THE UNUSUAL TUITION

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tuition classes are common throughout India. For many, they provide the bridge to decent scores in academics, which are in turn crucial for professionally secure future in society valuing `well settled’ life. As common as tuition, is the practice of cycling to tuition. That ritual religiously done and exams passed, student on bicycle goes on to enjoy successful career in one of the lucrative professions. Its role in transport completed, bicycle fades from memory. Steed is mere extra in life’s cast. Academics is star. As a school student, Sreenath Lakshmikanth too cycled to attend tuition. In the years that followed, he became one of Kerala’s most promising bicycle racers. This is his story:

April, 2018.

The view from the promenade along Kochi’s Marine Drive has always been intimate. Willingdon Island and Bolghatty appear closer from here. The ship at the berth meant for oil tankers, bang in the middle of the backwaters, estuary for backdrop, loomed big like a truck parked in one’s driveway. We were an hour or so from sunset; the promise of its approach already embedded in the quality of light and the ambience caused by evening sky and water. The young man seated next to me on the park bench was built lean. Two hours earlier, we had begun the appointment looking for a café to sit and chat. With one of the fancy cafes he knew closed, he decided to dispense with embellishment and cut to the chase: what do we need? We need a place to sit and talk; period. There seemed no doubt in his head of the eventual, functional choice – park bench by the backwaters. There was the ship, the port, the calmness of water and if freelance journalist still sought stimulation for grey cells, a vendor or two always in the neighborhood, selling tea. I guess if you want to do something in life – much as, all that good conversation needs is a quiet place and occasional stimulant for wakefulness -you have to weed away the distraction and focus on that which matters. Sreenath Lakshmikanth knows it. Among attributes that strike you about Kochi is lack of space and heavy traffic. Sreenath is cyclist despite that.

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: courtesy Sreenath)

Born in May 1996, Sreenath hails from a Konkani speaking-family settled in Cherthala, a town some 30 kilometers south of Kochi. His father is an astrologer; his mother, a housewife. His brother works as a chef. Although keen on sports at school, his progression was hampered by his size – he was small. “ I used to play games. But when it came to being selected to play for the school or go for tournaments, emphasis was always on size. I never figured in selectors’ imagination,’’ Sreenath said. There was however a quirk in Sreenath’s geographical location. Cherthala was part of Alappuzha district; therein Cherthala lay to the north, bordering the adjacent district of Ernakulam. According to Sreenath, Alappuzha is popularly reckoned as the district with most cyclists in Kerala. He doesn’t know the reason for this belief but it is apparently there in background chatter in the state’s cycling circles. Cycling is human powered transport. From cycling’s perspective, there is one aspect that engages about Alappuzha. Its natural beauty as a district of rivers and lagoons also makes it a geographical oddity in Kerala. According to Wikipedia, except for some scattered hillocks to the east, the district has no mountains or hills. The terrain is largely flat. For Sreenath, life changed when he moved to eleventh and twelfth standards. He joined TD School at Thurvaoor; the place was 12-15 kilometers away from home.

For many years in South India, BSA SLR – a model of bicycle made by Chennai based-TI Cycles – had been popular. Sreenath’s father owned one. When Sreenath commenced attending school at Thuravoor, he began using the cycle for commute. Like in the case of many students, the commute by cycle was triggered by the need to attend tuition classes; he had classes in the morning and evening. That was how cycling crept into Sreenath’s life. It was collateral experience to the more important task of attending tuition. For Sreenath, sidelined at sport and needing an activity to call his own; cycling engaged. More than classes, it was the means of getting there that grew on him. As his interest in cycling evolved, the first graduation up the product chain happened. At a cousin’s house in Kayamkulam, he came across a road bike – a BSA Mach 1. Originally owned by the cousin’s neighbor who shifted to riding a motorcycle and later parked with cousin who didn’t use it, the cycle was idling. Already a tinkerer adept at dismantling and reassembling his bicycle, Sreenath packed up the road bike and shifted it to his house in Cherthala. It took him about a week to get used to the Mach 1 and its capacity to be ridden more aggressively compared to the SLR. By now Sreenath was also working at a coaching center that trained students appearing for entrance exams. The Mach 1 became his ride for trips to both school and coaching center.

Riding a fixed wheel bike (Photo: courtesy Sreenath Lakshmikanth)

Kerala’s highways are a natural extension of the state’s overall layout, complicated however by explosive growth in automobiles. Roughly 600 kilometers long, Kerala is a narrow state with sea to one side and a spine of hills to the other. Save a few districts like Alappuzha, it is a land of ups and downs. In geographically narrow state with high density of population, roads are starved for space. The highway linking Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi (NH-47) is narrower than similar roads elsewhere. It hums with ever growing traffic. It was on this highway that Sreenath rode his Mach 1 daily. His morning session started at 5.30 AM; evening session was at around 8.30 PM. Regular cycling seems to have stretched his limbs in the growing up years. “ I put on some height. That was my first incentive to continue cycling,’’ he said.   The sessions at the coaching center were on Saturday and Sunday. It meant he was occupied through the week. The rigor was stepping stone to evolving a work culture, something that would come handy as the cyclist in him grew to proportions he couldn’t ignore anymore.

Following school, Sreenath joined Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam (Ernakulam refers to the eastern mainland portion of the city of Kochi) to do his BSc (Physics). He was determined to participate in sports. Still unsure of what to do in cycling, he tried his hand at running instead. For this, he and his runner friend George frequented the college’s well known ground in the city. One day, when he went to meet the physical education teacher, he noticed some bicycles kept in the room. They were track cycles sporting fixed wheel. The teacher was hesitant to let Sreenath use them. However during this phase, Sreenath was already cycling twice or thrice a week from Cherthala to college in Ernakulam and back. That’s a distance of 60-70 kilometers. His friends mentioned this to the teacher who relented and allowed Sreenath to have the bike. But on his first trip with the new bike, there was a chain-slip and Sreenath crashed injuring himself badly. Luckily the teacher didn’t see the mishap as reason to demand the cycle back. Instead, he gave Sreenath the name of a local coach in cycling – Louis Thomas.

Photo: courtesy Sreenath Lakshmikanth

Kerala’s potential in industry was for long stunted by its brand of politics. With the advent of new sectors like information technology, the trend is now changing. But for years, what industry survived lay clustered around Ernakulam (including the borderlands shared with Alappuzha and Thrissur), the bulk of it near Kalamassery.  The Kalamassery area was synonymous with factories like Fertilizers and Chemicals Travancore Limited (FACT) and Premier Tyres (now part of Apollo Tyres). Unlike its attitude to industry, Kerala has always been sports-crazy. Some of Kerala’s companies were known names in sport. Premier Tyres and the Thiruvananthapuram-based Travancore Titanium for instance, were known all over India as good at football. Sreenath started training with Louis at the ground belonging to FACT. His companions during training were Louis’s daughters. Faster than Sreenath on the bicycle, they had represented their university and state. Louis advised Sreenath to stay in Ernakulam so that he would have more time to train. To set him up so, they needed to get the cyclist from Cherthala, a job in the city.

Pai Dosa in Ernakulam. This photo was downloaded from the Internet and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.

