TWO WORLDS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

“ The runners of the Berlin Marathon 2019 should expect a wet track. The forecast for Sunday sees a few hours of rain for Berlin. On Saturday it will be partly cloudy, partly sunny. However, thunderstorms are expected from Saturday afternoon on. Meteorologists therefore give the athletes in the capital little hope for a finish in dry conditions on Marathon Sunday (29 September 2019). According to Deutscher Wetterdienst (DWD), it will be wet and cloudy. At first the meteorologists expect rain only in the northern half of Brandenburg, but in the course of the day the rain will spread to the south. The maximum temperature will be 21 degrees Celsius.’’ – This was the weather forecast for the 2019 Berlin Marathon as provided on the website berlin.de two days ahead of the event.

On Marathon Sunday Ethiopian running great Keninisa Bekele created history in Berlin. He ran the second fastest marathon on record, covering the distance in two hours, one minute and 41 seconds, a timing that was off the world record by just two seconds.  Ashete Bekere of Ethiopia won the women’s race; she completed in 2:20:14. It was also occasion for the winner of the first women’s marathon at an Olympic Games (1984, Los Angeles) to rejoice afresh. Sixty two year-old Joan Benoit Samuelson of the US, completed the 2019 Berlin Marathon in 3:02:21 breaking the World Masters Association record for the 60-64 years age category, news reports said. Berlin’s weather wasn’t comfortable and supportive for all. Among the runners from India that day in Berlin was Anjali Saraogi. She texted in that the temperature was alright but the rain bothered. “ I was feeling very cold and was shivering. The rain was terrible. But the volunteers were out braving the brutal weather and supporting us. Immense respect for that. The course was easy, that’s why we could all run in that rain,” she wrote.

Almost 5000 kilometers away it was a different thermal experience for race-walkers and marathoners at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships as they battled the heat and humidity of Doha, Qatar. On Wikipedia, the average high temperature in September for Qatar is 39 degrees Celsius; the average low, 29 degrees. During the 2019 world championships, outdoor endurance events like the marathon and race-walk, were scheduled for midnight to escape the weather conditions. It was a first for the world championships. Aside from training to run in warm weather, athletes have to reset their wakefulness to coincide with night hours.

Midnight, September 27-28; the women’s marathon underway in Doha (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of IAAF and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

In the women’s marathon held in the intervening night of September 27-28, only 40 runners from the 68 who started the race, finished. The timing was slow. Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya was the winner; she covered the distance in 2:32:43, significantly slower than her personal best of 2:17:08 or for that matter, the winning time for women at the 2019 Berlin Marathon. According to IAAF reports, the race had begun in temperatures of 31-32 degrees and humidity of 73 per cent.  From the women’s marathon, a memorable photograph was that of a bunch of elite runners who quit midway, making it to the finish line in a golf cart. Some of the others who withdrew were stretchered off and at least one athlete spent some time under medical observation. “ Amid the havoc, Kenya’s Ruth Chepngetich emerged triumphant, claiming gold in two hours, 32 minutes and 43 seconds – the slowest ever World Championships winning time and more than 15 minutes slower than her personal best. The winner then collapsed some time after the race while talking to the media,” a report in UK-based publication The Telegraph, said. While deciding to proceed with the marathon, the authorities had backed it up with precautionary measures and support services matching the weather conditions. They followed the book. In January 2019, the IAAF itself had highlighted the issue of thermal stress, hosting on their website information about a study done ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and discussing the need for organizers of any sport event to have suitable protocols in place (https://shyamgopan.com/2019/01/25/spotlight-on-thermal-stress-impact-on-sport-events/).

Some of Doha’s race-walks were also slated to be held the same weekend as its women’s marathon. At a media interaction ahead of the 50 km race-walk; world record holder in the discipline, Yohann Diniz of France, minced no words in describing the weather conditions. In particular, he highlighted the contrast between the ambiance within the main stadium and the warm conditions outside. Within the stadium it was 24-25 degrees Celsius. His sport as well as the marathon, is held outside. The walkers had been taken for “ idiots,’’ the 41 year-old Frenchman was quoted as saying by the website france24.com. In the early hours of Sunday – the same Sunday that was Marathon Sunday in Berlin – Diniz was among those who didn’t finish the 50 kilometer-walk. It was won by Japan’s Yusuke Suzuki (the first world title for Japan in 50km race-walking; Suzuki is the world record holder in 20km race-walk) who told the media afterwards that he “ was just desperate to finish.’’ It was a relief to get it over with. Numbers don’t lie and as in the women’s marathon, the timing from the men’s 50km race-walk speaks for itself. Suzuki crossed the finish line in 4:04:20. Diniz’s world record, established in 2014 in Zurich, is 3:23:33. In the women’s 50km race-walk, the winning time for China’s Liang Rui was 4:23:26; the world record set by Liu Hong earlier in 2019 is 3:59:15. In the women’s 20km race-walk wherein China swept the podium, Liu Hong won in 1:32:54. The current world record held by Elena Lashmanova of Russia is 1:23:39.  There were those, who reacted differently too. After winning silver in the 50km race-walk for women, China’s Mocou Li told the IAAF’s official channel (she spoke through a translator), “ I am not so tired. But I feel that I cannot speed up; maybe because of the weather. This is not the worst of conditions for me. I feel relaxed today.’’

