Changing Mobility of Four Generations of Kurugantis

One of Vizag's many beaches (Pic: courtesy indiashots.com)

If you haven’t inferred from my surname yet, my lineage is from the state of Andhra Pradesh. My great grandfather was a Sanskrit scholar and taught Sanskrit in Visakhapatnam (aka “Vizag”). He lived in Vizag his entire life. Mobility score: [1 state, 1 city].

My grandfather was schooled in Machilipatnam (a port town which dates back to at least 3rd century BC) and attended college in Calcutta. Attending an out-of-state college was a big deal in the early 1900’s. If you consider the fact that he was being raised by his mother (a widow at that time), a progressive and remarkable lady, it’s even more impressive. My grandfather completed his B.Comm degree and joined Andhra Bank and worked there until retirement. He proved his mettle as a branch manager and, as a consequence, was frequently transferred to new towns to open and stabilize branches. Partial list of towns he lived/worked in include Vijayawada, Guntur, and Kakinada. Mobility score: [2 states, 5 towns].

Machilipatnam beach at dawn (Pic: courtesy Wikipedia)

My father attended school in Vijayawada and engineering college in Kakinada. He worked for two Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) – SAIL (Steel Authority of India Limited) and RIN (Rashtriya Ispat Nigam). He started his career in Bhilai (Madhya Pradesh->Chhattisgarh), then moved to Rourkela (Orissa), a long stint at Bokaro Steel City (then in Bihar, now in Jharkhand) and finally retired in Vizag (Andhra Pradesh). Mobility score: [4 states, 7 towns].

Bokaro Steel Plant (India's 4th integrated steel plant, built with Soviet help)

I grew up in Bokaro Steel City, completed my high school from Vizag, attended college at Ranchi (Bihar->Jharkhand), worked for a few years in Jamshedpur (Bihar ->Jharkhand), 16 years in America (Houston->Chicago->San Francisco Bay Area), and presently in Bangalore (Karnataka). Mobility score: [2 countries, 3 states, 5 Indian towns, 3 American cities].

The fourth generation (our 2 boys) haven’t quite hit their 7th birthdays yet but their mobility score already reads: [2 countries, 2 cities]. I wonder what their score will be by the time they hit their 40’s. Me wonders if new mobility dimensions like planets and space stations need to be added by then…

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The Three Bubbles Revisited

When I wrote The Three Bubbles back in Oct 2008, the perspective was biased around cushioning the India landing. Clearly the 3 bubbles represent a fairly minimalistic view of life. If one were to just shuttle from the “living bubble” to the “working bubble” via the “commuting bubble”, there’s a strong likelihood of slowly going mad… unless you are one of the workaholic types who’s all-consumed by work. For the rest of us, a fourth bubble is what the the joie de vivre doctor ordered.

The fourth bubble is an activity you do at least once a week, usually on weekends, and is something that delivers large doses of joy, pleasure, and exhilaration. Physical pain may be a side effect sometimes but..(heck) it would have been worth it. Lest the hyperactive imagination of my readers go off in strange directions, let me cut to the chase and elaborate on what I’m talking about 🙂

Pranshu Gupta (buddy and ex-colleague from Yahoo who returned to Delhi in 2002) spends weekends offroading his custom-fitted Jeep up-and-down steep ravines and sloshing through muddy swamps on the outskirts of Gurgaon. For company, he has 8-10 other folks vying with each for bragging rights on offroading adventures, jeep modifications and towing equipment. For a taste of what these guys do with whinnying machines, check out Offroading in Behrampur/Gurgaon.

Soumya Banerjee (who returned to Delhi from Boston in 2001 to start Sapient’s India operation and is now working on a startup in Mumbai) is a thoroughbred wanderlust who doesn’t let a single weekend go by without exploring yet another picturesque part of India. After experiencing the best of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh (during his Delhi days), he’s now busy exploring Maharashtra and the southern states. For photographic evidence, check out his travel blog at Soumya.org – be warned! the travel bug might bite you.

Manjula Sridhar (a budding entrepreneur and endurance athlete who returned to Bangalore from Silicon Valley) has a menu of endurance activities to choose from every weekend – from running to cycling to “Lost-style” adventure competitions. I kid you not! This gal chalks up cycling and running miles like…well… I don’t know what to compare her with. As though this were not enough, she’s also a trained martial artist and she teaches karate. Clearly she has conquered time.

Sridhar Ranganathan (serial entrepreneur and good friend who moved to Bangalore ~ 7 years ago) does not miss his Sunday morning round of golf at the KGA links for anything! His golf handicap is steadily getting better I’m told but I strongly suspect he’s sneaking in an odd round during the week as well (there! that’s how rumors are started).

Ajay (my colleague who moved from San Diego to Bangalore 3 years ago) gets his weekly dose of adrenalin by playing several games of squash at his apartment club house.

When we moved to Bangalore ~ 2yrs ago, I had grim forebodings that my dormant asthma might flare up (see Asthma, Bangalore and me) so I had to choose a physical activity wisely. My choices narrowed down to squash (which I absolutely LOVED) or running (which I kinda sorta liked in a bursty irregular way). Running eventually won out because there were no squash courts within reasonable driving distance. Boy! Did I get lucky or what? I was introduced to a rabid Koramangala/HSR running gang and before I knew it, had run ~ 1200 km in 2009 – completing my second and third marathons (see Running the Course – Mumbai Marathon 2010) were merely a side effect.

The Three Bubbles will keep you nice and cozy during your initial year (a ‘necessary’ condition in The Art of Returning to India) but I now believe that it’s the fourth bubble that’s the high-order bit (‘sufficient’ condition) in staying-put for the long haul.

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Would you go on a boat ride or cruise if there were no life jackets?

I ended  the The Value of Life in India post with the question: “Is it possible for us Indians to snap out of our collective amnesia and change our attitude before the next major calamity or the minor tragedy?”

My wise biwi thought it wasn’t fair to leave the post hanging like that. Our ensuing conversation (transcribed below) inspired the sequel and yes – I have a good reason to title it the way I did:

Biwi: “What is YOUR answer to the above question? Why aren’t you including THAT in the post?”

