Even the mundane seemed charged with meaning

Because I was alone, however, even the mundane seemed charged with meaning. The ice looked colder and more mysterious, the sky a cleaner shade of blue. The unnamed peaks towering over the glacier were bigger and comelier and infinitely more menacing than they would have been were I in the company of another person. And my emotions were similarly amplified: The highs were higher; the periods of despair were deeper and darker. To a self-possessed young man inebriated with the unfolding drama of his own life, all of this held enormous appeal.

—Jon Krakauer. Into the Wild.

A week early, and a few rupees short

A few astute observers noted: hey, wasn’t I supposed to return next week? Indeed. The plan was changed a little, and I’m already home. Let me tell you a story.

7 March. Bus Stand, Jalgaon, Maharashtra–a junction town in west-central India. I was no longer rushing. It was too late–the bird had flown. I had just finished a four-hour bus ride from Aurangabad. I had a rail ticket in my wallet for the 12627 Karnataka Express, a train that was leaving to Delhi from Burhanpur in two-and-a-half hours. Four days prior I had come from Burhanpur to Jalgaon. It took three-and-a-half hours to make the trip.

I had a plan. I grabbed an auto from the bus stand to the railway station, crossed up and over the tracks to the third platform, and went to the Deputy Station Manager’s office. He ignored me. I went to the Station Manager’s office. He wasn’t there. I went back to the Dy. Station Manager’s office. He gave me an annoyed look that had clearly been honed over time.

I told him my story, that I had a ticket from Burhanpur to Delhi.

He said, “It is too far. What can you do?” and bent down to his papers again.

Yes, yes, I knew that. I informed him that the the same train stopped at Jalgaon before proceeding to Burhanpur. Could I board the train there in Jalgaon?

Ah. A chink in the official’s armor: the enquirer knew something. With near-comic exasperation, the manager made a phone call, said a few things in Marathi, hung up. I had a 2AC (two-tiered, air-conditioned) berth. He said there were no available seats in that class.

Of course. But, sir, couldn’t I buy an unreserved ticket, ride the 180 km from Jalgaon to Burhanpur in general seating, and then switch to 2AC?

After a very well executed eyeroll and sigh, he made another phone call, then reported back to me. He said that this train had a minimum distance requirement. Tickets could only be bought for a 600 km or greater segment. He said, “It is impossible.”

Nothing is impossible in India. Nothing.

I crossed back over the tracks to the ticket office and bought the impossible ticket with no problems. When the train arrived–late, of course–I took a deep breath, grabbed the bar beside the door, placed my foot at the threshold, and charged.

Let’s pause for a moment to explain something. Unreserved or general class train cars are mobile madness. Every inch of space was occupied–I mean, every inch of volume was occupied. The two tiers of benches were filled with people. People were lying in the overhead luggage rack. People were sitting on the floor. Some industrious person had rigged a hammock over the corridor to the toilet. Bags were dangling from all places that could hold them. The aisle was packed from front to pack with people, people, people. Cattle don’t like to be packed this tightly. Claustrophobes are kindly requested to avoid general class.

You have to push to get beyond the door, and then push to get beyond the first corridor, and then push until you find a place to stop. When you stop being the pusher you become the pushed. Until the train leaves there will be more people boarding.

Ten minutes down the line I noticed something was… off. I touched my front left pocket. There was my mobile phone. I my front right pocket. It was empty. I touched my back right pocket. It was empty. No wallet.

Perhaps, while compulsively checking my ticket at the platform, I had slipped it into my back pocket instead of my front pocket. Or someone could have taken it from my front pocket, given all of the jostling as I boarded. No matter. The wallet was gone. I wasn’t angry. I was amused. I was an easy target. I glanced around and met the eyes of several passengers. There was no way to tell who was the culprit. It could have been anyone. The setting sun shone through the port side window bars, turning all that brown skin a potent orange. It was almost beautiful.

First stop: Bhusaval Junction. Second stop: Burhanpur. I pushed through the crowd toward the door a little less gracefully than my entrance. Burhanpur is nowhere. It is a one-minute station stop. My car (bogey, if you’d like to use the local term) was eighteen cars down the train–200 or more meters away. Backpack strapped, camera bag in one hand, ravanhatta in the other hand (another story later to explain what this is), I leaned forward and ran down the platform. Breathing raggedly, I closed in on my destination. The whistle blew and the train started to move toward me. I grabbed the bar, swung on board. 1200 km later I was in New Delhi.

I doubt I lost more than $20 in cash in that wallet. I regret that, but not as much as losing my ATM card, which was my access to future cash for things like eating and sleeping. So I moved my return tickets forward. Forty-eight hours after running the Chandigarh Marathon I was already in the sky, facing westward.

I maintain, even after the loss, that I’m some kind of logistical savant–the bus from Aurangabad to Jalgaon, then the impromptu second-class ride and run to fulfill my reserved seat. I could pass clear across that country with nothing more than an idea. Next time, though, I’ll be a bit more careful.

So. I’m back. A few people asked: am I going to write a wrap-up post from the trip? No. Maybe I’ll make a wrap-up map that shows where I went. Also, I’m posting photos. The generous gypsies from the musician’s colony in Jaisalmer and the rotten shopkeepers from Udaipur and six days of boulder-scrambling in Hampi–these are all full stories, not just paragraphs. India is a big, strange place that doesn’t wrap up neatly in a little box. That would be impossible. Stay tuned.

[P.S.: I’m searching for meaningful work now that I’m back. In the meantime, I’m available for a variety of temporary work: web sites, various IT and database things, digital archival, outdoor work, whatever. If you’ve got a lead, give me a shout.]

Hop on: a desert cycling tale

One of the going away activities from my 2005 X PRIZE internship in the Mojave Desert, California, was a chance to eat lunch with Burt Rutan, Mike Melvill, and a few of the other rocket men of the Scaled Composities SpaceShipOne team. Midway through lunch, a gray-bearded man came in. He had been cycling across the desert, at midday in May, and wanted to show Burt his invention, a remarkable thermal material that could help the boys in Kuwait. (“Or Iraq,” Burt corrected.) It was aluminum foil. He also had an older invention: Braille candy. (“You can taste the colors.”)

