INDIAN NAVY AIRCRAFT SIGHTS THURIYA

Thuriya adrift in the Southern Ocean; mast broken (This photo was downloaded from the Twitter handle of Indian Navy and is being used here for representation purpose only.)

An Indian Navy P-8I long range maritime reconnaissance aircraft has located Commander Abhilash Tomy’s sailboat, Thuriya, in the Southern Ocean, reports in the national media said today (September 23).

It may be recalled that the vessel was rolled and dismasted in a recent storm. Abhilash had subsequently reported severe back injury and inability to move around.

He has activated the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) and efforts have been underway to locate and rescue him. Thuriya and Abhilash were participants in the 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR) entailing solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sailboat. It was Abhilash’s second such voyage. In 2013 he became the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sailboat.

Reports quoting an Indian Navy spokesperson said that the naval aircraft saw Thuriya adrift in the Southern Ocean, its mast broken and hanging alongside.

Further the official website of GGR informed that Australian authorities have dispatched an executive jet to the coordinates of the stricken boat. The aircraft will also overfly the boat of Irish skipper and GGR participant Gregor McGuckin, which too was rolled and dismasted in the storm. Notwithstanding an unreliable engine (likely due to fuel being contaminated when the boat was rolled and dismasted in the storm), loss of self-steering (he has to hand-steer now) and finding that the spinnaker pole he used to improvise a jury rig was bending in the strong wind, Gregor is attempting to motor-sail his way to Abhilash. The two are only 80 miles apart, the latest update on the GGR website said. Also expected to head Abhilash’s way is Estonian sailor and GGR participant, Uku Randmaa, who was 400 miles west of both Gregor and Abhilash.

Additionally, the French fisheries patrol vessel Osiris is heading to help Abhilash. Osiris has medical facilities onboard. Although he cannot move around and appears confined to his bunk due to the back injury, Abhilash has confirmed to race organizers that he can move his toes. In first responder circles, when assessing injury, the ability to move one’s body extremities is usually taken as a positive sign. Abhilash has indicated that he may need a stretcher when help arrives. Quoting Abhilash’s latest message to race organizers, the GGR website informed on September 22 (as an update to what it reported earlier the same day) that he can move his toes but is feeling numb and cannot eat or drink. The grab bag containing more emergency communication equipment remained difficult for him to access.

As per information on the GGR website, Australian authorities are also repositioning a search and rescue plane to Reunion Island to assist with the rescue efforts; this is in conjunction with the Anzac class frigate HMAS Ballarat, preparing to leave Perth for the area where Thuriya is. The Indian Navy has already sent INS Satpura and the tanker INS Jyoti to the southern Indian Ocean, where Abhilash is.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please scroll down or select from archives for more on Abhilash, Thuriya and GGR.)        

THE OUTDOORS AND THE LURE OF THE HIVE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

A recent Court order that bans camping on Uttarakhand’s alpine and sub-alpine meadows has left trekkers and the outdoor industry confused. Confusion can be clarified. Of worry is trends inspired by commerce, noticeable in some of the responses to the ruling. As life becomes hive, the question is: to bee or not to bee?

Recently a friend needed assistance in articulating what the outdoors means and I found myself writing so:

Wilderness and open spaces are not merely part of human heritage. They are fundamental to the evolution of our aesthetics. One manifestation of such aesthetics inspired by nature is our idea of freedom. For some inexplicable reason, open spaces and wilderness with few humans in it, remind us of freedom; alternatively whenever we think of freedom, we imagine open space. We periodically yearn to be away and alone in the outdoors because we wish to reconnect with dimensions of existence denied us in the human cluster. Thus much before the outdoors is industry or industry to be regulated, it must be acknowledged as a side of us we are bound to go seeking, allowed or not.

To mindsets like the above, regulation is self-regulation and that is inextricably linked to education and awareness. The goal should be to create better informed practitioners of outdoor sports and adventure activity.

I reproduce the above here because of a recent Court order in the Indian state of Uttarakhand and responses to it I noticed on the Internet; in fact, with reference to my opinion on the matter, less because of the Court order and more because of the responses. Towards the end of August 2018, the High Court ruled that camping should not be allowed on alpine meadows, sub-alpine meadows and bugyals. It put a question mark on trekking in Uttarakhand because many treks – particularly long ones – require camping overnight. The order also set a limit on the number of visitors allowed at these locations.

News reports following the Court order said that the Uttarakhand government will challenge the ruling in the Supreme Court.

I leave it to the experts to decide what should be done.

What distressed me was some of the reactions in the wake of the Court order.

One big player in the outdoor industry lost no time in positioning large companies as environmentally responsible and small groups and individual trekkers as potentially irresponsible. To me, such posturing is unacceptable because there are exceptions to every generalization. There are lone trekkers and small groups of hikers who conduct themselves responsibly. Similarly, there have been big tour operators who defiled destinations by running hikes with large number of people or handled their garbage irresponsibly. Second, this argument of big operators as the most responsible ones around and therefore ideal model to support flies in the face of why we choose to be in the mountains in the first place.

My gut reaction when I saw the tour operator’s observation was: don’t compulsorily push me into a group. I come to the mountains for relief from the human hive and you are simply extending the reach of the hive when you insist I be in a group. That is not to say I am averse to groups. I am a meek fellow. Except on a handful of occasions, all my treks and climbs were with at least a friend or two. I have also hiked with groups and been on commercial treks; in the latter case, enjoying the comforts provided for I can’t handle frugality perennially. All through my life I have picked and chosen from a basket of options. What I wish to underline is that there is an element of getting away in most outdoor adventures. Outdoors, wilderness, open spaces and such have historically been a valuable counterpoint – even source of counter narrative – to life by clustering. What is the fun then, in forcing everyone into groups in the outdoors too? Why limit our choices?

The unsaid truth is – hive and group are good for business (not to mention – they are also politically fashionable these days). Companies love seeing us arranged in silos and seeming ready-made market. Before we know, the silo is swung by capital, technology and social media to the convenience of those controlling it. Such hijack of individual is overlooked. The danger implicit in this imagination resembles the tussle between personal freedom and nationalism. If you are going to put resources behind empowering anything, it should be personal freedom because that is innately fragile and typically, stands alone. Even a school student, aware of bullies and bullying, knows which side to support as a matter of principle. Somewhere in life as adults, we seem to forget this. However – and thankfully so – not everyone forgets.

