A Few Good Men

Yesterday I went for a run on the beach in the rain. My first run in the rain, this monsoon: The grey sky, thrashing waves and open wind on (garbage strewn) Juhu beach, were deliciously enervating.

It’s been raining heavily in Mumbai since the start of the monsoon, around June 7th, and hasn’t let up a single day. Still, Mumbai folks, save for two days last week, waded their way (wielding various pieces of raingear), to schools and to workplaces. Yesterday the fasting month of Ramzan began and this morning, school children celebrated Yoga Day, saluting the absent sun with surya namaskars.

But this piece is less about rain in Mumbai, and more about a particular man in my 14-year-old daughter’s life. How he sees rains in Mumbai, is an interesting signpost to his personality.

Our athletics coach, Firoz Ustad (32) has been an affectionate and awe inspiring part of our lives for six years now. Come rain or shine, Firoz Sir trains his group of about 25 students (including my daughter) on the road, at the muddy Mhatre ground and on Juhu beach.

Last Saturday, a rainy morning, a parent called Manish Parekh phoned Firoz Sir at 6:15 am.

“Sir, is there training?”

Firoz: ”Why?”

Manish: ”Because it’s raining.”

Firoz: ”Training will be cancelled when the floods come – and I’ll let you know when that happens.”

Manish and I cackled over this as we walked together on the drizzly beach this Saturday. The same evening, our daughters returned here to train in pouring rain, soaked to the skin, their shoes waterlogged – miserable as cats.

The way to winning your race is by never losing out on a single training session, unless your coach gives you time off. That’s Firoz’ way. As far I know, Firoz, who was an athlete and cricketeer himself, never let a single day of Ramzan go by without keeping Roza. He would train hard without food and water. It’s about commitment and developing resilience/ strength of mind.

Even as there is a formidable side to the young man, there is a desperately gentle side that many of us that interact with him everyday, sense about him. He’s kind to our children, bending to tie the littlest one’s shoelaces, to jog along with the least talented runner, knowing she will never perform in the competitive arena, but deserves encouragement anyway. He brings an egg roll or a chicken sandwich for the vegetarian children (with parental consent), to nourish them after the gym sessions. He prays at the Mahim dargah for any of his athletes or their family members that may be facing trouble – health, personal or professional.

And then, there are Vijay and Prakash, the young men that shadow him. Vijay is a dark, muscular young man from a distant slum colony, who came to Firoz two years ago to train under him. Men’s athletics is highly competitive and although Vijay is quite fast, he realised soon enough that he wouldn’t make it as a professional athlete. After much joining and leaving training (it takes a lot to stick around, given the number of hours in the day you have to train and the food you need in order to sustain it), and also his desperate need for livelihood… Vijay recently returned, to stay. When he is by Firoz’ side, he displays an unspoken adherence and respect. He seems to listen constantly for what Firoz might need from him.

Vijay rides five kilometres on his cycle to get to our training venues by 5:15 am every morning. Recognising his need for livelihood, Firoz lets him take fitness sessions for some of the grown-ups who accompany our runner kids. Vijay is terrifically diligent. He performs each exercise with gusto, even as he instructs his students only in English… what English he knows is enunciated sans articles, but most sincerely. And whatever his daily circumstances – a widowed mother who works as a cleaner, an alcoholic brother – Vijay smiles a lot.

Firoz, on the other hand, scowls a lot.

Now about Prakash. Prakash is a short man, about 4 feet ten inches. He always wears a loose white t-shirt and loose yellow shorts that come up to his knees, from under which very thin but muscular, veined calves emerge. He has a head of flat, curly hair. A small smile hovers hesitantly on his bony face. The eyes are hooded with secrets. He barely speaks. He makes his way by bus and on foot , to training, and never accepts more than a lift from anyone. Not a pair of shoes (he runs barefoot), not food, nor even a sip of water.

