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.

Squash and the City

amr_shabana_squash_shotSerious runners are crazy people.

Serious squash players are no less crazy.

The crazy squash player I am thinking about is my friend. Sanjay (now a Princeton, NJ resident) was my senior at BIT Mesra and we became close friends during our years in Jamshedpur. Unlike my sporadic dalliance (2 years of squash initiation in ’90-’92 followed by a year in Chicago playing racquetball circa ’95 before hitting my ‘serious’ but disjointed stints between 1998 and 2005), Sanjay was far more devoted to squash.

As he moved from Jamshedpur to Clearwater, FL before settling down in the NY/NJ area, he managed to find a squash court and kept at it. I mean really kept at it.

When we visited the NY/NJ area in Christmas 2002, we stayed with Sanjay’s family in Princeton. His squashing had reached a level where he was beginning to challenge young bucks on the Princeton University club ladder. Coming finally to the crazy bit. His ‘local’ squash court was a whopping 75 min drive away – across state lines. And he would make it there at least twice a week.

Imran Khan was probably one of the reasons Sanjay squashed regularly at that remote club in Pennsylvania. Imran (from that land that produced two amazing squash champions with the same last name) was the club’s squash pro and Sanjay’s good friend.

During that trip I managed to catch a game with Sanjay. Predictably I got whipped. Later that evening Imran visited Sanjay’s home and the bulk of the conversation was on squash (obviously).

I’m sure I grilled him a lot but there was ONE insight that overshadowed everything else that came up. An insight that could catapult a rookie or a struggling C player on to the right path.

“At any point in the squash court, there’s only ONE right stroke to hit.’

Wow. You mean to say I shouldn’t debate between a rail vs boast vs lob in real-time as I approached the ball? And NOT change my mind last-minute?

Hmm..

So every grid position on the court is pre-computed for the ideal stroke?

More like a classical music score and less like jazzy improvisation?

As i reflected on it, it made sense. If you’ve seen professionals play those long rallies point after point, you’ll know this to be true too.

A ballet being played out between players seemingly in a preordained fashion. Rail-rail-rail-drop-rail or rail-rail-rail-rail-cross-cross-boast-rail-rail.

The script and patterns don’t vary much. What separates the very good player from the truly exceptional are things like: how quickly he recovers the T, how deep her rails are, how judiciously she uses the cross/boast/lob, how patient he is in going for the killer smash (or boast) only when the odds are just right. Of course having a few different serve variations and possessing the replicable ability to hit the edge can be key weapons in your arsenal but those come *after* you’ve taken care of the basics.

An uncluttered mind. A body dynamic trained to unleash the right stroke at every grid point. Ballet like a pro. Wait for the other guy to make a mistake or keep watching him until the positional odds tilt in your favor to go for the kill.

I finally understood how to play the game of squash. Too bad I would step into a court only once more.. 10 years later.

But lessons in sports carry over to life. Playing to a script, seeing the patterns, waiting for your chance, putting in those long hours of disciplined  drills, automaticity… These are all portable skills.

Thank you Imran Khan.

Stories related to this topic of training to a pattern:

[Closing note: this post had a gestation period of 3 yrs 10 months. I guess there is hope for the remaining 99 posts in my Drafts folder.]

 

 

 

Minimalist in a maximal world

[Editor’s Note: I’ve been meaning to write this post for sometime. This needs mention because this post has the rare distinction of having only a 2 week gestation period (the median post is more like 3-6 months). On a flight back from Delhi, I started writing. The battery went kaput after two paragraphs. Undeterred, I pulled out my trusty ‘paper’ notebook and continued. An hour later I was done with 95%. The remaining 5% I finished this evening.]

Pic courtesy talentedreader.blogspot.com

Pic courtesy talentedreader.blogspot.com

I once had a farm in Africa.

Remember that Meryl Streep movie where she talked about farms and donderstorms? Her nostalgic recollections of a bygone era were always prefaced with I once had a farm in Africa.

