Categories
Stories

This land of ours

Shevlin Sebastian captures man’s relentless struggle against unsympathetic forces of nature.

 

The rice is boiling in the steel utensil. Shamila watches as the white grains go left and right, up and down, and in circles. “Just like our lives,” she thinks, as she stirs the water with a wooden ladle.

It is a Sunday noon. 

Her husband, Suresh, is an electrician. He meets the family’s expenses, despite drinking a bottle of toddy every night. Shamila’s son, Pradeep, 22, works in a transport company in Mumbai, while her 20-year-old daughter, Reshma, is a salesperson at a cosmetics shop in a Bangalore mall. As for Shamila, she works as a maid in a house down the hill. But today is her weekly holiday.    

Shamila lives in a brick house of three rooms and a kitchen. It is modest: a wooden sofa, and two chairs in the living room. On the low centre table, there is the Malayala Manorama and a vase which has red plastic roses in it. In the bedroom, there is a wooden bed. The only ornamentation is a calendar hanging on the wall. In the children’s room, there is a wet patch at a corner where the ceiling meets the wall.

She takes a few grains in the ladle, presses it with her fingers to see whether it is cooked, and, when she confirms it is fully done, switches off the gas stove, and places a lid on top of the vessel.

Shamila walks barefoot to the living room. Clad in a blue nightgown, with white frills at the neck, she sits on a chair near the window and looks at the newspaper. She has tied her hair back into a topknot.

The house, on the slope of a hill in Thodupuzha, is in a scenic spot: surrounded by rubber trees and wet leaves. The only sound Shamila hears is the tap-tap of the raindrops hitting the asbestos roof. It is peaceful, although, in the newspaper, there are reports of murders, robberies and accidents. “No peace in the world,” she thinks and shakes her head. 

Soon, a sound rises at the edge of her consciousness. It puzzles Shamila. It seems like thunder, but she is not sure. What could it be? All at once, she hears shouts: it is a mix of fear and rage. Shamila’s intuition buzzes, and she experiences the first signs of panic: shortness of breath and trembling legs. The shouting goes on.  

Shamila opens the door and rushes out. Her neighbour, Parvathy, is pointing up, and screaming. 

Shamila glances upwards and sees an unimaginable sight. The top part of the hill is rolling down: thick, red mud, branches, roots, plants, leaves, tree trunks, stones, and bricks. The roar sounds as if somebody is shouting in her ears. “It is a landslide,” Shamila’s mind screams. “RUN, RUN, RUN!”

She turns and flees, forgetting all about Parvathy. Shamila takes the narrow mud path, a shortcut to the road below, that people in the area use all the time. “Oh God, please save our houses, I beg you,” she says, even as she concentrates on running on the wet and slushy surface. But in another part of her mind, she knows how deadly a landslip can be. At a sharp turn on the path, she loses her balance but grabs a tree trunk to hold on. 

Through the branches, Shamila gets occasional glimpses of the tarred road. At the back, the roar is non-stop. She is panting now, more out of fear than tiredness. Shamila notices an overpowering smell in the air and realises that it is of wet mud.

There is a cry of pain, the sound rolling down the hill like a shriek. “Somebody is injured,” she thinks. “Krishna, please don’t kill anybody.”

Shamila reaches the road, her mouth open, her chest heaving forward and backwards with the effort. She can feel the wetness of the road through the soles of her feet. Soon, dhoti-clad men run past her towards the hill. They don’t stop to ask her what has happened. They all know what the roar is and what it means to their lives.

Her thigh and calf muscles are hurting. She has never run so hard in her life. Shamila wants to look back but is scared to see the devastation. But she knows where she has to go — to her husband’s friend, Murali’s tea shop, a shack by the side of the road, a kilometre away. She has to inform her husband she is safe. In her hurry, she had forgotten to take her phone. 

At the shop, Murali is sitting behind a rickety wooden table near the entrance, a white cloth towel tied around his head, like a bandana. The two men, who worked for him, have rushed off to see what is happening. Inside, there are tables and benches, placed against the bamboo walls, with an open area in the middle. At one corner, a TV set, with rusted buttons, has been placed on a shelf of a wooden sideboard.