There is only so long freelance journalist can stay without tea or coffee. Our conversation on the park bench at Marine Drive had progressed nonstop. Additionally when the tea vendors came, it had been at moments when the train of thought couldn’t be broken. When the chat ended, we went hunting for tea and snacks. As before Sreenath knew where to go. We crossed the road before the GCDA shopping complex, got onto Broadway, navigated the lanes between it and MG Road and eventually crossed MG Road. “ Here, this road,’’ Sreenath said leading me to a modestly big restaurant tucked inside. In Ernakulam, Pai Dosa is a well-known eatery. Much mentioned in local media, it offers several dozen varieties of the South Indian delicacy – dosa. We placed our orders and when I offered to pay, it was roundly refused. The eatery did not let Sreenath pay either; the meal was on the house. Back when he was looking for a job in Ernakulam so that he could train properly in cycling, it was at Pai Dosa that Sreenath found work. Over time, he served at tables, managed raw material supply and handled billing. Initially he stayed at the Maharaja’s College hostel. Work hours at Pai Dosa spanned 6 PM to 1 AM. Louis’s training started at 6 AM. Given the late hours he put in at Pai Dosa, Sreenath could report for training only by 7 AM. Training happened at the FACT ground and on Willingdon Island, home to Kochi’s port. Automobile traffic was less on Willingdon Island compared to bustling Ernakulam.

Following a district level camp in cycling, Sreenath headed for his first university meet held at S.D. College, Kanjirappally. According to him, M.G. University, to which Maharaja’s College belonged, didn’t have a robust cycling scene. The goal therefore was to somehow form a college team and take a shot at finishing well. As it turned out, Sreenath secured podium finishes in both the one kilometer and four kilometer-mass start disciplines. It was his first time on the podium in cycling. Finishing after Sreenath in the four kilometer-mass start was a cyclist from Aquinas College, Kochi. Milan Josy and Arun Baby, top cyclists from the region, belonged to Aquinas. Their coach, Jaison Jacob, took note of Sreenath and offered him a chance to train with Milan and Arun. In 2014, ahead of the state road cycling championships due in Thiruvananthapuram, an event called Tour de Kerala was held around Sabarimala. The circuit was approximately 80 kilometers long. Sreenath’s friend, Mario participated in it; Sreenath tagged along to support. It was Sreenath’s first exposure to a proper road biking event replete with the support infrastructure that goes with it.

Soon after this event, the state MTB championships happened at Malankara in Thodupuzha. Riding a rented Mongoose, Sreenath finished sixth in the under-18 category. However what he relished here was that he finished ahead of those dispatched by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) training wing in Thiruvananthapuram. It was window to a small contest, one that is probably still on. You glean it in Sreenath’s conversation – an underlying tenor of competition with cyclists from Thiruvananthapuram, perceived as the lucky lot with training infrastructure provided by the state. In his mind, Kochi’s cyclists are underdogs doing well for exactly that – they are better at exploiting what they have and are fueled by the need to go out and discover what is missing. In the state road biking championships that followed the MTB event, Sreenath finished outside the podium, in seventh or eighth place. Jaison was watching from the sidelines. By now Louis had retired from coaching. Sreenath joined Jaison’s group; the coach there was Chrisfin Vincent, working with State Bank of India (SBI) and hailing from Thiruvananthapuram. Sreenath was now at that stage wherein he required a good road bike to practise seriously. Towards this end, he had been saving the money he was getting at Pai Dosa. It wasn’t enough. Jaison, some teachers from Sreenath’s college and a few well-wishers also contributed additionally. What they needed now was a bicycle retailer who would understand Sreenath’s requirement and budget.

The Bike Store; this photo was downloaded from the Internet and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.

In 2009, Shuhaib Abdul Rehman – he was businessman, cyclist and founder of Cochin Bikers Club (which brought together cycling enthusiasts) – started a shop retailing high end bicycles. It was called The Bike Store and was located at Palarivattom in Ernakulam. It also had presence in Chennai. While Cochin Bikers Club still exists, by 2013, Shuhaib was close to shutting down the bicycle store. The Chennai outlet was eventually closed. The one in Ernakulam had by then become a hangout for the city’s cyclists. It had grown to something more than just shop; it was community. The Bike Store received a fresh lease of life when Paul Mathew, Vinshad Aziz, Pradeep Kumar Menon, Shagzil Khan and Abraham Clancy Ross  – all members of Cochin Bikers Club, came together as Velocity Ventures to keep the shop afloat. In 2015 Velocity Ventures was transferred to Verdant Outdoor Sports World. In due course The Bike Store moved to larger premises near Ernakulam’s Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium. Also coming aboard as investors at the store were Abhishek Das, Yakkub Shabeer, Dinesh Rajendra Pai, Ajith Varma and Abhishek Kashyap. Currently, The Bike Store is among leading retailers of high end bicycles in Ernakulam. “ Interest in cycling has picked up. When we started we had about 30 bicycles. Now we stock between 60 to 100 cycles,’’ Paul Mathew said. Jason used to get his gear from The Bike Store. Mario had also bought his bicycle from there. When Sreenath wanted to buy a road bike, it was to The Bike Store that he headed. “ That was the first time I met him,’’ Paul said. According to him, the shop helped the young cyclist identify the right model for his needs. They provided Sreenath a Lapierre road bike at a discount. “ It felt good. For the first time I had a proper road bike,’’ Sreenath said. It was the beginning of a meaningful association with The Bike Store.

Training with Jaison brought a twist; it was unavoidable. Because the training commenced at 6 AM and he had to present himself adequately rested and fresh for it, Sreenath was forced to quit Pai Dosa. He also shifted to staying in a house where some of the employees from Paul’s main business – he is a distributor for Godrej heavy equipment – lived. In 2015, Sreenath started training systematically. The training was on NH-47, to be specific, the stretch of highway between Ernakulam and Cherthala. Around this time, Sreenath, Milan and Mario went for a “cyclothon’’ in Chandigarh.  They packed their bikes and set off for Chandigarh completely overlooking the fact that it was January and North India lay bathed in winter’s cold. The trio from Kochi had no jackets, warmers or gloves. In Chandigarh they bought a pair of gloves and gave it to Milan, who was the best rider. The pace at the event was fast. Sreenath and Mario retired early. Milan hung on for most part of the race before suffering a crash. The trio returned to Kerala realizing the gap that existed between what was happening elsewhere and the level of cycling they had at home. Chandigarh was reality-check. Two things happened following this visit. They started participating in more competitions; they began attempting to complete all the races they participated in. It yielded result. At a competition in Coimbatore, Sreenath ended up fourth in the elite category. At the same event, one of his friends – Faizal P.J, finished third in the under-18 segment and was picked up by Scott Bikes for their team in India.

Sreenath (second from right) with other members of Scott’s cycling team in India. At extreme right is Nigel Smith, their coach. This photo was downloaded from the webpage of Scott Owners Club and is being used here with the company’s permission.

