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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