Swami Vivekananda on India’s Caste Problem


[Editor’s Note: I don’t recall from which of his books I found this extract. It’s been sitting in my Drafts folder for 4.5 years and is eminently worth a read.]

Casteist_Quates_of_Vivekanand-3A man from the highest caste and a man from the lowest may become a monk in India and the two castes become equal. The caste system is opposed to the religion of Vedanta.

In spite of all the ravings of the priests, caste is simply a crystallized social institution, which after doing its service is now filling the atmosphere of India with its stench, and it can only be removed by giving back to people their lost social individuality. Caste is simply the outgrowth of the political institutions of India; it is a hereditary trade guild. Trade competition with Europe has broken caste more than any teaching.

There is no country in the world without caste. Caste is based throughout on that principle. The plan in India is to make everybody Brahmana, the Brahmana being the ideal of humanity. If you read the history of India you will find that attempts have always been made to raise the lower classes. Many are the classes that have been raised. Many more will follow till the whole will become Brahmana. That is the plan.

Take a man in his different pursuits, for example : when he is engaged in serving another for pay, he is in Shudra-hood; when he is busy transacting some some piece of business for profit, on his account, he is a Vaishya; when he fights to right wrongs then the qualities of a Kshatriya come out in him; and when he meditates on God, or passes his time in conversation about Him, then he is a Brahmana. Naturally, it is quite possible for one to be changed from one caste into another. Otherwise, how did Viswamitra become a Brahmana and Parashurama a Kshatriya?

If you teach Vedanta to the fisherman, he will say, “I am as good a man as you, I am a fisherman, you are a philosopher, but I have the same God in me, as you have in you.” And that is what we want, no privilege for anyone, equal chances for all; let everyone be taught that the Divine is within, and everyone will work out his own salvation. The days of exclusive privileges and exclusive claims are gone, gone for ever from the soil of India.

The Brahmana-hood is the ideal of humanity in India as wonderfully put forward by Shankaracharya at the beginning of his commentary on the Gita, where he speaks about the reason for Krishna’s coming as a preacher for the preservation of Brahmana- hood, of Brahmana-ness. That was the great end. This Brahmana, the man of God, he who has known Brahman, the ideal man, the perfect man, must remain, he must not go. And with all the defects of the caste now, we know that we must all be ready to give to the Brahmanas this credit, that from them have come more men with real Brahmana-ness in them than from all the other castes. We must be bold enough, must be brave enough to speak their defects, but at the same time we must give credit that is due to them.

The duty of every aristocracy is to dig its own grave, and the sooner it does so, the better. The more he delays, the more it will fester and the worse death it will die. It is the duty of the Brahmana, therefore, to work for the salvation of the rest of mankind, in India. If he does that and so long as he does that, he is a Brahmana.

It seems that most of the Brahmanas are only nursing a false pride of birth; and any schemer, native or foreign, who can pander to this vanity and inherent laziness, by fulsome sophistry, appears to satisfy more. Beware Brahmanas, this is the sign of death! Arise and show your manhood, your Brahmana-hood, by raising the non-Brahmanas around you – not in the spirit of a master – not with the rotten canker of egoism crawling with superstitions and charlatanry of East and West – but in the spirit of a servant.  As Manu says, all these privileges and honors are given to the Brahmana because, “with him is the treasury of virtue”. He must open that treasury and distribute to the world.

It is true that he was the earliest preacher to the Indian races, he was the first to renounce everything in order to attain to the higher realization of life, before others could reach to the idea. It was not his fault that he marched ahead of the other castes. Why did not the other castes so understand and do as they did? Why did they sit down and be lazy, and let the Brahmanas win the race?

To the non-Brahmana castes I say, wait, be not in a hurry. Do not seize every opportunity of fighting the Brahmana, because as I have shown; you are suffering from your own fault. Who told you to neglect spirituality and Sanskrit learning? What have you been doing all this time? Why have you been indifferent? Why do you now fret and fume because somebody else had more brains, more energy, more pluck and go than you? Instead of wasting your energies in vain discussions and quarrels in the newspapers, instead of fighting and quarreling in your own homes – which is sinful – use all your energies in acquiring the culture which the Brahmana has, and the thing is done. Why do you not become Sanskrit scholars? Why do you not spend millions to bring Sanskrit education to all the castes of India? That is the question. The moment you do these things, you are equal to the Brahmana! That is the secret power in India.

The only safety, I tell you men who belong to the lower castes, the only way to raise your condition is to study Sanskrit, and this fighting and writing and frothing against the higher castes is in vain, it does no good, and it creates fight and quarrel, and this race, unfortunately already divided, is going to be divided more and more. The only way to bring about the leveling of castes is to appropriate the culture, the education which is the strength of the higher castes.




The Real Indistructibles


Editor’s Note: There were middle class values in the 60’s/70’s/80’s and there are middle class values now. Big big difference. The old adage used to be “if it’s not broken, why fix it”. And if something does break, well.. repair (don’t replace) it. My parents have taken these adages to heart.. for 50 something years. I present to you an important subset of the Real Indistructibles from my parents’ home. If you are wondering about the blog title, it’s sorta related to this one.]


Center table (circa 1971-72). It earned a fresh lamination top sometime in the late 90’s



1968 vintage. Black spot at 4’o clock? A candle left unextinguished when the family went for a post-prandial walk.


1964 vintage. Upholstery probably changed once and multiple seat cover changes but the timber stands proud. I recall one coat of varnishing that we kids fought over.


Usha sewing machine purchased for Rs. 300 in 1971. Mom wanted the foot operated model (which would release later) but that didn’t stop her from churning out masterpieces over the ages. Delightful designs for infants & toddlers her specialty. Still going strong.


Purchased in 1964. This stool’s twin (click omission) required some props.


Godrej almirah (1975). Did anyone from that era NOT own this?



A proposal in Lincoln Park, Chicago


I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. – Algernon: The importance of being earnest

My friend Vikrant shared this on Facebook and it triggered a 20 year old memory.

First of all, I don’t entirely agree with Algernon. I’m in vehement agreement with his last sentence for sure. Nothing romantic about proposing? Now that’s a bit unfair.

American men have a fine tradition of proposing to (and often surprising the living daylights outta) their better halves. I happen to know two such proposals.

My ex-colleague and friend Laurie was ambushed at the finish line of her first marathon. Soon after her fiancé hugged and congratulated her, he quietly muttered “Are you ready?” to his buddy and, upon getting confirmation, went down on his knees and proposed. Laurie, already flush with post-race endorphins, would have one more memory attached to an already momentous day. And there was no need for a payment to Marathon Photos.

Our friends Jason and Julie had a long relationship before they tied the knot. Along the way, Jason did a 6-month teaching-English-in-China gig. Along the way, they did TWO around-the-world backpacking vacations. During their second soirée (chronicled beautifully here), against a picturesque backdrop in some exotic island, Jason proposed to Julie. There were no selfie sticks back then and no friend in tow but I’m sure that moment is forever etched in their memories.

My story is a bit different.

How I recall Lincoln Park ‘hood

Met this gorgeous girl on Jun 15 at a networking event in an art gallery in Chicago. I was deeply smitten. By the end of the evening I had made enough of an impression for her to acquiesce when I casually closed with “Hey,  I enjoyed talking to you. Could you share your email address so we can catch up sometime?”

Six weeks later we were on our first date. Later that month (after date #10 or so), I was announcing to my Evanston friend “she is the ONE and I would propose to her one of these days”.

My friend predictably responded with “What’s the hurry? Take some time before you pop the question.”

Of course I ignored him. Which is not to say I proposed to her on date #11.

