FROM ZANZIBAR TO BOSTON / THE BHASKER DESAI STORY

Left: Bhasker Desai (Photo: Shyam G Menon) Right: Photo taken likely in 1962, showing Bhasker at far right with his family on Pemba Island, Zanzibar. His eldest sister Sudha went to a boarding school 30 km away from home and the family had gone to see her off (Photo: courtesy Bhasker).

Left: Bhasker Desai (Photo: Shyam G Menon) Right: Photo taken likely in 1962, showing Bhasker (far right) with his family on Pemba Island, Zanzibar. His eldest sister Sudha went to a boarding school 30 km away from home and the family had gone to see her off (Photo: by arrangement).

“ It was a medical issue that got me into running,’’ Bhasker Desai said.

March 2015. We are at a cafe at the Inorbit Mall in Malad, a Mumbai suburb.

Bhasker was born in November 1952, in the town of Wete, on Pemba Island, Zanzibar. Pemba Island is the second biggest island of the Zanzibar archipelago. The famous channel which separates the islands from the coast of Tanzania (of which Zanzibar is now a part), got its name from Pemba. The Pemba Channel is rich in marine life and is considered today one of the world’s best preserved spots for game fishing. Zanzibar, ruled in the past by Omani kings, has historically hosted a non-resident Gujarati trading community. Bhasker’s grandfather was the first from his family to settle in Zanzibar, in 1905. Bhasker studied till the fifth standard in Africa. Given the growing political unrest in the archipelago preceding its formal union with Tanzania, Bhasker’s studies post-fifth standard happened at a boarding school in Nargol, South Gujarat. He went on to do his textile engineering from IIT Delhi and worked for Bombay Dyeing and Mafatlal, both big names in the Indian textile business.

In 1994, he quit his senior position at Mafatlal to commence his own business straddling three lines – garment export to Europe, supplying linen to five star hotels and being an agent for imported high density and low density polymer powder. Bhasker’s wife, a senior executive with the Tata Group, was based in the US from 1999 to 2005. With their son also studying and later working in the US, Bhasker managed the business in Mumbai and shuttled between India and the US.

In his years at IIT Delhi, Bhasker had run the 1500m at inter-hostel competitions. He also liked playing football. However life as businessman in Mumbai was decidedly sedentary.

Bhasker’s triglycerides level exceeded 900.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Triglycerides are a type of fat (lipid) found in our blood stream.

The Mayo Clinic website offers an easy-to-understand explanation. When we eat our body converts any calories it doesn’t need immediately into triglycerides, stored in our fat cells. Later, hormones release triglycerides for energy between meals. If you eat more calories than you burn – especially easy calories like carbohydrates and fats – you may have high triglycerides, a condition called hypertriglyceridemia. The American Heart Association recommends that a triglycerides level of 100 milligrams per decilitre (100mg/dL) or lower may be considered as optimal. The Mayo Clinic website deems 150-199mg/dL as ` borderline high,’ 200-499mg/dL as ` high’ and 500mg/dL and over as ` very high.’ High levels of triglycerides increase the risk of heart disease. To lower triglycerides level, change in diet and lifestyle, including physical exercise, is the usual approach.

Bhasker started frequenting Mercury Gym in the Mumbai suburb of Goregaon, doing weights and running on the treadmill. Without medication, the triglycerides receded to 450. One of the gym members noticed that he ran well on the treadmill and suggested that he train for the upcoming edition of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). Bhasker enrolled for the half marathon with roughly 40 days to prepare.

In 2005-2006, when high triglycerides got Bhasker thinking of exercise, the sprawling mall we were in wasn’t yet part of Malad’s landscape. It was vacant land bordering the nearby creek. That’s where Bhasker started training for the 2006 SCMM. On event day, he finished third in his age category with a timing of 1:45 hours. By the time he was thus initiated into long distance running and liking it, his triglycerides level had dropped through consistent physical activity to 200-250.

Bhasker with wife Nina and son Neeraj, Lake District, UK, 1990 (Photo: courtesy Bhasker)

Bhasker with wife Nina and son Neeraj, Lake District, UK, 1990 (Photo: by arrangement)

Bhasker’s son Neeraj lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. Newly married, he worked as an Assistant Vice President with the Bank of America. He was also passionate about the environment and was the youngest director of a NGO called Carolinas Clean Air Coalition. Roughly seven months after Bhasker ran his first SCMM, in August 2006, Neeraj died in a road accident. With her son now no more, Bhasker’s wife Nina, moved back to Mumbai. She also secured a job in the city with the Tata Group. The family had been adding two new floors to their house in Goregaon; the construction had been temporarily stopped because their future, when Neeraj was alive and Nina was working in the US, had seemed more US-headed than India-based. With Neeraj gone, Nina lost interest in the construction. With some coaxing from Neeraj’s friends in the US, Bhasker and Nina resumed work on the house.