Towards the end of 2015, the state championship was held in Kozhikode. There, Sreenath secured a third place in mass start road race, in the under-23 category. It was the first time in several years that somebody from Ernakulam was getting a medal. Mario also gained selection in the under-23 category. The two of them proceeded to Thiruvananthapuram for a 20 day-training camp ahead of the nationals. Given their selection to camp, The Bike Store also pitched in – they were given carbon frame Carrera road bikes. The training at Thiruvananthapuram was held on NH-47 and MC Road; the latter proceeds from Kerala’s capital city to Kottayam. Beginning of 2016, the nationals was held at Nilakkal in Pathanamthitta district. In team time trial, Kerala finished fifth. In mass start, Sreenath unfortunately suffered a puncture and couldn’t complete the race. His first nationals; like that trip to Chandigarh earlier, was occasion to introspect and focus afresh. At a race in Lucknow which followed, he finished with the group – in top 15 – in the mass start. He was beginning to get a hang of things. He commenced training with the nationals of 2017 in mind. At the state championships held in the beginning of 2017, Sreenath secured first place in road race mass start, in the under-25 category. In January 2017, he also secured podium finish at two privately organized events in Gujarat and Chennai. At the MTB state championship, he finished third. Between MTB and road racing, Sreenath’s preference is the latter. But the 2017 road biking nationals was yet again a disappointment; he couldn’t complete the race with the group. Things changed however with a race in Coimbatore. At the MVS Criterium held there, he secured first place. Following this, in April 2017, Sreenath signed up with Scott Bikes to be part of their team in India.

Cycling in the hills of Kerala (Photo: courtesy Sreenath Lakshmikanth)

His first race for Scott was the Trivandrum Cyclothon, where he placed first. He secured podium finish at a competition in Bengaluru; he was also part of Scott’s winning team in time trial. At the nationals, which took place towards the end of 2017 he managed to finish with the group in the mass start road race. Following the nationals he went for an inter-university road cycling meet in Rajasthan, where he finished fifth. “ That gave me a lot of confidence,’’ Sreenath said. Then in December 2017, a setback occurred. At a MTB race in Ernakulam, he had an accident and fractured his arm. He was out of action for about six weeks. “ Nigel was great support then,’’ he said of Nigel Smith, who coaches the racing team at Scott. Until Nigel came along, Sreenath’s go-to person for information on how to train had been Chrisfin. In that stage, the focus had been on distance and speed. Nigel introduced the upcoming cyclist to several new things – among them, heart rate-based training, which showed Sreenath how to sustain an effort. He was also introduced to power training. During the phase of recovering from the fracture he suffered, all his training was done on a stationary bike. Emerging from injury, Sreenath’s first race was a time trial up the Thamarassery Churam (mountain pass) in Kerala’s Wayanad district. He finished first, representing Scott. That win was also Sreenath’s last outing with Scott. He shifted to Ciclo Team Racing, the bicycle racing team backed by TI Cycles and anchored by Bengaluru-based cyclist, Naveen John. Sreenath now rides a Ridley Fenix SL road bike. According to Paul, the initiative for Sreenath’s move to Ciclo came from Rajith Rathiappan, who runs a Track and Trail showroom (retail outlet for TI Cycles) in Ernakulam. Having cut his teeth cycling overseas including in Belgium, Naveen had told this blog earlier of how he thinks the road to Indian cycling’s future lay through racing in Europe (for more on Naveen John please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/03/23/the-electrical-engineer/). April 2018, seated on the park bench by Kochi’s backwaters and beholding an estuary traversed by ships sailing the world’s oceans, Sreenath was looking forward to his first trip to Europe with Ciclo.

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: courtesy Sreenath)

“ My wish is to be a professional cyclist. In India, it is difficult to earn a livelihood from that,’’ he said thoughtfully. Attempting to be a professional cyclist is a courageous move. Those who know Sreenath well said that he does not hail from strong financial background. He also has a long way to go in cycling; for instance, he hasn’t yet had a podium finish at the nationals. The fifth position he secured at the inter-university meet in Rajasthan is the highest Sreenath has placed yet at the national level. Immediate focus therefore, is on improving his performance at the nationals. His heart seems to be in the right place. “ He is committed. If he has to train for certain duration on a given day, he makes sure he does that. I also remember him mailing leading cycling outfits overseas – all by himself and despite the challenges he faced in language – telling them of his interest in the sport and seeking advice on what to do,’’ Paul said. The Bike Store has been integral to Sreenath’s journey so far. Their technician Murukan T. R, is the one who tunes Sreenath’s bike. He accompanies Sreenath to all his races. The two are close. Given shortage of funds, Sreenath was requiring assistance for his planned trip to Europe. It is understood that help has begun coming in. In Ernakulam, Sreenath trains every week for 15-20 hours, of which 15 hours is the real training duration. From June 2018, he planned to ramp it up to a proper 20 hours. His weekly mileage in training averages 350-400 kilometers. My mind was still on how he trains, given Kerala’s roads and traffic. “ You can’t complain about it. There is no other way,’’ he said, adding that cyclist chooses the best available option and goes with it. According to him, Ernakulam’s traffic starts building up from around 7.30 AM. By then, a committed cyclist should have wrapped up his training for the morning. The bulk of Sreenath’s training now happens on the city’s Container Road, a long and fairly wide road used by trucks headed to the port’s Vallarpadam Container Transhipment Terminal.

In 2016, Sreenath completed his graduation. He majored in physics. Science courses require students to attend classes at the lab. Popularly called “ practicals,’’ they are unavoidable. On the other hand, spending more time in class is difficult if you are athlete devotedly training for sport. For his next step – post graduation – Sreenath thought with cycling in the frame. He decided to enroll for MA in Hindi; the choice was deliberate: a course in Hindi has no sessions in the lab. It means more time to train. “ Cycling is not just physical, it is also mental. It is among very few sports where a certain level of performance has to be maintained for a long period of time. That is what attracts me to it,’’ Sreenath said explaining why he continues to court the challenge and sweat for it.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Positions secured at competitions are as mentioned by the interviewee.)        

SLOW TRAIN TO PONMUDI

View from the top of Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tucked away in the deep south of Kerala is a delightful little run; from Thiruvananthapuram to Ponmudi. I am an amateur runner. This article is a personal account. Treat it as such. For more on Ponmudi and its neighborhood please try this link to a three part series published earlier on this blog: https://shyamgopan.com/2014/08/09/a-trek-and-a-tea-story-part-1/)

I have a strange relation with Kerala.

Decades ago, when I was in school, the state’s language – Malayalam – was taught with a vengeance. Born Malayali, I was expected to be a master of Malayalam, including Malayalam literature, pretty early in life. I dislike anything shoved down my throat. Consequently, I grew up hailing from the state but with no identity founded in mother tongue. Instead, I rediscovered Kerala on my own terms, loving it in adulthood for its natural beauty; the sheer magic of being a land where you can travel from 600 km-long coastline to an equally long spine of high hills in three to four hours or less. Few places have such diversity, so easily accessed. For bonus, it was all green although a green battling to hold its beauty amid the state’s emergent bane – the garbage of its rampant consumerism ranging from an explosion of automobiles to trash piled at every turn. As for Malayalam, I won’t say I rediscovered it with the same fervor as bonding with the state’s geography. I am told I speak and write it better than before. The improvement amazes others; the effort I make to articulate well amazes me. Maybe back at school, the curriculum should have set aside linguistic chauvinism and let me explore geography first, as reason to know land and language.