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Television coverage of the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships has been spectacular. Technology made the coverage rich in terms of data, details and camera angles. You could conclude – even if athlete in one’s living room is mere pixels on screen, it made more sense to watch the world championships on television than in the stadium, where you wouldn’t get to see the action this close. The bulk of the telecast was around disciplines taking place in the main stadium. Technology works best in contained environments; containment is also part of the emergent business architecture of sport and media properties. The IAAF had informed well ahead that the media-technology mix in Doha would set new benchmarks. There were complaints too. Some athletes found the new block cameras (cameras attached to the starting block in sprint events) intrusive and unethical. On September 30, CNN reported that the IAAF had decided to restrict the use of images from these cameras after the German Athletics Federation highlighted the issue. Amid the emphasis on telecast, media reports said that the number of spectators at the stadium fell as opening weekend gave way to working week. Plenty of empty seats showed up on TV screens worldwide. Famous athletes had only family, friends and a modest clutch of spectators applauding them in the stadium. Questions were raised in social media on why the biennial athletics championship traveled to Doha.

According to published reports, the organizers then promised to make an effort to get more people in but pointed out alongside that a made-for-television schedule of events meant few wanted to stay that late into the night in the stadium. By Day 4 as endurance disciplines like the men’s 5000 meters final and the women’s steeplechase final got underway, there was a sizable presence of East African supporters in the stadium, to cheer. The atmosphere was festive. The Ethiopians; the Kenyans, the Ugandans – they got to celebrate their victory. Daniel Stahl of Sweden broke into a run and jumped over a hurdle as he celebrated his triumph in the men’s discus throw.  Mariya Lasitskene competing as an authorized neutral athlete and crowned world champion for the third time in the women’s high jump did a victory lap. For those looking at it all as panoramic story, it was also moment to reflect about weekend gone by. The strong performances and cheering within the stadium were a contrast to the struggles and timings reported in endurance sports staged outside.

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

MUSCULAR AND READY TO BOYCOTT

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Over the past few days, the media has reported on the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) recommending boycott of the 2022 Commonwealth Games (CWG) because the event in Birmingham won’t feature shooting, a sport in which India has known strength.

The bullet points are three. First, India is strong in shooting. Second, India has been gradually improving its medals tally at major sports events; at the Gold Coast edition of CWG in 2018, India secured 66 medals of which 16 came from shooting including seven gold medals. Third, if shooting is absent at Birmingham, then, Indian prospects for rich medal harvest become proportionately dim.

The anger at shooting’s exclusion is understandable.

Question is – is boycott the answer?

A threat to boycott may work as means to apply pressure on the organizers.  But beyond that what merit does it have? Especially because the battle is not over any universally prized principle breached as was the case for example, when the sporting world boycotted South Africa in its apartheid years. Here it is clearly one country’s grievance over chances to win medals limited by the absence of a particular sport it is good at. Shooting is one of several sports at large events like CWG, Asian Games or Olympics. Boycott on the other hand, applies to all Indian athletes preparing to participate. In other words, everyone from runners to cyclists to swimmers, gymnasts and badminton players – all will be benched. Why should a whole national squad suffer just because Indian shooters may or may not be going to Birmingham?

The PTI report on the proposed boycott (it is available on the Internet) quoted from the letter Narinder Batra, president, IOA, wrote to the union sports minister, Kiren Rijiju, seeking early discussion on the matter. “ We want to express our protest by not taking part in 2022 CWG in the UK to make the CWG understand that India is not prepared to take India bashing anymore and the people with a particular mindset in CWG need to understand that India got its Independence in 1947 and India is not a colony of anyone anymore and is now the fifth largest economy in the world and by far the fastest growing economy in the world,” the IOA chief said in the letter – so PTI reported. It didn’t end there. “ We have been noticing over a period of time that wherever India seems to be getting grip of the game and performing well, then somehow we find that either the goal posts are shifted or rules are changed. We feel it is time for us in IOA / India to start asking tough questions and start taking tough positions,’’ Batra wrote, adding that given the political sensitivities involved in the matter the IOA does not see itself as the expert to decide. Hence, the request to meet the minister. In June 2019, Batra was elected a member of the International Olympic Council (IOC). Earlier in 2016, he became chief of the International Hockey Federation (FIH).

