an unexpected running partner had for a short distance. But alas times have changed. For now it is only a smile and we move on safely, away from one another. The new normal sucks but it is a reality we must accept and not flout till this phase gets over…hopefully soon.

I think of Mumbai. The city is home to a big number of recreational runners. Personally I don’t see much social inequality in the sport. The running spirit encompasses all kinds of runners, slow, fast, young, old, rich and poor. That should be good news to start with as and when Mumbai opens up again for runners. Even the comparatively disadvantaged runners, we take them along with us to run side by side and support them in different ways. Till such time as COVID-19 becomes a thing of the past and there is a vaccine that cures, maintaining physical distancing (ten feet?) should be number one priority. So, when Mumbai reopens and permits resumption of running, remember to stay apart from each other. No rocket science there, it is the obvious thing to do for safety of self and others.

Solo running or running with a few friends you know are healthy – that may be your new normal. Make it mandatory not to touch one another. No hugs or handshakes to greet (namaste should work) and always, that physical distance. I agree it feels terrible. But self-preservation and precaution are essential in this new order. Seniors (I would say, those above 55 years) should be even more cautious, they should ideally run solo. They are a higher risk group and so should feel nothing bad at being isolated.

January 5, 2020: the old normal; runners from various parts of the city after their Sunday run at Marine Drive, Mumbai (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

Mumbai is a thickly populated concrete jungle. That is its biggest challenge. Its community of runners too has grown rapidly. There are few free spaces to tread. There are only few green zones and limited sea fronts for runners to breathe fresh air and feel healthy. And with many people walking side by side, it adds to the crowding. Social distancing for runners in most cities in the US is not such a big challenge. North America has less people, more accessible free space, plenty of parks, running trails, sidewalks and special zones for extracurricular activities. There is no dearth of space to run freely and at the same time, keep physical distance from each other. Mumbai in comparison is no runner’s paradise. I suspect, similar challenges will be felt as regards the new normal in other Indian metros like Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata.

Good behavior by runners in Mumbai’s limited free space will be crucial if we are to check the spread of this lethal virus. Life style changes are on the anvil. Get ready to accept that you will not be running free spirited like before in the new normal. We runners are very gregarious and love to chat as we run. We won’t be able to continue that. It’s another change we need to accept to restrict spread of droplets. It means we have to count that much more on self-discipline and resilience to fall in line with the new normal, which Mumbai too must accept. Runners need to keep their ethics and spirits high, stay strong and united. They should not become weak and resort to protest (for space). Good behavior and sportsmanship are required if we are to thrive in the new normal. Where this doesn’t happen, government regulations and dos and don’ts may be imposed with potential penalty to defaulters. Is that the solution? I hope we don’t come to that stage. I hope we shoulder our responsibilities and make the things that provide us joy, happen, so that we live in peace and harmony. Perhaps team leaders, running gurus and running clubs like Mumbai Road Runners (MRR) can lead the way to formulate runners’ ethics and influence right behavior through proper guidelines. Runners have to learn to coexist and yet stay distanced. Notwithstanding what others can suggest, in the end, it will be the individual’s inner calling. So, this compliance is something we have to generate from within.

January 5, 2020: the old normal; runners from various parts of the city after their Sunday run at Marine Drive, Mumbai (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

The other challenge in India will be for organizers of running events. Big ticket events like Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), Airtel Delhi Half Marathon – may have to take a back seat as participation in numbers like 30,000 and 40,000 can break down physical distancing and be a threat to human safety. Besides, till such time as they develop a runner-friendly mask, wearing a mask and running more than five kilometers may be irritating; you end up with a sweaty, smelly face cover.  Forget big events, even small ones with 500 to 1000 runners may prove unacceptable unless some solution like split timings for start or large enough space to run (we can’t imagine such luxuries in Mumbai) or some such impractical unfriendly way of going about organizing a race is evolved. Nothing comes to my mind except that for some time, let running events be on the back burner in big cities. In smaller places, far flung semi metros and towns, local small events can be a reality with just a few runners. In the end, running for us amateur runners is about health and happiness. So no world lost if for some time we don’t race and get another PB! I hope and pray that vaccine comes earlier than projected; a vaccine that cures and allows us once again to breathe next to our fellow runner.

(The author, Bhasker Desai, is a Mumbai-based businessman currently in the US. The write-up was edited by Shyam G Menon.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Tokyo Games may have to be cancelled if it can’t be held next summer

President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach has indicated that the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games may have to be cancelled if the new dates of next summer cannot be met owing to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking on the situation, he told BBC Sport that neither can the Games organizers keep their staff permanently employed nor can athletes remain in uncertainty.

According to the report dated May 20, 2020, available on the BBC website, Bach also said that the event would be focused on essentials and while holding it behind closed doors isn’t his preference, he requires more time to consider the option.

Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe has said that staging the rescheduled Games would be difficult if the country does not contain the virus in time. Top medical officials in Japan have also pointed to the relevance of a vaccine in this regard. BBC said that when asked of this angle, Bach responded the IOC was counting on advice from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Recent news reports have pointed out that while there are several vaccine candidates in various stages of study, not only will they take between 12-18 months to be properly approved but top scientists have also cautioned, a successful vaccine may not emerge anytime soon.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games was originally slated for July 24-August 9, 2020. It was rescheduled to July 23-August 8, 2021 (retaining 2020 in the event name) following the outbreak of COVID-19 and its spread worldwide.

Sports Ministry approves resumption of training at its sports complexes and stadiums

The Sports Ministry has given its go ahead to the resumption of training at its complexes and stadiums after the government permitted their reopening in the fourth phase of the lockdown caused by COVID-19, Press Trust of India (PTI) reported, May 15, 2020.

According to the report published in national media, India’s sports minister Kiren Rijiju said activities will be conducted in sports complexes and stadiums strictly in accordance with guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). “ I’m happy to inform sportspersons and all concerned that sports activities will be conducted in sports complexes and stadia strictly in accordance with MHA guidelines and that of the States in which they are situated,” Rijiju tweeted. The minister however reminded that the use of gyms and swimming pools are still prohibited.

2020 Comrades Marathon cancelled

The 2020 Comrades Marathon, which was postponed earlier due to concerns over COVID-19, has now been officially cancelled.

An official statement available on the website of the event said, “ Following long discussion with the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) Board and KwaZulu-Natal Athletics (KZNA), Athletics South Africa has announced the cancellation of the 2020 Comrades Marathon.’’

