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Literary Special 2023: The Very Last Treadmill by Nisha Susan

Kirti’s life changes after a stress test. She discovers a certain restlessness, and a new rolling sensation under feet

Did she know she was a tiny Kuchipudi dancer below her ankles? It is not clear. (Illustration by Kokila B. )

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Until she reached the birth certificate office in Utility Building, no one had noticed that Kirti had been running for 10 days. In the tiny records office on MG Road, they had seen everything before and were usually unflappable. But the clerk was annoyed by Kirti’s vibrations. Her vibrations, not her vibe, I hasten to add. Kirti’s vibe was pleasant and calm, the special calm she put on for government offices. But Kirti was vibrating and the tremor was shaking the clerk’s desk. She looked up to snap at Kirti to stop shaking her leg. But as she was looking up from her desk, the birth certificate clerk who had seen everything saw a whole new thing. A middle-aged woman who looked normal from the ankle and above but was, in fact, running on the spot.

Priya looked again at the woman who wanted a copy of her birth certificate from 42 years ago, Kirti Dsouza, born in St Philomena’s hospital 2.2km away. Priya had been born there too, 37 years ago.

Kirti was running. Priya wasn’t imagining it. Only it was the most peculiar run. It wasn’t like some exercise beku, figure beku person. It was like someone who had been doing a half-hearted imitation of Kuchipudi in a brass plate and had forgotten to stop. Priya looked at her face. She was dressed soberly. She didn’t look like she was crazy. Did Kirti Dsouza know she was running?

Did Kirti know? Did she know she was a tiny Kuchipudi dancer below her ankles? It is not clear. She had started running two weeks ago when a thin young woman from Chittoor ordered her to. Kirti had looked at her thin, childlike body and thought sadly to herself that Yamuna would certainly never be fat and worried about dying of heart disease. Then Kirti kicked herself—as if she hadn’t copy-edited a paper just the previous week about “nutritional mobility, health equity and the inter-generational transmission of relative weight”. Meanwhile, Yamuna stuck nipple-like electrodes all over her, including two just under her bra strap. She asked Kirti a few questions about surgeries (none), medications (none). Questions she had already answered in the echo cardio room. Those she had answered lying down topless in a dark room and concentrating fiercely on the glow in the dark stars on the ceiling. At one point, she had felt one particular star was sending bright rays straight into her brain. And now, as she stood in her bra and leggings on the treadmill, Yamuna, who was hooking up a blood pressure cuff, seemed to shine also.

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Kirti took a deep breath as instructed. And in the deep breath the star’s thrall faded a bit. She chalked up her slight haze to the rare occurrence of being out of the house. Her mother’s doctor had told her on the Zoom call that she was concerned that it wasn’t only her mother who needed anti-depressants. “Yes, your mother is 90 and fragile. But you can mask up and go out of the house once in a while. In fact, I insist you do it once in a week.”

Kirti couldn’t make herself do it. She couldn’t leave. Then she edited an article on the legal and financial tangles of the heirs of people who die without wills. She thought that maybe she could write a will, go to the bank, get her finances organised. That felt okay. Standing in line at the bank during her very first expedition, she felt her heart race in her chest. What if she had a stroke and died? Worse, what if she was paralysed and Moni had to leave college and come back to Bengaluru to look after her. She made her appointments the next morning between her mother’s bath and nap.

Someone pushed at the frosted glass door of the treadmill room. “Female patient,” yelled out Yamuna with a surprisingly resonant voice. Kirti wondered for a moment, then remembered that she was half dressed and wondered when she had lost her sense of modesty. A year of living only with her half-dozing mother and the series of home nurses, perhaps.

When whoever it was went away, Yamuna told her: “There are six stages to the test, ma’am. We need to do three stages minimum. But if there is any problem we can stop ma’am. Any pain or discomfort, you tell me.”

Kirti told herself that there wouldn’t be any pain or discomfort. But she was a bit worried. She had no memory of running. Fat girls are never encouraged to run and she was a lifelong fat girl. As an adult, she had been (so far!) a healthy, energetic fat woman who had periodically taken yoga classes and aerobics classes and Pilates classes and some other things she couldn’t remember right now as Yamuna guided her hands to the safety bars. Water aerobics! That too. Never running. She wondered why Yamuna had her head covered in that small woollen cap that she had seen often in the cancer ward. She almost asked but stopped herself. She didn’t want to know.

Yamuna watched people run every day and occasionally wondered what excuse would allow her to run the treadmill. In the afternoons, when there were no corporate health check-up packages, the hospital was empty. All of Varthur seemed empty. No one would probably notice if she ran in her little frosted glass prison full of the cardboard boxes dumped by the other departments.

Back home in Chittoor, Yamuna had won every running race in school and then later at the district level. When she decided to do a lab tech course in Bangalore, her caste association had made up a new cash prize for her sports talent to justify giving her a scholarship when her marks were really quite bad. Yamuna hadn’t run once since coming to Bangalore five years ago. One morning this month, one of the doctors showed off a photo he had taken in traffic at Marathahalli. Three men running from three different directions towards a bus on a drizzly blue morning. Yamuna was filled with a longing that lasted days. Then an afternoon patient wrote “Dream Therapist” in the occupation column. Yamuna told her that running was her dream. The beautiful woman who ran more elegantly on the treadmill than any patient Yamuna had seen told her she meant the dreams at night. “But if you have the other kind of dream and you feel the need to run in your body, then you must make it happen, Yamuna.” The dream woman spoke to her in Telugu, somehow knew to speak to her in Telugu, except she said, “your body”, in English. And she looked in her eyes when she said Yamuna, reading off the badge that no one else ever bothered doing.