For the past six years, I’ve been having my own I once had a farm moment.  Every time I’d near a bookstore, I’d wistfully mutter to a companion: I was pathologically incapable of passing one of these without buying at least one book.

I have finally made peace with the fact that my best reading years are behind me.

As a kid with a voracious appetite for reading, I dreamed of being in a house full of books or someday having the “largest collection of books”. After acquiring a formidable collection of books across genres in my 16 years in US, I unexpectedly reached a point where I stopped buying books. When we sold our house in California, we sold (or gave away to Salvation Army) practically everything except four suitcases and an Apple Mac G4.

There were also sixteen boxes of books that remained with us! These sixteen boxes contained our “Noah’s Ark of books”. I surprised myself by selling at least 40-50 pulp fiction titles (Ludlum, Cussler, Jeffrey Archer, etc.). Selling ANY book would have been anathema in a former life but here I was doing it with ease.

What about them sixteen boxes? Half of them were stowed away in my sister’s garage and the other half in my cousin’s attic. Over the years, my friends and family have kindly shipped a subset (maybe 30%) of those books as they made trips to Bangalore.

And here was my next surprising learning… I had not missed my books all those years!

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In our first year in Bangalore, we made it to the annual Book Fair at Palace Grounds.  Returned with a dozen books.  The damage could have been more if our younger son didn’t need to go to the bathroom. Twice.

Turns out that book fair binge (a mere dozen!) is the high water mark of my Bangalore years.

Wow. How things changed in the past 8 years. Not buying books anymore. Selling books. Stowing away my precious books in people’s attics for a seemingly eternal duration. And NOT MISSING THEM!

When I bought my first set of books from Amazon.com, they sent a purple-blue fridge magnet with this quote from Cicero – A room without books is like a body without a soul.

Had I become soulless?

Sometime last year, as I sauntered into a friend’s study, I was struck by the eerie resemblance to one of my childhood dreams – two (or was it three?) walls adorned with book cases from floor to ceiling and stacked cheek-to-jowls with books. You’d need a ladder to access half the books (even if you were Hakeem Olajuwon).

My instinctive reaction was ‘Wow!’ but as I walked back to my apartment, I thought to myself, that’s SO not me anymore!

I was a packrat no more. I was a hoarder no more. I was a book collector no more.

I still remember that chap (during my Arlington Heights, Chicago years) who borrowed Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and never returned it but that’s a whole different story.

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Squash was the love of my sporting life… until I moved to Bangalore and (through a strange combination of circumstances) switched to running.

I played two games of squash in 2009 and spent the next 5 years harboring illusions of ‘returning to squash’. I finally exorcised that illusion last year when a squash marker (from a local club) came over to pick up my complete squash gear – 1 Black Knight titanium racquet, 1 Dunlop graphite racquet, a dozen Dunlop balls, a tournament bag, a pair of well-maintained Prince non-marking sole shoes. The only thing I retained as a keepsake was a pair of protective eyewear (outdated prescription if I may add!)

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Last month I attended a runner couple’s wedding reception at the Koramangala Club. Mahindra had recently released this e2o testimonial video (featuring me) and my friends very well and truly tickled. One of my friends was particularly curious. Here’s how that conversation went:

(Fr)iend: So how did that video come about? How did they ‘find’ you?

Me: Well, I’ve been active on Twitter for a while. Every now and then I’d tweet something delightful about the Reva-i (owned it for 3 years) and eventually about the e2o (we sold our petrol car also in the process). As you know, I’ve also been blogging and tweeting about barefoot running and minimalism. So I popped up on Mahindra’s social media agency’s radar. They contacted me… one thing led to another and before I knew it the e2o marketing team was in my office interviewing me about all things e2o, minimalism and sundry. It eventually led to a photoshoot (at their factory in Bommanahalli) and later to the video shoot that became this video.

Fr: So what is this minimalism thing all about?

