Sunday, 27 May 2012

Book Review: "A Calendar Too Crowded", written by Sagarika Chakraborty

Ever since 1992 came to be known as the Year of the Woman, awareness about women’s rights has increased and every month there are more and more events meant to create awareness about the rights of the girl child or women’s rights in general. So much so that, according to Sagarika Chakraborty, author of A Calendar Too Crowded, the calendar seems to be getting rather crowded. If 24 January is the National Day for the Girl Child in India, 6 February is International Day Against Female Genital Mutilation, 8 March is International Women’s Day, 18 April is Anti-Harassment Day in Egypt, the 2nd Sunday of May is Mother’s Day (not everywhere, but Chakraborty doesn’t say this) , the first week of August is World Breast-Feeding Week, 26 August is Women’s Equality Day in the USA, 24 September is International Girl Child Day, 25 November is Anti-Domestic Violence Day, 26 November is Anti-Dowry Day in India and 9 December is Anti-Human Trafficking Day. These are just some of the days which Chakraborty’s A Calendar Too Crowded mentions prior to the commencement of each of the 12 sections, one for each month in the crowded calendar, with two or three stories or essays in each section.

Chakraborty also tells us that 4 April is Anti-Child Prostitution Day in Italy, that 21 June is Anti-Eve Teasing Molestation Day in India, that 24 October is World Silence Day (Anti-Selective-Abortion Day), but I couldn’t find anything on the internet for these days. Her claim that 2 February is International Widow’s Day in Italy seems to be wrong. According to this UN website, it is 23 June across the world. 1 July is claimed to be Daughter’s Day – nothing much on the internet, but this website says 1 July is Doctor’s Day. Some of the doctors celebrating Doctor’s Day might be daughters, I guess.

The point which Chakraborty tries to make is that though it looks as if a lot has been achieved, women’s rights have a long way to go. Using a mix of stories, essays and poetry to convey her point, Chakraborty covers issues ranging from dowry deaths to harassment and violence on the roads, to trauma inflicted on a woman when unable to bear children, to a woman getting her priorities right. The points made by Chakraborty are all well-made, though at times I wasn’t too sure if the most optimum delivery mechanism was being used to convey her points. For example, while reading what appears to be an essay written in the first person by a woman whose daughter has been conceived with donated sperm, I wasn’t sure if I ought to treat it as a story or an a work of non-fiction though it is written in the first person. I assume Chakraborty isn’t telling her own story – she is a law graduate from the National Law University at Jodhpur, currently studying management at the Indian School of Business at Hyderabad. However, the point made by the essay, that even though the narrator has brought up her daughter to be independent and, unlike a traditional Indian woman, to think of oneself first before worrying about the rest of the family, the narrator’s daughter doesn’t seem to share her mother’s views, is a valid one.

But then again, as I see my daughter explain to her friend that she would stay at home and cook dinner, while the friend took the make believe kid to the pool, I wonder if my independence too is really an elaborately constructed facade that hides a more traditional feminine desire to be protected and provided for? In my attempt to raise my daughter with the lesson that she has the right to call off any relationship at any point and not stick by it like her grandmothers have, I might be shielding her from domestic pressures of marriage and domesticity, but introducing her to new ones, such as the pressure to be strong, completely independent, shunning, even the slightest help from men.

Atleast once I thought an essay written in the first person is Chakraborty’s own story. In ‘When The Ganges Ran Dry’, the narrator analyses her grandmother’s approach to pollution on account of caste, such as when the domestic staff touch her food or puja articles. But then towards the end of the essay I came across the narrator’s husband and child and other paraphernalia. Which meant, this couldn’t be Chakraborty’s story. You see, I do have a problem classifying stuff like this. This essay is obviously not a true story. Maybe parts of it are true. Though the point made by this story is very valid, the legitimacy of the argument is undercut by the fact that this is fiction masquerading as non-fiction.

Many of the story cum essays have stayed with me even after I put the book down. In one, the narrator is a mother-to-be who follows the mother of a boy for a day as she takes the boy to the school bus, carrying his school bag, holding an umbrella over his head and fretting over and pampering him. There is no doubt that in terms of priorities, the boy and the boy’s father tower over the mother. As she observes the all-sacrificing mother, the narrator briefly wonders if she should abort her own child, but then decides to embrace motherhood because she has learnt what she does not want to be. ‘Today I am ready to embrace motherhood because I am ready to raise a child as a human being rather than a wish fulfilling machine who will make up for the things my husband and I couldn’t accomplish. .... For once I want the realisation to set in that kids are not the bearers of our unfulfilled dreams and that we should not make the sacrifices which we have seen our parents make.’ I can’t say I fully agree with the last bit of that statement. Is Chakraborty against parents making sacrifices because usually it is the mother who makes most of them? If so, she could have expressed herself better.

The best piece of the lot is a set of letters, one written by a commercial sex worker to her daughter and the daughter’s reply, written while on a flight to Berlin to pick up an award. Almost as good is the essay about a fashion model’s travails as she looks for standards and ethics in a work place where the designer’s hand traverses her derriere with a sense of entitlement. Off she goes to the police station to file a complaint and does she fare any better out there? I don’t want to give away much here. Do read this very interesting and even more unusual book to find out more.

What appears to be picture perfect on the surface might not be so tranquil underneath. A perfect mother-in-law gets a perfect daughter-in-law. As months pass, the distrust grows and bruises appear. The daughter-in-law was always clumsy handling the kerosene stove and one day it explodes. Nothing out of the ordinary – we are told at the end of the story that ‘one dowry death occurs in India every four hours. That for every one reported case, 299 cases go unreported and of all the reported ones, only five percent of the total number are actually pursued.

Some of the stories fall outside the pale of women’s rights. One deals with the treatment of senior citizens, the other deals with adoption and the third is about nationality, which Chakroborty calls a priceless gift. All three topics are dealt through fiction, with mixed results. The treatment of senior citizens is handled fairly well. Children are only too happy to dump their parents in homes for the aged. In this story, when a mother accepts a proposal from a fellow resident, the son who lives overseas, throws a fit. The story about adoption revolves around a girl, but it could just as well have been about a boy. The story meant to convey how one’s nationality is the most priceless gift didn’t really work for me. Set in an unnamed foreign country, the father and the two sons don’t relate to India anymore. The sons don’t speak Gujarati. In between, the mother rushes off for an ‘office emergency’, a trafficked girl has been brought in and she has to help. The girl who has bruises all over, is a Tibetan who was born in China, lived in Nepal and India for a while before being trafficked to the West, doesn’t have any nationality. When the narrator gets back home, she is even more convinced that nationality is the most precious gift and as she helps her son write as essay on his most-prized possession, you can well guess what subject she would choose.

The Homecoming is a story, thankfully narrated in the third person, of a woman coming face-to-face with a man who had rejected her while in college. The woman is now happily married, but is still flustered to meet her ex-crush, as long-forgotten memories are revived. How does the story end? Is the woman happy to see the man she was once in love with? Do read this book to find out more for yourself.