It quoted CMA Chairperson Cheryl Winn as saying, “ It is with profound sadness and regret that the CMA Board, in conjunction with ASA and KZNA, had to make this decision. We do so with the knowledge that it will come as a great disappointment to thousands of Comrades runners, who together with us at CMA, have been holding out hope that the race would somehow proceed.

“ We had hoped to postpone The Ultimate Human Race to a date not later than end of September (owing to climatic conditions), but alas with the Covid-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating and anticipated to peak in the coming months, there is no telling what is yet to come. As CMA, it is incumbent upon us to prioritise the health, safety and well-being of our athletes, volunteers and stakeholders and therefore lamentably we will not be staging this year’s edition of the country’s leading road running event.”

According to the statement, exactly 80 years ago, Comrades Marathon organizers had faced a similar dilemma in deciding whether to stage the 20th Comrades Marathon some eight months into the conflagration of World War II.  At the last moment it was decided to go ahead with just 23 starters, following the withdrawal of many runners who had been mobilized for the war effort.  Only ten runners completed the 1940 Comrades Marathon.  The following year the race was cancelled and remained so for the duration of the war (1941 – 1945), as the organizers, runners and supporters stood in solidarity with all those who suffered the horrors and atrocities of war, similar to that of the World War 1 which had inspired the Comrades Marathon’s humble beginnings.

Registration opens for professional athletes facing funds crunch due to pandemic

Professional athletes who are experiencing financial hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic will be able to register for a one-off welfare grant from the welfare fund set up by World Athletics and International Athletics Foundation (IAF). The registration window is from May 15 until May 31, an official statement dated May 15, 2020, available on the website of World Athletics said.

It was two weeks ago that the two organizations announced that a US$ 500,000 welfare fund had been created to support professional athletes who have lost a substantial part of their income due to the suspension of international competition this year. A working group was formed to oversee the distribution of the funds and it has now finalized the eligibility criteria and application process.

World Athletics president Sebastian Coe, who chairs the working group, said it had been a challenging and complicated task to define the eligibility criteria to ensure that grants from the fund were delivered to the athletes most in need.

According to the statement, the fund will support athletes who have met the Tokyo Olympic Games entry standard and will provide welfare grants to be used to cover basic living expenses. The level of grant will be dependent on the number of approved applications and up to a maximum of US$4000. It is anticipated that the grants will be distributed directly to athletes from June. Only athletes who have been impacted financially to the extent that they are unable to maintain their basic standard of living should apply. All applicants must meet the following eligibility criteria:

  • Must be qualified (by meeting the entry standard) for selection for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
  • Must have never had an anti-doping rule violation
  • Must be able to demonstrate a justifiable welfare need through significant loss of income in 2020 compared to 2019.

To help ensure the fund goes to those most in need, the following athletes will not be eligible to apply:

  • Those ranked in the Top 6 in their event in the World Athletics World Rankings
  • Those who have finished in the Top 6 positions of any Gold Label Road Race in 2019
  • Those who have earned more than USD 6,000 in prize money from the Diamond League in 2019

Athletes who, throughout the covid-19 pandemic, continue to receive an annual grant from their government, national olympic committee, member federation or sponsors are not expected to apply unless they can demonstrate a justifiable welfare need as detailed above.

The first phase of the application process is for the IAF to assess eligibility and for athletes to describe the need for grant support and their proposed use of the grant. More detailed financial information will be requested in the second phase prior to confirmation of any grant award, the statement said.

Sports Authority of India to prepare SOP for resuming training post lockdown

The Sports Authority of India (SAI) has formed a committee to prepare a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for phased resumption of training across sporting disciplines at all its centers once the lockdown due to COVID-19 is lifted.

According to a report from the Press Trust of India (PTI), published in the media on May 10, 2020, the six-member panel will be headed by SAI secretary Rohit Bharadwaj and will have as members, CEO Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) Rajesh Rajagopalan, Executive Director (Operations) SS Roy, SS Sarla, Col BK Nayak and Assistant Director TOPS Sachin K. All training had been suspended across SAI centers in view of the on-going pandemic.

The proposed SOP will describe protocols and preventive measures to be observed by all stakeholders, including trainees, coaches, technical and non-technical support staff, NSFs, administrators, mess and hostel staff and visitors, once training resumes.

It will include the guidelines to be followed on entry norms, sanitization and precautions to be taken in common areas and by athletes while travelling to and from the center. A separate committee has been formed to prepare a SOP for swimming, since the sport requires athletes to train in water and may have a different set of health risks to address. The committee for swimming will be headed by Executive Director, TEAMS Division of SAI, Radhica Sreeman, and will include Monal Choksi, secretary general of the Swimming Federation of India, senior coaches and doctors, the PTI report said.

The recommendations of the committees are being made in consultation with respective National Sporting Federations and other stakeholders and will be sent to the Sports Ministry for final approval.

IOC foresees costs of up to $ 800 million as its share in organizing Tokyo Olympics

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) anticipates that it will have to bear costs of up to USD 800 million for its share of responsibilities in organizing the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, its own extended operations and the support for the wider Olympic Movement. This amount will be covered by the IOC itself, including any funding from the Olympic Foundation, an official statement dated May 14, 2020, available on the IOC website said.

This number includes the cost for the organization of the postponed Games of up to USD 650 million for the IOC and an aid package of up to USD 150 million for the Olympic Movement, including the International Federations (IFs), the National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and the IOC-Recognized Organizations, to enable them to continue their sports, their activities and their support to their athletes. Today, the IOC Executive Board (EB) approved this financial plan.

“ At the moment, the IOC is undergoing a deep analysis process to evaluate and assess the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on all of its operations. This is a complex exercise because of the constantly changing factors which have to be considered in the current environment,’’ the statement said.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Properly used, clubs can be the avenue to teach the new normal of sport with COVID-19 protocols mixed in. This article compares the organizational structure of two sports in India – hiking / climbing and amateur running – to illustrate what is possible with grassroots level outfits.

Running is an old sport.

As popular movement, it is young in India.

The country’s outdoor clubs are probably older than its running clubs.

The example of climbing

Given the risk associated with climbing and mountaineering, the sport features many protocols. Although the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) and the training institutes for mountaineering played a role, fact is the bulk of climbing – especially rock climbing – owes its growth to small groups of outdoor enthusiasts typically ordered into clubs. It is thanks to them that the basic techniques of climbing got disseminated in the domestic climbing ecosystem.  In some of these clubs, the pursuit of knowledge exceeds what you find at the training institutes, which tend to settle into an ambiance of employment. For instance, it was the passion for sport climbing among a handful of members at Girivihar that saw the Mumbai-based club organize a decade of domestic sport climbing competitions and eventually two editions of the IFSC World Cup in bouldering. Suffice to say, clubs are the immune system of sport; they spread the joy of activity and teach its techniques.