Anyway, the point is that people cycling across the desert in the middle of the day are carrying more than a week’s supply of The Crazy.

While I was in Jaisalmer I rented a bicycle from Narayan Cycles for a midday ride west out of the city, into the Thar Desert. Suriya suggested it would be a nice ride to see the Jain temples at Amar Sagar and the cenotaphs (“umbrellas”) at Bara Bagh. Hell yes: adventure. (More on Suriya and family to come in a later episode. He’s a good friend of mine in Jaisalmer.)

Before going, I glanced at a guidebook so I’d have a rough idea where I was going and what road to take to get there. All I had to do was to take the highway west from Hanuman Circle, near where I was staying. Amar Sagar would be 5 km to the west. A place called Mool Sagar would be 2 km beyond that. Perfect–a path and a distance.

Here bicycles are simple machines: one speed, crunchy bedspring seats, U-shaped handlebars set to the plane of the street. Jaisalmer has the simplest traffic I’ve seen yet in India, but it is still a challenging to dodge pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, autorickshaws, cars, jeeps, and cows. (And cowpatties.) Jaisalmer is a small city. Once you’ve passed Hanuman Circle you’ve passed everything but the military guards at the “Thundering 27” base, the guards with the red Japanese fans on their heads.

Then: nothing. The Thar Desert is not a scenic desert–at least not the small bit of it that I experienced. Granted, I’m prejudiced towards the Mojave Desert of California, the Chihuahuan Desert of Texas, the Canyonlands of Utah. These are legendary places to me, wonderlands of mountains and arches and canyons. The Thar Desert along MDR 53 wasn’t even that scrubby. On one side of the road there was a landscape of smashed sandstone, perhaps being quarried for building projects in Jaisalmer and beyond. On both sides were sparsely distributed plants with large rubbery leaves.

The road less cycled

The children were friendly. From the sides of the road, from the dilapidated buildings set back in the dust, and from places I could hear but not see, children waved and yelled, “Hello!” Women filling water jugs at a leaking irrigation pipe giggle and said, “[Something something] gora” among themselves. Men passing on tractors slowly rotated their heads to follow my passing. Exchange the turbans for feedcaps and it was just like Central Illinois.

At Mool Sagar there was nothing. Nothing. I went an extra kilometer down the road to be certain. Nothing. Kuch nahin. There were a few miserable houses and rock-bounded plots with no houses at all–much like California City, California. How do people survive on the fringes? Why do people survive on the fringes? I turned back, left them there. Maybe it’s better on the fringes, on the outside. At Mool Sagar I had an omelette and a chai with a few stone cutters before returning to the east, to Jaisalmer, capital of the fringes.

Settlement at the end of the world

Later, in the guidebook, I would read more closely about Mool Sagar: “…Mool Sagar, a run-down oasis with a Shiva Temple.” Ah.

About 5 km from Jaisalmer there is a junction. Ten kilometers to the north of the junction is Lodurva, the home, I’m told, of a collection of Jain temples. I hadn’t found Amar Sagar yet, so what the hell? Why not go to Lodurva?

There at the crossroads was a boy in a light blue ninth-standard school uniform. I prepared my best Amar Sagar kahan hai? (Where is Amar Sagar?) Before I could ask, he pointed at the back of my bike. I returned a quizzical look. He motioned again, and mimed that he wanted to sit on the rack. Oh, you want a ride? Yes, I’m going to Jaisalmer city. Let’s do it. Hop on.

Off we went down the desert highway, a gora and his boy–or was it the other way around? We puttered along for 3 km, exchanging simple Hinglish questions and answers.

About 1.5 km from Jaisalmer, as we passed Indira Indoor Stadium and entered Defence Land, the boy on the back said something I didn’t quite hear. “[Something] five [something] rupees.” Ah, how cute. No, young man. I come as an informal emissary of the United States of America. I am here to do Good Work. I will not charge you for this strange ride across the desert. Go forth. Uncle Sam loves you.

“Money. From you to me.”

“What?”

“500 rupees?”

“What?”

“500 rupees? I am poor boy.”

“No.”

“100 rupees?”

“No.”

“500 rupees?”

And so on. The treacherous little bastard continued to ask for money. It’s one thing to ask foreigners for money. It’s another thing–and certainly not a problem–to ask for a free ride. But it takes a real deviant to cop a ride and then ask for money from the driver as he pedals through the noontime grit.

After another half kilometer of being hounded for cash, I stopped. “Get down.” I rode the last stretch alone, free of one white man’s burden.

Major District Road 53

2011 Jaipur Half Marathon: The gauntlet

The Jaipur Half Marathon… I shouldn’t have run it. But here I am, three weeks later, and the bastard hasn’t killed me yet so I’m going to post this before the Auroville Marathon finishes me off.

I shouldn’t have run it. I mean this. I wasn’t in Jaipur to run. I was there for the Jaipur Literature Festival. The half marathon was a coincidence. I learned about the half marathon offhandedly, and I didn’t commit to anything. The Mumbai Marathon, on 16 January, was a road marathon and I don’t train much on roads so I was extra sore. And I had been pampered in Mumbai by Pradeep and his family, so I was also extra whiny when I got to Jaipur. It was the perfect storm for copping out.

But don’t worry, Dear Reader, after thirty years I’m not about to start letting common sense enter the equation. On the day before, an old friend in Illinois found the registration venue for me. (And I quote Mel: “rajput sabha bhawan, bagwan das road. i have no idea what i wrote, but i hope it helps.”) I went there. The sign said, “Registrations OPEN for Dream Run Entries Only Today.” If you follow the rules in India you are a fool. I went in. They let me register for the half marathon.

Sunday. 23 January 2011. 6:00am. Dark on the western side of one time-zoned India. Wake up in my running clothes. Pin my numbers on my shirts (That’s an intentional plural, numbers, front and back–only in India.) Tie my shoes. Here’s the exciting part: it is the first day since running Mumbai that I was able to bend down, tie my shoes, then stand up without using the bed or table to lift myself.

