THE DNYANESHWAR EFFECT / VIKRAMGAD’S RUNNERS

Vikramgad’s runners (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Late November 2017.

Although nearing 6AM, it is dark as we walk from the house to the quiet road passing through Vikramgad Khand.

The village is perhaps three kilometers from the market in larger Vikramgad, a settlement between Wada and Jawahar. The quintet of four boys and one girl walked briskly to a small node ahead and then hung back to limber up. Roughly ten minutes later, the sound of runners’ feet approached from behind as the quintet trotted past at a relaxed steady pace. It reminded of every marathon’s initial phase – that rhythmic sound of feet striking tarmac and sense of pack when a bunch of athletes run by. There was no traffic on the small road save an occasional two wheeler. Once in a while the darkness was breached by torchlight or the approaching red glow of a lit beedi; farming chores commence early in these parts. Then two middle aged men came by on their morning jog. As the rising sun slowly made its presence felt, a lady walking briskly, appeared; followed by the sight of a man warming up for his jog, another who jogged by and then paused to do push-ups on the road. Dinesh Mhatre had said the day before that Vikramgad early morning has its growing share of walkers and runners. We were roughly 90 km away from Thane and maybe 120 km from Marine Drive, the showpiece of Mumbai’s running.

Over two months before this dawn at Vikramgad Khand, we had waited near Thane’s bus depot for the leader of the quintet. The atmosphere was humid. People and vehicles dashed about like packed atoms. The person we wanted to meet had got stuck in Bhiwandi, a dusty township associated with the textile industry, famous for having the most number of power looms in India. That meant he was just half way through to Thane, where we had agreed to meet around noon. We used the time to locate a quiet eatery to have lunch at once our subject for interview arrived. Almost two hours later, two young men met us at the Thane bus depot. When sat down for lunch, Dnyaneshwar Morgha had no hesitation choosing rice over roti. In Vikramgad Khand, where he lived, that’s what he did – he cultivated rice.

The road to Vikramgad Khand, early morning, November (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Vikramgad Khand is hilly terrain. Born April 1994, Dnyaneshwar is the eldest of three children; two brothers and one sister. His parents are farmers. They own some land. Life was tough, growing up. The family didn’t have much money. What saved the day was a simple flower, small and among the most beautiful in the Indian subcontinent. Southern and western India, including the state of Maharashtra where Vikramgad is, is home to the jasmine. While Dnyaneshwar studied in the local school till the twelfth, his parents often came to Thane seeking livelihood. They sold jasmine flowers at about twenty rupees a kilo, making roughly sixty to seventy rupees daily for the family to live on. It also meant that unlike in the case of the affluent lot paying school fees every month or every term, Dnyaneshwar and his siblings could pay their fees only in an erratic, aggregated fashion depending on income flow and what little the family saved. Needless to say, once he was old enough to work, Dnyaneshwar began doing agricultural work.

Aside from he being the elder of the siblings, one reason for the urgency Dnyaneshwar felt in taking charge of his life was that drinking was common in the community he belonged to. His parents were no exception. The habit takes a toll on human being’s ability to work. “ They are not well now. So, they don’t work,’’ Dnyaneshwar said of his parents. He does not touch alcohol. It is not that he hasn’t. There was an instance in the seventh standard, when he drank toddy. His teacher, “ Diwan sir’’ punished him. After that, he has stayed away from drinking. When we met him, Dnyaneshwar having completed his twelfth and got married, was into a routine of working his family’s agricultural land and taking ahead the admission for graduate studies he had secured at a college in Ullhasnagar. His sister was married. The rice the family cultivated was being consumed at home itself. There was no share of it being sold in the local market. Dnyaneshwar met his family expenses and the fees for his education using the money he earned from running. His younger brother Rohidas was in the twelfth and also a runner.

Near Vikramgad Khand, early morning, November (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Dreams have always fascinated human beings. A dream is a succession of images, ideas, emotions and sensations that usually occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep – that is how Wikipedia explains dreaming. Various cultures have responded in their own unique way to our tendency to dream. In another section, Wikipedia added: in the late nineteenth century, psychotherapist Sigmund Freud developed a theory that the content of dreams is driven by unconscious wish fulfillment. According to Dnyaneshwar, turning point was in the ninth standard. He claims he had a dream of himself running. By then his relation with his parents had touched a low point. As liquor took its toll, whatever was being earned as livelihood got squandered. Nothing reached the children. “ We would mix masala powder in water and have it just so we had something in our stomach,’’ Dnyaneshwar said. The already fragile relation snapped, when one day, he declined to get liquor and was told to leave the house. For the next few years he stayed with his uncle.

Most of us wouldn’t take a dream seriously. Why should we, when the mind keeps running movies in the head for no particular reason? Dnyaneshwar however clung to what he had dreamt. “ I latched on to that vision because my predicament was desperate. If I don’t try to make my own path I will get sucked into how things have been for the past several decades,’’ he said. Following that dream, for a year, he trained diligently. He ran to forget his personal situation; he ran also because he hoped the madness would bring him something better. He ran between the hours of 2 AM and 5 AM. He ran barefoot on the road. It wasn’t long before others in the village took note. Communities may have been originally formed to take everybody along for the journey. But one of the problems in community is how difficult it is to follow your mind if what you wish to do stands out from the norm. Comments fly easily. Dnyaneshwar said that when his running was discovered by others, he was laughed at. It was to escape such judgement that he embraced the darkness of the truly early morning hours. Out of sight is out of mind. The only person to run with him was his friend, Kaluram. But Kaluram quit after a year. Dnyaneshwar was back to being Vikramgad Khand’s runner in darkness. Then a race over five kilometers was announced in the village of Kudus nearby. He participated in it and finished in third place. As prize he got Rs 1500. “ That was a lot of money for me,’’ Dnyaneshwar said.

Dnyaneshwar (left) and Amit (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

His first formal half marathon happened in Vikramgad itself. It was an event organized by Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, an outfit that works among tribal communities. He secured first place in that run. This was followed by a half marathon in Pen, where too Dnyaneshwar finished first. Then he was dispatched for a few days to Pune, where a “ national level competition’’ was due. At this competition, Dnyaneshwar finished first in the half marathon with a timing of one hour, fourteen minutes. That win fetched him Rs 30,000 as prize money. “ I had never seen so much money in my life,’’ Dnyaneshwar said. The person Dnyaneshwar has kept in touch with at Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram is Satish Chavan. According to Chavan, following his win in that half marathon in Pune, Dnyaneshwar told him of his desire to run at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM, now called Tata Mumbai Marathon – TMM). It was the biggest event in running, much written about in the media and automatically, magnet for runners. “ Dnyaneshwar wanted to run but he didn’t know anything about how to participate at the running events he had heard of,’’ Chavan said. As he scouted for details on how to register Dnyaneshwar for SCMM, Chavan found that there was a plethora of running events around, not just SCMM. For the youngster from Vikramgad therefore, his first race in the Mumbai region was one of the editions of the Thane Varsha Marathon, wherein he ran the 10 km-race. He secured first place there with a timing of 31:22. Dnyaneshwar’s friend Dinesh keeps him informed of upcoming races in Mumbai. As regards the big annual marathon in Mumbai, Chavan said that Dnyaneshwar has had two outings so far at SCMM’s half marathon. On both occasions podium finish eluded him. Chavan continues to help. Given his association with Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, Chavan has links to potential supporters. With their assistance, he has provided 5-6 pairs of running shoes to Dnyaneshwar.

Sport is a great leveler. Runners are known to help each other. Running in Mumbai expanded the pool of people willing to help Dnyaneshwar. Among those who saw him running at an event and tried to assist, was Phillip Earis, a runner from England who lived in Mumbai for a few years till mid-2016. In 2016, he had written in about the first time he saw this runner from Vikramgad Khand: I first met Dnyaneshwar at the end of a half marathon in Bandra in December 2014.  I was originally supposed to be running in the race myself, but the day before the race the organizers phoned me up to say regretfully they were disqualifying me, and they feared any non-Indians running could be a safety risk and need extra permission etc.  As the race was taking place near my apartment I went along anyway to watch and cheer on the runners.  The winner was this very small and young runner, who glided along at great speed and seemingly effortlessly. His huge talent was obvious to see, and yet it was also apparent from a quick conversation with him afterwards that he had so much untapped potential – he didn’t have any coaching and wasn’t even really following a training plan.  I tried to get his details but there was some mistake in the phone number, and it took me a further year to finally track him down.

Dinesh at the finish line of the Navy Half Marathon (Photo: courtesy Dinesh)

Kavita finishing her race at one of the editions of Pinkathon (Photo: courtesy Dinesh)

Another runner Phillip helped was Kamlya Bhagat, whose background is similar to that of Dnyaneshwar. He lives some distance away from Panvel, a township south east of Mumbai (Vikramgad Khand is north east of Mumbai). Older than Dnyaneshwar but a fellow race horse counting on running for a fair amount of his income, Kamlya won the half marathon at SCMM (now TMM) in his age category, in 2016 and 2017. Incredibly, Dnyaneshwar missed registering for the 2018 TMM. He had entrusted the task with someone; it apparently got overlooked. His personal best in the half marathon was 1:08 clocked at the 2016 Vasai Virar Mayors Marathon (VVMM). In early 2017, Dnyaneshwar became the recipient of the Runner of the Year award given by Mumbai Road Runners (MRR), one of the biggest running groups in the city. Srivatsan Mambakkam, senior runner from Navi Mumbai, was on the jury that selected winners of the 2016 awards. “ In Dynaneshwar we had a runner who clocked 1:08. I think the attributes we appreciated in him were – he was young; fast, consistent in performance and returning good timings at events featuring decent competition. VVMM for example, is quite competitive,’’ Srivatsan said. Dnyaneshwar’s streak of good timings has continued. At the IDBI Federal Life Insurance Mumbai Half Marathon of 2017, he finished first in the half marathon with a timing of 1:09. In November 2017, he romped home first in the Western Naval Command (WNC) Navy Half Marathon, clocking 1:09:37.