Batra’s letter to Rijiju presents a contrived argument for boycott. It is hard to comprehend how the reasons (emotions would be a better description) posed – everything from India’s emaciation through colonization to its independence movement to subsequent body building by GDP – are relevant to shooting’s inclusion or exclusion at an international sports event. The letter also contrasts what the sports minister himself stated recently – that he wishes athletes heading to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to focus on their preparation, free of distractions. Shouldn’t the same logic apply to 2022 CWG as well? As regards the more legitimate concern around goal posts shifted, mentioned in Batra’s letter, they are in the domain of sports administration, not sports. Isn’t it the job of sport administrators to sort it out sparing sportspersons inconvenience? If boycott is tool towards the same end, then it must be pointed out alongside that its real effect is one of casting sportspersons into an environment of uncertainty. In other words – it is inconvenience.

According to reports, the IOA’s call for boycott found support from a variety of domestic sports federations. They valued solidarity with IOA over what happens to their athletes. Some athletes too supported. To his credit Abhinav Bindra, India’s best known shooter and the first Indian to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics, spoke up against the call to boycott.

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

STRAY DOTS CONNECTED BY NELSON’S EYE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

From high mountains to vehicle sales and jobs with fat salaries, the industrial paradigm is blinding us to the obvious.

2019 was not the first climbing season on Everest hosting queue of climbers.

One recalls photos shown by those who climbed Everest in the past decade. Lines have happened before; maybe not this bad on the final stretch of the ascent. A line is a potential queue; a queue is potential congestion. In other words, 2019 was in the works.

All that was needed was favorable circumstances converging. A slightly higher number of permits doled out, fickle weather of climate-change, a cyclone big enough to have distant impact in the Himalaya and climbers rushing to take advantage of a narrow window – that appears to have tipped what was potential into reality. In the days following the tragic deaths of May 2019 official explanation puzzled. A memorable line of reasoning was that people had died of altitude sickness, poor fitness and lack of experience, not traffic congestion on the peak. That is probably true.

Traffic jam at altitude

Consider the following. Altitude sickness is checked through acclimatization. But there is no certainty that it won’t strike. When it hits, the best remedy is losing elevation. Poor fitness can spell trouble when climbing a mountain entailing physical strain and the challenges of altitude. Experience counts. The more you have been to the high mountains and endured different scenarios, the better your understanding of self (and its limits) and greater your bandwidth to cope with nature.

In the event of altitude sickness, how easy will it be to turn around and lose elevation if the climbing route has too many people, at least some of them slowed by strain of altitude? If your fitness is poor and experience limited, how well will you cope with extended exposure to harsh nature, which is what happens when caught in a queue? Point is – long lines on any high mountain is unsafe. That raises the question: why do we ignore signs of potential accident? Why do we defend after tragedy?

One reason (certainly not the only one) would be the difference between mountaineering as activity and the same as industry. Across sectors, industry has typically showed reluctance to acknowledge its faults. There are investments, businesses and livelihood at stake. Viewed through such prism, old lines from old photos may not have seemed early indicator of what could potentially be. The other thing you notice in activity cast as industry is how notion of dynamic nature recedes and predictability becomes prized. Approached as industry, a high mountain becomes branded objective bought off a shop shelf. As with any other product, expectations rule the transaction and those expectations have to be met. The tragedy and defence from Everest spanned May-June 2019.

Traffic jam at sea level

On June 19, a leading daily reported that Mumbai had some of the worst traffic jams in the world. The report was notable for pinning blame almost wholly on civic authorities responsible for roads and the traffic police, responsible for issues like parking. There are two actors overlooked in the story of traffic jams – vehicle manufacturers and consumers.

Vehicles are manufactured, marketed with high voltage campaigns, sold at attractive prices and backed with consumer finance – all by the automobile industry. The ones willfully spending, congesting the roads with their purchase and often prone to driving rashly are the customers. Yet no solid blame reaches these two segments. Vehicle manufacturers have traditionally kept big advertisement budgets; something media seeks. About two decades ago, officials at Indian auto companies used to argue that they are above spoiling the market with aggressive pricing, low interest loans and product discounts. Growing competition among auto companies, the pressures of surviving market cycles, the technological challenges facing the global auto industry, the rising relevance of public transport and ethical preference for less polluting means of mobility – all these changed industry. There is desperation to sell before product relevance dries up. Now the Indian market also hosts freebies, discounts and cheap loans. Sellers are targeting pockets where the consumerist dream still attracts and tales of urban congestion are distant.

Questioning the habits of readers / viewers (who are also vehicle customers) to the point of irritating them is not affordable to media. Editors have limits decided by business model. As people spend on vehicles in age of high salary and more disposable income, both customer and industry are spared acute scrutiny by media. Civic authorities and traffic police take the blame instead. Like the mountaineering industry’s inability to visualize potential danger in a long line at altitude, vehicle manufacturers and customers reserve a Nelson’s Eye for their role in traffic congestion. They see their combined activity as feeding GDP (even if time wasted in traffic jam is productivity lost). GDP is currently unquestionable; it is a nice place for big fish to hide.