Dinner at Copper Chimney. Nicholas Payton concert at the Jazz Showcase. Dinner at Shrees in Downers Grove. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan concert in Downtown. Dinner at the Indian Monsoon. Fareed Haq and Rudresh Mahattappa concerts at the Green Mill. Bike rides down Lake Shore Drive on the GS-700ES. Walk from Grant Park to Field Museum of Natural History to catch R. Carlos Nakai in action. Chicago city orchestra. Dave Brubeck with Bobby Militello. An all-night road trip to Wisconsin punctuated by a 4 am stop at Denny’s.

At some point the biweekly trysts turned into daily sojourns. We couldn’t spend enough time with each other apparently.

Having a 700cc Suzuki bike as the sole form of transportation added to my courtship cool quotient (I reckon). My Evanston friend’s Saturn and my Park Ridge friend’s Accord came in handy for some planned dates. Chicago’s public transit network bailed us out rest of the time.

But winter was approaching and I wanted 4 wheels.

Oct 11 dawned. I bought a Saturn SL2.

That was the evening I would propose to my girlfriend but even I didn’t know it until the precise moment.

It was a Friday evening and we were watching an 80’s era Hindi movie in my apartment.

I wish I remembered at which point in the movie it happened. All I recall was that there was some kind of whitespace (it was a VHS tape so couldn’t have been a commercial). A rare flash of deep certitude overcame me and I knew it was time.

I popped the question.

The beautiful face with perfect eyes and exquisite nose became suffused with incredulity and spoke.

“Oh my God! Are you sure?”


“Can you give me some time to think about it?”

“Of course. Take your time.”

(A few minutes later)


Bingo Little had found his Rosie M Banks.

P.S. For the next few days, she’d keep asking me “Are you sure you meant it? Because if you aren’t.. or have any second thoughts, I won’t hold it against you.”

To which I’d keep replying “I couldn’t be surer.”

P.S (2). So there you have it Vikrant.



Ravi Varma in a Vijayawada home


{Editor’s Note: My mother is a late adopter of the Internet. In the pre-Internet era, she used to write the loveliest of long letters to her children. The letters stopped after I returned to India. In the past year, after she got comfortable with connectivity and gmail, the letters resumed as emails to her children. She’s harvesting from the oldest tendrils of her memory which is making the reading so so enjoyable. In this email (Sep 29, 2016), she’s relating a chance encounter with an art connoisseur rich lady during her Vijayawada walking years. The email has gone through a minor editing lens without changing my mom’s tone and voice. I’ve italicized the Telugu names – fewer references compared to the first story – A marriage in the winter of 1962. My mom’s sub-text/commentary is “italicized within quotes.” My comments are within “[ ]”}

Dear ones,
    Some time back I saw portraits of famous painters on TV. I thought about Ravi Varma’s paintings. By now you know that I take a long time to come to the actual point. I don’t do Précis writing.
    I started walking as a mere excercise, probably in 1992. Slowly it became enjoyable, a habit, and part of my daily routine. I needed no other entertainment or company. Walking along the Vizag beach from from our Kirlampudi house, 6 am to 7 am, was the best.  It was continued in Vijayawada. In those days Nannagaru [dad] was not tensed up, he started worrying after Lakshmi’s accident. [Years ago, my dad’s sister (Lakshmi attaya) died on her way to a neighborhood store when a rash auto rickshaw driver ran her over in Hyderabad.]
        Walking  was like eating gulab jamuns (an Indian dessert). I surveyed all the places. Once I walked to Kanakadurga temple [a distance of 5km that undertaken as a mokku (aka mannat in Hindi) – a sacred pledge]. Anandamayee and Siah garu moved to Abhilash in 1999 [retired couple who became our parents’ neighbor]. Both Anandamayee and I started walked together. She was not in favour of freelance walking [freelance as in, changing the route every day at will]. So Siddhartha college ground became our new walking venue. She was a good conversationist. They had lived in many places like us – Calcutta, Bombay, Jamshedpur and and even Srilanka. We knew a lot of common people – Seeta pinni, Rama of Calcutta Kasturi garu (Anand’s attaya) and KCP Reddy garu. Very strangely she knew my mavayya [uncle] when he was in Samalakota [a town in East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh] many years ago. Moreover their Susarla [a Telugu surname] family was very big and she had enough material to share with me [my marathon friends will relate to material]. It went on smoothly for quite some time. One day we decided to wear salwar kameez [North Indian dress that rivals the sari in popularity] as our new walking dress code. A latent desire previously expressed meant I already had Prashanti’s [mom’s niece] dress. Anandamayee had to buy.
Shakuntala in the forest - a famous Ravi Varma painting

Shakuntala in the forest – a famous Ravi Varma painting

We stepped out in our new attire [you’ve got to imagine how big a deal this is for two South Indian women in their 50’s wearing a new outfit for the first time in their lives in public]. For the first 100 feet I concentrated on the road only. After crossing 2-3 buildings I could notice raised eye brows and slight smiles. We reached the ground. Some walked away without any expression [Indians can rival Jeeves’ stiff upper lip]. Lolla Sarma (my cousin) opened his mouth but immediately closed and walked away. We finished our walk, re-entered our building with a sigh of relief – first day was over. Next time when we visited  Lolla Sarma’s house he told his wife “Mythily Akkayya [i.e. the protagonist] and her friend vesham vesukuni [translates to costume or disguise] walking ki osthunaru.” [translates to coming.]

    Somehow our relationship got spoiled and we stopped walking together. She started walked on the terrace and I walked in the colony [back to freelance walking]. I walked up and down the street parallel to ours. It was a chukki walk – just like a bull goes round and round a chukki (ganuga) to crush til into oil, so was I walking. Now the topic story starts.
    A woman of my age stepped out from a palatial house. She was in walking shoes and all. She said she will join me in walking. [Note the use of “said she will join” as opposed to “may I join”] She introduced herself as Siris Rajugaru’s daughter, Annapurna. Siris Raju was one of the richest men of Vijayawada – sucessful industrialist, owner of Siris pharma company, Raju of Bhimavaram (which is the most fertile land of West Godavari). So my new walking companion was seriously rich lady.
Shakuntala and Dushyanta in the forest - another Ravi Varma painting

Shakuntala and Dushyanta in the forest – another Ravi Varma painting

In the first round of our walking, she told everything about herself and her family, then she narrated stories of the other bungalow owners. She suddenly stopped in front of a new apartment and said “I will show you something.” It was a 3 bedroom apartment on the 5th floor. When she opened the front door, I can’t express the sight that beheld me. An apartment with very minimal furniture but otherwise it was an absolute feast to my eyes. Room after room was filled with paintings – some original Ravi Varmas paintings bought by her from different places and exhibitions, portraits of Rama, Krishna, Yashoda Krishna, Nala Damayanti, Shakuntala Dushyant bought in various auctions. There were some statues as well. I was so happy, so happy, I wanted to share with others — Anandamayee, Udaka [my mother’s sister], and Seenu [my older brother]. She said I can bring anybody – to give them a similar tour. She gave me her phone number. I was so much thrilled. I took 2-3 rounds. She showed me the difference between original and others (as if I understood]. It was like drinking rasagulla juice [can you tell my mother has a sweet tooth?] It was an unplanned trip..  Nanna [my father] would be anxious as it was past my usual walking duration.. so I returned home. I thought to myself “will come again and do detailed survey” but opportunity comes only once.

