Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Hubli Passenger goes to tango with Pedong Express

A visit to the hills in the north east has been our family dream for many years so when Roshni Rai of Bangalore Ultra 75K fame and henceforth referred as the Pedong Express called for support for her 65K run more than two months back, I had my entire family’s support for my volunteering to run the entire distance with her. Between then and the actual run-date, the clash of dates of my daughter’s return from college meant I was to Ekla Chalo to keep pace with the Pedong Express.

I saw an opportunity in this, why could I not use the trip to test out Montek Singh’s Poverty line of Rs. 35/- per person per day (or has it been reduced to Rs. 28/-, this is the only price which comes down in this Aam Aadmi’s Raaj!). I started collecting dry ration recipes from different regions both for economy and for independence from Railway catering on board and in stations. After a little bit of research supported by my wife through her network of friends I settled for the dry ration of;
 1. Jola Roti (dried Jowar rotis shelf life 6 months)
 2. Avalakki (Pounded rice or Poha)
 3. Sattu ka Atta (2-minute Maggi variety made of powdered roasted Bengal grams)
 4. Home made cakes (qualifies neither on economy nor shelf life but wife’s item, Priceless!)
 5. Groundnuts (raw ones roasted in Microwave and unsalted)
 6. Jaggery (shavings for easy miscibility)
 7. Salt
8. Onions
I will come to why I am not pricing them sometime later during the course of this narrative.

Since my family was not accompanying me, the preparations were on low key as I like to postpone things till the very end. I now have a noble intention in this also, Biscuit’s (oh yeah, he is my four year old Labrador to the uninitiated) happiness. Biscuit gets worked up as soon as packing starts. I kept up with my daily quota of 30K run and the question was should I postpone the Sunday 42.2K to Saturday. To make myself more aerodynamic, I decided to get a very close haircut (Economy too, Gandhi cut is the cheapest). My barber is called Srinivas, I consider hair cut there as the ceremonial tonsure to Lord Venkateswara (Srinivasa is one of the many names of the Lord). I also visited the Vittala temple on Friday the 27th April evening. On the Saturday morning run looking to the work of packing and Bank left, I decided to curtail my run to 30K, I also took some time praying at the Masjid enroute. Finally, at 11:15AM I picked my bags with my running gear (Khadi top and the regular sports shorts), Charkha, food stuff and lots of books to keep me company on the train. The real joy of barefoot is no shoes to lug and that gives so much space in the bag and so much peace of mind. I said my farewell to Biscuit with a heavy heart, he would be okay this time as my daughter will come on 1st May and my wife would be there all along. I felt a little sorry for leaving my wife to take care of Biscuit without Mathew (our man Friday who adores Biscuit).

True to my Gandhian form I was traveling Sleeper class. My long journey from Hubli to New Jalpaiguri (NJP, the nearest railhead to the race start) was to take me from April 28th Noon to Monday the April 30th night at 9:30 PM if all went well. The first train was to take me to Vijayawada at 3 AM in the morning next day. The company on the train took long in opening up and then there was language issue with bulk of the crowd chattering away in Telugu (destination Vijayawada) and Kannada. The children on the opposite berth got friendly. A middle aged man sitting opposite to me after having impressed people in the bay with his knowledge of politics decided to turn his attention to me. I was getting whatever I could despite the language barrier amidst my attempt at cracking the 4 star Sudoku of HINDU. He asked my native place and being told Tamilnadu, wanted to know why I am going in the reverse direction. I told him I am off to NJP, he shook his head. When the purpose of running 65K with my runner friend was disclosed, he shook his head resignedly and surely thought me to be loose in my top-storey. He looked at his cohorts and seemed to say ‘what the world is coming to’. At the next stop the coach was overtaken by a large number of passengers who settled wherever they could find space. No one was complaining. The TTE came checked the tickets of newcomers and finding that they all had a waitlisted ticket, he walked away. Probably, a realization has come that capacity issue has to be solved this way only! One old lady and a young girl came cleaning the floor of the coach and got a few coins for their labour. The party was complete with a few trans-genders muscling the way and demanding a price for parading the abnormal with impunity. I was spared the embarrassment. I lunched on the cakes and Banana going by their short shelf life. The familiar stop of Hospet (where we alight for visiting the ruins of Hampi) crossed. The weather got better as the evening progressed. I made a few calls to my wife and assured her that I was well fed and was among friends. I was stingy with calls not for the bill but the precious battery time. I had an early dinner of crushed Jola roti, Avalakki and jaggery mixed with water. It was quite tasty and filling. I was feeling proud of my choice of provision. I took the upper berth and unchallenged for some time I slept early in preparation for 3 AM rise.