January 2007 and yet another SCMM, approached. Bhasker had registered for the half marathon. On January 17, Nina passed away in hospital, the result of a slip and fall she suffered while supervising work at the house under construction. Three days later, Bhasker ran the half marathon; he decided to run the race for his wife and son, finishing it in 1:47. It took Bhasker all of 2007 to come to terms with the personal loss he had suffered. “ It wasn’t that I was crying or anything. It was more that my wife and son had given me so much of a sense of direction in life. That was suddenly gone,’’ he said. There were other losses too in 2007 – his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, his uncle’s son, they all passed away. “ It was a terrible year,’’ Bhasker said.

Bhasker running at events in Mumbai and Bengaluru (Photos: courtesy Bhasker)

Bhasker running at events in Mumbai and Bengaluru (Photos: by arrangement / Photo montage: Shyam G Menon)

Once again, SCMM provided leverage for a restart. Bhasker resumed his running with another half marathon in the 2008 SCMM. He ran a half marathon in Delhi. The running calendar then wasn’t as busy as it is nowadays. There weren’t as many events. 2009 was Bhasker’s first busy year in running. It started as usual with SCMM. Then he ran a half marathon – part of an event called Tibetan Marathon – at Leh in Ladakh, the very northern part of India, tucked in the high mountains of the Karakoram and the Himalaya. In Leh, he met Ken Skea, one of the foreign runners enrolled for the race. Ken encouraged Bhasker to attempt the Boston Marathon in the US. It is the world’s oldest and best known annual marathon, one of the six World Marathon Majors (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York City). You cannot participate unless you meet the assigned qualifying time for your age category. The qualifying time for Bhasker’s age group at the Boston Marathon was 3:45 and the then 56 year-old Bhasker hadn’t yet run a full marathon. Much work was in order.

Around this time, some other changes were happening. Born into a traditionally enterprising family that had ventured out two generations ago and made its wealth in farming, Bhasker had also put in several years working at companies and founded his own business. After the demise of his son and wife, he slowly started taking a backseat at work. The business tapered to just one line of work; his company is still supplier of linen to one of India’s biggest chain of luxury hotels. The company became more a source of income for its few employees. On his part Bhaskar did not hesitate to use his resources to help less privileged runners. Gradually the Bhasker known to Mumbai’s running circles – the man given to running, enjoying it and inspiring others by his enthusiasm for it – began taking shape.

Ken Skea and Bhasker (Photo: courtesy Bhasker)

Ken Skea and Bhasker (Photo: by arrangement)

Bhasker’s performance at the 2010 SCMM full marathon was affected by a calcareous heel spur problem. He finished in 5:05. Boston demanded 3:45, which meant he should ideally finish at some noted event in at least 3:40. Bhasker turned to Giles Drego, one of Mumbai’s leading coaches in distance running, for guidance. In September 2010, he started following the training chart Giles provided. Ken Skea also pitched in to help with a training regimen for Bhasker. In October 2010, at Ken’s suggestion, Bhasker ran the full marathon at Athens completing the course in 4:05. “ The half marathon is a journey, the full is a destination. That is the difference,’’ he said of his learning. In December he ran the full marathon at Sabarmathi (Ahmedabad), bringing down his time to 3:45. Then he registered for the March 2011 full marathon in Washington DC.

In February 2011, Bhasker decided to hike up Kilimanjaro in Africa. The group he was with was doing the normal route. Feeling fit and with upcoming major marathon events in mind, Bhasker ran between one camp and the next. But he had overlooked an important aspect. High mountains are home to sickness caused by altitude. While its onset varies from person to person and with how well a person is acclimatized on given trip, it is not to be trivialized. Acclimatization – ideally gradual acclimatization – is important. At 19,341-height, Kilimanjaro is a high peak. It is the world’s highest free standing mountain with a history of unsuspecting trekkers, moving up fast because the passage is manageable and then ending up with mountain sickness. That’s what happened to Bhasker. Eventually he reached the summit. But he was in a bad shape. After return to Mumbai, he ran the half marathon in nearby Thane. “ It was a bad run. Kilimanjaro had knocked me out,’’ Bhasker said. Now he was worried about Washington DC.

Bhasker with Bill Rodgers. To the left and right are  brief autographed messages from Rodgers (Photos: courtesy Bhasker. Photo montage: Shyam G Menon)

Bhasker with Bill Rodgers. To the left and right are brief autographed messages from Rodgers (Photos: by arrangement. Photo montage: Shyam G Menon)

Ahead of the run in Washington DC, Bhasker put in time at his sister’s place in California. He joined a gym and regularly ran ten kilometres. In Washington DC, he met the running legend, Bill Rodgers who is a former American record holder in the marathon and has won the Boston Marathon and the New York City Marathon four times. Bhasker waited in queue to meet him and was delighted when Bill Rodgers wrote “ Lets run forever’’ on his photo and “ Bhasker – see you in Boston,’’ on his bib. Bhasker completed the Washington DC marathon in 3:41:16. That gave him his ticket to Boston. He remembers with gratitude a young pacer for the 3:40 time-category, who encouraged him at times of struggle. “ That young man and Bill Rodgers – they made Boston happen for me. I was very happy,’’ Bhasker said. He is believed to be the first person from Mumbai in his age group, to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