    Next day she was waiting for me near her house. After one round of walking she invited to her house. She showed her well decorated and well kept house – turned out to be one more museum. However, I was not that much impressed… it was ok with all crystal and marble things, the kind one sees in airports and malls in USA. She had a separate studio where she paints and employs others to paint for her. After a cup of tea I left.
    Next day onwards she was not to be seen. When I asked her maid servant, she said she was sleeping. Later, when I happened to meet her she refused to recognize me. Anyway my childhood desire to see original Ravi Varma paintings was fulfilled.
    Rasagulla freelance walking came down to walking in the school ground then to chakki walk and finally to corridor and drawng room walking. Eventually I stopped it completely after I started and became regular with the Art of Living routine. Thank you for reading my thoughts.
    Yours loving Amma
[Closing note: the apparent amnesia displayed by the lady reminded me of a Vikramaditya/Raja Bhoja story. If your childhood reading involved a healthy diet of Amar Chitra Katha, you probably recall that story too?]



Day of the gritty knock


If the race wasn’t worth writing about, you didn’t give it your all. – A donkey

[Editor’s Note: This is my Mumbai Marathon 2017 race report masquerading as a three-part cricket metaphor laced narrative. Any self-aggrandizement percolating through is purely accidental. Really.]

Part 1: The week after

Jan 17-19, 2017

I laced up my shoes and went for a 30 min run. By run, I mean a slow walk turning into a shuffle which eventually became an amble and, with 5 min remaining, I finally trotted.

The last time I wore my (now 7 year old) shoes was 14 months ago. The previous time I laced up was for the last 25k in my 1st 75k ultra.

It’s not like I wasn’t running in the interim. Barring these 2 shod episodes, I’ve been mostly running barefoot or with minimalist sandals since Feb 2012.

For the first time (after running scores of marathons and ultras), my quads were OK but my calves and glutes were not. The morning after I felt like I had been gored in my right buttock. And the knives buried in my calves were just not retreating.

The buttock thing had to be a glute strain, a self-diagnosis that I accepted with mixed feelings. I was forewarned. For the preceding two months, a low intensity strain had been coming up every few weeks but I adopted corrective measures that seemed to work.

No runner likes an injury but if it had to happen, this wasn’t a bad time – next race was at least 6 months away. For the mafiosi runner’s body, was it finally the butt’s turn?

Miraculously, the glute strain relented 36 hours later but the calves did not. They would require 3 sessions of aggressive stretching by a physiotherapist to restore normalcy. Certainly another first.

Somewhere on the course, my right heel got punctured by a sharp object. Not all sharp pokes on the soles are significant so it’s hard to recall where this might have happened. For the record, Mumbai roads are WAY better than Bangalore roads (a fellow barefoot runner had this to say “Thanks to Karnataka Government for the terrible roads.. which makes Mumbai roads feel smooth as butter”). The combination of punctured heel and knifed calves made the post-race barely-a-kilometer walk to the hotel excruciatingly painful and impossibly long. [Link to the day#4 barefoot pics]

There’s a reason why I’m dwelling so much on the post-race pain. Part 2 of the story will shed light on the why.

Sandals or naked feet?

About half my races have been run with shoes. The rest are probably an even split between huaraches and barefoot. If you’ve been following my blog closely, you’d know that I’ve been vacillating on this footwear business. Maybe there was no “one right way” as the purists have been opining. Perhaps Dr. Rajat Chauhan is right in admonishing runners that jettisoning shoes doesn’t have to be a “losing my religion” decision.

My interval training workouts were all run barefoot but the longest barefoot run in the preceding weeks was a measly 16k. Physically, I was a far cry from my peak form in 2013-14. Lungs have required daily inhaler assistance for past two years. The nagging pain in the sacro-ileo zone (first manifested 5 years ago) has bothered me on more long runs than usual. And there was Senor Maximus reminding me that my right flank was doing more work than the left. Against this backdrop, sandals would have been the prudent defensive choice.

So why did I decide to run barefoot?

It was an expression of intent. An aggressive front-foot meet-the-ball-early intent.

As always, my team and the opposing team would be simultaneously occupying the crease. By ‘crease’, of course I mean my body and my mind. The various parts of my body represent ‘my team’, the conditions were the opposition and how the shared resource (the mind) performed would determine the victor.


Part 2: The target before the target

I’m part of a running cult where devout members make their flights reservations for SCMM six months before race start. They *assume* (rightly in most cases) that their registrations will be accepted and complete the formalities within 24 hours of registration opening and obsessively follow-up until the Procam folks are like “Ok ok! you are in! Sorry we kept you waiting!”

But I was going to give SCMM 2017 a miss. I had run two ultras recently and not in the best form to challenge my personal best from 2014 so why bother?

Then I got this message from my friend Charulekha in mid-Oct: “Hey V, are you running Mumbai Marathon? Because if you are.. we’d love for you & your runner friends to fundraise for AADI”.

One thing led to another. I registered in late Oct, the acceptance came in soon enough but it would take me till Nov-end to put up this fundraising page.

As I would write in my fundraising emails to friends, this is the first time I registered for a race at the suggestion of a friend. In hind sight, the target (25 Lakhs) was several shades beyond unrealistic. Raising $10,000 in my first fundraising run (circa 2002 in Bay Area) was a “beginner’s luck ” data point that I probably should have tempered.

In any case, I wholeheartedly embraced the pre-race target. In my emails, I would invoke BHAG, suffix it with “Gulp!” and allowed my unbridled optimism to suffuse through. AADI’s mission became my mission and I emoted this in every single email/Whatsapp/Facebook Message. 188 messages to be precise. My ‘constituency’ included folks who had contributed in 2002 (all in US), Charu’s (and my) classmates from school, my college mates, ex-colleagues at Yahoo and Adobe, and runner friends in Bangalore.

The end result? 66 unique contributors helped raise a total of 3.5 lakhs37.2% is a pretty darn good conversion rate!!! Thanks again dear contributors (you WILL hear from me soon with a link to this blog post).

I considered gamifying the fundraising pitch. Would donors double their contribution if I ran the race faster thany previous best? A friend rightly assessed that non-runners would not be moved by this. What if I made a spectacle of myself during the entire race? A few promising ideas emerged on this theme but were eventually laid to rest.

Years ago, a friend had honestly asked “Why should I contribute just because you are running?” Back then, I was running my first ever marathon (a special moment in itself). This time I was in a certain life zone where running and racing marathons was immensely pleasurable (even considering that all races involved pain to some degree).

I haven’t quite researched the history of fundraising on the back of endurance events  but I’m guessing it’s an attenuated version of Christ and suffering. I care for this cause *so much* that I’m willing to cycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles.. or hike/run the Appalachian Trail or run from Srinagar to Kanyakumari. And, learning from the Pheidippides saga, not die in the process.

So I was running a mere marathon (without adding any levels of difficulty or attach performance goals) and expecting people to buy into my cause in a BHAG way?

I wasn’t suffering enough, I told myself. I indulged in some programmatic scenarios. If I don’t shave off 3 min from my personal best, I would run another marathon the next weekend. Heck, I’d make it a 50k if my race performance sucked.

But the only use of these suffering scenarios were if I put them into my fundraising emails to f&f. Occurring as the idea did at the 11th hour and considering that I signed up for a major work deadline on the eve of the race, this fundraising premise was never tested.

The universe was however listening to my chatter.

A certain chump who was running a mere marathon wanted suffering. The word went around.

Oh yes sir, word spread nicely indeed. I suffered during the race (par for the course) but the week long post-run suffering is a personal landmark of sorts. As they say, be careful what you ask for. Even in the private recesses of your mind.


Part 3: The race

Finally I get to write about the race!

There aren’t many things one can control 10 days prior to the race but adequate sleep and nutrition are certainly two of them. I did reasonably well in that department. But that was about it.

Developed body ache and mild fever over the penultimate weekend.  Ditched the taper run and compensated with extra sleep and stay-at-home-vegging-out. An important 3-day business trip to Delhi was unavoidable. The crisp cold Gurgaon air fortunately didn’t do any damage. Well, not much anyway.