As part of rediscovering Kerala, most trips home include a visit to the seashore, hills, backwaters or forests. At the very least, an extended ride stitching together a clutch of state transport bus routes. On such trips along state highways or between towns, from my bus window I watch mansions and properties priced beyond my wallet, pass by. That has been another route to banishment from home state – I can’t afford a place there. Elsewhere in the state, I soak in the greenery knowing well that its ownership is domain of wealthy agriculturists and where it isn’t, belonging to government. I am therefore visitor; sometimes I think, visitor everywhere. Even visitor in life, for as we are prone to say in our wakeful moments: who is going to haul all these assets along, when they die? But humans are empire builders. Try preaching the virtues of living light to emperors! Life is as you choose to live it.

From the last uphill stretch to Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

One trip I often make from Thiruvananthapuram is to Ponmudi, a 3600 ft-high hill approximately 60 km away from the city. Positioned as a resort, it was once home to a healthy tea industry; the southernmost tea plantations of India. Now there are portions of neglected tea estate and an industry that is a ghost of its former self for a variety of reasons. What continues to attract people like me to Ponmudi, is the prospect of getting away from city, even getting away from ourselves. You take a bus from the Thampanoor bus stand, reach Ponmudi in two to two and half hours, spend some time on top and then take another bus back. Years ago, it was a quiet place. It is still relatively quiet on weekdays but with Thiruvananthapuram’s growing army of cars and bands of youngsters on motorcycles, the peace has begun crumbling.

On April 14, 2018 – the day before Vishu, the Malayali New Year – I ran to Ponmudi from my home in the city. I am sure there are many who did this before me; many who continue to do it. I did so for a few reasons. First, all my previous trips to Ponmudi had been in a bus or a car. I had long wanted to do the journey on foot. Second, I know my limitations as a runner. I am not cut out to compete or chase podium positions. I like the act of moving. I like running as a means of moving. I am also ready to mix running with walking when required; even walk if that be all I can do. A journey – as opposed to a race – appealed. Third, I find it increasingly difficult to make sense of the world I live in. I like it when I can shut out thoughts in the head. A long run helps you do that. I had imagined doing this run in advance. So before I left Mumbai for Kerala, as part of my regular running, I ensured that I did a few modestly long runs. Frequently prone to injury, this trip happened luckily in a phase wherein I kept injury at bay.

On April 14, I left my home in Thiruvananthapuram at 3 AM with just one goal in mind – don’t injure yourself. I promised myself to run slowly, be gentle – maybe even walk – on uphill and downhill sections and I pinched myself to remember well, the care to avoid injury my friend, Ramachandran of Coimbatore had described in his article about running 80km in Kodaikanal (please click on this link for that story: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/03/29/kodaikanal-by-trail/). I had a hydration pack with one liter of water, a few bars of chocolates, phone, wallet and a change of clothes. The pack had reflector strips; roads in Kerala are narrow and people tend to drive fast. I wore a bright red T-shirt and until the sun showed up, used a headlamp. As much as the run was self-supported, I was also determined to pause at roadside tea stalls for fuel and conversation. I wanted to get a sense of local life. The first such pause was on the outskirts of Nedumangad, where a tea shop that was just opening for business gave me a big glass of water to drink (the water in the hydration pack, I reserved it for use on the final ascent to Ponmudi). Twenty minutes later at another tea shop, I had a quick glass of tea. At Tholicode, roughly 30 km from Thiruvananthapuram, I bought a bottle of ice cold water to drink and wash my head and neck with, for the April heat had set in early and strong. I reached Vithura, about 37 km from Thiruvananthapuram, by 7.15 AM. There I took a half hour-break. The tea shop I went to was already bustling with customers digging into their breakfast and it took fifteen minutes for my tea to manifest. Leaving Vithura around 7.50 AM, I again halted some distance away at a fruit shop. Its owner, who had just opened the shop for the day, said he would give me an orange. Thus fueled, I headed for Kallar at the foot of Ponmudi.

Road to Ponmudi. This picture is from near the top (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

By now I was a little tired and needing effort to produce good running form. I must have been a sight, for one person from a group of laborers gearing up for their day’s work, trotted towards me imitating the hunched shoulders and slouch of an old man. It triggered laughter. I am happy I provided them reason for mirth although right then, I chose to ignore the group. About five to six kilometers before Kallar, a woman looked up from what she was doing and said loudly for all to hear, “ look, there is somebody running in from some far off place.’’ Her brief broadcast made me feel important and happy. I put on my best running form, jogged past the settlement and out of sight, relapsed to journalist’s slouch born from too many hours before the computer. In general, all through the run people left me alone. But deep down, knowing how much well-settled life and its frills count for social standing in Kerala, I suspected my running self was an oddity. Middle aged and pointlessly sweating it out on foot to Ponmudi; one man I checked with for road directions asked: why don’t you take the bus?

I reached Kallar by 9 AM. The sun was now out in full force and it was blazing hot. Kallar is approximately 45 km away from Thiruvananthapuram. The road from the capital city till Vithura is mildly hilly, from Vithura to Kallar it gets hillier, and from Kallar to Ponmudi, it is completely uphill for 15km. I had been mixing running and walking from just ahead of Vithura. From Kallar, given the heat, I decided to walk the uphill portion and not run. For the first eight kilometers or so of this final stretch, there are no small shops you can visit for a drink of water. I sipped from the hydration pack. Past this portion, you have small stalls opened by tea estate workers. At one of those shops, I met Muniyandi who busied himself making two glasses of lemonade for me while his friend, Appukkuttan, regaled me with great conversation. I love these small shops filled with produce from the local tea estate and the land these people live on. They sold tea, guava, rose apples (locally called chambakka) and, my favorite – sliced green mangoes served with salt and chili powder. I paid twenty rupees for the two big glasses of lemonade Muniyandi gave me. According to Appukkuttan, neither he nor Muniyandi had received salary for their work at the tea estate for the past several months. I remain utterly grateful for the lemonade they generously gave me notwithstanding their own troubles. It was a very warm morning.  These two men – the lemonade and conversation they provided – made my day. A little ahead, I met a group that had stopped to have tea. They said they had seen the running group I belonged to – Soles of Cochin. I was aware of Thiruvananthapuram based-Iten (another group of runners), who run up Ponmudi on a regular basis. I wasn’t aware of Soles of Cochin joining in. I told them that I didn’t belong to any of these groups and had come alone. We had another nice chat.

Ponmudi, view from the top (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

I was on top of Ponmudi, at the restaurant operated by Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC), by 11.53 AM.  Technically they call this the lower portion of the apex of Ponmudi. But having witnessed the traffic congestion that sometimes happens in the upper half on previous visits, the KTDC restaurant had been my destination right from start. I sat down, took my shoes off and nursed my left sole, where a large blister was beginning to form. It woke me to a mistake in preparations – I should have packed in an extra pair of dry socks. Two youngsters who were speaking to the restaurant’s security guard (he knew all the running that had happened that day; he asked me for my account too) came to speak to me; the mother of one of them had been part of that day’s team run from Kallar to Ponmudi. The view from the top was an eye opener. My ever distracted brain held no memory of rolling hills from past visits to Ponmudi and I was staring exactly at that. Water, coffee and lunch later, I caught the 2PM bus back to Nedumangad and from there another bus to Thiruvananthapuram. With last fifteen kilometers walked, would I call my outing a run? Years ago one of the gifts Thiruvananthapuram gave me was introduction to blues music. Trains found mention in some of these songs – from just “ train” to “ lonesome train” and “ slow train.” With my huffing and puffing, I have always felt like a train engine on my runs. On the road to Ponmudi with people on cars and bikes whizzing past, I think I was slow train. One day, I will sing the blues.