Years ago, when I was introduced to hiking and climbing in Mumbai, my seniors at the climbing club talked of a book that was deemed essential reading. Its name – rather aptly I would think – was Freedom of the Hills. I didn’t read this book (it is there still on my shelf) but I read similar others. More than reading I was lucky to be with friends who liked the outdoors and respected it. Point is – nobody recommended an Outdoor Industry Handbook or How to be Hive and in the Hills At Once as essential reading for novice. My seniors were clear – the hills meant freedom. And because they are precious as abode of that freedom, you tread responsibly, you care for it. We went in small groups / expeditions and years before the Court order of 2018, were already carrying our trash back. It is my request to policy makers that individual hikers and small groups should not be automatically branded as irresponsible. Sometimes we hike alone or in small groups because we can’t afford commercial hikes or we simply wish for our own space. What you should emphasize instead, is good education about the outdoors so that anyone – traveling alone or traveling in group – is motivated as individual, to be responsible visitor in wilderness.

A commercial trek should not be anything more than an option. Much the same way, going alone or in a small group, should always be there as option. You can’t impose one option on everybody. The solution should be – no matter what option we choose (and the option we choose will vary depending on our state and stage in life), the environmental standards (and safety norms) expected of a trek must be met. Educate and train – that should be the way ahead. The hive will always tempt us with business models suiting its logic. But remember this – you will know the value of freedom only when you lose it. Even as I am yet to read it, I just can’t get over the name of that book: Freedom of the Hills. So apt. But for how long? – I wonder.

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

ROHIT YADAV: TRAINING ABROAD ON THE CARDS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

With a new meet record under his belt, javelin thrower Rohit Yadav finds himself looking at an opportunity to train under former world record holder, Tom Petranoff, in the US.

Rohit Yadav, the promising javelin thrower from Uttar Pradesh, is on the cusp of a new chapter in his life.

Returning to competition after a one year suspension for alleged use of a banned substance, he secured gold at the National Youth Athletics Meet of July 2018 in Vadodara. He hurled the javelin to a distance of 77.41 meters, a new meet record. At the time of ban, Rohit held the national record in under-16 age category; he was also among top athletes worldwide in that segment. He has since moved into the under-18 age category, also called `youth’ category. Both Rohit and his father Sabhajeet Yadav, the well-known amateur runner, have consistently maintained that the family has no idea how the banned substance got into Rohit’s system. It happened over the period of a training camp in Allahabad.

Sabhajeet is a farmer from Dabhiya. Both he and his son were rattled by the ban. A consequence of testing positive for the banned substance has been the duo’s eroded faith in training camps. In the run-up to the National Youth Meet in Vadodara, Rohit’s training was therefore done entirely at his village. There is no proper training facility in Dabhiya. There is no gym. Everything has to be improvised. In the initial years of Rohit’s career, even the javelin had to be improvised. Eventually the family bought a javelin from Patiala. Sabhajeet has been winner multiple times in his age category at the Mumbai Marathon and several other running events in the country. Things changed comprehensively on the javelin front in March 2018, when Bhasker Desai – he is a Mumbai-based businessman and amateur runner who has been Sabhajeet’s benefactor for long – sponsored a competition standard, imported Nemeth javelin for Rohit. Late July Bhasker, Sabhajeet and Rohit were together in Mumbai to address steps required for the youngster’s growth in his chosen discipline. Prominent in their talk was Amentum.

Rohit Yadav (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Amentum Sports is an upcoming sports management company that has elected to specialize in the emergent talent for javelin-throw in India. It has signed on several young athletes including Samarjeet Singh Malhi (senior category); Shivpal Singh (senior category), Vikas Yadav (youth / under 18), Runjun Pegu (women’s / under 20 category), Anand Singh (junior / under 20 category) and Sahil Silwal (junior / under 20 category). Also signed on is Rohit (youth / under 18). According to Siddharth Patil, a director of Amentum (he is founder of Coachkhoj, an outfit that connects talent in sports to relevant coaches), the company got interested in Rohit after the training camp episode, which cast him to a low point in life. As mentioned, Rohit was, at that time, both national record holder and among top ranked performers in his age category worldwide. Besides Siddharth, Amentum has three other directors – Aditya Bhargava, Vivek Gupta and Michael Musselmann, the latter a former Peruvian national record holder in javelin throw. Amentum is aligned with Throwing Zone Athletics a US company founded by former javelin throw world record holder, Tom Petranoff. His 1980 world record of 99.72 meters (further improved to 104.80 meters by the German athlete, Uwe Hohn, who now coaches star Indian javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra), which raised worries around how throws could be contained in the confines of a stadium, was among reasons for the competition javelin to be redesigned. Now retired, Petranoff is inventor of the turbo javelin. Sold under the brand name Turbojav, it is used mostly for practice sessions indoors. It is safer than the regular javelin. Petranoff’s company also organizes special clinics and video based-instruction for those well into the sport of javelin-throw.

In the period following his ban, as Rohit trained in Dabhiya, Musselmann and Petranoff offered remote guidance. The training schedule was dispatched to Rohit via smartphone. He followed the instructions and sent back videos of his throws for analysis by Musselmann and Petranoff. At a chat this blog had with Bhasker, Sabhajeet and Rohit, the youngster said that he had managed a throw of 83 meters during one of his training sessions in Dabhiya. Data from training session at Dabhiya cannot be considered reliable; it does not have any external validation as would be the case at an event. However coming as it does from athlete well versed in the discipline, the training data may be taken as indication of potential. At the time of writing, the national record was 87.34 meters. Siddharth said that Petranoff believes Rohit can excel with systematic training and improvement to technique. Interestingly, one of the things he needs to do is put on some weight. An athlete with no visible fat on self, Rohit’s nutrition is said to have suffered partly due to the family’s apprehension over what to eat and what not to, in the wake of the doping ban. Musselmann has been coaching Rohit since July 2017. In a letter of recommendation (wherein he mentions 83 meters as Rohit’s best throw in training), Musselmann noted: Rohit is ahead of Neeraj at his age. Neeraj managed to throw 73-74 meters at 17, so he is four meters ahead of him. In order to succeed, Rohit will need to gain muscle and strength and improve his throwing, but this requires special nutrition and more advanced training, with better equipment such as javelins that cost a lot of money, shoes and weight lifting gear that is expensive.