Organizations dedicated to risk management and safety in adventure activity have begun to emerge (Maharashtra Adventure Council [MAC] is an example). Thanks to digital age, these new organizations have established direct link with hikers and climbers. Information can be communicated directly to individuals bypassing clubs. However, you learn by doing. When it comes to ground level implementation of protocol and developing familiarity through practise, the clubs cannot be ignored. That’s because they are the ones leading hikes and climbs on a regular basis. It is a lot like the ongoing battle with COVID-19 itself; it isn’t so much top-down as it is bottom-up featuring simple precautionary measures diligently observed at individual level to keep you safe.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The challenges and how climbing’s structure can help

In an article dated March 24, 2020 that appeared on the Rock and Ice website, Peter Beal outlined what COVID-19 could mean for rock climbing. He wrote that a lot of public lands (earlier accessed for climbing) could be temporarily shut and the closure of climbing gyms and their business models shaken up by the virus may mean bleak investment scenario for the segment. Not all such businesses will survive. In an article dated April 29, 2020, which appeared on the website of Climbing, Bennett Slavsky, summed up reasons why climbing outdoors was discouraged amid the pandemic. “ A key component is so that climbers don’t travel from densely populated, highly infected regions to remote climbing destinations, introducing it to smaller local communities that lack robust medical facilities. Climbers can also spread the disease to one another while sharing ropes, climbing the same routes, or just being in close proximity at crags,’’ he noted. Sociability, so far a fun element in sport, may take a hit as physical distancing becomes necessary protocol. Vulnerable in this regard in climbing, could be bouldering, the sport’s most sociable format. Further, a simple visualization of potential scenarios will make you aware of operational difficulties in the field, particularly in contexts where outdoor activity is commercial or supervised with onus resting on a service provider. For instance, while wilderness first aid courses can prep you to recognize symptoms and activate relevant protocols in the outdoors, unlike in earlier cases where a single patient was evacuated and the rest continued hiking, COVID-19 demobilizes a whole group because every reported case is treated as patient plus contacts. Is this risk, commercially viable? Already there is talk among adventure tour operators of small companies being particularly vulnerable in the current downturn. “ Currently there are too many ifs and buts. There is a threshold that must be crossed. There is both the need for a certain level of pick up in traffic and comfort with overall environment before these outdoor activities can resume at sustainable scale,’’ Vaibhav Kala, founder of Aquaterra Adventures, one of India’s biggest adventure tour companies, said. As and when authorities allow operations to restart, small customized trips featuring limited number of people from one family or a close group of friends may be the genre first off the block, he added. That was the view from the commercial side.

Like many sports waiting to emerge from the shadow of COVID-19, climbing and hiking will have to come up with its share of disease related protocols for the short to medium term. The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA), global climbing’s apex body, has a COVID-19 Crisis Consultation (CCC) task force and webpage devoted to the pandemic. Indian climbing has at least two organizations capable of accessing international expertise on subjects close to its heart – the IMF and the Himalayan Club. The IMF has a circular from early April, albeit tucked into its news archives, providing overview of the COVID-19 situation. A director of MAC said that the council is aware of challenges to the field posed by COVID-19. For the commercial side of adventure activities in India, there is the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOAI). For ground level coaching of hikers and climbers, there are the mountaineering institutes and the outdoor clubs. Many outdoor clubs are members of IMF and state level adventure associations. Point is, theoretically speaking; the domestic world of climbing and hiking has a structure – an edifice – through which important information about the sport may be transmitted to ground level. It is possible to source relevant protocol and coach people in it down the line so that at the very least, those who report for activity as and when it is permitted are aware of the full ramifications of the new normal. Emphasis on “ theoretically speaking.’’

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Running can learn from climbing’s organizational structure

Indian distance runners have long held promise on the international stage – the late Shivnath Singh had finished eleventh in the marathon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics; T. Gopi placed 25th in the marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics besides being Asian champion in 2017. Elite athletes have their protocols addressed by organizations like the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and Athletics Federation of India (AFI). In fact, on the eve of lockdown, news reports mentioned guidelines issued by government to elite athletes on how to manage themselves amid pandemic. On March 28, 2020, The New Indian Express carried an interview with Volker Herrmann, AFI’s high performance director on lockdown regimens suggested for the elites.

What about the vast number of amateur runners?

As in climbing, running too has its clubs. Running is the bigger sport by a wide margin. It has annual events participated in by tens of thousands of people. With COVID-19 around, that size and scale of running also proved to be its Achilles Heel. Mass participation made it vulnerable before a virus with insatiable appetite for new hosts and pace of infection to match. Predictably, as the disease spread worldwide, major marathons got cancelled or postponed. Amateur running is more or less in hibernation. So far, amateur runners in India appear to have addressed lockdown in a fairly efficient decentralized, democratic fashion with leading coaches and runners offering advice online on how to stay fit and remain promising for the times when lockdown eventually relaxes. But there is a gap as regards new normal, that time post-lockdown when everyday activity must respect safety protocols as well. Protocols have to be imagined well, possess a standardized core, be accessible to all and must be communicated clearly. In this, having an element of organizational structure helps for both conviction and communication.