Then, I committed a blunder.

After two days of rest, I returned to my daily running. Happy with my outing to Ponmudi and enjoying the roads of Thiruvananthapuram, quite empty early in the morning, I ran at a pace faster than sensible. Vanity got the better of me. I forgot that what had worked for me on the trip to Ponmudi, was being slow train. I forgot the caution Ramachandran had wisely shown. One hour later, I was home nursing a very familiar shin pain from the past. I knew I would be grounded for a month, at least.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. All distance and elevation mentioned herein are from the Internet. All the photos used with the article were clicked a few days after the run, when I returned to Ponmudi for some solo time.)

ROHIT YADAV: NEW JAVELIN, NEW PHASE

Rohit Yadav training with the new javelin at his village (Photo: courtesy Sabhajeet Yadav)

March 14, 2018.

“ Rohit is very happy,’’ Sabhajeet Yadav said about his son who has commenced training with a brand new javelin.

According to him, Bhasker Desai sponsored the Nemeth javelin; their friend Melvin made the necessary arrangements for sourcing the javelin and dispatching it. “ We collected it from Meerut yesterday,’’ Sabhajeet said.

Sabhajeet Yadav, a farmer from Dabhiya, Uttar Pradesh, is a well-known amateur runner with several podium finishes in his age category.

Rohit in action (Photo: courtesy Sabhajeet Yadav)

Rohit is a former gold medalist in javelin-throw at the World School Games.

Asked about the new javelin and how it felt in training sessions, Rohit said that it made a lot of difference.

For more on Rohit and his journey so far, please scroll down to the article immediately preceding this report or click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/03/09/a-javelin-for-rohit/

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

A JAVELIN FOR ROHIT

In Dabhiya, Rohit Yadav with the homemade javelin he started out with (Photo: courtesy Sabhajeet Yadav)

A promising young athlete, returning to sport after failing an anti-doping test, wants to procure a good javelin. This is an article on amateur runner Sabhajeet Yadav and his son Rohit, who was gold medalist in javelin-throw at the 2016 World School Games.  

March 1, 2018. Tucked away in the sports section of the morning newspaper was a report about a 29 year-old Indian athlete returned positive under anti-doping tests conducted by the newly set up Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU). The sport in question – yet again javelin-throw – reminded of another incident less than a year ago.

A farmer from Dabhiya in Uttar Pradesh, Sabhajeet Yadav, 62, is known in the world of Indian amateur running as a consistent podium finisher in his age category. He counts on the prize money he gets from running as additional income stream. One of his personal projects has been training his son, Rohit, to become an athlete of repute in the javelin-throw. Mumbai’s Lokmanya Tilak Terminus is where this blog catches up with Sabhajeet. Having come for a marathon in town, secured a podium finish and with an hour to spare before train to UP departs, he would sit down for a chat and cup of tea. On some of these occasions, he had mentioned his desire to see Rohit participate in the Olympic Games.

Javelin-throw is one of the oldest disciplines at the Olympics. According to Wikipedia, it was part of the pentathlon at the ancient Olympic Games. In those days, it was judged for distance and target. Javelin-throw became part of the modern Olympics at the 1906 Intercalated Games held in Athens, an event that has stopped being counted as an official Olympic Games by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). While we are used to seeing the javelin thrown with one hand, in the late nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, there was a phase when judging at competitions was based on the aggregate best a person could achieve throwing separately with the right and left arms. This practice featured at the Olympics just once, in 1912. After that, it faded. Three countries – Norway, Sweden and Finland – have dominated javelin-throw in the men’s category. They account for almost 50 per cent of the Olympic medals given out so far in the discipline, for men. Women’s javelin-throw was added to the Olympic program in 1932.

As interesting as the sport’s history, is the evolution of the javelin. For a long time, javelins were made of wood with a steel tip. In the 1950s, pole vaulter-turned javelin thrower, Budd Held of the US, introduced the `Held Javelin,’ which was hollow and aerodynamic. Its later models were made entirely of metal. These new javelins flew farther but they also tended to land flat, making for some landings that were difficult to measure accurately, Wikipedia says. Experiments to redesign started in the early 1980s. They were fueled by one more concern – the javelin was now being thrown by athletes so far that it threatened to exceed the dimensions of a normal stadium infield. In 1984, Uwe Hohn of East Germany (since unified with West Germany to become Germany) had set a record of 104.80 meters. The redesigned javelin, approved in 1986, saw its center of gravity moved forward marginally, the surface area in front of the center of gravity reduced and the same behind, increased. These innovations helped contain the distance traveled and ensure that the projectile landed stuck in the ground. Interestingly this design was also tinkered with in the competition to achieve longer throws. In 1991, the authorities outlawed javelins with serrated tails and reset records with retrospective effect.

According to his profile, available on the website of International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Rohit Yadav was born in 2001. News of him training in his village appeared in the media some years ago in a report following Sabhajeet’s podium finish at the Mumbai Marathon. The report engaged as window to the family’s drive and ingenuity. Unable to afford a modern javelin, Rohit trained with a homemade one. In times when the javelin’s design and engineering are as important as athlete’s ability to extract a world class throw, a homemade javelin is inadequate means to train. “ I made that javelin from bamboo. I had a photo of a javelin to guide me. I did not follow any established specifications about size, weight or anything like that. The crudely made javelin was not good for the hands. Rohit used it for two years,’’ Sabhajeet said. The path Sabhajeet and Rohit took, of making their own javelin, would be what India calls jugaad. Happening in underprivileged circumstances, jugaad addresses a need with none of the finesse or elegance that marks well made, well designed products.  What shows through is refusal to be stopped. The underlying curiosity shouldn’t be dismissed. It was the same curiosity – albeit in a different, more sophisticated environment – that yielded the Held Javelin.

Sabhajeet Yadav (left) and Rohit; the javelin in Sabhajeet’s hands is the one bought from Patiala (Photo: courtesy Sabhajeet)

Prior to the 1950s, nearly all the best throws in the world had been with javelins made in Finland, using northern birch. Budd Held, who was studying engineering at Stanford University, observed one day that one of his Finnish javelins traveled farther than the rest. As per a detailed account available on the Internet, Held studied that javelin closely, took accurate measurements and discovered that the front section of the javelin was slightly larger in diameter than the tail section. The wood in the front section was also bit softer. All this was probably an oversight in manufacture but the improved travel resident in that single specimen and subsequent analysis of it, was what led Held to come up with his own design – the Held Javelin. Training with homemade javelin didn’t stop Rohit from graduating through the ranks. It helped him reach state level-events, where better javelins were available for athlete. “ We then bought a javelin for Rs 12,000 from Patiala,’’ Sabhajeet said. By July 2016, Rohit had secured a gold medal at the World School Games with a throw of 72.57 meters. In May 2017, he got silver at the second Asian Youth Athletics Championship held in Bangkok.