Sabhajeet Yadav (left) and Rohit (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

One event Rohit’s well-wishers hope he will make it to later this year is the 2018 Youth Olympics scheduled to be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For that, the national selectors have to take note of his return to competition and the distances he has been throwing the javelin to in the youth category. Following Rohit’s success at Vadodara, he is rated number one in India in his discipline in the youth category and correspondingly, number three worldwide. Meanwhile according to Siddharth, plans are now afoot to get Rohit to the US to train with Petranoff. The latter believes Rohit is a one of a kind athlete. “ You seldom find an athlete so talented with such a work ethic,’’ he said. In a letter of recommendation Petranoff has addressed to prospective sponsors, he observed: His (Rohit’s) work ethic is epic. Rohit is hungry and just needs some help to get to the next level. Amentum’s annual plan for Rohit (covering the next two years) includes a phase of training and competing in the US under the guidance of Tom Petranoff, a phase of training and competing in Germany under the guidance of Petra Felke (the only woman to throw a javelin more than 80 meters, Felke became Olympic champion in 1988 and broke the world record four times between 1985 and 1988) and then training the rest of the year monitored by Musselmann and Petranoff. For immediate focus, this program targets attempting to break the world junior record currently held by Neeraj Chopra. Long term goals include the 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games.

Alongside the effort to send Rohit abroad for training, options are also being explored to secure him a job in India; one that would have him on the rolls here but leave him free to train overseas. The move to train in US and Germany will take some time to happen for resources have to be put in place for it. A crowd funding campaign is on the cards to raise funds. “ Rohit also needs to become more familiar with English,’’ Bhasker said. But in javelin’s season of ascent in India ever since a phenomenon called Neeraj Chopra arrived on stage, nobody wants to leave any stone unturned for Rohit’s future. If you want to do something, this is the time.

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

THE `PHAW’ OF FOOTBALL

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The 2018 FIFA World Cup concluded on July 15 with France taking home the trophy. We wait another four years for the event’s next edition. Bulbul Rajagopal is a final year MA student in Kolkata, the city she grew up in. Here she writes about Kolkata’s craze for football and the ambiance that prevailed there this world cup season. Bulbul is reporting intern and contributor at this blog.  

“ Gabriel Jesus! Maybe if we all call out his name, Brazil might finally score…” groaned Tonoy Dutta as he scanned the screen hosting the group stage match against Costa Rica. Dutta, a student of class 12, was member of Dum Dum area’s Bondhu Bandhab Club in Kolkata. My quest to observe the city during the 2018 World Cup had led me to Kolkata’s outskirts where a local boys club was watching the match. Brazilian flags took much space in their club room, while the odd Argentine ones peeked out. Soon the arena was packed with more of Dutta’s friends, all fans of the Brazil national team. Bathed in the glow of the TV, their faces appeared enlightened. Watching their yellow and green-flecked gods dance on screen, they sat in revered silence before their religion – football.

Scanning the band of boys and old men – the former playing hooky from school due to the heat but mostly because of the World Cup; the latter come out of the woodwork only for the game – club regular, Rajat Basak, noted my bemused expression and laughed. “ Those who don’t even know the phaw of football [phaw denoting the phonetic ‘f’ in the Bengali script] can’t resist the charm of the World Cup,’’ he said.

Every four years, the arrival of the FIFA World Cup envelopes Kolkata – a city known for its long flirtation with the game – in an all too familiar buzz. Kolkata’s obsession with the game’s international proceedings began with what the city calls the “magic of Pele.’’ In the 1970s, television sets were scarce in the city. Communal viewings where entire neighbourhoods huddled over one TV set in a household or two, or even a local club room, were common practice. In spite of this, the 20,000-strong crowd that greeted the Brazilian football legend at the city’s airport in 1977 was testimony to their love for the game. By 2017, Kolkata had played host to both Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi — the latter’s visit drove 75,000 Calcuttans to swell the ranks in Salt Lake Stadium, one of the largest football stadiums in the world.

The footpath leading to Maidan Market (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

Preparation for the World Cup is taken very seriously here. It is almost ritualistic. The altar for warm-up is the highly popular Maidan Market, which houses a collection of roadside stalls stacked high with jerseys and flags linked to teams in the World Cup fray. The occasional shirt loudly brandished with the face of Messi or Ronaldo is almost as desired. In the lead-up to the more popular matches, which in Kolkata are mostly the ones featuring Brazil or Argentina, frequent sights include parents inspecting the jerseys of favorite teams with their children, and school and college-goers rifling through the collection hoping for a decent bargain. This World Cup season, almost all store owners reported that their fastest-depleting stock were the jerseys of Argentina and Brazil. Being coveted items, these were priced the highest – about 450 to 500 rupees. For Aziz, one of the salesmen, a constant worry every season is the unsold jerseys of the less popular teams like England, even Portugal. “The public always keeps an eye out for internet updates and the original jerseys they see there. Then only do they come to us. As for myself, I am an Argentina fan,’’ he said. Asked for a reason, Aziz said laughing, “ because their jerseys sell the most.’’

Deep in the market stall upon stall catered to Kolkata’s football fever. Each hawker eyed every passerby beadily trying to guess which team they were loyal to in order to push their ware. Subhroneel Bose wove his way expertly through this maze. On acquiring a target, he studied the stock of Argentina jerseys, all bearing the number 10. Bose has been a regular here since the 2002 World Cup. Time had made him an experienced bargainer. He came away grinning excitedly with a jersey for 180 rupees. “ I’ve bought it for my football trainer, he loves Messi. I’m a die-hard Brazil fan actually. It causes frequent clashes at home since my father is an Argentina fan,” the college-graduate said. Such arguments are a regular feature when the tournament rolls in. Tushita Basu fell in love with football following the matches she played with her father. On a bad day, watching a match together kept the blues at bay. Though the father and daughter started out supporting different teams – Brazil and Spain respectively – Tushita felt “with age I’m becoming more like my dad. I want Brazil to win this year.’’

