Tuesday 17 February 2015

Book Review: Miles To Run Before I Sleep, by Sumedha Mahajan

Our ancestors used to run to survive, to hunt food and to escape from predators. Human beings can run for sustained periods of time, unlike all other animals. Running is no longer so important for the modern human being, who lives in an integrated world with such an efficient food supply chain that one can consume all the food one wants without ever setting foot on a farm. We still use our legs and feet to move and it will be a long, long time before they atrophy and become relics of the past, if at all. Even though brute physical strength is no longer so essential for survival, we still enjoy competitions that require speed, strength and stamina. Of the various sports and games that we either participate in or at least watch, running races are among the most popular. We have them in schools and colleges. Almost all multi-sports events ranging from the Olympics to the Asian Games give pride of place to both short and long distance running events. Running events of various lengths, ranging from 10 kilometres to ultra marathons, are held almost all year round, all over the world.

What is it that forces so many otherwise normal men and women to rig their alarm clocks to ring before dawn, slip on a pair of trainers, a few of them very expensive and many not so, and run and run and run, before returning to a standard humdrum existence? What was it that made Sumedha Mahajan, a brave woman who has suffered from asthma since childhood, to run a Greenathon from Delhi to Mumbai, a distance of over 1,500 kilometres, along with five other similarly crazy people? A few months before Sumedha started her Delhi-Mumbai run, she had unsuccessfully participated in the 2012 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. A month before SCMM 2012 which ended as DNF (Did Not Finish), Mahajan was the victim of a hit and run car accident. It was definitely a leap of faith for Mahajan, a leap into the dark, so to say, something the average human being, including yours truly, would not have the guts to commit oneself to.

I found Mahajan’s Miles to Run Before I Sleep unputdownable. Written in simple, functional English, Mahajan has chronicled how she took up running and despite her asthma and other health issues, became a long distance runner who was invited by Milind Soman and others to join a team of six crack runners who would run a Greenathon from Delhi to Mumbai in 30 days, covering a distance of 1,500 kilometres, in a bid to highlight the importance of preserving the environment.

Mahajan’s daily struggle on account of her various ailments and asthma as well as inadequate support from the crew as she ran 1,500 kilometres in 30 days makes Miles to Run Before I Sleep a compelling read. At times I was reminded of Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, except that Mahajan was successful and Amundsen’s trek would probably be a better comparison. Mahajan combated bad food, diarrhoea, stress fractures, disputes with the crew, bad weather, unruly highway traffic, pollution and periods. I am not going to disclose more here, but will leave it to you to read this wonderful book for yourself and find out more.

Miles To Run Before I Sleep offers its readers a study in human behaviour. The six runners and their crew set out on their expedition on the best of terms and spirits, all noble intentions and all, but things soon began to disintegrate. The crew was composed of non-sportsmen who did not understand what running is all about. This I think is a common refrain across various sporting events and organisations in India. Almost all sporting bodies are run by non-sports persons, usually politicians. Most marathons are organised by businessmen or politicians who have an agenda. As TRPs generated for the run failed to meet expectations, the journalists accompanying the runners became disinterested. When runners across cities flocked to accompany the six runners for brief stretches, the crew failed to extent any hospitality to the guests. Was this really the crew’s fault, I wonder? Were they warned in advance of the guests’ arrival and were they expected to have additional supplies for the new arrivals? Mahajan does not make this point very clear.

Raj Vadgama was one of the six runners and Mahajan tells us that on Day 25 he had a serious fight with the crew when they served cold coffee – only to Milind Soman and denied it to the other five runners. Soman tried to calm things down, but he was unsuccessful. Vadgama left the team and ran on his own, but he did complete the run. Recently Vadgama has been in the news on account of his Bharathon.

Mahajan’s first marathon was the SCMM 2011. We are told that though Mahajan ran without a clear plan and forgot to hydrate herself for the first half of the race, she ran in under five hours and came 15th in her category. A few months later, she ran a marathon in Malaysia and came 6th. The same year, she ran the 75-kilometre Bangalore Ultra and was the winner in her category. When it seemed that the sky was the limit and the next SCMM was barely a month away, fate willed otherwise and she was hit by a speeding car. An injured Mahajan bravely took part in the SCMM 2012, but did not finish. She also abandoned her plans to run the Comrades Ultra in South Africa, but that did not stop her from accepting Milind Soman’s invitation to take part in the 1500 kilometre Greenathon!

The Greenathon started on 20th April 2012, when summer was already underway. Why didn’t they choose to run in the cooler months, I wondered? Mahajan does not offer any explanation.