The evening before the race, felt early symptoms of body ache and a mild fever. Without panicking, I started imposing my famed positive thinking will on the problem. “It’s just psychosomatic jitters,” I told myself, “about a race I wasn’t 100% ready for and a target pace that I hadn’t mentally set.” Tea with a friend followed by sumptuous dinner with my BHUKMP gang didn’t alleviate the physical symptoms.

Desperate times called for drastic measures – a 400 mg Ibubrofen tablet was downed before bedtime. After a few hours of fitful sleep, I sweated away the <whatever>. Woke up fresh with positive thoughts.

I’ve never woken up on race day feeling “I’ll take it easy today.. won’t push myself.. just finish the distance yaar.” This time was no different.

I had to shave 3 min so I needed to be close to the 3:45 bus. The sketchy plan was to start the race with Shilpi (who had done a 3:42 a few months earlier) and Krishna (also targeting a 3:45).

The 3 of us were together for probably the first two minutes of the race 🙂

Shilpi took off like a rabbit and (while I wasn’t sporting a Garmin) I knew it was faster than 3:45. Kept checking my watch for the first few km’s and ensured I was on target pace. Krishna had fallen back by then and we were running our own races. As it almost always is.

Sighted Pankaj Rai about 50m ahead of me. We would be in this holding pattern for a few km’s until I passed him on the first up hill. That was also when Nirupma and Rajesh passed me. They would eventually finish in 3:41 and 3:51.

At some point between 8 and 10km, I sighted and caught the 3:45 bus. There were 10-12 runners. My initial urge was to not linger but stay just a little ahead. After a few km, the bus caught up and my mind-body sent a clear signal that I should stay with the bus.

This staying with the bus I had never done before but stay I did. Like a bloody leech. The bus surged, I surged. The bus fell back, I fell back (though I don’t really recall this part!)

At dinner, Krishna had told me that the 3:45 pacer’s personal best was 4:10 but that “he was confident” of bringing the bus home on time. These are some of the consistently bone-headed decisions that SCMM seems to be making year after year on the choice of pacers. Simple thumb rule: if you are driving the 3:45 bus, you should have run 3:30 a few times at least.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The pacer did a pretty decent job, at least until 26k. He indulged in some mild chatter with a few runners.. kept calling out in advance of hydration stops.. there was good camaraderie in the bus around sharing drinks.

Reaching the halfway mark felt like a major accomplishment. At 1:51, it was technically a minute faster. I wasn’t complaining then but even an aggressive minute can hurt you in the second half.

Caught up with Satish (another Bangalore runner friend) at the halfway mark. He pulled ahead soon thereafter and I would not see him until the end.

Where eagles dare

After the euphoria of cresting 21.1k settled down, I hit a soft wall. I didn’t think I had slowed down but the bus was suddenly 30 meters ahead. To my horror, it became 40m, then 50m.

An epochal scene from Alistair McLean’s war thriller (Burton hanging perilously atop an enemy house while stretching out his hand to a slipping comrade) is the best way to describe what was happening.

The bus was extending a hand but I had to stretch and clasp it.

It was a pivotal point in my race and I knew it. I dug the spurs into my side, sped up and pulled myself into the gravitational field of the bus.

Safe. Little did I know that the safety net would unravel 4km later.

There are two Barnabas Sacketts in my running group and one of them (Bhasker) passed me at 26k and uttered the magical words “Great effortless form, V. Keep it going.”

I managed to mumble “Really? But I’m beginning to struggle.”

Soon after I noticed a few young bucks pulling ahead of the bus.. I passed the pacer and he seemed to be noticeably flagging. I caught up with one of the bucks who confirmed that the bus was officially behind schedule.

I spared a thought for the pacer. It was not his fault they picked him for the wrong bus. I was thankful. He had brought us/me to this point and now it was up to me, myself and Irene. Scratch that, no Irene either.

A  recent research study found that runners who were told that their running form was good (or great).. their form actually improved. I’m not making this up. This should not surprise anyone who swears by Homeopathy or has been following the experiments of education innovator Sugato Dutta (or Roy?)

Bhasker’s magical words worked like a magic potion and I was able to retain my rhythm and momentum. I could tell that I was steadily losing pace but I was in that “damned if I’m going to walk even for 10 seconds” zone.

Of plant talkers, horse whisperers and yoga instructors

Do you know any ladies with a green thumb who insist that their plants and flowers bloom better because of their daily monologue? Or yoga instructors that soothingly murmur “now breathe through your lower body all the way to your toes and relax every muscle along the way..”

If you crack up incredulously at these flower children, I’ll give you something new to laugh at.

Somewhere near 15k, my right glute pressed the panic button. It was not a full blown strain but the throbbing was steady and ominous. I took a deep breath and in my most reasonable yet firm yoga-instructor-meets-drill-sergeant voice told my butt “I know you are hurting but we have a job to do here. Please PLEASE deactivate those pain sensors until we finish this race and I promise to take good care of you after we are done.”

It worked! It bleddy WORKED! A few minutes later, the pain receptors had called off their panic alert.

This sequence happened a second time between 30 and 35k. My new exhortation addendum was “we are almost home!”

Those pious Pedder road people

There’s a special place in marathon heaven reserved for the folk who cheer or offer salted oranges on the Pedder Road hill.

Vaishali’s egging on at this stage really cheered me up and I was ready for the final assault.

I think when you are pissed, your vision gets affected. In the final 5-8k, when one frantically needs to compute finish time scenarios to goad oneself, I just could not spot those godforsaken km markers. It soured my mood even more.

With 4km to go, a runner passed me with a high decibel hoo-hoo-ha-ha breathing rhythm. What a great idea, I thought. With my own rendition of the same, I attempted to stay with him. It worked for 500m.

With 2-3km remaining, Santhosh (of Runners High fame) very helpfully goaded me with “Still on track V.. finish strong.”

I knew I was not on track but I latched on to the latter sentiment. Strong, at this stage of the race, is a relative term anyway.

Upto this point, for Bangalore barefoot runners, the SCMM terrain was like a first world city’s road just beginning to slip into disrepute. The final left turn towards Azad Maidan greeted us with an abrupt and rude “Fooled you suckers! You were probably missing Bangalore roads – ha ha!”

Finished in 3 hrs 57 min.

Missed my target by 12 minutes but I was plenty satisfied with my overall performance. Like those batsmen who frequently rate their match saving knocks higher than their personal best (or match winning) scores, I will treasure this more than my 2014 effort.

It doesn’t mean I don’t want to hit a purple patch and effortlessly coast to a new personal best.

I will be back.

With a better preparation – for both the fundraising and the race.

 Mathew Hayden once said

Mathew Hayden once said “If you really want to see aggression, look into Rahul Dravid’s eyes.” Channeling my inner Dravid.



Let the ass kicking begin…


squash_player_quoteSanta Cruz squash club (circa 1999)
It was my second year of playing squash seriously. ‘Seriously‘ doesn’t mean I was any good yet. I was at that rookie stage of a squasher’s evolution when I was constantly looking for easy winners (read “low percentage drop shots or optimistic boasts”). I had signed up for a squash tourney at the Santa Cruz squash club.

I have little recollection of the two games I played – quick embarrassing losses I’m sure.

On the bright side, I got to watch several great games. The standout memory (and the trigger for this post) was the matchup between the club pro (Alex) and a sturdily built bloke (let’s call him Blake since I don’t know him).

There was no danger of Blake being picked from a which one of these is a squash player lineup. This is not to say that he was unfit.