Chakraborty writes well with the authority and ease of someone with a lot of experience and understanding. However, atleast once this doesn’t work too well. In one tale, a home-maker attends a class reunion. Just before she leaves the house, she has to help her mother-in-law go to the toilet. She doesn’t get the time to dress up the way she wanted. At the reunion, everyone ignores her as an underachiever who has put on weight. ‘Families were dissected, in-laws were debated upon, husbands and their jobs were held up as the touchstone by which personal success was measured.’ However, with some prompting from an old teacher, everyone discovers that their bookshelves contained books written by her, that the places they went on holidays she travelled to for work, that she has won an UN award for fighting for the cause of the girl child in third world countries. It turns out that her husband has even more accomplishments. After the programme, the lady is not to be found, for she has left, to go on a long, romantic drive with her husband, after which she goes to a slum where she educates slum-dwellers about the dangers of arsenic infected water storage, hygiene etc., after which she goes home to make it up to in-laws for the special Sunday lunch they had missed out because of her class reunion, after which she tucks her daughter to sleep with a story, after which she shares a drink with her husband as she explains to her husband ........ The whole story seemed to be totally unrealistic and contrived. I even didn’t fully get the point being made – that a woman can cram in a lot into her day, achieve so much and still remain down-to-earth?

On the whole, this is an interesting book, worth reading if you are interested in women’s rights issues or if you are merely curious to understand the point of view of a dyed-in-the-wood feminist.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Book Review: The Taliban Cricket Club, by Timeri N. Murari

For a few weeks after I read Kite Runner, I was a Khaled Hosseini fan. Later, as I reflected on the story, I had a nagging feeling that it had demarcated good and evil into boxes that did not offer the possibility of any overlap. Grey did not exist. That was 2003. Over the years, one got a better idea of the Afghan conundrum, in particular of the Taliban. Hosseini had made them all out to be illiterate paedophiles who, when they weren’t sodomising young boys, went around beating up women and killing people for no reason at all. Soon one realised that some of the Afghan warlords on the side of the West had a worse record than the Taliban. Also, the Taliban, for all their faults, do not permit abuse of young boys. In fact, the Taliban have a better record in putting down Bacha Bazi than some of Karzai’s allies, though when it comes to women’s rights, the Taliban are peerless. These days, the Taliban even write poetry.

Now in 2012 along comes a novel written by a reputed journalist who takes us back to 2003. The Taliban are pure evil and without them, Kabul would have been a wonderful city. Rukhsana is a young journalist, in her twenties I presume, the daughter of an Afghan diplomat, who has spent some time in Delhi. After the Taliban come to power, Rukhsana is unable to work as a journalist or file reports in her own name. To make things worse, Rukhsana catches the eye of a Taliban Minister, the nasty Zorak Wahidi who heads the worst of all ministries, the Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The only individual who seems to be even more evil than Wahidi is his brother Droon. Wahidi wants to marry Rukhsana, so that he can reform her, and the only excuse Rukhsana and her family can come up is that Rukhsana is engaged to her childhood sweetheart Shaheen, who has already escaped to the United States and is expected to send for Rukhsana. Wahidi is in no mood to accept such an excuse.

Like many others in Kabul, Rukhsana and her cousins dream of escaping from Afghanistan. Paying money to a human smuggler seems to be the only way out and everyone is trying to scrape together the money for that. ‘Of course when the time came, I would be very earth bound, with a smuggler, in the company of others fleeing our native land. I could be the lone woman and that made me afraid. I had heard that, apart from the bribe, the border guards would also demand a woman’s body for their quick use, and to refuse them, was to be denied passage.’ How true is this statement, I wonder. There are hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran. Did all or even most of the women among them offer their bodies to border guards to be allowed to escape from Afghanistan? I couldn’t help remember that spectacular scene in the Kite Runner where the young protagonist Amir’s father puts his foot down, at the risk of his own life, to save the honour of a young woman travelling with them, from the predation of a border guard.

As luck would have it, the Taliban decide to promote cricket and announce a cricket tournament. Though they frown upon sports in general, non-contact cricket has gained favour in the eyes of the guardians of Islam. The winning team is to be sent to Pakistan for better training so that they can come back to further promote cricket in Afghanistan. It doesn’t take Rukhsana, who attended college in Delhi and played cricket there, much time to decide to form a team composed of her cousins and teach them cricket. The idea is to win the tournament, travel to Pakistan and to never return to Afghanistan. As she turns into a cricket coach, Rukhsana goes into male disguise and as Babur, gains freedom of movement.

While in Delhi, Rukhsana had made various friends, one of whom, Veer, is a very special friend, one she longs for, even as she is engaged to Shaheen. Rukhsana’s memories of Delhi are happy ones, and Delhi is made to appear to be a clean and modern city, where happiness reigns everywhere. Murari’s description of Kabul is not very different from that of Hosseni. Rukhsana, her cousins and friends defy the Taliban in innumerable silent ways. The Taliban beat women and carry out executions at the drop of a hat.

Can Rukhsana successfully train her cricket team to win the tournament and escape to Pakistan, from where they hope to escape to the West and seek asylum? Written in simple English with an Enid Blytonesque feel to it at times, you could enjoy The Taliban Cricket Club if are able to shut out the black and white background and ignore the various clichés and stereotypes that Murari has resorted to.


Rukhsana’s fiancé Shaheen breaks off the engagement. Rukhsana doesn’t mind, though her family is upset. As I had expected, though Rukhsana isn’t meant to actually play in the tournament, she finally does, in male disguise. Just before the tournament starts, Veer turns up in Kabul to take Rukhsana away. Veer is made part of the team, without disguising the fact that he is an Indian. There are only four teams in the tournament which is officiated by an MCC official. The players turn up for the final match with their passports. Rukhsana’s team win the tournament, but Wahidi refuses to honour his promise to let them leave. Instead, the Afghan State Cricket team which lost the final is allowed to leave for Pakistan. Rukhsana’s team members lock up the state team in their washroom (a large communal one for all the players, which is very convenient), and escape with their official jackets, which has their passports. The story ends at Karachi airport where they get rid of their official jackets and stolen passports. They have their genuine passports with them and they go their merry ways. Veer and Rukhsana are to fly to Delhi from where they will travel to New York.

I didn’t like the fact that the final tournament is described rather briefly in this 320-odd pages book. There is very little excitement as Murari takes us through the three games that comprise the entire tournament, except towards the end of the final, when Rukhsana takes a scintillating catch behind the wickets that practically wins the game for them. I also found it difficult to digest that Veer, Rukhsana and the cousins escape to Karachi on stolen passports and consider themselves safe once they are outside Karachi airport.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Book Review: “Chinaman – The Legend of Pradeep Mathew” by Shehan Karunatilaka

A Chinaman is not a man from China, but a delivery by a bowler in a game of cricket where the ball is drifted in a wayward manner to pitch outside the batsman’s feet, only to suddenly turn in towards the batsman. We are told that such a delivery was originally bowled by Ellis Achong, a West Indian of Chinese descent. The Chinaman was Pradeep Mathew’s stock delivery in his role as a Sri Lankan bowler.

Karunatilaka’s Chinaman is a book of exquisite beauty, at times raw and crude, at times fine and sensitive, about cricket and a cricketer named Pradeep Sivanathan Mathew, who is at times called Mathew Pradeepan Sivanathan. One is never sure if the first name is Mathew or Pradeep or even Pradeepan. In ethnically sensitive Sri Lanka, Pradeep Mathew is classified as a Tamil, though his mother is Sinhalese.

