Fast enough to reach, slow enough to preach
Long ago, I was running around and across cemeteries. I was then a young and supposed to be upcoming techno banker, working for a bank at their New Delhi operations, as a back office executive. The said uncertainty about my future sprang up from my job description as a techno banker. A horde of well meaning friends wryly observed it all sounded sinister like binary existentialism.
I told them it is in fact akin to Chinese Metaphysics. Like what a character of a small town newspaper editor in Charles Dickens’ ‘The Pickwick Paper’ observes, you blend the data in Encyclopaedia Britannica on metaphysics with any sensible writing therein about China and there emerges a well written newspaper article on the unusual subject. Two searches on the internet, one for technology and the other for banking would ferret out the necessary information to define my assigned role, playing which to the bits and bytes would take me on a promising career path strewn with elements of rigor, risks, rewards and recommendations.
At the threshold of the information revolution of the nineteen eighties, unwilling to spend a fortune on recruiting thoroughbred technocrats to manage the digital show, regular bankers like me already in service were reoriented by our bank as technologists and rendered useful again. We were trained for a month and a half on programming computers and were declared as those with special skills. I was a techie by compulsion and a banker by profession.
The bank transferred me on a miniscule promotion to Delhi to do whatever that could be done with my newly acquired knowledge, on the newly installed computers. So I, promptly rented a sparsely furnished first floor apartment in Lajpath Nagar area of New Delhi, to anchor myself and get going in the wilderness that is Delhi. My landlord happened to be a retired army major, as more than half of the house owners in Delhi are.
Observing that I come from down south, a few thousand miles away from the capital of the nation and am still a confirmed bachelor, my landlord without losing further time went on to play his self assumed role of my benefactor and mentor with a missionary zeal, to guide me on how I should regementalize my existence to make my productivity optimal, fine tune and groom my behaviour as a bachelor, be a survival instinct driven Delhiite and what not.
Alcohol was a strict no-no for me to consume anywhere in the residential premises and late coming home after 10 PM was an uncivilised act not easily pardoned. Physical well being was a must and I had to keep a check on what I eat in the neighbourhood dabha, the roadside restaurant serving leavened bread, butter chicken, grilled red meat and spicy Madras curry. Anything oily or with enormous unsaturated fat was to be outright shunned according to the major sahib. To economize my monetary outflow, I was also nudged to use to the maximum, the office canteen serving subsidized food, opting for simpleton fare like dhal chawal (rice with lentils) which usually make the standard diet of infants down south.
That drove me to go for my own cooking which would be nothing more than a minimalist breakfast of bread and hot milk. The burnt toast I was skilled enough to make with remarkable consistency was from the Government manufactured and sold Modern Bread. Toasting was done on a Nutan stove manufactured and mass marketed by the Government owned Indian Oil Corporation. Kerosene, the fuel to keep the stove burning was also made available by the same Government undertaking. Not stopping at that, the Government with a motherly care for the citizens especially the teetotaller bachelors from down south, also made it a point to deliver through the state run Mother Diary, pasteurised rich creamy milk through automatic milk vending machines installed at most street corners.
Thus with the retired major and the Government of India taking due parental care of me, it would become my prime duty to abide by their regulations as a token of gratitude. Though I could once in a while forego the regulations of the Government, it would be important I should not drift away from the benevolent control regimen of the retired major. I knew I heavily ran the risk of getting thrown out of the residential premises in that case. Marriage was a pipe dream those days as the elders in the family had much important things to do like attending music concerts, standing at the tail end of serpentine queues to buy a state lottery ticket and being on ‘fasting on snacks’ requesting the blessings of specific deities, perhaps for winning the lottery. You don’t consume rice on these ‘fasting’ days and can contently settle upon a diet of high-on carbohydrate refreshments like idly, dosa and vada, thrice a day!
At office, my role definition again underwent a change. When there was not much work to do at the information front, I was supposed to play the role of a front desk executive as well. Both reckoned together, would require an immense capacity for endurance and a lot of stamina to interact with the customers and the computers. My landlord, the retired major declared in all solemnity that it would be in order for me without losing further time to take a plunge into a daily routine of running, to keep me fit as a Stradivarius fiddle. That indeed set the tone of my morning marathons.
Every morning pat at 5 AM the retired major would keep banging on the doors of my apartment to wake me as well the entire neighbourhood up. Then, I had to take to my heels without fail, in his august company. As we would start running beneath the then newly constructed Defence Colony Flyover at a stone’s throw from our place, for a warm up run, he would pull up and goad me to proceed further, run up to and into Lodhi Gardens and duly return without any respite in between.
Lodhi Gardens are the resting place for a considerable number of Delhi sultanate rulers of the 15th Century and their kith and kin. More than anywhere else in Delhi, they are there in eternal slumber in ornamental tombs. That would explain my running in the land of dead as the day broke in all its splendour.