The train reached Vijayawada on time. Found the rest house easily. The challenge was to locate the caretaker from among the jumble of 5-6 men sleeping in the verandah of the rest house. I got lucky the second time and the first man didn’t complain too much. I set the hot water going for green tea and put my clothes to wash (if you want to travel light, you need to wash clothes regularly!). Had a nice cold water bath and sat down to a spinning session with green tea. I knew my wife would be up early for receiving guests who were coming for AIEEE exams that day. I talked to her on railway phone. I finished the banana and not wanting to wet my running gear, I decided against a run and settled for a short power nap. I woke up to the alarm at 7AM and after a hurried breakfast of Jola roti started for the Amravati temple visit after hanging out the washed clothes to dry. I had till 1PM (my train to NJP was to leave at 1:20 PM) to visit the local Kanakadurga temple and the Amravati temple. I decided to first crack the distant temple. I took a bus to the Central Bus stand for catching a bus to Amravati. The Jawahar Lal Nehru bus stand was bustling with activity and the language barrier both spoken and written put me in a spot. All signs were in local language. I managed to find out the platform after some dumb charades at the Enquiry counter. Chauvinism for mother tongue is understandable but, at least for places of tourist importance, multi-lingual signs should be placed. I waited for the bus from 7:45 AM to 8:30 AM. The board in Telugu (which my neighbour interpreted for me) showed a bus due every half hour. I filled up my kamandalam (empty Gatorade bottle from SCMM-2012 which is now my water bottle) from a nearby water cooler. The water point was well maintained and patronized by all classes of passengers. Not much of empty PET bottles litter in the area! The bus arrived at 8:45 AM and I got a window seat. The conductor gave me a Rs. 30/- ticket. The bus went through narrow lanes and the driver could put Schumacher to shame. Gradually we crossed the city and lush fields replaced the crowded houses on either side of the road. The weather was very muggy and it was begging to rain. Interestingly, the crops on either side were chilli (surely a hotter one compared to his cousin from Bydagi near my place) and cotton (much taller plant than the Bt cotton near Hubli). Surely a case of two lands of cotton and chilli separated at birth. In addition I for the first time saw drumsticks being grown in a farm. I used to think they grow a tree at random. It would be interesting to find out the Hb% of the residents of these parts (drumstick is very rich in Iron). Fruit plantations of Guava and Plantain completed the picture. It was harvest time and ladies and young girls were picking chillis. I also spotted a man stuffing chillis into a jute bag by jumping into it with his bare feet with two people holding the bag. I reached the temple stop at 10:30 AM. I needed to rush back after darshan so as not to miss my train. The main deity is a pillar with Lord Shiva’s face on the pillar (interesting as Shiva temple only have lingas). The four corners have a Shiva linga, I quickly prayed and after three mandatory circumambulations and applying some ash rushed back to collect my slippers deposited at the entrance. The teenager at the counter wanted Rs. 2/-, I offered him a Rs. 5/- note which he refused to take. He also refused a ten rupee note and wanted me to get change. I asked him to keep the Rs. 5/- which also he refused. When he started arguing I walked off. I was a little worried about the divine retribution; you are not supposed to take anything away from a Shiva temple, does this extend to the chappal counter? Immediately on coming out I got an empty bus for Vijayawada. The lady conductor was very chatty with all passengers. The ticket fare was only Rs. 28/-. Was this Lord Shiva’s way of getting me to repay my debt to the arrogant shoe stand guy? I asked the conductor about her next trip to Amravati, she said 4PM after lunch break. I was not confident of explaining to her the job of handing over Rs. 2/- either herself or through some devotee in next trip. Guilty of misappropriation! The weather had become very pleasant and there were light showers also. I reached the main bus stand at 12:15. found out about the other temple (Kanakdurga), it was a little walk from the Bus-stand, did not want to risk missing the train. I took a bus to station Rs. 4 and 10 minutes hence I was walking into Vijayawada station concourse. I debated whether to get Janata Khana for lunch on the way to rest-house or scout for food after winding up from the rest house. I went to the room and quickly packed and after settling accounts with the caretaker I was on the way to the station, time 1 PM. Oh yes, I almost forgot, the rest-house room had a charter of services even laying down the number of times the dustbin would be cleared from the room. It was a good model for out-sourcing work. Only there was no dustbin in the room.
I reached the station PF 1 in a hurry and headed for the IRCTC outlet for my Janatha Khana. Biryani was being loudly purveyed by the staff. I went and asked for my Janatha Khana(JK) (the humble JK was displayed in the same sized font below the mighty Biryanis). I was disregarded, I was made of sterner stuff, I persisted for my JK. He mumbled its not there, I asked for the complaint book. There was no other customer so I didn’t feel guilty about carrying on, the train scheduled at 13:20 was not being announced. I think I will have enough time to solve this JK issue. The person rang up on his mobile, he said he was talking to the Manager. After a few tries he said he is not able to get him. I told him I don’t want the Manager, I want JK or the complaint book. Two three workers held a mid-pitch conference and decided to give me the Complaint book. I did not have a pen, I asked him for one. He looked at me as if I was asking for his kidney (not my joke, borrowed from 3-idiots movie!). He told me to go and get one myself. I went out, still no sign of my train on the CCTV. I saw the ASM at the platform, I introduced myself and asked for his pen, one moment I thought if he would ask for my identification, he relented and taking me at my face value (despite my khadi kurta-payajama) gave me the pen. I returned brandishing it, the Complaint book hanging from the wall was brought down and given to me. To my dismay (and to Munnabhai’s amusement, I am a Hirani fan!) the complaint was to be written in 4 copies, there was no carbon. I persisted and wrote painstakingly all they would want to know about me, my travel particulars to residence address to my grievance. The ASM came searching for his pen and found me writing my thesis for JK. I recorded the complaint and added missing pen, carbon to boot.  With no one to acknowledge the complaint, I took my copy and left. The ASM agreed that they deserved to be complained about and the staff also distanced themselves from the management saying that they were not being given enough JK to sell. I went out and found a fruit seller selling Guavas. I bought 2 jumbo ones for Rs. 10/- This would have to do for lunch. My train was being announced on PF 6, I rushed to the Foot-over Bridge. The Escalator was lying in disuse.  