Me: “Well! I do have an answer but it’s not quite baked yet..”

Biwi: “Also, instead of framing the question around ‘us Indians’, it might be more fruitful to pose the question to each ‘individual’ Indian.”

Me: “You mean like Gandhi-ji’s Be the Change You Wish to See In the World’?”

Biwi: “Kinda sorta. What are YOU (Indian, American, anyone for that matter) doing that’s potentially endangering your or other people’s lives?”

Biwi: “For example, when you are speeding down scenic Interstate 280 South at 90 mph, whose lives are you endangering?”

Which brings me to MY answer to the original question I posed – “Is it possible for us Indians to snap out of our collective amnesia and change our attitude?”

My answer is YES. But first… do you recall that scene in Satte Pe Satta where Hema Malini arrives at that pig-sty-of-a-house where Amitabh Bachan lived with his 6 other brothers? She exclaims “What a mess this place is! Where do I start?” The next 2 frames are a fast time-lapse so we don’t really get to see how she pulls off the gargantuan cleanup job. Replace the pig-sty-house with India (with its zillion problems — not just hygiene related) and you still have that question – where to start? I wouldn’t be presumptuous to say that we are at the beginning because there are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of civic-oriented initiatives underway which have galvanized citizens. But the reality is that if we are not seeing a difference (no, scratch that), if we are not participating in at least ONE of them, it is simply not enough. After all, we are talking about a billion-plus people here.

My other belief is that the granularity (or specificity) of the cause/initiative is paramount to eventual success — dotted on the way with tangible progress points. For example, “improve the safety standards of tour boat operators in India” is too lofty a cause whereas “ensure the sea-worthiness of tour boats in Kerala” or “mandate that boat operators in Kerala do not exceed the carrying capacity” or “mandate that all boat passengers in Kerala HAVE to wear life jackets while on board” are achievable goals. As I said, not fully baked so would love your feedback here…

Which brings me to the second question — “what am I doing that may be endangering myself and my family?” Before I answer this, let’s go back to the Thekkady disaster. Nearly all (if not all) who drowned that day weren’t swimmers. The survivors were either swimmers or were lucky enough to be close to swimmers who saved them. Turns out there were life jackets on board – nobody knows how many though. I haven’t read reports of passengers using any so clearly they weren’t handing them out at the point of embarkation. Which brings us to the personal responsibility question — Why didn’t anyone ask for life jackets? This, my friends, is the life-or-death question.

I’ll be presumptuous enough to answer the question. Nobody asked for life jackets because nobody was thinking of the probability that the boat could capsize, and if it did, the life jackets would really come in handy. We all go through life constantly making decisions based on risk – some are deliberate while most others are purely automatic. I will not buy a house with a swimming pool because that clever economist in Freakonomics convinced me that swimming pools are more unsafe than keeping a handgun at home. I won’t ride a motorcycle in California where the speed limits are so high and the car-to-motorbike ratio so high that if I get into an accident, it could well be fatal. I might ride a Bullet Classic 500 in Bangalore someday (after my slipped disc fully heals) because I will drive very carefully and don all my protective gear and if I do get into an accident, there’s a good chance it will be minor. And so we go on and on…

Why am I so sure that nobody asked for life jackets? Because I/we have  done the exact same thingjust 2 days before the Thekkady accident – on the Hussain Sagar Lake in Hyderabad. The only difference is that our boat didn’t meet with an accident. Our family of four, my brother & his younger son boarded the boat with nary a thought about life jackets. Group size = 6. Number of swimmers in group = 0. Need I say more?

Would my wife or I board a boat or cruise ship in future if there were no life jackets? No. At least until the entire family learns swimming. In case you didn’t know, my goal for this summer is to learn swimming — in 7 days or less. A dear friend has promised me that it indeed is possible and he’d be my personal coach. I, on my part, have promised him a suitable guru dakshina. So shall it be written, so shall it be done!

Closing question: What % of Indians do you think know swimming? (knowing defined as “enough to save one’s life) I used to think it’s a lower percentage compared to the Western world primarily because of the low number of urban area swimming pools but.. 70% of India lives in villages where, due to their proximity and close habitation with water body, the swimmer % must be close to 100%. When you come to the cities and towns, again this might differ from state to state. A couple of Keralite colleagues (over lunch) thought the percentage for largely-coastal Kerala is probably 90%.

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Don’t Be Alarmed! These are Normal Driving Patterns in India.

Pic: courtesy helloji.wordpress.com

This is your first month back in India after half a lifetime in America or Europe or… you are an expat who’s landed in India on a 2-year assignment. You have done the wise thing by hiring a driver but you still have to watch the movements of the heterogeneous traffic – with morbid fascination! Don’t be alarmed…

 

 

 

If you see a motorcyclist riding the wrong way on a one-way road,

He knows that the odds of him getting caught by a cop are very slim.

****

If you approach an intersection without a traffic light,

India has crowd-sourced the traffic light and the results are stunning.

****

If you see a motorcyclist standing on the stirrups,

He probably has an hour-long commute and his orthopaedician has advised him to rest his back.

****

If you see helmets slung on motorcyclists’ forearm instead of their heads,

The helmet law is really about preventing fines, not saving heads.

****

If you see a slow-moving moped piled high with bales of vegetables and no driver,

Look again – he’s draped on top of the bales miraculously still clutching the handlebars.

****

If you see three women holding hands and crossing an uncrossable stretch of road,

Haven’t you heard that millions of Indians can separate traffic? Just like Moses could separate the waters.

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If you see a motorcyclist riding with his head at a 45 degrees angle,

No – he doesn’t have spondylosis. He has tucked his cell-phone between his helmet & ear and is on a conference call.

****

If you see a woman walking in the middle of the road and she’s NOT crossing the road,

She’s a great poker player and has calculated that it’s safer to walk in the middle of the road than on the side.

****

If you see an auto-driver using his turn-signal indicator,

His electrical system is shot – otherwise why would a self-respecting auto-driver use turn signals?

****

If you see hand signals from the back seat of an auto rickshaw.

No – the passenger is not related to the auto driver. He’s less religious than the auto driver.

