I began running, in grief and confusion, five years ago. My grandmother passed away suddenly one morning, a couple of days after my cautious and measured father allowed himself to answer without a sigh that she seemed much better. A little more than a week before, she had been sent home from the critical care unit, and I had interpreted this as an unambiguously positive message. I decided then with relief to delay my visit home as I had planned all along, timing my visit to coincide with that of a very intimate friend from the US. I would also use the visit to spend time with my grandma; it was convenient. My mother had spelt it out to me that an expensive trip home would be money well spent, even if I came later to meet my friend.
She was right, my mother; she had the prescience of the visitor who has done time by the hospital bed, she knew how fragile it all was. But the end, it was a surprise to her too.
Hindu rituals dictate that the body has to be cremated within 24 hours of death. At the time, my folks thought it would be a waste of money for me to come to see the body. I was again, shamelessly, relieved. I didn’t want to see her body. My father had said she had shrunk to 34 kg in the hospital. How light she felt, my father said, when he walked the few ritual feet carrying the body on his shoulders with three others.
Hindu rites also do not leave much scope for women to mourn ceremonially or even formally – their duties are limited to the cooking of the mourning diet and cleaning. But most of all, in a time of rationalised, scientific and essentially Westernised mourning, it is difficult to be allowed to follow traditional ritual. My uncle did not shave his head when his father passed away; when the priest insisted that he did, he told him he could hire another priest for the ceremony. This is not a criticism – merely a description and perhaps a question. My uncle works at an international organisation where a tonsured head would attract attention. But if you are grieving, is it not easier if you are marked visibly?
My father followed some of the rituals when my grandma passed away, he shaved his mostly bald head and I believe he refrained from eating meat but it is unlikely that we ate the ritual food of Hindu mourning – food cooked without onion and garlic, which are seen as ‘rajasic’, or triggering aggression. Following such elaborate regulations is too inconvenient. I was forbidden from following the rites, I was living in another city for some of the 12-day mourning period, there is no point in remembering those impossible details. I had lost the right to insist by my convenient absence from my grandma’s sick bed. I didn’t.
But grief without ritual can be bewildering.
I hear friends and acquaintances – on Facebook and in person – asking for recommendations to experience the ‘authentic’ Istanbul or Barcelona or old Dilli. We want to drink coffee at the secret cafes with character, eat at the fabled restaurants unlisted on tourist guides, we want to shop where the people of the city do. We seek the rituals of belonging; we want to be, even if it is in passing, residents of the city.
I, too, am in search of the rituals that mark status. At that time, I wanted to mourn, I needed tomourn. The rituals remind you of your loss, the austere diet marks you out as a mourner, and there is comfort in that belonging. The requirements are annoying, and incomprehensible to most of us: why must I buy puffed rice and white flowers? But the procurement of them leads you to a shop specialising in funereal sales. It tells you are not the only one to have lost, you are among a community of the bereaved. Ritual helps you cope. The bother of abiding by it is also a form of suffering – it can ease the guilt.
Instead, I sat in my office and blinked back tears to everyone’s discomfiture. My neck ached, and parched, from the effort.
Running became my mourning ritual.
I remember grief as being heavy: I was carrying a dull, dead weight. It was enervating – I ran to shake it off. I ran persistently, seriously, which is to say that I turned up at the ground every day. But I could barely run 700 or 800 metres a day at the time, and far less than 500 metres at one stretch. I am lucky to live in a south Delhi colony with a couple of parks and jogging tracks. The park I run in is popular: it hosts a busy cricket coaching camp, several walkers and a couple of joggers. The cricketers take over the better, more leveled half of the ground; the walkers and gentle/placid joggers use the running track bordering it.
I was a lump in those days – a short, squat, easily breathless lump. I ran in the lower, unleveled half of the garden. I didn’t think I deserved to run on the jogging track, I would not be able to complete one round of it. I wanted to be unseen. Some of this was the grief. I didn’t want to be.
I had never exercised before. I come from a home which believes that slimness/fitness is an inborn talent. Like Bengali intelligence. Either you were born with it or you are unlucky. My father watches sports on television tirelessly; his most frequent compliment is, “What a beautiful physique”, bouncing his belly on his thighs happily without a trace of resentment.