As the players warmed up with rails and crosses (and the occasional boast), it was evident that Blake had talent. There was an elegance and efficiency to his on-court movements that belied one’s cursory examination of his physical profile. But my money was still on the athletic squash pro Alex.

Game 1 score: 9-5

The game was close for the first 2-3 minutes. Blake had gotten Alex’s measure by then and started putting him through his paces. An array of accurately deep rails laced with a perfect blend of drop and boast winners. This was a pattern he oft repeated. And as though to remind Alex that this wasn’t his full armoury, he’d throw in a clinically precise edge smash winner… seemingly at will.

I watched Blake as he nonchalantly took his break, changed to a new tee and entered the court before Alex.

“Let the ass kicking begin”

This was the message on the back of his game#2 tee!!

The programmer in me wondered whether he had different tee shirts ready based on whether he won the first game.

I concluded that this was the perfectly appropriate”mind games” message to an opponent in both scenarios.

If it was a close first game that he had lost, the taunt could have inserted a doubt in his opponent’s mind. 

In this case, however, Blake was openly taunting Alex.. just getting warmed up buddy. I’ll now wipe the floor with you.

Blake then proceeded to do just that. Game 2 score was either 9-2 or 9-3.

Beyond the cheekiness and mind game evoked by Blake’s tee that day, the message stayed in my consciousness. 

Strangely my runner persona can relate to that message.

Like many amateur runners who will never be podium finishes (in the open category), my ‘opponent’ is me. The current me is constantly competing with the previous me. 

If I ran an FM in 3:48, great. Let the ass kicking begin.. to get to the 3:30 to 3:45 quadrant.

If I’ve run 75k multiple times, great. Let the ass kicking begin for a hilly 80k or a 24 hour ultra.

If Dr. George Sheehan can get his PB at 60 years, surely I can try my darnedest in my late 40’s.



When in Rome be a barefoot runner


When in Rome be a Roman.

If you are a runner there’s possibly no better city than Bangalore for year-round running. There’s at most one hot month and even then the mornings are nothing remotely like Chennai. There’s hardly a run where I don’t thank my stars I’m in Bangalore!

While it’s widely known that Bangalore roads are terrible for motorists, it’s probably the worst city for barefoot runners.

If the roads weren’t this bad I might have never switched to 4mm huaraches.

Inflection points in my barefoot journey:

The rhythm seemed to return but it would get punctured every time a blasted pebble got stuck in my sandals. This probably happened a 100 times and I only exaggerate slightly. THIS was the elephant in the room “rhythm crusher” that I had missed! After running KTM for the third consecutive time barefoot (barely 2 months ago) and extracting 25+ thorns, I resolved to NOT run barefoot at that course again. Now extrapolating this Aha moment to Ultra with its pebble-laden obstacle gotchas and non-trivial stretches of gravel-masquerading-as-road would require a level of intelligence that I clearly did not possess. Or maybe it was bravado?

The above extract is from the Bangalore Ultra 2014 race report. I wouldn’t blame you if you concluded that I relapsed from a barefoot to a shod runner.

However, that hasn’t happened yet.


Barefoot running is religion. Barring the Tarahumara, Zola Budd, and a smattering of insanely talented (but pecuniary) elite runners who only knew barefoot running, the rest are mostly the born again religious variety.

Given how the resurgence (or the start?) of modern barefoot running was inspired by Born to Run, the anti-shod religious moorings should not surprise us too much.

As a practitioner, observer of other Bangalore barefoot runners, and chronicler of barefoot running in India, I know very few barefoot purists – the ones who run *all* their runs barefoot. If you excluded the slower runners, you have maybe 2-3 such runners (in India). The most famous in that exclusive list is Thomas Bobby Philip. Someday a tome will be written about this mutant runner with a VO2Max of 65 and an enviable Benjamin Button core.

The rest of the barefoot runners who have persisted for longer than 3 years (and I include myself in this category) have dabbled with various forms of minimalist footwear (sandals, Vibram 5-fingers or zero-drop 4mm shoes) before finding their ‘new normal’.

For many, the new normal was Vibrams all the time or sandals all the time. For me, it’s been an annual reset of the previous normal.

What’s my current normal? Barefoot for my speed/hill runs and sandals for the long runs on Bangalore roads though I’ll shed my sandals for more of my long runs to re-acclimarize myself for SCMM 2017.

Give me a smooth urban terrain and I’ll run barefoot anyday.

When in Rome, or any city with smooth asphalt or concrete, I’ll run barefoot anyday. For any distance.



Three Act Play for the Fourth Time


“The human being, by and large, is a very bad companion for himself; where he has to face himself for any length of time, he acquires a deep disgust and a restless anxiety which makes him seek almost any escape.” – Victor F Nelson

[Editor’s Note: Started this post the Monday following Bangalore Ultra 2016 but I finished it on Nov 25, courtesy a 2 hour flight and WordPress for Android. By my usual gestational standards, this baby came out super fast.]

Yesterday marked a first of sorts – watching a play with my teenage son. “Perfect Nonsense”, PG Wodehouse’s adaptation by The Goodale Brothers was thoroughly enjoyable. Judging by my son’s reactions, I believe he’ll give Plum a try soon. The play capped off an eventful and satisfying weekend.

A weekend that started on Saturday at 6am with a different three act play.

It was the 10th edition of the Bangalore Ultra and I was running the 75km distance. Each loop (out and back) = 25k so 3 loops in total.

Pre-race prep and target setting

My lungs were in better shape (albeit Symbicort aided) than last year but nothing close to the 2013-14 season.

Having run this race 3 of the last 4 years, the distance/terrain/heat weren’t daunting. I wanted to push myself though. Specifically, I wanted to improve on my previous best time of 8:38. Feeling strong after a 52k training run at 6:10 pace made me greedy. Was a time between 8 and 8:15 possible? A question I would keep asking myself until race day.

When Bhasker posed the same an hour before start, my answer was “will run first loop in 2:40 and see” which is a cagey way of saying “8 hrs but…”

The silly organizers (in their infinite wisdom) had moved the start time from 5am to 6am. Why fix something that wasn’t broken? Grr…

My target time was allegedly adjusted for this extra hour in the sun.

Didn’t mess with my nutrition and hydration plans from previous two years (ragi pudding + coconut/PB sandwiches, Cocojal and water, and salt tablets).

Quite satisfied with my mental preparation in the week leading to the race. I even visualized the race a few times – something I’ve never done before.

After my less than stellar performance in 2014, one thing I swore to change was my choice of footwear which turned out to be the Umara Z-Trail sandals (acquired in March). Since a ball-of-foot callus had returned to torment me for the nth time, I decided to add socks to the mix – it would turn out to be a smart decision.

Act I

Nearing the end of act I

Nearing the end of act I

Considering how much I abhor arriving late to a race, was unable to avoid a mad scramble to get my stuff to baggage claim, etc. Mild rumblings from the nether regions with 10min to the gun so I needed to make my first decision.

I called my gut’s bluff. It was a trail after all and I had TP tucked away. Would turn out to be the right call.

I set off strong and (since I was wearing a watch, not Garmin) realized at Km 2 that it was too fast. A progressive slowing down in the next 7 km brought it down to an average pace of 6:00. The return 12.5k (with a few inclines) would get me back on target I figured.

I finished Act I four minutes faster than plan. You’d think 4 min over 25 km isn’t significant, right? I’m sure my running geek friends will tell me how significant it was. Discipline in “holding back” in ultras is key (especially since I had a target, an aggressive one at that) and i had failed the test. I would learn my lesson in acts II and III.

Looking at a runner as a celestial object revolving around the sun, an aggressive push to a higher orbit carries the risk of careening downward to a lower orbit.

