I chased the little stray pup as he ran up the stairs. We reached the open rooftop and I called out to him, trying to coax him to play with me. When I saw where he was headed, I ran faster. Without thinking twice, the week-old pup jumped off the 25 ft high roof. My ten-year-old heart was shattered as I ran downstairs crying, explaining that I only wanted to play with him. My father gently laid the motionless little creature on the grass and tricked some milk into his mouth. Minutes later, he slowly lifted his head, blinked, stood up and trotted over to his brothers.
Childhood memories come flooding back – memories of a little boy running across the forest floor with a black panther in tow – as I sit in the dark theater and anticipate the start of the movie that extolled the timeless masterpiece of Rudyard Kipling’s genius. Despite the fact that so much of it is computer generated imagery, ‘The Jungle Book’ never once fails to enchant the viewer through its 3D wonder, capturing the minuscule details of the South Indian Jungle, the superbly crafted landscapes making you drop your jaw in awe. You are glued to the screen from the moment you see Mowgli running along the lengths of towering tree branches, playfully chased by his adopted wolf-family. As the plot unrolls, the beauty of its simplicity was striking as the defamed ( and his face, obviously mangled) tiger wishes to prevail as the ultimate King of the animal kingdom and is threatened by the ‘Man Cub’ in their midst. Be prepared to grip those armrests tighter as the movie bears you along a tide of amazement and nail-biting action , transporting you along the vast expanses of the Western Ghats (with their thundering waterfalls, roaring rivers and majestic mountains in all their glory), climaxing in an action packed battle over the blazing fire brought about by the man who encroached upon their previously peaceful kingdom.
The initial spell of a realistic jungle is somewhat broken when Bhageera (the black panther) utters his first words to rebuke Mowgli on not being able to keep up with his wolf-brothers. As an argument ensues about the boy not being able to tell a dead tree from a living one, the viewer finds herself more at ease to see that Mowgli does have friends who have educated him on the ways of the jungle, who have protected him and taken him in as one of their own. The breathtaking scenery (albeit being a little too much in place and perfect) is indeed a constant distraction as you become one with the jungle world, where animals have their laws, feuds break out and truces are called. The heartbreaks of leaving home, a mother’s words of undying love (in this case, his wolf-mother’s) and the cries of his little brother Grey are very much as real as those experienced in the human kingdom. As Mowgli begins the inevitable journey out of the jungle to join his own kind in order to appease Sher Khan, the jungle once again shows us the hurdles that one must overcome. Unheralded rains and landslides, followed by what can only be described as a horrifying stampede of wild buffaloes puts Mowgli’s life at risk yet again as the grandiose mountains calmly stand around them. But he triumphs to meet with a few other furry friends along the way- this time a sluggish, slightly conniving, yet good-hearted brown bear – Baloo. Songs and river dances follow, as picture perfect canopied forest stands above, harboring multi colored flowering plants pleasing the viewer’s eye. After stumbling upon a few more distractions in the forms of a despot Orangutan and a hypnotizing snake, Mowgli manages to reach the human establishment.
But as all happy endings go, the man does need to return home to his real family, despite the lure of the village that can give him the power of the red flower- the fire that destroys all. Mowgli returns to the jungle, but accidentally sets fire to a part of it. Renewed with a new sense of hope after the self-realization that his place is in the jungle, he faces Sher Khan in the ultimate test of his ability to be a Jungle child. His ingenuity and mastery of tools, which was once a threat to the age-old laws that ruled the Jungle are now put to use to douse the raging fire and restore trust in him. The animals come to realize that the man possesses his own unique skills and it would only be fit to accept him as a man.
The movie hit a big win in the way it encapsulated the primal emotions that all creatures that walked the earth have always possessed. The political ideology of this film finds its roots in the fact that man has always tried to disrupt the balance which existed within the untrammeled societies of the earth, appointing himself as its ruler. But it goes on to convey the message that it is however possible for man and animal to coexist without giving up on celebrating their uniqueness, without man subjugating other creatures. The straightforward and simple paradigms used in the movie takes you back to the time when all you needed to survive on the planet was food, shelter, protection and family. Kipling’s book speaks volumes about these ideas and the movie brings them to life, only more picturesque and vivid than the ones we safely stored in the depths of our memories.
So much for calorie loaded feasts , occasionally followed by whimsically loud parades filled with knights, clowns and jugglers, desis never abide by such Thanksgiving traditions. The 4 day weekend was a welcome break from the endless days of work-sleep-back-to-work cycle. The bleak,cold November weather of the San Fransisco Bay area coerced Shashwathi and me to plan an impromptu trip to Honolulu, Hawaii.