The train arrived to welcome drizzle. I reached my bay to find a big group having community lunch. I politely asked them if I could join the party, got cold stares. I sat down uninvited and presented my credentials as the occupant of the middle berth. I looked around to find a place to park my humble belongings. My charkha case got suspicious stares (it looks like the case in which Kamalhassan carries the gun to assassinate the Mahatma in the movie ‘Hey Ram’), I did not explain (not yet formally introduced and accepted). I munched on the Guavas and tried to stem the pouring sweat with my handkerchief. The interior of the coach did not have a charger (too much to expect!) and no place to park my kamandalam. Actually the inside of a coach looks like a convicts cell with no accessories to prevent suicide attempt, the barred window completed the picture. The humidity was making the inmates irritable. The train moved, the child with the lady at the window seat gave a welcoming smile. Within half an hour and after negotiating the outskirts of Vijayawada, rain gods delivered unabashedly. The weather was excellent. The lady at the window seat offered that she was cursing not having got the AC accommodation and was now thankful for the improved weather. I could not have agreed more, my Gandhian spirit having almost wilted under the combined assault of fruit diet and the inclement weather. The luncheon party mates were actually a family of husband, wife and a child (they called him Ceemon, I am writing as I heard, more about him later!). The other participants in the orgy were friends and relatives from other compartments. Two of them reached the upper berth and the rest left to digest the heavy ingestion. The other upper berth was occupied by a strong silent army-man. I asked the lady with the child if we could put the middle berth up, she said she was not sleepy. I rephrased my question that I would like to rest if it was okay with her and she concurred. I tried to befriend my co-passengers starting with the kids, I could not dream of traveling till next day night 09:30PM like this. The co-passengers were all going till NJP; the army man was going further to Guwahati. I had an early dinner of Sattu and went to sleep. The youngster wanted his mother to take my middle berth, I offered, but she preferred her lower berth. Woke up to a very early sunrise, the kids were already up and were making a racket. The train stopped at Balasore ( I found from the Hindi translation that this was actually the Britisher’s murder of Baleshwar), I wished somebody agitated to set right this colonial atrocity. The lady at the window seat (she I came to know by overhearing her conversation with other co-passengers was a, Administrative officer with Jawahar Nehru Vidyalaya at some place beyond NJP) was telling the story of the intruder who had occupied the space between the two berths on the floor. She was regretting not having taken up on my offer of the middle berth. She said she had once lost her hand bag to one such intruder in one of her previous journeys. I checked my baggage and found them intact! Then started a stream of Indian breakfast offered by local vendors starting with boiled eggs, Ghugni an you name it and they had it. The Pantry with its cutlets and omelets was a poor second. Shubh, the JNV administrator’s son was surviving on chips and Ceemon (still not got his name!) was having a ball with all eatables on offer starting with biscuits soaked in tea. JNV administrator’s husband was working with a private firm in Hyderabad and she was going back to her school after a brief vacation, the Son was studying at her school. The morning entertainment was completed with a visit from a bunch of trans-genders who fleeced my neighbour (Cemmon’s father). I and the strong silent armyman were spared the blushes. The train next stopped at Kharagpur where I filled up my kamandalam. My co-passengers were giving good business to bottled water sellers. A salesman wearing his Sunday best was selling religious literature. I was tempted and Ceemon beat me to it. He bought two comics and I decided to read it after he finished it. I got it very soon after he had seen the pictures. The comic was very well written and illustrations and quality of paper was worth the ten bucks. I came to know that one Simon helped Jesus carry his cross. I asked Ceemon’s father how he spelt his son’s name, I was told he was Simon. I told the Simon of the train who was beating his father into buying him Singharas (the eastern name for the Samosas) of his lineage. He was not impressed, his parents were. I completed the other comic also. My mobile was out of coverage area and very low on battery, I was afraid if my boss needed any help for his important meeting. The train chugged into Howrah at 12:30 a full one hour late. I got cell coverage and spoke to my boss who had been frantically trying to get me. I spoke to my colleague whose guest I would be on the way back. I spoke to Roshni Rai who was organizing the Group run from Siliguri to Pedong the next day. I spoke to my colleague at NJP and asked him to keep some bananas and milk for my dinner at the rest house and not bother to come and meet me. I found the start point and time and told her that I would meet them at the start point the next day. I had to practice Rugby to get one kamandalam of water from the overcrowded water spout. I gave unsolicited gyan on discipline to fellow combatants after having got my kamandalam filled with the ambrosia. I saw that the escalator was not in use. Howrah station being a terminus, the purpose of the escalator was not clear to me. My knowledge of this part is very limited with this being my trip after almost 23 years. I got 3 guavas for Rs. 10/- here. People brought Fish meals and the couple (the lady was returning after surgery from Hyderabad for Gall stones) on the side berth was polishing off large mounds of rice with relish. Another couple on the side berth in the next bay was feeding a young child fish and rice which it was consuming with relish (the rice particles were so tough to look at I was thinking how fussy we are in feeding our kids, the child had had milk from the tea vendor in his feeding bottle ). We were thankful for the train having left the boiling cauldron called Howrah. Now my co-passengers, Simon’s parents, were on home territory and were projecting the likely arrival time at NJP with the husband of the Gall bladder operatee. The stream of vendors continued, now we were being offered, saris, bedsheets and can you beat it ‘Gold chain’ (who says only Vijaynagar empire days had precious stones transacted on the street). An interesting way of auctioning bedsheets was displayed by one salesman. He after announcing the reserve price, would let passengers bid for the product, if the item did not cross the reserve price, the highest bidder got some small item like a pen or key chain. He was not able to sell much, but, he gave us good entertainment and I found a good candidate for conducting our Railway auctions. The greenery on either side made for good journey and I was enjoying my re-read of Louis Fischer’s book on Gandhi. The train reached NJP a full 2 hours late at 11:30 PM. I had offered the co-passengers to come and stay in my rest-house for the night if they could not find anything decent at that time of the night. I lost them in the crowd after I got down. The station was very big and a huge tract of land is there between the PF 1 where our train came and where the rest-house was located. I lugged my luggage and reached the rest house. There was no milk and no banana. I put my mobile to the charging point which came to life after receiving life saving fluids for about half an hour. The number of missed calls and messages were staggering. I had to prioritise, I woke up Roshni and confirmed arrival and that I would meet her at the start point (Coronation Bridge or Bagh pool as they called it) at 5 AM the next day. The railway phone was not able to access my home, I spoke to my daughter (she was on train returning home after exams and she had had a bad last paper) and wife and told them of my safe arrival. My brother’s (my runner Doctor brother from Chandigarh) calls would have to wait; you just can’t wake up a Doctor at midnight without sufficient provocation! I set the hot water for green tea and hot water in the bath room going. I washed the clothes and had a long bath. I could not get sleep till 2AM, interestingly, the History channel was showing a program on trans-genders. I found it educative. I would see the trans-genders on the way back differently. I set the alarm for 03:30AM and went to catch some rest.