There is a cost for our collective existence – growing and burgeoning – that nobody wants to acknowledge. Like Mumbai’s traffic jams and May 2019 on Everest, all costs eventually come home. Yet the architecture of potential mess appears lost on even the educated.

Traffic jam in the head

The new rain; rain of vehicles (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

And so in June 2019, it was Nelson’s Eye again, as a former senior official of the Indian IT industry argued that what stifled employment in the country was not lack of jobs but lack of well paid jobs. It harked of an older fantasy sold (much successful like vehicle sales measured in numbers) – that of celebrating exploded population as demographic dividend. Doesn’t demographic dividend / workforce have the propensity to be consumerist with consequences thereof? If you are not blinded by GDP, you will notice that more money does not reduce the carrying cost of our bloated existence and its equally bloated aftermath ranging from stress to congestion to trash. Instead, allowing ourselves to see without tainted spectacles would be a good starting point.

One example for how money solves nothing is government finances creaking under the load of rising wage and pension bill. Transplant the habit to private sector, you will simply spread the disease. In the urge to appease constituencies monetarily, inequality grows and the economy is stalked by inflation. What we need is reasonable hours of work, reasonable salary and most importantly – affordable cost of living that stretches currency’s mileage. This demands a very fundamental reinterpretation of life away from mono-cropped imagination. After all, the best way to enjoy Everest without damaging it, is not to have everyone aiming for the top but respect even those content to watch it from far. In other words, spread earnings and opportunities around. Unfortunately, our educational system (that’s where we gain perspective of life) has been surrendered to GDP. It is the stuff of rat race; it even advocates it. We have few original characters born from it. There is no contrarian thought. To the extent it is all driven by money, alternative incentives like social acceptance and support, relevant to sustain non-mainstream imagination, have shriveled up. Your intuition warns that the overall accounts of existence are not balanced. Money tells you: don’t listen to that internal auditor, just keep minting money. What would you call such book keeping if it was a company, bank, airline or housing finance outfit, you were auditing?

In June again, there was a news report which said, some youngsters were living frugally and saving as much as they could to retire earlier than usual. It smacked of industrial superstructure tapped solely for income with an acknowledged lack of soul-connect to it. Unlike before, meaning it seemed, lay in retirement. There were others stepping out to see the world on small budgets; hope in their hearts to compensate for lack of cash. Now, that’s a different approach. At least, it’s no Nelson’s Eye.

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

THE WORLD’S HIGHEST MIRROR

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

According to media reports, as of May 28, eleven people had died in the 2019 climbing season on Everest. It is time to rethink Everest in the head. For one’s own head – that’s where it all begins.

Long before the ultra-fast fuel refills of today, gas stations were a much slower affair.

Where digits flash by at present, technology then was a lazy roll of printed numbers on the counter. Every liter which typically took several seconds to be reached was marked by the sound of a metallic chime. The chime wasn’t the only sound characterizing gas station. The pump was sometimes noisy; it’s whirring sound harking of cogs and wheels within. A few chimes later, you knew the quantity of fuel you had sought for daily commute was close to being met. If it was full tank you sought, the concert lasted longer. Everest in May 2019 reminded of that old fuel dispenser. As several hundred people converged to climb the peak amid inconsistent weather conditions, every other day a chime sounded marking somebody’s demise.

The deaths were mainly on the Nepal side, along the normal climbing route on Everest. Photos from the mountain showed a long queue of climbers waiting at high altitude to access the summit and get back. The situation has been compared to a traffic jam. On May 28, it was reported that officialdom saw the traffic jam as a product of other factors. To be blamed, according to them, was adverse weather, insufficient oxygen supplies and equipment. The number of climbing permits issued, they said, was only slightly more than in the previous years. The photos made an impression stronger than the officials. They aren’t the first such pictures. There have been similar ones before. You know something is deeply wrong in those images.

Left to market forces and state revenue from permits doled out, I doubt if anything will change. They may choose to refine the scenario by hiking permit fee to limit traffic or for the heck of seeming just, along with hiked fee include a portion decided by lottery. Either way, unless an element of common sense (essentially questions like: what are you on Everest’s slopes for; is the summit worth dying for, that too, death for all the wrong reasons?) and plain and simple aesthetics (questions like: what is an enjoyable climb?) prevail, meaningful correction is unlikely. What is happening on Everest has nothing to do with mountaineering. It has everything to do with the industry mountaineering spawned and is therefore, a mirror to what became of our lives.

Among discerning mountaineers, Everest by normal route is no longer a prized ascent. If you climb it by other routes, the fraternity takes note. It would therefore appear, an ascent of Everest by normal route is not meant for accolades from this fraternity. For the trained and untrained, Everest by normal route is to either satisfy one’s personal urge or harvest applause from the larger, less discerning arena. One of the causes highlighted for the deaths of 2019, was that of inexperienced climbers attempting Everest. There are those who say only trained mountaineers must be on such peaks. It has also been reported that Nepal, which has so far not sought proof of climbing experience from those arriving to attempt Everest, may now alter the rules. The emphasis on training is partly correct as required approach but it is not entirely convincing as panacea for Everest’s problems.

