Of finished and unfinished businesses – a half marathon, and some histories

I write this blog post with profuse and intense emotions. There is so much I want to say, there are so many thoughts swirling in this big little head of mine – the two fundamental challenges are a). to choose the right words and b). to say just enough, both challenges that I hope to live up to in this blog post just as I lived up to myself in a half marathon (21.1 km) that I was en-abled to finish on 13h February 2011 at Auroville.

Histories – My half marathon would not have been complete without my husband Kiran Jonnalagadda. Most of the times when I want to thank him, I usually keep it for the end, to reiterate the fact that my life would not have been so much of a challenge and so less fulfilling were it not for his constant presence (mingled with absences) in my life. Kiran aka Jace kept pace with me through the run, mainly because this was a run I was doing along with two living beings inside me – a pelvis infection and an endometriosis ovarian cyst. These living beings revealed themselves to Kiran and me on 1st/2nd Dec 2010 as Kiran and I journeyed through a horrible pain, an uncertain train ride and anxieties rife! Kiran was clear that he wanted to help me finish my first half marathon, despite the fact that I run way too slowly for his pace and strength. I know also that he wanted to ensure that I was pain free and nothing untoward happened to me during the run.

There are many times – many, many, many – when I have prided myself in being more capable, efficient and faster than Kiran in several aspects of life, be it work, relationships or multi-tasking. There are many times that I have knowingly and unknowingly belittled Kiran for being slow, lost and stupid. And there are those some-times – those very precious some-times – when I have been touched by his sensitivity, his patience and his insights. Each time I see him pet a dog or respond to someone’s inane query about technology, I cannot help but feel how lucky I am to be with a person who can empathize and who can show affection despite all the tough circumstances that he has faced in his life and all the difficulties that he has had to come out of.

Circumstances – I had decided to run this half marathon as a fund raiser for SPARROW and for C S Lakshmi (aka Ambai) who I deeply admire for her grit and patience. Lakshmi has said this to me more than once in her recent interactions that SPARROW is an archive – visual and oral histories archive that documents women’s stories and their everyday lives – which attempts to give faces, voices and a platform for ‘marginal’ histories. Histories become marginal not simply by accident, but also by design, systems and by time itself. Of the multiple and parallel journeys that each one of us undergoes, individually and collectively, as members of a society, members of an identity group and members of different institutions, some trajectories get highlighted more than others because the institutions or groups that we may be part of either have the power themselves to highlight the particular history (with facts arranged and represented in certain ways) in a way that generations know of only this history, or governments, politicians, the elite, etc choose which histories gain more prominence over others.

In the process of encountering and reading histories, we rarely come across details of what might appear mundane, small, micro, individual or local. Who would, if there were ever a history of good programmers, know the tormenting relations that my husband had had to undergo because of some critical decisions he took about his education, his career and what he believed were truth and values for him? How often do I forget the fact that my husband is what he is – with his completeness and incompleteness – because there were circumstances that emerged as a result of his decisions and life choices which have made him different from me? How would I know, were it not made known to me by personal encounters with the persons themselves, that South Indian women could be prohibited from doing public performances of classical music in the sabhas because they chose to wear their hair short? How would I know what religious and gender identity is were I not compelled to stand up to it to speak for myself as a woman in Kashmir at one time and as a Muslim woman married in a Brahmin household and living in Bangalore with all its prejudices rife towards women and Muslims? What circumstances shaped our individual lives that led to the emergence of different (not necessarily all positive or all negative) circumstances for us and others around us and that also helped to shape our perspectives? I believe, very strongly, that archives such as SPARROW have this much and more to contribute to our society when they record and maintain ‘lesser’ known stories and histories of individuals and their circumstances. I must also add here that while SPARROW is an archive of women’s histories, it does not imply that there is nothing in this for men. Yesterday, while sipping tea at the Auroville visitor’s centre, a remarkably wonderful woman – Ranjita – very insightfully pointed out that men and women are equal in different aspects – the key lies in recognizing and appreciating the differences. Life stories are not complete without other men and women – sometimes women can be more power hungry and power wielding than men and men can be more vulnerable than women – what makes us man or woman, despite our biological make-up, is also our different circumstances at different points in time.