****

If the stray dog sleeping in your car’s shade doesn’t budge even after your driver starts the car,

The dog knows precisely when the gear shift happens and will only move then.

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The Value of Life in India

(I started this post in Oct 2009 a few days after the tragic boat accident in Thekkady, Kerala ~ 5 month gestation period)

“The quality of life in India is great but the value for human life is not”, uttered my cousin Sridhar. We had stopped for a few days at his Germantown, Maryland residence on our Farewell USA Road Trip in mid-2008. I kinda-sorta knew what he was talking about but it really hit home in the past few months – as I reflected upon three tragic events with a common refrain.

Incident#1

Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. Four years ago, my attaya (dad’s sister) left her home in the evening to go to the neighborhood grocery store. Earlier that day, she had bought some biscuits for her grandchildren but she had erred in picking the grandkids’ favorite flavor so she headed to the store to exchange. She never returned. Her husband, her daughter & family, her brother (my uncle) began a frantic search. Several hours later, her body was identified in a hospital and changed her family forever. An auto-rickshaw had slammed into her at high speed just as she was crossing the road to enter the grocery store. She most likely died before reaching the hospital from the massive head wound suffered from the impact. A woman in perfect health her entire life and who had never seen the inside of a hospital in 55+ years was dead in a freak accident. A woman who walked a mere 200 meters from her house (a route she had taken a zillion times in the past 10 years) was dead because a rash and callous auto driver wanted to reach his destination a few minutes sooner.

Incident#2

Panipat, Punjab. It started out as a normal morning at our friend’s parents’ house in Aug 2009. Auntie woke up early morning and left the house at 6am for her morning prayers at the nearby temple. She would normally close to 7am when it would be Uncle’s turn to head to the temple. On that fateful morning, Auntie returned home to find the door ajar, their house burgled and Uncle dead. I don’t know the gory details of the homicide but it wasn’t a difficult case for the crime branch to crack. The door wasn’t forced open so Uncle had to have known the person(s) he let into the house which narrowed down the list of suspects substantially. The investigation trail eventually led to one of the domestic help employed in Uncle/Auntie’s house for years. A kind and gentle grandfather/father/husband was dead due to greed and a cold-blooded deliberation on the part of someone who (until recently) was a loyal employee.

Incident#3

Thekkady, Kerala. We were on a week-long visit to Hyderabad and had gone to visit my cousin Saroja (whose mother is my Attaya in incident#1 above). She was driving us to my uncle’s house nearby. At the precise moment when Saroja was pointing out the spot where her mother had died, my wife was on the phone with a Bangalore friend — and learned that the Thekkady boat tragedy had claimed the lives of a Raheja family we knew – Aishwarya (my older son’s classmate from his Vivaa International kindergarten days) and her parents (Raj and Senthil). 45 people (out of 76) on board a double-decker tourist boat drowned when it capsized. The driver suddenly steered the boat to ostensibly respond to a crowd of passengers having rushed to one side of the boat to catch a glimpse of a herd of bison. You can learn more about this tragedy on this Wikipedia page or this collection of links put together by The Hindu.

The answer to “why did this happen” in incident #3 is more nuanced than the previous two. Had the passengers displayed more common sense in not rushing to one side of the boat, the boat wouldn’t have become unbalanced and the driver wouldn’t have had to swerve suddenly to one side. But this makes no sense. Surely the boat wasn’t water-worthy if it went off-balance so easily when passengers crowded on one side (an expected eventuality if the objective is to sight wildlife). And what about the competence of the driver? And what about the life jackets that were allegedly on board but passengers were never made to don them? In a country with arguably the lowest percentage of swimmers, shouldn’t it be mandatory for boat riders to use life jackets? Not to mention the total absence of life guards. Who regulates the water-worthiness of tourist boats? And certifies the qualifications of the boat operators (especially the driver)? The plot of this pathetic tragedy is so full of holes, is it a surprise that so many people died?

In terms of the perpetrators, incident #1 can be summed up as callousness, incident #2 as cold-bloodedness and incident #3 as cluster-of-indifference. Ok – so that last word doesn’t exist – I made it up. Cluster-of-indifference refers to the whole gamut of things that are simply broken in India – safety standards are either not codified, or if they have been, are brazenly flouted, the citizens too don’t demand any of these things because sab chalta hai – at least until such a time when it’s too late for them personally. Leaving aside hand-wringing and chest-beating that typically follow tragedies (be it personal tragedies involving family members or large-scale accidents), it’s not as though we Indians learn anything from it. This is the collective amnesia of the Indian society – it’s as though every morning Indians wake up having completely forgotten the events and lessons from the previous day, not at all different from Lucy Whitmore’s amnesia in the movie 50 First Dates.

Dear Readers,

What do you think? Is it possible for us Indians to snap out of our collective amnesia and change our attitude before the next major calamity or the minor tragedy? I firmly believe that changing our chalta hai attitude is a necessary prerequisite before we start demanding more from the elected and appointed officials at all levels of government.

Next post in this series: Would you go on a boat ride if there were no life jackets?

 

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The Art of Returning to India

If you’ve previously visited the blog, you may have noticed that the blog title used to be Return to Accustomed Earth. It was a play on Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories – Unaccustomed Earth. You’ll note that the new blog title is The Art of Returning to India…and Staying PutStaying Put is an important suffix because if you’ve returned to India for say, 2 years, and then gone back to America/Canada/wherever, the return didn’t fully happen, right? A different way of decomposing the blog title is to state that returning to India is a two-step process:

  • Step 1: Acquire terminal velocity to make the move (inertia is a powerful thing)
  • Step 2: Retain sufficient positive momentum (if the positives continue to outweigh the negatives for you, you’ll stay)

18 months after our move, after talking to numerous folks who did similar moves and hearing about others who have since returned to America, it struck me that this returning to India business is more an art rather than a science.

Let’s start with some definitions. The related tag cloud for science would look something like this: research, planning, rational, repeatable, deterministic, technique, predictable. The corresponding tag cloud for art would look like this: beauty, random, feeling, impulsive, emotions, unpredictable, affairs of the heart, maverick, irrational, impractical. Do you see where I’m going with this?