Dnyaneshwar races almost every Sunday. He said that he trains under Aman Chowdhury. Given coach is in the Mumbai region and ward in Vikramgad, the instructing is on the phone. A typical day for Dnyaneshwar starts at 5 AM. If he has run 21 km at a race on Sunday, then he dedicates Monday for a recovery run. On Tuesday, he does an easy five kilometers, including 200-400 m sprints. Wednesdays are meant for working out. On Thursday, he and everyone else in his team, run together at race pace. Friday reverts to easy running or running an easy 21 km in case he has a half marathon to race on Sunday. Saturdays are devoted to rest. He also takes rest all of May. In the running calendar that is usually a month with few races given the heat of India’s summer. In 2016, Dnyaneshwar said, he made anywhere between one to two lakh rupees from running (one lakh is equal to 100,000). He said he puts some of the money aside in a bank account.

The trophies and medals in Dnyaneshwar’s house (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The attraction for running is hard to understand in a conventional way. Most runners don’t stress over returns from running because returns from regular physical activity are priceless. But that is not how the Indian circumstance wedded to money and sedentary life, views things. For example, several runners we spoke to while writing articles for this blog, mentioned of families and parents puzzled by the sight of runner paying money to register for a distance run that left him / her exhausted. Who pays to get punished? Who pays to seemingly lose investment? By the same yardstick, the easiest route for respect by running is when it yields result admirable by conventional logic – when it fetches you money. At his house in Vikramgad Khand, Dnyaneshwar showed a prepaid gift card, part of his winnings at a race. On the wall was what it bought him – a TV. On his wrist was another prize from running – a runner’s watch. The house he currently lives in – a modestly big properly built house – that had been funded with money borrowed from others and prize money from running. Medals from races adorned the walls of the living room; a clutch of trophies graced one corner of the clean, tidy floor. According to Dnyaneshwar, when he started earning from running, those around him began seeing his madness in a different light. Respect for running and curiosity for the sport crept into the frame. Others also wanted to run. Dnyaneshwar now informally coaches other runners in Vikramgad. The first of these wards was with him when we met in Thane; they were both heading to a race in the Mumbai region, scheduled the following day. Twenty one years old, Amit Bhagwan Mali started running when he was in the tenth standard. He and his friends were playing cards in the village one day, when Dnyaneshwar arrived with trophy and prize money. “ I decided I must also race,’’ Amit said. His father is no more. He has to look after his family. They too are farmers. At the 2017 IDBI Federal Life Insurance Mumbai Half Marathon, Amit had a podium finish in the 10 km-run with a timing of just over 32 minutes. Doing well at that event, was also Dnyaneshwar’s brother, Rohidas. Once you get into running, a world opens up. At a race in Kalyan, Dinesh met Amit; the latter didn’t get the event’s branded T-shirt and Dinesh gave him his. Through Amit, he met Dnyaneshwar. Dinesh said he now spends most of his days in Vikramgad Khand, his training base. He travels periodically to visit his mother who stays at Angaon, a village near Bhiwandi. Dinesh specializes in the 10 km-run. At the 2016 IDBI Federal Life Insurance Mumbai Half Marathon he had run the 10 km-discipline in 33 minutes placing second. Closer to our meet-up in Vikramgad Khand, he had finished first in the 10 km-run of the Navy Half Marathon with a timing of 32.38 He hopes to graduate to the half marathon. When that move should be – he counted on Dnyaneshwar to advise him.

Towards the end of an early morning run at Vikramgad Khand (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In Vikramgad Khand: stretching after the early morning run (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

According to Amit and Dnyaneshwar, running has slowly picked up in the Vikramgad area. Around 10-15 boys are now regular runners. They also spoke of Ramji Gangda, 57 years old, who runs regularly. However, conservative family and society restricts the number of girls in running, Dnyaneshwar and Amit said. Marriage happens early in tribal communities. While by and large boys get to do what they want, it is tough for girls. For now, barring exceptions, running doesn’t fit in with the priority of things as imagined by parents. A few girls from one of the adjacent villages join in as the runners go by, the two youngsters said. Chavan painted a more optimistic picture. He said that in the pool of runners from tribal communities in the region, there are now at least 8-10 girls. The lone girl in the quintet starting the run from Vikramgad Khand was Kavita Bhoir, yet to touch 18 years of age but already getting podium finishes in the 10 km-run and the half marathon. She had finished first among women in the 10 km-run, part of the Navy Half Marathon held mid-November in Mumbai. Her timing was 42:25. She had also tried her hands recently at the half marathon; an event in Pune. “ I didn’t feel anything. It was quite easy,’’ she said of her first half marathon, tad puzzled by the experience and unsure if it was the appropriate thing to say. She had a podium in that race too. Kavita hailed from the same region as the others but like Dinesh, had house and studies in Angaon.

Rohidas; morning run completed, leaving for classes (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

When the quintet that ran out from Vikramgad Khand got back to where it started, it had grown in numbers. There were new faces joined in from the nearby village. The youngest was a girl, 14 years old and taking part in five kilometer-events. The eldest was Dnyaneshwar. They concluded their run with some exercises, making sure they did the cool-down and stretching out of sight from Vikramgad Khand. They wanted to avoid the gaze of society and its established ways. Speaking to Dnyaneshwar, Dinesh, Kavita and Amit on the walk back to the house, it was clear that what they all struggled with was a generation gap. Born to the present and its age of opportunity, they felt the need to have a sense of direction, accomplish something. Failing which, they feared they would be engulfed by the age old life lurking all around. Dnyaneshwar said he would like to continue working in the field of running. The subject interests him. He doesn’t charge anything for the training and sharing of experience he does in his village. About his own running currently straddling the half marathon and races over less than half marathon-distance, Dnyaneshwar said, he intended to wait for some more years and then try his hand at the full marathon as well. As we neared the house we had left two hours earlier, a figure – hair combed, dressed in clean clothes and backpack on shoulders – approached. It was Rohidas. Having finished his run, he had gone ahead of us, got ready and was now heading for his classes. Like elder brother Dnyaneshwar, he too counted on running’s prize money to fund his studies.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Timing and position secured at races are as said by the interviewees. This article is based on conversations with Dnyaneshwar and his friends in Thane and Vikramgad Khand.)

THE REGISTER OF HIMALAYAN HOTEL

File photo of Khati from 2009.  The village has grown bigger since (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Updated version of a story originally written in 2012 about a family from a Kumaon village and their connection to Traill Pass in the Himalaya

Harish Singh handed me a brightly colored, plastic cover with ` Raj Fashions’ written on it, the name of a ready-made garments shop in Bageshwar where the family had likely shopped. It had come all the way from Khati to Song and then with Govind, in his jeep to Ranikhet.

Within the bag was a small piece of Pindari Glacier-history.

Khati is a big village. At the time of first writing this story in 2012, Khati was a compact aggregation of houses, packing in several families into a modest expanse of land located steeply above the point where the Pindari River meets the river flowing down from Sunderdhunga. What it lacks in scale, Khati makes up for on two other fronts – it is the last major village on the popular tourist trail leading to the Pindari Glacier; as last village it has access to sizable forest lands beyond and forest produce therein. Notwithstanding this local prominence, Khati is actually a young village. Its neighbors are older.

Harish, who works in Ranikhet, hailed from Khati. He had heard that the area where the village stands was originally called `khata,’ a general reference to any place where goat, sheep and buffalo are brought to graze and their dung settles into a good manure for grass to grow. Usually animal shelters are built at such places and the people come up seasonally with their flocks. There are similar grazing spots at altitude trekked through even today in the Himalaya, where if you visit off-season you are met by stone buildings and sheds with neither man nor animal around. It’s of course a different story in grazing season.

Over time, Harish said, people from nearby villages like Pattag, Sorag and Supi moved permanently to the `khata,’ forming the nucleus for the families who currently reside in Khati. Harish used to be very close to his father, the late Pratap Singh. A former soldier, Pratap Singh, after retirement, ran the family’s small enterprise in Khati – the Himalayan Hotel. Begun by Harish’s grandfather, Gopal Singh, it was a small restaurant with a shop and two adjacent rooms for travelers to stay over if required. What was in that plastic bag was an old register kept at the hotel, titled simply ` certificate book.’

If viewed in perspective, the book’s contents were very engaging.

The `certificate book’ (Photo: courtesy Harish Singh)

History begins from the very first certificate on page one. Addressed to Gopal Singh, it was written on July 8, 1925, by Henry G. Hart, Secretary of the Lucknow Young Men’s Christian Association. Talking of his decision to mail Gopal Singh a little axe as token of appreciation for assistance provided on his trip to Pindari, Hart said, “ I am enclosing a copy of a letter which I have just written the Deputy Commissioner, Mr Rutledge, in which I recommend your help if he tried the Pass again.’’ Two things merit attention. The ` Pass’ referred to here is likely Traill Pass or Traill’s Pass or even Trail Pass and Trail’s Pass as all these spellings exist in our world’s reservoir of information. George William Traill was the second British Commissioner of Kumaon. The pass named after him lies at the top of the Pindari Glacier. It is at an altitude of approximately 17,400ft on the southern shoulder of Nanda Devi East (24,091ft) and Changuch (20,741ft). It links the Pindari valley with the Milam valley via Lawan Gad. Mr Rutledge is most likely Hugh Ruttledge, the well-known explorer of the Himalaya, who once served as Deputy Commissioner at Almora. Besides his explorations trying to find a route into the Nanda Devi sanctuary he was also involved in the early expeditions to Everest. A brief account of Ruttledge’s 1925 attempted crossing of Traill Pass can be seen in the archived issues of the Himalayan Journal brought out by the Himalayan Club.

