I started running 13 years ago, and since then, every year on my birthday I run for as many hours as my age. But, I got injured at the end of 2017, then slipped into depression and stopped running altogether. A few days ago, while taking a shower, I was reading the label of the bottle of the shampoo I use. When I wash my hair, the shampoo runs down my whole body. First behind the ear, then comes to the invisible jawline, and then runs down the torso eventually mixing in the water dripping from the shower and my body. And it is very clearly printed on the bottle “For Extra Thickness And Volume”!
No wonder I had been gaining weight all this time. And I thought it was my bad eating habits and not running. Well, I got rid of that shampoo this week, and now I shower with Dish-washing Soap instead. Its label reads “Dissolves Fat That is Otherwise Difficult to Remove”.
When I turned 26, I decided to run for 26 hours in beautiful mountains of Sahyadris in Central India near the city of Mumbai, that is already soaked in rains of monsoon. Heavy rains, clouds crashing on peaks, overflowing dams, washed off roads if you call them one and merciless humidity – that is all I have battered in past 100 km in 15 hours, as I reach Bhor, a village at the base of the mountain I am to climb to watch the sunrise on the morning of my birthday. I have been embracing this mountain for the past many years. Varandha Ghat. It is bright, lush green with about a thousand gushing waterfalls. It rains for four months here, non-stop. It is midnight, and I am still 30 km away. As I saunter up this dark road, with loud growls of dogs in the village, suddenly, I am stopped and kidnapped in the middle of the highway. They are speaking the local language I do not understand. They instruct me to follow them to the village. I am thirsty, hungry and a little exhausted. I can’t fight back. So, I surrender. I am confused, 1000 miles away from my home, thinking if this is the end.
I am taken to a religious ceremony by these five huge men and made to sit next to a massive fire amid over a hundred people who are howling and waving their hands in the air. In my head, I am scripting stories of as in Pirates of Caribbean where I am tied to a pole with ropes and roasted for supper. Soon, the ceremony is over. Their leader walks up to me and asks questions about my identity, my whereabouts, what I am doing in the middle of nowhere at such a wee hour and where I want to go. I take out printed copies of Google maps and explain them everything – how I started running early in the morning, got lost in woods, had to swim across a river and now I am here. How it is my birthday in the next few minutes, and that’s how I celebrate it. They are laughing in disbelief.
They offer food and instruct me, to go in a dark room on the other side of the building. They will see me in the morning. As I eat the food, which is Indian bread, lentil soup and rice with mango pickle, others leave the building and lights are turned low. As I enter the room and turn on the lights, I see a makeshift bed in the center and thousands of old books stacked in metal shelves around me. It’s a library. All the books are in their local language – that I can read. After spending some time browsing, I pick an old joke book, remove my shoes, and settle in the bed. A few minutes later, someone knocks at the door. I immediately turn the light off and pretend to be asleep. A few seconds later, lazily I open the door, rubbing my eyes, pretending I was sleeping and they shout “Happy Birthday”!
These are kids, from six to about fourteen years old, with the old man I met earlier. They have wheat pudding in their hands, made into the shape of a cake with a candle on the side. I break into tears, and the kids run past me, gather around the table and start singing the birthday carols in their language. My phone is ringing, it’s my family, but I don’t pick up. We sing and dance till 2 in the night before they all rush back to their dormitories. The old man stays, and we talk for another hour.
This place is an orphanage. This old man is the director. The cake, kids cooked that by themselves. The enormous religious ceremony earlier in the night was their monsoon festival. I was stopped and nearly kidnapped, because on the road ahead – there are leopards. It killed one of them the previous week. So, they wanted me to stay overnight and continue my journey the next morning.
I didn’t sleep that night and left before anyone woke up, leaving behind a Thank you note, and a story.