Allow me a twist on the popular story of Vikram and Betaal. Life resembles the king with the riddle-loving vampire on his shoulder; it is always you and your baggage. The latter keeps gathering mass. Everybody has his/her demon to slay during a morning run. I have mine: it is usually a chorus of voices reminding me of how little money I made in life and how my happiness hangs by a slender thread. My Betaal loves to do this. There are days when he disappears quickly; there are days when no matter how far I run he stays there, chattering away.
Some people are strong enough to run with the demon on the shoulder. Ever since its annual marathon became popular, Mumbai has served as the informal capital of amateur running in India. By November-December, the main road hugging the city’s west coast and leading to Marine Drive witnesses a long line of early morning runners logging their miles. The noise level is rarely high — all you hear is the sound of breathing and feet shuffling by. It is a beautiful experience, but it does not silence the Betaals around.
Once in a while, you hear ongoing conversation about the share market and how the real estate bubble is faring. You hear chatter about the latest in job-hopping. Sometimes, the conversation is around office politics. This is not surprising because there is heavy corporate involvement in running, with companies spawning teams and employees showing up to train as groups.
But who benefits from all that exercise if the baggage cannot be exorcised — Vikram or Betaal?
Fed well, the corporate Betaal hangs on tenaciously into race day. Most runners try to give their best at the annual marathon. Who does not like a personal best in timing? And if you helped somebody get his/her personal best, it is both a good article for the in-house magazine and, hopefully, a gesture not easily forgotten by the beneficiary. At a previous edition of the event, I remember somebody nearby discussing anxiously with his friend whether he did the right thing by ditching his slow-moving boss so that he could salvage his own timing — “I kept him company for a long time but he was slowing me down. So I had to eventually leave him and move ahead. It’s okay, no? I took his permission…” At the finish line, the man decided to go back looking for his boss. Maybe it was corporate team spirit; maybe it was our habitual search for brownie points from superiors — who knows? Either way, Betaal was having a field day perched on runners’ shoulders.
Talking of shoulders, a defeated posture is what one of my neighbours sported while speaking of his frustration with running. Despite his best efforts, his timing was not improving and given he worked in a company where running was a major fad in the hierarchy, this Betaal hurt much the same way regular work-related stress did. I asked him why it should matter. Couldn’t he let go of this obsession with timing; couldn’t he find peace in his own pace? “You know, there is a notice board in the office where good runners display their timings,’’ he said sadly, adding how such tactics improved one’s chances of being in the good books of the mighty. It was like social media: the greater the visibility, the greater the chance of bagging a reward.
That was a formidable Betaal, strong enough for the runner in question to run in ways in which he could end up injured. But he didn’t give up. He joined hands with others to organize races.
Betaal would approve.