Running was horridly painful: a deafening (and humiliating) lack of breath within a couple of strides, the feeling that my chest would burst, my heart thundering in my ears, and invariably, a running nose. It was mercifully painful. I had no rhythm, no stamina, no propriety. I went at full pelt those initial days, no half measures, no jogging. I stopped more than I ran, but I went again. And again. Round after little round in the small patch of ground.
The pain was penance: I was paying off my guilt. The pain was also a marker of my bereavement; I was here because of my loss, I was charging madly on a small patch of dusty green because I had to remember and grieve. It was my dawn cold water bath, it was my white flower puja with difficult mantras.
This is what kept me running – the sense that I was mourning, that I was accounting for my loss. A belated sense of discipline would not have sufficed: I was in too poor shape, and running is demanding. I find it doesn’t get much easier with practice, though you build stamina, and learn to ration your breath. I had no sense of this then. I went full speed and burned up my breath. I thought inexorably of my grandma’s last breaths.
It had been after breakfast, the household was settling down to chores when she suffered a heart attack. I would tell myself to go a little longer when I thought my chest would burst, to stop a little bit later. I made counting pacts, I would run till ten, then twenty. Was there this deafening, rushing sound in the head? Did it tear your chest? Was it anything like this, Tabba?
When I struggled to draw breath, perhaps I would intuit what her last moments were like. Perhaps I could be by her deathbed after all. I could grasp what death feels like.
I could grieve after all.
I didn’t make eye contact with anybody, I kept my head down and ran. I remember the dusty, lumpy, green ground well – sometimes children would scuttle across my running path, but I didn’t look up to smile at their chaperones. I spoke with no one, I ran alone in a busy park.
The haze started to lift after three months. I was still in shock, I cried easily and several times a day, but I found myself thinking of other things. I got a haircut. I bought some clothes because the running had made the old ones loose. I bought myself a pair of running pants and a set of loose, cheap T-shirts. Those were not bought with any particular thought except that I wanted to be comfortable. I didn’t know my sweating patterns then, that I am essentially an upper-body perspirer. A good run wets my back and chest particularly, and marks out my bra line. Thankfully, a loose T-shirt sticks less, especially if you keep pulling it down. I was to realise this, and many other things about myself over the next months. Running offers many rewards, a considerable degree of self-awareness was the surprise gift.
I graduated to running on the jogging track. I was, I realised, the only woman/girl who ran. The gentle joggers were all men. Some women walked furiously, others chatted on the phone and caught up with neighbours, they all wore unloved salwar-kurtas. I hadn’t learnt how to run long distance then, yet apparently even a few weeks of single-mindedly charging around the ground can condition the body. I could go a few laps without stopping, five rounds or so of a 440 metre track. It was only 2.2 km but I felt somewhat accomplished already; I was the only one of my kind. And impatient, because I went faster than the joggers who ran with rhythm. (It took only a few days to realise they were real, practised runners; I was an upstart novice.) But there was one thing the grief regimen had taught me: the discipline of repetition, even if mindless. I turned up every day. I kept an hour aside. I ran.
The first thing I noticed was that I rarely ask to excuse myself when I needed to overtake men on the track. I stop running, sidle past, then run again. This disturbs my running rhythm, besides annoying me hugely, but I am afraid to ask. Doesn’t it make me conspicuous? Does it make me pushy, insisting on the right to my space and telling others to move aside? I hope the annoyance doesn’t show. Yet curiously when I have to bypass women on the track, I ask to excuse myself, politely, I believe. Why don’t people make way for runners when they hear their steps and bald breaths?
What I realised was that this has been my pattern even when I am out in the city. On the craggy, steep and austerely-lit footpaths of Delhi, I do not request men to allow me to pass, even if they are lounging, slapping backs, drinking out of Coke bottles and taking up the entire footpath as men are wont to do. I will jump down from the pavement into the path of impatient autorickshaws and bullied cyclists staking claim to the drainage conduit, and climb up again. On the slim streets of Kolkata, where the footpaths belong to splendid roadside entrepreneurs, and several [trim] thoroughfares boast a rich diversity of streetlife from trams to hand-drawn freight carts to pedestrians, I have mastered the sideways trot. Yet with women, I ask to be excused and stride past. When a couple walks side by side, I address the woman to let me pass.
