As day breaks amidst bird calls and greenery, we discover how Nageswara Rao Park leads people on the path to a healthy life

Nageswara Rao Park is locked. “Where are the hundred people who’re supposed to walk here at 4.15 in the morning?” I want to ask, but the watchman who gave out that information is not around. The FM radio in the car plays ‘Loosu Penne’; the irony makes me laugh. I go from Luz Avenue Road to Luz Church Road. But that tall gate is also trussed up. A spot-lit brass signboard gives me its full name — Desodharaka K. Nageswara Rao Pantulu Park. I write it down slowly to pass time. “The gates open at 4.45,” one walker on the road says; I swat mosquitoes for 20 minutes.

Shanti, the resident caretaker’s wife, unlocks the Luz Avenue gate at 4.47 a.m. “It’s Sunday, lots of walkers will come,” she tells me. Crickets chirp loudly in welcome, and I walk into the neatly paved path. Well-lit in parts, cloaked in silvery darkness in bits, the winding path is hugged by bushes and thick barks. The trees’ wide canopies block out the sky, but where I see it, it’s studded with flashy, white stars. Two men walk past me, but I linger near the gate, waiting for more walkers to turn up.

Birds, whose calls I wish I understood, speak to each other. I hear footwear scraping on the paving stones; an old couple walk in at 4.58 a.m. The man walks briskly, rotating a short, wooden stick; the woman keeps pace in a sari and walking shoes. V. Chandrasekharan, a park regular for 15 years, tells me he does several rounds every morning. “Just two rounds is well over a km,” he says.

A bat flies past my ear softly, and vanishes into an Ashoka tree. I walk slowly, admiring the lovely garden, the dark greens of early morning and yellow-brown huddle of bamboo. As I step around carpets of Gulmohar blossoms, the first jogger arrives, and runs past me in a blur. At 5.23 a.m, I try to keep up with senior journalist S. Murari. He tells me about free yoga classes in the park, introduces me to another regular who’re greeted with a cheery ‘good morning Dhandu sir’ by a group of walkers. In the 1960s, the park was just half this size, they both tell me.

Still earlier the present four-acre park was only Aratha Kuttai. Nageswara Rao (founder of the neighbouring Amrutanjan factory) convinced the local residents to develop the area when the kuttai (pond) began to dry up. And so, since 1940, when Aratha Kuttai was reclaimed, the park has remained Mylapore’s lung. Bells toll from Luz Church before 6 a.m. The sky is a watery blue and the bird songs sound less urgent. Preening, black heads appear on the branches above. By the main entrance, an iron arch is partly covered by Rangoon creeper, its slender pink and white flowers scent the air. Men and women walk past, flicking through iPods, talking on cell phones or chatting with companions. Some arrive with yoga mats. Two men drag a net across a sandy stretch in the centre of the park, and draw boundary lines with a fat stick. A badminton court is born.

By an old water fountain, crows drink rainwater from a puddle. On one side, two men squat, stretch and jog on the spot. Nearby, another sits cross-legged on a bench, holding his nose in pranayama. “Usually, there are some people checking BP, fasting sugar and BMI by the entrance. Maybe they’re at Panagal Park today,” says Dr. Shankar, waiting for the badminton game to start.

I spot the first butterfly at 6.30 a.m. More people walk in; they rotate their shoulders, stretch their arms, and twist their necks; some put the benches to good use, using them for press-ups. The sun skims over the trees; crotons move from shadow to light. Parakeets screech over the head, the yoga group inhales and exhales at the command of the teacher. Behind palm trees, four young women rotate their hips round and round. They laugh when they see me watching them, and stop their exercise. One man is walking backwards; others move out of his way.

In the children’s play area, a man reads the newspaper; another hangs off the monkey bar, only to fall. His friends tease him in Telugu; all I understand is the word ‘overweight’. A little boy trains, walking backwards, and then sprinting forward, like a catapult; his coach corrects his technique. By the chess square, a group of senor citizens chats; flights roar overhead. Dust dances inside a band of sunshine; bees search for honey. When I leave the park, hundreds of people are walking; the coconut-water seller has set up shop; bikes and cars line the streets around. For a few hours every morning and evening, this park clearly leads people on the path to a healthy life.

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