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Notes from Kerala: Running during COVID

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Every day, at 6 p.m., I set out from my home in Kochi for a run. In these coronavirus times, I have marked out a route that runs parallel to the main road. For a few days, the cops, in khaki uniform, were stopping cars and two-wheelers but they left the individuals alone. 

I have started running after a decade. During those years, I was swimming. But the pool, where I swim, is closed. The lifeguard has gone home. The club is shuttered. There is a lone watchman in a blue uniform standing at the gate and saying, “Nobody is here.” 

In my mid-fifties, it takes time for my body to move. The legs are stiff, and movements in the arms are negligible. But around 300 meters into my run, a miracle happens. My body shakes off the lethargy, my legs start moving rhythmically, and soon I am gliding across the road. A younger version has taken over. Or maybe, my muscle memory has asserted itself. 

It is a beautiful route. There are large trees with overhanging branches on either side.

Most houses have lawns in front where red and white roses bloom. In some homes, there are vegetable patches at the back. In the concrete jungle of Mumbai, you may have to pay crores of rupees to enjoy this. But in Kochi, these are the houses of middle-class people. How lucky we are!  

Over the rasping of my breath through my open mouth, I can hear birdsong. No longer are auto and car horns and the groaning exhaust of ill-maintained lorries the dominant sound. When I run, I no longer have to look at the road, as no vehicles are coming from the opposite direction, just a stray white dog who looks at me with mournful eyes as if asking, “Where have all the people gone?” 

But they are there, inside their houses, and outside too. 

I see a woman picking up a large blue bedsheet from a clothesline on the terrace of her house. I see a thirty-something woman, in a white nightgown, standing at the door, holding a sleeping baby, with a white headscarf, in her arms, and looking curiously at me. On another terrace, a woman is watering her plants, placed on the parapet, a row of red pots, using a green hose. “Nice colour contrast,” I think. 

On this hot, April summer day, with more than 95 per cent humidity, perspiration starts to drip down my forehead. My breath is rushing out, like water from a burst pipe, through my open mouth. Incredibly, at this moment, I think of my mother. 

Last night, when I went to meet her, she said she was thinking of her father. She said the entire family had gone to the St. Alphonsa Pilgrim Centre at Bharananganam (75 km from Kochi). “My father was about to fall into a deep pit, which was hidden under a canopy of weeds,” she said. “But at the very last moment, he bent and saw it. He said that St. Alphonsa had saved him.” 

It is a big family — many brothers and sisters. A few are scattered all over the world. Three have passed away. Her parents are both dead. Their house has become a private college. Where my grandfather used to sit in a low armchair, a short, squat man, with silver hair and a bald brown patch at the top of his head, in a large hall, where the tick-tock of a large black clock on the wall could be heard clearly, now college students come and listen, with drooping eyes, to the drone of a teacher, who looks bored and sounds listless. He’s been teaching the same syllabus for decades. 

As my mother spoke, I realized that she is an orphan. She can never meet her parents anymore except in her imagination. And in a matter of years, I will be an orphan too, as my father is now 93 and my mother is 83. What would life be like without parents? A friend, who lost his parents, told me that you think of them more when they have passed away rather than when they are alive. 

I run faster and expectedly I can feel a pain in my lungs, as my body tells me to slow down. And so I do. 

I am depressed. I have lost my job in the print media, and my 38-year career seems to have come to an end. What do I do now? Owing to the virus, the economy is at a standstill. And so am I. 

I have a daughter and a son in college. Early marriage, but late parenthood. Two miscarriages roiled my wife’s equanimity. But finally, after nine years of marriage, and several treatments at various fertility centres, God nodded and the babies came. But now, how do I pay my bills, their bills, our bills? Thankfully, my wife has a good job as a counsellor in a college. So, we won’t starve. 

Unfortunately, we have a bitter-sweet marriage. The pattern is one week of sweetness followed by three weeks of sourness. This routine has continued for a long time. “You are too self-absorbed,” she said. “I can’t handle it.” 

We have been married for 27 years.   

I partly agree with her. All writers go inside themselves all the time. You lose touch with the outside. You lose awareness of people and their emotional needs. Which woman likes that?