If you are an active-should-we or a passive-should-we (defined here –  Two Types of Immigrants), you might have different ways to slice and dice the return to India decision. Shalin Shah (a passive-should-we at MoneyVidya) captured a comprehensive list of pros and cons of moving to India. As I’ve noted earlier, it’s a handful of reasons (no more than 2 or 3) that usually tip the tide and make most of the cons fade away into the background. Based on the sample of population of folks who’ve returned, the top three reasons that have inspired them are: 1) Strong sense of wanting to be close to their aging parents, 2) Higher comfort with India (instead of their adopted country) as their home land, and 3) Career growth. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to most people.

Except for reason #3 (career growth), the other two reasons require a leap of faith to pull yourself from the clutches of inertia into a terminal velocity. There’s rarely such a thing as perfect timing (at least in foresight) nor can one feed all the variables into a mathematical model and expect a magical answer. Hence my growing belief that it is the art (not science) of returning to India. This applies also to the staying put part of the equation. Compared to US, Canada or Europe, there are few environmental variables that are within your control in India. The weather and your destination city’s pollution and/or pollen counts might conspire to make the family’s health miserable. Or you might find out that the dream job which you accepted isn’t as dreamy or strategic as you had expected (and your destination city doesn’t have too many companies matching your industry vertical). You could get lucky too – if you are an outdoors person, might discover that your destination city offers a ton of outdoor activity options. In short, there’s a fair bit of randomness which finally determines whether you end up staying put in India.

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Running the Course – Mumbai Marathon 2010

Half-marathoners covering the Worli sealink (Pic: courtesy sulekha.com)

If you’ve not read Part 1 of  this 2-part series (My Road to Mumbai Marathon 2010), the short version is this – “a case study in how to train well for a marathon for 4-5 months and then nearly blow it all in the final week before race day”. Anyways, this is part 2 – how I fared on race day, what kind of tricks I played on my body, how my body got its revenge back, and the banter I carried on with a fellow Bangalore runner for more than half the distance.

An hour prior to all my long training runs, a Clif Bar (Crunchy Peanut flavor) was my energy bar of choice. Since I started my morning a good 2 hours prior to start time, I consumed an extra bar.

Race start to 6k

Experts recommend the race day strategy as follows – run the first 21k at your target pace and the second 21k by feel. Sounds simple, right? By feel is meant to capture the sum total of vagaries of race day that make it different from all your long training runs. A change in city, weather, start time, what you ate during the last 24 hours, how well you have tapered, are all factors that determine the outcome of the second 21k because the body starts giving you feedback – i.e. whether race day conditions are favorable (or not). My original target pace was 6:02 min/km which translates to a finish time of 4 hours 15 min. I felt this target pace was justified by the fact that I did a 32k and a 34k distances at 5:56 pace in my final training month. With my body not in the best possible shape, obviously I needed to reduce my pace — the tricky part was by how much. So my modified strategy was to start with a 6:15 pace for the initial 5k, see how the body felt and alter pace accordingly.

It was a foggy morning on Marine Drive, I felt surprisingly good in the first 2k, took that to be a good sign and gradually increased my pace. It’s so easy to get carried away during the initial 5-10k and it takes incredible discipline to ‘rein yourself in’. By the time I reached the 5k mark, I realized that I was doing a 6:06 pace – faster than I planned. Started slowing down and at the 6k mark I was in for a pleasant surprise – ran into fellow Bangalore RFL runner Jothi Padmanabhan.

6k to 28k

It wasn’t clear at first who was happier to see the other. We had both participated at the Kaveri Trail Marathon (Sep ’09) – I finished that race (in 5 hrs 15 min) whereas Jothi had bailed out at the half-way mark. Hence, by recent form, I was the ‘better’ runner. Jothi said something on the lines of “Man! if we run together for most of the distance, I think I’ll have a good finish time”. I gave him my sob-story-in-a-nutshell (how I had trained really well with a target pace of 6:02 but with an infection, cold, cough, jetlag, etc. wasn’t feeling particularly strong) and said it was 5k-at-a-time and thank-god-I-have-you-for-company. With the right amount of banter, we plodded on, periodically glancing at our respective Garmin watches as we managed to keep a consistent average pace (6:08 at the 10k mark to 6:10 at the 25k mark). The crowd of runners just ahead of us were very raucous initially — especially in the stretch where the half-marathon runners were running in the opposite direction — they’d recognize many of their buddies and excitedly shout words of encouragement. We wondered how long their enthusiasm would last. Jothi pointed out a hoarding for the L&T South City (yeah Bangalore real-estate). At some point between the 15-20k stretch, a few packs of elite runners overtook us (at a gracefully fast clip). We were surprised to see a lone white man in the midst of the first pack of Kenyan & Ethiopian runners (our reaction was circa “White men can’t jump”). Much later, we saw the white man & a few other Kenyan runners resting — apparently they were pacers for the elite runners! Did I mention Jothi & I running together was really working well? I held his water bottle while he chowed down on some biscuits. He held my bottle while I refilled my bottle with electral and helped myself to Gu Energy Gels. Talking of Gu energy gels, the other tweak in my strategy was in the frequency and number of gels I consumed. My training call was to consume one every 8k  which works out to 4-5 gels. Since I didn’t carbo-load heavily in the preceding 48 hours, I figured I needed to compensate so I took my first gel at 5k and reduced the distance frequency to 7k which made it a total of 6 gels. In the final analysis, this was a good adjustment I had made.

We crossed the half-way mark where we experienced a mild case of pandemonium – an overlap zone where large numbers of 1/2 M and Full M runners were all jockeying for position. Since many runners were walking, this turned out to be an interesting obstacle course section – fortunately no mishap occurred. Much earlier, on Marine Road, we caught several glimpses of the Worli-Bandra Sealink – we were  impressed and were looking forward to crossing it on the way back. At the 23k mark, as the Sealink came closer, Jothi commented – “this is where the men will separate from the boys”. As if on cue, the 9am Mumbai sun began smiling on all the runners. I’m sure all the Bangalore runners (spoilt by pleasant year-round weather) would agree with me that the sun was smirking instead of smiling. The 5.6km stretch of the Sealink started approximately at the 24k mark. Any gradients on a marathon course are to be respected (especially if you haven’t incorporated hill training into your regimen). Many runners were walking on the incline (this is the stretch where I first saw Sunil Chainani of the Bangalore Hash Harriers – he was just ahead of us and we overtook each other several times for the next few km). We continued running but reduced our pace because, as Jothi wryly reminded us “only 18k more to go”.