The Brazil-Argentina divide is one that splits Kolkata in two distinct camps. It is a generational one that is marked by the rise of technology as well. Though Pele had once reigned supreme here, by 1986, with television sets proliferating, the next generation could witness Maradona in all his ‘Hand of God’ glory. By the time his protégé Messi entered the scene, the fanfare for Argentina was set in stone. Though a friendly rift highlighted by the characteristic banter the game demands, this is hardly the first football-related fissure Kolkata has seen. The formation of the historical football teams of Mohun Bagan and (subsequently) East Bengal are symbols of the partition the state underwent when it split into West Bengal and East Bengal. The former stayed with India, the latter came under Pakistan (East Bengal would eventually become Bangladesh). The heavy flow of migrants into Kolkata (then Calcutta) sparked crisis over refugee settlement, identity and communal tensions. However, the first taste of football-induced victory for the Bengalis had nothing to do with the state’s partition – it was Mohun Bagan’s win over East Yorkshire Regiment for the IFA shield.

An alleyway in the Santoshpur area (Photo: courtesy Srijan Mookerji)

Both India, specifically West Bengal, and Bangladesh find common ground in their support for Latin-American teams like Brazil and Argentina. Shahid Imam, an advocate at Calcutta High Court believed that the Latin-American circuit had a huge impact on the playing style of Bengalis: “ It is heavily mimicked, especially the dribbling style. I am a strong supporter of the Brazil team,’’ he said. Imam belonged to a football team made up of lawyers. The football tournament organized by the High Court has no age limit but is open only to members of the bar association. Last year, 16 teams took part. Though it lasts only a day, “it is intense for those 24 hours,’’ the advocate said. The World Cup was a favourite among them as well with regular screenings conducted in the High Court Club tent, situated behind the East Bengal Club’s office. “Judges and advocates all come together to watch. While most of us are Brazil and Argentina supporters, there are quite a few Germany fans since this team has been winning for quite some time,’’ Imam told me.

In my years here, I have noticed that unwavering loyalty is characteristic of the average Bengali football fan. For the past few World Cup fixtures, Brazil and Argentina – both loved by Bengalis – have either clocked out early on or come very close to victory only to be denied it (a greater loss, in my opinion). In spite of this, the city does not budge from its loyalty: the teams’ losses are taken in stride, fans mourn with them with equal fervour as they do when they win. 2018 was no different. With Germany heading home in the group stages itself and Argentina knocked out, Kolkata’s hopes rested on Brazil for the semi-finals. But this too, became dream dashed. A pall of silence shrouded the city, punctuated with the odd joke that Kolkata now had entered a state of existentialism. Alleyways and streets in the city were dotted with flags of blue and yellow. One in Santoshpur was a sea of Argentina flags and resident Srijan Mookerji dubbed it to be “as quiet as a tomb for now.’’ Setting these flags up is a locality-centric event. It happens almost in the blink of an eye. As I waded through the crowd and the waterlogged streets of monsoon, I frequently overheard that there was now no point watching the football matches. This happens every time. It is pointless to pay heed to such statements because as with all those years before; come the World Cup final and the city would shake itself out of collective sulk to huddle around the screen, sides reluctantly picked.

Kolkata boasts eclectic football teams of its own. The Kasba Up-to-Date Club (KUTDC) is one of them. Almost all of its members are above the age of 40, the oldest being 54. Forty-four year old Sudipto Banerjee, club member and supporter of Germany since 1986, ensures that he buys the team jersey from Maidan every time around. So dedicated is Banerjee to the game that he and two of his teammates went to Russia for the group stage matches. Located in the titular Kasba area, KUTDC engages in football rivalry with the neighbouring Amra Shobai Club. “ This rivalry has been going on since my school days. But we play better and are older as well given ours is a pre-Independence club [set up in 1943],” he said. His club organizes screenings in the area as well, but mostly for the semi-finals and the final.

Kolkata sweetshop Balaram Mullick & Radharam Mullick partake in festivities around the World Cup with edible trophy, stadium and players (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

These local or para clubs are deep-seated in the culture of Kolkata and the rest of West Bengal. Belonging to different localities, they make their mark for the community in two primary areas: the yearly organization of Durga puja and small football fixtures and screenings. Peppered all over the city, each has its own band of resident loyalists. Bondhu Bandhab Club usually rents out a projector for the entirety of the World Cup fixture to screen every single match. This year, however, the club had saved up enough to buy a Titan Chrome projector of their own. Bright sunny days do not deter their spirits when it comes to projection, because inside their club room is a small LCD TV they can depend on. The club is open to all and about forty people watch the screenings on an average. During the final, the number easily soars to over a hundred.

Football does not pertain to Bengalis alone in Kolkata. Going against the dominant trends in the city was the majority of the Armenian community. According to Armen Makarien, the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy on Mirza Ghalib Street favoured rugby over football, as the latter has been played in their home country for the last 130 years. “But we have a formidable U-19 football team, and we follow the World Cup closely,” he said. Makarien – an Iran-born Armenian – supported the Iran national team, while most of the community in the College favoured Spain. “Armenians come to Kolkata from all over Europe and Asia. They prefer to support the countries they come from and call home. There are hardly any Brazil or Argentina fans here,” he said. N. Gopi of the Calcutta Malayalee Samajam had made football-loving Kolkata his home for the past 45 years. He hails from the equally football-frenzied state of Kerala. However, Gopi belonged to a generation that had seen Kolkata’s craze for football in better days: “That traditional spirit of fanfare is fading now, I feel. Everything has become so commercialized. The old enthusiasm is lagging. The craze everyone sees now is only half of what it used to be,” he said.

Subhroneel Bose scouting for the perfect jersey at Maidan Market (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

Partaking in the football celebration was a typically male phenomenon and for a city where football is famously equated to life, women and girls do feel overlooked in this regard. Historically, one of the ways the British integrated the sport into Kolkata was through the setting up of football teams in colleges that were modeled on British public schools. Though the odd women’s team exists in colleges and universities here, the attention they get is minimal compared to their male counterparts. Local teams geared for women are practically unheard of. Rahman, a college student and footballer believed that women’s football “faces a vicious cycle. If you pull up statistics, you’ll find that women’s teams earn far less prize money than men’s teams. The visibility is also low since it is treated as a ‘masculine sport’.’’