Me: Basically consume less. In every possible way. The Reduce. Reuse. Recycle mantra applied to every facet of your life. Eat less food, preferably plant-based. Buy less clothes. Use them longer. Reduce gadget purchases and make them last longer.

Fr: Hmm…

Me: (just about warming up) You know Gandhi was a minimalist, right?

Fr: Yeah sure but that was for a purpose. To secure freedom for India. What is the point of minimalism for minimalism’s sake?

Me: But what is wrong with minimalism as an end in itself?

I reckon my friend either tuned out by this time or we got interrupted because I don’t recall what else I added. I know I invoked Dhruva (the world’s original and baddest minimalist stud) but that’s a separate blog post.

Here’s how I’d have continued…

We are living in a bad ass maximal world. You lift a rock, move a twig, open your Facebook page or scan your Twitter feed, and it’s hard to miss the Type A go-getters (are there any non-Type A’rs left in this world?) emoting some version of the following:

  • One life. Do MORE.
  • Just DO it!
  • Why run a marathon when you can run an ultra?
  • Why run a triathlon when you can run an Ironman?
  • Bucket lists and BUCKET LISTS!
  • I have traveled to 52 countries but I HAVE to check off 25 more dream destinations before I f@#$# die!
  • I HAVE to see every movie that gets released on the FIRST weekend (however crappy the reviews might be) otherwise my life wouldn’t be complete.
  • I HAVE to checkout that new restaurant that’s trending on Zomato.
  • I want EVERY dine-out to be the most magical and gourmet experience ever.
  • I HAVE to watch EVERY match of the FIFA World Cup AND the Cricket World Cup AND every Tennis Grand Slam match AND every golf tournament that McIllroy (or Tiger or whoever) is playing AND live-tweet/FB every f@#$#$ ‘notable’ moment.
  • I HAVE to take at least two annual vacations and post 62 pictures of glorious vistas and breathtakingly ecstatic family visages
  • I HAVE to be at the heart of an all-consuming startup AND be a model father AND spend quality time with my family

I have thought long and hard on why minimalism has captured my imagination. Picture the ultimate minimalist and the ultimate maximalist as two extremes on the multi-dimensional experience spectrum. The former needs nothing (not even breath) and there’s no greater personification than the sage Dhruva. The latter has experienced everything and either desires more or (maybe) sees the wisdom of the other extreme.

The path to maximalism is a cycle of consumption experiences that keep spawning never-ending Hydras of new consumption patterns that can only end when you die. My maximalist friends will present as Exhibit A a Facebook infographic on the lines of live life to the fullest and crash land into your coffin.

I rather fancy walking towards a point. Peeling and shedding along the way. Crazy for sure. Painful for sure. But in the theoretical realm of probability, no?

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Last Friday night, I was on MG Road. I had some time to kill so wandered into the iconic bookstore Book Worm. My last visit was around six years ago but it might as well have been yesterday. My nonchalant gaze caught a few new titles, classics like Bronte and Hardy, a few beat-up Biggles, a stack of Wodehouses. Normally the last would bring a smile to my face and I would invariably reach for ONE of them – it didn’t matter whether it was the Psmith title I had somehow not read or the Lord Elmsworth story I had read a dozen times. But this day was different. My scan went uninterrupted like the inexorable lighthouse beam. I finally picked up one book to set it right on the shelf (can you believe I forgot what it was already?)

I started walking out and glanced one last time at the row of books close to the exit. It was the Murakami section that made me stop. I knew Murakami “the runner” (via his What I talk about when I talk about running) but I had only heard about Murakami “the fiction writer”. I picked up a title. It was Sputnik Sweetheart. Opened to a page randomly and started reading. A few minutes later I thought “Hmm.. that’s an interesting twist right there in one page. Wonder where it leads to.”

I walked out of the store. Who’s got time for a Murakami fiction title? Not me. At least not in 2015. Maybe next year or maybe never.