Firoz says Prakash is somewhat eccentric. He’s tried asking him to wear shoes and to eat better, but the young man simply shakes his head. One day he brought results of his psychological tests to show his coach. Firoz read them, placed them back in their cover and handed them back to Prakash, with instructions to be on time for training the next day.

A month ago, walking down the beach, to my surprise, Prakash was running with a group of state athletes from a different coaching group. The other coach is Firoz’ unofficial rival… older and more established in the athletics scene. He officiates at local meets and is slated to head a local athletics association as soon as the current head retires. What was Prakash doing with his group? I smiled hesitantly at Prakash. A hint of unease passed over his face and he didn’t smile back.

When I returned to our part of the beach, I found a group of angry parents and athletes all discussing how Prakash had been a spy in our midst! He must have trained with Firoz in order to figure out his training routine and pass the information to the other coach. Firoz had spotted him too. He was worried and strangely, regretful. ”When he stopped coming some days ago, I called him up,” he told me. ”I felt guilty that I hadn’t managed to pay him anything.”

”Pay him,” I exclaimed. ”Why would you pay him? He was getting trained for free already!”

”No, but he needs to earn,” Firoz said. ”I told him to come back and that I’d figure something out for him…”

We parents were not as calm or self-reflective. ”I’m going to go speak with that fellow!” ”What does he think of himself?” ”He can’t get away with this…” But no one actually went down the beach again to collar scrawny, shifty Prakash. It was as if he wasn’t really worth the effort.

Then a couple of weeks ago, at the shed where our kids do their drills training, Prakash was back and training with our group again.

”Inky pinky ponky or what!” exclaimed a parent indignantly, referring to the rhyme that kids use to select a team at the start of each game. Prakash seemed to be swinging between the two rival groups at his whim. And how was Firoz Sir allowing him to come and train here with us again, knowing he could be a spy!

It was 7:30 am and in the brief pause between one drill and the next, I motioned towards Prakash and asked Firoz, ”what’s he doing here?” Firoz’ face was very young at that moment. His brow was unfurrowed. He smiled just a little, shrugged and said, ”who am I to tell him not to come?”

It takes a few good men (and women) to make the long days in the rainy city worth living. I feel I’m lucky to meet them at athletics training every morning.

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Often my story

The rains in Mumbai call to mind an idyllic monsoon week spent in Pokhara, Nepal, many years ago. Then too, I was playing in my head with stories, like they were clods of earth that could grow, quite organically, into a mountain.

Hard to accept that when the earth quaked the mountain must have trembled, raining clods…

Here’s something I wrote then, about a story and the mountain –

Often my story

begins like dawn,

is like a baby born,

Or runs in breathless late.

But today she’s gone

To sip morning tea

at a small café

by the lake in Pokhara.

The waiters watch

This one alone, resting in the steam from her tea.

Her gaze stays on the cloud

That swathes it head to toe…

She sits waiting

for the fish-tailed peak

of the Annapoorna

to show.

Men at Work

The summer is about long days, and the holidays about empty roads. Perhaps that’s why they’re more noticeable now… the men at work.

They dot the street

in the heat,

the men at work.

Lifting sacks so heavy

their necks bend forward

like dogs’. The eyes bulge from it.

They look the same, the brown

short-haired men,

their pants and shirts the colour of flour

ground coarse in hungry funnels.

In the open rear of a truck

framed by empty bisleri jars,

a middle-aged man takes a ride,

in the pause

between loading and night.

A day laborer moves a sack of rice at the Uttar Pradesh state warehouse in Mishrikh. Indians living in rural areas on average eat 2,020 calories a day, against a global average of 2,800 and 11 percent less than they did in 1973, according to government and United Nations' data.

 

Going forth with an onion in your pocket

It’s the first day of the new term at school and my child, nine and half years old, has boarded the school bus wearing her new swimsuit under a white-and-blue uniform. She carries two bags: a bag with books and one with a towel, swim cap and goggles. There is an extra bottle of water and an extra tiffin box. These are reinforcements. When I pack them in her bags, I remind her to drink all the water – from the bottles, not the swimming pool – and eat well today. Because last year at this time, she had a seizure.

