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Running away from stereotypes

‘When you are broken, you run,’ wrote Helen Macdonald in H Isfor Hawk, her majestic memoir of grief and falconry.She meantrunning figuratively; I embraced it literally. Running was the onlyway out of the claustrophobia of my grief. But might it also havebeen a subconscious desire to live?In January 2015, the results of an ambitious twelve-year study bythe University of Cambridge were made public: Inactivity is worsethan obesity, doubly so, in fact.

The lack of physical exercise, theresearchers estimated, caused twice as many deaths in Europe asobesity every year. From the wasteland of my grief, had I instinctivelyreached for life?

I didn’t make eye contact with anybody. I kept my head downand ran. I remember well the dusty, lumpy, green ground. Sometimeschildren would scuttle across my running path, but I didn’t look upto smile at them or their chaperones. I spoke to no one. I ran alonein a busy park.The haze started to lift after three months. I was still in shock.I cried easily and several times a day. I remember the feeling, distinct to this day, that I would cry if you shook me.But I also found myself thinking of other things. I got a haircut.

I bought some clothes because the running had made the old onesloose. I bought a pair of running pants and a set of loose, cheapT-shirts. Those were not bought with any particular thought exceptthat I wanted to be comfortable. I didn’t know my sweating patternsthen — that I perspire especially in the upper body, that a good runparticularly wets my back and chest, and marks out my bra line.Thankfully, a loose T-shirt sticks to the body less, especially if youkeep pulling it down. I was to realise this, and many other thingsabout myself, over the next months. Running offers many rewards,but self-awareness is the surprise gift.

I soon realised I was the only woman who ran in that Delhipark. The other serious joggers were all men. Some women walkedfuriously, others chatted on the phone or caught up with neighbours.They all wore salwar-kurtas. I hadn’t learnt how to run long-distancethen, yet, apparently, even a few weeks of single-mindedly chargingaround the ground can condition the body. I could go a few laps without stopping — five rounds or so of a 440-yard track. It wasonly a mile (1.6 kilometres), but I felt accomplished already — I wasthe only one of my kind. And I felt impatient because I went fasterthan the male joggers who ran with rhythm. (It took only a few daysto realise they were real, practised runners; I was an upstart novice.) I noticed that I never asked to excuse myself when I needed to overtake men on the track. Instead, I would stop running, sidle past,then run again. It disturbed my running rhythm, but I was afraidto ask them to make way. Didn’t it make me conspicuous? Didn’t itmake me pushy, insisting on the right to my space and telling othersto move aside? Yet, when I had to bypass women walkers walking on the track, I said ‘excuse me’. Politely, I believe.I realised this was my pattern even when I was out in the city.On the craggy, steep, poorly lit footpaths of south Delhi, I did notrequest men to allow me to pass, even if they were lounging around, slapping backs, drinking alcohol out of cola bottles and taking upthe entire footpath. I would rather jump off the pavement into thepath of impatient autorickshaws, get squeezed with bullied cyclistsinto the slushy drainage conduit, and climb up again a few steps later.

On the slim streets of Kolkata, where the footpaths belong to roadside entrepreneurs and thoroughfares boast a rich diversity of traffic, from trams to hand-drawn freight carts to pedestrians, I mastered the sideways trot. Yet, with women, I asked to be excused and strode past. When a couple walked side by side, I addressed the woman.

What if I annoyed a man with my Oliver Twist-like asking for more place, and he grabbed me? Followed me and pushed me into a side street, pinned me to a wall? I remembered the reports of acid attacks in the past five years. You may have read them too. Did you hear of what happened to Hindi film actor Kangana Ranaut’s sister? She was attacked with acid some years ago. It was disappointing to accept how timid I was. A man I was falling in love with shook his head in annoyance when I told him why I avoided evening dos. ‘Acid attacks are horrible, but why should you think about them? You cannot allow yourself to be afraid. I once thought I was about to be mugged in Philadelphia, but I turned around and asked “What?” to the guy who was shadowing me. He walked away. That’s my attitude,’ he told me. I told him I wanted to be like him, but I was held back by the things I’d heard over several years. Warnings, advice, news reports, paying-guest-accommodation rules, living-room conversations. These had now shaped my anxieties. What kind of girl drives home alone at 3 am like Soumya Vishwanathan?

She was shot dead by a gang of thieves when she was driving home after a late shift at work at the television channel Headlines Today in 2008. ‘What will you do when your daughter comes home, squashed between unknown men in an office cab late at night?’ an invigilator had tittered to a parent at the exam centre where I was writing the entrance test for a journalism course. A student had forgotten to bring her admit card for the test and her mother had run home to get it. When she returned with the card, the candidate was permitted to sit for the exam about forty minutes after the test began. Her mother, meanwhile, was greeted with this comment. I’ve never forgotten how casually this vicious comment was thrown at her. What made the man at the exam centre think of sex when he saw a young woman appearing for a journalism test? Why does working late outside the home carry sexual connotations for a woman?

My man’s counsel had been to shrug off all the derision, well-meaning warnings, news reports — the irrational sum of my anxieties as he saw it — and look my potential assaulter(s) in the eye. To me, it was absolutely rational. But what is the fear of being mugged for a man who has grown up in India, where men own the streets at all times of day and night? Can it compare with the manifesto of avoiding sexual assault that women grow up with?

(Excerpted with permission from Sohini Chattopadhyay’s The Day I Became a Runner, published by HarperCollins.)

(Published 11 November 2023, 21:43 IST)

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