Act II

Eat and run.. in the middle of Act I

Eat and run.. in the middle of Act I

Normally I’d go half-monty in act III but the 6am start messed with that plan. At the 2 hour mark, I was already feeling straitjacketed with a soaking tee and a playful sun. So I decided it was going to be a 50k shirtless race. Game on.

One of the fringe benefits of going shirtless is that it’s a photograph repellent. While I have nothing against photographers and viewing a rare runner-in-repose picture can lift the ego, seeing them in the middle of the trail strikes me as unfair. It breaks the meditative spell, I get conscious, and I just can’t wait to cross the range of the lens. (having said all that, I’ve attached 3 pictures from the race)

Unsurprisingly, I slowed down in the second loop, completing it in about 3 hours. I kept comparing my performance with how I felt during and after my bolstering 52k training run. Why WAS I not feeling as strong as that run? Especially when I was running at least 20 min slower over that distance.

I had started my training run at 4am – a whopping 2 hours before race start conditions. Bleddy aggressive optimist me was also el stupido!

As I approached the end of the second loop, here’s how I assessed my 3-act play:

  • (utterly) foolish first act
  • steady as it goes second act
  • gear up for survival act!


They managed to snag the half-monty

They managed to snag the half-monty

At the turnaround it was evident that a spectacular third act was the only way I could come close to my previous best. ‘Spectacular’ entailed not cramping AND maintaining the pace from my second loop.

A heightened state of proprioception would ensure I wouldn’t cramp. I was regimental in my intake of Cocojal and salt tablets. I was able to detect the mildest pre-cramp tremors and take evasive measures (salt or electrolytes). The fact that I finished my 10th (and last) salt tablet between 55k and 62k told a tale of treacherous heat. Fortunately all aid stations were abundantly stocked with salt.

About that second dimension of spectacular? Ha.

Survival it had to be.

Once you’ve run enough, you know that the sublime races are but a few. The non-sublime races are wonderful opportunities for self-learning and experimentation.

My personal favorite is the experimentation with mantras. Different mantras for different situations.

The racing, not running mantra worked great for my sublime 2013 season but it was a non-starter for this race.

In the middle miles of trail races, I’ve found this to be very effective in re-centering my mind and bringing my focus inwards. It also helps in regaining my breathing rhythm. Time stands still while the miles are eaten.

A new addition to my mantra arsenal was an Indian army war cry that one of my fauji friends had elucidated on our WhatsApp group sometime ago.

No external enemy to contend with, no hill to be taken but a lot of inner demons to be vanquished.

I employed this mantra twice, somewhere between 58k and 65k. It seemed to work, though it’s effect was short lived. Me thinks I haven’t really internalized the import of the fauji mantra.

I walked three times in act III. The longest walk duration was probably 3-4 minutes but I hated every second of it. I hated it because I wasn’t remotely in distress. My nutrition was working – no exhaustion or bonking. No cramping. Just plain old misery of having slowed down, being unable to speed up, the prospect of additional 15/14/13 to go, absence of a good reason to DNF. Yes you fool – km markers take longer to traverse at an ambling pace.

The best news from the third act was that I got my proverbial “second wind” several times. They’d only last a kilometer but gave me great hope. Without these bursts I would have had an utterly miserable finish.

If my mind was the rider and my body the horse, I needed a few more mantras in my arsenal.

At the 62.5 k mark, met Lawrence (who was running 100 k) and we got chatting. He was running at a blistering pace, but his lower body was killing him and he wondered if he could finish in under 10 hours. My lower body, on the other hand, was doing just fine. My lungs however felt as though somebody had compressed them down to 50℅. We bantered for half a kilometer before Lawrence found his groove again. He would finish in an amazing 9:50 to take 2nd place.

While Lawrence was computing his sub-10 hr pacing misery, I was calculating my sub-9 hr chances. Things weren’t looking good so I blanked those thoughts and concentrated on just running the remaining 12.5 km. I had walked thrice in the preceding 6 k and I’d be damned if I did that again.

Amazingly (and seemingly suddenly), the 69 k marker was sighted and a quick calculation told me that a sub-9 hour finish was in the realm of possibility *without requiring a superhuman effort*. If I was a whistler, I would have whistled till the end.

Finished in 8:58. 4th place overall. Apparently I was the only oldie running 75k so they gave me a trophy too.




I’m racing, not running!


Progress is linearly proportional to one’s efforts but results often come in cycles. – several wise men

Coming off a 22-month streak, the 2013-14 season was looking rather normal. KTM in Sep followed by 75k Ultra in Nov and finish off with SCMM in Jan.

I had come within flirting distance of sub-4 times in a few training FMs and finally did a 3:55 (or thereabouts) in Apr so was flush with confidence, optimismghg and expectation.

KTM 2013

ktm_2013_barefoot_flyingCame really close to a DNS (Did Not Start) thanks to a judgement lapse on the preceding Friday – carbo-loading at a non-regular eating joint (Rajasthani Rajdhani at that) was not a smart thing after all. Curd with jeera powder until Sat evening brought parity to proceedings. It was a trail run and I had prepared myself mentally and logistically to dart into the bushes. Fortunately, a final pre-race checkin to the loo brought glad tidings and I was mentally & physiologically re-centered.

In 5 years at KTM (and 2nd time barefoot), a first half of 1:55 was easily my most aggressive start. My ‘two Cocojals per FM’ strategy seemed to be working – for a change, cramps wouldn’t be the culprit this time around. The payback for my unsustainable first half pace was an undramatic and inexorable slowing down. I finished in 4 hrs 9 min. A highly respectable time for KTM but I was gunning for a lot faster. I’d be back (I promised myself).

Ultra 2013

The urge to run my second 75k ultra started immediately after I finished the 2012 edition. I was mentally a lot stronger. Physically too, with a lot of consistently high mileage weeks, weekends and months. Thanks to Sir Gaunker‘s tried and tested nutrition strategy for ultras, ragi was going to be my primary fuel. What’s more, Rajaram’s wife very kindly agreed to prepare the ragi pudding for my race. Meanwhile Rajaram was registered for the 100k and in the deepest vein of purple form that season.

ultra_2013_dawnThe Bangalore Ultra’s starts are always magical. 5am with darting flashlights and a jumbled formation of runners tentatively making their way forward. The conditions ensure that no one takes off at 10k pace.

The usual banter with Nari and Vasu (who deserve a post on what makes them uniquely crazy) continued till the 6.5k hydration point. As I exited, something clicked in my head. An inner voice said “I’m racing, not running!” and I instantly knew what to do. If this scene needed to be picturized (and I was the director), I’d show the protagonist’s eyes narrowing, focusing in a William Tell manner seeing *just* the apple on his son’s head and set off in a copybook stance of an elite Kenyan runner.

Nari and Vasu dissolved into the gray and off I went. To run my race. It was the first time I had turned on my ‘game face’. A face, a mode, an attitude that stayed with me for the remainder of the race.

I completed the first (25k) loop in 2.5 hours. I knew it was too fast so (after briefly feeling good about it) I consciously slowed down a tad bit. I finished the 2nd loop in 2 hrs 45 min. My Bhukmp compatriots noted my in-the-zone running with a range of comments. Nari said “Man! You are going fast” (with a tone tinged with concern). I passed Chandra at the 18k mark. I had not seen him because he was on a bio break. He yelled out to me “Hey, you want to break Sunil Menon’s course record?” There was no danger of that of course. Sunil’s (last year’s winner) time was 7.5 hours. Chandra (who finished 2nd behind Sunil in 8 hrs 15min) was probably afraid I might better his Bhukmp record 🙂 Until the start of the 3rd loop I actually thought I had a shot at it.