Chinaman is narrated by Wijedasa Gamini Karunasena, a sports journalist who is fanatic about sport in general and cricket in particular. Wije, as the narrator is called by many, has seen Pradeep Mathew bowl and thinks he is the greatest Sri Lankan cricketer ever. Unfortunately Pradeep Mathew seems to have disappeared and might even be dead. Even more unfortunate is that there are few public records of Pradeep Mathew’s achievements. A temperamental man who was shy and honest, Pradeep could twist his wrist almost by 360 degrees which enabled him to spin the ball much more than the average bowler and bowl various types of unplayable spin. We are told that there was a time when Pradeep Mathew was a pace bowler. Normally left-handed, he could also bowl with his right hand. Apparently Pradeep Mathew could imitate practically all well-known international bowlers, both pace bowlers and spinners. If this doesn’t stretch your incredulity, then here goes: When Pradeep Mathew was young, he was drafted in to play for Royal College in Sri Lanka’s fiercely competitive inter-school cricket tournament, though he was actually a student of Thurstan. However, Pradeep Mathew didn’t play as himself. ‘In the first match he wore a double T-shirt and played the role of burly pacey Nalliah de Silva. Against Nalanda, he wore a gold chain and mimicked Chanaka Devarajan, de Silva’s new ball partner. He took four wickets and ripped the spine out of a Nalanda batting line-up featuring future international stars Roshan Gurusinha and Hashan Mahanama. In the St. Joseph’s match, he masqueraded as star spinner Rochana Amarasinghe, while his namesake recuperated from an ankle-sprain. His spell of 6-72 livened up an otherwise drab game.’ One’s incredulity isn’t stretched to breakpoint since Karunatilaka has all Royal College players in sunglasses, sunscreen and hats.

Pradeep played a few international games – just a handful. For reasons which can’t be explained in a book review, there are no records of those games and no one remembers Pradeep Mathew who was instrumental in persuading the Sri Lankan captain to not take Aussie sledging like a gentleman, but to pay back in equal measure. A man who never endeared himself to seniors in the cricket team or to selectors, Pradeep Mathew was infatuated with a girl Shirali for whom he wrote poetry and was even prepared to give up cricket.

To add spice to the story, the narrator Wije has ruined his liver by excessive drinking. Wije cannot write unless he drinks. Warned by doctor that he would die in a year or two if he did not stop drinking, Wije has decided to continue drinking and look for Pradeep Mathew. Wije is aided in his search by his friend Ari – Ariyaratne Cletus Byrd. Does Wije succeed in his search? Do please read this wonderful book to find out.

Chinaman is politically incorrect and does not make any bones about it. Rather, it celebrates political incorrectness (of a bygone era) in a very pleasing manner so that no one is really offended. Wije the narrator leads a life which is revealed in great detail, just as Pradeep Mathew remains an enigma till the end. Married to a Christian woman Sheila, with an only son who is called Garfield from whom Wije is estranged, the fun loving Wije fits into the stereotype of a typical hard-drinking sports journalist who cares a lot more about sports and having fun rather than his longevity. Towards the end we find out that Garfield’s real first name is Shehan, same as the author. As much as Chinaman is the story of Pradeep Mathew and Wije, Karunatilaka’s satire also makes it the story of Sri Lanka and its society as it goes through so much pain and suffering on account of its inability to deal with its ethnic divide. For cricket aficionados, the various cricketing anecdotes and trivia make this 500-odd page tome a must-read. Non-Statutory Warning: If you are not a cricket fan, it is possible you may turn into one by the time you finish this novel which won the DSC prize for South Asian literature at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Book Review: “Beautiful Country – Stories From Another India” by Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda

Two sensible and clever women travel all around India, meet interesting people and hear stories which are at times exciting ones with a happy ending and at times sad ones which show extreme poverty and hardship. There are more of the latter. Nevertheless, Beautiful Country is a very good read as the stories are from Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland in the North-East, West Bengal in the East, Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the South, Maharashtra in the West, Madhya Pradesh and the tribal belts of Gadchiroli and Ganiyari in Central India, Rajasthan in the North West, Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Utttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana in the North and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Frankly, even for an Indian, the stories come as an eye opener as one gets to learn so many new things. This is especially true with regard to the chapters on the north east. I learnt why the Khasi tribes of Meghalaya greet visitors with Kwai (a combination of betel leaves, betel nuts and lime paste), how random and unauthorised coal mining is playing havoc with the environment in Meghalaya, why Manipuri Muslims are called Meitei Pangal and how Meitei Mayak, Manipur’s original script was replaced by the Bengali script.

The narration is matter of fact, without embellishments, but is nevertheless riveting. For example, after taking us through the Sundarbans, we are told that ‘it has often been said that the sundarbans represents one of the final frontiers between humans and nature. This is the story of the constant tussle between people and animals, a story of human tenacity in the face of great adversity and of human greed and its consequences; a story that is often lost in the silence of the winding creeks and marshy forests that unite the two.

The authors meet many individuals fighting the might of the State. Irom Sharmila is mentioned in notes of admiration and awe. In Kashmir, we find that even though one and a half years have elapsed since the earth quake of October 2005, villagers continue to live inside tin sheds, without water or jobs. Poverty and even starvation deaths are in abundance in central India. Village schools do not have sufficient infrastructure. However, it is the stories which come out of the Andamans, one of innocent exploited tribals struggling to survive, which affected me the most.

However, one important aspect of this book befuddled me. Of the two authors, Syeda Hameed is a member of the Indian Government’s Planning Commission. The other, Gunjan Veda is a former journalist who has been an officer on special duty with the Planning Commission. In case you didn’t know, the Planning Commission is a body which was originally set up to formulate five year plans for India’s growth. Members of the Planning Commission are essentially bureaucrats - the Indian Prime Minister is the ex-officio Chairman of the Planning Commission and its Deputy Chairman is a member of the Cabinet. When Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda travel around India, they are on official tour and are taken in government vehicles and boats (in places like Kerala and West Bengal). Despite being a part of the government, the narrative would have you believe that the authors are a couple of college kids who are fighting the system. Reading this 350 odd-page tome, at times I wanted to shout, ‘for chrissakes, which side are you on? If you find so many things to be wrong, why don’t you do something about it?

For example, when Hameed and Veda meet with prostitutes in Varanasi’s red light district, they find that many of them have been beaten by policemen who take it on themselves to enforce their own code of conduct on the hapless women. Hameed and Veda argue with the cops. ‘Do you not know that in our country prostitution is not illegal; only public soliciting is.?’ “Madam,I don’t know if their paisha (profession) is forbidden by law or not. I don’t even need to know.’ The arguments go back and forth. The exploited women show Hameed and Veda their bruises. ‘If you touch these women, you will have to face the consequences,’ they threaten the policemen. The threat works, but Hameed and Veda wonder how long it would hold. I was left wondering if this was the best a member of the Planning Commission could do when faced with such injustice.

There are a few instances where Hameed and Veda ‘did something about it.’ While in Kashmir, Hameed and Veda heard that the National Foundation for Communal Harmony, a part of the Ministry of Home Afffairs, funds the education of orphans of militancy. Children of militants, especially of men who have crossed over to Pakistan and then heard of no more or of men who were killed and then declared to be militants, did not qualify. Hameed and Veda showed sympathy for the view that ‘children are children’ and should not be discriminated. We are told that they took up this issue and now the Foundation funds the education of both orphans of militancy and of militants.