As is evident from the published news reports of May 2019, there are trained people too in the Everest queue, both as clients and guides. One thing I keep asking myself all the time is – which trained mountaineer in the best sense of the term would support, leave alone endure a mile long queue in the Death Zone to reach a summit? Everything about that predicament points to delay and extended stay in environment hostile to human physiology. Not to mention, even at low altitude, such spectacle filled with people challenges the very aesthetic behind courting wilderness. The saddest part of above said queue and its consequences at elevation like exhaustion, frostbite and high altitude illness is that you endanger yourself and others. Inefficient progress by one person has cascading impact down the order. It is difficult to imagine that these dangers escape the attention of the trained lot, who too are there on the peak. Why then, does the traffic jam repeat? Where is the voice of the trained lot in this regard? The media reports of May 28 said that authorities have presented double rope in the area below the summit for improved management of the flow of climbers, as solution. Like many contemporary solutions, it is a specific, technical quick-fix that spares the market larger questions.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Hence the submission, Everest is a mirror to what became of us. It reflects a host of human compulsions – from the pure mountain lover wishing to be on the world’s highest peak, to the naturally curious, to the deliberately ambitious, to those that availed loans to fund climbs and can’t turn back for fear of losing face, to those racing against their biological clock for a piece of immortality to remember life by, to those ticking off goals from a bucket list, to those seeking glory by all 8000m peaks climbed, to those chasing Seven Summits, to those seeking multiple Everest ascents, to those seeking promotion in employment through Everest summit gained, to those fearing disappearance if their CV in life does not have Everest stamped on it, to those whose livelihoods are dependent on everyone seeking Everest turning up on the mountain, to an entire industry surviving on Everest’s magnetic attraction; the list of compulsions converging on the peak every climbing season, is long.

In times by money, media and marketing each of these urges attracts exploitation. Catalyzing the process is the pressure population exerts on human activity. For sure the number of people on Everest can be capped. That is doable. What can’t be capped is the number of people dreaming Everest, which on planet hosting exploded human numbers and rat race alongside, is high. If it wasn’t for this rat race and pursuit of distinction by any means, would climbing Everest as client via normal route, be construed as extraordinary? Distinction has become highly prized and standing on a high point is among the oldest distinctions in humanity’s guide book for life.

Perhaps, journeys must become more important than goals. If you did a life time of climbing at lower altitude does that make you less than a couple of million rupees spent and foot placed on Everest’s head? The repeated tragedies on Everest are reminders in that direction. It is built into the paradigm that the quest to access a tiny piece of inhospitable real estate at 29,029 feet should reveal what is wrong with us. Wrong in this case of crowding, has come with a price: several dead.

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

99.9 %

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On Monday as another round of school board exam results with its related procession of stratospheric marks went by, I was thinking of something else.

Not long ago, soon after I turned fifty and mortal, I visited a man I owed much to. He and another teacher ensured I crossed the finish line when I faced my board exams. Like one of those body shutdowns at marathons, I was a mess in my tenth standard, crawling to a verdict I had dreaded for years. These teachers put up with my very average academic ability. They coached an also ran to somehow perform and get a finisher’s medal.

Since then I have walked a path away from the competitive exams, the majority clusters to. Life has been considerably less rewarding on the road less traveled. It has also been quite lonely. But I feel life, as moment and journey. If I hadn’t felt it so, would I go back to thank my teacher at fifty? Fifty was remarkable for another realization. In India, the legacy of competition beats the best of stain removers. Most of my friends are still in board exam mode. They aren’t done with accumulating distinctions to stay on top in the rat race. Unlike me, they either love the rat race or having got married and raised families can’t afford a different perspective. Old friends meeting up, is like playing pool with glass balls. You have to make sure no ego is pricked, no vanity punctured. As we live we pile on such layers.

Life’s greatest question is: what am I? Like toddler comprehending movement because there is fixed ground below for index, board exam gives you an initial baseline. It is also misleading because there is a lot of others – comparing with them, beating them – in the frame. After all, 99.9 per cent and 499 / 500 pose no value if they don’t take you to the head of a queue and for queue, you need others. But hive is not sole reality around. What about every bee’s individual excursions? Remember – the one we live with the longest is our own self. That’s why the question: what am I? – It matters. What am I? – cannot be answered by looking at others. I never forget the scene of Sentinels invading from The Matrix Revolutions. The screen turns dark with a swirling mass of squid like robots, each reporting to the rules of the matrix. Contemporary Indian life is a lot like that dark screen. We lose sight of sky because our vision is blocked by human beings, rat race and rules we dare not question. Universe unseen, what am I? – is trashed as irrelevant. That’s when 99.9 per cent in accordance with curriculum by hive, looms as only viable torchlight in utterly dark cave. All the while, the switch to know one’s self – the best illumination existence provides – remains undetected.