Recently, after weeks of lockdown and battering by COVID-19, Spain allowed morning joggers back on the road. It was done with safety protocols in place. Mark Steven Woolley is a retired ultramarathon runner living in the southern part of Spain. “ Everyone is pretty respectful of the distances and makes space for everyone to pass. The MTBs and runners share the same trails. It’s very cordial and relaxed,’’ he wrote in to this blog about the new normal requiring physical distancing. Mark – he has been finisher at major ultramarathons including La Ultra The High – is currently experimenting with mountain biking. From Czech Republic, elite athlete Adam Ondra shared with the world, a picture of him back to climbing outdoors. Climbing magazine reported of select crags reopening in Canada and Austria with COVID-19 protocols to be observed alongside. None of these predicaments are comparable with India’s, a crowded country of 1.3 billion people. However, if we go by these precedents (strictly as potential pattern), then, much before running returns as event, our right to run or walk in the morning will be restored. This will be accompanied by need for protocols, especially physical distancing. If one imagines further, weeks of such cautious return to activity could lead to resurrection of the old informal monthly group runs. It makes sense to try an event after observing how these informally organized runs play out.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In Mumbai, group runs used to be overseen by major running clubs like Striders, Mumbai Road Runners and groups built around well-known coaches. If clarity is available early enough on what the disease related safety protocols to follow (specific to running) are, then these runs (they may not remain as clustered and sociable as before) can become opportunity to perfect new protocols like physical distancing and acquaint runners with them. They can help ensure that as and when events resurface, those who register are familiar with the new normal. Running has in its ranks those from the medical profession. Evolving correct protocols and disseminating it shouldn’t be tough provided a communication structure is in place. The question amid pandemic is – does amateur running in India have an edifice whereby a standard set of protocols recommended from the top is assured percolation to the bottom? Does amateur running in India have an apex body (that can decide on standardized protocols) with large city based-clubs and smaller ones positioned below, all linked for ease of communication? Inquiries revealed that the answer for now is – no; there isn’t any such structure. Without this structure (at least at big city or regional level), the clubs risk being left to their own imagination, when it comes to new normal and relevant protocols. It results in poor use of a valuable asset. There was also concern on how well the informally organized runs may serve to introduce the new normal because, in India, the sociability of running has always been a major attraction. Isn’t there something for amateur running in India to reflect on, in all this? Of relevance is also the architecture displayed by World Athletics in its move some time back to set up a medical task force for races. The task force saw collaboration between World Athletics and the International Institute for Race Medicine (IIRM).

A word of caution

Human beings are suckers for power and authority. If you allow organizations to grow in influence or exceed their mandate, you will kill the natural freedom of sport. Focus will then shift from sport to regulation and soon, to politics. The best type of organization is one that steps up when intervention is needed and steps back when its intervention is no longer required. Under all circumstances, the feel of organization and intervention must be light. Else, instead of addressing virus, you defeat sport.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The above article has been presented here in the interest of thought and discussion. The author is not an expert in climbing, hiking, running or healthcare.)


This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the film. No copyright infringement intended.

I had no expectations when I clicked on ` Taking Chance’ on the streaming platform, Disney-Hotstar.

I was well, taking a chance.

The 2009 television film was based on a true story. It portrays the experiences of Marine Lt Col Michael Strobl as he escorts the body of fallen Marine PFC Chance Phelps (posthumously promoted to lance corporal) back to his hometown in Wyoming from the war in Iraq.

Aside from a black screen with just audio betraying the sounds of war at start, there is no depiction of war in the film. It is all about chronicling the movement of a body accompanied by escort to its eventual resting place at a cemetery.

Kevin Bacon as Lt Col Strobl speaks only as needed. If you didn’t know the actor from earlier films, the movie would have felt 80 per cent like a documentary, which it is not. It is a recreated account, filmed almost like a documentary and the effect of that economy in narrative style and idiom is stunning.  On the one hand, it is a truthful representation of how the body of a fallen soldier is escorted home in the US. You see the attention to detail as the body is made ready for transport at the mortician’s. The film’s story is also a bit extraordinary for it is not routine for the body of a PFC to be escorted by an officer. Lt Col Strobl volunteers for the job and the journey becomes an insight – for protagonist and audience alike – into how the civilian environment responds. At every juncture people seem quick to understand; they know protocol, they display their concern for the military, show their respect for fallen soldier.

For Lt Col Strobl, the journey also serves as opportunity to reflect because unlike the soldier he is taking home, following action in the First Gulf War he had asked for and got a desk assignment in the US to be close to his family. He feels ashamed of that and admits the same to a veteran of the Korean War he meets in Wyoming. The latter tells him not to feel so; he is as good a soldier as the one who lost his life in the line of duty and there is nothing to be ashamed of in loving one’s family. The revelation for me in this film was about how much set traditions tell stories by themselves. You don’t have to wrestle with life and squeeze out a narrative. Sometimes, life speaks. All that the film maker has to do is listen and document. The resultant idiom is frugal and apolitical. That is what makes ` Taking Chance’ brilliant. There is no question of the film having conveyed anything except what it said. It is a passive form of film making – maybe even an active choice to stay passive – and won’t meet the requirements of every story. But after years of the media squeezing out stories from life, this approach felt refreshing, relaxed and dignified.

` Taking Chance’ will remain one of the best films I have seen in recent times; recent because I was seeing it more than a decade after it was released. Besides the very structure and production quality of the film, there is another reason for my feeling so. The film is proof of the power of economy in military narrative. People love their soldiers. They always will. You don’t need to remind them. Civilians live ordinary lives. But as Lance Corporal Chance Phelp’s journey showed, they will emerge from the woodwork to honor the fallen.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Information from around the world suggests that sporting events may reappear in the months ahead but scale of participation could be limited. Race organizers have responded in different ways. With events featuring more than 5000 persons prohibited in Germany till October 24, the 2020 Berlin Marathon scheduled for September was called off. A similar ban on large scale events in France till mid-July, saw the 2020 Tour de France postponed to August-September. Meanwhile it was reported (The Guardian, April 24, 2020) that the organizers of the London Marathon – postponed to October due to COVID-19 – are not ruling out an edition restricted to just elites. In March this year, the 2020 Tokyo Marathon was run with only elite athletes. All this puts corresponding reality check on expectations in India, where what was initially a three-week lockdown was subsequently extended to May 3 and then further to May 17. At the same time, amateur athletes appear to have transitioned from initial discomfort with altered pattern of life to evolving routines and staying engaged despite lockdown.  Their initiative notwithstanding, fact remains, there is only so much you can do amidst restricted life. We spoke to a few coaches (running, cycling & swimming) and a physiotherapist for their take on the predicament:    

Nigel Smith (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Nigel Smith

“ The health of our cyclists is our number one priority,’’ Nigel Smith, Head Coach of Kanakia Scott Racing Development, said of training plans amid lockdown. Initially when the lockdown was presented as 21 days long, planning had been on those lines with focus on endurance, speed and strength. At the time of writing, that original 21-day lockdown stood extended to May 17 with people keeping their fingers crossed on how things may play out thereafter for the various zones identified on the basis of disease intensity. Not to mention – potential for relapse and what action may be taken thereby. In short, things are still very unclear as regards when normalcy may return and outdoor activity may resume. According to Nigel, it should perhaps be accepted as a given that all cyclists in India are going to lose some of their endurance, speed and strength during the period of lockdown. “ We have to manage that decline and keep it as low as possible,’’ he said.