Hari observed “Did you realize you just had your best FM time?” He was right! I had crossed the 42k mark in 4hrs 5min.

ultra2013_on_podiumThe 3rd loop pulled back proceedings thanks to my tactical error in the first loop. I had forgotten that my Cocojal stache was only at the starting point aid station (and not at the midpoint) so my first Cocojal dose came at the 32k mark (thanks to Rajaram’s generosity). At the start of the 3rd  loop, I traded my 4mm huaraches with 10mm Puma slippers. The footwear change was by design but things started going awry soon thereafter. With the spectre of cramps looming in my mind, it was only a matter of time before my calves obliged. I had my best stroke of luck that day – this happened 100m from the medical/physio van. Chandra, who had amazingly caught up despite a painful bout of plantar, helped me to the physio. A 5min massage by Physio Peter changed the game again. I felt good as new so off I went again. A bit more circumspect this time. On my final turnaround (with a mere 6k to go), I got a 2nd massage from Peter (for proactive good measure) and finished in 8 hrs 38 min. In 2nd place. Winner that year was Mumbai’s talented ultra runner Abbas Sheikh (in 7.5 hrs).

SCMM 2014

After landing in Mumbai airport, I recall Nari asking me about my target time and my reply was “I don’t know but I was definitely going for it”. What was *it*? I would find out on race day. I took the “racing, not running” mantra to my final race too. At Azad Maidan (about 10 min before the gun), broke away from my group after exchanging some pleasantries and made my way to the starting line. Time to picturize again people… that same purposeful narrowing of the eyes. No William Tell but a killer this time. A killer moving through the crowd with each step taking him inexorably towards his victim. I was slotted in the B corral but I didn’t stop when I reached the front rows of B. The absence of any policing merely confirmed what was already in my head. I kept walking until I reached the first few rows of the starting line. I was probably rubbing shoulders with runners who would finish in the Top 10 but I didn’t care. I was running *my* race and I was expressing intent (to myself) in the most aggressive way possible.

To end proceedings, here’s a brief race report I shared with my gang after returning to Bangalore.

Dear friends,
Had a fantastic race. Ravi made the mistake of asking for my story at the airport last evening and he got the VERY detailed account. Here’s the short version:
Two words: very satisfied.

I didn’t want to squeak in for a sub-4 finish but blow past it – goal largely achieved. First race where I didn’t cramp – 2 cocojals did the trick. I had visualized them as my two six-shooters. Emptied the empty one at the 7k mark, second one was downed soon after the halfway mark. Strategy to go close to 5:00 pace for *as long as possible* paid off.

Decision to run barefoot (as opposed to huaraches) was vindicated and the only time I gazed balefully at the asphalt was on the final few kms of Marine Drive. Great BF-friendly course barring 3 stretches where asphalt was very coarse – the last Marine Drive stretch (where Jugy/Sunil cheered us) and the only time I wished I had the huaraches. Did “catch-back” with Pankaj and Bahuja at 3 different points – I surged ahead each time – Pankaj ko motivation diya hoga since he surged past me in the last 700m 🙂

Played cat-and-mouse game with Vaishali between 21k and 39k. She was super-focused but I couldn’t resist a very brief conversation. I was not sure how to tackle the Peddar hill (apparently I had forgotten Nandi Hills) so I asked her. Pat came the reply – “Don’t walk, increase arm swing, drop stride”. I followed the good lady’s advice and remained untroubled.

First race as “Veteran”, first FM race with the analog Titan Edge (glanced at it maybe 4-5 times). 5:11 in the 1st quarter, 5:12 in the 2nd, 5:21 in the 3rd and 6:00 in the 4th.

Overall rank: 159, category rank: 23. Can’t really complain. Thank you – oh running gods! It finally all fell into place. The sub-4 monkey off my back.

Closing note: This post entered my Drafts folder on Nov 4, 2014 so a gestational stay of 23 months 🙂



A marriage in the winter of 1962


[Editor’s Note: My mother is a late adopter of the Internet. In the pre-Internet era, she used to write the loveliest of long letters to her children. The letters stopped after I returned to India. In the past year, after she got comfortable with connectivity and gmail, the letters resumed as emails to her children. She’s harvesting from the oldest tendrils of her memory which is making the reading so so enjoyable. In this email (Aug 4), she’s relating the story of her marriage in the winter of 1962. If I were to design the wedding brochure, I’d title it as Ooty ki kali weds a Guntur boy. The email has gone through a minor editing lens without changing my mom’s tone and voice. I’ve italicized all the Telugu names (and there are MANY). My mom’s sub-text/commentary is “italicized within quotes.” Editor’s comments are within “[ ]”. The bare boned Telugu cheat sheet is here: Tatayya (grandfather), ammumma (maternal grandmother), mamma (paternal grandmother), Kakki (mom’s younger sister), pellichoopulu (seeing the bride), akkaya (elder sister), Nanna (father – my father in this case), guruvagaru (my father’s spiritual guru), mavayya (uncle). Rest of the glossary is at the end.]

My dear loving ones,

Some interesting flashback. I just finished my final B.A. exams. My ammakkayya, her daughter (Satyavati akkayya), and her family visited us for vacation in Jun 1962. Ammakkayya stayed back and others went back to Guntur. Satyavati akkayya sent Nanna’s match on Savitri ammumma’s suggestion. Communication went on between both the tatayyas. It was decided that pellichoopulu will take place in Tenali where my grandfather was staying with Viswapati babai. The three of us (Tatayya, Ammumma & I) along with ammakkayya started for Tenali. Kakki had to stay back with our neighbours as her 11th standard classes had started.

Post-marriage studio pic in Guntur

Post-marriage studio pic in Guntur

We halted in Madras at my mavayya’s house. All five elders discussed the match. My father was not that happy about Nanna’s complexion. My athayya expressed her view that if both the couple are short, children also will be short. My mavayya and ammakkayya had made the final decision: All the other things (raised by people) are petty, the boy is qualified and buddhimantudu, family is well known etc etc. I think my mind was set without knowing myself. We three proceeded to Tenali.

The day came. Ambu kakki and Satyam kakka came from Kolluru on my father’s request. They made me wear pinni’s blue pattu sari with big border (“I don’t like big borders”). Ambu kakki made my jada – I was not satisfied that much. I was used to ammumma’s  jada (I used to take papidi and hold the hair and  she would braid). Moreover I missed Kakki very much. On top of it there was no big mirror. [mirror in the Ooty house is a story for a different day]

Mamma and Nanna arrived. Tatayya suddenly called me to come out. I didn’t know what to do next so I went to my grandfather, bowed down and touched his feet. He made me sit by his side. This gesture made a great impression on Nanna. I liked his face (“if you like somebody’s face other things will not come in the way”). Neither of the two (Nanna or Mamma) asked me any questions. Ambu kakki sat near Nanna and conversed comfortably. We were just listening. I don’t remember about the snacks but something was given. Finally I went inside. The event was over.

Next day myself and tatayya had planned to go to Guntur. On finding out Nanna requested tatayya to drop mamma in Savitri ammumma’s house so that he could proceed to his work place (Rourkela). I travelled with mamma to Guntur. I was comfortable in my checked sari. Most of the time she spoke about the time spent with her cousins in her childhood, what songs she learnt from ammumma (Ammumma and she were cousins).

She asked me 2 personal questions. First one was very funny, second one not exactly.

  • “Do you eat rice thrice daily?” I nodded.
  • “Do you have 2 pairs of gold bangles?” I nodded this way and that way. [The great Indian head shake]

We didn’t have gold bangles till then. On the previous day drama, either pinni or Ambu kakki had given me 2 pairs of bangles, which meant that she had noticed them.