What if someone is annoyed by my Oliver Twist-like asking, and grabs me? And if he follows me and pushes me into a side-street, pins me to a wall? I remember the reports of acid attacks in the past five years. Do you read them? Did you ever hear of Kangana Ranaut’s sister? She was attacked with acid some years ago. My colleague Chinki Sinha did this heartstopping story on another woman, a dancer, in search of her face.
What is this reluctance? Is this really me?
It is disappointing to accept how timid I am. A man I was falling in love with shakes his head in annoyance when I tell him I avoid evening dos. “Acid attacks are horrible, but why should you think about them? You cannot allow yourself to be afraid. I once thought I was about to be mugged in Philadelphia, but I turned around and shrugged and asked ‘what?’ to the guy who was shadowing me. He walked away. That’s my attitude,” he tells me, and shakes his head a little more when I tell him I want to be like him, but I’m held back by the things I’ve heard over several years. Warnings, advice, news reports, PG accommodation rules, living-room conversations, which have taken the shape of anxieties now. What kind of girl drives home alone at 3am like Soumya Vishwanathan? She was shot dead by a gang of thieves when she was driving home after a late shift at work at Headlines Today in 2008. “What will you do when your daughter comes home, squashed amid unknown men in an office cab late at night?” tittered an invigilator to a parent at the Kolkata exam centre where I was writing the entrance test for the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. That parent was requesting the invigilator to pass on the admit card to her son/daughter.
My man’s counsel is to shrug off the sum of all the warnings and titters and news reports, to dump the irrational and mostly rational sum of my fears, to look my potential assaulter(s) in the face as he did. But what is the fear of being mugged for a man who has grown up in India, other than the odd scene in a Bollywood film? Can it compare with the manifesto of avoiding sexual assault that we grow up with? What is this country he grew up in? I wish I lived there, too.
One thing is for certain: there are women who are braver than me, gutsier. Does that mean they are not struggling with my anxieties? A colleague of mine who drove home after the late shift at a newspaper desk said she was chased by a group of boys in cars around India Gate in Delhi after midnight. She was forced to stop the car but she did not step out, locked herself in and was constantly on the phone with her sister. She continues to drive home late after work. I admire her hugely. But I know how it exhausts me, doing this constant battle, and with some things I’d rather let go. It is not the postergirl’s choice, but is it not a valid choice too?
I would not run outdoors in the city if I didn’t have the privilege of a jogging track within my colony. Sometimes, I run inside the colony but never outside. Even so, the impatience of drivers is distracting. Can they not make small allowances for runners even within the lanes of a residential colony where the pressures of mainline traffic are absent? They view runners as drivers on the roads regard cyclists: nuisances that must be bullied out of the way. In the cramped markets of South Delhi, I see how pedestrians wait to allow people to park, step aside. How would it be if they drummed on the driver’s window with impatience?
Male colleagues tell me they start their days obscenely early, running on the still-dark streets of Gurgaon. On several days, I have scolded myself for lacking their resolve: if I finished running by 8am, I would be a lot more productive with my day. One winter’s morning when I finally awoke at a suitably unearthly hour, I left my apartment only to realise that I did not have the courage to run in the dark, still streets outside. Within the colony, the gangs of strays would chase/attack me. At the IIT-Kharagpur campus, Emeritus Professor and constant innovator Sujoy Guha runs every day at 3am with a belt wound around his right hand to chase the dogs away. I thought about borrowing his idea for Delhi’s phlegmy winter mornings, but it is the desolation of that time that holds me back.
So I run at ‘decent, modest’ hours: when it is light and there are people on the ground.
Yet I am grateful that I am able to run at all; it has put me in touch with my body, made me far more aware of it. I was a lumpy teenager, so embarrassed by my stubbornly stout frame that I was a stranger to it. I took quick offence at its swells and bulges, I felt betrayed, I rarely made eye contact in the mirror. I have written in the past about how I have come to appreciate my squat, but not unbeautiful, runner’s frame. In a sense, it was the hard labour of running that helped me know my body. It shaved off much of the plumpness, carving me into the broad shape I have come to accept. If this is how I looked after running long and hard and smug everyday, then I was happy with the result.