Manage – that is the correct word for although cyclists are fortunate to have home trainers that helps keep them in the saddle and pedaling, it cannot be a complete replacement for the outdoor experience. The advantage of the home trainer is its contained environment permitting measurement of all parameters from heart rate to power output. “ But one thing you find hard to do is riding long,’’ Nigel said. Thanks to ambiance with less distraction, an hour on the home trainer is roughly equal to an hour and a half spent cycling outdoors. “ I have been pushing our cyclists to do around two hours, which approximates three hours in the outdoors. That is the sensible limit. Beyond that it is a struggle to stay motivated on the home trainer,’’ he said. He has given his cyclists drills which peak at around 200 rpm; he has also devised strength drills that involve pedaling in high gear with high resistance. “ It becomes a muscular, strength driven drill,’’ he said. While the app Zwift has found popularity with cyclists during lockdown, Nigel is not a fan of using it in excess. As coach, he has his own plans that demand specific performance from cyclist as per schedule. “ A big week for us typically entails riding for 18-20 hours. That means there will be two to three rides of 4-5 hours each. The joy in Zwift is the immersive ambiance it provides; it could be tackling a particular route virtually or racing with others. When you do too much of that, on the days you must deliver as per training schedule you may find yourself tired,’’ Nigel said, adding over-training and injury should be avoided during lockdown. Sleep, rest, recovery – all these matter.

In fact, he encourages avenues to reduce stress. “ One of my cyclists is looking after a pair of baby squirrels that were abandoned by their parents. He speaks to me about it. I find that the act of caring for those squirrels makes him happy. Another cyclist loves to read books. He finds that a nice way to relax. Yet another is into chess,’’ Nigel said. As coach, he has the ability to monitor online how his cyclists are training. Given the current environment he is gentler with feedback. “ Normally I would be a little harder with them. Now I am softer and more collaborative,’’ he said.

Nigel appeared at ease with lockdown’s progression. He didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get it over with and return to cycling outdoors. As and when things restart, there will be matters of safety to self and others to consider and protocols to follow. “ Sport is a privilege. There are several other issues that matter more. I would want my riders to lead by example,’’ he said.

Dnyaneshwar Tidke (Photo: courtesy Dnyaneshwar)

Dnyaneshwar Tidke

Among the best known amateur runners in the Mumbai region, Dnyaneshwar Tidke aka Don, is a coach with Life Pacers, a Navi Mumbai-based fitness and marathon training group. When the first 21 day-lockdown was announced by the government, Don embarked on a 21-day workout plan.

“ I would post a list of exercises and follow it up with a video representation of the workouts on the Whatsapp group of trainees,” Dnyaneshwar said. Many of the trainees would meticulously follow the schedule and report back on their progress. Most of the runners in his group are otherwise engaged full-time in their work and fitness including running is largely a recreational activity. “ Now, they are confined to their homes, probably bored and consuming more calories than usual. They need something to sustain. These workouts will help them stay motivated. The best part of the lockdown is the access to home-cooked food and rest,’’ he said.

When the lockdown got extended, Dnyaneshwar opted to pose a challenge in the fitness / workout plan, asking runners to follow a schedule with reps and sets. “ I do not encourage running indoors,’’ he pointed out. Among ways the lockdown can be endured is to make sure that whatever exercise regimen one is following does not become monotonous. Don has been experimenting with suitable methods. Given he deals with two training groups in the Navi Mumbai region, he sometimes encourages a friendly online competition among those participating in the workout sessions. He has also assigned an exercise to every letter in the alphabet. When the name of a popular athlete is selected, a sequence of exercises becomes visible. “ The idea is to have some fun,’’ Dnyaneshwar said. But all can’t be left to such tactics. With no clarity on racing calendar and no races thereby to pick for goal, there is an element of self-motivation required to endure lockdown. “ You have to tell yourself that you are doing these workouts for your own health, to stay fit and be in good condition for as and when the situation alters and you are able to run again,’’ he said.

Samson Sequeira (Photo: courtesy Samson)

Samson Sequeira

Samson Sequeira, coach at Run India Run, a Mumbai-based marathon training group, does not recommend running indoors. “ Suddenly, in this lockdown phase there is this new fad of running inside the house. It can cause structural damage to the body and weaken some of the muscles,’’ he said. Also, many people running indoors are transitioning to barefoot running, which can have an impact because of the sudden change in style.

According to him, in the initial phase of the lockdown, runners were not sure how to continue with their fitness program. Being used to running outside, focusing attention on a home-based workout was not easy for all.  “ I made about six videos which address various aspects of training with varying degrees of difficulty,’’ Samson said.

The key message from Samson to his trainees is that focusing on other aspects of training will augur well in the long run. “ There will not be a marathon anytime soon. Therefore, there is nothing to worry about immediately,” he said.

Savio D’Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Savio D’Souza

Mumbai-based coach Savio D’ Souza anchors the marathon training group, Savio’s Stars. A former national champion in the marathon, he put the current predicament in perspective using a few simple points taken from the running calendar and everyone’s experience as recreational runners. The lockdown in India commenced in late March. “ April-May is peak summer. During that time, most people don’t run much. Besides these months also coincide with the school vacation period and are usually the time people take holidays. At present nobody is traveling on holiday. Everybody is locked down. But the fact remains these are not highly active months in the running calendar. Even if these months were normal and our group was running as usual, we would be doing only short easy runs. So the loss due to lockdown isn’t much,’’ he said. Second, there is the issue of what you should be doing, cooped up as you are in your apartment or house. To that, Savio pointed out that the right approach would probably be for recreational runners to catch up on what they often fail to do – do some strength training. “ We just keep on running and running, neglecting to do the recommended exercises. Now is a good time to do all that. You may not be able to run but you can look at the present situation as opportunity to do the exercises you typically overlook,’’ he said. For his own trainees, Savio said he has left them with simple exercises to pursue during lockdown.

Asked about the trend of people covering long distances indoors, Savio said that it is not up to him to question what anyone wishes to do. But he illustrated the context. In thickly populated metros like Mumbai, it is the odd person who can afford a spacious apartment or a private courtyard. Most people live in small spaces. Depending on location and severity of lockdown, the predicament has also meant access denied to what little courtyard is there in housing societies. This means you end up running within your house, in very limited space. It contrasts our natural understanding of what a run is. But what about the worry in restless mind that if you don’t push yourself during lockdown you risk fading by the time normalcy returns? Savio feels that when the lockdown is lifted and recreational runners are allowed back on the road (as and when that happens) everyone will be starting from basics. People will need to gradually train their way up. “ All of us will have to do that anyway,’’ he said about the inescapable curve. That’s why investing in what you normally ignore – strength training and general fitness, and keeping the load mild so that injury is avoided, makes sense. Where this approach may differ is in the case of elite athletes. But as Savio pointed out, even in the case of Olympics postponed, the lead time is not a few months; it is a whole year. That is oblique acknowledgement of training processes needing time to deliver.