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Related posts:

The quest for natural running form

Years ago when I used to play squash regularly at Decathlon Club (Santa Clara), I was struggling to vault myself from a high C to a low B. One of the bad habits of C level players is that they DON’T prolong the rallies, opting instead to finish things off quickly, usually via ill-conceived drop shots.

How do you change bad habits?

A deep philosophical question, eh? Perhaps one with myriad answers.

My regular playing partner (Joel) had a simple fix. The idea was to not mess with the inherent competitive instinct that drives players — the instinct to WIN every point/game/match. He proposed, after we completed our usual quota of ‘best of 3’ regular games to play a fourth game — a game with just one altered rule — any return that  landed in front of the service line would be a foul. In short, drop shots and boast shots were outlawed and one could only play rails and cross-court shots. The competitive instinct to ‘win’ every point was still in place so it ended up becoming a fun drill that wasn’t ‘boring’.

Old habits die really slow. It was several weeks before I curtailed the urge to use drop shots in my ‘regular’ games. As I recall, Joel adjusted much better than me.

*****

What was the bad habit I was trying to shake off here? Many ‘poor form’ habits actually but the biggest was that I had become a heel striker. It took several rounds of surreptitious observation (think Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle) to come to this conclusion.

In amateur long-distance running, you are rarely chasing a competitor. The competitor is oneself – a perpetual quest for Personal Bests — race after race, season after season. My first barefoot run was a mere one week after the end of the previous running season and, with a runway of 7 months before next season’s first race, there were zero competitive distractions.

So I noodled over a few loosely defined goals.

  1. Change my running form so I’d become a reliable front foot/mid-foot striker.
  2. Run at least one full marathon barefoot.
  3. I knew my pace would suffer initially so instead of any PB aspirations, I wanted to be no slower than last year by the time the season’s last race rolled around.
  4. Give myself a complete running season before taking any ‘long-term’ decisions on barefoot vs. shoes.
At Kaveri Trail Marathon Sep 15 2013

At Kaveri Trail Marathon Sep 15 2013

Goal #1 was the big one. But where did I pluck it from? I had read my share of Chris McDougal articles (refer this and this) but this anecdote from Alberto Salazar resonated deeply. Reproducing from Pete Larson’s blog:

There has to be one best way of running. It’s got to be like a law of physics. And if you deviate too much from that–the way I did in my career–it can be a big handicap. Dathan can’t be a heel striker and expect to run as good as the best forefoot runners. (my emphasis) You can be efficient for a while with bad form–maybe with a low shuffle stride – but eventually that’s not good for your body. It’s going to produce tightness and muscular imbalances and structural problems. Then you get injuries, and if you’re not careful – if you don’t take care of the muscular and structural issues – the injuries can put you into a downward spiral. 

Possibly the best thing I did in Feb 2012 was go the “whole hog” – i.e. no minimalist footwear, just fully barefoot. The second best thing I did was to stick to it for a good five months before saying hello to huaraches. Much later, I would realize that my year-long strategy was (apparently) my personal quest for a natural running form.

Natural running… natural running… hmm, what the heck is natural running? Is it the same as barefoot running? Runblogger explains..

Natural running is not some ideal, archetypal running form, it’s what happens when you let your own body figure out what works best for you when you minimize interference between the foot and the ground. It’s what happens when you let your own muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones do all or most of the work. It will vary depending on the type of ground under your feet, how fast you’re running, and so forth. It could hurt you – just because it’s “natural” does not necessarily mean that it’s always good. It could also help you – some people have overcome chronic injury by going “natural.” It’s a form employed by you, not necessarily a form employed by all. And your natural running form can change with time and practice. It might reach a comfortable steady state, or it might continue to change in small ways.

Natural runners are using the form that is working for them in their current situation, with zero assistance from footwear or other technology.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as a single barefoot running form.