When Rahman first started playing football, the primary reaction was one of incredulity. She was often branded as an attention-seeker. “Sexism and cultural barriers discourage women from taking up the sport,’’ she said. Rahman was on the lookout for amateur women’s football clubs in the city to hone her skills. Tushita too had been at the receiving end for her interest in the game: “To this day, I have male friends who would rather discuss the World Cup with another guy who is absolutely uninterested in football than ask me for my opinion,” she said. According to her Bengali women are stereotyped into being singers and dancers; the only sport assigned to them is swimming. “Maybe, if schools started coaching girls from a young age and there are at least two academies invested in women’s football, the scenario would change,’’ she said.

However, Kolkata also houses a team that uses football as tool to banish such stigma. The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, located in the Sonagachi area of Kolkata, is an organisation that fights for the rights and upliftment of sex workers. “Children of sex workers are stigmatized because of their mothers’ occupation. To counter this, we started the Durbar Sports Academy where football teams of U-13, U-15 and the second division thrive,’’ Chief Advisor Dr. Smarajit Jana, said. Avid World Cup fans, the children regularly watched matches in their club room with their trainers and coaches who explained team strategies to them. Their practice sessions at Baruipur drew the attention of local radio channel Red FM during the 2014 fixture; they organized an awareness programme called ‘Baruipur to Brazil’. For Jana who has seen numerous children being taunted and abused by others due to their mothers’ line of work, the progress these teams had made spoke volumes of how far they had come. They plan to integrate the teams with girls as well. In my interaction with the young footballers here, 18 year-old Milan Sarkar caught my eye. A player for the second division team, Milan was discovered by the Academy when he was nine years old; when a “footballer dada noticed me playing in a nearby field.’’ His mother was a sex worker and for the past few months, the family had been financially hard up. But Milan’s dedication to the game was impressive: “I work as a food delivery boy from 6:30 to 11 PM. I go for practice thrice a week,’’ he said. Practice for them started at 7 AM. It was not an easy feat given his schedule. However, the young right-back managed to see the positive side of the situation: “My shift ends just in time for the 11:30 match, those are the good ones, anyway,” he said. This year, both the U-13 and U-15 teams qualified for the I-League which shares the top spot in the Indian football system with the Indian Super League (ISL).

A section of the Maidan Market (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

Even if the World Cup is a phenomenon that takes the city by storm only once in four years, football is a celebration enjoyed all year round. Come rain, hail or the beating rays of sun, there are very few entities deemed obstacles here in one’s quest to play football. Kolkata never faces a dearth of matches to participate in or even to simply watch from the periphery of its numerous playing fields. As the World Cup rolled in during the monsoon, numerous rounds of hot tea or pints and pegs of beer and rum were counted on by Calcuttans everywhere when matches proved to be nail-biting. With crowd favourites like Argentina, Germany and Portugal by way of Ronaldo knocked-out of this year’s fixture, an unusual silence pervaded the city. Entire stretches of roads had been painted with Messi’s face and club houses acted as shrines to Brazil and Argentina. Fanaticism has always been present in Kolkata and the decorations for the World Cup proved it. The tea shop and living quarters of Messi fanatic Shib Shankar Patra was doused entirely in Argentina colours, earning it local fame as ‘Argentina Tea Stall’. The reason was simple: love makes one do crazy things. The silence was merely the lull before the storm. Even if the preferred teams do not end up playing in the final, it was tough to pry the people here away from the screens because ultimately it is their love for the game that roars through the din.

In the lead-up to the Croatia-France final, viewing parties and outings were the talk of the town. As luck would have it, my TV at home gave out a few hours before kick-off. I was not too worried. Kolkata – Jadavpur University to be precise – came to my aid. University screenings are common in the city, and the camaraderie they trigger well known. I was welcomed that night by a crowd of 200 college students, a few street dogs that frequent the area and the perfume of rum and beer that pairs characteristically with a football game. The constant drizzle did not dampen spirits. The cloth screen and projector were well-protected and banter was on the rise. When the weather turned worse, the usual grumbling was absent; the students merely opened a festoon of umbrellas and life went on. It was almost midnight in Kolkata when French team began their festivities, but the former was awake as well. It was not the victory the city was hoping for, and remnants of its love for Argentina and Brazil remained as their flags were still flying in some areas. That Sunday night was the last vestige of the city’s final hurrah before the waiting period of another four years commenced, Monday morning.

(The author, Bulbul Rajagopal, is a final year MA student in Kolkata. She is reporting intern and contributor at this blog. On her own relation with the game, Bulbul says: I do not actively support any team or club, but I enjoy studying the styles of play. Often, I am biased towards certain teams based on a few players, which would explain my irrational support for Argentina during the 2018 World Cup. Irrational, only because the team was running on the fumes of glory past and the lion’s share of the pressure was weighed down on the shoulders of Lionel Messi. Even while I study the game, I consider it important to look beyond the touchline, towards the people who observe football. To my knowledge, no sporting situation triggers banter as amusing as football does. The game has a history of friendly banter becoming ugly, even morphing into racism. But true ribbing in football is infectious and when done correctly, it is witty. I find it fascinating when minor arguments break out amongst people in this regard. I also thrive on the camaraderie that football offers and demands. I grew up in Kolkata and in my 22 years here, believe this city is right up there on the global list of cities that make the phrase ‘football frenzy,’ real.)

“ SWIMMING HELPED ME CHANNELIZE MY ENERGY’’

Shubham Vanmali (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Shubham Vanmali, 23, is a young swimmer from Navi Mumbai, currently attempting the Oceans Seven challenge in swimming. It consists of seven open water channel crossings worldwide. Shubham has done three, he has four to go. Earlier, he accomplished open water swimming’s Triple Crown – which involves crossing the English Channel, the Catalina Channel in California and completing the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Mid-June, Shubham was at his home in Nerul (a suburb of Navi Mumbai), setting up a business and getting a book authored by his parents to the stands. He spared time to talk to this blog. Excerpts:

What brought you to swimming and how did swimming help you tackle the learning disability you faced as a child?