I guess this isn’t meant to be a book about how after travelling to a particular place, Syeda Hameed went back to Delhi, fought the powers that be and made changes in policy which made a helluva difference to the people she just visited. This book is only meant to be a collection of stories from various parts of a beautiful country, written by two sensitive individuals, which tug the heart-strings of the reader, however cynical he or she might be.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

‘When the Snow Melts’ Goes To Press

My novel ‘When the Snow Melts’ has finally gone to press! I had received an offer for it from Amaryllis in December 2010!

I’ve been saying this for a bit, but When the Snow Melts should be on book shelves in a few months from now.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Book Review: Breakout Nations by Ruchir Sharma

Credentials can’t come better than this. Ruchir Sharma, author of recent best-seller Breakout Nations, is head of Emerging Market Equities and Global Macro at Morgan Stanley Investment Management. A regular contributor to Wall Street Journal and Economic Times, Sharma is also a contributor editor for Newsweek. A man who travels often to various emerging nations for his work, Sharma has put forth a theory on how emerging markets will evolve in the foreseeable future. In the last decade all emerging markets grew (at varying rates of growth), but according to Sharma, it’s time to stop regarding all emerging markets through the same global lens. Each geography is different in various respects and not all the players are going to make through to the ranks of the developed world. There is no reason to believe China will continue growing at 8 or 9 percent, neither will India continue to move forward forever at 8 percent. Sharma gives even less of a chance for Brazil or Russia to breakout and make it to the league of developed nations.

The best thing about Breakout Nations is Sharma’s analyses based on his various observations as he takes his readers on a grand tour of various emerging markets. In addition to the usual suspects such as India, China, Russia and Brazil, he also goes to places such as Nigeria, Mexico and Turkey. China has built up infrastructure, but not all of it is in the right place nor is it always appropriate for China. Shanghai’s maglev train (short for magnetic levitation) which takes eight minutes to travel from Longyan Road to Pudong International Airport travels at 270 miles an hour and uses technology that is currently not used anywhere else in the world, is a case in point. After reaching the airport in eight minutes on the maglev, it takes longer to reach the terminal. The starting point - Longyan Road – is also in the middle of nowhere. A ticket on the maglev costs $8.00 and most people prefer to pay $1.50 for the metro. When Sharma took the maglev with a colleague, they were the only passengers on the train. Brazil on the other hand, is the exact opposite. It suffers from a lack of infrastructure. Its roads are so bad and so unreliable that ‘it costs more to truck soy from the plantations of Mato Grosso to the coast that it does to ship the soy from those ports to China.’ According to a 2011 newspaper report in a Rio paper (O Globo), in Brazil croissants are more expensive in Paris, haircuts cost more than they do in London, bike rentals are more expensive than in Amsterdam and movie tickets sell for more than they do in Madrid.

India’s high population and equally high growth rate was supposed to be a problem, but now it is considered to be a demographic dividend since India’s policy planner have taken the view that China’s high growth is be partly the result of a baby boom. ‘India’s confidence ignored the post-war experience of many countries in Africa and the Middle East, where a flood of young people into the labor market produced unemployment, unrest, and more mouths to feed. The conventional view is that India will be able to put all those people to work because of its relatively strong educational system, entrepreneurial zeal and strong links to the global economy. All of that is real, but India is already showing some of the warning signs of failed growth stories, including early-onset overconfidence. Most outsiders were just as confident before the recent signs of trouble. I put the probability of India continuing its journey as a breakout nation this decade at closer to 50 percent, owing to a whole series of risks that the Indian and foreign elites leave out of the picture, including bloated government, crony capitalism, falling turnover among the rich and powerful and a disturbing tendency of farmers to stay on the farm.

India and Brazil have a lot in common, though one is a commodity exporter and the other a net-importer. Both are ‘high context’ societies, where ‘people are colorful, noisy, quick to make promises that cannot always be relied on, and a bit casual about meeting times and deadlines.’ This is in contrast with low context societies in the USA and Germany ‘in which people are individual oriented, care about privacy and are much more likely to stick to timeslines and their word.’ In a number of developing countries such as India, Brazil and South Africa, private enterprises have a tendency to look overseas. This is actually a sign of weakness since it means it is not easy to do business in the domestic market. Also, ‘if a country is generating too many billionaires to the size of its economy, it is off balance.’ India has more billionaires than China. Only the US, Russia and Germany have more billionaires than India. What’s worse, many of India’s billionaires have made their money through government patronage and unlike China, India’s billionaire list has a slow turnover.

Just as various emerging markets are different, each Indian state is different from others. Sharma says that foreign investors are slowly learning to look at India on the lines of the United States of Europe. Indian states in Central and North India like Bihar are fast catching up and have higher growth rates than the ones in the South. Sharma concludes that India has a good chance of being a breakout nation, a higher chance than the 50% Sharma gives China. ‘No other large economy has so many stars aligned in its favour, from its demographic profile to its entrepreneurial energy, and perhaps most important, an annual per capita income that is only one-fourth of China’s. But destiny can never be taken for granted. Indian policy makers cannot assume that demographics will triumph and that problems such as rising crony capitalism and increased welfare spending are just sideshows instead of major challenges. These are exactly the factors that have prematurely chocked growth in other emerging markets.'

Brazil may have lousy infrastructure, when compared with China, but its stock market is ‘hot’ unlike China’s. This is because Brazilian companies are forced to be disciplined on account of the high cost of borrowing and are highly profitable – hence the Brazilian stock market booms. In China, there is little fiscal discipline since the focus is on growth at any cost.

Mexico is a bigger oligopoly than even Brazil with a handful of families and companies controlling the economy. At one point, the richest country in Latin America, it has now been overtaken by Brazil and Chile. Mexico’s economy will find it hard, though not impossible, to breakout. Russia is another nation whose ascent is in doubt. A nation of extreme wealth and poverty, Russia’s per capita income is $13,000 p.a., which is way above that of China (just above $4000) and India ($1,400). However, Sharma calls Russia ‘an oil state which has lost its way’ and gives it even less of a breakout chance than China.

Despite Russia, all is not lost in Eastern Europe which has a couple of sweet spots. The Czech Republic, which was a leading industrial nation in the 1920 and Poland are doing well. Hungary which was doing well has slipped up.

Sharma is highly appreciative of Turkey’s achievements after the Erdogan regime came to power. Though despised by many secular and modern Turks for their Islamic values and backwardness, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP has brought stability to Turkey, along with greater inclusiveness. Masses once excluded on account of their religious values now play a leading role in the economy. Erdogan has taken the middle ground on many issues and some of Turkey’s former elites have also come to appreciate the stability he has brought. After consolidating its hold on power, the AKP started using Putin-like tactics, but Sharma suggests that ‘Erdogan would prefer to be seen as a Turkish avatar of Lee Kuan Yew.' In stark contrast to Turkey is Malaysia which is yet to cast off the shadow of Mahathir Mohammad. Of the former Tiger economies, Malaysia is one which hasn’t recovered from the 1998 crisis which affected all the South-East Asian countries. Unlike Indonesia which addressed the issues which caused those problems, Mahathir Mohammed blamed malicious foreign speculators for the crisis. As a result, Malaysia has slid backwards.