6:30am. Out the door. And then not out the door. It’s early. The guest house staff is somewhere else, asleep. The front door and outside gate are locked. Well, gosh darn it, I guess I’ll have to go back to sleep. Back upstairs to inspect my window for possible ways to climb out. Back downstairs to check one more time and–damn. A sleepy man fumbles through his keychain, letting me escape into the inky blue morning. I accost a rickshaw driver at the first intersection–the hunter has become the hunted. He’s too surprised to even jack me over on the rate to Albert Hall Museum. Victory.

The sun threatens to rise. A runner in a Santa Claus costume runs up to me and says, “Hello! I’m Santa Claus!” Indeed. A young boy, learning a new trick, doesn’t ask me for 10 rupees, he asks me for an extra timing chip because he, ah, needs one. It’s not like they just give out extra timing chips, little man. I wish they did. I looked down at my shoes and realized that my own timing chip was resting safely on my bed at the guest house. Lucky.

7:10am. The race is set to start at 7:00 Indian Standard Time, so it’s not late yet. There are other foreigners (read: pale people) in the running crowd. That’s good news. The per capita being-stared-at index went down a few notches. A few Running and Living guys came down from Delhi. They spotted me because I was sporting a Running and Living jersey from the Panchkula Half Marathon.

7:20am. The gate opens. The runners surge forward. To the next gate. I try running 200 meters to warm up. Not happening. My left calf and right quat muscles are furious. 200 meters is less than 1% of a half marathon. I try running backwards to see if my projectile crying will serve as a form of propulsion. It works. Six years and two aerospace engineering degrees haven’t gone to waste after all. (Hire me.)

7:30am. The gate opens. The runners surge forward. Dignitaries–politicians, actors, the sun–cheer from raised bleachers. A movie camera rises into the sky and captures a sweeping shot over the passing runners. The official Jaipur Half Marathon song blares from enormous speakers. I know it is the official song because the Hindi word for marathon is marathon. Hey, Chicago, where’s your official marathon song? That’s right.

Right. The half marathon itself. It hurt a lot. And then it was over.

What? More? OK.

The start of the Jaipur Half mraathon had everything I ever expected in an Indian race. It started late. There were stages on the sidewalk with drummers and music and dancers. (I appreciate the dancers in the Boys Town segment of the Chicago Marathon, but I have to admit a preference for dancing Rajasthani girls.) On the opposing sidewalk there were masses of working class men in stocking caps and rough cotton shawls giving the universal gape for, “What the hell is going on here?”

My goal was to not get hurt. I slacked off after the first kilometer, but then #5569, a high school boy running his first half marathon, came up and encouraged me to pick up the pace–and thanks to him for doing that. I tried to communicate that I didnt’ want to. I’d say, “You go ahead,” and sweep my hand forward. He’d respond, “With,” and give a sweeping gesture to come with him and his friends. OK. Slower pace, faster pace, it didn’t matter since every step hurt. I kept pace with them until 5 km, then no more, no more.

The first 6 km were a straight line down Jawaharlal Nehru Marg. Then we U-turned and returned. At the turnaround, race officials flicked some red stuff on our shirts as a marker to prevent cheating. It was a good idea. I say this with 50% conviction. The other 50% is reserved for when/if the red splotches ever wash out of my jersey.

As we looped back we met the Dream Runners. Ah, yes, they followed us. I should have known the dancing girls were for them. Blast! The upside was that they provided key crowd support for the half marathon runners–for me, at least. I’m not sure they asked all of the brown runners where they were from and how they liked India. Around 10 km, near the halfway mark, we cut west, left the Dream Runners, headed off into the wild.

Let’s all give the traffic cops the kudos they deserve. They had the uneviable job of holdin gback the increasingly mutinous Jaipur traffic. Every passing minute brought more pedestrians, more scooters, more rickshaws, more cars, all eager to take back their share of the morning road. In the second half of the race we runners were quite dispersed, tens and hundreds of meters between us. The held back drivers gaped in menacing disbelief at traffic cops stopped them at major intersections for each single, straggling runner.

In some cases the traffic prevailed and we shared the road. OK. I expected this in India: functional madness. We all went to our destinations in our own ways. I don’t know how we got there, but we got there. That’s India. I don’t know if I could do it every day, but it’s fun in doses.

And on and on. Past St. Xavier’s School and right onto MI Road, a major road now eerily devoid of traffic. Left through the reconstructed Ajmer Gate and into the old city, the Pink City. Through the not yet opened markets. I had an advantage here: I studied the course map before running. We were almost done. Good news: my brain sent a message to my legs that is was now acceptable to feel broken.

The traffic circle at Choti Chaupur–people crowded around like a tunnel like the sidelines of the Tour de France. The traffic circle at Badi Chaupur–more of the same, but larger, as the name suggests. (In Hindi, choti means small, badi means big… I think. Obviously I’m no expert.)

Almost there. Back onto MI Road, which is no longer devoid of vehicles. In Indian traffic as in oceans, it is foolish to think you can stop the tide. Into Ramniwas Bagh and Albert Hall Museum, down to the last few hundred meters. The next wave of traffic isn’t vehicles–it’s Dream Runners. They block the road in front of the finish line. That’s why most races have chutes and barriers at the end of the race. After 21km, no one wants to finish via a gauntlet.

As I noted earlier, I consider myself an informal ambassador of the United States of America. As such I see it as my solemn duty to introduce Indians to American culture. I taught the mass of Dream Runners a few (American) football moves: the cutback, the spin, the hurdle, the stiffarm. Thank me later, Hillary, thank me later.

Unofficial time: 1:50:50.

2011 Jaipur Lit Fest Days 4 and 5: Myths of Mumbai, coincidences on the Nile, and cabbage

The 2011 Jaipur Literature Festival is over. Walking past the jampacked final panel–the standing easily outnumbering the seated 3-to-1–with Vikram Seth, under the colored banners, and through the gate of Diggi Palace a final time, I was a little melancholic. What next?

Enter the festival

On Day 4 I opened with the “Mumbai Narratives” session with Sonia Falerio and Gyan Prakash because–what the hell–I had just been to Mumbai and I’ll be back and I wanted to hear some stories. Now I have another book to find and read when I return home: Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash. Like a fair number of authors at the event I had never heard of Gyan Prakash, but I was taken in as much by his motivations for his work as what he read. In Mumbai Fables Prakash says he was not looking for the stories themselves, but inquiring into the nature of how they were created–peering behind the curtain of the mythology, trying not only to understand what something is but how and why it got that way. That’s important: as in engineering, always check your assumptions.