Stage 1. 10% Incline at 2.7 km/h. The moment the treadmill started moving, Kirti felt a small electric jolt in each of her bare feet. She wondered whether she was going to die from electrocution on a faulty treadmill. But no, apparently not.

Stage 2. 12% Incline at 4.02 km/h.

She felt strangely happy and walked along briskly, pretending the wall ahead of her was actually her favourite stretch of Cubbon Park or that hill station in Madhya Pradesh she had once told her husband she would have liked to retire to. That was before he moved to Singapore and decided India was too messy to live or die in. The only muscle memory she definitely had was an eyeroll.

Stage 3. 14% Incline at 5.47 km/h.

Yamuna held her left arm and adjusted something. She asked twice if Kirti was okay but Kirti could barely hear her above the thud-thud of her feet running on the treadmill, her huffing and her dizzying happiness.

Stage 4. 16% Incline at 6.76 km/h.

Kirti let go of the safety bars and was running full-tilt. Yamuna told her several times and with increasing sharpness that she should hold on to the bar but Kirti grinned widely at her and kept thud-thud-thudding.

Stages 5 and 6. 18% Incline at 8.05 km/h and then 20% Incline at 8.85 km/h.

Kirti heard Yamuna open the door for someone behind her and their frantic discussion. Kirti had read long articles about the treadmill test and the Bruce protocol. Bruce Bruce Bruce. Thud Thud Thud. What she remembered right now was a stray phrase. The hedonistic treadmill, a metaphor for the idea that when something amazing happens and human beings experience a surge of happiness, they just get used to it. And the amazing thing is no longer enough to make them happy.

She could never get used to this.

Ma’am, ma’am, they were shouting behind her. Asking if she wanted to stop. As if anyone would want to stop. Were they panicking because she was fat? Did they think she couldn’t run, she couldn’t fly? Yamuna came to stand in front of her and she shone brighter than ever even though her face was an odd mixture of longing and panic.

Moments later, Kirti was off the treadmill, standing in front of it, beside Yamuna. Yamuna, another equally tiny woman in a tech uniform and a sturdier nurse were all in a semi-crouch, as if they were preparing to pounce on a runaway child or animal.

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Why did you jump? Did jumping hurt? Are you feeling okay?

Was she? What was the rolling sensation under her feet as she glided out of the stuffy room with the three women chasing her with her clothes?

Fourteen days later, four days after Priya became the first person to realise Kirti was running, Priya visited her mother in Babusapalya to take her for her weekly walk. Her mother liked to play a day’s worth of WhatsApp videos at top volume while they walked. And no one could persuade her not to. At one point, as they walked slowly round the lake and dozens of people had already frowned at them, her mother stopped to catch her breath. Oh no, it was to show her a video. The flying women of Bangalore? Priya thought it was about pilots, but wrong again.

Her mother said: “Trend ante! I don’t know why people want so much attention. We could all do it if we tried.” Priya, standing closer to her mother than she usually did, closed her eyes with irritation. How much nonsense she talked.

And with eyes closed she could hear something under her mother’s panting. A faint humming sound. She opened her eyes and looked her mother up and down. Why was her sari vibrating? Her mother looked perplexed at Priya, “You care so little for me, you notice nothing. Not like your brother.” This familiar stab galvanised Priya into bending down and roughly lifting her mother’s sari hem. Her mother’s feet were moving, moving, moving. And on her calf, the familiar tiny green tattoo newly meaningful: wings.

Four days earlier, when Kirti left the birth certificate office, she had sped gently to the road. On the footpath she had a sudden flash of a memory of eating with her older cousins in a restaurant in Utility Building. This was possibly her oldest memory of ever being outside the house. She must have been five and she remembered walking as fast as she could to keep up with them as they went upstairs to the restaurant on the first floor. Then she remembered eating her whole meal sitting on a cousin’s lap and looking over the balcony, watching cars go by on MG Road.

Before she knew it, her grown-up feet were taking her upstairs to what was now a Chinese restaurant. She looked past the two waiters who first told her casually that they weren’t open yet and then repeated it with alarm. They hadn’t seen her feet yet. They were only worried at her going past them and jiggling open a closed door to the massive outdoor dining area where the tables were upside down and the giant Buddha statue was covered to protect it from the drizzle. Kirti’s feet wheeled forward and then with a strong leap that would have got admiration for her core strength in her Pilates class, she was standing on the parapet, prepared for take-off. Her feet were buzzing under her and she felt the long-forgotten stirring of anticipation, the way she used to look forward to hot gulab jamuns becoming just-right gulab jamuns. Her feet could take her to the building-sized cutout of the rural hero with the big hammer. He would be right at home with her in the 80s of her childhood. Or if he abjured, she could leap again from his shoulder and wheel into the gentle river of traffic, float like a corpse downstream from a battle and into the waiting waterfall.

She shrugged off her hoodie, peeled off her T-shirt and looked down at the last nipple Yamuna had forgotten to peel off from her rib cage. She heard the waiters yelling behind her, “We are closed, madam, we are closed”. Her feet taxied.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.

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