According to Bhasker, though he embraced structured preparation in the early stages of his journey to the Boston Marathon, he has by and large been an unsystematic runner. “ There are the serious runners. I am the unserious runner!’’ he quipped, adding, “ I don’t advise what I am doing for others. It works for me. It needn’t work for others.’’ He claimed there was no method to his madness. There are interesting details – for example, despite podium finishes in India and participating in major events overseas, Bhasker runs quite technology-light. He straps on a watch – that’s it. It would seem a free bird-attitude amid the growing tide of gladiators. But at another level it helps lighter one’s concerns, enjoy the journey and trust a good journey to deliver a decent result as opposed to a pressing need for result deciding the quality of the journey. Is the apparent absence of method then Bhasker’s madness? He smiled, played with the question and let it slip away.

Bhasker (center) at the 2014 Boston Marathon (Photo: courtesy Bhasker)

Bhasker (center) at the 2014 Boston Marathon (Photo: by arrangement)

The real Bhasker, it seemed, hovered in the space between contrasting points in his observations on running. “ On a race day I like to give my best. There is no denying that. I don’t glorify being the last runner; I don’t glorify the podium finish either,’’ he said. He also said, “ I wish people would run for the fun of it, the health and the happiness. I feel very relaxed after every race.’’ Close to a decade in running and now in his sixties, Bhasker also admitted he was beginning to appreciate the merit in systematic training. Yet he stopped short of wholeheartedly embracing the approach and the possibilities systematic training may open up. “ I will never go for the ultra marathon. That requires rigorous training. I am not ready to compromise my lifestyle for it,’’ he said.

In Mumbai, Bhasker is noted for his popularity with young runners. Austin Dsouza, 30, who works as manager at an MNC, has been running for the past two and a half years. He has known Bhasker for around two years. “ Pappy is a fierce competitor and will never give anything less than 100 per cent. At the same time he will be easy going and humorous. He will go great distances to care for us puppies, always adding zing to every occasion. People like him, who inspire others, are rare. I remember when he was asked to speak to a bunch of MBA aspirants at an institution that had partnered for a race he was the only one on the panel who made the kids laugh and believe running is fun and for everybody. He inspires people on the track and off the track. Often after a race, we have at least five runners walk up to him and thank him for being an inspiration,’’ he said. According to Austin, he and his friends call Bhasker `Pappy,’ Bhasker calls them back, `puppies.’

Bhasker’s first Boston Marathon in April 2012 was eventful. He reached the city in good shape, ready to run. On race day, Boston recorded high temperatures. Bhasker did well up to the half marathon-mark; then he cramped up. He finished with a timing of 4:20. He fainted twice and was eventually carried off for medical attention. In 2013, by when he had moved to the 60-64 years age group, Bhasker completed the Boston Marathon in 3:46. In terms of qualifying to run at Boston, he did so in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and his eligibility remains for 2015 and 2016. But having run the Boston Marathon three times, Bhasker believes it is time to move on. Between 2011 and 2013, he must have run about 15 formal marathons including much running overseas. In 2013, the tragic bomb blasts at the Boston Marathon happened 20-25 minutes after Bhasker had finished his run. That year in Boston, he was placed 205 out of 950 runners in the 60-64 years age category. Back home Bhasker has been a podium finisher on many occasions. “ Podium finishes are always in India,’’ he said illustrating how an Indian podium finish compared to runners’ performances overseas. Meanwhile continuing with his running, Bhasker ran the marathon in New York in 2013 and the one in Istanbul in 2014. He ran in Pattaya, Phuket, Philadelphia, Geneva, Lausanne (Bhasker considers Lausanne a fine marathon destination – small town, great weather, great cheering) and Kuala Lumpur. Back home he ran the much loved Vasai-Virar marathon near Mumbai and the marathon in Dholavira, Gujarat. By February 2015, Bhasker had notched up on the average 15 marathons in 15 months; in some months there were more than one. When we met Bhasker in March 2015, the next major run on his itinerary was a marathon in Utah, scheduled for June.

Bhasker Desai, March 2015, at the cafe in Malad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Bhasker Desai, March 2015, at the cafe in Malad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Was it three cappuccinos or four? The exact count escapes memory. It had been a long time chatting at the cafe. Somewhere along the way, Bhasker had mentioned and it was there in the journalists’ notes, a key to understanding the man and his affection for running, “ I think running makes you a better person. Running is a great way to socialize. I am a one man-family. Running has been a nice way to increase my family; have a group which connects with you.’’

Ram Venkatraman has been a runner for long. He is one of the founding members of Mumbai Road Runners (MRR) and a person who knows Bhasker well. “ Bhasker is a mindless, aimless runner in the sense that he does not run for personal glory like personal best, podium finish etc. He has the same passion for running that we all have. He is an inspiration to many. He also does his bit for underprivileged runners by helping them with shoes, accommodation and race fees without making a fuss about it. He is truly a legend in the running world of India,’’ Ram said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Please note: the timings mentioned are as given by the interviewee.)

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