Anthony Sattin’s session on the unlikely coincidence of Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale, from his book A Winter on the Nile, was one of the top panels of the week. Imagine this: two young people go on a trip (independently–they never meet) because they are frustrated with their progress at home, then return to do major work which history has not forgotten. Yes. Familiar. Sattin’s enthusiasm for the two main characters, the arcs of their lives, and the places in Egypt (and France and England) was exciting.

On Day 5, Priya Sarukkai Chhabria and Arunava Sinha spoke about “Translating the Classics.” I have an enormous amount of respect for translators (and, more broadly, polyglots). To be able to decode works in a language different from one’s native tongue–that seems like having keys to a level of the castle that few will ever see. The chief concern of the panels was with which version of the final language to use. When translating a classic, should one use an archaic English to create a sense of temporal distance? Should one use a contemporary voice? And what does one do with words and ideas that exist in the base language but not the final language? Of course the answers were: it depends.

I’ll admit here: I harbor this pointless desire to be able to translate something myself–to be able to open the locked door with my own hand. That’s why I attended one more session with Katherine Russell Rich, the “Dreaming in Sanskrit” panel with Lee Siegel. I envy and admire the focus she exhibited to spend a year learning Hindi in Udaipur, then writing about it in Dreaming in Hindi. Hooray for the doers of the world, in whatever form they appear.

Choose Irvine Welsh

To end the day and the festival, Irvine Welsh read from his upcoming book, Reheated Cabbage. I’ve never read any Irvine Welsh, and his session was up against Indian literature titan Vikram Seth. I’ve not read anything by Vikram Seth yet either, but I’m aware of him and his books are on my list, so I decided to give Irvine Welsh a try, a final attempt at broadening my experience. Maybe it was the Scottish accent, or the unhesitating use of street language, or the straightforward stride through some putrid subject matter–anyway, the point is that Irvine Welsh ended the festival, for me, on a sustained high note.

I enjoyed the 2011 Jaipur Literature Festival–I’m happy that it was suggested to me and that I modified my trip to Jaipur to attend. There is the immediate question, “What next?” that applies to my remaining 57 days in India. But the value of the festival to me was listening to accomplished people on stage and conversing with members of the audience and how it all gave me the confidence to consider the greater “What next?” that will exist when I go home.

Jaipur Lit Fest Days 2 and 3: Courtesans, migrations, and the madness of crowds

Day 2 of the Jaipur Literature Festival was slammed. Packed. Jammed. If you wanted to get your Indian experience of moving in colossal crowds, well, there you were. I’m not sure what made Day 2 so much more dense. People coming for the party that the festival is? Loads of schoolkids? I don’t know. The days of hosting the festival at Diggi Palace are numbered. All four speaking venues were overflowing.

In the morning of Day 2, I watched the “A Time Apart” panel with J.P. Das and Rita Chowdhury. Ms. Chowdhury gave a presentation on her book about Chinese-Indians living in Assam who were, after border conflicts with China, all arrested, moved to concentration camps, and then deported to China even though they had been living in India for generations. I don’t recall the name of the book, though I remember it was Hindi only. I liked her description of it, though. I’ll find it later–perhaps a good place to focus myself on reading Hindi better.

One of the reasons I attended the previous panel was to get an early seat for the following presentation, “One amazing thing” with Chitra Devakurni Banerjee. At the end of the previous panel, people started packing the back of the tent. At the end of the panel they poured in, occupying every stool and divan so densely that it created its own gravity field. They packed in deep in the back. They crawled in from under the edges of the tent. It was intense. Even the festival organizer had to come to the microphone and ask for help getting the authors into the tent so they could speak.

But it wasn’t Ms. Banerjee. It was two other guys and, to my undertrained ears, incomprehensible. It was in Hindi. And I was trapped there in the Kingfisher Baithak tent, not looking forward to squeezing my way out. For thirty minutes I sat there, trying to at least get the essence of what was going on, but to no avail. I finally left when I felt awkward not getting the jokes. As I crawled out under the tent myself, I saw an army of people outside the tent, listening, ravenous to get inside. If anyone knows who that was at 12pm, and again for a repeat performance at 1:30 on the Front Lawns, please inform me. I’m curious what could make a crowd of Indians go absolutely bonkers like that.

Ah… madness… what else, what else?

Rory Stewart talked about his book, The Spaces in Between, and how his skepticism of how useful the big cash and big armies approach to “fixing” Afghanistan led him to walk across the country for eighteen months.

There was a panel on travel writing, “On the Road,” with Anthony Sattin, Katie Hickman, Rory Stewart, Pallavi Aiyar, and William Fiennes. The notable portion of that was Katie Hickman reading from her book about traveling with a circus in Mexico. She read from her own favorite part of the book, which happened after she stopped following the circus and visited a migratory home for Monarch butterflies. What struck me was that I expected a short description of the place and sight, but she turned it into a fantastic world in which you were immersed in the Monarchs themselves. I didn’t catch the name of the book. There is so much that I missed.

Day 2 ended with Katie Hickman and Muzaffar Ali in the panel “From Courtesans East and West” in which they described and compared, yes, courtesans from Lucknow and London. Mr. Ali’s descriptions tried to place the courtesans of Lucknow in a finer, more elegant, more learned place. (This relates to a movie of his, I think. I don’t know the title. Can someone fill me in?) Ms. Hickman focused a bit more in her book on the humorous aspects of their place in society–not bawdy descriptions, no, but a history of the tangled web of mistresses and courtesans and society men and women that existed in London. It wasn’t something that I expected from what I had assumed was totally straight-laced 1800s England.

Day 3… I missed most of this for the Jaipur Half Marathon. Stay tuned for notes on that, etc.

The one full panel I saw was “Migritude” with Abha Dawesar, Shailaja Patel, and Pauline Melville. It was hit and miss. What I appreciated most was Ms. Melville’s incisive comments and answers. For example, the other two opened with poems and stories from their books, but Ms. Melville opened by pointing at the list of sponsors in the back and accusing them of forcing many migrations with their actions of opening and closing facilities around the world, displacing and replacing thousands of people. An unexpected zing–I think I’ll check her out again on Day 4.