Somewhere in the middle section of the bridge, it started feeling like an anti-climax. Sure – we were running on top of one of India’s engineering marvels and the views of the vast open sea and the Mumbai landscape were enjoyable for a few minutes but there was this little matter of running 42km. Was it unreasonable to expect some semblance of a breeze? I distinctly remember reading (in my school geography books) about sea breeze during the daytime and land breeze during the nighttime (or was it the other way around?) The bridge was the most desolate section on the entire course – understandable (because it’s normally off-limits for pedestrians) but it still hurt. (Sigh) If only one of the 3 rock bands we saw in the first 5k had setup their stage on the bridge… Of course, most shocking was the absence of  water stations on the entire Sealink stretch of 5.6km and even the 3km following it. Much has been written about this glaring omission [TOI story and Tanvir Kazmi’s blog].

I personally did not suffer due to this omission and there’s a good reason for it. First a quick primer on two hydration strategies used by marathoners. For one type of runner, hydrating every 3-5k (sometimes even 10k) seems to be sufficient.  For the second type of runner, continuous hydration is preferred. Years ago, while training for my 1st marathon, I learned that my body’s delicate chemical balance demanded a continuous hydration strategy. Anything less would result in a severe bout of headache. For all my training long runs, I would carry my trusty bottle (with a sipper) filled with 50% gatorade 50% water. Depending on the distance, route & group vs. solo type of run, the refilling tactic would vary. In solo training runs in US, refilling was a simple matter of locating the right gas-station close to the half-way mark. In Bangalore, refilling tactics ran the gamut – official water-stops during RFL-organized long runs, Gatorade/water reserves in one of our group’s cars – Pankaj’s Red Dragon, Strang/Rakhi’s Gora-Gadi or Shantanu/Ankita’s Suzuki Swift. Special thanks to Ankita who manned the “water car” on numerous ‘Dandi runs’ even when she wasn’t running herself. When I ran my first marathon, I ditched my bottle on race day since there were water stops every mile (which I believe is a standard for most, if not all, International marathons). Kaveri Trail Marathon (aka “KTM”) was a different matter altogether. Water stops were few and far in between and, Electral-spiked water was more infrequent. Since I knew about the water stops before the race, I carried my Gatorade+water bottle which served me well for the 1st half of the race. There were 2 major blunders I committed at KTM. Blunder #1: I ditched my bottle at the half-way mark thinking I would manage fine with the water stops. Blunder #2: I first started walking at the 24k mark (my mind was weaker than my body at that point). Having learned my lesson from my KTM blunders, I carried my bottle all the way till the end (refilling it diligently with water or Electral at every water stop). Thus, while the vast majority of runners were mouthing curses at the SCMM organizers on the Sealink, I was relatively in a more benevolent mood.  The sun wasn’t making it easy but compared to the 35-42k stretch, this would appear like a piece of cake.

As we started going downhill (final 1k of the Sealink), Jothi said he’d slow down a bit so I pulled away ever so slightly. I would next see him at the 40k mark.

28k to 33k

I descended the bridge, made a left and started looking anxiously for the water stop (I had downed my bottle in anticipation). It took 1-2k more of plodding before I hit upon the water stop. At the 30k turnaround (where I think we crossed a timing mat), I caught sight of Meher and Nari (both fellow Bangalore runners) approximately a minute ahead. Meher (who regularly wins podium spots in Bangalore running events in the Open Women’s category) is an excellent runner. We’ve run many training runs together. During most of 2009, she was significantly faster runner than me. In my final month of training, I ran faster than her in a few tempo runs and one 30k+ runs. While we were both gunning for a 4 hrs 15 min finish time, her target was backed by many months of consistency and, more importantly, a better training plan, not to mention the experience of running Mumbai the previous year. So when I saw Meher, my irrationally optimistic brain’s reaction was “Not bad! all things considered I’m doing pretty well if I’m merely a minute behind Meher”. As I introspected on this weeks after the race, I realized that this was a sign I was already going too fast — I should have reduced my pace still more to account for Mumbai weather and my non-peak condition. But… let’s say I had run at a slower pace for the first 30k, there was still no guarantee that I’d have fared better in the final 12k.

My pace predictably reduced with each passing kilometer. In the 30-35k stretch, I averaged 7:26. As my Bangalore pal Rohit correctly notes in his Mumbai Marathon race day report, the crowd support during this stretch was particularly amazing. After drinking a mish-mash of Gatorade, water, Electral, and Gu energy gels for 3+ hours, you start to crave for something else. I’ve never been more excited to see peeled oranges – I feverishly reached out for them from the outstretched hands of 2 Mumbaikar Samaritans. I am not exaggerating when I say that those oranges were the most delicious things I ever consumed. God bless those Mumbaikars!

The sun wasn’t bothering me in an overt way even though it was clearly getting warmer and warmer. The operative word being overt. With the lessons from KTM still fresh, I had trained my mind that I would not think about the sun. I also told myself that running 34k in Vijayawada (with the last 45 min in the sun) counts as preparation — even though it was the winter sun (yes – Vijayawada does have some cooling in Dec-Jan). The temptation to walk was getting stronger and stronger but I resisted. But what does resist mean? It merely means that I slowed down my running but did not walk. It does not mean that I was running faster than Chand Ram or any of future legions of fast walkers. I remembered my friend Strangway’s words after KTM it doesn’t matter whether you run or walk until you start walking. But why was it so important that I not walk? or at least delay walking as much as possible? Because once you start walking, your mind concedes a BIG point to the body. What was previously a muffled and barely audible voice from the body making appeals such as “Err.. could we stop here for a minute?” to “Hmm… are we there yet?” to “This is really getting monotonous, I say”, the body’s inner voice gets a major fillip. The tone changes to “Aw come on! You’ve run a good kilometer since the last walking break. I NEED another break”. This is the slippery slope story that I personally experienced at KTM between the 24k mark and finish line.