Indonesia on the other hand is a commodity based economy which has not suffered on account of its income from commodities. Sharma calls it the best run large commodity economy where foreigners find it easy to do business. In the 1960s, the Philippines was a regional leader, but now it is a laggard with a few family owned conglomerates dominating the markets. However, its new President Benigno Aquino III seems to be a good leader who is ‘delegating power to competent technocrats and seems to understand what needs to be done to get the lights back on.’ Thailand too has suffered a number of downturns, but the new Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra offers hope.

Sharma calls South Korea the gold medallist among breakout nations, mainly because it has, in addition to developing its infrastructure, it developed global brands. This is unlike Taiwan which has stuck with manufacturing components for western companies and has little bargaining power over pricing since the manufacturing can be done anywhere else. South Korea too has a number of problems. For example, its service sector is underdeveloped. In case the two Koreas manage to reunify, South Korea would gain even more since it is in a position to utilise the disciplined workers of North Korea.

South Africa is another resource-rich nation, which after showing some promise after the end of apartheid, slipped into a state of inertia. A cappuccino economy (a white layer on top of black coffee with some dark chocolate sprinkled on top), South Africa has been moving towards a welfare state before it can afford it. In this respect it is similar to Brazil. In South Africa, wages rise faster than inflation. This coupled with powerful unions and a strong currency has resulted in deindustrialization. Again like Brazil, many South African businesses are very profitable but they look to foreign countries to expand and make profits. Many enterprises are still state owned and hence there are no cheap airfares to South Africa.

Sharma also examines a handful of countries he classifies as the Fourth World of Frontier Economies. These are countries where the rule of law has a limited franchise and where just as profits are high, so is the possibility of making a loss. All Gulf States fall into this category. So do countries like Nigeria and many African countries some of which show promise. Sri Lanka is also classified as a Frontier economy, one which is reaping its peace dividend. I feel that Sri Lanka ought to have been classified as a breakout nation rather than a frontier economy. As Sharma himself admits, even during the bleak days of the civil war, its economy grew at the rate of five percent.

Sharma tells us that ‘the richer a country is, the harder it is to grow national wealth at a rapid pace’ Another interesting rule promulgated by Sharma is that a country should ideally have more than one big city. The second city should have a population of atleast one-third to half that of the first city. Brazil has Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Korea has Seoul and Busan, Indonesia has Jakarta and Surabaya, but Thailand has only Bangkok, which has ten times as many people and the next largest city. This, according to Sharma, is a bad sign.

Is dictatorship better than democracy for emerging nations? Sharma suggests that rather than the actual system in place, what matters is the quality of the politicians. For example, Vietnam’s system is similar to that of China, but on account of inferior management, Vietnam does not show any sign of being a breakout nation despite a small flicker of hope in the middle of the last decade.

Sharma predicts that commodity prices are bound to fall. There was a time when many believed that the US Federal Reserve had mastered the art of making the economy go up without the occasional recession – it was thought that the boom-bust cycle was a thing of the past. Now with the benefit of hindsight, we know that it is not the case. Similarly, there are some who feel that commodity prices can only go up, that China will keep growing at the rate of nine percent forever. ‘ is driven by fear and a total lack of faith in human progress: fear of rising phalanx of emerging nations with an insatiable demand led by China, of predictions that the world is running out of oil and farmland, coupled with a lack of faith in the human capacity to devise answers, to find alternatives to oil or ways to make agricultural land more productive. It’s a Malthusian vision of struggle and scarcity: of prices driven up by falling supplies and wages pushed down by foreign companies.’ The hype about commodities 'has created a new industry that turns commodities into financial products that can be traded like stocks. Oil, wheat and platinum used to be sold primarily as raw materials, and now they are sold largely as speculative investments. Copper is piling up in bonded warehouses not because the owners plan to use it to make wire, but because speculators are sitting on it ......'

What will be the result when commodity prices crash? Will it lead to a global crash? Sharma argues that it will not. Also, Sharma feels that when China’s economy slows down, it will not come to a shuddering halt. Do please read this amazing book for Sharma’s rationale for his conclusions.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Book Review: Only Men Please, edited by Meenakshi Varma

Unisun's latest offering, a book full of short stories written by men, 35 of them, where the lead characters are almost entirely men. Only Men Please: Of men, by men, but for both men and women I guess. A number of stories such as the excellent Our Friendly Neighbourhood Murder by Sallil Desai or Good Night bye Shreekumar Varma, both of which have a male protagonist, do not smack of male-machoism or emanate the smell one usually associates with bachelor flats or male dormitories. A few such as Mathew Vincent Menacherry’s Buddies and Siddhath Srikanth’s Secondary Education do. In Dominic Franks’s The First Night, the newly married Mrs. Balsavvar plays as prominent and as decadent a role as her husband AK. Would this collection have been even better if the authors included women, but with the lead characters all being men? I think so. The greater diversity in approach, vision and imagination would have most probably resulted in a more interesting and exciting collection offering greater insight on men.

Almost all the stories are good, with topics ranging from war and martyrdom, to ditching a village damsel, to the loss of a beloved mango tree. I can’t point to a single story as my favourite, but I found Francis Mathew Alapattt’s Aadharam, Shreekumar Varma’s Good Night and Sallil Desai’s Our Friendly Neighbourhood Murder, to be among the best. In Aadharam, a young talented child gifts a painting to her uncle on New Year’s Day. It’s a simple gift from the heart, but it turns out that the painting is valuable and the elders get involved. A brilliant story, though whether it belongs to a collection of ‘male’ stories is a moot point. Good Night is brilliantly written, as Varma’s fans have come to expect by now. A watchman can ‘control the night with sound, a piercing whistle twisting like a knife.’ When the watchman wants to, he can change from ‘bearded, long-haired slob with two changes of a khaki uniform into educated clean-shaven youth with an abiding interest in Douglas Adams, Rushdie and ……’ He only needs to ‘do away with fear and hope, tracks of the past.Our Friendly Neighbourhood Murder’s plot reminded me a bit of Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower, but the underlying emotions are very different.

R G Kaimal’s The Enlistment and Vijayender Cherupally’s Invincible are also almost as good as the three stories I have mentioned above. Just four pages long, The Enlistment is set in the future, where war has trampled on and destroyed everything and young Yusuf is desperately trying to survive. One understands Yusuf’s actions up to a point. But then, one always underestimates how man’s instinct for self-preservation can drive him to do more evil than what’s really needed to survive. Invincible is also just four pages long and as we read, we know how the tale, which is set in ancient India, will end. Despite the inevitable and predictable conclusion, it enthrals and captivates.

A number of stories in this collection have tried to end with a Jeffrey Archeresque twist at the end. Most of them have succeeded, though I would say Abhijit Karnik’s The Undertaker’s Wake is the best of the lot in this genre. Roy Thomas’s The Vulture is the most Archeresque and is well written, though the ending is a bit predictable. A few, such as Jagdish Raja’s The One for the Job and Suman Kumar’s Mad People end well with a surprising twist, which on reflection appears to be a tad simplistic. These are good reads nevertheless. Wasim Yunus Khot’s The Reverse Swing is not only too simplistic, but is very unrealistic.