Mahajan does not seem to be one of those people who follow specific diets or plans. We are told that as preparation for the Greenathon, she used to eat 500 grams of homemade paneer, a lot of yoghurt, peanuts dates, spinach and fruits daily. Though she does not say so, one gathers that she is a vegetarian, but not a vegan. There is very little discussion about the merits or de-merits of any diet or exercise regime. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Listen to your body and eat what you feel like in moderation. That’s me, not Mahajan, though I’m sure Mahajan would endorse my statement.

Mahajan is highly observant and her various comments regarding the places she ran though are very interesting. A number of towns and large sections of the highway were extremely polluted, causing Mahajan to wonder about the cost we are paying for India’s development. The sad truth is that India’s poor are paying a disproportionately high price for this so called modernisation, though they stand to gain little in the short term. In various parts of Rajasthan, Mahajan was an item of curiosity as she ran wearing clothes which were considered unsuitable for women! It was not just illiterate villagers who disapproved of Mahajan's run. Even Mahajan's parents had initially felt that she ought to stay at home and think of having a baby, before Mahajan won them over to her side!

I have a friend who is chauffer driven to work daily. Most days, on his way back, he runs part of the way, around five kilometres and his car trails him. Sometimes he runs the entire distance of around eight kilometres. Though this works well for my friend, the environment gains nothing on account of my friend’s run, in terms of cutting down on fossil-fuel usage and carbon emissions. Most long distance runs are supported runs. The Greenathon runners required extensive support – they were tailed by a large crew in buses and cars carrying their supplies – it could not have been otherwise, though the idea was to draw attention to environmental issues and the need to preserve the environment. In an ideal world, a really fit runner ought to be able to run from Delhi to Mumbai, taking breaks on the way, buying food and water from clean wayside restaurants and dabhas, serving hygienic food and water. “You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us. And the world will live as one.” I’m sure Mahajan would endorse this quotation.

Thursday 12 February 2015

Book Review: The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi by Aditya Sudarshan

Aditya Sudarshan, author of A Nice Quiet Holiday and Show Me A Hero, has come up with his third novel. When I finished reading the first page of The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi, I had started to believe that Sudarshan’s latest offering is a gently flowing story with a simple mystery or crime to be solved, something on the lines of his first (A Nice Quiet Holiday), not unlike an Agatha Christie, with maybe a touch of Wodehouse.

However, after I turned a few more pages and found out that Madhav was an important officer in the Ministry, I thought I detected a hint of George Orwell’s 1984. As I read further, it seemed I was a bit off the mark. There was no Big Brother and I didn’t know where I was headed, until I realised that I was in a Matrix. You know how it is. One can’t explain the Matrix. You’ve got to read it for yourself to find out.

Persecution comes in various forms and intensity levels. Usually it is the weak or meek who are persecuted. Minorities may feel persecuted when they are denied their rights. However, Madhav Tripathi is a successful bureaucrat, in good health, a week short of his thirtieth birthday and does not really have an excuse to feel persecuted. Also, it’s not just Madhav who is persecuted. Even Shivani, his pretty girlfriend, is targeted.

Can one be persecuted by one’s own thoughts? If yes, would that be the result of one’s guilt? And why should Madhav or Shivani feel guilty? Sudarshan does offer a few clues – the country-side has been devastated by something, possibly famine. Humans live like animals, having possibly mutated. No, we are still in India, an India with slums and dirt and a lot of riff-raff, a place almost unrecognisable to the reader. Would a murderer feel persecuted by his victim’s relatives who may possibly be searching for him, in their quest for revenge? Should Madhav Tripathi feel persecuted as he works his way up the ranks of the Ministry, under the tutelage of the ever-so-powerful Secretary?

Madhav Tripathi’s oppressors are a determined lot. They do not wilt under pressure. Though they seem to be working class, they seem to be everywhere. Madhav’s friends and well-wishers are equally determined and they too take casualties. Unlike Sudarshan’s first two novels, The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi has a lot more violence and dead bodies, though most dead bodies do come back to life.

I liked Nisha a lot. Nisha is Madhav’s previous girlfriend and she reminded me of a character from the French Revolution, strong, powerful and determined. At times, The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi seemed to be set in the cusp of a violent revolution. Does Madhav’s guilt on account of his own success and the poverty around him cause him to image the revolution and persecution?

Sudarshan writes very well and I’d say that he has definitely evolved as a writer. His prose is limpid, yet beautiful. The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi is a brilliant and cunning fantasy novel that leads to nowhere and yet takes the reader places.