When we landed, I braced myself to face the wind and the rain but much to my surprise, the showers were so warm and the wind so soothing that I knew it was going to be a eventful weekend! After an hour of vegetarian food hunting (as much of an oxymoron as it sounds), we finally settled on Subway sandwiches and headed straight for the pill box hike. The roads loop around the several hills that are a marked feature of the island. The Lanikai Pillbox hike is one of the most picturesque hikes of Oahu. The highways and crossroads named in the native Hawaiian tongue which cut across the island seemed a tad more exotic as we drove in the rain amidst the deep green mountains and cliffs that rose above us from all sides. Whenever we found a clearing in the trees, we would crane our necks to catch a glimpse of what Hawaii is best known for – the pristine clear turquoise water.
The hike rises above the beautiful Lanikai Beach. When we first caught a glimpse of the beach from the shore, we were so excited to see it from the top of the hill that we decided to head up the slushy path, rain or shine. Having skipped packing any hiking shoes, I climbed up the slippery, unmarked route , in my sandals all the while grasping at straws, literally. Even with poor visibility, we could see the breathtaking blue expanse of the ocean below below an endless grey sky. Two little islands jut out of the light blue sheet of water in the middle of the ocean, just a mile or two off the coast . The clear pattern of coral reefs , the white sandy beach and the towering palm trees around, all added to the effect of the photograph-like image that stood below us. By the time we woefully climbed down the steep, wet path, the sun shone brightly through the grey skies and we were soaked to the bone, covered in mud.
A conch reverberates and the wind carries the sound out into the ocean. On the shores, I look up at the torches that spit fire out as the flames dance to the rhythm of the wind against the backdrop of the fiery red sky and the dark silhouettes of the palm trees that stood like giants guarding the entrance to the village. The calm golden water reflects the setting sun as I sit facing the ocean observing the torch-lighting ritual .A man clad in a straw skirt skitters from one torch to another. Women stand above me, their bright colored skirts and floral head gear perfectly in place as they prepare for the Luau – a ceremonial feast.
More men in straw coloured skirts gather outside the brown thatched roof huts. Blood red and sunshine yellow flowers stuck their heads out of the ground, dotting the edges of the mud walls. I caught glimpses of the inside through the crowd of men. The almost delicate earthen walls of the tiny room hosted a variety of pots, dangling by hooks. Cherry pink satin drapes hang crookedly across the windows, occasionally revealing a tear. The floor was crowded with dishes, baskets and other odds and ends. Everthing a family owned was contained in this 20 sq foot room. The glimpse I got of the inside somewhat belied the happiness that shone on their faces that evening. Ringing laughter and native hawaiian chatter blend and float up, forming a background chorus to the cluster of local singers and drummers that tune their instruments. The night air is filled with the smells of the village as pigs roasted on spits and in owes dug into the earth. Ana’aina, as the feast was called was in celebration of a victory at war.
Suddenly, a man appears in the clearing, armed with a wicks, the ends lit up by fire. He twirls the baton to the beats of the drums which are now growing louder, twisting and turning his body with the movements of the fire. He swirls the batons so fast that it forms a constant circle of fire around him. He then twitches and swirls it over his head and under him, and throws them up in the air juggling them, only to catch them deftly as I hold my breath. The women begin to dance , swaying to the tune of the singers who have now picked up a song.Luau, which I realise is a complex art form, where the varied hand motions are used to represent the words in a song or chant. The movements signify aspects of nature, such as the swaying of a tree in the breeze or a wave in the ocean, or a feeling or emotion, such as fondness or yearning. Foot and hip movements add to the charm of this ancient polynesian art form.
The feast was prepared in celebration of the glorious victory of the warriors of the village, men who had found the strength to kill, to fight to victory. The singers who had begun with a joyful melody now picked up their pace and the dancers swerved and moved fervently in frenzy to match the rhythm. Their animated expressions and hand gestures suggested danger and fear, as the men begin to put on a show of fight. Equally expressive, they seemed lost in a spell as they articulated beautifully the highs and lows of the war and the tremendous victory over the enemy tribe. The women were now chanting a happier, soothing song as the men and women united to express the final act of a safe homecoming.
The whole beach became alive with the sounds of the music, periodic swirls of green, pink and red skirts and the burning fires . Even the waves that kissed the shore seem to applaud them as the sun set over Kapolei and I was transported back to the present. The party erupted into applause as the performers beamed and the host for the evening thanked us.
The pale green building 8-storey building stood alone amidst the chaos. The busy street bustled with cars and buses which spewed toxic fumes every minute and coated the building with a thin layer of dust. This is where I spent four years of my life, parts of which are truly memorable.