Some memories: I ran my first half marathon with a feeling of nothingness which was preceded by periods of intense experiences. In December 2010, when I took the decision to go through healing in order to be able to come out of the cyst condition and everything else that had caused the pelvis infection, I also had to opt out of running because doctors advised me to take complete rest and to avoid any activity that gave jerks to the pelvis region. Having been through a muscle injury in the past and having experienced how much patience and faith are required for healing, I just gladly dropped out of running. I continued on my routine core strengthening, glute and hip muscle strengthening exercises and other exercises that the muscle goddess Preeti Ashok recommended to aid my healing from a prolonged bout of RSI (Repetitive Stress Injury). I had no running whatsoever since Jan 2011. Two weeks before the Auroville marathon, a friend, Anjana Mohan, recommended to me to do a quick training in the next one week and rest the week before the race. Similarly, Preeti also recommended that I do some cardio like cycling or swimming just to prepare for the run. As luck would have it, I entered my menstruation cycle just in the second last week before Auroville. Now, my menstruation cycle has been completely slowing me down since the hospitalization in December, and by the end of each day, around 7 PM, I am completely out of energy. So no cardio and no running in that week. When the actual run began on 13th Feb, I almost felt like I had forgotten how to run just as I had forgotten how to drive a car. But then, forgetting is not always easy. I remembered that I needed to run with a straight posture and that when I felt back ache, I needed to start working my abdominal muscles to relieve the stress on the back. I think some of these fundamental lessons helped me to reach the finish.

The two weeks preceding the Auroville marathon were also very tough because in these two weeks, I was being called upon to face some heavy duty challenges in my personal relationships. I was putting up a confrontation on one end to stand up for my identity and who I was as an individual, on another end I was trying to work a bridge in two close relationships, on yet another front I was trying to severe a bridge, etc etc etc. None of the challenges were easy. Each one demanded a lot from me as a person and at times, I felt so fagged out that I thought this is it! – I don’t even know what I am getting into with this half marathon that I had inflicted on myself! Phew! Phew! Phew!

But I must also add that each of days in the last fortnight preceding the Auroville half were filled with a lot of very interesting surprises and insights. I announced that I was running for SPARROW and that I would raise 21,000 rupees for the 21k I would finish. Each day, someone or the other, among friends and not known people, would turn up with a contribution. And each contribution for the run made me feel immensely humble. I must mention here especially my friend Girija who quietly made her contribution and sent me an even quieter email explaining how she contributed from the tuition fees she had reserved for her son. I cannot help but rue the parsimony and treacherousness of words which cannot express such humbling feelings. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to each one of you who made a contribution to this effort.

And then, in the last weeks before the run, I decided I would sell my books to make sure that I inched towards my personal contribution towards SPARROW. I cannot even remember now what got into me to start selling my own books to raise the money. But I do remember how I felt this deep sense of attachment, feelings of emptiness and then the emptiness replaced by a feeling of joy and satisfaction as I gave away each book that found an interested buyer. I remember telling Prem Sagar, who also made a contribution for SPARROW, that this act of giving away my books really filled me with some important lessons and insights and how moving beyond the attachment I feel for each one of my books somehow held the prospect of making me a better person. I will admit here that I do miss some of my books, but that missing is very little in the face of the prospect that these books now have a life beyond my shelf, that they will bring mirth to some, some of the books will circulate further and what not. It almost felt like Khalil Gibran’s words about how children are born of you and not from you and that they are like arrows that leave the bows when the time comes – the act of giving my books has made me feel like an enlightened parent 🙂

The Run Itself: I ran and walked, along with Kiran, for close to 3 hours and 40 minutes. I ran the first half hour completely, hoping to cover as much distance as I could before the sun would shine in its full glory. I interspersed long bouts of running with some walking. I had no plan on how I would finish. I just knew that finish I must. At times, the pain in the side of the cyst would gradually appear and then disappear just as soon as it came. Those were times when I just slowed down and hoped that the cyst would support me during this run. I must here admit another debt of gratitude to a very wonderful person – Kavita Mukhi – whose first advice to me when I was recommended surgery for my cyst was to befriend the cyst inside and to will my own healing. I think this run was part of the willing process that Kavita motivated me to get on to.

I helped myself to as much food and water I felt I needed at aid stations, remembering not to tank up too much, but just about enough. Each time I drank water, I remembered how I had traveled through the State of Tamil Nadu where the struggle for every drop of water is such an intense one.

After 19.6 kilometeres, I almost wanted to squat and sit down because I felt I could go on no longer. In those times, I would reach out for Kiran’s hand and just hold it because I knew that if I held his hand, I would probably be able to egg myself to finish. Times when I felt I could not go on, Kiran would pull me along and say ‘just a little more to go’. Times when I felt I could not finish, I tried to think of the difficult times in which Santhosh has run or I would think of Lakshmi and the trials she has been through to bring SPARROW to where it is today. Sometimes, funnily, I would just chant Lakshmi, Lakshmi, Lakshmi and push myself to keep going on. In some of these moments, I recognized how personal running is to me just as religion, spirituality and identity are so personal to me. The wonders that running has brought to my determination, to my boundaries of courage, to my sense of grittiness, I cannot help but recount each of these …

I finally ran the last 1 kilometer as much as I could. And when I hit the finish line, I flung myself to the ground and touched the soil and the earth with one hand and touched my heart with another hand in an expression of gratitude for a run that I think will always be part of my memory. This is the longest I have run and this has been the toughest run for me because I ran in the full knowledge of the fact that there were and are many uncertainties before me – I don’t know what this run will have done to my cyst, I don’t know what injuries I will sustain or not sustain for doing a run with zero training, how I decided to support SPARROW while still wading through the confusions that I have about gender identity and feminism, and how I am still reconciling with the difficult relationships that have been some of the reasons why running has become such a powerful metaphor in my life.