H.W. Tilman, in his account of the ascent of Nanda Devi, says it was Ruttledge who first called the Nanda Devi Basin, `Sanctuary,’ a name by which the area within the outer ring of high mountains and guarded by them, has become popularly known. Tilman then quotes a passage credited to Ruttledge and opening with the famous sentence, “ Nanda Devi imposes on her votaries an admission test as yet beyond their skill and endurance.’’ In a letter to the London Times in 1932, Ruttledge described the challenge, “ A seventy mile barrier ring on which stand twelve measured peaks of over 21,000ft which has no depression lower than 17,000ft except in the west where the Rishi Ganga rising at the foot of Nanda Devi and draining the area of some 250 square miles (799 square kilometers) of snow and ice has earned for itself what must be one of the most terrific gorges in the world.’’

In his book `The Nanda Devi Affair,’ Bill Aitken has dwelt on Traill and Ruttledge, plus a third person who is the reason for this article. “ Traill’s perseverance in crossing the dangerous ice-fall linking Milam with the source of the Pindar was rewarded with the naming of an unfixed pass after him. On top of this, his explorations have been accorded sporting status. It seems more likely his search for a shortcut had been occasioned by the East India Company’s desperation to get a share of the `shawl wool’ filtering over the passes from Tibet (shatoosh happens still to be the most expensive fabric in the world). If Traill is to be termed the discoverer of the pass what does that make Malak Singh, the villager who guided him up and over the ice-fall? The descendants of Malak Singh continue to remind all visitors on the Pindari glacier trek of their ancestor’s prowess but unlike the Chomolungma lobby that deplores the imposition of `Mount Everest’ there is as yet no insistence on dislodging ` Traill Pass’ for `Malak La,’’ Aitken wrote.

George William Traill went over the pass that has since borne his name, in 1830. Malak Singh – he became known as Malak Singh Buda, that last bit denoting the position of being an elder – was the grandfather of Gopal Singh, in whose time the `certificate book’ appears to have commenced its life. That makes Harish, the current caretaker of the book, the great-great-grandson of Malak Singh. In the Pindari area, Gopal Singh held an official designation called `Sarkari Bania,’ which, according to Harish, was akin to being a government appointed supplier of food and essentials. In that role, he appears to have assisted many travelers on the Pindari trail. Harish remembers family talk of his grandfather as a locally important person thanks to his position and the people he encountered so. Thus there is even a touch of royalty to the contents. On October 3, 1940, at Furkia (also spelt Phurkia), a halt up the trail from Khati towards the Pindari Glacier side, a letter was issued by the `Baroda Camp Officer’ certifying that Gopal Singh had accompanied the Maharaja Gaekwar of Baroda to the Pindari Glacier. “ The note issued on paper bearing the seal ` Huzur Office, Baroda’ – it is there in the book – says, “ His Highness has presented him (Gopal Singh) a wrist watch in appreciation of his services.” Another piece of similar paper work from the past is the certificate issued in May 1935 by the President of the United Provinces Legislative Council.

Harish with the certificate book (Photo: courtesy Harish Singh)

However, even as the certificate book engages attention, Malak Singh’s role in the history of exploring these parts of the Himalaya, does not seem to have had any impact on how that history was recorded.

In October 1987, a party signing in the book as “ D.P. Nad & Party” from Asansol confirms hearing the story of Malak Singh and Traill Pass from Pratap Singh. The letter promises “ to negotiate transactions at governmental level to alter the name of Trail Pass.” There is also an old clipping from a Hindi newspaper – date not available – in which the Nainital Mountaineering Club is reported to have sought renaming Traill Pass to reflect Malak Singh’s role in exploring the route. The Hindi word used in the report to describe Malak Singh’s work is `khoj’ which means search or explore.

The most endearing story revolving around the book from Khati should be the one linking the following two certificates.

On October 9, 1936, F.W. Champion, Deputy Conservator of Forests, West Almora Division, wrote, “ Gopal Singh ran an exceedingly good bundobast for us while camping at Martoli on the Pindari Glacier. I had a large number of followers and mules, but I did not have any sort of complaint from anyone – which is unusual. He also seems to be a very pleasant mannered man, only too keen to oblige and I am sure that his presence here as sarkari bania is of great assistance to people touring to the glaciers.” Seventy years later, on October 9, 2006, there is an entry in the book by James Champion from Scotland where he has recorded his gratitude to Harish and his father for having looked after him well when he was retracing the steps of his grandfather F.W. Champion, IFS, who had made the same journey in October 1936 and was guided by Gopal Singh, Harish’s grandfather.

Following Pratap Singh’s demise in 2006, the hotel he commenced was shut down. In 2009, while on an expedition to attempt Baljuri (the bid failed subsequently; for more on that expedition please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2015/12/18/humbled/), I chanced to spend a few days in Khati amid torrential rains. Years later, Harish would tell me, I had stayed in a room right next to where his father’s hotel used to be. The wooden balcony I idled on waiting for the rain to taper ended in a stone wall, on the other side of which was the hotel’s erstwhile location, albeit on the ground floor. Pratap Singh’s children, save one – Harish’s younger brother – have moved elsewhere from Khati. It is now late 2017. Three years ago, after several months of effort, Birender – the sibling still staying in Khati, started a small hotel, this time on land right next to the trail leading to Pindari Glacier. According to Harish, the new enterprise features an eatery, a shop and provision for travelers to stay over. The family named it: Himalayan Hotel.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article draws from two earlier articles the author wrote on the subject and appeared in the The Hindu and the Facebook page of NOLS India.)

THOUGHTS AROUND SMOG

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Breath is life.

Early November 2017, the question vexing Delhi was – how safe is the air?

The smog hung thick.

The union environment minister was quoted in news reports ascribing the smog to “ adverse meteorological conditions.’’ According to him, there were the twin problems of still wind at ground level and two wind masses – one bearing pollutants from crop burning in Punjab, the other laden with moisture and blowing in from eastern UP – colliding in the upper atmosphere. The minister was likely correct. It was also selective explanation, the stuff of calibrated response. It suggested that the fault wasn’t ours; it was more a conspiracy by weather.

We have known for long that Indian cities are polluted and becoming increasingly so. Across Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and more – there are rivers, streams and creeks that have been polluted to varying shades of sewer. Blaming their toxicity on lack of water flow or colliding water currents, would be laughable. We know the toxicity is us; our way of life. All the three major culprits cited for the Delhi smog are man-made – crop burning, automobile emission and construction dust. Mumbai escapes terrible smog probably because it is a coastal city. But its land, water bodies and the adjacent sea are scarred by pollution. Adding to the confusion over how to tackle pollution is life by religion. Amid smog in Delhi, some highlighted how the Court erred, blaming Diwali for pollution when immediate culprits are other causes. I shut my ears. By the time I left Delhi for Mumbai, two people were dead after their car fell into the Yamuna River, courtesy smog and low visibility. Elsewhere, there were reports of vehicle pile-up.

For those interested in running, major question was – what will happen to Delhi’s biggest running event due later in November? This discussion too was characterized by calibrated response. The organizers termed medical advice seeking cancellation of event as premature; they said similar conditions had been there before, they said vehicles wouldn’t be plying the race’s route from 12 hours prior to the event and that salt water would be used to wash the route to keep dust settled. Are we past calibrated response? Anyone who walks, runs or cycles regularly in Indian cities is automatically exposed to the dark side of our collective existence; the extent of air pollution and the danger of rising vehicular traffic. Besides poor quality air for runners to inhale, cyclists have got knocked down by aggressive traffic. People have died.

What worries in an experiential sense is how respect for human-powered locomotion and the outdoors is shrinking in Indian life and how that attitude is spreading like fashion. Nine days after I left Delhi, the city’s prestigious half marathon was held as scheduled. News reports said, close to 35,000 people had registered. Thanks to wind and rain, pollution thinned and air quality improved. It’s good to know that committed runners will run no matter what. Unfortunately nobody asks – what happens after they display their resolve? Will the resolve extend to making sure that next time around, pollution levels are low? As we become more and more slaves of our emergent nature, those of us feeling alarmed by pollution outside shrink in number and calibrated response to pollution becomes increasingly acceptable. It is convenient, avoids blaming us. Colliding air currents suffice to explain Delhi’s smog and runners and cyclists would seem a nuisance on streets meant for climate controlled-vehicles transporting people and goods to their destination. Why are we suckers for calibrated response? Why don’t we notice the blunt truth? Nobody likes pointing the finger of blame at themselves, particularly in context like India where national problems – from population to pollution – are self-wrought. Calibrated response is dished out to keep the human collective and strategically important economic interests therein, happy. Population becomes market and workforce for GDP; pollution becomes collateral damage for industry and employment.

Delhi, early November 2017 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In contrast, endurance is about experiencing self and solitude. Deep into a run, hike or swim you confront it. You become just what you are. There is no room for pretense, cover-up and fraudulence. There is no hive; only bee. For such a mind, between noticing smog and buying into calibrated response, the former should attract. Doing so, you are no more market. A market pace of evolution is nowadays not only slow compared to the urgency of our problems, it also leaves us intellectually dissatisfied. Increasingly now, a better environment is our individual responsibility. The outdoors and endurance sport are like portals to awareness. Some view it as achievement. A slightly different lot would view it as a new way of looking at life. The word for it is perhaps – aesthetic. The Oxford dictionary describes aesthetic as: concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty. Dig a bit deeper. Here’s how the dictionary describes beauty: a combination of qualities, such as shape, color or form that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially sight. Within that meaning and several other sub-texts, there was also this: a combination of qualities that pleases the intellect.  Question to ask is – are we living an aesthetically pleasing life? Did the smog seem beautiful?