It started when I was seven years old or so and was diagnosed with asthma.

The doctor suggested that swimming may help deal with asthma; that was how I started swimming. The learning disability part came later. Nobody knew of it till I was in ninth standard at school. I was getting below-average scores. I was scraping through in exams. That was when the movie Taare Zamein Par released. It caught my parents’ attention; everything looked similar to my state – the spelling mistakes, I could answer the questions my mother asked me at home but I couldn’t write the same properly during an exam. She was like – this might be the case. We went to Sion Hospital and from there to Drishti Centre, where the results came positive. I had dysgraphia, dyslexia and from before, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).  The diagnosis was an eye opener for everyone. My swimming was also getting affected by it. I wasn’t a good swimmer. I was quite average. My parents – my father played volleyball and my mother played kabaddi – had represented the state in their chosen sport. They were supportive. They never pushed me. They told me: keep swimming, you will eventually find your way. Even in studies, they didn’t push me.

For four to five years I meandered in swimming with no medals, not even a district level one. Then, I got a medal at the district level. That is considered late for a swimmer in India. Usually in swimming, if you don’t produce results in a couple of years, your parents change your sport. I don’t have a competitive nature. I used to enjoy water. I was a chubby kid. After I got that district level medal, my father started monitoring my diet and fitness.  In one month or so, I became really fit. I graduated from district to zonal level in swimming. Then they realized that as the distance to swim increased, the better I performed compared to others.  That was when we thought of open water swimming. It changed my life, providing me a huge amount of confidence. I had terrible stage fear. Now I have no problem talking to a crowd of people. Open water swimming changed my personality. If I had not come to swimming I would be still struggling with everything. That’s why I tell parents to get their children involved in sports. It will even help with academics because a child that is into sports is more alert.

Shubham with his coach, Gokul Kamat (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page)

Could it have been any sport for you or was it the combination of swimming and water that worked well in your case?

It could have been any sport but I think swimming was perfect for me. It helped me channelize my energy. Plus swimming for ten hours plus is so challenging; it is very calming, quite like meditation – you are doing only one thing, you are not talking to anyone. That helped to calm me down.

Most people would consider swimming 10 or 20 laps in a pool as sign of endurance. You measure it in terms of kilometers and hours. Was there something about endurance which fascinated you, given as a swimmer you could have opted for the speed events if you wished to?

I used to wonder about that myself – I am not such a good pool swimmer but how come I became a good open water swimmer? Distance is not the difficult thing in this entire scenario. The ability to persist; sustain the pain for so long – that is the real challenge. There is a race in Bengal, which is a long one of 80 kilometers or so. But you swim with the current. As I see it, the real differentiator in open water swimming is not distance; it is the ability to sustain effort. The challenges you face in open water swimming range from current to sea creatures. There is jellyfish, there are sharks. A shark won’t do anything to you. But seeing a seven foot-shark below you in the water can mentally freak you out.

Cold water – that is another challenge. There is the issue of being in cold water for long. It is alright if you are in cold water for an hour. But maintaining body temperature for long and ensuring alongside that you don’t swim so fast as to tire and invite hypothermia – that is tricky. So distance is not the problem. Once you can swim at a stretch for six hours, your aerobic capacity is good enough to tackle long distances.  The game starts when it comes to sustaining this in open water, in the middle of the sea. The body has the ability to adapt. The game depends on where your head is in the equation.

You grew up in Navi Mumbai, a township that has at present, a small community of open water swimmers. The Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim is often featured in local media. Did the availability of this community help you in embracing open water swimming?

I did my first Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim in 2014. At that time, the community was not in place. I got into open water swimming because of my father. He had grown up reading about Mihir Sen and Taranath Shenoy. When he asked me whether I wanted to try it, I said yes. I was however imagining differently. When he mentioned English Channel, I said okay because I was thinking more of the chance to travel overseas. When I reached there, I understood what I was getting into! Besides my father who nudged me into open water swimming, what has helped me continue the sport is the global community of open water swimmers. It is so small and great at once; the people in it are amazing.

Young man and the sea (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page)

Let me take you back to the boy with learning disability you once were. What sort of mind are we talking of here – is it a restless mind that requires a lot of stimuli like a sport perhaps, to calm down and focus or is there something in that state of mind which lends itself naturally to pursuits like long distance swimming?

It depends from person to person. In my particular case, I suspect I made my condition into an advantage. If I am doing something, I get easily distracted. My mind would be somewhere else. In open water swimming, an activity in which progress to destination is anyway time-consuming, if you sense every second go by – that can be crazy. I, on the other hand, was prone to being naturally distracted, thinking of other things in my head. That worked to my advantage.

Many open water swimmers from Mumbai begin with the Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim. You have done this a few times; you have also swum elsewhere in the world. How bad is the water quality here and how do you cope with it?

(Laughs) It is unfortunately something you have to put up with.

I look at it from a different point of view. Over here, swimming that distance is not a big deal at all. Believe me – it’s easy. I am the only swimmer as yet, who has done Dharamtar-Gateway in both directions. Somewhere in between, the tide helps you. I am not taking it away from anyone but Dharamtar-Gateway is kind of easy compared to other such swims. I had a hydrographer in my team; so I know what I am talking of. The tough portion of this swim is in the middle near an island, where the current changes. But you do it. The difficult thing is not the distance. The first time I did this swim, I told myself: I am not getting into that water ever again. The reason I swim it is for the mental part – the irritation of being in such water. The water is salty, conditions are humid and your throat feels nasty from the water going in. Your throat swells up and you have difficulty eating for a week after that. It hurts a lot. Mentally, the swim frustrates you. That training helps me in my swims elsewhere. Aside from the cold, waters elsewhere are a pleasure. The difference in pollution levels is huge. I swam around Manhattan in the US. The president of the local swimming association told me: let me warn you, one out of every six swimmers gets some bacterial infection because the city’s waste comes into these waters. I saw the water and I was like, this is nowhere near what I have swum in; so it’s not going to be a problem at all. So yeah, the difference is huge (laughs).

Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

When did the Oceans Seven project start and what triggered it?