When I flung myself down to the ground after hitting the finish line, people thought I had collapsed. But I did what my mother usually does – she prostrates before what she believes to be divine by touching her forehead to the ground and thanking her divine for everything in her life. I did the same – I don’t think any run is possible without the countless and numerous persons, blessings and goodwill that surrounds me.

I cried soon after I got up from the ground. I cried because I realized what struggles lay behind this run, what strength and character had built up in me with this run, and what possibilities had opened up before me after having done what was done on 13th Feb. I don’t know if Preeti was reading my mind, but she said just what I was feeling right then – “after this, nothing is impossible!”

I want to end this blog post with a ode to Karen Coelho whose Ph.D. thesis and the journey that lies behind the completion of her thesis are a strong inspiration for me. In 2006, just when I was about to start my Ph.D., Karen mentioned how she had taken to running during her thesis to motivate herself out of her circumstances. I don’t know why but just this part of her story stayed very strongly with me. Now, when I see myself running as I am racing to write up my thesis, I remember Karen on most occasions and I thank her for sharing herself with me on that one day which has changed so much for me in the last one year! Big hugs to you gorgeous!

I cannot say goodbye like I do at the end of most of my blog posts. Instead, I will end with wondering what next with running and what next will be a history, a memory, a circumstance, a story for me …


About writerruns

I am lost in life. I now run to lose myself and to lose the handles I have been holding on to.
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9 Responses to Of finished and unfinished businesses – a half marathon, and some histories

  1. C S Lakshmi says:

    That was a very moving account Zainab. I am happy you made it. All of us at SPARROW love you.


  2. Zainab, That was a wonderful account. It sounds like it was an amazing life experience. A lot of people can’t say that about their runs. For some it comes easy. For others, the experience is in the training. The actual run is special for most, but it was more special for you than for many.

    Running has played a similar part in my life. It is a metaphor for life itself, and a teaching tool for so many things. A maturity tool, a determination tool, a way to know your body more and commune with it more, a way to know your mind and control it more, a way to be closer to your running supporters, a way to realize your deep and incomprehensible connection with people, a way to help the world while helping yourself, and more than anything a way to realize how much power and influence you have over your own abilities and achievements.

    Congratulations on a tough life experience. Congratulations on the self determination and will power. These are huge and will be your best allies in your next, trained-for, run.

    Time has run away with me (pun intended). I did intended to donate to Sparrow to support you and the cause. But I don’t seem to have the email you sent me with donation details. Can you please send it to me again so I can make my small contribution ?

  3. Deepa Mohan says:

    Wonderful post, Zainab, and I didn’t realize that just like Anjana, you too have this debilitating gynaec problem. She’s managed to keep on top of it most of the time…except when the pain is really unbearable; she was hospitalized once with its intensity.

    I also like the way you’ve appreciated Jace as he is; this is true, and lasting love, and the basis for a very happy marriage.

    Wishing you the best. …and I hope I am in town the next time you and Kiran call!

  4. Deepa Mohan says:

    It’s amazing..or not amazing…that “Zainab” kept chanting “Lakshmi” …and that helped her do her best and beyond!

    When each of us finds something that gives meaning to our lives…be it spouse, a cause, an activity, a sport, a hobby, a passion, a devtion…our lives become full..and fulfilled. I’m glad you’ve found several of these; I’ve been very lucky, too.

    …and I might post another comment, too, if I come up with one after more cogitation 🙂

  5. Vibhore says:

    Zainab, I am so glad that Chintan shared this link. As a fellow runner, I could relate with the spiritual impact of running. As a fellow human, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized & inspired by your account. Thank You!

  6. Vasumathi S says:

    There is a lot I want to write. But looks like I have teary-fingers!

    Way to go girl. What an inspiration you are!

  7. it’s unfortunate that i read this post this late. and fortunate that i read it at all. while i knew you had issues with your cyst, i had no idea what else you were going through. i do believe that your run despite everything, is a colossal achievement, zainab. and the way you have put it across is so honest, it’s palpable. i wish you many more momentous runs, and with it, many more instances to grow stronger.

    much love,

    • writerruns says:

      Thanks Kalpana! Just hope I can keep running – that has become a goal in itself now as much as it is a metaphor that has been guiding my life since the past one year!

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