When Murali sees her, he nods, and says, “Good, you are safe. What about Suresh?”

She smiles and says, “He is at a worksite.”

She asks for his mobile phone. He passes it to her. 

Shamila calls her husband and tells him she is okay.

Murali goes to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Shamila sits down on a bench. She is glad to give her legs a rest, although she is still breathing rapidly. Her heartbeat has still not slowed down. “How does a landslide start, with no warning,” she thinks? The image of the river of mud coming down the hill flashes in her mind’s eye. Her body shudders involuntarily.

Murali brings the tea in a glass, and a white towel. She wipes her face, arms and hair.

She sips with soft slurps. 

After a while, she senses that Murali is staring at her. When she looks up, she notices that his eyes are focused on her breasts. He looks frustrated. Shamila knows that his wife is fat and ugly and nags him. 

Murali blinks and realises that Shamila does not approve of what he is thinking. Embarrassed, he moves away and switches on the television. Both spot the red and white band moving across the bottom of the screen: “Breaking News: Landslip at Thodupuzha.”

“These TV guys move fast,” he says, with a trace of admiration in his voice.

“Yes,” she says. “They are everywhere. Too much competition, I guess.”

The ticker changes: “Many may have died.”

“Who could have died?’ says Murali, as they gaze at the screen.

“Must be Rekha’s old and sick mother,” says Shamila. “She is bed ridden.” 

“What about Parvathy?” she wonders and feels a stab of pain. Was the yell she heard that of Parvathy? Should she have stopped, gone up, and tried to save her? But Shamila knows that if she did that, she would have risked her own life.

“This is a tragedy,” he says. 

Shamila nods. 

The first visuals are aired. The slope has collapsed. Nothing is left, except mud, thatched roofs, some beds and chairs which are embedded in the soil. The local men she saw on the road are now wading through the muck, pulling away the debris, trying to locate survivors. 

Murali looks at her and says, in a flat voice, “I am sorry, but you have lost everything!”

“I am alive,” she says, pointing a thumb at herself. “That is more important than all the possessions in the world.”

Murali’s eyes enlarge, and his eyebrows go up. To have property is so important these days. He does not know what to say. So, he remains silent and looks at the screen.

Time passes. 

It is a silent tableau. Both of them gaze at the non-existent slope. 

Her husband appears at the entrance. When Shamila sees him, she feels her heartbeat against her rib cage, like a hammer. Suresh’s eyes are wild, the pupils enlarged, and he keeps opening and closing his mouth.

She embraces him. And, like her own experience, she realises his body is shaking. And soon, the tears are rolling down his face.

“We have lost everything,” he says. “There is no land anymore. It has vanished. The house has collapsed. All the valuables are lost, including your gold jewellery. How do we live? What do we do? Where do we go from here? At 45, how do I start from scratch? We have no insurance. And what will this idiotic government do? These politicians are only making money for themselves. They don’t care about the poor. This horrible life that we live, always on the edge, always struggling to make ends meet and to keep our dignity, to give our children a chance for a better life. All this is ash now. Nothing remains. Ashashashash…”

Shamila knows that all what Suresh has said is true. But she does not have the desire to think about the future. She is trying to recover from her panicky run down the crumbling hill. Her mind is blank, but she is glad she is alive, and not buried under the mud. She feels happy that she had the foresight to run, instead of trying to save some of their possessions, knowing that there was no time for that.

“Our children are earning,” she says, in a soft voice. “You are earning. I am working.”

Shamila sees a flash of anger in Suresh’s eyes. He raises his voice, and says, “How much can we earn? Do you know the price of land these days? You need lakhs of rupees. It is beyond us. We are poor, Shamila. We have lost our dignity. That is how cruel God is. I shudder at the life ahead. How will we pay for our daughter’s dowry?”

This mention about his favourite child makes Suresh to cry. 