2011 Jaipur Lit Fest Day 1: The earnestness of art, mathematical chimps, and the literature of cancer

Day 1 of the Jaipur Literature Festival (http://www.jaipurliteraturefestival.org) is over. It was my first ever day at the festival, and I had an enormously good time. Thanks to Supriya for suggesting it.

I used the word “enormous” intentionally. The place is packed. There are four main stages, plus assorted vendor stalls, cafés, common areas, etc. Sometimes it seems too enormous for Diggi Palace, but it’s like going to see a concert where the energy of the performance is complemented by the energy of the crowd moving in and around itself–a kind of static electricity from all of the rubbing shoulders.

Night 1 at the Jaipur Literature Festival

My favorite panel of the day was the Emperor of Maladies panel with Siddhartha Mukherjee and Katherine Russell Rich. The title of the panel comes from Mr. Mukherjee’s book, The Emperor of Maladies, a history–a biography, even–of cancer. And Ms. Rich was there talking about her 1999 book, The Red Devil, a story of her own history with cancer.

So, yes, my favorite panel was on the topic of cancer–a dismal-sounding subject indeed. But the focus wasn’t that dismal. It wasn’t what I would call entertaining, though. It was engaging. Ms. Rich has never gotten rid of cancer. Eighteen years later she still deals with its recurrence, and she makes her way slowly through the crowd during the day. For good or for ill, that’s the most compelling part of the story. That’s what makes her, in my opinion, a good role model. On one hand you have a Lance Armstrong, who recovers to become King of the World. On the other hand you have someone who survives but still has to live with the day-to-day problems. That seems more real, or at least more applicable. Suresh S., a Jaipur native, said to me after the panel that he is going to recommend the book to a family member dealing with cancer.

Mr. Mukherjee’s presentation was also good–I’m more likely even to go read The Emperor of Maladies than The Red Devil–but I’ll focus on Ms. Rich. I saw her for the first time in Boston in 2008, when she was on tour for her latest book, Dreaming in Hindi, which I assumed she was in India to present. Obviously she wasn’t. I found her later and asked a few questions about it. Listen: I don’t like bothering authors or musicians or performing people of whatever kind after the show. My baseline assumption is that they’re getting hassled enough as it is, so maybe I should give them a break. Besides, they’re not going to be very congenial or thoughtful when harried anyway.

She was warm nonetheless–me and my preoccupations, etc. I asked her if Nand, a wise character and mentor (I referred to him as a sort of “Yoda,” because I’m a dork) in the memoir, had read Dreaming in Hindi yet. She said that he had, and developed a greater respect for her because of it. He’s not just anybody. He’s an eminent Rajasthani poet. His deeper respect was a valuable thing to earn. I enjoyed the book also, so I was pleased for her. We talked a bit also about her break to come to India–she spent a year in Udaipur learning Hindi–and my own. I did a fabulously timid job talking about writing on running in India–see previous paragraph about baseline hassle–so I’ll try to explain more passionately about what all I’m doing. I’m here in India because I think I can write. I’m here on the front edge, on the precipice of doing the thing, so maybe it’s time to own up to it. I am, after all, at a literature festival surrounded by authors who stopped thinking they had an idea and actually crafted the idea into something real. She also asked what I was going to become when I returned home. I didn’t have an answer for that. Like so many other experiences here: something to think about.

I got to see Junot Díaz in action. I made sure to say that like I’m really familiar with him. I’m not. I am aware of him as a name only–he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. He teaches at MIT, so I’m discovering, in India, a notable writer who essentially lives down the street from me at home. Yeah. Pay attention, etc. So I can’t tell you about his work. And I’m typing this damned thing by mobile phone, so I’m not going to look it up either. I can tell you that he was terribly funny and entertaining, but also lapsed into extended moments of earnestness where he explained his approach and experience with the art of literature.

“We read books as individuals, but understand them as a collective. […] Reading a novel is an invitation to form a community.”

“America’s entire relationship with art is like… ‘Wait, you’re still here?’ “

And so on. Junot Díaz just jumped onto my to-read list and clawed his way toward the top.

I stepped into Alex Bellos’ presentation, Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, quite arbitrarily. I didn’t have a program yet. I wanted to get out of the sun. I stepped in and discovered it was a book and presentation about math. Well, what the hell? I guess that’s a nice way for an engineer like me to get acquainted with the festival.

It was entertaining. It was way better than just a time pass. There were videos of chimpanzees demonstrating not only their trained understanding of the cardinality and ordinality of numbers–amount and order, I learned, are the two qualities that make numbers numbers–but that they could recognize and remember them faster than humans. There were pictures of Japanese schoolkids using abacuses (abaci?) both to compute and compete. Mr. Bellos mentioned that there is no research that shows using an abacus improves mathematical cognition. None. But, as he shows, the abacus makes it fun, and the students excel at it. That made me think. Math is a slog for me–no fun at all. I took calculus, etc., because I needed the credits to get into and pass out of engineering. I’m now curious what it would be like to learn math or learn about the history of math as someone who wants to learn it, not someone who has to learn it.

And on and on. It is, like so many other occurrences in India, an awful lot to deal with at once. It is simultaneously fun and informative–a heady combo indeed.

Mumbai Marathon 2011: The Unmarathon Marathon

The marathon is secondary at the Mumbai Marathon. Don’t let the supersonic Ethiopians fool you. The Dream Run, a 7 km charity run/walk, is the real ticket on marathon Sunday. I thought this was a bit annoying at first–hey, guys, I’m running the marathon, look at me! LOOK AT ME!–but I warmed up to the fact as the day itself warmed up.

The day took time to warm up. The marathon for humans started at 6:15am, which meant getting to the Chembur train station before 5:00am, which meant, well, early. (The superhumans, the Elites, started later at 7:45am.) The guard at the gate of the housing complex was asleep. The drivers were asleep in their taxis. People slept on and below the counters at the train station. The chai stall was the only sign of life on the street. Priorities, priorities.

The pulse was quicker in Mumbai proper, nearer to the Azad Maidan where the marathon runners assembled. Fences along the race route separated us from our destination. Security men in black walked arm-in-arm along the route, practiced clearing the course. Perhaps in Mumbai, the runners like to stage riots.