I get the sense that most people equate the phrase natural running with barefoot running, or at least running with a form similar to that which you would adopt when barefoot (shorter stride, increased cadence, more plantarflexed foot at contact, generally a reduced impact transient if not heel striking, etc.). I largely agree with this definition. However, I think there’s a bit more to it than this.

Though barefoot running form has certain general elements that characterize it, it’s not something that can be defined concretely. There is no single barefoot running form, and thus there is no single natural running form that applies in all circumstances for all people.

This seems shockingly at odds with Salazar’s assessment earlier. Larson continues…

The reality is that running form is highly variable, and is largely dependent on an individual runner’s body and the conditions in which they are running (things like speed, surface, incline/decline, etc.). This applies even to foot strike. For barefoot runners, things will change depending on speed, surface, etc. There are habitual barefoot runners that forefoot strike, there are habitually barefoot people who heel strike when they run on softer surfaces. There are barefoot runners who heel strike on asphalt (and I have seen some very experienced barefoot runners making initial contact on the heel while running on asphalt). Most shod runners probably forefoot strike running uphill, and heel strike on the flats and downs. In fact, when it comes to foot strike, Prof. Daniel Lieberman of Harvard emphasized variation when I interviewed him for my book. He said:

“I think everybody does everything. This idea that you’re just a forefoot striker, or just a midfoot striker, just a heel striker is bizarre. Variation is what biology is all about – everybody does everything! I think barefoot runners heel strike sometimes, of course they do. I don’t think they do it all the time. It’s speed dependent, terrain dependent, warm up dependent, etc.”

Strange as it may sound, it anecdotally rings true (at least partially). Having seen race day pictures of a few other barefoot runners and myself, there are times when we seem to be heel striking. It must be rare enough because we haven’t developed any heel related injuries. Which brings me to an important closing point. It’s nearly impossible to have  persistent incorrect form when you are running ‘whole hog’ barefoot.

Read the rest of Larson’s article here – Natural running: what the heck does it mean?

 

The day Sarah Fitz-Gerald visited our squash club

Not how she looked in 2002 but what a "killer" and effortless backhand she had!

Gosh! It’s been at least 5 years since I last played squash. Not counting the 3 games I played at an off-site corporate event in 2009. I’m talking ‘regular’ playing (regular = at least 3 times a week). Sometime last year, I removed “squash” from my Twitter bio — there are only so many “hoping to get back to …” tags one can use.

Why did I remember my first sporting love, especially after I expunged it from my Twitter bio? I’ve started reading Haruki Murakami’s What I talk about when I talk about running and was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was(is?) seriously into squash. It makes sense of course — given his passion for running, swimming, marathons and triathlons. Truth be told, there’s an interesting squash-related post languishing in my Drafts folder for the past 3 months. I’ll even share the title because I’m hoping one of you will ask me to finish it soon — Squash and the city!

In the last few days, I’ve been reminiscing a lot about my squash playing days. My most regular playing stint was between 1998 and 2003 — the first year at Stanford (well before the courts and the program got really spiffed up with the hiring of Mark Talbott) and subsequently at Decathlon Club, Santa Clara. It was during the Decathlon Club playing days that I got an opportunity to watch Sarah Fitz-Gerald in action.

For the  uninitiated, a quick Sarah FG introduction. Winner of 5 World Open, 2 British Open titles, and 60 WISPA tour titles, Australian Sarah Fitz-Gerald ranks alongside Michelle Martin and Heather McKay (fellow Australians) and Susan Devoy (New Zealand) as the sport’s greatest players. And what’s more, two of her major titles came after knee surgery. Fitz-Gerald was on an exhibition/promotion circuit spanning major American cities and our club pro (Jon Perry) managed to snag her for a day. She played against our club’s best male and female players (Atif Khan and Nicola Kelly respectively) and, of course, Jon Perry. After barely breaking a sweat, she talked about her training regimen, her (unsuccessful) efforts to make squash an olympic sport and ended with a spirited Q&A. Here’s what I remember from that evening:

  • Sarah Fitz-Gerald: I suppose she's shocked at a let/stroke call that went against her

    Watching a superior player toying with a lower-rated player is not always pretty but it’s different when you are watching a master at work! Sarah’s movement on the court was a combination of beauty and languidness. Add a dose of good old-fashioned Aussie humor between points and we had an entertainer.

