Saturday, August 2, 2014

At Least He Never Walked - Haruki Murakami

I was never much of an athlete. In my school days, my sporting diet was limited to the regular cricket games. For a change I would play football, basket ball, volley ball and table tennis, but I was never really good with any of the games. I used to chuck when bowling, carry when recruited in the front row of volley ball court, and in football I was always a defender who would kick the ball out whenever a forward would come close. Although, I wasn't so bad at table tennis but the ball put in the back hand area of my table used to make me nervous. I wouldn't label myself a complete disaster, I was good enough to be around and play my humble part in these games but never too good. I was also quite chubby as a kid and everyone knows what a fat kid has to go through in school. If you were fat, you got ridiculed. If you weren't, then you were the one ridiculing the fat kid next to you. Your sports teacher would grill you as a sloth being served for breakfast. Even the neighbours who themselves were popping pills for their cholesterol levels would take a dig at you. As a kid, I would secretly wish that I was in a place where everyone was so obese that no one would dare to say even a word to me. In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. But you still had to grow up with all this banter constantly knocking you out.

During my middle school, I was transferred to a school in Air Force Station. That place had acres of land with just trees, bushes and old runways. It was there that I started running in the morning. Either it was the running or just the change in my hormones, I grew taller, lost quite a bit of weight, but by the next year I had moved to Patna, a city where the daily commute and traffic washed away the morning run regime. Years passed, I finished college, switched a couple of jobs and now I am running a design studio with my friend. Like many people in the city, I too spend a lot of time at my desk sitting and working. The lifestyle can not be called healthy and you can easily put on weight and develop a few posture problems. Having been through the trauma of being called a fat kid, I definitely didn't want to go back to that. More than anything I felt the need to be fit because I do want to live long and put tick marks next to the unfinished ideas and aspirations that are right now hibernating in the end pages of my planner. Sometimes you have to find solace in this hope of living long because time is forever slipping away and the days are never enough. It was in late 2010 when I slowly started running again. I would do four rounds of the government playground near my house in the morning. I was working from home then and it was easier to get it done on a regular basis. In 2011, I had to take up a job and running took a more intermittent route. I would run consistently for few months and then resign myself to the desk and chairs. I quit my job in 2012 and with the privilege of being more flexible with my day's schedule, I brought running back to the morning hours. My stamina was extremely poor though. It felt like all these years I have been running on the same level I picked up at. I was doing 2.5 to 3 km every alternate day and kept continuing with that. I used to run on treadmill and would often find it extremely boring because you have to keep staring at a blank wall and run with your pace constantly being controlled by the buttons you push. It never felt natural enough. I guess it could be one of the reasons why I was not pushing myself much. In March this year I decided that it's time to measure my efforts but outside the gym confinements. I downloaded an app on my phone and the first day pushed myself to do a 5km run. I was surprised that I actually managed to do it. It's an exhilarating experience, to push yourself to get somewhere you would like to be. Since then I have been running quite consistently and pushing myself every other day but also being respectful to my body's response. Yes, on odd days you risk your legs too much to achieve what you want but then long distance running is about pain and that's what makes it so special. There is a whole lot to running than just the physical endeavour and endurance. It's a melting pot of thoughts and emotions which cleanses you out of all the junk (not just referring to fast foods here) that you can do without in the present moment. 

Now, to get to the real reason behind writing this post. I picked up this book called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running written by Haruki Murakami. Few friends had mentioned him and his book over conversations about running. I had a vague idea about him as the author of Sputnik Sweetheart. I haven't read the book but got to know about it through a short film in Paris je t'aime. What I talk About When I Talk About Running is the novelist's memoir but through the eyes of a runner. He picked up running at the age of thirty three and still continues to do so in his early sixties. When you have run for more than three decades, you have seen it all, the exuberance, the pitfalls, the rainy days and the shimmer of the sunshine. There are parts in this book which are so relatable that it feels like in those moments the author and I are traversing the same mental landscape. The beauty is that one doesn't feel the connection only as a runner but as a person standing and observing the many others who are passing you by. 


"As I mentioned before, competing against other people, whether in daily life or in my field of work, is just not the sort of lifestyle I’m after. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but the world is made up of all kinds of people. Other people have their own values to live by, and the same holds true with me. These differences give rise to disagreements, and the combination of these disagreements can give rise to even greater misunderstandings. As a result, sometimes people are unfairly criticized. This goes without saying. It’s not much fun to be misunderstood or criticized, but rather a painful experience that hurts people deeply.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve gradually come to the realization that this kind of pain and hurt is a necessary part of life. If you think about it, it’s precisely because people are different from others that they’re able to create their own independent selves. Take me as an example. It’s precisely my ability to detect some aspects of a scene that other people can’t, to feel differently than others and choose words that differ from theirs, that’s allowed me to write stories that are mine alone. And because of this we have the extraordinary situation in which quite a few people read what I’ve written. So the fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets. Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent.