In a sense it is good. Life thereafter becomes discovery. But not if an edifice of trashing genuine questions becomes your cocoon for the next several decades. Employment these days is just that. The relentless march of compliance as virtue is a peculiarly Indian thing. We seem wired to be the world’s torso harboring the organs and processes that keep existence going. Not so much its brain or probing finger tips.

I love those friends with whom I can question rules and imagine without boundaries. It clears dark screen and Sentinels, makes you sense universe beyond. Monday night, I asked one such friend how much he scored for his board exam. It was 75 per cent. Then, there is the other case. A brilliant person (brilliance measured on my terms, not 99.9 per cent) I knew from my college days, now shuns company. I think he needs to be so to preserve his mind. When I asked him how he survives in his city prone to flocking and quick judgement, he replied, “ I keep to myself.’’ Every May as the frenzy around 99.9 per cent and 499 / 500 rolls out, I remember the teachers who saved me. I also feel amused. All that celebration and publicity in the media is like declaring winners before the race of life has begun. Forget race, the beauty of the path ahead is that if you bother to notice life, it dips, dives, soars, plunges, turns, meanders, wanders – it does too many things to be any one in particular and be the stuff of a discipline and a race. But then you have to notice it.  How many of us do?

Apart from visiting my former teacher, the other thing I did at fifty was visit the parents of an old friend. Somewhere in that chat I blurted out, “ I still don’t know what I am or what I wish to do in life.’’ Oops, I thought clamping my mouth shut. If it was office, that would be hara-kiri. “ Interesting,’’ the father said smiling. He had a look in his eyes. The easiest description of that would be `distant’ but a more accurate one I think would be, `knowing.’

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

TRIVANDRUM DIARY / MARCH 2019

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

I know it is Thiruvananthapuram. But for the heck of these musings, let’s keep it Trivandrum in the title for that is what the city was called years ago; the start line from which my generation commenced its journey. Vignettes and thoughts from a recent visit:

From deluge to frying pan

At his house in Thiruvananthapuram, my uncle told me of a video his son sent him. It was shot in Chicago, during the extreme cold weather caused by polar vortex. In it, a cup of water is thrown up in the air. It transforms to a shower of ice in no time. I remembered this well into my regular morning run in Thiruvananthapuram. The predicament around was abject opposite of Chicago’s cold. It was a few days into March 2019 and Kerala, still bearing scars from the floods of 2018, was officially into heat wave.  From extreme rain, the state had swung to unbearable heat. With humidity also in the mix, the resultant brew wasn’t pleasant by any yardstick. Advisories had been issued by the state government urging people to stay hydrated and avoid working in the open during hot afternoons.  Sweat is familiar companion on runs in Kerala. But the run to Kovalam from home in the city went a bit beyond that. Heat overall and straight, monotonous road in parts – that’s how the bypass leading to Kovalam was. It brought spells of boredom. Good thing was, the struggle made breakfast on the beach well earned. After days of such warm weather, we had a slightly overcast evening. Early next morning as my daily run entered its concluding phase, an excuse of a rain drop made its presence felt. It seemed the reverse of that story from Chicago.  Once was rain drop. Somewhere along its passage through hot atmosphere, it vaporized to excuse. For a while it rained excuses. Despite drizzle, the road betrayed no sign of wetness. As Bob Dylan sang: the times, they are a changin’. Yet Kerala marches on; its priorities in life, consumerism, social attitudes and lifestyle declining to acknowledge the changes afoot. From weather to environment, demographics and remittances from overseas – there are impacts felt or due to be felt. An hour later, runner and excuse of rain gone, that narrow city road lined by myriad plots sporting individual houses within, would be lost to a flood of automobiles. Like serpent eating its tail, our habits swallow us. Thus content, we conclude: nothing has changed.