Savio’s trainees include the runners from Ladakh, who have over the years become a familiar sight in Mumbai in the months around the annual Mumbai Marathon. “ They are now doing easy workouts in Ladakh. Given lockdown, there is no point in me sending them a training plan at this stage. We will wait and see how their lockdown evolves and then decide what to do,’’ Savio said.

Daniel Vaz (Photo: courtesy Daniel)

Daniel Vaz

Daniel Vaz, coach with Road Burners, a marathon training group, has developed seven home workout plans that are based on running and work the same muscles used while running outdoors. “ These workouts are a combination of cardio exercises, which help elevate heartbeat and focus on endurance and strength building,” Daniel said.

Two key workouts designed by Daniel are called Locomotive Breath and Mojo Rising, both names inspired by popular rock music. Locomotive Breath is a single from Jethro Tull’s 1971 album Aqualung; it was among the band’s largest selling albums. As reinterpreted by Daniel, Locomotive Breath is a workout that helps elevate heartbeat, addresses functional aspects of running and trains the muscles in the same way a run would.

The name Mojo Rising is drawn from Mr Mojo Rising, the anagram of rock star, Jim Morrison; it also featured famously in the hit song by Doors: L.A. Woman. The intensity of the workout christened so by Daniel is akin to a weekend’s long run. “ Runners who are used to big mileages are able to do some of these workouts with short rest periods,” he said.

Daniel has also promoted skipping. Some of the workouts featuring skipping, help keep the sense of challenge going during times of lockdown, he pointed out. “ During the lockdown, I have actually not taken a day’s break from workout. I found that it is possible to take rest anytime during the day as we are now home bound. Earlier, the rest day was mandatory as most runners were involved in full-time job apart from running,” he said.

Ashok Nath (This photo was downloaded from Ashok Nath’s Facebook page)

Ashok Nath

Many of Ashok Nath’s mentees are doctors and most are over 40 years of age. “ They are slowly discovering that there is life beyond racing and competition,” the Bengaluru-based coach and mentor, said of life under lockdown.

Ashok devised five versions of quarantine workouts suitable for runners in his group. It addresses their diverse capabilities. He also sent a questionnaire to each of his mentees to make an assessment. Based on the feedback the workouts were adjusted for each of the mentees. Some people have space to run; they have access to stairs, terrace or a gym. “ There are six drills one can do on the stairs including speed workout, strength training and long run among others,” he said.

Skipping is another workout that most people can do. “ As there are no running events for the next few months, there is no pressure to be ready for races,” Ashok said. He does not recommend running inside the house. Running inside the house requires constant attention; it does not make for a pleasant experience. “ Running has three phase – warm-up, zoning out and fatigue. Running inside the house does not allow the runner to disassociate from the surroundings,” he said. This is the time to focus on bio-mechanics and strength, he pointed out. Maintaining a certain level of fitness is adequate at the current juncture especially given the absence of any immediate races, he said. For elite runners, the approach would probably be different as running is their main activity.

Asked how one can stay motivated amidst lockdown and no clarity on the return of races, Ashok said that a bit of self-motivation should help. Two things matter in this scenario. The first is hope or that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. “ I think most runners are past the initial phase of discomfort with the lockdown. They have since settled into some schedule or the other. There is also the emergent feeling that we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. That helps for motivation,’’ he said. Second, of further assistance in this regard, is the shared feeling of everyone being in the same boat so far. Self-motivation may be called for if the region you are in takes longer to become normal.

Gokul Kamat (Photo: courtesy Gokul)

Gokul Kamat

The lockdown has been hard on swimmers. While cyclists can partly compensate for open road denied with their home trainers and runners have found a poorer version of the cyclist’s panacea by logging miles inside their houses, swimmers have lost access to swimming pools with nothing to properly compensate. Gokul Kamat, head coach in swimming and head of the sports complex at Fr Agnel Multipurpose School, an educational institution in Vashi, Navi Mumbai, known for its strength in swimming, said that those training there have been told to follow three points. The first is to make sure there is no undue weight gain during lockdown. Second, they have been provided exercises, which can be done freehand or with minimal equipment at home. “ Some of these workouts are designed to get their heart rate up; some are for improving muscle strength,’’ Gokul said. Additionally, the trainees have the option of joining their coaches on interactive video-based training sessions. How much will this compensate for lack of access to the pool? “ Honestly, not much. But the point is – swimmers know these exercises and do them even otherwise to stay in shape. If they keep doing these workouts during lockdown, then, as and when normalcy returns and pools reopen, they would take less time to regain their regular form,’’ Gokul said.

Suchita Varadkar (Photo: courtesy Suchita)

Suchita Varadkar

Ever since the lockdown commenced, Suchita Varadkar, coach, Frontrunners, a running and fitness group, has shifted to online sessions five times a week. Prior to lockdown, Suchita held sessions three times a week for each of the two Mumbai-based groups of Frontrunners.

“ We have opted for the pro version of Zoom for the current daily sessions. These sessions incorporate various elements of fitness including yoga, cardio workout, tabata and strength training,” she said. To keep the group motivated, she has initiated a plank challenge, which entails increasing the workout by ten seconds every day.

“ Also, once a week we do Suryanamaskars and we have been increasing the count of the sets every week,” she said. Suchita is also not a fan of running indoors. “ This is a good time to improve strength training so that runners are better geared for running as and when it resumes,” she said.

Dr Abhishek Bangera (Photo: courtesy Dr Bangera)

Dr Abhishek Bangera

The active lifestyle-ecosystem is never complete without a physiotherapist. Mumbai-based Dr Abhishek Bangera is a familiar face at marathons and endurance events in the city; his team of physiotherapists can be seen managing the recovery station at various meets. When lockdown manifested with physiotherapy clinics shut alongside, it meant all those wedded to the active lifestyle finding their physiotherapist out of reach. It was a critical link suddenly gone missing from the active lifestyle-ecosystem, even as amateur athletes tried their best to stay active pursuing workouts and such. What do you do if you hurt yourself or messed up pushing beyond advisable limit?