The Government appeared to have gone a step or a few laps further. In addition to making available to me all Governmental goodness as nutritious bread, tasty milk, subsidised kerosene and best of the breed stove to take care of myself, I also had a sort of Government company during my daily walks. The Deputy Prime Minister of the then predecessor Government who was a humility-personified septuagenarian, used to take a stroll at the same gardens where I was running for good. Being one with plain simple rustic manners, he never failed to impress me with his benign smiles and unassuming demeanour. If not for my landlord or the then ruling Government, it was for the pleasure of smiling back at him and for the occasional exchange of pleasantries, I would not mind running or jogging around all time in the gardens, provided my office approved of that.
As the elderly statesman would take slow strides not necessarily because of age but also due to his presumably making mental notes on how to manoeuvre his next political move, I would be reckoning when I could conclude my run and proceed right away to the dinky south Indian eatery in Lodhi colony. Of course, on Sundays, I made it a point not to cook at home, Major willing or not. At half past seven, that modest eatery would often open to serve hot idly and vada for breakfast along with a small cup of strong filter coffee. Thirty minutes after, the eatery would commence serving upma cooked in a haste and tepid coffee with the second extract of the coffee decoction cajoled out of an already drained coffee filter. A timely entry at the eatery for a sumptuous breakfast would set the tone of my return run homewards as well.
Those cemetery runs made me what I am now – running ever since.
After a stint in the Capital of India that lasted for four years, I was transferred to Mumbai then called Bombay, again with a small promotion to go along with the transfer. From a simple techno banker I had turned into a senior techno banker, though I am still clueless as to what kind of expertise and experience I had accumulated to qualify for the senior tag.
It was my first day in Bombay. The runner in me activated the biological clock sharp at 5 AM at my Matunga residence and I, feeling fresh, sprang up and darted into the Gymkana Club grounds near my place, as it was still dark everywhere with the metro waiting for the day to be born, new.
The vast expanse of the playground was not deserted on the wee hours of the day, as I thought. As my trainer clad feet felt something on the ground, I slowed up my run and then abruptly pulled up utterly shocked as rows of men and women rose from the ground, wriggling out of their blankets, men hastily pulling up their pajamas and women tucking into their waist their sarees and covering their bare chest with their hands. They started shouting at me in a medley of languages that I guess was with choice cuss words as I had intruded into their privacy and slumber. They all used the playground for their respite at night under the open sky and were reluctant to be woken up at the early hours by an itinerant jogger quite new to the city and its ways.
I walked down the path, mentally counting all those underprivileged I could spot in that vast space when I was hit on my forehead by a projectile. It was a kookaburra cricket ball bowled at an appropriate pace to bend in search of me and hit me hard. Benumbed with pain I stood there massaging my temple when a chorus of distant voices demanded I throw the ball back to them immediately and clear off. The neighbourhood cricket team had earnestly started their Sunday morning practice with no knowledge about my interruption, as I came to know a little while later.
A regular Bombayite foe of mine on being told of this aborted attempt to keep fit in Bombay casually observed –
‘in any case you will from tomorrow start running up and down all the foot over bridges and will be meandering your course through crowded rail platforms to catch the 9:17 Dadar Fast VT, 9.48 Brwli slow Chgate, 9:21 Chmbr Fast Dckyrd Rd, 18:03 VT Slow Thane…’
He went on merrily like a control tower admonishing a trainee pilot for flying too close to the airport, expressing strong sentiments about his altitudinal and attitudinal issues before providing navigational guidance. He was a walking suburban railway time table with awareness of all short and long names and in-depth knowledge of how the local train life line of Bombay operates through all the three major routes. He had a point, after all, I understood.
Enlightened thus, I became voluntarily oblivious to the bite by the runner’s bug, developing a thick skin and packed my trainers back in the wooden box, pushed deep into the attic.
Having quit the bank’s services a few years thereafter, I commenced my stint at San Jose, California as a banking project manager for an Information Technology major. This major is not a friendly human being like my erstwhile landlord in Delhi but a corporate who would expect me, anointed as a banking project manager, to know in depth about a thousand and three hundred and eighty seven aspects of retail, corporate, private, commercial and all other types of banking and banks except Blood Bank. Based in California, I and my small team of Japanese professionals had to touch base with a group of Japanese in Tokyo and stay in touch with another two in Yokohama and Kyoto. These groups constituted mostly of pretty young Japanese women who kept uttering ‘moshi, moshi’ – that means, ‘hello, hello’ – and were smiling smartly in both Japanese and in English throughout the daily long-haul and long-drawn video conferences, often more than adequately compensating for their knowledge gap in the spaces of banking as well as technology. I know it all sounds inappropriate to touch base and stay in touch with these charming ladies for official purposes, but, corporate jargons being corporate jargons, we could do nothing about that.
