Monday, 22 September 2008

Run Interrupted

My run was kind of doomed today. First on the way out, I was interrupted by a call. A very special friend wanted my opinion on a blues concert. Felt like a connoisseur! And well, connoisseurs don’t go about sweating like a pig on some beach track, do they? Forced myself to continue. Reached the ocean. She looked really angry today. A part of the beach had been cut off by the waves. I decided to skip the swim and continued running.  On the way back I saw a militia man, his AK – 47 slung carelessly on his shoulder, talking to an old man by the rail track. As I neared them, the old man pointed at me. The rifle slowly dropped into a more menacing position as I crossed them. Our eyes met, they were the same vacant eyes of a child soldier. He was no more than sixteen. I raised my hands to wave, but something in his eyes took the wind out of my gesture. Suddenly my brain was working in overdrive. Something was not right. I heard, rather than saw, the kid slip the safety of his weapon off. I came to a halt, my hands open, to my side, trying to present as inoffensive a stance as possible. The kid shouted something in Tamil. He sounded surprisingly angry. I realized that the old man had slowly slunk away. We were all alone on the track now. For some silly reason I remembered the drunk man who had warned me against going for my run on this track. I had just started to explain in my broken Tamil when the kid moved up and shoved me. I staggered back, angry and bewildered. Without realizing I raised my voice and said something, I forget what. He continued to shout at me and then gestured dismissively. I thought he was telling me to go away. So I turned and started running along the railway track. I used this route as it was covered with sand and was really good exercise. I had barely gone a few yards when I heard him shout. I stopped and turned around. He laughed. It was almost triumphant. Something inside me snapped. I turned back and started running again. I heard him shout again. I looked back, still running, and saw that he had started chasing me. Something told me that I could out run him on the sand. I increased my pace. A little later I looked to confirm that I was gaining on him. Suddenly I heard a shot. It made me involuntarily increase my speed. I looked back and realized that the kid was actually shooting at me. This was getting bizarre. He fired again – this time a burst. I saw the sand about fifty yards ahead of me go up like four Diwali anaars in tandem. “You can’t outrun a bullet” the words of my instructor in military academy suddenly rang in my ears. I could see his face as he paused after he had said these words of wisdom and he waited for our response. I saw the satisfied look on his face as some of us obliged him with knowing laughs. And I realized suddenly that his advice should be taken immediately. I swerved like a wild horse and ran into the bushes that grow on both sides of the railway track. It provided thick cover and it had enough space in between to run through without losing too much speed. The kid let off another burst as he saw me disappear.  

Six. Seven. Eight. Nine.

Instinctively, I counted the number of bullets he was expending. I remembered that he was just carrying his rifle – no spare ammunition. I was crashing wildly through the bushes now. Branches and thorns were cutting through my skin.

Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen.

He could see the bushes move and was aiming wildly at that. I could hear the bullets pass uncomfortably close. It’s surprising how fast you can get out of the habit of having bullets fly overhead. I was heading towards a sparse patch. Shit!

Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen.

Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty One. Twenty Two. Twenty Three.

Our kid was getting impatient. And very angry. I swerved wildly again. Seeking taller bushes. The kid read what I was planning. He changed course to cut me off.

Twenty Four. Twenty Five. Twenty Six. Twenty Seven. Twenty Eight.

I could actually see the last burst as it clipped some branches just ahead of me. I stopped short. And dropped down and started crawling. The kid was rushing ahead, suddenly surprised by my lack of motion. I could hear his footfall just ahead of me. I waited for him to cross me. He was slowing down. I could now see his legs. Moving tentatively. He crossed me. I don’t know why I did what I did. In retrospect, there were a lot of other options. But at that moment everything in my system screamed for me to rise and rush him from behind. I heard a blood curdling scream. I realized that it was me. The kid turned, startled and pressed the trigger.

 Twenty Nine. Thirty. Click.

I was on him now. For a moment the vacant eyes registered surprise. Then we were crashing down together. I had his neck. And I fell on it. I heard a snap. I looked into his eyes. That’s when I realized, nothing is more vacant than death. 

When I interrupt my run, this is what happens. My imagination runs wild.


Maybe I need a shrink.


Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Johnny 99

My work site is about 20 km from where I stay and the drive to work is one part of the day that I really look forward to. It takes me into the heart of what was, not too long ago, rebel country. Now it is heavily patrolled by the army as they are bracing up for what is still the initial stages of an insurgency. Soon as we leave the main road we cross a military check post that screens all civilians being allowed into the area. Just after that is a causeway across a lagoon. Come monsoons, in another months time, and this becomes virtually uncrossable. I have been told it is a trecherous crossing as the direction of water flow changes with the tide. As we drive along, the driver sometimes flicks on the radio. It is not rare to hear the newreader announcing some successful air raid or offensive up north. We cross the location of some minefields recently cleared by us and other NGOs working here. No signs of people returning to the area yet. 
The terrain is generally flat, lots of wooded patches, hills in the distance. We drive past a lot of soldiers, some of them wave, we wave back. Then we cross a militia outpost. They were the tigers, untill they broke away and alligned with the government. A young boy, barely in his teens, stands with an AK held convincingly. I look into his eyes, they are vacant. We drive on. Past a village with houses without roofs, doors or windows. Just a stencilled message on the walls saying 'Cleared by FSD'. The Swiss Foundation for Demining. Forlorn structures, waiting to be inhabited again. We go beyond a dirt track that leads into the forest, to the erstwhile tigers battalion head quarters. I have been there. Destroyed buidings, craters from air attacks and a monument with the desecrated but distinctive tigers emblem. The place to take oath. We drive on. Across the site of a recent claymore attack on an army vehicle by unknown people. Almost there now.
But today I am not seeing any of these. My mind is on a call I have just received. My team has encountered three Johnny 99s at the site. I am rushing to see that. We weren't expecting Mr. Johnny to be there. 
Landmines are a barbaric weapon of war. I come from a country that has not signed the treaty to ban them. I can even understand their stance. But the fact remains, landmines have the potential to cause a dispropotionate amount of physical and psychological harm to an unintended target, and mostly they do.  Johnny 99, a creation of the tigers, is an extremely lethal mine. Packed with nearly five times the explosive in other anti personal mines, it is designed not just to incapacitate but to strike terror.
I am glad three of them are off this beautiful land. But there are so many more...

Friday, 5 September 2008

Run to Indie

I get a feeling that the villagers actually look forward to that time in the evening when the crazy Indian, knapsack on his back, goes running past. It is quite a spectacle. I wave out indiscriminately to all that cross my path. Initially it startled quite a few. Now they anticipate it and encourage me on, in Tamil! A father urgently points to the other side of the street as I wave to him. I turn and look, and see his son sitting on his haunches, eyeing me shyly. I manage a wave to him too as I run past. That’s the only encouragement he needs. Soon I have a competitor. I am no match. Soon he tires of my lack of competitive spirit and turns into a lane. I run past a group of young teenaged boys, I hear a comment and all of them break into guffaws. I grin at them and keep going. I can hear a cycle just behind me. And stifled giggles. It trails me for some time and then decides to overtake. Two girls on a bike breeze past me. They can’t stifle their giggles any longer. I say a big hello! And they quickly turn onto a house, laughing. I turn into a lane where a young girl is trying to help her kid sister onto her bike. The kid spots a strange looking man running purposefully towards her and she loses it. She starts screaming and runs around like a headless chicken. (Unfortunate choice of phrase, I know. But ever since a friend used it earlier today in an email it has been running around in my head like a…argh! See what I mean?) Her mother comes running out and gives me a bemused look. I move on. Only to be followed by the little kid’s sister, on her bike, with a friend. They challenge me to a race. This time I decide to show a little more spirit. I give them a stiff challenge. Suddenly they pull over. I realise I am crossing out of the village onto a track that goes through a cashew orchard. I wave to them, grinning at a barrage of questions in Tamil. Maybe they want to set up a race tomorrow.

I love this part of my run. Soft topped track. No risks of impact injuries. Clean air. Dozens of cashew trees on both sides; the ground covered by white sand. Total running bliss. This is the time of the run where I do my thinking. Soon I spy a frail old man on a bike approaching. He dons just a straw hat and a lungi. In one hand he has the catch of the day, a decent sized fish. He is deep in thought as he nears me. I raise my hand and yell, “Vannakam!” He is startled. He instinctively raises his hand to wave back, realises that none of his hands are now holding the bike handle, and fumbles. For a second I think that I have messed things up – but he stabilises, and we cross each other.

