Sunday, April 15, 2012

My First Book


Perhaps it’s apropos for a week in which the London Book Fair kicks off to write this blog post.

This is a post about reading. And about the very first book that I ever read, by myself, to myself. 

This happened many, many years ago. It was an oddly iridescent autumnal afternoon in New York City. I was in the library of a school on the Upper East Side, surrounded by classmates as we made our way through our readers. I remember looking at a hardbound book, the cover an odd aquamarine green, with a large brown/white chick on it, purportedly frolicking in a treetop nest.

It was a book I knew well; I had been introduced to it some weeks back by a South Korean classmate who could already read. She had read it out to me, the story a tragic one of a bird that hatched while its mother was away and who then went on a long, arduous quest that covered several pages encountering strange and wonderful animals and machines, to which it always posed the same, distraught question.

Shawn had read the story out to me, one to one. We had already decided that we were dating. So what if we were only six? This was life in the Big Apple, and one moved quickly, before a Puerto Rican called Carlos or a New England WASP called Douglas moved in. Her name was Shawn, and she was a child model for magazines and catalogues. Yes, it was that kind of school. (To be fair, we were both the best looking ones in that class, and it was inevitable we’d have ended up together. Not to mention the fact that her mother, on having met me on a number of parent-student occasions, was in love with me too)

Anyway, I digress. Shawn had read out the contents of this book to me, and I was stricken. Madly in love with the idea of being able to pick up a book, any book, and being able to read, to decipher it, to understand what mysteries it held within, held a strange and wonderful allure.

Several weeks after that first instance, I found myself standing in the same library, my eyes looking for that green hardbound cover in a sea of books that lined the bookshelves. I had applied myself to understanding the power of the written word with great diligence, keen to impress upon Shawn that I was not a laggard, but merely that I had spent the past several months travelling the South Asian continent whilst she had been learning how to read during a hot New York summer month (yes, Asian children are overachievers.)

I still recall my eye catching that cover, seeing the distinctive (almost feathered) lettering and pulling out the book. I can still close my eyes and remember the feel of that book, its cover having absorbed the dust of several years of grubby schoolchildren fingers into its paper, holding out a slightly grainy feel. I can see myself opening the book, my chubby six-year old finger tracing the letters of the title as I mouthed out the words that I had learnt together made a sentence.

“Are You My Mother?”

And so was born the greatest love affair of my life. The love of reading; the love of the written word, the love of finding a book to read all by myself, no matter where I was, how lonely or scared or unhappy or bored or tired or unwell or happy or content or just there.

A love to last a lifetime. 

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Run, Buddha, Run

This is yet another explanatory post.

A post to explain my life. My choices. My decisions, and those weird things that make up that tiny part of your life that I inhabit and make that life of yours a little bit, well, odd. And for which, I should add, I apologise unconditionally.

If you're someone who's in my life as a friend or acquaintance, you might have recently have had to deal with my continual chatter about running. About how amazing, fascinating, empowering, etc etc etc it all was. About why I feel the need to enter all these marathons, half-marathons, 10k races, charitable events, etc etc. About my desire - no, my need - to keep running.

I owe you an explanation of this choice. This choice to keep running.

Ah yes. Running.

No matter how I articulate this, there are not enough words to explain why running is so important to me. But by virtue of this post, I hope to communicate why it's so critical a part of who I am today, even though it had a very minor (if barely noticeable) part to play in my life this time last year. 

Maybe I should start at the very end of a long run. For example, about two weeks back I ran a little over the length of a half marathon, which is over 21 km. Not an insignificant distance, but which I cannot say is either terrifying or even weirdly challenging anymore. But, the very first time I ran that distance, every single footstep, every time my foot hit the ground, I was motivating myself to keep going, telling myself that I couldn't quit, that it would be worth it when I finished. I had no way to know I'd be able to last the course; nothing except the sheer stubbornness of my head telling my legs to keep moving.

Maybe that's the first part of why I run. Because I know that it is a straightforward way to keep pushing myself. To identify a personal hurdle (a distance, a time, a personal best) and to to challenge it. For someone as utterly competitive as I am, running allows me to compete with the only worthy and evenly matched opponent I know: myself. Every time I start a run, I have only my own track record to contend with - my own personal previous best, my history, my legacy. 