The Japanese are work horses who never tire of working at desk for twenty hours a day or more and through seven days a week. They appeared to view going home at the end of the day a carnal sin and were fully convinced that the very purpose of existence is for working at office till one faints down dead. Appropriately sensitized culturally and imbibing the Japanese work culture, I plunged headlong into work, reducing effectively the time available for all other pursuits in life with my daily exercising routines of running and jogging becoming the major causalities.
It was then I commenced waking to office, a task that would have been earnestly carried out by only two persons in the whole of USA at the turn of the present century. The second individual was one of my Japanese colleagues impressed and influenced sufficiently by me, who joined me in the last mile of my walk, discussing nothing else except the project in progress in terms of application widgets produced, tested, certified and integrated. He sometimes walked all the way from the neighbourhood town of Fremont, where he stayed.
Departing from the USA, I travelled to Europe as the call of duty came from there through an email instructing me to land forthwith in the United Kingdom. To start with, I was having my lodging at Cromwell Road in London, near the Earls’ Court tube station. Like a fish taking to water, on a beautiful English summer morning, I pushed myself into my pair of jeans and canvass shoes, ready to run all the way to Kensington Gardens. My friendly Pakistani inn keeper told me to tread with caution in pre dawn London metropolis, especially while in parks and other public enclosures.
‘While jogging at Kensington Gardens, every now and then, stop, turn around and make sure no one is following you’, he suggested. He explained such caution is necessary to be exercised as these are the times when joggers are waylaid and walkers are mugged even in the mother of all cities.
I abided by his words of caution and on reaching Kensington Gardens, conducted a peculiar routine like the comedian in an Indian mythological film who appears as the side kick of the villainous magician – I ran with gusto a few yards, stopped abruptly, did a ninety degrees smart right turn, cast a hawkish look at both sides, turned another right angle clockwise, looked at the path I have traversed, turned 180 degrees again and resumed running. The calamity extended further, I have to say. An aged baroness looking British lady who could be a wealthy resident of the posh Kensington neighbourhood was taking her little poodle for a walk, on leash. The dog on looking at my gyrations was somewhat terrified and though seemingly house trained, eased itself well ahead of entering the ‘Pets’ Toilet’ area. The lady with the dog with a downcast look of she having committed a heinous offence, walked fast past me, admonishing the dog in whispers.
Last week, when dawn broke in Chennai, I sprang up from my bed and imbibing a mug full of hot and strong filter coffee, I set out on my running routine.
The problems started erupting even as I began searching for my shoe laces beneath the bed. August is one of the months in Chennai when it is sultry even at early morning and the weather becomes unbearably hot during the day. Of course it is so for eleven out of twelve months of the year and Chennaites are perfectly tuned to this, sweating it out nonchalantly while engrossed in all types of pursuits.
So, I changed to my pair of jeans and pulled up the socks. As I had the trainers in place and the laces tied up snug, I was drenched in sweat from head to toe, looking like a Hippopotamus amphibius out of water.
Do I take my mobile phone for my jogging? Being a corporate entity at the one up the bottom rung of the career ladder and with many more steps to go, our customers and clients would always be willing to pounce on me and reduce me to a piece of excreta for some perceived bug in the software or for a week’s delay in making the deliverables as committed. Not to disappoint them, I pushed the mobile phone deep into my trouser packet. My sixth sense warned me that the smart phone may fall down while on the run which would be the best thing to happen in the short run but would definitely be bringing in more problems in its wake, strategically. The phone was then clipped to the waist belt along with the lengthy chord terminating at a pair of tiny interconnected head phones, making me look like a trainee astronaut about to practice his moon walk.
Time to run, my senses signalled. What about my pair of spectacles? Without it will I be able to spot the hindrances big and small on the way? These would be in the form of trenches created by stealthily removed manhole covers, the steep speed breakers to be negotiated like going up and coming down a hill and shallow pits dug out by the electricity, telecom and water supply departments of the Government for maintenance of supply lines or for sheer fun. Overnight rains would convert these dug outs into micro reservoirs perfect for breeding all exotic species of mosquitos. Without the glasses, I would be easily entrapped anywhere down the road. The glasses were duly picked up, worn and securely fastened. And the wallet too got in.
I started in right earnest with my trouser pockets bulging at the seams. I ran wherever the footpath was laid and was available for jogging without any squatter or a parked vehicle blocking my way. Where there was an encroachment on the pavement, I took to the road braving a traffic menacingly building up bi-directionally as speeding buses, water tankers, fish carts and recklessly driven rickety three wheelers painted yellow and two wheelers occupying every inch of the road moved at breakneck speed. I deftly negotiated my way away from the diesel and petrol monsters racing on the bitumen and reached the park.
A huge gathering of people was moving at fox-trot, two in a row and one row closely following the other, looking very much like the official delegation accompanying a minister of state on an official visit from another nation, walking with all respect, dignity and solemnity to place a wreath at the cemetery of a national leader. They were supposed to be the joggers and walkers and the park won’t be accommodating one more. I turned and ran away from the urban crowd back into the concrete jungle.
(The Wagon Magazine – Sep 2016 issue)