I woke up groggily at 0330AM and spun more out of habit then anything else. I had a hurried meal of Jola roti and had I hydrated with green tea. I packed change of clothes in my SCMM bag and was out of the rest house at 4 AM. I saw a young boy and told him to lock the door. I waited for 15 minutes for the vehicle to come. Roshni called me that they were ready at the atrt point and when I told her I was yet to start, she offered to come and pick me up. I declined the offer and panicked when I came to know the distance to the start point was about 30KM. I kept trying my colleague’s number, there was no response. I was at my wit’s end and did not know what to do. I went to the auto stand, the demand was Rs. 500/-. I again rung my colleague and a sleepy lady picked up, even at the risk of facing her Kolaveri, I requested her to wake up my colleague. She told me she was his wife and that he sleeps after taking medicines for sleep and could not be woken up (Modern day Kumbhakaran, I told her my state was like Ravana’s and he should be woken up). He then set things moving and promised me the vehicle soon. A Gypsy came to the rest-house at 04:40 AM. In our effusive welcome, the driver switched off the engine. It refused to start after I got in, the driver and an attendant (A fellow Tamilian from Madurai who had no respect for the locals sense of punctuality) tried all their tricks to coax the vehicle to start. Mr Pandey, a TIA(Travelling Inspector of Accounts) who was to help me was standing wringing his hands. I asked him to join me in trying to push start the vehicle. It was a good warm-up for me but, the vehicle refused to start. I asked the TIA if he could manage some 2-wheeler. He went to pick some lock from vehicles of his colleagues who park at the station before going off to out-station duty. The driver’s attendant rang up the garage (presumably the vehicle had just been to the garage for receiving the FA&CAO) for a substitute vehicle. The driver was offered a Pulsar. I asked him to go and get it. Pandey returned on a bike only to tell me that it was low on Petrol and the bunks do not open before 6 in this part of the world. The driver meanwhile after negotiating the railway gate reached at 04:45 with a Pulsar. Meanwhile Roshni was panicking. I asked her and Srinivas to start and that I would join them enroute, she promised to ask her cousin Samir to wait at the start point for me. Pandey then rode like Schumacher and got me to the start point at 05:20, I thanked him profusely and promised to call him on my return. I got on Samir’s vehicle and reached Roshni and Srinivasan Ramanujam (Srini for short henceforth) at KM 4. In my excitement I was to have a cold start and more seriously with lack of oxygen. I could not have had a worse start and it was to be a hill run (Roshni had told me we start at 400 ft above MSL and reach 6000ft above MSL at its highest point). To top it all I had taken on to run barefoot, God save the Mahatma’s follower!
I set off (time was 05:30by Srinis watch) after getting introduced to Srini and after wishing Roshni well. My mind was on how to make up for the 4K lost. Roshni told me I could go further 2K after reaching the finish point and come back. I had other plans, I never was one to carry arrears to the last semester. After about 500 meters finding me a little faster, Roshni asked me to go ahead and that Srini would give her company. I selfishly took off more to try and make up for the lost 4K. The road was kind on my sole and scenery was breathtaking. I was concerning myself with where my foot was landing and was not able to do justice to the scenery. Kripasagar and Manoj Haveri ( a place near Hubli, should find out from him) were to start from Teesta river and run the marathon distance to Roshni’s house in Pedong. The Sun was already more than 30 minutes old and was looking to renew our old Hubli rivalry. I got out my handkerchief and tied it around my neck to protect it from sun burns. The Samir’s car, ambulance kept coming to me one after the other offering refreshments. I told them I would take my break after 90 minutes of run. I hadn’t broken a sweat, thanks to the cool breeze. Actually, I was waiting for tea-leaves to finish in my mouth before taking any solids. My kamandalam was 3 quarters full. A young runner Puran Rai (hope I remember his name correctly) joined me and my spirit lifted. He was a 3rd year History student and he told me that he ran the SCMM HM alongwith the team of Gorkha runners in 2 hour 15 minutes. He was keeping a steady banter and pace and we ate up kilometers at a fair clip, the road was kind on my sole. We broke for banana break at Teesta river bridge (13K I think!). I asked Samir is the Police patrol vehicle could turn around and let me get back 2K to make up for my lost 4K. He consulted the Patrol vehicle and told me it would create a traffic problem. I took a few snaps, had a banana, fruit juice laced bottle of water and filled up my kamandalam. Puran got into the support vehicle to follow me. After a few more Kilometers and aborted attempts by my wife and bother to contact me on my mobile, I put in a few more kilometers, I crossed a few patches of bad roads with lot of pebbles. I had to walk most of it. The police patrol asked me if I could wait for Roshni and Srini to come so that we can all go together. I asked Samir to escort me 2K back so that I can make up the backlog and catch up with them. Puran joined me, we could not have picked a worse point for doing the extra 4K. The slope was very steep and a lot of pebbly patches. We crossed Roshni and Srini half a kilometer away from my 2K mark. I still had to make up 1K to catch them on the way back. Roshni was hobbling in pain, I told her a few stretching exercises and lumbered on. It took a lot of effort to climb back and catch up with Roshni and Srini. Roshni asked me if I had tried the mountain cucumber. I told her they looked very inviting. We had liberally salt laced cucumber. I only prayed I could hold the solids. The vendor also gave a liberal helping of salt to my kamandalam. I told Roshni that we believe that you have to work in the house of the person to repay the debt of salt. I asked the man to keep some dirty dishes to wash on my way back.
I was now feeling good having wiped out the 4K deficit and was happy to run in a group again. I and Roshni ran together and Srini and Puran took the pole position behind the lead police car. There were a lot of curious people who crossed us in their vehicles who commented on my bare feet and asked if we were running a marathon. The crowd was very knowledgeable and cheered us lustily. The vehicle drivers were patient in letting us to occupy one half of the narrow mountain road. Srini fell back and I pushed ahead, I could run at a lower pace, I had to run at my natural speed. The road got worse, reminding me of the first 3K of the stretch on my NH-218. Puran chivalrously tried kicking pebbles out my way with his shoes, I was touched. Worse still, I was informed by Puran that the stretch from here to Kalimpongh (KM 43) was a steady climba dn even 15K thereafter (till 6K from finish) was a steady climb. I seriously worried if I had overdone in the beginning. The climb was not bad even if I had to walk some of the pebbly stretch, but, the pebbles were doing serious damage to my soles. I remember commenting to Roshni if this was their way of welcoming guests and if it was ‘Chinese touture’. Roshni told me it was Gorkha torture and their way of baptism by pebbles. My khadi top and bare feet continued to get curious and alternately appreciative stares from the spectators. The police inspector in the lead vehicle, himself a running enthusiast, was very supportive and he