Some of the stories tended to depict human emotions through a slim wedge of life rather than end with a twist or a turn. Do poor people worry about injured animals or are they so obsessed with their own survival that they couldn’t care less? C G Pai’s Slingshot has a poor mother and a young child upset about a wounded kitten. The wielder of the slingshot that caused the wound is also forced into distress even after the pain from his mother’s tight slap has subsided. An inter-state marriage forms the backdrop to Dinesh Devarajan’s Thottho, as an upset young man from one culture finds solace literally in the lap of another culture. Jose Lourenҫo’s The Fan has raw human angst. It’s very Dostoevsky-esque and very good. Salil Chaturvedi’s There must be Roses is one of those stories which was meant to be deep and meaningful and almost gets there.

G S Vasukumar’s The Bond, reminded me of an R.K.Narayan story as it depicts emotion and sentiment. The mango tree in the courtyard is irreplaceable and can anything be done if it is uprooted? Hippu Salk Kristle Nathan’s Beyond The Rainbow echoes similar sentiments, the mango tree being replaced by a train. A bus or rather, a bus route, replaces the train in Prem Rao’s Route 32. In Nanda Ramesh’s Ghosts of Guilt, a son is wrenched with guilt over the way he has treated his mother and it’s too late to make amends.

A man’s love and yearning for a woman is usually uncomplicated. But it isn’t so in Sandeep Shete’s Hard Seashells. Aakash loses Trishna and is an uneasy single. When Trishna decides to return to her ex—husband, wouldn’t Aakash jump up and accept her? I’ll leave it to you to read this story and find out. Men can also be nasty to vulnerable women. In Mathew Vincent Menacherry’s Buddies, a beautiful story (presumably) set in the sixties where a village housemaid gets pregnant after a liaison with a young man from a higher station. Then a street smart electrician gets involved and the exploitation is taken to a different level.

Harshad Deshpande’s Blood in Honour has a couple about to commit suicide spend their last few days at a hill station, in a hotel. Well written, it reminded me of the classic Tamil movie, Punnagai Mannan which has Kamal Hasan and Rekha attempt suicide in the opening scene. Nikesh Murali’s The Note, the last story in Only Men Please is also about a man setting off to kill himself. Though both stories are good and well-written, was there any need to have two stories which are so similar to each other in the same collection?

Communist agitations form the backdrop to Manoj Mishra’s Comrade, but the character at the centre of it is a (female) prostitute who receives money for attending communist rallies whilst facing harassment from communist goons at the same time. The (male) narrator is a former capitalist and this poignant story could have been in a collection of women only stories without any objections being raised. Ram Govardhan’s Sign Language has a nasty protagonist and his writing style and settings reminded me of one of Tagore’s stories. The comeuppance at the end is not totally unexpected though.

A couple of authors are non-Indians, such as Billy Antonio from the Philippines and Frederick Kang’ethe Iraki from Kenya. Abhijit Karnik is a Ph.D student at Bristol. The rest – all 32 of them – are Indians living in India. If this collection was meant to represent men from all over the world, it ought to have had more foreign authors. Both the foreign/foreigner stories, Billy Antonio’s The Kite and Frederick Kang’ethe Iraki’s Ngeta Special, depict a slice of life in a Filipino village and in Nairobi. Ngeta Special is definitely a man’s story, but The Kite isn’t. Poignant, narrated by a boy, The Kite with its theme of domestic violence, doesn’t really fit into Only Men Please. Abhijit Karnik’s The Undertaker’s Wake is a ghost story with pucca British or American or maybe even Canadian settings. We are never told where the location is, but it is evidently foreign, as are all the characters. Brilliantly narrated, with a perfectly twisted ending, one could be fooled into thinking this story has been written by a Firang.

A couple of stories such as Jagat J Saikia’s Dingbang Wingbang and Ranjit Mohan’s Arima have foreign settings. Dingbang Wingbang is set partly in China and partly in the jungles of the north-east bordering Bangladesh. A good story, but you don’t get to touch or smell or even see China in this story. Arima was a total surprise, the story of Spanish conquistadors in the Amazonian rainforests searching for El Dorado ‘partly based on true historical fact’ and on a description given in Boris Sergeev’s Physiology for Everyone.

Humour is in short supply and Dhiraj Kumar Deka’s The Return of the Talkative Man and Bharat Shekar’s Off the Mark are two stories which fill up the big vacuum. Both stories are equally good.

Other than The Undertaker’s Wake by Abhijit Karnik, two other stories have a ghoulish theme. Joseph Tharakan’s Death’s Door is one of those. A good story with an interesting ending, Death’s Door has death paying a visit on April Fool’s day. Chaturvedi Divi’s Letting Go is set amidst the Kargil war and a proud and nervous mother waits for her son to return though he has moved on to the netherworld.

A small handful of stories have the feel of a men’s hostel (smelly rooms with men sitting around drinking or smoking), something I expected a lot more of in Only Men Please. Joseph Tharakan’s Death’s Door is one of those stories. As mentioned above, it is also a ghost story. Eshwar Sundaesan’s Co-opted is another, but it comes with a sensible warning, one which most Indians are aware of. If you are witness to an accident or a crime, don’t hang around like an idiot to help the police. Siddhath Srikanth’s Secondary Education is literally set in a boarding school and macho-ism can’t get any better though it is a co-ed school.

Only Men Please does not offer any unique insight into men. To be honest, the editor’s foreword does not promise such an insight, unlike say, Zaidi and Ravindra’s Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl, which promises to unravel a good Indian girl for the reader. On the whole, Only Men Please with 35 stories crammed into 233 pages, is a good read and value for money (Rs. 275 only).

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

How I Ran The Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon With My (Almost) Flat Feet And A Bad Back

Flat, Flat Feet

I am almost flat-footed, always have been. I remember enthusiastically participating in every running race at school and coming last in each and every one of them. The only time I won a prize in any sport or game (other than chess) was when I came first in a sack race. I was around eleven and had devised a method of dragging my feet through my sack (which was the widest entered in the race) rather than jump forward, as everyone else did.

Puppy Runs

I started jogging in the mornings when I was around fourteen and I used to consider a lap of two kilometres to be a decent effort. I remember going for a run with a friend one morning. ‘Heel first and roll on to your toes,’ my friend told me in an authoritative voice and I followed suit. I continued to land heel first for many, many years afterwards. As I grew a bit older, I switched to push-ups and dumbbells and stopped running. Later I joined a law school in Bangalore which was conveniently close to the Sport Authority of India’s Southern Centre (SAI). I enrolled for Judo classes at SAI, which was just a kilometre or so from my hostel. In the mornings, I would jog from my hostel to SAI, practice judo and jog or walk back depending on how tired I was. Though I was diligent, I wasn’t particularly good at Judo and had to put in some extra time on my own just to keep up with the others. After three years, the Judo coach at SAI got transferred to some other sports centre and wasn’t replaced. After that, I stuck to working out in the gym. I got myself a bicycle and would cycle to SAI and back and stopped jogging altogether.

Good Morning Back Problem

One day while doing a set of Good Mornings with 40 kilograms on my shoulders, I hurt my back pretty badly. I was in my final year and a few months away from leaving my law school hostel. After a few weeks off, I went back to the gym but from then on, avoided doing heavy weights.