I can tell how I am by the way I run. Most days, I go at a steady clip, some days, I plod. And on a few days, I glide. Plodding means I am tired, haven’t slept well or have put on weight. I am much more aware of aches and pains and my breathing; when my nose runs more than I do, I am coming down with a cold. (As a sufferer of sinusitis, I have a chronic running nose. Running, in fact, has helped cope with this better because the fluid drains out during my run. It has also made me less fussy: I blow my nose into my hand and shake it dry because there is only so much tissue paper I can carry. Contemporary research suggests it is good for our systems to muck around a bit, have soiled fingernails, not shrink from bodily fluids: it builds better immunity apparently. I like such research.)
When I started running, I couldn’t hear my body. I ignored the aches and pains and creaks and cramps; they were badges to be brandished. I saw Rafael Nadal’s bandaged feet and longed for such glorious trophies of my running routine. One morning, my left butt seared with a piercing, blinding pain; this is it, I thought with delight, I was a ‘real’ runner and continued running with triumphant idiocy. Like everyone else who thinks buying running tracks and putting one foot quickly after another makes them runners, I too had read Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I adored the maxim: ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ This was my moment of claiming the maxim.
Later that evening, my leg froze while crossing a road, a kind stranger helped me hobble across to my office. I couldn’t even walk to the toilet. The kindness of strangers extended to colleagues that day: I was called a cab. An examination over the telephone with the doctor informed me that I had strained my hamstring. An x-ray a week later proved I had worn it thin, close to snapping it clean. Hamstring strains are brutishly painful, and an injury can put an athlete out of action for three weeks or more. They can also render you immobile on account of the hamstring’s central, strategic placement as a group of three muscles that run along the back of the thigh.
It was a valuable lesson: listen carefully to what the body says. That does not mean do whatever it asks. I largely ignore the aches and niggles; it’s only the body grumbling. Good to be aware of though, it speaks of the degree of unfitness and lack of stamina. Till very recently, I did not run during my period: mine is a very painful and exhausting one. The water in the body makes my feet ache when I walk, I feel tired all the time, a sharp, cruel knot twists meanly in my stomach all through. Walking to the bathroom is a substantial project at this time, running seemed an upstart aspiration.
But the breaks destroy running rhythm; after four days off, I have to start slow and heavy. By the time I build up to gliding form, it is time for another period. The breaks thwart improvement in running times and stamina. How is it for other women runners? I know professional tennis players take pills to suppress the period, what about amateur women runners?
Once I start running with my period, it’s not so bad really. It’s not very different from running after too little sleep or with hard, non-training shoes, or with a few hundred grams of excess weight. In fact, a run snaps me awake from the bloated daze of my period.
More often than I’d like to admit, I run with great difficulty and zero rhythm and scarce breath, and I think then of my telomeres and how they are lengthening every second I run. I have never seen telomeres, but I imagine they are like the arches of the comma. They are the tails of DNA molecules, the longer they are, the younger the age of the body cells.
I think also of the difficult conversations impending in the office: those two-minute conversations with bosses to ask for a raise or different work, which tend to be concluded before we realise where we were, where the consequences dawn on us after we step out of the room. Or the conversations to gently tell insufferable colleagues that they are, well, revolting. I am very bad at these, my eyes smart with tears easily. It is my default reaction to stress. Then the focus of the conversation shifts quickly to how I use tears manipulatively.
I think ahead to these conversations when I run. If I can have the heart to go one more round, if I can summon up the breath to go faster, if I have the fortitude to abide the stiffness in the leg some more, then I will have the heart to bear the embarrassment of the default tears, I will summon up the energy to fling a sharp word back when one comes my way, I will have the fortitude to accept a failure. It is true that I have become more confrontational after I started running, less afraid of unpalatable remarks, less worried about not being liked. Is this how the much-celebrated endorphin high plays out? Like most Bengalis, I used to be a practitioner of passive aggression, I believed the dignified silence would merit deep-fried/deeply-satisfying apologies. I have since realised that this method works best for Ray heroines, whose photogenic sulks are lit by loving cameras.
I worry also about immediate concerns: the shape of my sweating, does it frame my bra line too obviously? Do my breasts bounce offensively? Is my T-shirt riding too high above my butt? Is my presence provocative? In essence, I want to be innocuous. And yet, I want to be complimented for the lightness and beauty of my running. I suppose I want to be a Sooraj Barjatya heroine: beautiful and inoffensive. Or a kitten, or a budgie.