actually set the cheer squad going all along the route. Two riders of the support group used to get down from their mount at every kilometer and gave me a standing ovation. The support and police were fantastic and made the run enjoyable. It reminded me of the Mumbai policemen and crowd minus the commercial trappings. I stopped at the roadside and used the tube of running water to cool my CPU with a cold water bath. I was feeling like the elite runners with the police patrol leading the way for me, if only it had a clock in LED! I was regularly plied with juice laced water and bananas. I told the police vehicle that we could stop 2K before Kalimpongh and wait for Roshni and Srini so that we could enter the town as a group. We were told Kripa and Manoj had gone ahead already. My soles were feeling the heat of the sun and I was concerned about how I would be able to do the balance run. I asked the sister in the ambulance if she could truss my feet in crepe bandage so as to give protection to my soles (The nurse was a missionary and I rmember having told Srini that my Soul was fine I was only getting balm for my soles!). Srini’s engineering mind was not impressed of the efficacy of my own Gandhian Vibram. His curse or God not wanting me to cheat on bare foot running; one of the bandages came off. The clip on the other foot was also hobbling my back of the heels. I took off the bandages and gave it back, thankfully, the Sun god took leave of us and the weather got pleasant. Mala and other volunteers were very supportive and cheering of this old man’s effort.
We entered to a hero’s welcome in Kalimpongh. Roshni addressed an impromptu press conference. The residents put scarves around our neck to greet us (Its called Khadda locally). I found it warm around my neck (the weather had turned real cold with chill winds and a light drizzle. We completed the next 1K in a breeze intoxicated with the crowd support. Roshni was a local heroine, people were cheering from roof tops and we felt like celebrities and basked in reflected glory.
I again broke off and put in some gap with Roshni and Srini. Three young kids cheered me and wanted me to stop to talk to them. I asked them to join me and that we could talk while running. I had a pleasant company for next few 100 meters, they promised to find me on face book and I took a snap of theirs before bidding them adieu! The other noteworthy cheering squad was an old couple whose snap I took much to their astonishment. Finally I reached the crest, thankful for the downhill. If I was starting to celebrate, I did not know what was coming!
The quality of the road seriously deteriorated and the slope was very steep. Down hill you needed to pant your foot firmly and with pebbles it was extremely painful. I was seriously contemplating taking my slippers from Samir’s car to protect my soles. Even walking was painful. I may have to walk to balance most part of 6K. I resisted the urge and with Puran’s support and volunteers and Police inspector’s continuous cheering, completed the down hill stretch to Pedong with more walk than run. I started looking back to find if Srini and Roshni in their shodden feet would come cruising downhill. Inside Pedong town, Kripa ( we were to be introduced later) waved from a car, Manoj joined me for the last 1K. I somehow did not want to finish the run walking. I dug deep into my reserves and ran the last 1K with manoj to lusty cheers from the crowd. Roshni’s mother welcomed us with a wide smile and a silk khadda. We went into the reception area, I had taken 10 hours and 2 minutes after adjusting for the 28 minute late start. I had taken almost one and half hour for the downhill stretch. Uphill and down hill are relative and are not absolute terms. As in runs so in life we should seek level playing field, neither uphill nor down hill. I started shivering uncontrollably. I waited and greeted Srini and then Roshni chugged into her mother’s waiting arms. I asked her mother to garland her with the khadi garland I had brought for her (actually I decided on the spot to take one of from what was meant for Gandhi at South Africa). The expression and photo thereof is priceless.
After a nice hot water bath we attacked the food with gusto. The simple meal of Rice, Dal and vegetable was like ambrosia and we had ample proportions. The entire extended family of Roshni and her friends helped feed the ravenous runners. Shri A K Rai (Sir, as Roshni calls him) held impromptu video interviews of all of us. I was really feeling a celebrity. Roshni’s mother started calling me Gandhiji, I was honoured!. A touching felicitation and thanksgiving celebration was held where her friends spoke. I could not follow the language but the tone was entirely worshipful. Roshni’s cute niece was the darling of the crowd. All the runners were given momento. It was already 5 PM, I had no chance of reaching my rest-house in the rain. I may have to avail Roshni’s offer of stay in her guest-house despite the steep bill it would entail ( Ars. 1000/- per night) for the Gandhian. Kripa, Srini, Manoj decided that we should contribute for the run, I concurred. The organizers told us that we could make up the shortfall, Rs, 12,500/- (that would put me poorer by Rs. 2,500/-). Now you know why I did not price my dry rations at the beginning of this blog. My experiment to test Montek’s poverty line had died an unceremonious death. After a small nap we were all woken to a hot cup of tea (milk for Gandhi). In the evening we were offered Drogba (hope I got it right!) from a bamboo cup to relax our tired limbs( the native beer). I had to summon all my Gandhian resolve to stay away. The bull session among runners and how the others cannot understand the runner’s mind was the highlight of the evening session. There being no electricity, the hurricane lamp added to the romantic environment. The discussion about smoking and how Kripa’s uncle succumbed to the Nicotines charms made me somber. We had an early dinner (Roshni’s mother would have been surprised at our Rakshasa appetite) and went to bed promising to meet at 9 AM for breakfast.
The early sunrise saw that we all got up early the last being 5 AM. After breakfast we all decided to go to the hill cross, the trip was memorable with Srini ably taking the wheel and Ladipma giving us company. We returned and dropped Kripa to the resthouse and continued to go the Kalimpongh for Srini’s purchase and dropping me off for NJP. We visited a chrch and a Budhist Gumpha on the way to Kalimpongh. Srini is an expert driver on hill roads. We got to meet Mr. Ganesh Mani Pradhan one of many Roshni’s uncle’s there. He is a professional plant breeder and he and his wife gave us a warm welcome. His passion (he took my word madness for our passions) for the plant breeding was infectious and his interest in our running was flattering. Wish I had some more time to spend with him. I must take his invitation for a return visit next year. We had a good lunch of Thukpa and Momos at a pure vegetarian restaurant (Mala joined us there from her office) (I must take my wife there next time!). After unsuccessful attempts at buying bamboo cup (I would have used it for my green tea) and a Tibetan prayer bell, I was dropped at the bus stand. I got a front window seat in the Tata Sumo on my return trip and relived my return trip, my soles wincing at particularly pebbly stretches. I met the TIA, Mr. Pandey near Sevak temple (Kali temple, our rendevous) after the coronation bridge. I visited the Kali temple and after finding the Budhist Gumpha locked reached the rest house at 8 PM well in time for my train at 09:15PM. I had an interesting conversation with Pandey about how to quit smoking. He has promised to quit smoking and I used the instance of Kripa’s uncle which was fresh in my mind to motivate him. After thanking him profusely for all the help I set him off to go home to his family. I found bananas of the previous night and a hot cup of milk waiting for me. I caught my train comfortably and thus fell the curtains on the GFLR (Group Friendly Long Run Pedong-2012). You will agree 65K, barefoot at 10hours 2 minutes do not do justice to the experience. My return trip saga later!