Then disaster struck.

In May 2017, the media reported that Rohit had failed a dope test conducted by the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA); he had tested positive for the banned substance stanozolol and was set to be stripped of the silver medal he won in Bangkok. The news shocked Sabhajeet; it was keenly tracked by those in the amateur running community, many of who knew Sabhajeet. Eventually, Rohit was given a one year-ban. According to Sabhajeet, the ban is from May 21, 2017 to May 21, 2018. At the time of writing, Rohit’s best throw on record – as available on his IAAF profile – was 76.11 meters (for comparison, the national record is 86.48 meters set by Neeraj Chopra while the world record is 98.48 meters held by Czech athlete, Jan Zelezny). When we brought up the subject of Rohit a few months after he was banned from competing for a year, Sabhajeet was in tears, unable to handle the topic. He claimed his son was innocent and the family had no idea how stanozolol had got into him. Over time the setback appears to have got processed in the head. By the time we met him for a chat after the 2018 Tata Mumbai Marathon (where he earned a podium finish for the seventh time), Sabhajeet was more hopeful and imagining the way ahead once Rohit recommenced competing at events (he would have to work his way up all over again). The father-son duo’s plan is to attempt the qualifying round for the 2018 Youth Olympics scheduled to be held in October in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “ The qualifying round will be held two months ahead of the Games. If he qualifies he will be sent for the Games by the government. As of now, he will continue to train here in the village. If he does well and we get a reliable coach, then he will be sent for training,’’ Sabhajeet said.

One of the things Sabhajeet would like to have for his son’s journey ahead, is a modern, competition-standard javelin to train with. The best javelins are manufactured overseas. According to data on the Internet, leading names in the business include Nemeth Javelins (company founded by Miklos Nemeth, Hungarian athlete who was gold medalist in javelin-throw at the Montreal Olympics), Nordic Sport and OTE javelins. The javelin will have to be imported and Sabhajeet believes that the cost could be anywhere between Rs 80,000 to 100,000. Mumbai based-businessman and amateur runner, Bhasker Desai, has been Sabhajeet’s benefactor for several years. He has stepped in to do the needful. But the intervention, while addressing an immediate need, will have limited relevance because Rohit will move into the senior category in a couple of years’ time. There is disparity in specifications (mainly, weight) between competition javelins used in the senior category and the one, Rohit can use now.  A mechanism to support his journey in a more sustained fashion will need to be looked into.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are freelance journalists based in Mumbai. For more on Sabhajeet Yadav please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2015/11/28/a-farmers-dream/)

 

LADAKH RUNNERS: THE STORY IS IN THE DETAILS

Some of the runners from Ladakh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mumbai’s Priyadarshini Park is an oasis in concrete jungle. The composite of park and sports complex includes among other facilities, a 400 m-running track. The place is right next to the sea. Its three days after the 2018 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM); over five years since `jhuley’ became part of the city’s marathon season-vocabulary. The runners from Ladakh – the team that visits Mumbai every year to run TMM – kept jogging on the track. They had one more event to participate in – the Thane Hiranandani Half Marathon – before returning to Leh and winter. Savio D’Souza, leading city based-coach sat by the track observing the runners. “ Their progress must be seen in the right perspective,’’ he said.

Cut back to four hours earlier, same day afternoon, when this blog caught up with the team at their apartment near Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT). In total, the 2018 team from Ladakh featured 10 people, nine of them designated runners. Four of the lot, two men and two women – among them, Jigmet Dolma and Tsetan Dolkar scheduled to be in the Indian elite category at TMM – had left Leh on November 13 for the annual pilgrimage to run at various marathons in India. Their first halt was the 2017 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM), which Jigmet completed in 1:26; Tsetan in 1:29. They then moved to Darjeeling, where they trained for a few weeks before traveling to Kolkata to run the Tata Steel 25K. At this event, Jigmet finished in 1:46; Tsetan in 1:49. From Kolkata, they reached Mumbai on December 21, exactly a month before the 2018 TMM. Meanwhile another group of six athletes left Leh on December 19. They joined the four already in Mumbai, on December 22. The team trained with Savio. At the apartment, Jigmet, Tsetan, Sonam Chuskit and Tashi Lodol put their heads together to estimate how many podium finishes the team must have earned at the various races they participated in, since the annual trip to Mumbai’s marathon commenced in 2013. They could recollect 9-10 podium finishes. 2018 has proved to be a reality check; a year of learning. Although their performance has been improving with experience, as of late January with the Thane race alone remaining, there had been only one podium finish – Sonam Chuskit placing third in her age category in the full marathon at TMM. Last year they had two podium finishes at TMM. At 2018 TMM, the team suffered an unexpected setback.

Jigmet and Tsetan run together. “ We are always alongside for much of a race, breaking free and going for the finish only in the concluding portion,’’ Tsetan said. Their timings betray the strategy. They are usually separated by a minute or two, sometimes seconds. On January 21, 2018 while running TMM’s full marathon, Tsetan had a packaged drink from one of the aid stations at the 21 km-mark. Five minutes later, she threw up. Although she footed it to the finish, she was not feeling good at all. Past the finish line, she threw up again. Needless to say her timing went for a toss; she finished in 4:21. Used to running with Tsetan, Jigmet’s progress was also disturbed. She had targeted hitting the half way-mark in 1:30 but found herself four minutes slower. “ I became tense,’’ she said. She finished in 3:13, placing ninth among Indian elite women. At the 2017 edition of the Mumbai marathon, she had placed third in the same category. “ Don’t go by the position she got. Jigmet’s timing has improved year on year; her timing at 2018 TMM was better than in 2017. The difference is in 2018, we had a much more competitive field,’’ Savio said. 2018 will witness two major international events in sport (relevant to Indian athletics) – the Commonwealth Games due in Australia and the Asian Games scheduled in Indonesia. Given this, the elite field in the Indian category at TMM, was quite competitive this year. For the Ladakhis, this is a reality check five years into their commencement of running TMM. “ For the first two years in that we had no training. We were merely running at events. Less than three years ago, we started training with Savio sir. It is only from then that we have had the benefit of structured training, including an idea of how to train in the months we are in Ladakh,’’ Tsetan said. Savio expects the field to be competitive for the 2019 TMM too, as by then Indian athletics would be in the run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.  What makes Savio happy is the story in the details. First, ever since he stepped in to coach, the timings of his Ladakhi trainees have vastly improved. Second, a runner like Jigmet may have missed the podium at 2018 TMM but she improved upon her timing from 2017 and is within striking distance of runners ranked above her up to fourth and fifth positions. The gap in timings in this bunch is narrow. Savio maintained that his consistent instruction to trainees is to focus on one’s own performance. “ We wish to run again at TMM,’’ Jigmet said.