Following lockdown, Dr Bangera shifted to keeping in touch with patients online. He regularly texted useful advice and commenced the option of tele-consulting. At the time of writing (by when lockdown had been extended to the middle of May), he was hoping to restart his practice. This blog’s specific query to him was about precautions to be taken while staying active at home in an environment where injury can’t be addressed as easily as before.

Dr Bangera then shared a portion of text he had dispatched earlier to his online community:

With all the inspirational home workout videos, HIIT routines, asanas, indoor running stats etc being posted everywhere, a word of caution and a word of reassurance follows: While it is good that you have taken the initiative to maintain or start with your physical fitness, if it’s a new type of physically taxing activity that you were not used to prior to the quarantine lockdown, you need to be cautious. The things, to look out for to avoid injury:

Do not skip warm up and cool down. Understand the correct form of exercises. Don’t be overconfident / over enthusiastic in your ability to perform. Avoid jerky ballistic movements. Activity should be upgraded gradually. Avoid sharp pivoting turns while walking / running indoors. Avoid hard landing during aerobics and running. Don’t fall for challenges out of peer or self-induced pressure for posting the next post or to indulge in one-upmanship. Consider one-to-one supervised and individualized tele-classes with your trainer.

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


Irrfan Khan (This photo was downloaded from the actor’s Facebook page. No copyright infringement intended)

What makes a good actor?

There is no one answer.

For the generation preceding mine, a great film and actor therein usually entailed drama. The elders grew up imagining family, men who protected, provided and were larger than life. When things became emotional in story (which was quite often) their actors sang, danced or emitted fiery dialogue, mediums within medium to amplify the drama. The realities shaping me were different. The world had become so overcrowded and competitive, that playing the old role of guardian either drained you or distracted you from better things to do. Women had become assertive and independent.  Not everyone dreamt of raising family. Many of us were no longer galloping on horseback for conquest and imagery. We didn’t want to. It wasn’t irrelevant for human being to right-size, even down-size and be part of the woodwork. We existed and were noticed only when we let ourselves be.

Needless to say, with this for my reality, I generally avoided Bollywood, still pushing king sized life. Not to mention – those inevitable song and dance routines, big, fat weddings and stylized feudalism. There were exceptions but you know what exception means; it isn’t the rule. One such exception was the 2012 movie – ` Paan Singh Tomar.’ That was the first time, I really noticed Irrfan Khan or maybe I should say he let me notice him. It was a good film (its production quality could have been better) and for me, easier to digest than the muscular, sharp-edged format the Milkha Singh biopic of 2013 embraced. Set in the past with matching period quality to movie, the sight of Irrfan Khan running on track harked of the simple, understated elegance seen earlier in films like ` Chariots of Fire.’ As the film on the athlete-turned-bandit faded from my memory, so did thoughts of Irrfan Khan. It was easy to live with his performances. He was already appearing in foreign productions – by end 2012 there were the ` The Namesake,’ ` Slumdog Millionaire,’ ` The Amazing Spiderman’ and ` Life of Pi’ – and his restrained style never threatened to settle like a big star or unquestionable institution in my head. In September 2013 a remarkable and utterly down to earth movie, ` The Lunchbox,’ released. It was a delightful film. I still recall leaving the theater thinking how beautiful Nimrat Kaur looked and with Irrfan Khan’s Saajan Fernandes, comfortably etched in my conscience as character emerging from Mumbai’s woodwork to grab my attention and then, disappearing back into it. That emergence and disappearance is just what life in big city is. Two years later, in 2015, it was ` Piku.’

By now, there was a pattern defining Irrfan Khan to me. He was a talented actor with capacity not to have any of his performances rest heavily on my mind. His was the very opposite of the dramatic dialogues to self in mirror, dialogues with God and eloquent speech before villain that were the hallmark of old Bollywood and still refused to vacate space totally. Irrfan felt light. Even the foreign productions he acted in were executed differently from traditional expectations. In years gone by, it was assumed that the barrier between Indian actors and opportunities in Hollywood was language; how you spoke English. Native diction was leveraged to either show servility and backwardness or invite mockery. Irrfan’s roles paid scant respect to that concern. He spoke English in the foreign productions confidently and as best as he could without straining to sound Hollywood-ish. You saw him hold his ground. From trying to impress, we appeared shifting to substance; defying stereotypes. For me, as viewer, that was yet another instance of him reflecting changed realities.

Another way of putting it would be: Irrfan was fantastic at being us; faceless and nameless with subtleties for high points, a dead eyed look to seem insensitive or a reluctant smile to convey connection and empathy. Like good writing, he went beyond immediate business paradigm deciding fame and reward, and perfected the craft. No fat, just lean delivery – that became his style. Embellishment was there, but sparse. He was a natural at working magic with less. All of this completely contrasted Bollywood’s known idiom of cliché and exaggeration passed off as acting. The last film starring Irrfan I saw was ` Karwaan.’

Irrfan Khan was in many ways, the cure Bollywood sorely required. Select vernacular film industries in India had already experimented with reality and changed. But a large section of Bollywood as well as portions of vernacular film industry reluctant to severe their umbilical cord with the old, were still battling inertia. They continued subjecting change to tradition and market, a situation aptly summed up by the late Rishi Kapoor when he pointed out that the market gets what it wants. The likes of Irrfan and the films they elected to act in conveyed hope of change. With Irrfan’s passing on April 29 a section of us – a section often denied expression by Bollywood – lost its face on screen.

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



This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the TV series. No copyright infringement intended.

In 1999, actor-producer-director Robert Elmer Balaban asked film director, Robert Altman, if they could collaborate on a country house murder mystery. Altman chose Julian Fellowes, British actor and writer, to prepare the screenplay. The result was the 2001 movie, ` Gosford Park.’ Besides being murder mystery, it was a study of the British class system of the 1930s as outlined by the owners of the country house, their guests – all of them upper class and wealthy – and the staff taking care of their needs. Featuring an ensemble cast, the film was a commercial success. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won Fellowes an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Almost 20 years later, the Fellowes touch – reminiscent of Gosford Park’s class study – may be tangibly felt in the TV series ` The English Game,’ released on Netflix in March 2020. The series wherein Fellowes has contributed to both writing and production, examines British football of the 1870s. At that time, it was a game controlled by the upper classes with social confrontation brewing thanks to an army of talent assuming shape in the ranks of the working class. The upper class, cocooned in tradition and comfort, treats the game as an extension of their lifestyle and licence to dominate. The working class, struggling to make ends meet, sees it as avenue for self-expression, an opportunity to level the social field and increasingly, as means to move up in life. At the heart of that last option is the early lot of talented players, paid money to represent working class teams. Given prevailing rules (it is the years before professional players became acceptable), such deals have to be kept a secret and when eventually sniffed out, critics view it as contamination of sport by commerce. Today, professional players and club transfers are part of football. The story as told by the TV series unfolds through an array of characters representing the class divide along with three footballs teams illustrating the predicament – Old Etonians, Darwen FC and Blackburn.

