Opinion | Running with my smaller self
In my running fantasies, I have won the Booker and heroically stood up to my school bully. But these days, I am happy to play second string
This may come as a surprise to those who knew me in college, when my nightly exercise regimen comprised a few rigorous games of beer pong, but in recent years I’ve taken to running. I’m not one of the nuts, like the ultra-runners and marathoners you might’ve seen on the side of the road, pumping along in shorts so brief Miley Cyrus would take notice, but I have come to enjoy it a great deal, and I can usually clock a few kilometres in decent time.
I start my run on a patch of reclaimed ocean called Jogger’s Park. By Mumbai standards this is a magnificent, rolling green such as the Mughals once built, but to anyone from a city where the residents do not live hundreds stacked atop the other like the world’s most expensive game of Jenga, Jogger’s Park looks just what it is: a 400m track of yellow earth poured on concrete, with a couple of swings and slides and a solitary jungle gym, much in demand, at which children queue up like commuters waiting for the morning bus to work. I’m being facetious; in honesty I love running there. In the evening the smog and sun settle and the sky lights up in a bevy of pinks, a breeze rises, and as you take your little circles you watch the dusk dampen to grey and the clouds race each other over a sprawling ocean vista.
But this tiny track does pose a few problems. Chief is boredom. The short rounds become repetitive very quickly. Then I discovered something interesting. Jogger’s Park, like so many public gardens in India, is filled with couples in various stages of desire. Yet unlike, say, Lodi Gardens in Delhi, the city where I grew up, here I noticed quite a few of the women are in full abaya-amira. Perhaps because of a nearby college, Jogger’s Park attracts an inordinate number of young Muslim women who dress very conservatively, but seem happy to find a modest kind of passion in a family park. I would laugh inwardly as I jogged past, at these girls’ parents, their brothers, neighbours and priests, who make this escalating demand to cloak and shroud and cover and yet are so resoundingly defeated by biology. At the vanity of these old men and women, to think they could prevail over a force as compelling and overwhelming as puberty. You could dress 16-year-old boys and girls of any religion in the most forbidding garment devised—say, for instance, those metal-lined radiation suits—and not only would they find ways to frisk each other silly, soon enough their generation would consider HAZMAT protective gear intensely erotic.
The strange thing about parenthood is that even as you go about doing the things you’ve done for years, the routine, monotonous, quotidian, far away from your child, whether at work or play, they find a way to be there. They sit within you, embedding deeper in your consciousness. A part of your inside is now forever theirs.
I used to tell friends that I use my evening run to structure my thoughts about the next thing I’m writing. If the weather is right and the mind is right and I’m lucky, things do sometimes work out that way, but it’s far more likely, as I run, that my brain is casting a fishing line here and there, searching for something to reel in and think about. This is how I became India’s most famous rock star.
I wonder if this is an affliction peculiar to me, or one, perhaps, of writers who like to run, or if it is every runner who does this, but during laps of this little garden I grant my fantasies full rein—I water them and feed them and they grow big and strong as a banyan. Raveena Tandon leaves Hindutva and tip-tips over to me? Happened in Jogger’s Park. Booker Prize? Won it already. Why yes, how did you guess, in Jogger’s Park. Back to school to beat up that guy who beat me up? In Jogger’s Park even this is possible.
But my most-nurtured fantasy involves me working as a successful writer by day and then at night, a bit like Batman, transforming into the lead singer of a band. We usually perform in small bars in Goa where they appreciate our unique sound, but sometimes—one needs to pay the bills—we relent, sell out and do bigger gigs, concerts and festivals and what have you. Depending on the tune pumping out of my earphones, these fantasies vary in texture and believability—I once had the Shillong Chamber Orchestra doing backup vocals as I performed a number by Otis Redding—but there is a common thread uniting them all. It is that I am the lead singer, the star, the show-stopping centrepiece of the dream.
Yet lately someone has begun to intrude. I often run to the same playlists, and the one I turn to most regularly has, at its apogee, November Rain, by Guns ‘n’ Roses. Like perhaps every member of my generation, I love this song, and the dramatic crescendo is perfect for that second wind, when you want to push yourself an extra kilometre or sprint the final lap. I have been playing out November Rain fantasies in my head since I was perhaps 10 years old. In each I am first the lead singer, Axl Rose, and then, when the guitar bit gets really wild, slide seamlessly into the role of Slash, the top-hatted guitarist who seemed then the definition of cool.
Now it is different. I start, of course, seated at a huge white grand piano (I have no idea how to play a piano), belting out each famous verse. But then the finale approaches, and now I find, instead of me climbing on to the piano and starting to shred, as Slash does in the music video, it is my son in a little top hat, Phantom cigarette between his lips, still only a few years old, a prodigy unlike any other, incandescent talent and tearaway skill. He has the audience screaming as I happily tinkle away on the piano in the back. Frankly, I’m amazed that I’m willing to give up centre stage like this, even if it is for my own son, even if it is only a dream. But I have taken it as a sign, and as soon as he is able, I will be surrounding and submerging him with every kind of musical instrument.
So imagine my horror one morning, when I came home from a run just like the one I’ve described above, to find him bouncing on his mother’s lap as she sang into his ear. She sang from one of the great albums of the 20th century, Abbey Road, by The Beatles. Now, my lovely, vivacious wife has one of those remarkable falsetto voices that reminds you of the sound a hawk makes as it swoops down on a rabbit. Blood-curdling, I think, is the scientific term. It dances along the musical scale, then it finds a few scales of its own.
It isn’t her fault. She went to school in a convent in Kolkata. Nuns of all denomination, it seems, have a simple rule when it comes to singing: if you can’t hit the note, go falsetto. If you don’t believe me, watch The Sound Of Music with any woman educated in a convent. This woman will shriek her way through the film—she will also know every single line of each song—until your ears bleed, until your spirit saps, until you’d welcome crucifixion in exchange for a few minutes of silence.
When I walked into the house that morning, my wife was singing (the admittedly complex) Oh, Darling. What a fight ensued. I tried to explain that these early years are crucial, that he must be surrounded with only the best art. In response, she claimed to have been part of her school choir, but I can’t imagine how this could be the case, unless the nuns were playing some kind of vicious prank on the churchgoers of Kolkata. Whatever it is, we resolved never to fight like that again in front of our son. I only have to make sure she doesn’t see this article.
Dad Goals is a monthly series on the pleasures and pitfalls of becoming a first-time father. Prayaag Akbar is the author of the novel Leila.