For one the story was becoming too long and I was well past bedtime, I cut the story yesterday. To do justice to the trip I must reach where I started from. The return journey was as eventful as the onward and I had Biscuit and family waiting for my return eagerly…
The train journey from New Jalpaiguri (NJP) to Sealdah was uneventful. The Bengali gentleman on the opposite berth was not only delaying my going to sleep but was also tempting me while eating a huge dinner. All the while the old lady whose seat he had usurped was keeping me from hitting the sack. A Gujju family was having the run of the coach as if they didn’t want their vacation to end. After the TTE’s visit and lights out it was past 11 PM. I had a dreamless sleep and woke up at 7AM to my alarm. The knowledgeable in the coach informed that the train was late. I reached Sealdah at 7:45 AM a full hour late and my friend and batch mate Pandayji had already called me thrice. He was afraid I would get lost in the station. I did not have much trouble locating his car and having informed my wife of safe arrival, I settled in the back seat to see the land of Maa, Maati and Manush unfold. The tram-tracks made me go back in time, I had last visited this city almost 23 years back as a probationer. The roads looked wider and the footpaths were clear. The city of joy still had some hand rickshaw pullers who were running barefoot. The roads were very smooth and my soles itched for a run. After going through many twists and turns and roads getting narrower, I was in front of a house with a beaming Pandayji at the gate to receive me. He hadn’t changed one bit and gave me a bear hug. His Pomerarian (full name Jewel, 10 year old and Julu to friends) made friends quickly after sniffing me. Biscuit sure has connections! I and Pandayji and Anita Bhabhi compared notes starting from the sumptious lunch we probationers were fed at their house. Then it turned to the state of health and Railway clubs and social life for Railway families staying in own houses. All the while their daughter (she is exactly the age of our service, born on the day we joined at Railway Staff College, Vadodara on 15.02.1988) was sleeping off late night studies. I had a nice long bath and reached the dining table for breakfast. She had laid out a lavish spread and I did justice. She eats late and I am sure she would have had to cook again. The daughter who is studying to be a fashion designer joined us and she showed keen interest in Khadi on being told of my spinning habit. She wanted a demo of spinning and examined the texture of the khadi dress. I offered to send her cloth for a kurta for her. This is my way of getting the younger generation interested in Khadi. She tried her hand at spinning and promised to take it up. Pandayji thrust two tins of K C Das Rasagollas (one at my request and one his contribution) without agreeing to get paid for it. I was finally able to pay for one tin. I reached Pandayji’s office and spent time with our senior and after a cup of green tea and general talk about where Railways were headed, started for station. My bag was not able to digest the gifts collected and one side zip came off.
The train to Bhubaneshwar which was my next stop was to leave at 11:45 AM and I was on the platform at 11:15 AM. The compartment was freshly washed, flooring was wet and the luggage had to go to the upper berth. The paper rack, water bottle holder and more importantly charger point for mobile was there. I had a young boy just out of school going to Vishakapatnam for Karnataka Medical entrance exam and a family of father, mother and daughter on the opposite berths. The girl looked young, and of school/ college going age. They were going to Warangal to reach Karimnagar. It turned out that she was 22 years and married for a year and was going to join her husband who was in IAF. She had a paper slip with the arrival departure time of stations enroute written, which she dutifully took out after every station and informed us of the trains schedule. I took my lunch of last helping of avalakki and Jola roti. The Andhra family had a big helping of Upma and the boy had Puris and dry sabji. The scene outside was green and pleasing to the eye. I was the first to get down at 07:45 PM and was looking forward to meet Mr and Mrs. Natarajan. Mrs. Natarajan, is an author of repute and one who had given me courage to inflict my writings on public at large. People who are affected know whom to blame. I was little poignant also as I had known their dog, Champagne, a golden retriever had passed away almost a year back. On the way State government and Railway employees boarded and got off and the train became like a commuter train. Many rivers hence and after negotiating heavy thunderstorms at Bhadrak and beyond, the train reached Bhubaneshwar half an hour late. My facebook friend and IITian, Hansraj Sharma met me at the station with an acquaintance from my Southern Railway days, Mr. Srinivasan. After a cup of tea, and a nice bath and change of clothes, I bid them bye and started to meet the Natarajan’s in his car. He had just retired two days back and was still in the official quarter. The house had a lot of pencil sketches (one large portrait of Gandhi included) and very tastefully done. The sign of Beware of Dog at the gate told me that Champagne’s successor was home. Mr. Natarajan said they don’t have the courage to face another bereavement or leaving behind (a.k.a Hachiko) after them. The flat they would move into would also not be conducive to a big pet and once a retriever parent always a retriever parent. You could sense the sadness in the couple and hanging in the house palpably. I passed on my sinful acquisition of unpaid K C Das on them. I had planned to give him a garland of spun yarn on his retirement but deep down I wanted to lay it as a wreath on Champagne’s grave. I was only afraid if they would consider me sentimental and laugh at me. They took me to his grave which eas well maintained with fresh flowers, I laid the wreath on his grave and felt fulfilled. Madam Natarajan gave me an autographed book and fed me sweets and buttermilk. I had declined food offer as I had told them of my experiment of dry rations. After a goof one hour interaction and promise to come again with wife to see Puri temple and having invited them to Hubli, I took leave of them.
I came back and had dinner of Sattu and jaggery and slept. The train was at 06:15AM next day, I woke at 04:00 AM and after finishing the cotton in a small spinning session and tea and a long bath, I settled accounts and went to the station. I bought a packet of Parle-G and not finding milk, settled to have biscuits with water for breakfast. My next train Howrah-Vasco which would take me home. The train came an hour late and was very crowded. I somehow managed to put my luggage under the seat and squeezed in. There were a lot of extra passengers who kept floating around avoiding the TTE. My co-passengers kept to themselves and with no child to break the ice, I had to depend on the book Mrs. Natarajan gave me. The seats opposite were of a mother going to drop her to Vasco, the last stop and the girl’s cousin who worked at Dharwad. The girl bought a Ludo/Snake and Ladder board and the cousins got playing. When we entered Andhra, crowds came in like bees and swarmed the entire compartment. The passengers in the next bay called the TTE and created a scene. Most of the stragglers (most of them very well dressed and with Waitlisted tickets went away, maybe, to some other coach). One family of husband, wife and two young daughters dodged the TTE and hung on for dear life. I thought they would get down before night (Vijayawada at 8 PM). Vijaywada came and went and they did not get off. The children won the sympathy of the mother and cousins in the opposite berths and the girls slept one to middle and upper berth. The husband managed in some aisle. The lady was struggling to keep herself awake and hang on to the edge of the seat. I woke up at 1 AM and found her still balancing her on the edge of the seat, the college kid was considerate and accommodative. I felt ashamed, I got down and asked her to have 40 winks while I sat and looked out. After an hour or so, I got a backache and wanted to stretch. The lady was blissfully asleep. The child on top berth opposite my berth woke up crying, I took her and put her next to the mother. Around 5 AM, the train reached Guntakal and the lady got down and said a silent thanks. I got to my berth and settled into a good sleep. When I got up at 8 AM, the train was at Hospet and the family had gone. Lot of daily passengers got on at Hospet and a Father/Son duo virtually captured our seats and asked us to make way. I gave them a serious talk explaining that this was a reserved coach and they are being a nuisance to passenger who had traveled more than 24 hours and had another 8-10 hours to go.  That chastened them up. Rest of the journey was uneventful and I reached Hubli a full one hour late at 10 AM. Thus ended my Pedong visit. A truly enriching experience. Thanks to my organization and a indulgent boss, I have been able to spend time on my passion!