I haven’t seen ` Gosford Park.’ But the urge to read about that film and catch what little I could of it from the Internet was pronounced because well into ` The English Game’ it became evident that it wasn’t about football wizardry; it was about showing us a stage in the game’s evolution in the UK. The beautiful game is here a vehicle for acquainting us with a slice of old history, well emphasized therein being the class divide of early football and how view of world by sport eventually shifts perspective for those loving the game. Talent knows no class and you cannot stop the march of talent. ` The English Game’ is a well-made, well-acted series that should additionally interest audiences in India for a small detail tucked away in two inaccuracies related to the sport’s history, cited on Wikipedia.

The first inaccuracy in depiction of historical facts relates to overall time. The series gives the impression that its narrative happens in one season while in reality Ferguson Suter – one of the two main protagonists – took six seasons to be part of a FA Cup winning side. Second at the time of the incidents portrayed, Blackburn (shown as one team in the series) had two teams – Blackburn Olympic and Blackburn Rovers. The former is noteworthy as the first team from the north of England and the first from a working class backdrop to win the FA Cup, the country’s leading competition. This occurred in 1882-83. But Blackburn Olympic did not enjoy such success afterwards. The following year Blackburn Rovers won in the final and in the year after that, Olympic lost to Rovers in the second round. When the Football League was formed in 1888 with rule alongside that there could be only one club from each town or city participating, it meant Olympic out and Rovers in for Blackburn. In September 1889, Olympic shut down. In 2010, the Indian conglomerate V. H. Group with headquarters in Pune, bought Blackburn Rovers for 23 million pounds.

All in all, ` The English Game’ is a series worth watching. It captures a period of transition in the game; a transition well encapsulated by Suter’s observation in the series that if Blackburn isn’t allowed to play (over hired players present in its line-up) then those suffering won’t be just the players but also working class supporters, who after days of arduous work look forward to world recast by the talent of their local football team. See this series for early English football and a sense of what changed it. Not to mention – amid the wealth and big stars of today’s football, the series reminds you who actually forms the bedrock of support for the game.

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


This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the TV series. No copyright infringement intended.

Among the many types of stories out there, the one about the underdog has always appealed.

We like a win. When the journey to victory is a case of clawing your way up from the bottom of the heap, we applaud. That’s the attraction in such stories.

The TV series ` Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker,’ released in March 2020 on Netflix falls in this category. It tells the story of Madam C. J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove), the first self-made African American woman millionaire in the US. The series is based on the biography, ` On Her Own Ground,’ by A’Lelia Bundles.

The TV series picks up Sarah Breedlove’s story at that stage in her life when she is trying to sell Addie Monroe’s “ Magical Hair Grower’’ in St Louis, Missouri. The year is 1908. A washerwoman, struggling to make ends meet, we are told through flashback that Sarah had suffered from severe dandruff and hair loss. It was a condition commonly found in the community, particularly among its poor sections having no access to good quality housing. To compound matters, her then husband – John Davis, was abusive. That’s when she meets Addie Monroe, also African American, who has a cream she made that can fix the hair problem. It works for Sarah. Impressed, she takes it upon herself to be a saleswoman for Addie but the latter – she is much better looking than Sarah and believes that looks matter for selling products – discourages the washerwoman and tells her to stick to her existing profession. This angers Sarah. She creates her own line of products, which given her new marriage to Charles Joseph Walker is sold under the brand: Madam C. J. Walker. That’s also how Sarah who begins to identify herself more and more with her work to the expense of all else, prefers to be called.

The story revolves around Madame Walker’s struggles as a woman, a woman of color and a wife, to steer her business to success. Funding is a big challenge. Hair care products for colored women don’t appeal to the men who control money.  Further, she is an unheard of woman and enjoys no recommendation from well-known names in society. But that does not dilute her drive. Sarah does not hesitate to dream of building up scale – setting up a factory – and becoming a millionaire like some men had already done in the US. The obsession creates rifts between her and her husband (Charles Joseph Walker is her third husband). And all the while there is the competition posed by the better looking Addie and her hair care products. She is as ambitious as Sarah and willing to play dirty to achieve her ends. Sarah’s story is as much rags to riches as it is a close look at old school capitalism. Above all it gives you a peek into what enterprise meant to a woman – a colored woman – those days; the difficulties she faced and the resolve she had to dip into to motivate self and achieve.

The casting is spot on and Octavia Spencer has done a damn good job, essaying the lead role of Sarah aka Madam C.J. Walker. The travails faced by the woman entrepreneur come through. However it must be pointed out that the narrative in the TV series is not completely true; some liberties have been taken with the characters. For example, Addie Monroe is a fictional character based on Addie Malone, who actually existed and was among the earliest African American woman millionaires. In real life, Addie – she too was in hair care products – is not said to have been as villainous as she is made to seem in the series. Also, Sarah’s daughter is portrayed as a lesbian in the series; in real life, that wasn’t the case. Wikipedia mentions both these departures from the truth.  The departures add spice to the story, especially the competition between the two women entrepreneurs, which provides palpable tension for several episodes of the series.

There is also a mild absence of the regular magic you associate with underdog stories mainly because Madam Walker’s character is firmly rooted in the human. We see her marriage to Charles Joseph Walker fail; as she becomes more involved with her work, he feels neglected and indulges in adultery. He also demands his share of importance given the business bears the Walker surname although the hard work and relentless commitment to enterprise is mostly his wife’s. It would seem the price every independent woman hauling the cross of tradition is forced to pay. But despite her own ascent through unflinching focus on business, Sarah ends up demanding a baby from her daughter for a business without heir is journey without purpose and continuity. Fiction or otherwise, at that point the modernity and liberalism you associate with the Madam Walker story falters before it is restored to dignity through recourse to adoption.

All in all, a fantastic story and a pretty well made TV series. It is recommended viewing, whether you have ample hair on your head or much less like me.

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