There’s more to the smog than meets the eye.

In it, we see what we have become.

A sense of aesthetic will help us pollute less.

Following which, any marathon will be beautiful, no salt water needed.

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

THE IMPORTANCE OF EDUCATION – AN IRONMAN STORY

Nagaraj Harsha (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On May 2, 1927, when The Stevens Hotel opened in Chicago, it was the biggest hotel in the world. It had 3000 rooms. Its first registered guest was Charles G. Dawes, then vice president of the US and in 1925, a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace. History however had other plans for the hotel. The Great Depression ruined its owners and the property went bankrupt. The government took the hotel into receivership. According to Wikipedia, in 1942 the US Army purchased the hotel for use as barracks and classrooms. Two years later, the War Department sold the property to a private businessman, Stephen Healey. In February 1945, as World War II drew to a close, Conrad Hilton purchased the hotel from Healey. With that, The Hilton, Chicago, was born.

A day in August 2014, two young men from India; both of them longstanding friends – one freshly arrived from Bengaluru; the other staying in Chicago – reached the hotel. The Chicago resident dropped the visitor off at the hotel and drove away. Nagaraj Harsha kept his emotions in check as he made his way to the hotel’s restaurant, where a meeting was due. Neither party had met each other before. This was their first time face-to-face. Thanks to photographs periodically exchanged; from far, from their table in the restaurant, the family he was seeking to meet, recognized Nagaraj. It was a meeting over two decades in the making.

From the Colombo half Ironman (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

Sometimes the earlier chapters of one’s life gather clarity only as the later ones unfold. It was late evening in Bengaluru; actually night, the hour when day rolls up its cuffs, loosens its shirt collar and relaxes over a cup of coffee or a mug of beer, delighting in finding sense or the lack of it, in all that went by. Just outside the café we were in, at the corner where Church Street met Brigade Road, two prominent shops – one selling Nike products, the other selling Puma; the reflection of their glowing logos on glass facades nearby amplifying their presence – kept endurance sport in the frame. “ I am 27 years old now. It was only a year or two ago that I got convincing explanation for what I used to be in childhood and early youth. Things are clearer now,’’ Nagaraj said. His face betrayed joie-de-vivre, restless energy visible in his wiry build and the passion with which he spoke of his life in sports. For a minute his ways and nature of speech reminded me of a friend in Ladakh. Youngster full of energy, he had turned entrepreneur and was mellowing down with the process. How is he doing? – I thought.

Nagaraj was born April, 1990, in Bengaluru. He grew up in the city. He did his schooling at Methodist Kannada School, studying there till tenth standard, before moving to Kripanidhi College to do his eleventh and twelfth. These years are very important in how they define Nagaraj’s sense of self and life. His mother brought up her children single handedly. The family was poor; life was a struggle. They needed help. Looked up in mid-October 2017, Wikipedia’s page for Compassion International did not mention India among countries it works in. The agency is described as “ a Christian humanitarian aid, child sponsorship organization dedicated to the long term development of children living in poverty around the world.’’ Back in the 1990s, it was this NGO that came to Nagaraj’s assistance. They sponsored his education, all the way to college. The person who sponsored his education was Gladys Downey, a benefactor from Canada. “ She has been like a second mother to me. I owe so much to her,’’ Nagaraj said. The school he studied in catered mostly to under-privileged children. On that island of education, Nagaraj was sometimes topper. He doesn’t beat his chest on that attribute. He viewed it in perspective as the natural fallout of being good at studies in a financially challenged backdrop where many students in class may have been similarly struggling and good was sufficient to top the lot. What should engage in Nagaraj’s case is that he achieved such result despite behavioral traits challenging the ability to sit down and study. He was hyperactive.

From the Ironman competition at Zurich (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj Harsha)

The condition – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – is not easily diagnosed. Information on ADHD available on the Internet, hints at a period of observation and study of subject eventually leading to the conclusion that a person may be having ADHD. This was the explanation, Nagaraj got later in life. In school, long before the diagnosis was made; it was plain struggle to focus. He had boundless energy. He wanted to play, participate in sports and be good at it. But unlike other children, he couldn’t master the art of channelizing his energy to achieve an objective. “ I would try taking part in sport and end up failing,’’ Nagaraj said. A further problem and a potential solution also presented themselves. Everybody needs something that makes them happy. One reason sport has its following is because physical activity releases endorphins; the resultant high is a nice feeling to have. Unable to focus his energy properly in sports and games, Nagaraj found happiness in eating. The more he ate, the more he put on weight. Chubby youngster was typically target for bullying. Around this time, his mother got him a gift for topping studies at school – it was a bicycle. By the time he joined Bengaluru’s Christ College to do his graduation, that cycle had become his mode of commuting to college. Physical exertion and sweating, he understood, skimmed off the excess energy creating havoc in his system. It helped him focus. The family didn’t have money to send Nagaraj to a good college. Realizing the family’s difficulties, once again, Gladys and Compassion International intervened. They decided to foot the bill for Nagaraj’s college education. According to Nagaraj, he was the first student from his school sponsored by the NGO all the way to college education.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

First year at college was normal except for a sartorial issue. Like most courses oriented towards eventual work in the business and corporate sector, the graduate program in commerce at Christ College required its students to dress formally. Nagaraj was a good student but he turned up in what dress he could afford. It went on for a while till his teachers took him aside and asked why the streak prevailed. They realized it wasn’t any rebellion on show; it was plain difficulty to afford. According to Nagaraj, the faculty raised money for him to buy a set of formal clothes. By the second year, Nagaraj’s mother had to stop working. This made it imperative for Nagaraj to look out for a job. He had joined Global Gym at Adugodi in the city to work-out and lose weight. He approached the gym management and offered to work for them, cleaning up the premises. On their part, they told him to take three months’ time, learn the ropes and be a trainer at the gym. The arrangement brought purpose to his life. He started waking up at 4.30 AM; he would open the gym at 5 AM, work there till 9-9.30 AM and then proceed to college. He worked at the gym again in the evening, from 5 PM to 10 PM.  “ This was my schedule Monday to Saturday. On Sundays, I worked from 5 AM to 12 PM. Through much of second and third year of college, I therefore had little social life,’’ Nagaraj said. At the café, the man and woman at the adjacent table got up to leave. A new couple took their place. Outside, Church Street was its usual self; plenty of young people, ambiance of imminent dinner, conversation and catching-up and amid it all, the city’s much loved book shops. While historical places abound, every Indian city has its post economic liberalization hotspot. This patch of Bengaluru – MG Road, Brigade Road and Church Street – had for long been the city’s postcard to the world. In the 1980s, it was where you went to see a phenomenon called `pub.’ I remembered my own pilgrimage from college days long ago, to that strip of road, traffic, neon signs and shops selling branded goods. Pubs have since become passé. But new generations still throng this area to engage in what Nagaraj shuttling between home, gym and college missed out on – socializing.

Louisville Ironman (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

During his second year at college, at the athletics meet connected to the annual sports day, a friend challenged Nagaraj to a run, saying he wouldn’t be able to manage five kilometers. In the impromptu race, his friend gave up after a kilometer; Nagaraj completed the full course. He was exhausted by the effort (next day he was down with fever) but it showed that with determination and will power, he can accomplish goals in endurance. Nagaraj graduated in commerce with job in hand; he secured it via campus selection bagging alongside the second highest pay package in his batch. Job meant end to his career at the gym. He had been there for over two years, earning in the process his own cachet of long term trainees. One of them had even gifted him a bicycle – a Firefox MTB. He bid goodbye to all that and moved to Usha International’s office at Gurgaon near Delhi, working in finance and accounts. The year was 2010. You can take the man out of Bengaluru; you can’t take Bengaluru out of him – that was true in Nagaraj’s case. He didn’t like Delhi. Now armed with a decent cash flow of his own, he took to drinking, catching up on the socializing he had missed out earlier. He put on weight. Luckily for him, post-probation, his company understood his predicament and gave him a posting in Bengaluru.

During this phase, Nagaraj started to look up blogs related to adventure. The IT industry, after its sunrise stage of the 1990s, had matured into a predictable quantum. There was a sea of young people in Bengaluru, many had studied or travelled overseas. Craving for engaging activity was high. Both trekking and cycling were catching on. Nagaraj decided to try cycling 100 km on the Firefox MTB. The plan was to cycle to Nandi Hills and back. One night he started out. About 15 kilometers away, in Hebbal, he got mugged. “ They took away my cell phone. Luckily they spared the bicycle,’’ he said. He continued his journey and reached the top of Nandi Hills, taking an hour and forty five minutes to get from the base of the hill to its top on his seven-speed MTB. Encouraged, he started to cycle and trek regularly. His next big outing was a three day-cycle trip from Pollachi to Munnar via Athirapally. This time he had a new bike, bought with newly acquired credit card – a Cannondale SL 5. In 2011, in what was his second run since that race with friend in college, he ran his first TCS 10K in Bengaluru, covering the distance in 58 minutes. He paid for the lack of preparation. He was in terrible pain after the run. “ The whole idea was to participate and get a dry-fit T-shirt,’’ Nagaraj said.