The Ladakhi team’s annual trip to run at events like ADHM and TMM has been put together by Rimo Expeditions, organizers of the Ladakh Marathon. According to Savio, there are valid reasons for the runners from Ladakh seeking to showcase their performance at TMM. Usually the progression of an athlete to national camp happens through a circuit that starts with selection at district level and then graduates to representing the state. When I asked the Ladakhi runners about this pattern of progression, they said that district level selection has either been erratic or when it happened, the graduation to representing the state wasn’t there. Ladakh is the eastern part of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), a state troubled by militancy in its western half. The state is administered from the west; the bulk of its political imagination resides there. One of the runners I spoke to recalled that when he secured district level selection in Leh “ even officials from the Sports Authority of India were present.’’ Sports Authority of India (SAI) is known to do talent scouting. However beyond that selection, nothing happened. With that regular route of progression – district level-state level-national camp – blocked, sole option for Ladakhi runners is to vindicate themselves at the major marathon events of the plains. “ This is the avenue they have,’’ Savio said. He hopes the national camp selectors are watching these events. “ Hope’’ – that is the word he used. He saw the tough field his trainees faced at 2018 TMM as a necessary learning; part of the journey.

The team at Priyadarshini Park, with other runners (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

According to Savio, as dwellers of altitude, athletes from Ladakh have endurance. What they lack are two things. First, they need to get used to competition and competition in the elite category can be quite tough. “ There can be no comparison between how well I can train them using whatever I have at my disposal and how well an athlete in the national camp is trained, given the superior coaches and facilities they have,’’ Savio, a former national marathon champion himself, said. Second, the Ladakhi runners have to improve their speed. A significant drawback here is that Leh does not have a running track. “ Speed training on roads is not good for the legs. Roads are hard surfaces. If you don’t have a proper running track, you need at least a mud track. That’s what we are trying to locate in Leh so that once they go back to Ladakh these runners can continue their speed work-out. On my last visit to Leh, we shortlisted a couple of locations,’’ Savio said. For the interim, there is Mumbai’s Priyadarshini Park.

As marathon coach, Savio perceived other limitations too restricting runners’ progress. “ We need a few more races in Ladakh spanning a mix of distances from 10K and up. This will get more young Ladakhis interested in running,’’ Savio said. But even if you do that, it addresses only part of the issue. Once they finish their twelfth standard, most Ladakhi youngsters shift to Jammu, Chandigarh or Delhi – all at lower altitude – for university education. Ladakh does not have good education infrastructure. Although born to the mountains, a mountain dweller, if he / she stays away from the mountains for long, takes a while on return to altitude, to acclimatize and regain peak performance. Savio believes that if you are a competitive runner, one targeting national camp and so on, it makes sense to be in Ladakh, studying and training; not away from Ladakh losing a vitality the region gifts you. Most of the runners reaching Mumbai from Leh have been podium finishers at the Ladakh Marathon. “ If he goes back right now and runs the Ladakh Marathon, he may not get a podium finish. He has been away from Ladakh for a long time,’’ Savio said pointing to one of the trainees and highlighting in the process, the two distinct environments that need to be managed for Ladakhi runners to succeed.

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

DEFINING 50

Sundaresan Renganathan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Lieutenant Colonel Sundaresan Renganathan (Retd) set out to make his fiftieth birthday different and meaningful. This is his story.

Towards the finish line of the Western Naval Command Navy Half Marathon on November 19, 2017, two siblings ran side by side the last kilometer of their respective runs.

Saroja Narasimhan was completing her 10 km-race while her brother Sundaresan Renganathan, a retired army officer, was finishing his fiftieth marathon in fifty weeks with just that day between him and his fiftieth birthday.

Age is usually treated as just another number. But fifty has a special ring to it. For Sundaresan, 50 was sufficient reason to do something. “The thought that came to my mind was – why not run 50 marathons in 50 weeks and conclude it just before I turn 50?” he said.

On November 19, 2017, Sundaresan was up by 1 AM at his house in Kharghar, one of the prominent townships of Navi Mumbai.  Given the event he was running was a half marathon organized by the Western Naval Command, it became essential  that he run a half marathon in advance so that his day’s run would measure up to a full. Sundaresan’s run therefore started at 3 AM. He had the company of a few runners, who volunteered to run the distance from Navi Mumbai’s Vashi to Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex, the starting point of the navy half marathon.

Sundaresan with his sister and brother in law, at a pre-race day function in Kargil (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

Apart from Saroja, many of his family members, friends and batch mates from the army turned up to cheer him at the finish line.

“What can I say? He is my mentor. It’s great to run with your guru. He is my baby brother but in running he is my motivator and my guru,” Saroja said. Now 61 years old, she was nudged into running at the age of 58, by Sundaresan.

The idea of being a runner, reached Sundaresan late. While in the army, for 13 years he was posted to Jammu & Kashmir with stints in Siachen, Poonch, Doda and Srinagar. There was adequate trudging up and down the mountains that served him as endurance training. Amid this, over 1500 kilometres away in Mumbai, in 2004, the Mumbai Marathon, sponsored by Standard Chartered bank, made its debut. Sundaresan was posted at Pathankot then. His sister-in-law called him to tell him about Mumbai Marathon. “The idea got into my head,” Sundaresan said of how his running started.

Born 1967 in a family of six siblings, Sundaresan was not actively involved in competitive sports in his schooling days at AFAC School in Chembur, a suburb of Mumbai. Following school, he joined SIES College to secure a degree in chemistry. He was into sports including some bit of running in a rather informal way, nothing competitive ever.

From a stadium run in Delhi, the seventh marathon from his planned 50 (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

While many of his classmates were making furious attempts at going overseas, mainly the U.S., to pursue further studies, Sundaresan, readied himself to join the armed forces. “During my college years I was active in NCC and I was sure that I wanted to join the army,” he said. He was commissioned into the Rajput Regiment, an infantry regiment of the Indian Army. There, he stayed for 23 years, before seeking voluntary retirement as Lieutenant Colonel.

For much of his years in service, active participation in any official sport was not possible but the accent on fitness was strong. In 2008, he got posted to Mumbai. Given residence in South Mumbai’s Colaba there could not have been more appropriate moment and location to start running. Sundaresan registered for the 2009 Mumbai Marathon to run his first timed half marathon. That trend continued into 2010’s Mumbai Marathon as well. Soon after that he wanted to move into the full marathon and was aiming to run the full marathon at the 2011 edition of Mumbai Marathon. But his initiation into the full happened in 2010 September when he ran the Kaveri Trail Marathon. This was followed by another full marathon in December, the Sabarmati Marathon.

In Mysuru with Ajit Thandur and other runner; Mysuru was was host for the twenty second run (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

In 2010, he chanced upon Amit Sheth’s book, Dare to Run, on running the Comrades in South Africa and immediately decided to attempt this iconic ultramarathon.  Comrades is the world’s oldest ultramarathon and now it’s biggest. At present, nearly 20,000 people run this ultramarathon every year. They come from different countries. The race alternates every year between uphill and downhill with the former measuring 87 km and the latter, 89 km. Founded as a war memorial, over time Comrades has acquired the reputation of being a fantastic event, remembered for the bonhomie, crowd support and cheering.

In 2012, Sundaresan retired from the army. Jobs in the private sector that came his way were primarily for heading security. He worked for ITC Grand Central Hotel, Panoramic Group and had a short but tight stint at the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) in connection with the T 20 World Cup and IPL 2016. During these years, he never let go of his desire to run Comrades and registered for the 2016 edition of the run. This edition was the downhill version.