Virtues of carrying your own bottle
I’ve already talked about the primary value of carrying your own bottle – especially for runners requiring continuous hydration. The lesson from my 2nd blunder at KTM 2009 was that the bottle serves yet another important role in the mind-games between the body and the mind. During the end-game miles of a marathon, the mind and body constantly joust for control of the runner – so every little thing can make a difference. The virtue of carrying your bottle till the end (and keep it refilled of course) is that it completely eliminates at least one less excuse. The body’s voice cannot sigh like this “If only you had taken one more swig of Electral at the last water stop, I could have…” or “I think I’m dehydrated so let me walk until the next water stop”. Don’t know about other runners but this certainly worked for me. Eventually I got sick of the warm water/Electral mix but there was always the option for one more sip.

33k to Finish Line

Somewhere at the start of the race, we saw three yellow jerseyed guys sporting “100 marathons club”. Somewhere close to the 33k mark, one of these guys (a man probably in his 50’s) overtook me. He then turned around and gave me an encouraging smile. I smiled back. Several minutes later, he overtook me again – he flashed me the same encouraging smile (presumably he had stopped for a break and restarted). When this happened a third time, I couldn’t help wondering whether I was having my very own Groundhog Day moment.

The dreaded Pedder Road hill incline was now upon me. Since I had done no hills training during the past year, there was a healthy amount of apprehension and respect for hills. I managed to run the Sealink incline without walking but the kilometer stretch of Pedder Road was a different matter. The good folks at Active Network advise you (in this article How to tackle Hill Training) to make friends with the hill. I did indeed make friends with the hill. I’ve said enough about “running slowly but don’t walk”. Desperate times call for desperate/conservative methods. I walked the entire stretch with no shame whatsoever. The walk energized me and I felt a second wind coming. Sadly the second wind was to last a mere 2 km (until the 37k mark) after which I hit the famous marathoners’ wall.

During the last 5+ km, everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. The triumph of mind over body (which was my story for the last 24 hours and the first 37km) seemed to have turned on its head. I was reminded of a squash player’s quote: “Mind says move, body says #$#$ off!” I was still running… Sorry, did I say running? I meant plodding along at a snail’s pace. I kept trying to step on the proverbial gas pedal but nothing was happening. I was running on EMPTY. No more glycogen stores! No Gu energy gels or oranges or Electral or chilled water was going to turn things around. I just had to keep going. The good news in all this? Well, at least I was not cramping — as that would taken out whatever little joy I was still experiencing so close to the finish line.

The 40k marker came up and I heard a familiar voice behind me cheerfully yelling “Final stretch Vishy, three Queens Park rounds!” It was my race buddy Jothi who had apparently found his second (or third) wind. He overtook me at a gentle clip but his cheerful words egged me on. My legs still wouldn’t respond – they stuck to their robotic pace — the pace which they had decided was suitable for survival. Jothi’s Queens Park reference was to the 700+ meter dirt track in our home ground (Cubbon Park). When I finally did cross the finish line, my Garmin watch informed me that I had run 42.55k (a good 0.35k above the regulation distance). I had finished, I had survived and I was NOT a mess. I went looking for my buddies.

There is always the possibility that I didn’t run or complete the marathon and the above writeup was simply a figment of my imagination. To dispel that possibility, here’s a screen-grab of the official result (well, technically even this could be faked in Photoshop I suppose – so you’ll have to take my word for it):

My timing at Mumbai Marathon 2010

For my readers who skipped my highly verbose description above in the hope of seeing something pithy at the end, the table below conveys my race day story albeit in crisp clinical terms (I had set my Garmin for 5k auto-laps):

Mumbai Marathon 2010 Lap Distances

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The Garage Gang

You can be sure that our garage would never look like this. Pic: courtesy bitsandpieces1.blogspot.com

(First guest post from my wife. It’s actually an email she wrote on the Raheja Residency “residents only” forum but I found it so funny that I had to post it here. Maybe she’ll follow-up with a few more posts that she’s actually on the hook for — refer to A Year in Bangalore – The Unwritten Posts). Garage Gang refers to a good majority of the drivers employed by Raheja Residency residents and, who, spend most of their dead time in (you guessed it) the Raheja garage.

—-Begin email—–

There are folks who say don’t sweat the small stuff…well good for them. The rest of us need to vent i.e. give public utterance to our shared grievances. This post is devoted to those who deal with the garage gang on a daily basis.
Before we go further, please understand we expect absolutely no action by the management to resolve this ongoing problem.
So feel free to share with your fellow sufferers how the garage gang added to your day today? Analyze reasons behind such behaviors and offer simple solutions which will never be implemented. Lament the fact that an educated working class community is held ransom by the uneducated working class people. Hopefully in this process you will find some empathy and humor which will ease the pain of dealing with the garage gang. After a few days, you can go about your daily life knowing someone cares about your concerns (at least one of them) without any disappointment that the problem persists – the power of no expectations!
For those who have no complaints about the garage gang – and hence no clue what this post is all about – here are some examples of the garage gang-induced maladies…

  1. Encroachment – parking their employers vehicles and their own 2-wheelers in another residents empty-even-for- 30-minutes car park
  2. Insolence – continue to shamelessly occupy the wrong car park, with not a hint of apology tendered to the rightfully offended resident, who owns or pays rent for the car park
  3. Creepy looks – some women are uncomfortable with the looks received when they go to the dimly lit garage
  4. Arrogance – the attitude of we-know-the- security- guard-doesn’t-care-manager- is-incompetent-president- is-scared- of-us and if-you-personally- take-us-on- we-will-at-a-minimum- damage-your- property
  5. Theft – vehicle parts and petrol
  6. Blocking – refusing to move aside and making it as difficult as possible for the other (usually owner) car drivers to drive past them
  7. Property damage – punctured tyres, scratches, damaged windows
  8. Unregulated freedom – free to go anywhere in the complex without notification, unlike maids who usually enter through the main doors of a building and are potentially questioned by the security guard regarding their visits

Individuals may share their stories and other stresses induced by the garage gang.
We have personally suffered from 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 (I do feel bad about leaving 3 out in the cold but while friends have complained about the creepy looks, I personally have not noticed them).