Swami Cool goes Ooh Aah Ouch!

I remember February, 11th, one year back at Auroville, a talk by Barefoot Ted and Anand Anantharaman on barefoot running accelerated my resolve to go barefoot. Even though I had run all the major events this year barefoot, coming home to Auroville where my romance with barefoot running began overwhelmed me. The trail and the stones and exposed roots kept recurring in my dreams and I was skeptical about my decision to go barefoot on this trail.

The journey was the usual but for the ‘Garib rath’ modern version of cattle train of Hitler which transported 78 people in AC comfort albeit a few hours late. The interiors were very plush ,but, my wife had a tough time getting into the middle side berth. A Railway Mechanical engineer’s dream design whose only punishment I can think off is a long journey in his own creation in the side middle berth! My Quarter Master General and motive force (read my wife) and self reached Pondy on Saturday morning. After a longish wait for the retiring room allotment when I met Haang Rai and Rahul on the platform, we moved into a freshly whitewashed, but, completely bare and severe looking retiring room. It would have given complex to the cellular jail room of Port Blair and the Roben Island prison cell of Nelson Mandela. All this was for a princely sum of Rs. 600. My booking in the guest had a check in time of 2 PM and this was a stop gap arrangement. Wannabe Gandhi had to go commercial this time with Railway higher ups deciding to land up on duty to Pondy on the days of the marathon there.

We refereshed quickly and went to the church opposite the station. I have very fond memories of this church where I attended prayers last year when I came. My wife accompanied me this time. We met Santosh Padmanabhan (a great runner, who guided me through my impending cramps im my failed first Bangalore Ultra 100K attempt in 2010), he was there with his group of kids who would be participating in the 10K at Auroville. The kids and their escorts showed lot of interest in my Khadi wear and we parted promising to cheer each other in the run the next day.

Bib-Bala meanwhile reached Auroville and sent me his vehicle to reach there for bib collection. Got to meet Bala and Balaji who accommodated me in the event after I failed to register in time because of the uncertainty surrounding my late father-in-law’s health. Balaji’s (Bala must have had a hand in it too!)  idea of humour was to put my name as ‘Hubli Express’ on my bib (Bala and I keep ribbing each other on whether I am Hubli Passenger or Express). Wife and self visited Matru-mandir, which we had failed to see last time, but, visit inside it seems requires advance booking. Maybe, next time, As if we need an excuse to go back to Auroville. This gave time to Bala to continue to socialize with his runner friends. I am really amazed at his memory for names, he seems to know all runners by first name and could tell you all about them. He was kind enough to tear himself from bib distribution and we started back to Pondy for an early lunch (compared to 3PM of last year). Bala instructed his wife and friend Selva to reach Hotel Surguru so as to cut delay. Little did we realize that Pndy has four Hotel Surgurus. We ate at a different place than Bala’s family. We met lot of Chennai runners who were having lunch there.