  • Both Atif and Nicola managed a few points because… she let them! Nicola seemed a little overawed by the setting so she kept overdoing the backhand drop shot. Sarah would retrieve the drop with consummate ease and reply with a deep backhand rail. After the umpteenth time this happened, Sarah pointed (for the crowd’s benefit obviously) at the backhand front corner and said “That’s her favorite corner!” and “This is my favorite!” (pointing to the back left corner.
  • Before Jon and Sarah started their first game, Sarah wagered that Jon would have to “drop his shorts” if he lost on “love”. Jon agreed (did he have a choice?) I’m sure he fancied his chances to get at least ONE point, especially since it was championship scoring (game goes till 15 and you get a point even on your opponent’s serve).
  • There’s toying with an A level player and then there’s toying with an AA level player (PDF link) who’s the club pro!
  • The quality of Sarah’s game was breathtaking to watch. If I have to pick ONE shot that defined her, it was her backhand rail — precision power hits at ‘every possible height’ with (I guess you’d call this) ‘copybook’ backswing.
  • As she got inexorably closer to 15, it looked like Jon was getting more and more nervous. Jon lost the first game on “love”.
  • She let Jon sweat a bit before she announced “Okay! you can just drop your socks for the second game!” 🙂 A collective sigh of relief from everyone. Jon lost the second game too but I think she let him win a few points.
  • One of Sarah’s secret sauce: she used to train with the top male Australian squash players!

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.

Asthma, Bangalore and me…

Pic: courtesy myhealthguardian.com

Asthma and I go back a long way. One cold winter in Bokaro, when I was either 6 or 7, asthma came uninvited into my life. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that it changed my life. Besides taking a lot of medicines and being bedridden more than the average kid, the big lifestyle impact was that I didn’t play much of any sport during my school or college years. In the 70’s and 80’s, asthma was not well understood – I mean besides the medicines prescribed by allopathic & homeopathic doctors to suppress asthma. Sports Star used to be part of my staple reading during my high school years. I was deeply puzzled when I read that Morten Frost Hansen (Dutch All England badminton champ) and Jackie Joyner-Kersee (heptathlon Olympic uber champion) suffered from asthma in their childhood. I was to learn later that the best way to combat asthma is to exercise “more” (not “less”).

My first job (in India) was with Tata Steel at Jamshedpur. Perhaps it was finally the release of academic pressure or maybe it was finally time to beat my nemesis. Whatever the reason, Jamshedpur was where I won my first battle against asthma. Thanks to my dear friends & colleagues Vochak (squash champion from BITS Palani) and JD (squash champion & amateur coach from IT-BHU), I was introduced to the wonderful sport of squash. I scratched and struggled around on the squash court of Beldih Club for nigh on two years. My squash game didn’t threaten but a worthy side effect was that it kept my asthma at bay and I gradually built my cardiovascular fitness. When I moved to USA, I experienced asthma-free bliss for 16 years (barring a few minor episodes of exercise-induced asthma in Chicago).

As I wrote in Why are we moving back to India now, we came very close to moving to India in 2005. A casual one week stay in Bangalore suddenly turned into a very real possibility. I had an offer to take up a key role in the Yahoo! Bangalore organization and Poonam also had a great opportunity at a biotech startup. At the eleventh hour, we pulled the plug. The asthma factor was not a major reason but it did figure in the calculations. In all my trips to Bangalore (including this one), the wheezing would start by the second or third day.