It started in 2014. Our first goal was the English Channel and later, the Strait of Gibraltar. We wanted to give these two a shot and then later, we got to know of the Oceans Seven. I wished to do all the seven. It isn’t for an award, it isn’t competition – it is just something I love to do. I love being out there and testing myself.  At some points of the journey, I have been close to the breaking point; even close to death. But the adrenalin rush keeps me going. So far I have done three of the swims involved. There are four more to go (for more on Shubham and the Oceans Seven, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/05/30/shubham-and-the-oceans-seven/).

Are you following a schedule?

We had a schedule for this year. But then, it has run into a problem because of my shoulder injury. We are currently in discussions with my doctors to find the best way ahead. We need to find out how long it will take to heal and then train my way back to the levels of before. Every time I return from a break, I have to work my way back up from zero. I have been in this situation multiple times. Swimming is a skill and you have to repeat a skill over and over again to drill it in. When you lose the feel of water, return to form is time-consuming. The time it takes to get back to where you were depends on your mental state. It is all in your head. If I am calm and focused, it takes me a month to reach the point where I can start working on my aerobic capacity again.

When you are on the verge of launching off into one of your long swims, what do you base your decision on – your physical fitness as ensured by the training you put in or how good you feel in the head?

It’s both. It’s both mind and body; I don’t attempt with a deficit in either. I don’t want to go in with the doubt: what if? I don’t go in half prepared and once I commit to a swim, I give it everything. Also remember – these channel crossings are a big deal for me. There is a lot of money involved in each of these attempts. My parents support me. I don’t have any sponsors.

What has been your experience with sponsors?

I understand the sponsor’s perspective of what I am doing – it is not a spectator sport. It is not entertainment. It is not something you would wish to watch on TV. However I am still trying to engage people.  For example, we have just launched a book in Marathi, to be soon followed by one in English. The sole purpose of the book is to help parents understand how to help their children should they be suffering from dyslexia. I hope that also puts the focus on what I have done so far, coming as I do from a childhood affected by dyslexia. With sponsors, you have to provide them a return on investment. Right now, if a sponsor invests in me, I have something to give back – I have my book, I have my YouTube videos, I have my Instagram account. Earlier, I had nothing to give back. But now, I do. Incidentally, India is known globally in open water swimming. People overseas know Indians as endurance swimmers.

The book in Marathi, written by Shubham’s parents, Deepika and Dhananjay Vanmali. Soon to be published in English as well, the book tells their journey with a child suffering from learning disability and at the same time, wishing to excel in sports. It also serves as a primer for those venturing into open water swimming, providing the contact details for relevant swimming associations here and overseas.

One of the things you notice nowadays is how Indians seem to fare better in endurance as opposed to disciplines demanding speed or qualities of that sort.  From where do you think is this fascination for endurance, coming?

Indians are good at enduring suffering.  We can endure a lot. We have been brought up that way. We know what struggle and pain is. That gives us raw material to work with when it comes to endurance sports. But having said that, I must add – we are making good progress in other attributes like speed.  There are good sports training facilities – a couple of them in Bengaluru for instance – which have come up. So I think the game is going to change.

What is the ideal sponsorship that works for you? Is it one entailing return on investment or is it something cast on the lines of a grant, wherein the burden of investment return isn’t there?

I would say I prefer a company that is looking for a return on investment. That gives structure to the whole deal. It makes it sensible for others also to get involved.

In the swimming you did so far, which was the most challenging stretch?

The swim around Angel Island, off San Francisco was quite tough.  The current here is so powerful that at some points I made no progress. I was swimming but not covering any distance. There was also the issue of being thrown off course and on one occasion I found myself being borne by the strong current towards the Golden Gate Bridge.  There were times when the team contemplated calling off the swim because I was well past the longest time taken for the swim. That is unusual for me as I am a fast swimmer – I hold the fastest time among Asians swimming across the Strait of Gibraltar; 16 kilometers in three hours, 16 minutes. The Angel Island swim was roughly the same distance but I had been more than seven hours in the water. Luckily I had trained earlier in these waters and knew when the current would change. I just had to hold out. Slowly the current changed and I ended up finishing the swim.

During all this I had no idea how much time I had taken. I would have my feed (nutrition offered from support boat, which must be had without touching the boat) but there wasn’t much conversation. There is no point asking for the time because if there is bad news in it, you end up getting very disappointed. It can shatter your morale.

Do you ever inquire about the time while you swim?

I generally don’t. I prefer not knowing what’s going on. You are sustaining so much pain and then suddenly you get some bad news, in an instant you will drop off.

From the Angel Island swim, off San Francisco (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

In the case of a marathon, it is very common to find runners looking at their watches to know the time while running. Why is it so difficult in the case of a marathon swim? How is exhaustion in long distance swimming, which engages the whole body, different from how you feel exhausted while running?

It is way beyond the conventional description of exhaustion.

After swimming long distance, you can feel every single muscle in your body hurting. While swimming, the water is so cold that you don’t get as much inflammation in the body as you would in warm temperatures.  You also don’t get the palpitation that runners do. We don’t end up breathing heavily as in running. What we feel is pain. It is an experience of pain because all the joints and muscles have been continuously working. Pain is what we cope with.

Have you tried to transfer the endurance you gained from swimming to any other sport within the family of endurance sports?

No. I am a bad runner. Anything other than swimming – I really suck at it.

Because you are a good swimmer, a triathlon wouldn’t attract you?

No, because the swimming part in a triathlon is very small. I may be able to do cycling. But running is a big no for me. I have my thoughts of doing something very extreme and pushing my body to the point where I wonder whether I can sustain it or not. There is much for me to explore in swimming. The number of swims I have done so far is a decent number as regards open water swimming projects. But in places like the US, there is a lot more to do. There are swims, which people have tried and failed. I want to try those swims; swims of the Angel Island sort.

Shubham; from the Catalina Channel swim. Swimmer can be seen in the water, kayaker keeps watch (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

You spoke of your shoulder injury. How did you get that?