—-End email—–

On a related note, my July 2009 post The Janus Man describes our first serious encounter with members of the Garage Gang.

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My Road to Mumbai Marathon 2010

4 hrs 45 min 12 secs. That’s the total time I took to complete the regulation distance (42.195km) of Mumbai Marathon 2010. It was the 3rd full marathon I participated in & successfully completed. The time was 13 min shy from my personal best (Silicon Valley Marathon in 2002). I was 7 years younger, weather was near-perfect and the race organization was flawless so perhaps not an apples-to-apples comparison. Compared to my disastrous performance at the Kaveri Trail Marathon in Sep 2009, I suppose I did pretty well in shaving 30min. But is this the right way to evaluate my ‘performance’? Is running marathons merely about constantly exceeding your PB (personal best) times? No and no.

2009 was the year where I clocked the most running miles ever in my life – 1100 kilometers. During the last 5 months of 2009, my Garmin Forerunner 305 and RunningAhead tell me that I ran 740 km. Mikc Clothier (my 1st marathon coach) would have been proud with the way I stuck to my running plan. Sure – I could have added interval running and weight training to my regimen but heck.. I’m not claiming perfect preparation. In the end, I’d rate my preparation for SCMM2010 a solid B(+). The reason I didn’t give myself an A(-) is because of the final (taper) week.

The final 2 weeks before race day (aka “taper”) are arguably more important than the prior 2-3 months where runners cram in progressively higher weekly miles. The taper weeks are all about allowing the body to recover from the series of weekend long runs, drastically reduce the number and duration of the scheduled runs, stick to a well-accustomed-to-body diet, take extra care in hydration, and tuck in a LOT of hours of sleep. It’s almost akin to fattening the pig before the slaughter. In fact, most runners gain some weight during the taper weeks making them feel distinctly uncomfortable and anxious.

While there’s no mention in marathon training manuals about trans-atlantic business trips and falling sick, it’s safe to assume that they are clear NO-NO’s during the final 2 taper weeks. Alas! Fate dealt me a tough set of cards when a business trip got scheduled in the final week. 3 days in Las Vegas and 4 days in San Francisco would get me to Mumbai in the wee hours of 16th morning – approximately 27 hours before the race start. A different person may have weighed the odds and concluded that there was too much risk in attempting to run on 17th morning. But I’m a delayed binding kinda-guy so I didn’t abort plans to be in Mumbai on marathon weekend.

Week before race day

Las Vegas is my least favorite American city. Too flashy & artificial for my liking and, most importantly, after you get accustomed to a decade of mostly smoking-free public areas in Northern California, it feels suffocating here. Anyway, I wasn’t here for sightseeing. I had come to attend several business meetings and check out the latest technology trends at CES 2010. By the morning of Jan 10, I was back in familiar territory — San Francisco. I needed to run the final 16k taper run so changed into my running gear shortly after I reached the hotel. At 11am, it was still quite foggy and the air was nippy so I dashed back to my room and put on an extra layer. Since I’d stayed at this hotel during my previous two trips, the running route was already figured out. Headed down Nob Hill towards Embarcadero, then turned right at the water front and keep running for 8k which took me past the ball park — I turned around the Cirque de Soleil encampment. I didn’t have any target pace for this taper run so I started fast, then gradually slowed and finished 16k at a 6:02 min/km average which, coincidentally, was my target pace for Mumbai. The 2km steep climb back to the top of Nob Hill was satisfying (I was thankful for wearing that extra layer). The rest of the day passed uneventfully with no grim foreboding of the week ahead.

Sometime on Monday evening, I developed an itchy feeling in the throat which gradually turned into a mild sore throat. No panic yet! Increased my fluid consumption significantly (juices, tea, even the ghastly chamomile kind which I normally avoid). Started gargling every few hours also. I’m usually not renowned for such proactive measures but this was a special week after all. Tuesday morning rolled around and mild coughing had begun and the sore throat had gotten worse. Still no sign of a cold and that gave me a great deal of hope. The hope started getting dashed by Tuesday evening when my voice went nasal. I spent Tuesday & Wednesday evenings at my sister’s place in Cupertino and she plied me with liberal and regular doses of miriyala kashayam (the family’s age-old answer to stop the common cold in its tracks). On Wednesday evening, I headed to Santana Row in San Jose for dinner with buddies/classmates from BIT Mesra. On the way out, I dashed off a quick pessimistic email to my marathon training buddies — something on the lines of my prospects of running at Mumbai are looking bleak. The food and conversation at Maggiano’s was excellent and, after hearing me complain about my throat, my friends suggested a cognac would do a world of good. Since I’d sworn off spirits since Aug ’08, I hesitated a bit but then acquiesced because… after all it was a special week and I needed a multi-pronged strategy to quell the barbaric germs. I returned to my sister’s place with a fresh dose of good vibes, downed more miriyala kashayam, and read some very encouraging emails from Shantanu and Meher. Game still on! I woke up Thursday morning feeling quite rested but with a finely progressed cold. Realized belatedly that my biggest blunder during the final taper week was that, far from increasing my sleep average, I had reduced it to a measly 5 hrs.

24 hours before race start

Under normal conditions, I use Afrin (a nasal spray) a few hours before the plane starts the descent and it almost always works. When I have a cold, all bets are off. Both the descents (to Frankfurt Airport & Mumbai Airport) were highly painful experiences where I felt my brains would explode through my ears. As I waited at the baggage claim area, dazed and confused (but no longer in pain) is how I’d describe my condition. Got into a prepaid taxi and woke up my dear friend Dheeraj (it was ~ 3am) who gave directions and I reached his Powai flat by 4am. Slept for 7 uninterrupted hours, skipped breakfast and had a delicious early lunch with the Vasishths. Then took stock of my situation.