I recall time slowing almost to a halt, her loss of muscle control, body sinking heavily down into my lap as I sat first to take her into my arms. A pause which left us, even after she was administered intravenous medication, and MRIs and EEGs showed no anomalies, afraid.

They said it could happen again: anytime, anywhere.

She was withdrawn from the school swimming program on the neurologist’s advice. If she does not have another seizure within the year, the doctor said, she will probably never have another in her life. I tagged hope to this line, and to this date in June.

I began the countdown last month. I watched her for signs of fatigue or a drop in lightness… subtle change in energy that might warn me.

Today, though we are a few days short of the waiting year, she has gone to join her classmates for the first swim of the year.

Her small face was calm and set when she said bye and boarded the bus, one bag slung behind and one slung in front of her sturdy torso.

A couple of days ago, a friend and I watched a man sink down on the pavement of a busy road and froth at the mouth. A passerby turned him onto his side,  located a peeled onion in the man’s front shirt pocket and held it to his nose. The lean, indeed, gaunt man, came to his senses and informed worried onlookers, in thickened tongue that it was his third seizure today. He was carrying the onion as first aid. He asked one of us to pen his address on a slip of paper and tuck that into his pocket alongside the onion. Refusing other offers of help – money for an auto, or someone to accompany him home – the man continued along the street.

In salutation to the courage of those who don’t know what the day could bring, and yet go forth, here’s something I wrote nearly a year ago – June 23rd, 2014:

There is a room in a building by the sea, where for a time I sat on the wooden floor.

Its walls are grey stone and windows are an old-fashioned white, the glass in them thickened to opacity. It is a quiet room with a large mirror, music – if you like – on the stereo which a young man called Wayden (in a red t-shirt, beads, and narrow, friendly eyes) turns on briefly. On the wall, a metal cord takes the shape of the Savior strung up on wood.

And the room is quiet with my girls sketching and their art teacher, Savio, looking over their moving pencils. His mind passes between theirs, pausing to nudge a shape that is being made with a stick of lead.

The room is quiet when I turn away to look out of the window.

Other buildings flank this one and the light outside is the flat yellow of 6:15pm, and what I can see down below is scanty city grass on yellow-brown mud.

Almost not visible against that mud, but right outside the window is a bare tree with spreading branches. The tree is alive with sparrows flitting. They awaken me. I’m forced to pay heed, wonder at them.  They twitter and move endlessly in the evening sunshine that, now I notice, gleams on the top of a bird’s head in the moment he perches on the topmost branch.

The teacher wants me out of there, so his friend Trevor takes me up to the terrace, where the wind could blow a child away, and the high tide of a dry monsoon evening lashes the beach. The beach is overrun by shanties covered in blue plastic. Trevor and I have a conversation, and I barely recognize the voice, the words I speak.

Two weeks ago my child had a seizure, and moaning, fell. I prayed over her, lifted her into me, to carry. All dreams of lightness have gone. I am an optimist, so I won’t say its forever. And I’m happy to be her keeper.

Still, coordinates have shifted beyond what I knew. In an alien stone room watching a bare bird tree, on a windy terrace with a kind, talkative stranger, I’m deafened by the roar of wind, words whisked away before they leave his lips… the restless sea is more familiar than this place I have come to.

Of soil and light

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Along a walkway

that sways in the wind,

I measure each step,

in dialogue with old selves that follow me,

some dancing, some wailing.

Come face to face

with a friend whose skin

is creased with regret –

She is me, too.

As are the children

who flock round to listen to stories…

Some reluctant, some eager

to scribble or speak out what’s tucked away

within dream and memory.

Hey Story! We call down the valley…

Hail story, well met.

So we greet a blessing when we see it.

All on this path,

fragile creatures of soil and light,

jostle, or thread hands and muddle on…

Flawed,

loving

and strong.