Shamila hugs her husband, trying to press a mother’s warmth to him. She inhales a peculiar smell: a mix of sweat and muskiness coming off Suresh’s body. It is familiar. During the earlier years of their marriage it was appealing, but now she is repelled. She thinks of it as the stench of defeat.

Suresh becomes silent but continues to sob. This shock has hit the deepest part of him. Shamila becomes fearful. “Will he find the will and strength to overcome this?” she wonders. Shamila is not sure at all. Her intuition panics once again. She caresses his face and head, like as if he is a child. She knows that, underneath their bluster, all men are Mama’s boys.

“Come, sit down,” she says and leads him to the bench. “Murali, can you make a cup of tea?”

Murali moves to the kitchen.

Suresh wipes his face with a towel, which Shamila extends to him. They both stare at the screen once again.

Suresh’s body is becoming calm, as Shamila can sense that the trembling is slowing down.

Murali brings the tea and places it on the table.

Suresh sips it. 

By this time, people troop into the shop. One of them is businessman Harish Raghunandan, who has a walrus-like moustache. 

He grasps Suresh’s hand.

“Suresh, you have to remain strong,” says Raghunandan. “The colony of ten houses has been destroyed. Rekha’s mother, Lalithamma, Parvathy and her daughter, Meena, are dead. But there is no confirmation. There are others still buried under the mud. The men are trying to pull them out. It is unlikely there will be many survivors.”

There is pin-drop silence. Nobody knows what to say. 

“It is great luck that Shamila survived, thanks to her quick thinking,” says Raghunandan, looking at her with piercing eyes. “If you had waited for half a minute, you would have died.”

Shamila feels grateful for this praise by Raghunandan. She acknowledges it with the faintest nod of her head.

Raghunandan sighs, looks at Suresh, and says, “You may have lost everything, but your family is safe. Be happy about that.”

Suresh wants to be grateful, but all he can think about is the loss of his property. Raghunandan reads his mood and says, “Once I owned a large farmhouse and it burnt down. I had to start from scratch once again. Life has its trials. It is a rare person who enjoys a smooth ride. Sometimes, the setbacks can be life-threatening.”  

Suresh stares at him in silence. Shamila knows that her husband will say nothing. In public, he is shy and discreet.

It had been a love cum arranged marriage. The fathers of Suresh and Shamila had been friends for many years and worked as tappers in the rubber plantations of Thodupuzha. Every morning before they set out for work, they would stop at a temple and say their prayers. The families would meet during festivals like Vishu and Onam. 

As Shamila grew up, Suresh found her attractive: the shining brown skin, firm breasts, and slim figure were eye-catching attributes. Shamila had a few admirers. But when Shamila turned eighteen, Suresh told his father he wanted to get married to her. Shamila’s father agreed. As for Shamila, she did not have any problems, although she knew her life would be difficult. Suresh was a school dropout, who had apprenticed to an electrician, and was learning the trade. “What can we poor people expect?” she had thought when her father told her about the proposal. 

The couple had struggled and bought a plot and built the house. And although Suresh drank every night, he was not a wife-beater, and nor was he abusive, like the husbands of her friends.

Shamila walks to the door of Murali’s shack and beckons to Suresh to come out. Her husband has a questioning look in his eyes, but she urges him out with a wave of her hand. She no longer wants to sit with a group of men, all ogling her. She wants some privacy now.

When Suresh comes out, Shamila says, “Come.”

“Where to?” he asks, looking baffled. Shamila keeps her face blank, although there is a trace of a smile on her lips.

They walk for several minutes. The rain has stopped. A cool breeze is blowing.

Several ambulances roar past, their sirens blowing. Two police jeeps, with khaki-clad cops in it, also speed past. Following them is a group of men crammed into a minivan. They look like political party workers.

Shamila ignores them all, and, holding her husband’s hand, she turns left from the road, down a mud path, which leads into a forest. They carry on walking. Suresh says nothing. Instead, he is immersed in his thoughts. After walking for 20 minutes, they arrive at a pond. It is surrounded by large trees, with overhanging branches, on all sides, so the pond is hidden from view. Frogs are croaking at the edge of the bank and green leaves float on the surface.