Humans can never outrun a horse, a cheetah or even a greyhound. That’s a well-established fact. A lesser known fact is that on an extremely hot day, the human body is built to run long distances faster than any animal on the planet. We regulate our temperature via sweating, and sweating helps to maintain a consistent, fast pace over long periods of time without risking heat exhaustion. With appropriate training, anybody in good health can run a full marathon. And mine was about to begin in under 2 hours at Morgan Hill, California.
I was asked the ‘why’ question a few times. Why was I doing this? Why did I spend my weekends training, running 20 miles under the blazing sun in the 95F heat? Running with a bunch of professional runners so passionate about the sport can be a great motivator. But I was running with ordinary people like me, and this made it better as I could relate to them on so many levels. So did I do it to raise money? Did I do it to prove something to the world? Did I do it for fitness? Let’s go with fitness for now. It’s always a convincing reason, a safe bet.
When I reached the race venue, I thanked my carpool buddies and headed to the start line. I met a couple of Team Asha runners. I wanted a partner to run with but didn’t find one. It was just as well. I started to run anyway. The Morgan Hill Marathon was a quiet one. Running through the lush green forests and hills, passing a lake or two on the way, being alone with your thoughts amidst the desolate scenery were some of the highlights.
Mile 1-5 was a bit of a challenge. Running uphill can be pretty taxing, especially for someone who had decided to try her luck by skipping the past week’s runs! At mile 5, my only thought was – “where is the water-stop!!”
By mile 8, the runners were haphazardly dispersed on the course. Running alone felt good, the peace and the quiet. At mile 10, the pain in my thigh I had been experiencing for a few weeks returned. I didn’t want the setback to cause me to drop out. A runner passing by I had never met before came up to me and said: “keep moving”. The true spirit of a marathon is most evident in the goodwill of strangers- fellow runners who push you through the hard miles, volunteers who put in hours of planning, organizing and figuring out the logistics and spectators, who take the time to line up by the side of the road to cheer the runners.
Mile 13 was a significant crossroad. You could decide to take the left path and finish the half marathon strong, or decide to trudge along the right path for another 13.2 miles. Mile 18 seemed to go on forever. When I finally saw the 19-mile mark, I was almost ready to dance with joy! Taking in nutrition at regular intervals helped. We had to loop back the last 4 miles and I already got my first glimpse of runners who were triumphantly running towards the finish line. All I wanted was to finish, with a smile on my face. No, I take that back. All I wanted to do was lie down by the side of the road.
After what seemed to me like 1000 miles from mile 20, I saw the happiest sight of the day- Mile 23. My mind was conjuring up various images of the 6am training runs. My coaches’ positive words and fellow runners crossed my mind. Trying to draw some inspiration from it all, I realized how exhausted I was. This was my first 23rd mile. This was a distance that was completely new to my body (as we only trained up to 22 miles). When the runners’ high starts to wear off and the pace starts to drop, it’s easy to be overcome with a general feeling of helplessness.
I tried to maintain a good form and fight the exhaustion and trudged on. An Asha volunteer ran with me the last mile. But when I finally saw the finish line, I was unprepared to believe that this was indeed the finish line. There, I saw a lady jumping up and down with medals in her hand, flailing her arms wildly. I vaguely remember thinking this would have been funny at a different time, in a different place. I didn’t want to limp past the finish line. I summoned up all of what was left of my strength and ran as fast as I could. The lady then flung a medal over my head, someone shook my hand and someone else clicked my picture. And then, it was over.
On an average a runner’s feet pound on the ground 55,334 times during a full marathon. A lot of runners ‘hit the wall’- as it is termed- on the home stretch when their legs feel like jelly and every cell in their body is ready to give up. At this point, running defies all logic. Their minds begin to function poorly just like their muscles, and they lose the power to fight, to reason, to convince themselves that they need to continue . So why did I do it? Why would anybody want to do it?
Long distance runner Emil Zatopek said “If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon”. During training, I met a mom of three who ran 13 miles every weekend. She aptly put into words what I wanted to take back from my experience – “You can deal with life if you can deal with running. You can deal with the pain if you can take the pain that comes with running”.
Over a 1000 marathons are held around the world each year and thousands of men and women run them. It isn’t an extraordinary feat to be a marathoner, in terms of what your marathon means to the rest of the world. But it is in terms of the enormity of the personal challenge. Each day you train and each day you beat the previous day’s mileage record, you experience a small sense of pride. This motivates you to do greater things. On days when you don’t know if you can pass an exam, get through an interview or run a marathon, you will always remember that you once did. “Out on the roads”, said Dr George Sheehan, “there is self-discovery and the persons we are destined to be.”