The shoulder injury goes back to the Catalina swim in California. While training for that a tendon got pinched. I still managed the swim – it took me 10 hours, 42 minutes to do it. This was in 2015. After that I took a break for a year. I then went to attempt swimming across the North Channel in Ireland but that didn’t go as expected. After 13 hours in the water, I became hypothermic. My body grew bloated. We had a swimmer – he was a good friend – overseeing my safety in the water. I lifted my head to see ahead and noticed that only 3-4 kilometers remained to complete the crossing of the North Channel. But no sooner than I looked up, I blacked out. If you lose a body in the open sea, it is next to impossible to get it back. I started to sink. Luckily, my friend pulled me out in the nick of time. It was tough for him to do that because I had bloated up in the water due to excessive work and become heavy. I wasn’t in my senses for 30-40 minutes.  North Channel is the coldest of the channel crossings constituting Oceans Seven.

I took a break after this swim. I tried to attempt it again but the weather was bad and there was no good window of opportunity available. Once the break following the North Channel attempt got over, I resumed my swimming. But the shoulder injury came back. I swam Gateway-Dharamtar. I was doing well. There comes a time towards the end of this swim when the water becomes really calm. I swam fast at this stage. Then at a certain point, my shoulder made a cracking sound and thereafter it began hurting. I was now struggling to swim. I stopped using my right arm. I was set to finish that swim in five to six hours, which is a really good time for a distance of 35 kilometers. But I ended up taking seven hours. I was very disappointed. We consulted doctors. There were two tendons involved in the damage. To reduce the pain, I had to take an injection to the shoulder joint. That was the state in which I proceeded to San Francisco for the Angel Island swim.

At Cabrillo Beach, California (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page)

You mentioned how supportive the open water swimming community has been. What would you tell a fellow open water swimmer stepping out from India to try big projects like you did; is the presence of this community of fellow enthusiasts comforting?

It is comforting, very comforting.

When I went to swim the North Channel in Ireland, I was all by myself. The crew for my swim, who I had assembled myself, backed out at the last moment. So, there was this lady swimmer – her name was Ruth McGuigan, she was captain of the Irish water polo team – she agreed to be my crew. After I was pulled out of the water following that incident of hypothermia during the North Channel attempt, she took me home. She told her husband that I would be staying with them for a while till I recovered; they even told me to stay there in case I wished to explore the possibilities of a second attempt. I stayed with them for almost a month. They helped me a lot. They treated me like their own son. The water polo team she was part of, they were open water swimmers too. They went on to set a new record for crossing the North Channel in the relay format. Ruth helped me cope with my failed attempt at the North Channel. She told me that the next time I come to Ireland to try the North Channel, I should stay with her. The other incident was – there was this American swimmer who completed North Channel a couple of days after my attempt. He became a good friend. He told me that when I come to San Francisco for the Angel Island swim, I should stay with him. He took me in just like that.

We are tutored to define our world in terms of the coordinates of our origin; the language we speak, the place we hail from, the culture we belong to etc. How does it feel to have your world mapped in terms of a shared craziness, a shared passion?

It feels amazing. It is liberating (laughs).

I am really fortunate to have such a thing in my life.

I don’t take it for granted at all.

There are so many things I learnt doing this, than just swimming. For example, Steve Walker – the person I stayed with in San Francisco – is not just a successful swimmer; he is successful in life too. Steve has done six of the seven channel crossings that constitute Oceans Seven. He runs a few IT companies.  He used to drop me every morning to the beach. San Francisco is an expensive city to stay in. I would have gone bankrupt had I footed the bill myself. I used to travel to Steve’s office. It was an amazing place where people actually liked to work; they were willing to help. That is not the case over here in India. I learnt much from these visits. There was this club called South End Rowing Club in San Francisco; I was a guest there. There are not many Indian open water swimmers in San Francisco. The club was quite helpful.  There are very few instances in open water swimming when I found people being terribly competitive. There is competition but it does not get carried around everywhere.

I think part of the reason for this is that it is a community with a lot of grown-ups and consequently an element of maturity.  In the world of running, the ultramarathon crowd typically tends to be older than those running the regular marathon. It is the same in the case of endurance swimming. Looking back, maybe that’s also why a youngster like me got treated so well! You feel welcomed. It is a chilled community that does not tend to judge. Had it been composed of only young people, I suspect it would have been very competitive.

Shubham (far right) with his family; (from left) his sister Siddhi, who used to be a competitive swimmer in her school days, Dhananjay and Deepika (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page).

In India, swimming is still a niche sport. What do you think can change the trend and bring more people into swimming?

First of all – more swimming pools.

Second, it is not just enough to have swimming pools; you must have pools that you can train in.

At many of the pools we have, access is only for the members of that given club and the swimming is chaotic with people going up-down, left-right.  In contrast, a pool like the one at Fr Agnels in Navi Mumbai, where I train – that pool is meant for training. The swimmers swim in a circular pattern with each lane segregated on the basis of swimmer’s speed. It is not a pool to goof around in. It is one of the rare pools in India. We need more such pools to train in. Once that training environment sets in, the sport will pick up and we will begin producing better swimmers in the lower age groups. Right now what you are seeing is that a lot of swimmers come into the lower age groups but only very few sustain the effort to reach open category. Many fade away due to personal disinterest and disinterest caused by the environment in which they swim. We also need more experienced, educated coaches.  Further, openness to try counselors and psychologists will help. I have been going to a sports psychologist for years. She has helped me change.

Finally, we need more patience at the parents’ end. That can make a big impact. Indian parents lack patience. When you reach the tenth standard you are forced to focus completely on academics, you give up other interests. The thing is – once you take a break at that stage, it is difficult to regain the momentum. People try to get back after tenth standard, they find it mentally tough. And even if you succeed, you hit another wall in the twelfth standard, which is the next point of reckoning in academic terms.  I would prefer a flexible education pattern. I wish we could borrow from how schools and colleges overseas manage talent in sports. If you don’t start seriously at the college level in sports, it is difficult to build it up later.

Indians – parents included – are prone to ask: what will you get out of this? You have gone into open water swimming in a committed way. How will you answer the classic Indian question?

I know I will not get my bread and butter out of swimming. I am working on something else, which will address my need for income.  I swim because I love to swim, because I am passionate about it. Swimming has helped me be a person who can have a perspective in life.

Your personal preference is to keep your sport as your bread and butter or avoid doing so?

I would like to avoid having the sport I love as my livelihood. That would make it a job. I don’t want it to be a job.

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

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.)