With Gurudev and Jay, who helped raise some of the funds Nagaraj needed to participate at the Lake Tahoe event (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

Nice is the second largest French city on the Mediterranean coast, after Marseilles. It is home to an Ironman (triathlon) event. When Nagaraj met Dipankar Paul while socializing in Bengaluru, the latter was planning to attempt the Ironman in Nice. The idea intrigued Nagaraj. Isn’t it worth trying? After all, he was capable of running and cycling. While Dipankar went on to participate in the Ironman, Nagaraj joined a swimming pool in Bengaluru to train. In August 2011, a half Ironman was announced in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The half Ironman entails 21 km of running, 90 km of cycling and 1.9 km of swimming. Two months later, in October, Nagaraj signed up for it. Soon thereafter, he also acquired his first road bike – a Bianchi Nirone 7. He started training for the Half Ironman in earnest. Initially he couldn’t do more than 100-200m in swimming. However, he was consistent, reporting to the pool for a session from 7 PM to 8 PM, every day. All the same by November, he was still short of confidence. Deepak, another regular swimmer at the pool had been observing Nagaraj’s daily sessions. He asked if Nagaraj was preparing for something and upon being told of the upcoming Colombo event, offered to help. Under Deepak’s guidance, Nagaraj improved the daily distance he covered in swimming to 1500m. In December 2011, he went to Puducherry to try his hand at open water swimming (the swim leg at Colombo was to be open water). He co-opted a local fisherman into his scheme. The fisherman took Nagaraj a kilometer out into the sea in his boat and kept him company while Nagaraj swam back to shore. Back in Bengaluru, he biked on weekends and ran 10-15 km. None of this training had any structure.

From the Lake Tahoe-Ironman (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

In February 2012, accompanied by a group of friends, Nagaraj reached Colombo for the race. He completed his first half Ironman in six hours, 37 minutes. It was also his first half marathon and the first time he swam 1.9 km. “ I felt a sense of achievement,’’ Nagaraj said. He decided to attempt a full Ironman; the location he chose was Zurich in Switzerland. Europe is a dream destination for many Indians. It is also expensive. Nagaraj lacked the Rs 2.5 lakhs he required to visit Zurich and participate in the Ironman. He took a bank loan. Some of his friends, conscious of his family backdrop, reminded him not to throw money behind his new found craze for the triathlon. In 2012, he had also quit Usha International and joined Toyota Kirloskar Motors in sale and marketing. It was period of transition with funds crunch at personal level, to boot. Very few people encouraged him. “ In India desires of this sought end up as solitary pursuits. We live to make money and once we make money, it all goes to the family – that is the dominant mentality. Doing something for one’s own pleasure or personal growth is the stuff of guilt,’’ Nagaraj said. Stretched for resources, Nagaraj decided to attempt the Zurich Ironman with the same gear he had assembled for the Colombo half Ironman. To obtain visa, he needed to show Rs 100,000 in the bank, something he didn’t have. Dipankar, who too was attempting the Zurich event, came to his rescue, loaning him the amount. In July 2013, Nagaraj completed the Zurich Ironman in 13 hours, 17 minutes. “ I told myself – this is the life I want to lead,’’ he said. He decided on 2014, as year for his next Ironman competition. For location, he chose Louisville in Kentucky, USA. There was a reason for this – Ganesh, his old friend from Christ College; the one who had challenged him to that 5 km-run long ago, lived in Chicago. Ganesh wanted Nagaraj to stay with him. Louisville was 300 miles away from Chicago.

With Jaymin Shah, Country Manager, Scott Sports India and Beat Zaugg, CEO & President, Scott Sports SA (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

That year – 2014 – was also the starting year of the Bengaluru Marathon. Ironman events were news in India and with a half and a full Ironman done, Nagaraj had been featured in the media. Nike extended him support for more than a year; taking care of his need for apparel and shoes. With interest in the triathlon slowly picking up in India, Nagaraj with Nike’s support became one of the athletes featured in publicity around the 2014 TCS 10K. So when the 2014 Bengaluru Marathon drew close, its organizers chipped in, sponsoring his air ticket to the US, for the Louisville Ironman. Nagaraj completed the US event in 11:55. The full Ironman entails 3.8 km of swimming, 180 km of cycling and 42 km of running. With Louisville, where the swim leg was in a river, Nagaraj felt happy to have swum in the sea (Colombo), a lake (Zurich) and a river at various Ironman events. It was Ganesh who dropped him off for that meeting at The Hilton Chicago. The meeting was the first time Nagaraj came face to face with his sponsor of many years, Gladys Downey. Right from Nagaraj’s childhood, sponsor and student had written to each other periodically. Photos were also exchanged. Hearing of Nagaraj’s participation at the Louisville Ironman, Gladys and her family had flown to Chicago from Toronto to meet him. They were staying at The Hilton. As he walked into the spacious restaurant, they instantly recognized him. “ It was initially an emotional meeting,’’ Nagaraj said of the first time he came face to face with the person who had funded his entire education. He spent three days with Gladys and her family.

Team trial winners at Bangalore Bicycle Championship (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

From the 12 hour-stadium run in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

Post-Louisville, back in India, Nagaraj was financially in troubled times. He was in debt. That didn’t stop him from signing up for the full Ironman at Lake Tahoe, California, in 2015. Lake Tahoe is the largest Alpine lake in North America; it is situated at an elevation of 6225 feet in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and straddles the state line between California and Nevada. Gurudev, who lived in the US and who Nagaraj had met on the Internet, helped raise some of the funds required to participate in this event. Another source of support was sports gear manufacturer, Adidas. They put him on a one year sponsorship contract (since renewed thrice; it was in its third year at the time of this interview) and backed him with apparel and shoes. For the 2015 Bengaluru Marathon, Nagaraj was once again among athletes featured in their publicity for the event. Nagaraj completed the Lake Tahoe Ironman in 11:58. This was also the Ironman where he accomplished his first sub-four hour-marathon, covering the 42 km-distance in 3:55. By now some more support was becoming available. With three years spent working at Toyota-Kirloskar, his financial difficulties had eased. In November 2015, bicycle manufacturer Scott Sports offered sponsorship. They gave him a Scott Plasma 20 TT bike; a model designed for triathlon competitions. To train, he got a Scott Solace 30 road bike.

At Kalmar (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

According to Nagaraj, the primary factor that decides his choice of Ironman events is cost. Also influencing choice are attributes like location, elevation and weather at given time. Kalmar is a city in Sweden. It is situated on the shores of the Baltic Sea. In 2016, Nagaraj signed up for the full Ironman at Kalmar. In the middle of that year – in June – he turned up for the 12 hour-stadium run in Mumbai, an ultramarathon held on the running track at University Stadium. It took some convincing for the organizers looking for proven ultramarathon runners, to let a triathlete participate. That’s probably an indication of how little understood the triathlon is, in India. Nagaraj covered 110 km in the assigned duration and finished first in the event. The Kalmar Ironman took place in August 2016 and proved to be Nagaraj’s fastest Ironman yet. He finished it in 11:17; he got a personal best of 5:44 in cycling and 3:53 in the marathon. “ The Ironman is now a lifestyle for me. I can’t imagine life without it. It helps me stay motivated, nothing gives me more happiness. Triathletes support each other. It is one event where an amateur gets treated like a professional,’’ Nagaraj said. Further one of the fallouts of being a triathlete is that you become very focused and disciplined; it teaches you time management. “ I like competition and I am competitive to the extent that I wish to better my performance. Once upon a time, the goal was to somehow finish. Now the goal is to improve. I also try not to give up when doing each of the disciplines. If it’s a run, I don’t walk,’’ Nagaraj said. That said, at Lake Tahoe where he managed his best finish to date (he thinks it was 195 / 1500 participants) he collapsed after completing the event; not at the finish line but a while later, walking into the medical tent and then collapsing. He had to be administered IV fluids. Does his mother empathize with her son’s Ironman craze? “ At first, she wasn’t quite appreciative especially because the family needed resources and my interest in the triathlon was eating into it. Now that we are financially a little better off, she has begun to understand,’’ Nagaraj said. His sister also works now.

Nagaraj with Gladys in Canada, 2015 (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

From his first half Ironman to the several full Ironman events that followed, Nagaraj’s training pattern has changed. “ It has definitely become more structured,’’ he said. On the average, he trains two to three hours per day. Every week, he does 6-8 km of swimming, roughly 250 km of cycling and up to 60 km of running. Waking up at around 5 AM, he trains for one discipline in the morning and another in the evening. This mix of disciplines which works like cross training is a gift the triathlon provides. Nagaraj’s last injury was in 2013. “ That was my first and last injury,’’ he said. For his fifth full Ironman, he was scheduled to attempt the event at Busselton, Western Australia, in December 2017. Between Ironman competitions – which for him is typically one every year – he participates in other events. At the 2017 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (now Tata Mumbai Marathon) he finished the full marathon in 3:04. He also had a podium finish in cycling as part of a team participating in team time trial at the Bangalore Bicycle Championships. His team covered 50 km in 1:08. “ That is dream come true for any amateur,’’ he said. Meanwhile on the job front, he has shifted from Toyota-Kirloskar to Fast & Up; he joined the latter in March 2016 and oversees business development in India’s southern, western and eastern regions.

At the time of writing this article, Gladys Downey was 94 years old. Nagaraj visited her a second time after the Lake Tahoe Ironman. He flew to New York and after spending time there with his friends, he took a bus from New York to Toronto. Gladys’s daughter came to pick him up at the bus stop. Although still independent and capable of driving her car, Gladys stayed at a senior citizen’s home. Of all the children, whose education she had sponsored, Nagaraj said, he was the only one who had got around to actually connecting with her. This was their second meeting. He spent a week with the family. “ I believe education is very important. Had I not been educated well, I don’t think I would be heading in the direction I am going now,’’ he said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with the interviewee. Timings and positions at races are as provided by the interviewee.)

THE TINTIN YEARS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Many decades ago, two significant developments happened near simultaneously, in my extended family.

Two uncles, two comic strip heroes and a bunch of school going cousins – that was the context.