Soon I cross the railway track. Now I am on the beach track. Just one more kilometre to go. Another old man; this one is staring at me. I wave. No reply. He looks grumpy. As I cross him he starts running with me. He has an animated gait. He holds a bottle in his hand. He keeps up with me for a few strides. Then he realises that he left one slipper behind. I lose my running mate. I take a turn. I can see the ocean now. This stretch always seems the longest. There is no one here now. The fishermen have all left a little while back. When I reach the beach it is left just for me. I face the lovely ocean. Behind me the sun sets slowly, bathing the world in startling colours. As I step into the water I say,”Indie, I’m here!”

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

10 Things I Don’t Like About My New Life

(Read the post titled ‘10 Things I Like About My New Life’ first)

1. You are so far away from me. :(
2. Huh? Am thinking! Am thinking!
3. Still thinking…
4. hmmm
5. well, the weather might change for the worse…
6. there might be mosquitoes later in the year…
7. I might get fired!
8. hmmm
9. So far I just can't see..
10. I hate making stupid lists.

10 Things I Like About My New Life

1. I love my job. I have a vehicle, map and a GPS – I get to use them like crazy. I am actually doing stuff related to my masters!
2. I am in a country that is remarkable – like someone I know mentioned, it is a lot of things that India should be. The terrain is breathtaking and the people and the weather (so far) have been awesome.
3. I have the time to write.
4. I have the time to read.
5. I wake up early.
6. I sleep early.
7. I eat regularly and well.
8. I run. To the ocean. I have the beach completely to myself. I skinny dip! And I run back.
9. I don’t feel like smoking here.
10. Lion Stout. It is an amazing beer – comparable to some of the best that I tasted in Europe.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Of Travel Companions

For a moment I did not know where I was. It was partly the Scandinavian sun, and the fact that I had changed my room just this morning, that I found myself in a groggy, confused state as I awoke from a short, delirious nap. I gradually started regaining consciousness of my surroundings. I was back in the hostel after another long day walking the streets of Copenhagen. The sun and the beer had made me sleep instantaneously. I still had my shoes on. And there was a gorgeous woman bent inches away from me, whistling to herself as she rummaged through her rucksack. “Hi there” I said, pretending to be wide awake. I have seen people get startled, but only when I am totally awake. This performance, witnessed in my state of half sleep, was truly phenomenal. She jumped out of her skin by a mile! Apparently I am a silent sleeper. (Thank God! I hate snorers.) She had no clue that I was there in the room. At least that is what she seemed to be explaining in between huge gasps for air. To complicate matters she had the most amazing French accent. If you have watched ‘A Fish Called Wanda’, where Jamie Lee Curtis has this foreign language fetish, you will realise what afflicts me. Finally, I was waking up. At least a part of me!

Li’ll Blackbird, as I shall call her, based on her email id, became my first impromptu travel companion. She had just landed in the Danish capital on her annual ten day visit to a chosen place. I was halfway through my three day stopover there. We decided to do my last day in Copenhagen together. I travel without a camera (sigh! No longer – I have a phone that has one now. :-( ) She travelled with a camera that used photographic film. Couldn’t get more archaic than that! We had a great time. We were together till I nearly missed my bus. She told me I was not her types; I had not even hit on her. Just when we were nearing the time to part – that time of the day/night when time seems to drag/race depending on your relationship – I learnt about a brewpub that had the Westvleteren beer. I had been a beer tourist for the second half of my year in Europe – and for me it was like getting a clue to the Holy Grail. I dropped my mug of beer, paid up, and dragged her across the city centre to reach the place. They had it. I bought it. She saw my passion and refused my offer to share it with her, but she agreed to have the first sip. “It’s like songbirds singing in your mouth,” she exclaimed as soon as she had sipped it. I enjoyed the best beer in the world, totally satisfied that I had the best way to describe it later – thanks to my fabulous travel companion.
That’s how I nearly missed my bus!

Driving through some awesome landscape in Sri Lanka can be an excruciating experience if you have the wrong travel companion. I started realising this when I did the same today with the most militantly mediocre person I have been with in the last few years. To negate my extremely violent thoughts, I started thinking of the amazing companionship that I have shared during the course of my travels. The preceding piece was conceived when I was actively filtering out the incessant babble of my vehiclemate. I am glad I could do it – the countryside looked so much more beautiful.