Lawyering and Running

Once I started working as a lawyer in Mumbai, I had very little free time and barely managed to visit a gym for 30 minutes or so in the mornings before I went to work. I worked six days a week and sometimes ended up in office on Sundays as well. Once every few weeks, on the rare occasion when I got off work early or on a Sunday evening, I would go running around the Oval Maidan – I stayed in Colaba in those days, initially in the YMCA and later as a paying guest. Usually, I would manage a couple of rounds around the Maidan, always landing hard on my heels. Once in a blue moon, I would run three rounds and that would make me very happy, as if I had accomplished something substantial.

Slipped Disc

After four years in Mumbai, I decided to go to the UK to study at the LSE. After packing up from Mumbai, I took a train to Kerala where my parents live, planning to spend a couple of weeks with them before going to London. On the train, a few hours before reaching my destination, I suffered a ‘slipped disc’. I had lifted my hand to take a blanket from the upper berth, everything was fine for a moment and suddenly I was breathless with pain. I somehow managed to get out of the train at Kottayam. Some kind souls helped me offload my luggage. I spent the next two weeks in bed, but still managed to catch my flight to London!

In A Country Of Fitness Freaks

As a student in London, I had subsidised access to the London University’s swimming pool in the ULU Building and for a whole year, the only exercise I took was my daily swim. Up and down an Olympic sized pool for around forty or fifty minutes daily, I must say that I found it pretty boring. It was after I started working as a solicitor in London that I started jogging once again, alternating it with gym sessions and weekend swimming. I continued to land heel first.

The percentage of Britons who are bitten by the fitness bug is far, far higher than in India. Also, things are a bit more organised out there and it is relatively easy to make time for regular exercise. It is very common to see office workers go for a jog in the afternoon just before lunch. Most offices have showers for employees. Also, the cool weather makes it easier to run longer distances. One doesn’t sweat as much as in India and provided one is warmly dressed, one doesn’t get as much tired.

While in London, my back problem flared up a few times, usually when I picked up something heavy, like a suitcase or a piece of furniture. A couple of weeks’ rest would see the pain subside and I would be back to my normal exercise routine.

Marathon Dreams and Plantar Fasciitis

The annual London Marathon is a very popular event, a lot more popular than the annual Mumbai Marathon. A number of colleagues at the law firm I worked for were taking part, all of them raising money for charity at the same time. I was hooked as well. I slowly cut down the time I spent in the gym and increased the length of my bi-weekly run. I was soon running about 7 or 8 kilometres at a stretch, twice a week. I kept increasing the distance I ran. When I crossed the 10 kilometre mark, I developed a pain in the sole of my feet. I stopped running and the pain went away. It started all over again when I ran more than 10 kilometres at a stretch. I was puzzled and devastated. I consulted a few friends at the gym and the name Plantar Fasciitis cropped up. I assumed that I had developed Plantar Fasciitis because I was almost flat-footed.

New Shoes

I bought myself a new pair of fancy New Balance shoes from the London Marathon Store at 63 Long Acre in Covent Garden. The store made me run a few yards on a ramp fitted with sensors and analysed my running style before they sold me the shoes I have been running in ever since. I was told I was landing too heavily on my heel (not really surprising) and that the extra cushion in the New Balance shoes would reduce the effect of that impact. That ought to have set me thinking, but it didn’t. I continued landing on my heel, secure in the knowledge that the impact was being cushioned. I continued to develop a pain in my sole every time I crossed the ten kilometre mark. I continued to assume that I wasn’t able to run longer distances because I was almost flat-footed.

Heel Versus The Mid-Sole

I lived in the UK for eight years altogether and returned to India in December 2010. I started working in Mumbai from the beginning of January 2011. Pretty soon after I reached Mumbai, the Standard Chartered Marathon took place and once again I found myself wishing I could do a full marathon. Just as I was planning to consult a sports doctor to find out if I could do anything to fix my flat-footedness and prevent a recurrence of the dreaded Plantar Fasciitis, I came across an article on the internet which debated the merits of landing on the heel versus the mid-sole and the toe. Whoa! It was as if I had been suffocating to death and someone gave me a lungful of fresh air. According to that article, landing on the heel doesn’t work for many people, and I guess I am one of them. Why didn’t someone tell me about all this before? I wondered. I had been an idiot all along! I searched and found a lot more articles on this topic, such as this, this and this.

On The Marathon Track

Until April 2011, I was unbelievably busy, trying to sort out a number of things including my daughter’s admission to a Kindergarten. Once the school admission was taken care of, I was able to rent a house close to the school and move my wife and daughter to Mumbai. Once I settled down, I started jogging once more, this time taking care to avoid landing on my heels, using my mid-foot instead. And it worked. I was able to cross the 10 kilometre barrier without suffering any ill-effects. I was soon running between 30 to 40 kilometres a week. In August, I went ahead and registered for the full-marathon race, though I wasn’t sure I would be able to go the whole hog.

I continued jogging with increased vigour, taking extra care not to land on my heels, still apprehensive that my soles would start hurting again. Luckily it didn’t. I played it safe by giving my legs a 24 hour break after every two dozen kilometres or so. Most days I ran around seven kilometres. I would run from my flat to the Bandra end of Carter Road, run up and down the Carter Road promenade twice and then run back home. The monsoon disrupted my training to some extent. A few times, I went running in the rain, but ending up catching a cold after a couple of runs. After catching a cold for the second time, which developed into a cough and lasted over week, I stopped running outside if it was raining. Instead I switched to running up the stairs in my building, taking care to make as little noise as possible. Thankfully, no one complained.

Chickening out?

In the middle of December, I ran a little over twenty kilometres at a stretch. It was the longest I had run till then and took me around 2:30 hours. At the end of that run, I was exhausted. In fact, I was so exhausted, I was convinced I could not complete a full marathon. I enquired if it would be possible to run the half-marathon after having registered for the full one. I received a polite no.

I spent Christmas with my parents in Kerala and went on a week’s vacation in Sri Lanka after that. I didn’t do any jogging in Kerala and in Sri Lanka I went jogging on Bentota beach a couple of times. My tapering down had begun a little earlier than it should have!

The Jeff Galloway Technique

A week before the marathon, I read about the Jeff Galloway tactic for running a marathon. Not for elite runners hoping to crack the existing world record, this technique developed and made popular by Jeff Galloway, a member of the 1972 US Olympic team, advocates that marathon runners ought to take frequent walk breaks, right from the first kilometre, in order to perform better.

I suddenly started to feel confident of completing the marathon. By my estimate, I was taking around 7 minutes per kilometre. Assuming I could maintain the pace for the entire 42 kilometre stretch, I would take around 300 minutes or five hours to complete the run. Of course, I was going to take longer since I planned to take a lot of walk breaks. The organisers had imposed a deadline of six hours to complete the full marathon. Six hours after the commencement of the race, they proposed to open the road to vehicular traffic. Also, runners who took over six hours to cross the finish line would not receive timing certificates. I grimly promised myself that come what may I would keep moving forward for six hours, after which, if I hadn’t reach the finish line by then, I would turn around and take a taxi home.

Gels and electrolytes?