My uncle Narayana Pillai got me Flight 714, my first title from the series showcasing the adventures of Tintin. Until then, the only illustrated narratives I was familiar with were the ones from Marvel, DC, Indrajal and Amar Chitra Katha. They had strong following among school students, to the point that classmates with bound volumes of comic books were important people to know. I didn’t have bound volumes. Although my mother helped out by borrowing bound volumes from a local lending library, in general I suspect, my parents and grandparents held the view that comics, while popular, made for simplified narrative requiring less imagination. Reading was encouraged, purchase / borrowing of wholesome books approved. Days when the cousins got together typically featured a morning or afternoon of painting. Imagination was encouraged. A picture may speak a thousand words but the mind gets useful stretch if it can paint a picture from a word or a theme, perhaps even nothing – that seemed the approach. Into this ambiance landed Flight 714 and at the house of my cousins – Rajeev and Manju – thanks to another uncle: Sachidanand, a handful of books featuring Asterix.

It took me a while to warm up to Tintin. But you guessed it right – it took no time to like Captain Haddock. Who can forget “ thundering typhoons’’ and “ blistering barnacles’’? I also remember liking Skut for no stronger reason than that he was a pilot in Flight 714. Those days I shared a craze for aircraft with my cousin Jayu. Both of us had those small, thick Observer books with plenty of fighter planes in it and we spent time piecing together our respective air forces, which then competed for supremacy in the sky. We also made model aircraft from cardboard, Jayu being infinitely better at the job than I. Flight 714 thus landed at the correct time. My mind was ready for adventure. What attracted me to Tintin were also perhaps the size of a Tintin book and the average length of a story. Uniquely, it was bigger in size than the regular comic book. It told a full-fledged, long story spanning continents, sometimes taking two issues to finish; a sort of early introduction to the graphic novel format that would become popular decades later.

What I remember most is however something else.

Maybe it is a larger Malayali trait, maybe it is a family trait – I don’t know which of the two is correct –we had the tendency of analyzing experiences. At near fifty, I understand childhood better now. It is a phase when you have the luxury to do something because you feel like it; no analysis in the mix. Impulse and intuition are not unfashionable. Our passage to adulthood is fueled by just the opposite. We become adults by analyzing to make sense, till we become armchair analysts of all that is alive and stirring. Expectedly, my extended family put Tintin and Asterix under the scanner. The emergent fascination among the children for these two series triggered discussion among the adults. It was a discussion revolving around idea, story and artwork; we had no clue of such political details like Tintin’s origin in a Belgian newspaper identified with far right views. I remember the outcome. Asterix stayed ahead because its illustrations were bolder and had more flourish. Asterix stories with their play on characters’ names were also more deeply imagined and as the more sophisticated, layered comic book it was respected that much more because childhood is after all stepping stone to more sophisticated adulthood. None of that bothered me. I like Asterix. But Tintin is special. Something about it appealed to childhood’s idea of adventure.

My uncle probably noticed the brewing interest. His work took him often to other cities in India. Occasionally, it also took him overseas. Almost always, he returned with another title from the Tintin series. All the titles were displayed on the back of each book. So it was easy to identify what you hadn’t read and hunt for it. Tintin made me do crazy things. One of them was my scale drawing of a rocket. I arrived an evening with my father at the house of Rajeev and Manju. Their father – Govindan (he was a physics professor) – smiled and indulged me with his time and patience as I explained how my rocket would work. It was all well illustrated in the drawing on large graph paper – the fuel tank would feed the engine and my rocket would escape Earth’s gravity and be moon-bound. Why shouldn’t it? I had a rectangle with dials on it, labeled ` control panel,’ another rectangle with pipeline attached, labeled ` fuel tank’ and yet another one marked ` engine.’ That last rectangle ended in a nozzle copied from one of the jet engines in my Observer book. In retrospect it’s a good thing I didn’t join the Indian space program.

In those days of economy yet to open up like now, each Tintin bought traveled to multiple homes. At every home a kid or two eagerly lapped up the contents. Sometimes titles got exchanged at school; I will lend you my title if you lend me yours, which I haven’t read – that sort of deal. And unlike, regular comic books, which few bothered if they got misplaced or torn through lending, deals over Tintin and Asterix were deals of honor. Misplace or mishandle, you risked being branded unreliable for life. That adds a touch of mystery to how my Tintin collection – all titles acquired save four; that’s 20 out of 24 – fared, once I reached college and employment beyond. Back home in Thiruvananthapuram, not one title survives. I hope some kid; somewhere is still reading what I collected and drawing rockets and submarines. Slowly as Tintin titles became more easily available in India, we started buying the books ourselves (a visit to Kochi was always incomplete without dropping in at PAICO). One by one, we collected the titles mentioned on the back cover of every Tintin book. Then the search commenced to at least access and read titles not mentioned there; titles mentioned in Tintin lore or in conversation among his devoted fans. Meanwhile, my uncle’s children, Lakshmi and Hari, also grew interested in Tintin and started their own collection.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

I never outgrew Tintin. I can still pick up a title and enjoy browsing through it. In my adult life, the arrival of Steven Spielberg’s film on Tintin was a much awaited event. My favorite character was Captain Haddock and I was utterly curious to see how he would be on celluloid. I was disappointed and it isn’t Andy Serkis’s fault. My curiosity was in seeing which actor would pull off that role well and being an avid watcher of Hollywood films, I had even attempted some casting in the mind. As it turned out, the movie was made using motion-capture technology. That put it neither here nor there. It reminded me of the title: Tintin and the Lake of Sharks. Of all the Tintin titles I had, this one – assembled using stills from a 1972 animated film – had attracted me the least. When it comes to converting comic books to movies, I am not a fan of hybrid. After all, Tintin is not a Jungle Book, wherein modern animation technology makes animal characters life-like rendering the film a classic. Tintin sits firmly in the world of people and it surprised me that the producers deemed hybrid imagery, acceptable. I felt that was a letdown, considering Tintin has been portrayed before on stage and several other comic book heroes have been adapted brilliantly for the big screen.

In early August 2017, Lakshmi mentioned that a prominent item at Hari’s home in California is a poster of Tintin. Among his favorite shops is one where he picks up “ his Tintin stuff.’’ It made me wonder: what made her father Narayana Pillai, pick up Tintin books in an era of closed economy in India? Laskhmi’s own take on it was that her father bought it for the children in the family but he wasn’t above reading it on a flight himself! But then, unlike today when the media floods you with trends instantly, those days a comic book hero from Belgium was as distant as Belgium itself. You were compelled to read about Superman, Batman, Phantom and Mandrake because they were around. But Tintin? He didn’t have any PR machinery promoting him in the Indian media. It left the question: how did Narayana Pillai born and brought up in the Kerala of the 1940s and 50s, come to know about Tintin? He had never shared those details. A day into recollecting my thoughts around Tintin, I called up my uncle at his home in Aluva. Now in his mid-seventies, he laughed upon hearing that the phone call from nephew nearing fifty years of age was connected to his Tintin purchases from long ago. There was no loss of time in recollecting details. The bulk of the Tintin books were sourced from a book shop at the Mumbai airport of old, which my uncle visited during his business trips. “ I used to look for illustrated children’s books. That’s how I came across Tintin. I flipped through its pages and felt the characters in the book were interesting. The hero was a young journalist. When I bought my first Tintin, I had no idea how it will be. But from that one book, we moved onto many more, possibly the whole lot…Hari’s collection is still here,’’ he said. Further, in as much as he bought the books for children, he loved reading Tintin himself.

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

ALL IN ONE’S HEAD

Bhupendrasing Rajput (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Khandesh is in the north-west corner of the Deccan Plateau.

When you come from North India, this region signals transition to Deccan. Cutting through Khandesh is the Tapi River. To the north lay the hills of Satpura. Most rivers in the Deccan flow east. The Tapi flows west. According to Wikipedia, the Tapi flows in a deep bed and therefore historically its waters were difficult to use for irrigation. The lands north of Tapi are fertile but most of Khandesh lay south of the river. Bhupendrasing Rajput was born 1969, in the Khandesh region; in Mandane village, part of Maharashtra’s Dhule district. “ In modern times, Khandesh is where the borders of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat meet,’’ he said. We were at a park in Hauz Khas, New Delhi. It was early April, 2017 – Mumbai had been hot when I left it; Delhi felt comparatively pleasant. The previous night it even rained. What’s happening to weather? – I thought.

Overall, the paradigm of life in Mandane was tough in more ways than one. The terrain is undulating. There is a small river near the village. “ The river has been dry since my childhood. When I was six or seven years old, I remember water being available in the village. After that, it has been generally dry,’’ Bhupendra said, illustrating the frugality within which, life and farming in these parts must operate. He was the fourth child among five brothers and two sisters. His father, a farmer, was also Gram Sevak; the executive officer of a Gram Panchayat. Mother was housewife. “ I too am a skilled farmer,’’ Bhupendra said. In fact, till fifth standard at school, he had attended to regular responsibilities in farming.

From a 12 hour stadium-run in January 2017 (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

Bhupendra studied up to fourth standard in Mandane. According to him, the village is still stuck at that level of local education. Even today it offers no scope for further study. Same has been the case with regard to transport connectivity. There was no bus to Mandane in Bhupendra’s childhood. There still isn’t; the road is a kilometer away. For his fifth standard, the boy attended school at Dondaiche, a town four to five kilometers away from home. From sixth to twelfth standard, he studied at Dhule. Not just Bhupendra, his siblings also shifted to Dhule. There, they rented a two room-house for stay and onward studies. The parents stayed back in Mandane. This meant, from a young age itself, the children tended to all details of survival, from cooking to washing and studying. The arrangement wasn’t easy on the pocket.