To get the final confirmation for the run he had to secure sub-five hour timing in the marathon. For someone who was running the marathon in excess of five hours, he had to first focus on sub-five hour timing. He eventually achieved it at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon where he finished 42.2 kilometers in 4:36:49.

“I took tips from many of the runners who had attempted Comrades. Satish Gujaran was one of them. But I did not have a structured training program,” he said. Satish, an ultrarunner will be attempting his ninth consecutive Comrades in June of 2018.

With Major D.P. Singh from the run in Sikkim, Sundaresan’s favorite from the 50 marathons he ran (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

Some amount of training was already behind Sundaresan by the time he finished the 2016 Mumbai Marathon. From February to April of 2016, he was tied up with work, as part of his assignment for BCCI, for T20 cricket World Cup followed by IPL 2016 season which runs through April and May of every year.

Heading security, he was required to travel to various destinations where the teams were playing. “I used to get up at 2 AM to do my running,” he said. During his hotel stays he did something unusual. He would enter the hotel’s swimming pool not to swim but to run the length of the pool. “I did all of two long runs. One of 54 km and the other of 56 km in February and March,” he said.

Sundaresan says he enjoyed Comrades thoroughly. According to him, it is a “should go” event for ultramarathoners. “It’s a fun event but yes one should go prepared,” he said. He completed the run with a timing of 11:52:54 hours, within the final cut-off of 12 hours.

Five months before his Comrades attempt, Sundaresan had already discussed the idea of running 50 marathons in 50 weeks with a couple of runner friends.

Once back from South Africa, he started developing his plan, which included listing out all running events through the year across the country and accounting for the weeks when there would be no marathon events especially during the summer months.

With Colonel Sandeep Madan at the marathon in Nainital, the thirty eighth from the planned 50 (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

With Dipak Suryavanshi, runner from Nashik, at the Shimla Tuffman run, the twenty seventh marathon for Sundaresan from his planned 50 (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

Funding was a major requirement and Sundaresan realized that he would have to dip into his earnings. Once family (wife and daughter) and siblings’ approval was sought he went about diligently writing to companies including sporting entities to seek funds. “I wrote to many companies and also to some sports companies. Nobody responded positively,” he said. After six marathons, Global Group of Companies agreed to pick up his air fare for travel to marathons across the country.

Alongside, he also thought of running for a cause – raising funds for the families of martyred soldiers. His endeavor got a name thereby – Run with a Soldier, Run for a Soldier. The cause of his run brought in some incentives. At some running events, organizers waived off his registration fee and also offered accommodation.

He embarked upon his run on December 11, 2016 with the Vasai-Virar Mayor’s Marathon. For the next 49 weeks, Sundaresan was crisscrossing the country to run marathons where marathons were available or running two half marathons where the event was a half marathon.

Sundaresan traveled to various destinations to run his marathons – Kargil, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru, Pune, Mumbai, Guwahati, Dehradun, Sikkim, Manipur, Rookee, Raipur, Matheran, Kochi, Saputara and Shimla among others. The aim was to cover as many states as possible.

“Fifty weeks is a huge time period. Anything could have gone wrong during this period. Thankfully, family support was superb,” says Sundaresan, who often left on Friday for his outstation marathons and returned on Monday, missing weekend with family.

Paying respects to his late father with a sign of `20′ after the run in Guwahati, the twentieth run from the planned series of 50. Sundaresan lost his father just days before the event (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

During these weeks of running, Sundaresan experienced two setbacks. On April 20, 2017, he lost his father. “It was a Thursday and on Friday I was scheduled to leave for Guwahati for the twentieth marathon on Sunday, April 23. That evening after the cremation was completed, the extended family came together to goad him to go for his run and his mother was duly informed. “She told me, go and run. Your father’s blessings will be with you,” Sundaresan said.

The second setback came during the 44th week when he woke up with viral fever. Slated to leave for Pune, he had to cancel his run and also had to skip the next week’s marathon at Surat. Over the next two weeks he decided to run four marathons to cover up the loss of the previous two weeks.

He rates his best marathon to be the one in Sikkim in May, when the army went all out to make arrangements for the run from Changu Lake to Gangtok. “There was no organized run in Sikkim. But I chose to run here to get a break from running in in the May heat,” he said. India’s first blade runner Major D.P. Singh, retired army officer, ran with him a distance of about 25 km.

With wife and daughter after SCMM, typically a family outing. For Sundaresan, this was his sixth marathon from the 50 (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

Among the running events he went to, he rates the Dream Runners’ Half Marathon of 2017 held in Chennai as the best half marathon event. Of course, he had to run a half marathon before the event to make it a full marathon. “I started running from Valsaravakkam at 2:30 AM and then joined the starting line of the half marathon,” he said. The distance from Valsaravakkam to the starting line is 18 km and he covered the balance 3 km running around at the start point. The toughest marathon was the Tuffman Shimla Trail Marathon where the entire route was trail with good amount of elevation. One of those who had a ringside view of Sundaresan’s project was Dhaval Ajmera, Executive Sous Chef at ITC Grand Central. “When I met Lt Col Sundaresan, who was the head of security at ITC Grand Central, I realized that he was into running. I was already into running. We started running together. I was quite comfortable and it was great fun running together. Even after he quit his job at ITC and moved out to another job, we continued running together. He told me about his plan to run 50 marathons in 50 weeks.  I have been able to help him to some extent. I ran with him some distances in couple of his marathons, including the final one at Navy Half Marathon. He was quite dedicated to the cause of his run,’’ Dhaval said.

With family and course mates after the fiftieth run, which was melded into the Western Naval Command Navy Half Marathon in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

In the initial weeks of the 50 marathons in 50 weeks-challenge, Sundaresan added a couple of short practice runs in between his marathons. But as the weeks went by he dropped it to a single run and finally gave up running for practice. Instead he focused on strengthening and stretching, which, he believes, stood him in good stead over the 50 weeks. He did not sustain any injury. Averting injury was high on his priorities. He made sure he ran slowly and at events, never more than the marathon distance he was required to meet. He was assailed by cramps only in two of his marathons – one at Matheran, the other was the navy half marathon.

Sundaresan was able to raise Rs 27 lakh for martyred soldiers. Twenty seven families were chosen to be given one lakh rupees (Rs 100,000) each. “ The money is in the process of being disbursed,” he said. The pattern used for raising funds and disbursing them was simple. Given Global Group of Companies was the main sponsor, Global Foundation became the temporary repository of funds raised. They would then make out the payment as required to Sundaresan, for onward disbursement. The beneficiaries – families of martyred soldiers – were identified with the help of the army; Sundaresan contacted the commanders of the units he had served with for the same. Most of the 27 families identified had members – since martyred – serving with the Rajput Regiment. A few are connected to Rashtriya Rifles.

At the finish line of the final marathon at Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex, Sundaresan felt happy that the project had ended smoothly. “The credit for this goes to my army training,” he said.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Sundaresan Renganathan. Except for the first photo, all the other photos used herein were downloaded from Sundaresan’s Facebook page and used with his permission.)

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.)