“How did you discover this place?” says Suresh, and his voice echoes in the silence.

Shamila says, “My friend Ashwathy showed it to me one day. Isn’t it nice?”

He nods as they both sit on the bank, next to each other. 

They stare at the still water.

They can hear bird calls, and the chirp of a squirrel following by a few quick barks. And under all this, there is the ceaseless call of the crickets. The leaves are a shimmering green thanks to the monsoon showers.

Nature was undergoing its annual rejuvenation.

Minutes pass.

Then Shamila turns to Suresh and says, “Let’s always remember what Raghunandan said. If he can come back from disaster, then we can. It is very important that we stay positive and develop a fighting spirit.”

Suresh looks at her, and presses her hand…  

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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Musings

And then the tranquility got shattered

By Shevlin Sebastian 

At 11 p.m., on a Saturday a few weeks ago, I was cruising down National Highway No 47 in Kochi. Elton John’s ‘Circle of Life’ was playing on the music system. 

The mood inside the car was tranquil. My daughter, Sneha, had just landed from Bangalore. My wife, teenage son and I had gone to collect her from the airport. She has just started studying in a college in Bangalore. Dressed in jeans and a cream top, blue sneakers, without socks, she smiled happily as she entered the car. 

The conversation began. Sneha spoke about the quality of the food in her hostel, her roommates, lecturers, classmates, and the latest movie she had seen. My son, two years younger, sitting next to her on the back seat, listened silently. 

The highway was relatively deserted: a few trucks and some cars. Kochi sleeps early: the metro service, besides the pillars of which we were travelling, had closed. And so were the private bus services. An occasional long-distance Kerala State Road Transport Corporation bus trundled past, with its distinctive red and yellow colours. 

I was driving at 50 kms per hour as we were in no hurry and I was listening to what my daughter was saying rather than concentrating on the road. 

Children grow up so fast. It seemed only the other day that I held Sneha in my arms. And now she was all grown up. When she was in Class 12, I remembered the large birthday card, almost the size of an A 3 size chart, that some of her classmates had made in which they drew and wrote greetings, using red, green, blue and purple felt pens. However, one comment from a boy made me stop breathing for a few moments. “You have a nice ass,” he wrote. It took me some time to digest that. And accept. My daughter was a sexual being to her male contemporaries. 

In the car, Sneha suddenly asked, “Baba, do you mind if I put my music on?”  

“Sure,” I said. And she leaned forward and pressed a cable wire into the socket of the music system and her mobile. Soon, her songs started to play. The first one was Selena Gomez’s haunting ‘Lose you to love me’. 

Incredibly, I had heard it the day before. I read an article about the song and decided to hear it on YouTube. In her song, Selena was indirectly commenting on her failed romance with pop superstar Justin Bieber. Sneha was shocked and impressed when I told her all this. 

Baba, you are in touch,” she said, with a smile. 

“Just a fluke,” I said, modestly.   

She hummed the first few lines: 

‘You promised the world and I fell for it

I put you first and you adored it

Set fires to my forest

And you let it burn’

All of a sudden, a red Maruti Suzuki car swerved in from an outer lane and cut in front of me. I instinctively half-pressed the brake and dropped my speed to 40 kms an hour. The other car moved ahead. I was wondering why the driver had the need to cut in. There were three lanes on our side. He could have easily gone straight ahead. 

I thought: “Is the driver drunk, high on drugs or has he slept off for an instant?” 

 I could see a few heads in the car.  

Inexplicably, a few moments later, it swerved violently to the right and hit a pillar of the Kochi Metro at high speed. The thud sounded like a thunderbolt. All of us looked through the windscreen with bulging eyes and open mouths. I braked as a black piece, probably a part of the bumper, ricocheted away and came to a stop just in front. I quickly moved the vehicle to the left, without looking at the rear-view mirror. Thankfully, there was no vehicle behind us. I parked on one side.  