We came back to Ooty. It took quite some time to say “yes” because Nanna had to show my horoscope to guruvugaru and get his consent. The two tatayyas were not particular about jatakams. Ammakkayya expressed her doubt about guruvugaru but my father okayed it saying “what is wrong? I too have Baba (Sathya Sai Baba) as guru.” So marriage day was fixed for 18th Oct with a muhurtam time of 4 am. Two months time for preparations – it was quite a tough time for my father as he had not made any plans till then. He had to gather 10,000 Rupees – a very big amount in those days – somehow he managed with my grandfather’s help whose chief complaint against my father was how much money he spent on travels.

Our marriage shopping was very simple – one pattu sari (parrot green) for ammumma, one pattu sari (sky blue) for me, parikini onis (not pattu) for Kakki. We usually bought our clothes from a brahmin’s shop called Seed Depot. His main business was selling seeds. Because of my foolish criss-cross nodding [aka “Great Indian head shake”], my parents had to make two pairs of bangles (instead of one). One should be very careful before nodding.

I was chosen by Kuruganti family 70% on account of ammumma.  I was Ratnamala’s [same as ammumma] daughter! Nobody thought much about her eyesight [Ratnamala was nearly blind when she got married]. My mother-in-law gave points to my complexion and roundness (“I was not this fat then”). My father-in-law was impressed by our lineage – my grandfather and great grandfather were both great scholars in their times. The latter was called yerra panditudu [red complexioned pandit] in Bandar. Moreover, he was impressed by my B.A. degree. My husband was happy because my jatakam was approved by his guruvugaru. [The stars had all aligned.]

Sometime after the muhurtam

Sometime after the muhurtam

Marriage was to take place in my grandfather’s house in Guntur. We four (Tatayya, Ammumma, Kakki, self) started with Tirupati visit – there was heavy rush due to brahmotsavams. Our next halt was at Puttaparti – due to dasara there was a large crowd.  Luckily (and because of Tatayya’s strong will and faith), we got interview and blessings [interview refers to personal audience]. Sai Baba (Baba) asked us to come after marriage. We reached Guntur where my ammakkayya had already arrived (having travelled from Kolluru).  In those days there were neither kalyanamandapams  (marriage halls) nor catering services so everything had to be arranged on our own. Ammakkayya brought gongura, kandipodi, appadalu, odiyalu, and other pickles prepared by her with Ambu Kakki‘s  help. My tatayya was the local support. Anantalaxmi pinni and Nagalakshmi were the other people. We have to really appreciate our pinni – she believed it was her duty and responsibility to help her bavagaru so she left (Viswapati) babai and her two children to manage by themselves for 15 days. My ammakkayya and pinni were two strong pillars who supported my father. Marriage took place in front of the house. Pandiri was laid out, a raised stage was also constructed, and all the decorations were done by aunties and cousins. Cooking was done in the back of the house. My Vishwapati babai’s childhood friend and all-round reliable person took charge of the storeroom.

Our house was in the 18th Cross road. Savitri ammumma fixed an accommodation in the 14th Cross road for Kurugantis. They had planned for Satyanarayana vratam in Guntur itself. Cook also was arranged as they stayed for 10 days.

Baba’s big portrait was kept on a decorated chair. Guests started coming from 16th onwards. There was 100% attendance on both sides of the family. After the muhurtam was over we went inside. Ammumma broke down all of a sudden. We had never seen this before. All these years she never complained or grumbled about her defect [she was fully blind within a few years after her marriage to Tatayya]. She held my husband’s hand and cried like anything. She said “I can’t see anything. I don’t know anything. Look after my daughter.” It was too heavy a scene for everybody.

I changed my sari & wore the white sari for mangalyadharanam.  I came out and saw my father standing under the bogada tree in our compound. Now that kanyadanam was over he was quite relaxed. On seeing me he was SO happy! Till today I remember those sparkling eyes full of contentment and appreciation. He was my mother too.

Our guruvugaru purposely didn’t attend the marriage. He was staying in a nearby peetham. Instead Guruprasad (his elder son) represented him and was well taken care of by Bhaskar babai (my brother-in-law). Later, with my father’s permission, Nanna took me to the peetham. We got his blessings. (Laughing) he said “Kurugantis don’t need tube-light anymore.” [referring to her white complexion]

By god’s grace everything went off well. We started for Puttaparthi. My ammakkayya and Sudheer babai accompanied us. We got interview with Baba – he materialized a locket and gave to Nanna and asked us to return with the baby child [the one who would be my older brother]. We proceeded to Secunderabad. Guntur Tatayya (Nanna’s father) was still in service (with Central bank). The house was near general bazaar. We celebrated first diwali amidst athayyas, babais, pedananna, and doddamma. Mamma very happily took us to Kali temple, to her brother’s place, sister’s place, and other relatives.

Our marriage was given good report, notable quote being “bride’s sister is more good looking than the bride!” Proposals came for Kakki but Tatayya brushed them aside. Our next destination was guruvugarus place – it was a very small village Narendrapuram in East Godavari district. Mamma came with us. After getting down at Rajahmundry we had a dip in the Godavari river on mamma’s wish. We crossed the river by boat, then took a bus and finally reached their house on a bullock cart via a kacha muddy road. We were given a warm welcome. Since it was a village, all the people gathered. Next day was 16th day so they prepared special items (kandabachali koora was a must for newly married couple it seems). Seetamma (guruvagaru’s eldest daughter) was very friendly and lively, others were too young.

By the end of Nov 1962 we were in Rourkela. I was impressed by neat well laid roads and similar looking houses. Mamma used to cook for us. Nanna took us to his friends’ houses. Mamma knew a friend’s daughter in Rourkela. Mamma and I used to go to the nearby market – it was so strange walking without holding her hand. [Context: my mother or her sister would always hold their mother’s hand while walking since she was blind]

On receiving first letter from Tatayya I read it out to Mamma and immediately cried. She consoled me by stroking my back – those were the innocent days.

Three of us went to Calcutta where Ramudu babai was staying in shared accommodation. He took us to Ramakrishna Mutt, Birla Planetarium, New market, and other well-known places. Babai found it very funny when I started crying on Mamma’s return journey. She also advised Nanna on so many things.

That’s it. [See note below]

Marriages are made in heaven it is already planned by HIM. Happiness and success depends on one’s partner. It is one’s own luck and destiny. I thank GOD for everything.

A gift to my parents on their 28th marriage anniversary

A gift to my parents on their 28th marriage anniversary

[Note on “That’s it”]: this is my mom’s signature two words to indicate that the long story just related has finally come to an end. When we were young (before we had started reading classics), I have memories of her storytelling Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Every night she would relate the content of whatever she had read that day. She’d always end those episodes with “That’s it!” On my parents’ 28th wedding anniversary, I presented them with a copy of the same book.

Dear Amma and Nanna, HAPPY 54th Anniversary from your dear loving ones (Srinivas, Janaki & Vishwanath)!!!!

Glossary of Telugu words

  • Buddhimantudu – intelligent
  • pedananna – father’s elder brother
  • dodamma – father’s elder brother’s wife
  • attaya – father’s sister
  • pinni – father’s brother’s wife
  • Pattu sari – fancy brocaded sari
  • parikini oni – aka “half sari” worn by young unmarried girls
  • jatakam – horoscope
  • jada – braided hair; papidi – hair partition and a key preparatory step before braiding
  • pandiri – trellis structure used for marriage ceremonies
  • Satyanarayana vratam – an important religious puja in conjunction with most life change Hindu events
  • mangalyadharanam – tying of the sacred mangala sutra around bride’s neck
  • kanyadanam – marriage ritual (donating the bride to the groom)
  • peetham – ashram
  • gongura, kandipodi, appadalu, odiyalu – yummy Telugu savories