I was hoping for a chance to say that the marathon staging area was chaos. It wasn’t. The baggage check area was clearly marked, and so was the gate to the starting line. But, runners, what’s the most important station before the race? Yeah. The toilet. Where was it. Pradeep asked the baggage guy where it was. He pointed across the Maidan. I ran over there, one or two hundred meters, but there were only corporate tents there. (Maybe he wanted me to send them a message?) I ask a guy at the corporate tent. He points to another part of the Maidan. I run there–refreshment tent. I ask another. He points. I run. Medical tent. Ask another. He points behind the refreshments tent. I go there. Whoa, hey guys, sorry, I’ll let you do your thing.. I ask another guy, he points, I run–bingo. It wouldn’t be India without a series of a half dozen conflicting directions.

Through the gate and to the street. In the distance the announcer is going mad with enthusiasm, as a good announcer should. He even congratulated the contingent of Maharashtra state officials for waking up so early to see us off. Indeed. Congratulations, guys. Drink plenty of water and don’t overdo it if you’re feeling exhausted. And then we were off. And by  “we” I mean “the other people who were on time and at the starting line.” The rest of us were still wandering up the dark street. It wouldn’t be Kirk Kittell without a late start.

I was running for Muktangan, an educational group in Mumbai. They’re a very cool organization, and shouldn’t be construed with any of my silliness. To help them out, I ran as a human billboard, sporting the same hat and polo shirt that their participants wore in the Dream Run. Yeah, I ran a marathon in a polo shirt. And an undershirt. If I was going to run in front of a bunch of cameras, I wasn’t going to put my chest hair on display through a wet, white shirt. In the fight between heat stroke and vanity, I chose vanity.

Our first stop, figuratively, was Marine Drive–the Queen’s Necklace, a sweeping curve of streetlights that draw an outline of the bay in the dark. We were early. The states on the sidewalk were empty, TV camera stations stood unmanned, spectators were sparse. The only noise on the street was a band tuning and warming up, our feet, and a DJ from Radio Mirchi 98.3 trying his best to compensate for the vocal void.

Marine Drive at night

(The Queen’s Necklace, Marine Drive. This photo was taken later. The other photos, below, were taken by mobile during the race.)

At 44 minutes the sky was bright, and the half marathon leaders came charging by us. They started at Bandra, on the far end of the marathon course. They got to explore the Bandra-Worli Sea Link during the mild dawn–more on that later.

At 45 minutes I reached for one of the four gel packs I brought from home. At the Chicago Marathon I carried them in my hand, but in Mumbai I had a brilliant idea: I used athletic tape to secure them to the waistband of my shorts, two in front, two in back. I was worried that the bouncing would cause me to excrete the gel packs from my shorts, so I taped them securely. Very securely. For three full minutes I fought with the tape, at first pulling and then flailing at the back of my shorts, before I finally extricated the gel pack from myself. (“Say, what is that running white guy doing there? What strange customs they have.” ) Body-warm vanilla: it’s what’s for breakfast.

OK, right–the race. At the one-hour mark, we marathon runners were quite dispersed, big gaps of tens and hundreds of meters separating us. It is a very strange experience to have ample personal space in Mumbai. Ride a rush hour train or bus in Mumbai some time–it is a serious Cultural Experience. We weren’t alone for long. Soon the great mass of half marathon runners was streaming past us.

Mumbai Marathon: half marathon runners

Half marathon runners, congratulating themselves for not signing up for the full marathon.

And then they became us. At 1:12 the half marathon runners started pouring in from the Bandra-Worli Sea Link on the left, merging with us–great news for the lonely, but not so great if you wanted to run without dodging through slower-moving bodies. Chaos, chaos for three kilometers, then we separated to the left and rediscovered solitude on the streets of Mumbai.

Skip the following paragraph. It is not for Respectable People.

I made it to 20 km at 1:41:20. There I stopped to peruse the portable facilities. (If you’re a runner, you understand, yeah?) There were two. Behind door #1: no latch. No thanks. I only allow spectators on the race course. Behind door #2: No latch. Um. I’m not one to skip opportunities, so I asked the marathon staff member, a young guy, to hold the door shut for me. He shuts it, holds it for a while, walks away, then slides something heavy in front of it. OK. Outside, through the cracked door, I see him reach into a pail, grab a roll of paper, wipe his hands. Immediate alarm bells–that’s my lifeline out there. He replaces the roll, I reach out through the crack to acquire it, etc. I opened the door, emerged, and the pail of something white (milk?) that was stopping the door spilled over onto the pavement. As if in a choreographed routine, the staff guy and I look at each other, slowly look down at the spreading spill, then share the universal glance for, “Well, that was crazy now, wasn’t it?”

OK, no more stories like that.

Past the halfway mark at 1:50, and the crowd had finally rolled out of bed. There were people on the streets before that–and those people were saints, those few who helped us pass the early miles–but now a Crowd had arrived. Since the marathon runners were separated from each other, the crowd turned their cheering on and off as we approached and receded. In these crowds I heard a few India-specific kinds of congratulations, “Come on uncle, come on uncle,” or “Good job sir, good job, sir.”

We entered the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Some of us returned.

Mumbai Marathon: to the Sea Link

The Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Looming.

The Bandra-Worli Sea Link is a landmark bridge in Mumbai. It is beautiful, something visitors to Mumbai must see, and it was a pleasure to see it from the ground. I passed a few runners from the Runners for Life running club in Bangalore. They’ll also be at the Auroville Marathon, near Pondicherry, in February. They offered me a trade. They allowed me to beat them in Mumbai, but they offered me a beer if I’d lose to them in Auroville. I’m holding you to it, guys.

It was also a five or six kilometer slog through the sun. The slower runners, who would have crossed it when the sun was higher, hotter, have my sympathy. 

Mumbai Marathon: on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link

Still going.

After the bridge, I don’t have much to say. I don’t remember much. Marathon runners know: from 32 km on, the world gets a little weird. Let me tell you: it’s the same in India as it is at home, but maybe a little weirder. Past 32 km (that’s 20 miles, my imperialist friends), the key word is Survival. I’ll skip it here.