 Inside the stricken car, there was no movement for several moments.  

Sneha suggested that I call the police. I pulled out my mobile and did so. By the time I passed all the relevant information to the helpline, including the number of the metro pillar where the accident took place, a crowd had gathered. When I reached the damaged car I saw that the two white airbags in front had burst open. That probably explained why the driver, a thin man with curly black hair, had escaped with just a cut on his upper lip. A thin line of blood could be seen. He looked about 22, and stood to one side, with blank eyes, as if he could not see. 

Somebody said, “Did you sleep off suddenly?” He quickly shook his head and said, “No, I lost control.” Somebody asked whether it was a brake failure. He shook his head. Was he drinking? The reply was a tightening of his jaws.   

A woman, who was in the back seat, was pulled out gently by a few bystanders, with her husband cradling her head. She was laid down on the road — a middle-aged lady in a green salwar kameez. From the look on her face — the eyeballs almost vanishing as the lids closed — she was rapidly losing consciousness. There were two children, a boy and a girl, both below ten years of age. They stood nearby staring at their mother. 

Soon, a white car which was going past was stopped by several people, with raised arms and shouts. Again the woman was carried to the back seat, men holding her arms and legs, and somebody placed his palms under her back to balance her. The husband put his children on both his knees, as he sat in the front seat, next to the driver. They headed to the nearest hospital. 

Meanwhile, drivers, who were going past, slowed down, slid their window panes down, and stared with frozen eyes at the shattered engine. Where the bonnet had been smooth, now it was all crumpled metal. Ten minutes later, the police arrived. 

Some passers-by expressed the hope the woman would be okay.  

A couple of days later I called the Kalamassery police station under whose jurisdiction the accident had taken place. A policeman said that the woman had been declared brain-dead on her arrival at the hospital. The doctors put her on the ventilator. They informed the husband. He spoke to his family members. They agreed there was no point. Two days after the accident, the ventilator was switched off. And she passed away. She was only 37 years old and worked in the administration section of a government hospital in Kochi itself. It seemed she hit her forehead on the back of the front seat with great force, and this proved to be fatal.   

From the time the driver lost control to hitting the pillar was all of two seconds. That was the minuscule time taken for a tragedy to take place. 

So, why did this event take place? Why did God take the mother away from the children at such a crucial stage in their lives? What will be the psychological blow on them? Who can replace their irreplaceable mother? Nobody, I guess. How will the husband handle the situation of being both father and mother? As strangers, we will never know the answers.   

Meanwhile, when we set out again, there was a tomb-like silence in the car. Everybody stared straight ahead, lost in their thoughts. My wife told me later that Sneha had been deeply affected, especially when she came to know that the woman had died. 

So, how does one respond when a fortnight later Sneha was involved in a two-wheeler accident in Bangalore? She was travelling behind a classmate on a scooter on a Sunday morning. They took a right turn, a car came speeding up, hit them and sped away. My daughter was flung onto the pavement. She had scratches on her face, arms, elbows and knees. 

Sneha called us from the hospital. My wife shed tears but she quickly regained control. We decided to leave immediately. At that time, there were no flights. The runway at Kochi airport was being re-carpeted. So, the flights were only in the early mornings or at night. 

We took a train to Salem and then a bus. By the time we reached it was 11 p.m. Thankfully, a relative’s wife, a homoeopathic doctor, had handled matters. She went to the hospital, got my daughter discharged and took her to a better hospital. An X-ray revealed a crack in her pelvic bone. The healing had to be natural. A two-month rest was advised by the doctor. So, we brought her back to Kochi. Sadly, she missed many classes. 

I did wonder how much of seeing the first accident played a role in my daughter getting involved in an accident of her own? Who knows how the mind works? The subconscious is a mystery. 

In retrospect, I wished that we had not seen the accident. 

When asked what he feared the most as Prime Minister, the late Harold Macmillan said, “Events, dear boy, events.” 

Indeed, this seems to be right.   

The repercussions of an event can lead one to sunlight or darkness. 

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. 

Categories
Musings

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.