IN OTHER PLACES, OTHER NOTES
This is the runner that Delhi has made of me. This is, also, what I have made of Delhi as a runner. I realise this when I run in other places. I wonder if I have taken something of those places with me.
I was a grad student in Edinburgh for a year; I knew I had to run every day. I was back in school after 8 years; I needed structure and a sense of the person I had become after my full-fledged student years.
Edinburgh is a stunning, proud, medieval city with magnificent ascents and descents. I would love to conquer those, I smile at the thought of the beauteous thighs I will earn, sprinting up and down. Besides, the running view will be memorable.
But it is too viciously cold to run outside (for me), almost always there is a spiteful wind, too. And always, always the rain. I also realise, for the first time, that running is not the inexpensive sport I thought it to be. I can’t simply step out in my trainers. A regular running suit, offering protection from the elements, costs upwards of £90; in Indian rupees, this is Rs 9,000. My cosy, waterproof parka for all-time wear at home costs Rs 4,000.
I used to be a committed gym snob (gyms are for the pretenders), but the only option I have here is the university gym. What a remarkable space it is, the contemporary iPodded gym – hundreds of people exercising in intimate proximity, no eye contact. Everyone is sealed in a bubble with his/her individual music selection, or TV programming, and customised training equipment. The gym is the public bath of the i-generation. Once a girl next to me didn’t know how to increase the speed on her machine – I told her what I knew but she couldn’t hear me through her headphones. I had to gesture wildly before she acknowledged me. It was the tiniest thing, but she was intensely embarrassed. When did we become this self-conscious? When did neighbours become such outsiders?
But it is so freeing, too. This is the first place where I have been able to check out other runners, other exercisers, with impunity. I don’t think anyone realises I am doing this. I don’t feel any gaze on me. I run better. After the initial wide-eyed excitement of checking out others, I think almost exclusively of my studies: essays and dissertations I am carrying in my head. I sharpen arguments, re-organis paragraphs, move them up and down, much as I move the speed and incline functions of the treadmill.
Later that year, when I get stuck with an argument, I go for a run. I have brought this habit home; despite my tangled, braided stream of thought here, it retains some potency.
Some months after I arrive in Edinburgh, I notice my left breast itches rather a lot, on examination I see it has developed red patches. I wouldn’t have cared but for the posters at the local NHS clinic with images of a splotchy, unhappy breast. On Google, the symptoms described throw up Paget’s disease, a rare form of breast cancer. It also matches the Jogger’s Nipple, a commonly-reported runner’s condition. I set up an appointment at my NHS clinic nevertheless. After ten-odd minutes of questioning and examination, “Sudden weight loss?”, the doctor confirms it is indeed Jogger’s Nipple and smiles. “You are running regularly, that’s good.” I smile too, with relief, and a bit of pride. But it is not the runner’s trophy I had imagined. I can’t show it off like a stressed hamstring.
Hamburg is the first European city I lived in at length. It is a graceful, old city of large handsome public parks. I ran early mornings in these, with timid rabbits and intrepid red squirrels. These are the creatures I make eye contact with, and occasionally with one of the gleaming German dogs out for a run. A couple of years later, when I read Frantz Fanon and Ralph Ellison for a course, I realised how I too had been rendered invisible, and swelled with indignation. At other times, I wondered if I was not a good foot (and a half) too short for the statuesque Germans to make eye contact with, and swelled with another kind of indignation.
I was working in a restaurant then – it is a new and astonishingly difficult world for someone who has worked always with the mind. In the restaurant kitchen, they are artists of hands foremost, and also of the legs, standing long hours and running on a damp, slippery floor. They are, of course, artists of taste. They work with their bodies, I have to reorient myself to be there. How skilled their hands are, how trained their legs. My feet swell like poppadums with the hours of standing, my hands are useless blocks of wood when it comes to chopping and peeling.
Running is my way of reclaiming my body from the humiliations of the kitchen, of feeling less alienated by its betrayals; if I can run this much, I’m not entirely useless, am I? It is also my way of inhabiting my body more fully, of setting it challenges and learning it will listen to some things after all. Those deals again: if I can run a little faster, a little longer, I can muster up the determination to take another stab at the hoary pumpkin.