City of stadiums

Thiruvananthapuram’s Jimmy George Indoor Stadium is right next to the local swimming pool, venue for many national competitions from years past and training ground for several promising swimmers. In his younger days, this author too had his share of time at Thiruvananthapuram’s pool aka Water Works pool. Promise, unfortunately, there was none. My swimming stayed survival-level. Early March 2019, the indoor stadium named after Kerala’s greatest volleyball player yet, was hosting an exhibition of sports equipment. On land between the stadium and the pool, was a make-shift auditorium for panel discussions and demonstrations of various sports; right next to this temporary facility was an equally temporary boxing ring. The first evening of the expo, a few boxing bouts were staged for the public to watch. A law student into boxing that I consulted for better understanding of how points are awarded told me that Kerala lagged in the senior category in the sport even as it managed to perform decently at junior level. Somehow the promise seen at junior level didn’t get carried over; there was continuity lost. He couldn’t articulate why. I asked him about local facilities to box. According to him, there was one boxing ring on the outskirts of town. College level boxers trained in improvised circumstances and before a major competition, managed some sessions at the ring for the feel of being in one is distinctive. On the brighter side, he said that Thiruvananthapuram now had a boxing club of sorts with he and interested others training youngsters in the sport. I have said this before and I say it again – few Indian cities have as many stadiums, sports facilities and synthetic tracks, all within relatively short distance of each other, as Kerala’s capital does. What we need to do is use it well and along with that, love well-rounded education more than one heavily partial to academics. To exist is to breathe life into all of one’s faculties; mind and body fuel each other. Ideally, success by career should be secondary to awareness by existence. Don’t you think so?

Extreme academics

Kerala loves films. In my childhood, English films were regularly screened in Thiruvananthapuram. Past college, as the ascent of television commenced and programming in Malayalam gained currency, Hollywood faded at the city’s theatres. Cinema halls previously associated with English films started hosting the latest Malayalam blockbuster. For a while I was upset because there was little in vernacular content that fascinated me. Not anymore. Some Malayalam movies are now genuinely engaging and well made; among the best in India. Back in time however, Hollywood was welcome diversion from plots, contexts and characters I couldn’t relate to. Several years ago, on a visit home I was delighted to find Apocalypto running at a local cinema. Until the latest visit home that was the last movie I saw in Thiruvananthapuram. With many of the old cinema halls since converted to multiplex and spliced for consumer preference, Hollywood seemed back. Given Mumbai’s multiplexes are unaffordable on my freelance journalist-income I hadn’t seen Bohemian Rhapsody, the Oscar winning biopic on Freddie Mercury. Courtesy Oscar glory, a Thiruvananthapuram multiplex had this movie and Black Panther returned to the screen. As memorable as Bohemian Rhapsody, was a set of hoardings I found outside the cinema hall; actually across the road from it. I quote from memory. One board sported two messages: For your entertainment (arrow pointed to multiplex); for career advancement (arrow pointed to a nearby building offering coaching classes for various exams). Another board nearby announced: Extreme Coaching Classes; cautionary note below added: only hardworking-students need apply. Who said extreme is meant only for extreme sports?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The success epidemic

I love Kerala. I hate Kerala. Middle aged, living life as I wish and hauling my share of broken ware courtesy such experiments, I visit families only to be treated to tales of successful parents, successful children and successful grandchildren. It is typically success measured in terms of academic brilliance, intelligence, smartness, career and well settled life. In land by attributes like academic excellence, remittance economy and well settled life, the above said narrative is all over the place like a background drone. Families draw satisfaction from humming it. I sit and listen. In Kerala, this parade of success would seem a bigger epidemic than all the fevers, coughs and ailments surfacing by summer. Successful people should be happy people. Interestingly, that isn’t always so. I have a theory for it. When life is lived too much on the theme of last man standing, accumulating all the wealth required to buy your passage when world crashes, it is possible that you revel in having bolstered your chances of survival; it is also true that you acknowledge inevitable disaster lurking in the horizon. Else why would you arm yourself so with more and more money? Are you then, happy or afraid? Worse, none of the factors around raising fear of potential disaster, are addressed. As this trend grows, private fortresses become coveted shelter.

In Thiruvananthapuram, a friend’s father told me this – he had been attempting unsuccessfully to get the residents of his colony to meet up and chat. It is something everyone wants to do for there is real loneliness in successful Kerala. But as yet, the chat has remained a dream. Except one person, nobody turns up. Why? – He asked me. My analysis was simple and drawn from the distance growing between my friends and me as we age. The colony in question showed no visible sign of struggling to exist. The houses were solid, many were multi-storeyed and all houses had compound walls and gates securing them. It was the epitome of successful well settled life; very Malayali. Each plot, likely a tiny kingdom. When people emerge to meet world outside it is like ambassadors dispatched for diplomatic engagement. You are projecting image, lineage, social standing. Now, people are people. They will socialize. The problem is when they come accompanied by their success and other related baggage, including ego. Too many peacocks in one room make it a competition in preening. Who feels happy comparing and competing all the time? Park that baggage outside and the human warmth and company sought, should resurface. Life is about you, your times; your friends and what you understood of planet from your fleeting existence. Why crowd it with talk of parents, children, grandchildren, engineering, medicine, MBA, career, USA, Europe, NRI, bank account, mansion and car; none of it really you as in you in your bubble of existence? Families, dynasties and kingdoms have had their time. You have a sense of world, all your own. Revive that. That’s the challenge confronting my friends and me too. In our middle age, the ego and baggage we reaped living, does the talking. To meet person like you once did before the deliberate living began, you have to get past an entire chess board of accomplishments, avatars and accomplices.

