For someone whose blog is called “We Need To Stop Running” I’ve been doing a lot of running lately. I always have, at work or at play, running from one end of the city or the world to the other, from one self - invented crisis or activity to the other. Off late though it’s been the actual physical kind of running that’s got me leaving the house at an early hour.
Apparently the “We Need To Stop Running” doesn’t apply to the “I”.
Running in Bombay is by and large a pastime for the well heeled, our feet cushioned by our Airs. We run up Marine Drive, past Chowpatty Beach, right onto Babulnath Temple Road and then left onto Hughes Road. The BMC’s city sweepers clear the debris of the night before, the last of the party goers heading home at 5.30 as the first runners hit the streets. As a city Bombay never sleeps.
The homeless poor lie covered under thin sheets and blankets, sleeping on the dividers that separate Marine Drive from the sea. They’re in no rush to wake up, if anything keen to keep the day’s light out for as long as they can.
On the turn back from Kemp’s Corner I pass an elderly chowkidar, a security guard, doing his surya namaskars in the 6m2 courtyard of his Master’s home. No fancy branded yoga mat or pants for him, just the hard tiles, his working pants and trousers and a basic human desire to be fit or to take care of himself.
A wannabe prophet or Messiah crosses the road towards Chowpatty, dressed in a long white flowing gown, long black beard and a tall round cap on his head, a maniacal look trying to pass for a beatific smile on his face. He shouts out something, to no one in particular. The onlookers give him a tired “not now, not even in Bombay” look, it’s 7 am on a Sunday morning and Heaven and salvation will have to wait.
As Marine Drive approaches again the sun is out and the crowds are thicker. Mothers and daughters walking and talking together, husbands and wives walking in silence and groups of men in their sixties ambling along, gossiping and back slapping each other, school boys at heart. A homeless youngster finally gets up, throws off his sheet, buttons his shirt and goes in search of a place to wash.
I approach home and stop running. My parents, visiting from Bangalore, are up ahead, walking towards me, my father shuffling more than walking. He ran around this city once, in what he calls ‘his city’, as a young doctor. Those days of running are over now.
We're in the middle of Bombay's second summer, with searing heat, and yet there's an image from the just concluded monsoon that won't leave my mind. I was standing outside a forgettable hotel in a forgettable grimy suburb of Mumbai during the lunch break, catching my breath and a bit of daylight after having delivered a training session in the basement of the hotel. The rain was coming down in buckets, filling the half completed concrete road dividers with water that then flowed over onto the street. Out of nowhere a family of four appeared, husband, wife, a three or four year old son and a baby tucked under the woman's left arm.
Three of them drank hungrily from the concrete divider, the adults reaching in with both hands and taking water to their mouth, the boy catching the overflow with his little hands. The woman dipped the edge of her sari into the divider and squeezed water into the baby's mouth. They drank with dedication, oblivious or not caring that they were being watched, their poverty absolute and somehow with their dignity and grace intact, less like humans in an imperfect city and more like animals at a reservoir.
Our kids have occupied the various work spaces in the house. School projects and university applications are underway and we have a third teen in the house for a week, an exchange student from France. I am listening to the just downloaded J.J. Cale album and could go thirty years back in time, were it not for the fact that we're the parents now, ferrying our kids from school to party to project and that it's the kids that are throwing up and passing out. Not ours of course, but other parents'...
Our omnipresent Prime Minister Modi has called it. We're a nation of filth, failing to provide proper toilets for sixty percent of the population, throwing the spoils of modernity, plastic wrapping and bottles, onto the street from our houses and our cars for others to sweep up after us. We're convinced that with material progress comes the right to have others clean up after us.
The Prime Minister called it from the ramparts of Red Fort on Independence Day and has repeated the message over and over again in other speeches and via social media: if we are to progress we will have to learn to clean up after ourselves. He has linked it to Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary in 2019 and named the project Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan.
We're in the beautiful people phase of the project right now, with socialites, actors and business people trying to wield a broom for their photo op, helpfully moving leaves from one side of the street to another. School kids have been picking up the challenge, tackling parts of the city. Let's see whether the adults manage to develop their share of dignity and grace between now and 2019 and learn to clean up after themselves.
Btw, the banner photo was taken from our holiday home outside of San Gimignano at 6.20 am. What light! It lasted all of five minutes.