Since I have slowed down, my breath, through my wide-open mouth, has begun to go in and out easier. One day, there will be the last breath. Which day, month and year will it be? At what time? How old will I be? Who will be around me? Will I be in a hospital room all alone? Will my children be far away? In another country? Will they have any affection left for me? 

And will my wife be still around? Will she be staring at me, by my bedside, as I get ready to leave the planet; will it be a bittersweet moment for her? Sad that I am dying but happy for some crumbs of freedom after I am buried — free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I am free at last. 

And nobody will point fingers at her, which might have happened if we had divorced. These accusations could have been shouted at her by relatives or our children. But this is the smoothest way to freedom. The bugger died. Not my fault. 

I feel my legs starting to move smoothly again. I think this is a second wind. If I want, I can stop. But I know I can continue if I keep going in this steady manner. Now my body has become like a machine. Of course, it is an ageing machine. 

It was my friend Sanjay who introduced me to running. I was a frail boy with black-framed spectacles, who liked to read books all the time. A nerd. He lived two buildings away on a street beside a large park in Calcutta. I don’t know how we first met, but we were in our teens. He was 6’ and I was 5’ 5”. And he had a passion for tennis. He played it every day at a club inside the park. And to keep fit, he would go for runs on the perimeter of the park. He urged me to come with him. 

“I have never run before,” I said. There is always a first time, he said. So I asked my parents to buy me a pair of white keds, and they gladly did so. They did not like me staying cooped up inside the house all the time. A shy boy with no friends. 

But when I started running, it was a revelation. I had a smooth style. Always, from the very beginning, I felt that I was gliding over the ground. “Man, you are good,” said Suresh, who showed thumbs up to me. There was a reason for his appreciation. He ran in a heavy lumbering way. Of course, he was 85 kgs and this weight proved a hindrance. It came as no surprise that through the decades, he never liked running. 

But I am sure he likes his present-day life a lot. He is a tennis coach at a millionaires’ club in Florida. Through shrewd real-estate deals and stock investments, Suresh has made a pot of money. He lives in a gated community that has a clear lake, an amber-blue swimming pool, a well-equipped gym and a gleaming black Mercedes Benz in his garage. But he has stayed in touch. Calls me once a month. Has retained his Indian accent and simplicity. When in the mood, both of us speak in Bengali, as a nostalgic tribute to our Calcutta roots. A Rajput and a Malayali speaking in Bengali. That’s the beauty of a syncretic India, now under furious attack by fundamentalists who are unwilling to accept that the people they demonise have a soul just like them. 

I am running steadily now. Three elderly men, in white and multi-coloured lungis, stand around, keeping the social distancing norms (Kerala has the highest literacy rates in India, so they know the rules) and chat about the hot weather. I go past. They pause to look at me. May make comments about me after I have gone some distance away. It does not worry me at all. But what I am worried about is the state of my knees.   

A decade ago, fearful that my knees would take a hit since I was always running on tarred roads, I shifted to swimming. And this turned out to be even better than running. Gliding through the water, every muscle getting a workover, especially the lower back, always a point of weakness for sedentary workers, the sense of rejuvenation I felt when I stepped out of the pool after a 45-minute session. There was nothing to match it. My brain became soaked in dopamine.   

And the moment my head hit the pillow, I was out, like a knockout blow to the chin by a professional boxer. 

But now, in the times of the virus, I have to rely on the good old legs but the dopamine that seeps out is a trickle, like the flow of water in a river during the middle of a drought. Still, something is better than nothing. Be happy.  

In the end, I stop running and take out my handkerchief and wipe my face and neck. And keep wiping it as the sweat continues to flow. I walk and walk, till I finally reach my home….an oasis as well as a battlefront.   

Shevlin Sebastian is a journalist based in Kochi. He has published around 4500 articles over 30 years, most of them feature stories. He has worked in Sportsworld magazine, (ABP Group), The Week magazine (of the Malayala Manorama Group), the Hindustan Times in Mumbai and the New Indian Express in Kochi and in DC Books, Kottayam. 

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