All of the sleeping stages and the missing crowds were there on our return trip down Marine Drive. Bands were playing,
people were yelling–chaos, chaos, but in the best possible way. At 39 km, there was an especially large amount of hubbub coming from behind, motorcycles passing us, people buzzing. And there they were. Runners. Super-runners. I had never, ever seen them in person, up close. The marathon leaders. Needless to say, I don’t spend much time at the front of the pack, so the staggered start was a unique opportunity to witness them in action. They ate us amateur runners up like wolverines. They sped past like a pack of missiles. It was a beautiful experience to be annihilated so thoroughly.

At 41 km I passed Udaya. I had been following him for a kilometer or two, and he was enjoying the race as it should be enjoyed–arms in the air like a victor, calling back to the crowd, bouncing from side to side to give high fives. If you’re not going to win, that’s how you run a marathon. Where did he get the energy? I was focused almost solely on maintaining a non-grimace. As I turned off Marine Drive and passed him, I put my arm around his shoulders and encouraged him to keep going, and he reciprocated. I’m wary about doing things like that to runners that I pass–I don’t want to make it seem like some kind of ego stomp, some salt in the wound as I go by. I just wanted to say thanks for being so entertaining. We talked after the race, and I’ll see him also at the Auroville Marathon.

In the last kilometer, there were crowds of spectators and, on the right, the crowd of Dream “Runners,” who started at 10am. As a somewhat Serious Runner, I have to admit that the walkers getting all of the attention was a blow to my ego. How dare they, etc. But when I saw the different groups marching, carrying banners and signs, dressed up as presidents and celebrities and onions, I changed my mind. What the hell? If you’re having fun, you’re having fun. If you’re getting the crowd to stand up and cheer, even better. If you’re using a major event in a major city to rise money or awareness for education, health, etc., then really, who cares about my ego? (Besides me, I mean.)

I talked to Amal, from Glenmark, who was running for Yuva Parivartan, and he said it best. “It’s good to see people come together to make a difference in good times instead of during a tragedy.”

The Mumbai Marathon isn’t a world class marathon. It’s not. Don’t let the 2:09 winning time fool you. Maybe it will grow into one, but it’s not there yet. The Mumbai Marathon is the Dream Run, with the marathon appended to it.

But that’s OK. I was asked after the race if I’d come back and run the marathon again, and I said, honestly, “Yes.”

Official time: 3:45:13.

Panchkula Half Marathon 2011: The Panchkula mystery race

When I first conceived this trip to India, my plan was to explore the burgeoning running scene in India. Today’s runners are at the crest of a wave. There will be more runners and more races on India. It’s coming. These are the pioneers, and I had to meet them.

Let me admit my conceits at the start. I nurtured a notion that maybe–just a tiny, tiny chance–I could sneak into the winner’s circle at the first race, the Panchkula Half Marathon. These Indians just learned how to run, right?

The weather on the morning of the race was better suited for staying in bed under a pile of blankets. That’s what the staff of my hotel in Sector 17 of Chandigarh was doing in the lobby. One, under a blanket, sitting in a chair against the wall, lolled his head to the side groggily as I walked by. I wonder if he recognized me. Perhaps he has heard the legend of the White Guy in the Mist.

The mist. The Mist. The mist rolled through the shops of the Sector 17 market. The mist was a canvas for sinister backlit silhouettes as I walked to the bus stand. The mist mocked even the idea of warmth as I jumped down from the still-moving bus–Bus 30, Sector 17 ISBT to Nada Sahib Gurudwara–down the road from North Park Hotel. (If you haven’t jumped from a moving bus, you’re missing out.) Two-thirds of my time during previous trips to India has been dedicated to sweating. Cold is something new to me here. Ah, but I come from the land of winter snow, so these guys must be suffering, right? Advantage: pale guy.

And then the Army rolled in.

I mean it: the Army rolled into the hotel, twenty of them in matching black track suits with red trim, some with ” X-Country 2011″ on the back, some with the still-mysterious-to-me “Fourteen.” They were strictly business, as Army men should be: clipped hair and mustaches, straight posture, granite composition. In short: lean, mean, running machines.

Hey, winning isn’t everything, right?

Now freed from the burden of being the Great White Hope, I settled into my natural role as the Great White Dope. I milled around the start line, saying hello, meeting the runners, finding the good and the not-so-good English speakers. (Oh, my Hindi? Terrible, terrible…)

Yes, OK, so many words and no mention of the race itself… But what the hell? Does anyone but the uppermost tier run for the race itself? Don’t we runners–we few, we sweaty few–go out there to suffer our personal challenges in the company of others? Indeed.

So, my American running friends, I am pleased to introduce you to your brothers and sisters over here in India–a wonderful community of runners.

That’s what I think Rahul Varghese and the Running and Living crew have done so remarkably, if the Panchkula Half Marathon is any indication. It is one thing to set up a course, time the runners, and give some trinkets to all of the participants, thanks for coming, etc. It is another, in my opinion more difficult, thing to build a community. Congratulations and thanks to the organizers for doing it so well.

The half marathon started exactly on time at 9am. Already I was confused. I was looking for something distinctly Indian about this race–something 180-degrees different than what we do at home. I had expected this race to respect the conventions of IST, i.e., Indian Standard Time, a.k.a., Indian Stretchable time, i.e., late.

No matter. The clock started, and we were off.

The mist refused to quit. The Shivalik Hills were mere meters to our right, but they were an abstract idea, a dark patch only. The sun appeared for a few seconds as a cold, impotent white disk behind the clouds, but then retired until Monday afternoon. I was secretly hoping to be the only white guy in the race but I was more of a purplish color.

(All photos are from Rahul Varghese of Running and Living.)

Two kilometers down the tarmac, and the runners began to separate. From there it was off the proper road and onto a series of jeep tracks and streambed crossings, past a few small settlements, through a stretch of fist-sized rocks, and puffing down a sandy trail. The rocks were challenging–known as “ankle-breakers” to hikers–but the trail was nice, with plenty of soft stuff. I could hear my knees and ankles say, “Ahhhh.”

On we marched through the non-landscape, nothing but a few bushes visible in front of the white curtains, nothing but the occasional buzzing powerlines overhead. Nothing looked different. What gives? The race was organized crisply like a (good) American race. The runners ran like Americans run. Shouldn’t something be wildly different? An elephant wandering by? Someone hassling me for a rickshaw?