The year before the children shifted to Dhule, the family’s house in Mandane was burgled. The loss was significant. “ It left us financially weak. We were struggling and struggling,’’ he said. Amid this, the shift to Dhule and pursuit of studies had a reason. Bhupendra was a good student right from junior school. Till the tenth standard there was no concept of scholarship. His teachers took note of the family’s struggle and often waived fees. By the time he was in the ninth standard, Bhupendra was earning on the side to support his studies and the siblings’ stay in Dhule. His job was making copies of audit reports. “ Typewriting was a luxury. My job was to make three to four handwritten copies of these reports. I was paid one rupee per page,’’ he said. This work of making copies usually commenced around 9-10 PM. Next morning on his way to school, he would submit the work to his employers.

At the 2013 Bhatti Lakes Ultra; with Piyush Shah (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

In tenth standard, Bhupendra topped his school, meriting scholarship support for eleventh and twelfth standards. After twelfth, he found himself at the crossroad most students pass through in India – medicine or engineering? He gave up medicine as it was expensive. He was admitted to do his engineering at the college of engineering in Pune but traded that for a more affordable course in agricultural engineering at the Agriculture University in Rahuri near Shirdi. To help him through this phase, he had merit scholarships won in his twelfth standard, plus, he took tuitions. He also availed an education loan from Punjab National Bank (PNB). Bhupendra topped the university in his engineering course. “ My desire was to pursue post-graduate studies in the US. I had decent scores in GRE and TOEFL. I also got admission at the University of Illinois with 100 per cent scholarship. But for some reason, I was declined visa. I was rejected in all my three attempts.  I had to reconcile myself to that rejection,’’ he said. In September 1991, he joined Thermax Ltd in Pune, working for them in Pune and Mumbai.

From the 2015 12 hour-trail run in Aravalli (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

Through all this, sports had no significant presence in Bhupendra’s life. Back in Mandane, he used to play kabaddi. In middle school, he recalls doing the high jump. “ Probably, I needed to burn some calories; that’s all,’’ he said. What he does admit to doing consistently is – long walks. “ Long walks barefoot were a part of my life. Besides, I am also the kind of person, who once he gets the hang of something, goes on with it,’’ he said. Awareness of marathon set in much later, when he was posted to Mumbai on work with Thermax and one day, saw a city bus with the advertisement for the 2006 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) on it. “ The enrolment process then was to go to the office of Standard Chartered, fill in the form and drop it off with a hundred rupee note attached,’’ he said. Bhupendra registered for the half marathon. On race day, with no idea of what the marathon entailed and lacking the basic essentials to turn up properly attired for it, he ran the event in “ office pant, office shirt and office shoes.’’ He finished the race in two and a half hours. “ I just went with the crowd, I was borne along by it,’’ he said. After completing the run, he went to a photo studio in Chembur and had a picture taken for posterity. Post SCMM, one change happened. He started running two to five kilometers every day. “ The idea was to stabilize my performance in the half marathon,’’ Bhupendra said. He ran the SCMM half marathon again in 2007 and 2008, eventually managing a non-stop run with finish in just above two hours. At that point, he decided to graduate to the full marathon.

Bhupendra after his first SCMM in 2006. He ran it in office attire. This was the photo taken at the studio in Chembur (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

From what he said, one aspect of Bhupendra’s progression in running strikes you. He was in Mumbai, very clearly at that time the running capital of India. Places like Marine Drive in the city have hosted runners for years. SCMM was nudging through a running culture. Yet Bhupendra was bereft of any company in running. He was staying in Andheri those days and used to train at Joggers Park in Lokhandwala Complex, running daily “ with much energy.’’ “ My problem was that I had nothing to talk of with anyone, except running. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. The world around had no incentive to invite me for any socializing,’’ he said. Result – Bhupendra then and to date is not part of any running group. He negotiates running’s maze by himself. In 2008 Bhupendra moved back to Pune from Mumbai. But the full marathon plan stayed on course. With no significant change to his training schedule and logging the same modest mileages he used to put in daily, he went ahead and ran the full marathon of the 2009 SCMM. “ I completed the run in 4:46 or so. I never felt there was anything difficult about it. Of course, there was the occasional struggle in that run-walk, run-walk…but I always knew I would do it,’’ he said. A breeze rustled the dry leaves on the ground. Not far from the park bench we were seated on, a group of boys began playing football; the conversation at the bench periodically punctuated by the dull thud of ball landing close by.

Thar Desert Run; with Denis, Kavitha, Vishwas, Raj Vadgama and Aparna (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

If the 2006 SCMM triggered the practice of running daily in Bhupendra, the 2009 SCMM did more. He ran a plethora of races thereafter, among them – Kaveri Trail Marathon, Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, Baroda Half Marathon and TCS 10K. “ After the 2009 SCMM, it was a mania,’’ he said laughing. He didn’t distinguish between distances too – he welcomed 42 km; 21 km, 10 km alike. Post 2010, somebody introduced him to Facebook and through it he got introduced in turn to the world of trekking. “ I am now a crazy lover of the hills,’’ he said. Facebook was also avenue to something else. Vishwas Bhamburkar, a runner from Ahmedabad, posted on Facebook that he was interested in attempting the 135 mile-Brazil Ultra and wished to do a training run of 150 km around Pune. “ I was curious,’’ Bhupendra said. In September 2011 he joined Vishwas for the training run, starting one night at around 8-8.30 PM and going on till next evening. Well known ultra-runner Aparna Choudhary was the third person participating. By next evening, Bhupendra had logged 135 km without any problem. “ I observed that only some 40-50 km was real running. The rest was walking. I asked how this can be and Vishwas responded: that is how ultras are managed. It occurred to me, if this is the case, then ultramarathons are doable,’’ Bhupendra said. Following this training run, Bhupendra and Vishwas met again in Hyderabad for the Hyderabad Heritage Marathon of October 2011. Vishwas suggested that Bhupendra attempt an upcoming ultramarathon – the Bhatti Lakes Ultra organized by Globeracers. “ Once again it was a case of no training, somebody pushing and I being there,’’ he said.

With an officer of the Border Security Force (BSF) at the finish line of the 2017 Run of Kutch (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

From the 2014 Run of Kutch; with Breeze Sharma (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

The race was an eye opener. “ The Bhatti Lakes Ultra was a fantastic experience. Besides Vishwas and Aparna, among those I met were Aditya Bee, Gaurav Madan, Milind Soman and Raj Vadgama. It was a clean completion for me. I topped the 100 mile-category, finishing it in 27 hours, 28 minutes,’’ Bhupendra said. If Facebook introduced him to Vishwas and ultra-running, Globeracers offered him a basket of ultramarathons to attempt. “ Globeracers has really created good benchmarks in organizing ultramarathons not only in terms of mileage but also in terms of trails and locations,’’ Bhupendra said. He went on to run Globeracers’ 100 mile-ultramarathon in Thar Desert once, the 100 km-ultramarathon in Nilgiri once, the 100 mile-ultramarathon in Kutch four times, the 135 mile-ultramarathon in Uttarkashi four times, the 100 mile-category of Bhatti Lakes once and its 135 mile-category four times. Typically, runners are conservative at picking their events. They give their bodies time to recover from each race and hence space out the races. Bhupendra’s calendar would seem anything but that. Compounding the apparent madness would be the fact that he is regularly logging ultramarathon distances (although in training he was still sticking to modestly long runs). Needless to say, his share of Did Not Finish (DNF) piled up. The 2014 and 2015 Bhatti Lakes were cases of DNF as was Kutch in 2016 and Uttarkashi in 2012. According to Bhupendra, Kavitha Kanaparthi, who runs Globeracers, advised that he pause and introspect: maybe he needed time to recover?

From the GSR Coorg Ultra-80 in Sept, 2016 (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

It is hard to deduce what makes Bhupendra run so. A window to his mind is available in what keeps him going in the ultramarathons he participates in.  “ My sense of home is moving away from civilization. By civilization I mean, the urban cluster, the concrete jungle. As you move away from civilization resources become scarce – that is when you have a challenge to manage things,’’ he said. The nature of engagement herein can be further understood if you examine two points. First, among ultramarathons, Bhupendra says he prefers those that court trail or wild settings. The more the element of nature, the more he likes it. Second, as the afore said management of scarce resources kicks in, he is metaphorically in a return to childhood, when he and family had little to live on and they required to stretch resources as best as they could. Yet again, this may explain, in an oblique way, why he runs the way he does. It isn’t conclusive. What’s truly bizarre is that, according to him, his training regimen remains very modest even today. His daily mileage is still two to five kilometers, he claimed. For Bhupendra what matters most is – mind. “ I decide on running with my mind. Once the mind has decided on a run, I can carry on. I don’t give up unless things are totally beyond my control,’’ he said. So what was the factor getting out of control and forcing those DNFs?

2016 Himalayan Crossing (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

The culprit seemed to be, nutrition. “ At least three of those four DNFs happened because of low fluid and food intake while running an ultramarathon. Even when I was offered snacks to eat or fluids to drink, I wouldn’t take it,’’ he said. This was Kavitha’s observation too. Kavitha wrote in on what she had told Bhupendra after the 2016 run in Kutch, “during this race, I was not present though Bhupendra and I talked at length post-race. Pre-race, we always have a word about how he will approach the distance based on how much he has been able to train. Bhupendra is known for his perseverance and discipline. If he DNFs a race, it will be after considering many factors. Nutrition is the main factor in most of his DNFs. At that time I felt he was rushing the distances. He wasn’t also focused on training with a plan, as in testing the nutrition he will consume during a race and ensuring he eats whatever he intends to as per plan. During our conversation post-Kutch in 2016, I advised that he rest much of that year, training only to retain his base and build on it while he perfects his nutrition intake. My advice included running shorter distance races, building a bit of speed and choosing one big race for the remaining part of the year.’’ Bhupendra’s response to Kavitha’s suggestion of considering some time to recover was to partly embrace the opposite. “ I wondered – can it be proven that my DNF had nothing to with my body and everything to do with my own foolishness, my ineptness at handling things?’’

