Last Sunday, I went for an early morning walk in Lalbagh, one of the two large gardens of Bangalore. Now Lalbagh on most mornings is a little microcosm of Bangalore. Old people in freshly-starched clothes walk next to unwashed teenagers in their pyjamas. Couples laze on benches, middle-aged men do yoga, children cry for lost balls and childhood, and mamis pretend to meditate. Under the giant Chinese pavilion, some men are usually playing badminton in accompaniment to very loud film-songs, secure in the belief that they are bringing happiness to countless souls who would otherwise have to listen to birdsong. And, last, but not the least, there are the runners. I should confess that I am actually married to one of those runner-types. My husband’s idea of a fun Sunday is to wake up at 4.30 am, run 36.7 kilometres without making eye-contact with humans or animals, and come back home and eat oats.
That morning, Lalbagh was filled with an alarming number of runners, all practising for the annual Mumbai Marathon. Later, as we passed a bus-load of pilgrims dressed in bright red clothes, I realised that it was also leading up to the Thaipusam festival at Melmaruvathur.
Melmaruvathur, if you don’t know, is a little town near Chennai, boasting of a temple and a famous guru who calls himself “Amma”. Melmaruvathur is a big thing in our apartment. One week, the driver will suddenly start sporting a bright red shirt. The next week, it would be the maid. Then, the milkman.
This year, incidentally, Thaipusam falls just three days before the Mumbai Marathon. The similarities don’t end there. While the pilgrims are outfitting themselves in red clothes and beads, the runners are getting their shorts and flourescent t-shirts in order. Some of the pilgrims go barefoot, while some runners try out expensive “barefoot” shoes. Both follow strict diets. The pilgrims attempt to replace one meal with fruit. The runners ration their proteins and carbs, and then progress to more bizarre things—even as I write this, my husband is on the internet attempting to buy something called “Gu-Gel: Chocolate Outrage”.
I also see signs of cult-like behaviour among both groups. If you believe my maid, the Melmaruvathur Amma can control the sun, the clouds, and the speed of my internet connection. The runners are more rational but they do try and induct you into the cult. One Saturday, right after we’d had a big South Indian lunch, my husband took me to watch an “amazing” movie about marathon-running. Within about 10 minutes, I was fast asleep and dreaming of gunpowder-soaked idlis. When I woke up, they were interviewing the runner’s spouses. “I don’t see the point. Especially since they end up where they started from”, said one. Another said, “Anything above 10km, that’s what buses and cars are for.” I turned to my husband and said, “I love this movie!”. Turns out, I had missed the parts about how great running was. And how everyone can run. And how everyone should run. Of course, all of us know running improves your health and fitness. But many insist that it can also improve your social skills, your character, and the quality of your ground water. One minute you are a couch potato like me, and the next minute, you are a Gatorade-guzzling, GU-gel eating Mother Teresa. Frankly, I find all this proselytising very puzzling, and a bit annoying. Imagine if everyone were like this. Let’s say you went to an art exhibition, with the innocent intention of admiring the art. Suddenly, you are cornered by the artist. “Do you paint?”, he asks, and sighs when you shake your head. “You know”, he says, “You really should learn watercolours. It will teach you patience and wisdom. And once you master the rapid wet-on-wet technique, well, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.”
Now, someone like my maid realises this. After explaining some complicated miracle involving bees and worms and policemen, and seeing me look unimpressed, she said, “It’s OK if you don’t believe. Just be a good person.” So, runner-friends, you know I love and admire you all. I will be cheering for you at the Mumbai Marathon, and I’ll be happy to take your photo as you round the Marine-Drive curve. Why, I’ll even join you in your big pasta-meal the previous night, and help you polish off your post-marathon feast. Just don’t ask me to run, OK? 🙂