We decided to reach the Guest house and claim our room and shift our luggage after the afternoon nap. Evening was the customary visit to the Ashram followed by an early dinner of Idlis. My wife was starving herself trying to puge herself of the lunch of Surguru. Had interesting company of Bala’s kids and his brother’s kids. We met Ram Viswanathan at the restaurant. I declined Bala’s invitation to go for bib distribution to Santosh’s gang as I had to keep company with my wife who was not looking good. It also gave me an opportunity to go to bed early. We parted promising to meet opposite Romain Rolland library at 2:45 AM next day morning. I could not get sleep for a few hours, very uncharacteristic for me, as I sleep off the moment my head hits the pillow, probably two days of abstinence from running and the dormant fear of the trail! I got up to the mobile alarm at 12:30 AM. Had an extended green-tea and spinning ceremony by the bathroom light. I left at 2:30 AM after waking up my wife to photograph me in my running gear with Annai for the backdrop. I waited at the foot of Bhartiar statue opposite Romain Rolland library after wearing off a few enthusiastic stray dogs by not getting dragged into a fight or flee with them. Bala and Selva came a few minutes later and the bus came and stopped near us, it was a few minutes before time. I suddenly realized that I had forgotten my headgear and used green tea leaves (for chewing on the run). I told the driver to wait while I get back from my room. I did a sprint with the strays now interested, the guard now having gone back to sleep, my wife had to hand me my headgear and green tea leaves through the grill like visitors do to under-trials across prison grills.

I ran back, with the strays now having got used to my nocturnal sojourns, in time and got a window seat in the second row from the last. I started saying my Gayatris to pass time while enjoying the breeze and the scenery outside. The bus stopped at many places and picked up people like a BPO call taxi. Finally we entered the Auroville campus and reached the start point. We made a beeline for the urinals. Thankfully for me, the urinal had a low tap on the ground outside the urinal, so thoughtful for the barefoot runners! I made friends with a few stray dogs who were being fed biscuits by a runner lady. I walked on the cool grass trying not to miss Biscuit (now going on 5 years Labrador dog of mine) trying to recreate my morning walk in the Golf course before my morning run. I met up lot of runners and had interesting discussions about barefoot running and diet (if you can call a one way monologue by me as discussion!). Soon the appointed hour came and after gulping a glass of water I joined the group doing stretching to some rousing music. I had my ego inflated when few guys came up and asked me to get photographed with them. People came up and recognized me by my funny khadi gear and head dress and asked me if I plan to do ma strip tease here too. I told them weather willing it shall be done!

I arranged myself behind the 12kmph mark for runners and set off to the countdown of 3-2-1 at 5 AM. The first aid point was said to be 2.8K away and looked a good place to shed the top. The torch looked very bright and I had asked before taking it if it would last till sunrise. Proving my misgivings right my torch gave after a few kilometers after the strip tease act at KM 2.8. I tried following a guy with a headlight, but, it seemed very dangerous. Luckily for me a lady at a volunteer desk spared me her torch in return for my dud one. This torch was very good and only thing it didn't come with an off switch (I realized when I tried switching it off while crossing under the occasional street lights). The first loop in Auroville is good weather .but, you have to run blind. I did have a few tripping episodes, thankfully I did not have a fall and could balance myself. I was praying for the Sun, God give me light! Funny thing about the Sun, it comes with an in-built heater and I could feel my skin tingling and sweat breaking out announcing the arrival of the villain of the many running battles with me, the SUN! A few stretches were really harsh on my sole, but, as I told somebody next to me, what I couldn't see, couldn't hurt me. I am thankful for the darkness but for it I would not have had the courage to take on the trail barefoot.

The second loop was the best with the best of breeze and light and Sun not too harsh. I kept up the banter with people who crossed or whom I crossed. The best part of the run was when we ran with half-marathoners and the 10K runners. The energy and the chatter seemed to energise one.  There was much mirth and ribbing when I sought to cross runners with my catch phrase ‘Make way for the Hubli Passenger!’ I did not stop at aid stations and there was much joy for the volunteers on my funny gear and refrain that Hubli Passenger does not stop there! A thoughtful inmate had got a bucket of cold water and offered to douse my head in a mug of cold water. He called my head a radiator and I corrected him that it was the CPU. His name was most appropriately, Shankar. I called back to him that he was true to lord Shiva’s other name, Gangadhar (the bearer of river Ganges!).

In my third loop, the Sun really started taking its toll. All through my run, Jagdish Sir and I kept going neck and neck and he was great company though we barely exchanged a word. Two foreigners (I am sorry, I did not get their name) one lady and a gent ran strongly and crossed me in the third loop. Shreys ran along for a little distance and did not want to overtake me, I am glad he ran ahead giving me the challenge to follow him strongly. I met Ram Viswanathan’s mother twice and she was run/walking at a steady pace. I must now digress to introduce the new sobriquet I earned in this run. In my many runs earlier I have been variously called Gandhi, Baba Ramdev, Joker etc. I was surprised when one lady called out Swami Cool when I crossed their group. I found it cool and started repeating it whenever somebody called out Swami to me thereafter. One other interesting episode was a young boy riding his small bicycle who rang the cycle bell to cheer me when I crossed him and asked him to do so, much to the joy of his mother. I stopped again for the head-bath and Shankar was happy to oblige. My soles were quite tender by the time I negotiated the pebbly patch in the third loop. It was only an old man’s stubbornness that kept me from removing my slippers from the pocket and cheating on the barefoot run. Thank god I had the perseverance to complete the run barefoot.

The finish point was very different this time, we ran into a separate lane for each category with a large LED clock announcing the timing and rousing accolades from the announcer and clap of hands from the crowd. I got a volunteer give me a bag and medal before the finish point and I stopped after that. The announcer reminded me to go on to the finish point which I did strongly. I had finished in 3 hours and 51 minutes! I had shaved off a good 37 minutes from my last year finish timing of 4.28. The only difference I could see was the barefoot! I cannot discount the one year of training on my very own NH 218.

After a good breakfast of Pongal, Vadai and Sambar, The young girl at the breakfast counter who was wiping and giving the plate could have been a girl at the reception of a south Indian wedding standing with rose water sprinkler. Why do I always get this feeling of having attended a cousin’s wedding averytime I come to Auroville for a run. If only the Pasta dinner could have an option for Curd rice! I asked my wife not to come if she had not started as I planned to return by first bus so as to be able to take a good bath and pack for vacating the room at 12 Noon (I surely could not afford another day at the royal fare of Rs. 1050/- per night). We had interesting conversations on the bus back to Pondy and said warm farewells to departing runners with promise to meet again next year!
Till we meet again at Auroville in February 2014!