Cooling off during the 2012 135-miler in Uttarkashi (Photo: courtesy Bhuprendrasing Rajput)

The Kutch DNF happened in February 2016. Soon thereafter, Bhupendra opted to do the 2016 Himalayan Crossing organized by Globeracers; it was due in July. He was originally scheduled to be crew member for a runner from New Zealand and the way it was structured, the race was to be – perhaps for the first time in its history – a 338 km-single stage run in the Spiti Valley with maximum elevation en route touching 15,060ft. A month before the event, the New Zealand runner opted out. Bhupendra stepped in as runner. “ When he applied for Himalayan Crossing, I wasn’t sure if he was ready but being aware of his ability to stop if he feels that’s the right thing to do and not push on in the face of physical adversity, I accepted his application. I am usually tuned in to most runners’ psyche; that is, those who run with us regularly. I have turned them down too for some races. Accepting Bhupendra’s application was a decision based on his prior experience at races and his approach to them,’’ Kavitha said. Bhupendra was the sole runner that year and it is to Kavitha’s credit that she kept the event going despite such low enrolment. The route starting at Tabo and going over the Kunzum La (15,060ft) and Rohtang La (13,050ft) to Manali also included a couple of detours that were more like treks. Bhupendra completed it in approximately 78 hours. Not just that, in August (the Himalayan Crossing was in July) he successfully completed the 135 miler in Uttarkashi, in September he ran an 80 km-ultramarathon in Coorg, in October he completed the 135 miler at Bhatti Lakes, in November he ran the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon barefoot to a personal best of 1:40, in December he did the Bengaluru Midnight Full Marathon and 50km Summit 2, in January 2017 he ran a 12 hour-stadium run in Delhi and a 12 hour-trail run in the Aravalli and in February 2017 he completed yet again the 100 mile-ultramarathon in Kutch along with the New Delhi Full Marathon, which he ran to a personal best of 4:07.

With fellow runners at Ultra India 2012 (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

“ I did this focused on just one thing – let me prove that body recovery is not something utterly mandatory. The body knows how to deal with itself. I am not for a minute saying that you should ignore your body and run everywhere. I am only saying, body recovery is not something you should be bogged down with,’’ Bhupendra said. However he did make one major change at the ultramarathons he ran after the 2016 DNF in Kutch. He consciously decided to take adequate fluids and food while running; as further precaution he told event organizers to make sure that he ate and drank for deep into an ultramarathon, he may have drifted off into a zone forgetting what his body needs. “ Bhupendra is one runner who doesn’t believe in doubting himself as long as he has trained and his body is not ailing. It does not work for everyone, especially when they are not as mentally strong as Bhupendra. What works for him is his level of maturity and perseverance,’’ Kavitha said. If, as he says, the bulk of his running lay in the mind, then perhaps Bhupendra digs meditation? Wrong; he doesn’t do any meditation. What he does is – he does all the work at his house in Saket, by himself. A bachelor, he stays alone. He cleans, cooks, washes, takes care of all household chores. He employs none to help. “ I do this by choice. It is not by compulsion. Doing your own work at home is the best meditation anyone can have,’’ he said. Bhupendra’s father passed away in 2000. He had promised his father that he would make sure his sisters are settled well in life. One sister is married; the other hadn’t yet.

In August 2014, Bhupendra joined Driplex Water Engineering Private Limited and shifted to Delhi. The mix of tough childhood and an adulthood with plenty therein to remind him of what he had endured to reach where he did, has spawned an unorthodox outlook in Bhupendra towards what races he may do in future. Events cost money. He has no sponsors; he does not want sponsors either. He also does not want to throw a truckload of resources into running, for running is his passion and he sees no reason to spend indiscriminately on a passion. “ A lot of my walking in childhood was barefoot. I don’t promote barefoot running but beyond need for a pair of functional running shoes I don’t chase big brands. I will run, no matter what shoes I wear,’’ he said outlining his position in the realm of brands and sponsors. What can brands do with a man who sees through the gloss of marketing and says he will run anyway? He nurtured fancy for one costly event overseas – TransOmania. Otherwise, he appeared content racing within India. “ If I find it enjoyable, economical and feel ready for it, I will run overseas. But just because others have done it and therefore you should – no, I can live without that,’’ he said.

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

MUMBAI MIRAGE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The Mumbai Metropolitan Region is among the most populous metropolitan regions of the world. It was, until some decades ago, India’s industrial capital. Now that title is unclear. As industrialization gathers currency elsewhere too, the ingredients of being industrial capital lay scattered across several large Indian cities. Mumbai survives though as India’s financial capital.

The metropolitan region includes among others, Mumbai city, Thane and Navi Mumbai – all well-known urban entities with municipal corporations that are by no means poor. On paper for instance, Navi Mumbai – its growth anchored by the City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra Ltd (CIDCO) – is one of the largest planned townships in the country. Despite Mumbai featuring sharply contrasting images of super wealth and daily economic struggle with a huge chunk of its residents living in slums, Mumbai’s municipal corporation is among Asia’s wealthiest. Wikipedia’s page on the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) states that its annual budget is bigger than the budget of some of India’s small states. Further, a clutch of India’s biggest private sector companies are headquartered in Mumbai.

Juxtapose on this a few facts from the outdoors. The first civilian expedition from Maharashtra to successfully climb a peak in the Himalaya was from Mumbai – a Girivihar expedition, years ago. Girivihar is Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club. In 1988, the club staged an expedition to climb Kanchenjunga – the world’s third highest peak. It was the first Indian civilian expedition to an 8000m-peak and saw two climbers reach above 8000m. Ten years later in 1998, it was a Tata-sponsored Everest expedition that put Surendra Chavan on the roof of the world. He was the first person from Maharashtra to gain that summit. There is a tradition of hiking and climbing in the Western Ghats, in Mumbai. The city is home to dozens of outdoor clubs. Among clubs with a Mumbai address is the venerable Himalayan Club, reputed as a repository of information on India’s biggest mountain chain, particularly exploration and climbing in the Himalaya.

Mumbai is home to a community of rock climbers coping with crags under threat or progressive loss of access to crags. In some cases, the crags are being encroached upon by real estate players, slum dwellers and religious institutions; in other cases, government agencies doing their best to guard depleting forests and green belts have clubbed climbers with the forces to be checked. Amid this, regular climbing has managed to survive in the crags of Belapur in Navi Mumbai, Names like Manori and Mumbra, crags elsewhere in the Mumbai region, are still heard in climbing’s grapevine. Belapur went on to host an annual sport climbing competition (initially on rock and then on artificial bouldering walls) for over a decade, the learning from which eventually led to the  IFSC World Cup in Bouldering held in Vashi, Navi Mumbai in 2016. Several years ago, plans for an adventure academy (with emphasis on climbing) were shared with CIDCO by a bunch of climbers from Girivihar. It envisaged in the main, a climbing gym.

Till date, despite the cumulative monetary wealth of the Mumbai-Thane-Navi Mumbai region, the plethora of outdoor clubs around, the giant companies headquartered in the region and a World Cup held in 2016 – despite all that, there is not one world class lead climbing wall or a complex of such walls in the region. Thanks to the World Cup, one international caliber bouldering wall is now available. Post World Cup, that wall emerged from storage to host an open climbing competition in early 2017. But as of March 2017, a permanent home for the wall was still to be found. Just as in the case of people, a home for a bouldering wall is tough to find in region notorious for blistering real estate price. One solution is to house it in the city’s outskirts. But the economics of urban sport is also fueled by incidental fancy; people drawn to try because they could easily see it, easily access it. Where is the scope for incidental fancy if climbing is showcased in the city’s periphery?

As far as this writer knows, there hasn’t been a meeting of the city’s outdoor clubs (at least in recent times) to investigate why the Mumbai region lacks climbing infrastructure like a world class lead climbing wall, how to develop consensus on the matter or what it would take to get a world class lead climbing wall up and functioning in the region, ideally in Navi Mumbai. One says Navi Mumbai because comprehensive plans to develop climbing were submitted here earlier. It is home to a respected climbing competition which the local administrative agencies have been good enough to support. The agencies are thus empathetic to climbing. Navi Mumbai has a well-developed yet slowly disappearing natural crag in Belapur (the crag is a victim of encroachment) and was host to a World Cup. It is connected by suburban rail to Mumbai and Thane, it is close to India’s biggest container port (critical when it comes to importing infrastructure for sport) and it is due to get a new airport (relevant for visitors in sport) – all of which add to this location as ideal address for a world class climbing gym / complex. Yet compared to the urge to have more competitions including more World Cups and such, focus on establishing climbing infrastructure and training facilities languish.

Unlike Mumbai, other cities have moved ahead in this department, however small their achievements in climbing infrastructure may be. Some of them have proper lead climbing walls and bouldering gyms. Delhi, Pune and Bengaluru – they all have it; they are also the cities from where the bulk of India’s best sport climbers now hail. None of them have Mumbai’s population, municipal corporations as rich as Mumbai’s or private companies (potential sponsors) as big as those headquartered here. So what’s holding back the Mumbai region? There’s something puzzling about an ecosystem that succeeds at hosting a World Cup but can’t roll out a reliable blue print for world class climbing infrastructure with equal, if not more, urgency.

A point to remember is that sport holds much promise in India by quirk of demographics alone. More than 50 per cent of this country is now young and young people need room for activity. Conversely, restrict such room and you may be staring at frustrated youngsters. In at least a few countries, climbing on artificial walls received state support for exactly this reason.

That elusive world class lead climbing wall – for now, it is a case of Mumbai mirage.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This essay reflects his personal opinion on the subject and has been written with a view to get readers thinking on why the predicament mentioned in the article prevails.)