On and on. The military men in the lead were doubling back on the twice-repeated out-and-back course. I was even getting whipped like this was an American race. 5 km, 6 km, 7 km–now I was feeling better. My skin was less purple, more pink. My legs were finally uncoiling from two weeks without running. Now that I was doubling back on the other runners, I got to see everyone face-to-face. And my impression of the race was sealed: the runners were wonderfully nice.

I was having a hell of a good time–I was running in India, how strange!–and I wasn’t alone. Runners called out encouragement to each other. “Good job!” “Awesome, awesome!” “Cool, cool!” “Keep running!” Clapping. Waving hands. Smiling. (And yes, grimaces, but that’s running.) So much warmth on a cold day.

Back to North Park Hotel, the halfway mark–51 minutes and some seconds. There were nine runners in front of me, five of them out of reach. The others? Hmm… tempting, tempting, but I’m here for the experience so no need to chase.

Off for the second loop, past the returning runners to the final turnaround–more pain but also more smiles and more encouragement–and still I had not seen anything demonstrably Indian. A man at one of the water stations asked if I was on my final lap. I told him, “I hope so.”

At the final turnaround, the three-quarter mark, I stepped off the course for a moment to inspect some bushes. Returning to the course, I heard some twigs crack behind me. What, hey? I hoped I didn’t disturb anyone. But there it was, what I was looking for, that Indian touch to the race emerging from the mist and onto the course like an errant river barge: a water buffalo.

(Now please, all of my American friends, don’t mention to my Indian friends here that I grew up in farmland USA, and that I’ve probably run by more cows than people. That would ruin my point here.)

5 km to go. All of the runners that I could possibly catch are within striking distance. I pass one of them, and then I am passed by someone else. That wasn’t in the script. There he went, pulling away, disappearing occasionally in the fog, an apparition on the trail.

What the hell? What kind of experience is it to get beat? Maybe this was the Indian race and the Indian runner that I sought. Maybe the difference didn’t need to erupt from the sidelines in a choreographed song-and-dance routine. (I have seen the movies. I know how this works.) Maybe I was looking for something more basic, simply: a race in India.

So I raced in India.

3 km–I reeled him in closer, closer. Four of his friends came in from the side of the road to help pace him home. Indian hip hop music played out loud from their cell phones as I caught the group, which now included one of the runners in front of us.

2km–The roving course ambulance trundled by, threatening to give its driver some extra work to do, pinching us to the left side of the road. As it went by I made a move. The runner in the white shirt followed and led and followed, back-and-forth. 1 km–We passed another runner, the pace accelerating with no end in sight in the mist. How long? How long?

The turnoff emerged from the fog like a water buffalo. Just a few hundred meters to go, and I made a move. This quick move dropped the runner that was going with me but, as I made the turn, the runner that had passed me 5 km ago, came in on the right and left me a few meters behind in the final stretch. Grinning like a fool, I crossed the line after him.

In India, they know how to race.

Final time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

Kolkata: Down the Maidan

Monuments are the highlight of tourism. Like an entire sporting match condensed to a series of big plays for television shows, monuments draw the casual viewer’s eyes to the most striking sights.

Before we get too far: I’m not going to attempt irony here. I like monuments and distilled tourism myself. It gives the wandering ignorant (me) something to grasp. Here in Kolkata I need all the help I can get grasping anything. Even I have visited the Victoria Memorial, one of the city’s chief monuments, twice now; my first was 2006. It is an impressive play and I am not above taking cues from the guidebook. (Beware anyone who says “real India.”)

I like to walk–not out of a perverse sense of cheapness, but just because I like to walk. I walk at home and I walk here. I like to see and feel–and, for good or ill, smell and breathe–the scene from the ground. Walking shows the connective tissue between monuments. Walking gives dimension to the place that would otherwise be glossed over.

In Kolkata one of those dimensions is honking–cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, even ting-a-linging bicycles. They honk when passing or turning to say, “I am here! I am here!” They erupt in a tremendous peal of honking when the traffic light changes from red to green. They honk in that good old fashioned American way to inform an offending driver what will be performed on his mother tonight.

The sum of all this honking and vrooming, of all of this exhaust inhalation and harrowing street crossing, is a stressful experience. I enjoy it, in a way, because it is culturally strange and thus a Valuable Experience, but I am sure this noise will be the soundtrack in my cubicle in hell.

One day, quite by accident, I discovered the Maidan. Everybody breathe in; hold it. Now breathe out; say, “Ah.” You’ve just shared my experience of the Maidan.

The Maidan is a huge open green area stretching several kilometers between the city center and the Hooghly River. It is a wonderful and literal breath of fresh air that I was lucky to find. After grabbing another kati roll for lunch I was trying to find the Park Street metro station, but I got sidetracked and lost crossing Jawaharlal Nehru Road. (I will explain later: the Sikhs distracted me.)

Instead of the metro station, I found a park and a game of cricket–a fair substitute, if a bit short on transportation opportunities. I am fascinated by the sport, not because I find it terribly exciting–it’s like baseball, except the guy who throws the ball is an athlete–but because I’ve lived so long without encountering a sport that a third of the world plays. In this little bit of heaven–the northern tip of the Maidan is even called Eden Gardens–the traffic noise was somewhat filtered by the trees and the members of the tourist support industry (read: beggars, vendors, and drivers) were no nowhere to be found. And there, with no monuments bigger than the wickets, I spent a good hour watching a game.

The next day I walked across JN Road, purposefully this time, with another kati roll–single egg double chicken, excellent, excellent–and watched the cricket players, this time performing drills, batting practice, sprints, fielding, etc. Walking south down the Maidan, toward the Victoria Memorial looming through the hazy sun, I found more of the same: cricket as far as I could see, ranging in skill and professionalism from the games with spectators on the north side to kids with tennis balls in overlapping fields on the south side.

I watched there on the north end, which also had the benefit of shade trees, before wandering down the Maidan, past the cricket matches, ponies, kites, goats, and snack vendors, until I made it to Queen’s Way, the street in front of the Victoria Memorial, where the world again lapsed into monumental sights and cacophony.

[Photos, of course are forthcoming.]