In a small town in South India, men run together to build a healthier society.
There was a small gymnasium for men near my home in Kerala (South India) that as a teenager, I was quite curious about. Apart from a couple of youngsters, who sometimes lifted weights and performed push-ups outside, it generally appeared abandoned as life dragged on around it.
Most young men in Palakkad (my hometown) were on motorcycles or bicycles every evening, eating their heart’s fill of fried capsicum or egg fritters. A bottle of hard liquor or glasses of palm toddy defined male friendships that rarely incorporated sport.
Palakkad was a sleepy place where people either ambled near their bungalows or walked along the four narrow roads that took them to different parts of a town filled with bakeries and jewelry shops. I had never heard anyone talk about fitness as such, and so, I was pleasantly surprised when one of my friends invited me for a half-marathon in Palakkad this year.
India has produced a few good athletes – including Milkha Singh, dubbed The Flying Sikh – but I doubted if many men in Palakkad talked about or tried to emulate great men like Singh. I went through my friend’s invite again and wondered if there were enough people to help his initiative succeed.
I gradually realized that my friend – whose idea of exercise had been climbing the few stairs from where his bike was parked to our classroom in college – had transformed from a sedentary teenager into a 40-year-old fitness enthusiast, who strived to run most marathons and considered running to be one of the most satisfying activities life had to offer.
“How did you become a marathoner?” I asked. “People ask me why I run instead of just walking, and I tell them it’s difficult to express in words how good it feels deep down when you push yourself to the limit and succeed,” he replied.
He admitted that he might never have picked up running if not for a group of friends who wheedled him into it. As he slowly increased the distance he covered and his running speed, he became addicted to the incredible sense of achievement associated with completing a difficult run. His group has twenty men who run together – motivating and encouraging each other – making exercise a significant part of male bonding. “Running is the simplest form of sport,” he said. “You need nothing but a good pair of running shoes.” And a group of good friends, I thought.
I had spent a few weeks in Palakkad this year and noticed many men waking up at dawn to jog around a track that girdled an eighteenth-century fortress. Tender coconut vendors stood right outside this beautiful fort, selling coconut water to panting, sweating clients.
Some men ran along dusty roads lined with tall palm trees that overlooked rivers, which swelled in the monsoon. Some ran in the rain with their friends, sharing cups of hot tea from little shacks that served breakfast as well. Some ran on mud tracks around huge playgrounds where young athletes played cricket or practiced football. Some formed groups that not just ran together but also organized celebrations on special days of the year.
Men bonded, renewed old friendships, made new friends, and inspired each other as they ran together, some in shorts and others in traditional sarongs knotted neatly above the knees. Some men strode with their wives and sisters too. Some marched with their mothers. Some, like my father, took their daughters along. Palakkad had latched on to a trend set by many urban Indian cities that had begun to see fitness as a significant aspect of life. Palakkad was now ready for marathons.
Liquor still holds considerably sway over Keralite men – alarming levels of alcohol abuse forced the government to ban drinking in public and restrict serving of alcohol to five-star hotels – but running regularly has kept my friend away from liquor parties. To him, the unhealthy entertainment that an alcohol-fuelled night provides is no match for the “unbelievable feeling of accomplishment” that a spirited run delivers.
New gymnasiums and shops selling workout apparatus have mushroomed as a threat to bakeries and sweet shops. Many people have treadmills and cross-trainers at home, but most prefer to run or walk outside as part of their daily regimen. More than one thousand people participated in the half-marathon held in January this year, wrote my friend.
I do not know what happened to the dilapidated gymnasium of my younger days. The last I looked, it was empty. The lads who used it may have formed a group of their own, or found other groups to run with. Exercise has brought the men in Palakkad together like never before, and they use it not just to cultivate fit bodies but also a stronger culture that focuses on societal bonding regardless of religion, gender or class.