That’s what I basically believe, and I’ve lived my life accordingly. In certain areas of my life, I actively seek out solitude. Especially for someone in my line of work, solitude is, more or less, an inevitable circumstance. Sometimes, however, this sense of isolation, like acid spilling out of a bottle, can unconsciously eat away at a person’s heart and dissolve it. You could see it, too, as a kind of double-edged sword. It protects me, but at the same time steadily cuts away at me from the inside. I think in my own way I’m aware of this danger—probably through experience—and that’s why I’ve had to constantly keep my body in motion, in some cases pushing myself to the limit, in order to heal the loneliness I feel inside and to put it in perspective. Not so much as an intentional act, but as an instinctive reaction.

Let me be more specific.

When I’m criticized unjustly (from my viewpoint, at least), or when someone I’m sure will understand me doesn’t, I go running for a little longer than usual. By running longer it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent. It also makes me realize again how weak I am, how limited my abilities are. I become aware, physically, of these low points. And one of the results of running a little farther than usual is that I become that much stronger. If I’m angry, I direct that anger toward myself. If I have a frustrating experience, I use that to improve myself. That’s the way I’ve always lived. I quietly absorb the things I’m able to, releasing them later, and in as changed a form as possible, as part of the story line in a novel." 


"There’s one thing, though, I can state with confidence: until the feeling that I’ve done a good job in a race returns, I’m going to keep running marathons, and not let it get me down. Even when I grow old and feeble, when people warn me it’s about time to throw in the towel, I won’t care. As long as my body allows, I’ll keep on running. Even if my time gets worse, I’ll keep on putting in as much effort—perhaps even more effort—toward my goal of finishing a marathon. I don’t care what others say—that’s just my nature, the way I am. Like scorpions sting, cicadas cling to trees, salmon swim upstream to where they were born, and wild ducks mate for life." 


I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. But as you might expect, an occasional thought will slip into this void. People’s minds can’t be a complete blank. Human beings’ emotions are not strong or consistent enough to sustain a vacuum. What I mean is, the kinds of thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run remain subordinate to that void. Lacking content, they are just random thoughts that gather around that central void. 


There are too many excerpts that I can quote here but as I finished reading this book I was framing my very own understanding too. Lately, I have been feeling a repulsive taste to the amount of self help books, feel good quotes, gibberish profoundness and articles that would make you feel better in ten ways. I am not saying that all of these things are worthless. Sometimes you do chance upon a few good things here and there. It's the voracious appetite for these things that creates the stench. We are constantly talking about bringing the focus back to ourselves and trying ever so hard to achieve it as a mode of thinking. I do not underestimate thoughts and their importance but I do emphasise the point that you can forever be soul searching and the black hole of thoughts would keep sucking you in. Running for me banishes the not needed thinking part. You resolve to get up, tie the shoe laces and head out for a run. You decide to do something and sometimes that's all which matters. In Murakami's words, the void, the very lack of obsessive consumption of feel good is the space I strive for. Running affirms the undying will to do what you want to do, to struggle, to battle with pain and overcoming it with your own efforts. That's a feeling which you have to train for. You will hit road blocks but you have to keep adding fuel to yourself and that's what long distance running is all about. One more thing, it's also about respecting your privileges. 


"Whenever I feel like I don’t want to run, I always ask myself the same thing: You’re able to make a living as a novelist, working at home, setting your own hours, so you don’t have to commute on a packed train or sit through boring meetings. Don’t you realize how fortunate you are? (Believe me, I do.) Compared to that, running an hour around the neighborhood is nothing, right? Whenever I picture packed trains and endless meetings, this gets me motivated all over again and I lace up my running shoes and set off without any qualms. If I can’t manage this much, I think, it’ll serve me right. I say this knowing full well that there are lots of people who’d pick riding a crowded train and attending meetings any day over running every day for an hour."


The world is unfair. There are some of us who have to wade through troubles and struggle endlessly while there are some who have many more privileges. There are some who can eat a lot and still stay skinny while there are some who can add calories over stale bread. To struggle and get somewhere is a virtue mastered through the willingness to act and to appreciate what you have. At times it feels that there is no substitute to the path which will test your spirit. A journey through such path is inevitable for one's humility. It makes the end much sweeter. If you have any support, well wisher, help or anything that makes the ride easier then you ought to do better. You owe it to them and to yourself. 

I am still learning and growing and it will take time but right now, at this moment, I do feel that it's all about doing what you can, to give it your all and then to know when it's time, accept your defeat graciously. To know your limits and still pushing them. It lies somewhere in between aspirations and acceptance. 

To end the post, here's a line from a song in the movie, Udaan.  

दमक की ग़रज़ है, सोने में अगर तो जलना भी मंज़ूर है। 
- उड़ान

If gold has the wish to shine, then even getting burnt is acceptable.