It gives me the fortitude to endure the hard, male, professional kitchen.
I am surprised by London’s friendliness. From the Tube, I expect it to be a gruff, impatient city. For a month, I run on the narrow path snaking around a large football ground in Havering. It is popular with little children and large, bounding dogs, pensioners and adolescent footballers. I will be as inoffensive as possible, I do carry the feeling that I should be seen as civilised. Havering is reported to be one of the most ethnically homogenous places in London – the 2011 census says it is 88 percent white. I do not want to be a Brown nuisance. Once, on the train to Cambridge, I didn’t see the ‘no-speaking-on the phone’ sign and chattered away with my ma. I was crushed by the woman who tapped me on the shoulder and pointed a painted, manicured finger at the sign. Sex was the line of control in my Delhi mind; colour, and sex, are the lines here.
I start running with my eyes to the ground as was my wont in Delhi, but folks regularly wish me a good morning (or evening). When I look up to check if they are addressing me, they nod. When children run across my path, I stop (ostensibly) resigned, I feel sheepish when mas and grandmas apologise. Within a week, I play a bit of football from the side, I grin at kids, I stop to beam at funny dogs. I am also a figure with some local affiliation: “Are you with Congee?” asks a solemn, elderly lady. Congee is my host’s tall, shapely parti poodle, an eccentric, striking busybody who runs like a purposeful goat. She also has a shapely chocolate sister who is half her size and several times her maturity. I am the friend of “the lady with the poodles,” as a couple of others have identified me.
I tell this to the lady, my generous, gracious host, mother to the two poodles and – temporarily – me, wide-eyed London tourist. How sweet London is, how chatty. Edinburgh is not like this, if you smile at dogs and kids, their guardians frown into the distance, I tell my friend. She informs me Havering has the reputation of being one of the friendliest boroughs in London, but warns me about drawing unsophisticated generalisations.
It is, in fact, the friendliest place I have run in – I have to factor in stopping for conversations during my run. I run well here, lightly and long. I plan out my days, exploring London, calculating my Tube stops and rides. I remember feeling happy there, a steady thrum in the upper chest. When I think of my year in grad school, I see myself most often running at the football ground in London. Twelve months in Edinburgh, a month in London – how strange is the human memory?
By far, my happiest running ground is Calcutta, home town, first love. Calcutta is not a runner’s city. The parks where I live, central Calcutta, are locked up all day except early in the mornings and late in the afternoons, like dogs. The grass is overgrown and unkempt, there is a narrow jigsaw-tiled path, but it is too slippery to run in the morning dew. The roads are full of impatient, restless cars from early in the morning. It is dangerous to run on these.
Running is a spectator sport here. I find myself a strip of road to run on relatively undisturbed, the barricaded road leading up to the British High Commission and the American Embassy. When I run, the platoon of security men along the road watches me, the men turn their faces as I run past, an exaggerated, slow-mo version of the tennis-viewing routine. Several of them are following my progress with interest. One of the heads of the teams deployed there (or so I imagine, he speaks with such authority) tells me I should swim. “It is the best, full-body exercise,” he says, marvelously unembarrassed by his glorious belly.
It gives me joy to run among such pot-bellies, it melts much of the inhibition away. I still wear the loose inoffensive clothes and keep pulling my T-shirt down but mostly, I am confident. I am, also, something of a star here, a performer. Once, I overhear a cop scolding a driver for honking at me, “Can’t you see she is running?” It’s the sort of tone I imagine AR Rahman’s mother takes when he is in the music room. Or any Bengali mother when her son is doing math.
In five-and-some years, I still haven’t run a marathon (or a half). But when I am asked that formidable question – What do you do? – it is one of my answers. I write, I run, I read, I cook. When I travel, I pack my running shoes and pants. When I plan a holiday, I schedule time to run. When I am invited to stay overnight, I ask if there is a place I can run nearby. When I am invited to late-night parties, it is my bonafide reason to refuse.
I suspect it is now a self-affirming ritual, as much as the reading and the self-doubt. It confers on me a status. It marks my place in the world.
Essay originally appeared here
Image by author
Image by author