Fast forward three years. I was planning my 2-week scouting trip to India and wondering Where in India we would be moving to. By our original reckoning, Bangalore should have been on top of our list of prospective cities. However, it had fallen out of favor and was at #3 (behind Delhi and Bombay). This was partly because we were steadily reading stories about Bangalore’s worsening traffic situation, Delhi/Gurgaon’s rise as a techno hub, and of Bombay’s seduction. The elephant in the living room was actually my old nemesis.

Poonam (our Chief Research Officer) read many articles about how asthma was getting worse in Bangalore.

50% Bangalore kids hit by asthma screamed this Times of India headline in 2007. Dust mites in the humid atmosphere of Bangalore trigger around 60% of asthma, while vehicular emissions like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, benzene, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, aldehydes, sulphur dioxide also act as trigger agents.

‘‘Continuous exposure to allergens like Parthenium could prove fatal for asthma patients as it can lead to a permanent damage of the lungs affecting the respiratory functions’’, said Dr. Rao in this blog post Bangalore still carries ‘asthma city’ tag. Then came a study from WHO and UNICEF that declared that over 30 per cent of Bangalore’s children suffer from asthma. Whoa!!

Then out of the blue, Twitter provided a glimmer of hope. I saw the following tweet (or maybe it was a Facebook status message) from one of my Bangalore friends: “down with asthma. Bummer.” You might find the following email exchange interesting.

— start of email thread —

Hi [friend],
Sorry to hear you are down with asthma. I was reading a few blog posts recently about how the air quality in Bangalore keeps getting worse – pollution + pollen. Why you might wonder? So I suffered from asthma for years – it only stopped after I moved to US (14 years ago). Actively in the throes of moving back to India (looking at Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore as Pune) as prospective cities. The biggest ding against Bangalore (for me personally) is how severely my asthma would return – my last 2 trips to Bangalore were memorable (not!). Would like to know your thoughts..
Thanks.
– Vishy

Hi Vishy,

I can relate a lot to what you say. I was in the US for about 6 months – and was perfectly fine through the period. I am fine elsewhere in India too, In general : Asthma for me is local to Bangalore. I have been here about 10 years, and have learnt to fight it. I am generally fine as long as I am exercising in some form or the other – even a 10 minute walk would do it, as long as its regular. Through various stages, I have practised pranayama, played badminton, gone running, etc regularly. The moment, I get a little lazy – stop exercising for a few days, and asthma reminds me that I cant afford to be lazy in Bangalore. I believe, as long as you are religiously regular with exercise – you can keep asthma away. I myself have considered moving to other cities, but for internet products focussed on the global market – this is the place.
There is enough India focussed internet work happening in Bombay & Delhi, but not as many global companies/startups as in Bangalore.

Let me know if you have anything specific you are looking at in India – might be able to connect.

All the best with the move,
[friend]

[friend],

Thanks for your detailed note on asthma. That certainly re-emboldens my heart towards Bangalore. So I just booked my trip to India – flying in to Bombay on Jun 3 & returning on Jun 18. Plan to cover Bangalore & Delhi as well. Would love to hook up when I’m there.

— end of email thread —

In my blog post chronology so far, a few posts are still incomplete (and hence unpublished). One of them is the “Bangalore Calling” post where I make the case for Bangalore. (Still intend to finish that post but might take a few more weeks). Anyway, I spent 6 days in Bangalore during my 2-week trip and I didn’t feel a single asthma symptom. This was baffling and miraculous. In all my previous three trips to Bangalore, I had asthma trouble so what was different this time? I tried to contain my excitement. Maybe it was the allergy medication which I was taking regularly that acted as a shield. Did it? I have no idea.

What this asthma-free Bangalore trip did to me (& Poonam) was that it removed the we-cannot-move-to-Bangalore straightjacket. We still had a healthy apprehension about how this factor would affect the kids and me. The net score in Bangalore’s favor definitely tipped things over for us. I’m completing this post on day#13 and, so far, (touch wood!) I have not felt any symptoms. The traffic is as bad as it was touted to be but ‘maybe’ the pollen counts have come down. Only time will tell.