On the dawn road in Dehradun, amidst the cold kiss of winter which makes the eyes water, the romance is in the running, nothing else. Love and speed are evidently not compatible.
I know this because the woman who has just passed the Garhi Cantonment fire station won’t wait for her husband. She trots like a tireless farm horse, he puffs like a reluctant steam engine. A divide emerges in their relationship, maybe 60m, whereupon he gathers his resolve, surges forward, catches her triumphantly and then collapses with the effort.
She runs on, oblivious. He readies himself for the next charge.
It’s 6.36am and Bob Dylan is awake in my ear. I haven’t run in India since I was a boy and I have forgotten Indian mornings, the mufflers and monkey caps, the stray dogs who act as occasional pacers, and the roadside monuments. Two lonely water tankers stand near some trees and wait to be hitched. An uprooted traffic light lies prone near a wall. Defeated perhaps by those who won’t obey it.
Singapore, where I live, has an order but a repetitive heat. In Dehradun, the morning is as fresh as Horilal’s washed vegetables. Across the road, smoke signals from New Kamal Dairy are easily deciphered: Tea is ready. A fellow shows off by cycling without using his hands; one day he might be unseated by one of the lawless monkeys.
Soon the city will be noisy, tired, indolent, uncaring, but for now as it stretches its legs there is still promise and commonality. We are all here for the open road, fighting the tarmac in our desire to find speed, improve our heart rate, hold back age, reduce blood pressure, battle diabetes, lose kilos, lighten stress, work off a divorce, better a time, forget a boss, follow a father’s advice, sweat off last night’s Old Monk.
Me? I am running partly for my mother.
I have been in Dehradun for 42 days. I left India 20 years ago and in all this time away I have never been here for so long at one stretch. Usually it’s a week, 10 days, English Book Depot, politics, aloo parathas, a kiss from parents and I am gone. But my father returned to nature (it’s how he would describe his death) in October last year and now my mother, 87, reader, gardener, alert, wise, and our family’s diminutive but never-disobeyed commander, is caught in an independent woman’s nightmare: bedridden by a stroke.
I have role models. My ex-wife and her sisters cared for their mother, whose Alzheimer’s advanced like a silent, unforgiving thug, with muscular, moving devotion. It was my first close look at a most profound role reversal wherein the child becomes carer. For all our artificial divisions, we are unified by this. A new vocabulary emerges, of Ryles tubes and catheters, betadine and bedsores, urine bags and mucous extractors. We think we know compassion and duty but an education and examination await us.
Caring is revealing. It tests for patience, it demands humanity, it irritates, it drains. It’s the ultimate long-distance run, no finish line known, and so you have to train, and it’s why I wake most days at 6.24am.
Muhammad Ali used to train at a place called Deer Lake in Pennsylvania, rising to run at 5-something-am and followed sometimes by children from the local town. I have this image of him in my head when I start. Getting ready in the darkness for the scrap of the day.
I have been asking people why they run, and one of them is my friend Prajwal. “I started,” she said, “after my mother passed away. Like her, I was a walker. A friend encouraged me to get a move on, push the pace, and at first it helped me cope with the loss, then it was liberating.”
I am finding strength and calm but also amusement. Journalists carry notebooks in their heads and mine is full of morning observations. There will be time later for bilirubin levels and platelet counts. When I get home, I type out notes.
A young walker with an Afro and beard looks like he spent too late a night with Jim Morrison. An old man sits near his cart full of flower pots, a tiny field of yellow on wheels. A fellow does exercises which no manual has ever advocated. A hefty woman carries a big stick. A colonel sort of chap, whom I might have inadvertently promoted, has an erect gait only found in an army surplus store. Something from my past stirs and on Spotify Billy Joel is singing:
He says, son, can you play me a memory?
I’m not really sure how it goes
But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man’s clothes
Thirty minutes of running is enough to feel renewed, ready for the day, physically warmed, psychologically armed. Every day’s run is like a windshield wiper for the brain. A cleansing. A restart. A forward step. All the absurd symbolism I can think of.
Now and then in Singapore, if a day is too hot, or my calf whines, I will just stop, but not here. I don’t know what it means, but I can’t. I am running for something I don’t even completely understand, but I need to finish.
Small clouds emerge when I breathe. A stationary truck gives off the acrid smell of fresh tar but warms me fleetingly with its heat. I want to thank the lady who is always jogging ahead of her husband because in an unsparing, pitiless year, she makes me smile.
Because when I saw her last week, she was walking with her husband.
And she was holding his hand.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.