  • Cold: much better but needed periodic bouts of nose blowing.
  • Throat: still sore but vastly improved.
  • Cough: still nagging though subdued. The cough syrup I had picked up from Rite-Aid (DelSym) was a complete dud. Damn! why didn’t I pick up the tried & tested Benedryl?

Dheeraj (my dear friend from Bokaro Xaviers days) examined me with a bemused look. The top question on everyone’s minds (including me) was whether I would run tomorrow. Maybe he saw my determined & stubborn look and thus decided not to lead with “Are you NUTS to even think about running?” We were discussing whether I should see a doctor. I was cagey since it would be a tad bit inconvenient if the doctor were to ‘strongly recommend’ that I not run. D convinced me that it was an excellent idea (I think he was afraid that my wife would come after him if something bad were to happen to me). So off we went to the nearby doctor’s office. A very quick examination by the lady doctor (who was also accompanied by her 5 year old son – since it was a Saturday et al you know) and the verdict was “bacterial infection”. Not really a surprise but I asked her if I could start the antibiotics course the next day (after the marathon). Her reaction was the biggest surprise. She said “by all means, run the marathon. You just have an infection, a cold and a lingering cough. You run the marathon with your legs, right?” She said I must have 2 doses of antibiotics, cough syrup as needed, and for good measure, she threw in a Paracetamol to be taken at night so I’d wake up ‘fresh’. Oh yeah, lady! My kinda doctor! You can imagine what this doctor’s visit did to my spirits.

Watched a bit of the India vs. Bangladesh cricket match, had an animated discussion on religion, spirituality and atheism with D and C (D’s wife). It was the second time I was hearing “Once you finish reading Richard Dawkins, you will become an atheist”. A paperback edition of Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” traveled back to Bangalore with me (courtesy D). Who said atheists aren’t evangelists? 🙂

Early sumptuous dinner with D & C and I hit the bed at 9:30pm. Tossed and turned… 1 hour later.. tossed and turned…1 hour later… finally slept.

Race day morning

I had kept alarms for 5 different times but woke up at the first beep itself. Nervous energy – can you tell? Took a cab to Ghatkopar station at 5am. The place was bustling like a Sunday marketplace. Rupees 7 ticket to VT station in 2nd class – can you believe that? There still are some things in India that have defied inflation! The train was full but managed to find a seat. Spotted several fellow runners including a large group of half-marathon runners that got off at Dadar station. Reached VT by 5:45am and gradually met up with most of the Bangalore runners in front of the baggage counter in Azad Maidan. The most important person I met before race start was Shantanu — who had picked up my bib and timing chip the previous day (thanks again Shantanu! you saved me 2-3 valuable hours on Saturday). The usual banter and nervous anticipation as the race start time of 6:45am slowly approached.

Considering how wordy this post has already gotten (and how long it took to get this far), I’ll finish the highlights of my actual running in a subsequent post.

(Feb 14 Update: race day ‘report’ covered in Running the Course – Mumbai Marathon 2010)

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When something’s not easy to do, you are doing it wrong

Pic: courtesy Bing Images

It was early days for me at the University of Houston campus in the Fall of 1992. One of my initial starry-eyed memories was that of purchasing my first Coke can from a vending machine on my way back to the Cambridge Oaks apartment. This was my first-ever encounter with a Coke can (for that matter any soft drink can). I examined it as one would a hard-earned trophy. It was chilled to the perfect temperature, the bright red Coke colors and the calligraphic lettering epitomized to me excellence, beauty and perfection — all things I associated with the American Dream that I was here to pursue. And I had just bought it for 60 cents. It was thrilling.

At this point, most normal people would have pushed the tab open and started glugging away. For some odd reason (daftness perhaps?), I decided that one had to twist/rotate the tab (step #1) and then pull the tab (step #2). Not surprisingly, after I had executed step #2, I was left holding a detached tab and a (still unopened) Coke can and feeling rather silly. I hurried my way back back to the apartment with a mixture of how_could_I_be_so_dumb and a steely resolve to make amends. Later in the kitchen, a few deliberate pokes with a screwdriver yielded results and I was soon slaking my Coke thirst. This was incident #1.

Incident #2 involved the American matchbook – which is quite different from its Indian counterpart (which we call “match box” or “matches”). For the benefit of my Indian readers, let me describe the American matchbook – 2 rows of soft matchsticks are fused inside a thin cardboard flap, there’s only striking surface which is on the outer side of the flap. In case you are wondering, I’ve been a smoker for a grand total of 3 1/2 years – the latter 2 years were during my 1992-94 Houston stint. My roommate (another smoker from India) and I used the matchbook like an Indian matchbox – i.e. tear off the soft stick, and strike it against the striking surface. After a few days of low hit-rate match-strikes, we concluded that the Americans didn’t know how to manufacture matchbooks. Along comes Beaumont-Srini (a senior in Business school) who  showed us the correct way of using the American matchbook — twist the flap around to almost touch the striking surface and simply pull out the match between the striking surface and the flap. Voila! (Friction + chemistry = fire).

As I reflected on these 2 incidents, our mutual good friend, philosopher, guide and senior – Soumya (of Soumya.org fame) had this pithy summary about life in America: when something’s  not easy to do, you are doing it wrong. Over the years, this served as a reliable guiding litmus test. When I found myself waiting for hours at the DMV, turns out I could have called a toll free number to book an appointment instead. Years later, when I kept getting placed on hold on that toll free DMV number, turns out I could have booked my appointment (via the web) in less than a minute.

Now let’s look at India. The same pithy litmus test can be applied here – you just have to flip it on its head: when something’s looking very easy, you are probably doing it the wrong way. If you got your driver’s license in a single afternoon, chances are you bribed the RTO officer or utilized the services of a driving school agent. If you bought the latest video game or the newest Bollywood release from a footpath vendor as you were lounging down Indiranagar’s 100-feet road or Koramangala’s 80-feet road, they were definitely pirated (and you knew it!). If it’s taking you fifteen visits to the Corporation office to register your recently purchased property and you still don’t know when it will finally be registered, you (my friend) are doing it the right way!

If you found my description of the American matchbook to be inadequate, here are some visuals via Google Images: click here

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