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

REDISCOVERING SIMPLICITY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

When a company that was once the world’s biggest automobile manufacturer decides to add electric bicycles to its product range, you sit up and take notice.

Early November 2018. As Delhi faced yet another smoggy winter and traffic elsewhere in India continued to worsen with people buying more and more vehicles, news appeared overseas of General Motors (GM) planning to sell electric bicycles.

The business of electric bicycles is nothing new. Established bicycle manufacturers already produce electric bicycles. Within the world of bicycles, electric bicycles form one of the fastest growing segments of the market with large volumes sold in countries like China. Automobile companies have romanced electric bikes for a while now. The Internet says, BMW (which is a known brand in two-wheelers as well) has been making them since 2013.

What made this latest news item interesting is that the company in question was GM. In the twentieth century, the automobile industry was the biggest industrial sector around. The concluding decade of the twentieth century and the beginning years of the twenty first saw much restructuring in the automobile industry. It was driven by sluggish market conditions, business economics (including cost of manufacturing) and larger questions looming over continued use of fossil fuels. Detroit, once the capital of America’s automobile industry, faded. As consequences of climate change, air pollution and traffic congestion gained in various parts of the world, the industry couldn’t anymore ignore the reality it had partly contributed to. The biggest of the automobile companies of the twentieth century – indeed the biggest company in any field for a long time – was GM.  That pecking order has since altered with Toyota, Volkswagen and Hyundai overtaking GM in auto sales (data from Wikipedia). Meanwhile the world’s biggest company by revenue is retail major, Walmart; the world’s most valued company is Apple (the next four also being in the IT / digital space, in Amazon’s case, combined with retail). It is a measure of how things changed in sales, human habits and overall industrial reality. In GM’s case, the interest in electric bicycles is a consequence of thrust commenced earlier to explore electric cars. But as anyone can see, there is a lot of industrial history behind this latest vehicle, likely GM’s smallest.

Billionaire businessman Elon Musk announced recently that electric vehicle manufacturer-Tesla may look at making an electric bike. The Internet also directed readers’ attention to companies like Uber being bullish on rides offered on electric scooters and electric bicycles; in April this year Uber even bought bike-sharing start up Jump for an amount, the media pegged at around $ 200 million. Among factors inspiring these trends are environment friendly last mile connectivity and potential for digitally networked transport ecosystem, the latter in instances of bike sharing. Although they engage as relevant for today’s polluted, congested traffic environment, electric bikes have their set of problems too.  The Internet has much in-depth discussion on technical aspects and mechanical issues customers face; something engineers will enjoy wrapping their heads around. For the rest of us, I found a couple of points worth mulling over.

A bicycle is a combination of mathematical parameters (its dimensions from frame to crank, cogs and wheel size), married to propulsion and covering distance by that. When motor aids human propulsion on standard bicycle dimension (or human propulsion aids drive by motor), the resultant speed may amaze.  For humans, speed has always fascinated. There is in fact, a lot of celebration of e-bike speed one comes across on the Net. Two questions matter therein especially in the context of bicycle being simple structure at heart and capacity to tinker being hardwired into humans. How much speed can regular bicycle components shoulder without mechanical or structural failure? Second, how safe is it for all, if speed is accompanied by silence, something typical of electric motors? Clearly, just being alternative means of transport does not directly translate into a healthier, safer traffic environment. A bad driver is a bad driver, no matter how many wheels under him or what engine he uses. Further in as much as regular vehicles have messed up urban environments through congestion, the bicycle too can be guilty of it when accumulated in big numbers. But on one aspect it scores indisputably.

Pedaling – whatever be the degree of pedaling involved, pedaling in part as with electric bikes or pedaling in full as with normal bicycles – is healthy on human being. To my mind, in a reverse migration of sorts, electric bikes can be a bridge between giving up mechanized, fuel guzzling means of transport and rediscovering pure cycling. Industry though may see it just the opposite way; that’s what capital does to every equation. There’s more money in getting those on plain bicycles to graduate to motorized two wheels; electric bike is convenient bridge for that. Shortly after news of GM’s electric bike appeared, I asked a Pune based-designer of bicycles what he thought. “ I may look at electric bikes as a matter of market interest. But if I do, I would want to make it look very bicycle-like because my heart is in pure cycling; non-motorized,” he said.

According to published reports, technical details of GM’s electric bicycle are not fully available yet. The company has announced a naming contest. This blog spoke to a senior official in the Indian bicycle retail business, who had seen media reports of the GM product. There was doubt on whether the model is a pedal assisted electric bicycle or one that has a throttle-assist, in which case the bike / bicycle may move even if you don’t cycle. Websites reporting on the product have so far conjectured on their own. At least one pointed to the modest size of battery visible in product photograph and speculated that it seemed a pedal-assist.

Meanwhile for those on plain bicycle – non-motorized two wheels – life remains simple, as always; till world around decides to make it otherwise.

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