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When running meant running away

The road to fitness was not always easy.

Many years ago, as a high school student in a steel city, I decided to take up long-distance running as a hobby. We stayed close to Forest Avenue, an arterial road connecting the steel plant to the township.

Early in the day, there was not much traffic other than employees returning home after the night shift. Those were the days when two-wheelers and cars were neither easily available nor affordable. Many employees commuted to work on bicycles.

In my first week on the road, an employee returning home wondered why I was running and offered me a lift on his bicycle. When I told him it was a planned run, he shook his head in disbelief.

Not satisfied

A few days later, I was accosted by another cyclist. He demanded aggressively to know what I was doing on that isolated stretch so early in the morning. My explanation that I wanted to practise long-distance running did not satisfy him.

In a no-nonsense tone, he said, “If you want to run, you run 100-200 metres or at the most 400 metres and go home.” He was convinced I was running away from home and decided to take me to the police station. I managed to get the better of him in the ensuing scuffle and scampered home.

For the next two months, I avoided running on Forest Avenue. A few days later when I ventured back, I met the same man. Since I had obviously not run away from home, he realised there was some truth in what I had told him. Though he was not aggressive anymore, he stayed unconvinced. “You are wasting your time. Go home and study,” he said. I continued on my run.

We met often after that. He remained disdainful of my running. After school, I moved to an engineering college. During vacations, I would be back running on Forest Avenue and would often meet him. One day he told me, “Ab to sudhar jao (High time you improved).”

Good for nothing

Soon after I completed my engineering, I was lucky I could fulfil my childhood ambition of becoming a commissioned officer in the Army. During an annual leave, when I was back on Forest Avenue, I met my cyclist well-wisher again. To his “What are you up to now?” I very proudly responded, “I am in the Army.”

Disappointment writ large on his face, he said, “Army? Army! I knew you were good-for-nothing. Had you not wasted your time running, you would have been able to join this steel plant instead.”

In October 1999, just a few weeks after the Kargil war, my father received a letter. It was from the same gentleman. He had taken pains to find my father’s post-retirement address to send a rather apologetic note. TV had brought the Kargil war into the drawing rooms of common people and it had changed his views about the Army dramatically.

Wherever he is today, I hope the gentleman has changed his views about running too.

ktudupa@gmail.com

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 10:34:29 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/when-running-meant-running-away/article29604313.ece

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