And that is a legacy worth breaking.

But there is another element to my becoming a runner, which I can only explain by going back into my past. And I have to go back to the time that I was a young teenager, living in Namibia, the only slightly effete Indian guy in a class full of Afrikaaner boys and girls. A time that I can now turn around and admit was terribly painful and oppressive in the way that only teenage years can be; a time when being an outsider, of being different, of being unconventional (all those qualities desirable as an adult to differentiate yourself from the crowd) were qualities you abhorred in your teenage years, when being different, unusual, non-conforming even, marked you out, at best, as an outsider, or, at worst, as the one who deigned not to blend in or participate. Or worse still, marked you out as the week's target to be bullied during lunch breaks.

In my case, these were not attributes that I could step away from, and which only served to emphasise my difference from my peers. Add to that my innate introversion at that age, and I was your stereotypically emo teenager. The one who stayed indoors, read a lot, played music, and was pretty studious in class. In another time, another space, I might have become a Goth.

I didn't. I just survived. (Mostly because Indian kids don't make good Goths.) I made do, I did well academically, I somehow managed to get through what I today recognise as one of the most isolated periods of my life. But it was a time when I was the chubby emotional outsider who didn't play sport, who didn't fit in, who didn't actually do anything that all the other boys my age did. And by virtue of the bullying, became someone who was embarrassed of my weight, of being chubby, of being, well, fat. And my inability to do anything athletic reinforced that sense of worthlessness, no matter what I might have achieved in other aspects of my life; who cared if I had a near-perfect academic grade if I was still a fat kid? 

But, as an adult, things have changed. I've lost weight. I've grown comfortable in my skin (well, mostly.) I've learnt to accept myself. And I found pleasure in sports. Mostly because I've realised that the sports that I do best at are the ones where I don't have to be part of a team, a forced commune that encourages bonds and relies on others. I work best when I am on my own, pushing myself, and ultimately, against myself. Other people just.. get in the way. They complicate matters, force you to rely on them, make your performance dependent on their performance. When it comes to sport, I am not a team player. And running has allowed me that avenue of an activity that does not rely on much more than a good pair of shoes, the use of my own legs, and the ground beneath my feet. And I can leave the house, hit the road, and be free.

Perhaps the oddest sensation is now revelling in the sheer physicality of my body. Realising that I can run, I can keep going for distances that previously I thought impossible, that my body will not let me down, that it will work with my will and my mind and together we can do things that are so simple, so natural, and yet unbelievable. I can think back to a particular moment during my half marathon two weeks back, around the time that I had covered three quarters of the distance, when my legs were starting to feel the strain of the long uphill course, when I suddenly got my second wind. Suddenly the leaden feeling was gone from my calves, my feet didn't hurt anymore and I had that characteristic shiver down my spine as the endorphins rushed down from my brain. I could see people lining the course cheering, their faces a mixture of wonder and enthusiasm at the effort that I and so many other runners were making - and there was a sense that I was, for once, invincible.

It was magic. 

And that sense of freedom, of liberation, of knowing that my body is no longer the weak, ineffectual one that I recalled from my teenage years, makes me keep wanting to run. To keep pushing it, to keep finding new challenges, new hurdles, new adventures for us to explore together. After so many years of an uneasy acquaintance between us, I have come to love my body. 

So now, when I run as an adult, when I mark my time down the Embankment in London, when I jog past crowds of tourists surrounding the base of the London Eye, I can see many people look at me with bemusement. There I am, in my running gear (which, no matter what anyone might tell you, is never flattering, but utterly critical for longer distances). There are people who might chuckle at seeing me in running tights, folks who might mock my sweatband-decked forehead, my waterproofs. The oddest looks are the ones I get when I run past Vauxhall and see the dregs of last night's clubbing emerging from the shadowy corridors under the railway arches, while I pound the pavements past them, my weekend mornings now characterised by rising early rather than sleeping in late, hungover and bleary eyed.

But every so often, I catch the eye of a random passersby, who clocks me, sees my solitary state of bliss, and who I know, from the glimmer in their eye, understands.

I of course run past them, imagining myself growing fainter as the distance between us opens up. And if I run past a big building of steel and glass and happen to catch my reflection, I can see the slightest smile playing around my lips.

Because I am, of course, running.