A few days before the marathon, I decided to buy myself a waist band with pouches for carrying gels and bottles of water or electrolytes. However, deciding to buy such a waist band and actually buying it are two different things. I went to a few stores in Colaba, Nike, Reebok, Adidas etc., and they had all run out of waist pouches. Most probably, a number of other marathoners had made a similar decision and acted on it before I did. I ended up buying a small bag which could be worn across my shoulders and would carry a bottle of electrolytes and some chocolate bars or gel sachets. I tried running with that bag and it wasn’t too bad. But it wasn’t too comfortable either. I was then advised by a good friend who had run the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon earlier that the water, soft drinks and electrolytes provided by the organisers and the chocolates and biscuits provided by well-wishers enroute, were more than adequate for the average runner. I decided to count myself as an average runner and ditched the shoulder bag I had purchased. I bought a few Mars bars and Dairy Milk chocolate bars, enough to fill one of the pockets of my trousers and left it at that. The other pocket carried my mobile phone and some money wrapped up in polythene.

Final Paperwork

Two days before the marathon, I went to the Bandra Kurla Complex and collected my running bib, timer and a goody bag which had a number of pamphlets and sample sachets of health and beauty products. The latter include a fairness face wash, which I decided to save for a special occasion and am yet to use even now.


The best part of running the marathon was the loading up on carbohydrates on the day prior to the race. I used to be a big eater when I was much younger. Over a period of time, I have intentionally cut back on my diet considering the fact that I don’t exercise as much I would like to and I am much shorter than the average Indian. The day prior to the race, I started with a breakfast of three fried eggs and a few slices of toast and topped up with some oatmeal porridge. I had chappatis, dal and chicken kebabs for lunch. I ended with an early dinner of curd rice, prawns and some vegetables. It was guilt-free eating and good fun.

15 January 2012

On the morning of the race, I woke up at 4:00 a.m., ate a couple of boiled eggs and two pieces of toast with jam. A pre-booked taxi took me to Azad Maidan at CST where all runners were advised to assemble at least an hour before the race commenced at 5:45 a.m. A number of mobile toilets were parked at one end of the maidan and I used them a couple of times, because I wasn’t too sure about the toilet facilities enroute. The toilets were reasonably clean, though the floor was wet and I was glad I wasn’t one of those running the marathon barefoot. I did see one barefoot runner with a pair of chappals tucked in a band around the waist, for use at toilets.

Finally, Am On My Way

We started running towards the start line in a big mob and I crossed the start line at around 5:41 a.m. I guess it is not physically possible to have all runners cross the starting point at the same time. The timing chip tied to my shoe would record the time I started the race and the time at which I crossed various points enroute and my final finish time.

Familiar Landmarks, Comfortable Running

I felt calm as I ran towards Flora Fountain, to Nariman Point where I work, past the Air India building and through the Marine Drive towards Pedder Road, Worli and beyond. I ran without a break for the first five kilometres when I came across a public toilet. I also didn’t stop for any water until I had relived myself once. I did see a number of runners help themselves to water and electrolytes at water stations from the third kilometre onwards. I ran comfortably till I reached the Bandra Sealink at Worli, a distance of around 14 kilometres. From then on, I started taking walk breaks every two kilometres or so.

Jokes Fly As I Cross The Bandra Sealink

Running over the Bandra Sealink, which was closed to traffic, was good fun and there were jokes flying around aplenty. A man running next to me pointed to a message from the traffic police which was flashing up ahead. ‘Do Not Overtake’ it admonished us. The 50 kilometre speed limit sign flashed overhead all the time and I kept wishing I could run at half that speed.

No Turning Back

After crossing the Sealink, I reached Bandra in around 2:20 hrs and turned around to begin the long journey back to Azad Maidan. At that point, it was so tempting to stop running and take an auto rickshaw home. I am glad I didn’t. I was very pleased with the fact that I had reached the half-way mark in 2:20 hrs and started to dream of finishing the marathon in less than 5:00 hours. Unfortunately I hadn’t trained as well as I ought to have had. Also, it might have been a good idea to take walk breaks right from the beginning rather than after the first fourteen kilometres.
After I crossed the 28-kilometre mark, I started taking walk breaks after every kilometre. I would stop running when I neared the kilometre milestone and walk till I crossed the mark which usually had a water station. I helped myself to water at every alternate water station.

The Elite Runners

On my way back, somewhere between Mahim and Dadar, the elite runners who started their race a couple of hours after us amateurs, raced past. With bodies made for running, they sped past us in a blur, their legs churning effortlessly, reminding me of the vast gulf between myself and the top runners.

Hitting The Wall

I hit the wall at around the 32nd kilometre. By this time, the front part of both my feet felt numb and rather heavy. I considered sitting down somewhere, taking off my shoes and massaging my feet. However, I was scared that if I sat down, I would never get up and so I plodded on. I motivated myself by trying to imagine how after completing the run I would boast to all and sundry that I had completed the Mumbai Marathon. It worked to some extent. I then tried to imagine how it would look if I didn’t complete and had to explain to my friends and colleagues that I had chickened out at the final lap. That tactic worked a bit better.

The Final Stretch

I started feeling better after I crossed the 36th kilometre mark. I don’t want to use the word ‘second wind’ since I don’t think I ran any faster after that, but the feeling of despair and fatigue sort of slipped away and I pressed on. Once I was back on the Marine Drive, I started feeling exultant and euphoric. It was all I could do to not start celebrating right then and there. Once I exited the Marine Drive and ran past Not Just Jazz By The Bay and the Ambassador Hotel, I knew that I had won. But I hadn’t. Yet. It took my weary feet another fifteen odd minutes to get to within sight of the finishing tape. I had planned to hold up my hands shoulder high as I crossed the finish line and I thought I did just that, but the photograph I got from the organisers show my hands lifted up waist high. I guess I was too tired to lift up my hands properly and didn’t even realise it.

Final Timing

I completed the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon in Five hours, Twenty Four Minutes and Fifty Seconds.

Public Support

Words can’t describe the degree and extent of public support runners receive from the Mumbai public as they run the marathon. Not only do lots of people stand outside their compounds to watch the runners go past, many of them bring out trays of biscuits and chocolates to hand out. Occasionally there were bananas and oranges as well. I made it a point to accept chocolate bars from every kid who held it out to me, though I didn’t eat most of them and had to stuff them in my pocket. Since the bib on my tee-shirt had my name written on it, it was not unusual for kids to shout “Go Vinod Joseph Uncle Go” or “Run Vinod Joseph Uncle Run”.

After The Race

Most of the roads were still blocked and so I caught a train to Bandra and an auto rickshaw from Bandra station to my home. I was feeling fine and could walk at a reasonable speed. I took a nap in the afternoon and felt even better. However, the next day, my joints felt so stiff that I could barely walk. I went to work nevertheless and my colleagues had a laugh at my mincing penguin walk. The biggest damage was inflicted on my big toes, both of which turned a dark purple. I now understand that black toenails are a common hazard faced by runners when they run much longer than they have run before. This article has a detailed explanation of how and when long distance runners suffer from black nails. My nails are still discoloured and are in the process of being replaced by fresh ones. There is no pain.

My Next Marathon

I don’t think I am going to be one of those runners who run a marathon every month. Considering the fact that I have a job which requires me to put in long hours and also because I spend a fair amount of time blogging, writing short stories, book reviews and other stuff (my second novel is likely to be released in a couple of months from now), on a good week I barely manage to run forty kilometres. Most weeks I manage only twenty and sometimes I don’t run for days at a stretch. However I do want to run a marathon again and hopefully improve my timing. In all probability, I will run the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon again rather than take the trouble of travelling to a different city to run a marathon. I mean, when India’s best organised marathon takes place in my backyard, why run elsewhere?