the ironman swim

There exists a difference between being physically capable of doing something, and being emotionally ready to do it. I’d always known this. There is however, a second difference – one between knowing something and understanding it. I only understood the need for emotional readiness in physical acts after I started running/swimming.

I’ve always been an emotionally driven runner/swimmer. The perk being that at all major upheavals in life, I’ve run/swum, at times oblivious of the undercurrents that were making me do so. The downside: the staid greyness of the working life offers little by way of upheavals, and hence I run/swim with a guilty irregularity. I remember one such run – a 10 km route I like – that I was running after months of not having run. I felt so broken by the end of it, I called Ansa out of sheer mental exhaustion. Yet, it wasn’t so much the run that challenged me – I’d done longer distances – it was the silent foment that happens without the knowledge of the runner. It can be devastating. However, that is what somehow propels you to do greater distances.

When Dagar was due to leave India for good, we decided it was apt to mark the occasion with one last swim. I’d seen her go from struggling to do 20 laps of the pool to doing over 50 now. My year so far had been unremarkable in terms of my fitness goals, so I thought I’d gun for the Ironman swimming distance I’d been eyeing for a while. 3.86 km at one go. I’d never done over 2.5 km before.

On the day, as the hour approached, it began to rain. The halting, whimsical rain added to the emotion of the moment – an impending  farewell to someone who’d been an unlikely friend. We drove in the rain, singing along with the radio, speaking little, laughing sillily.  We got to the pool, the rain had abated. The water in the oddly shaped 22 metre pool was surprisingly warm. I began to swim.

I’m often asked, what goes through my head while I run/swim. I don’t know how to answer. I distance athlete isn’t often in control of his  thoughts. The thoughts (if they do, when they do) happen to you. In the pool, as always, I focussed on counting my laps. The first 50 went by easily, no surprises. This is the point during which I get into a sleepy rhythm. The act of swimming is a sensory reclusion of sorts.There are so many components to it – the coordination of the limbs, the optimal time to gulp air in, the length and duration of the stroke, the pace of exhalation under water, the cadence of the swim – and though all these become sort of automatic after a point, they leave no room for conscious, controlled, sustained thought. Sight is reduced to following the line on the floor, with the periodic splash of other swimmers’ bright bodies. Sound is reduced to the guttural echoes of one’s breath, consuming and soothing. There is little to taste but for the occasional accidental swig of chlorinated water. Water leaves little to the tactile sense.

100 laps go by.

By this time I’m close to the most I’d ever swum. I don’t feel particularly fatigued. I press on. After lap 120, I start to feel a disinterested ache in the muscles of my upper back. The pulls on the water aren’t as strong. I check my watch, I haven’t lost pace. By lap 150, all I remember is a phantasmagoria of depletion and determination. I have another 26 laps to go. At every turn at the wall, as I push off into another 22 metres, there is moment of perfect stillness as a glide a metre or two before beginning the stroke. My body is in one straight prostrate line, palms joined in front, shoulders covering my ears that hear nothing, legs together, toes pointing out, a moment of streamlined serenity. At every such moment I have an intense urge to stop swimming and drown. In retrospect that sounds too dramatic, but in that moment, I’d rather drown than give up on the swim. There is an emotional stubbornness to this swim. I remind myself to start the stroke, and so it goes.

At lap 176, I’ve finished the distance I wanted, but I turn around and press on anyway. I do a total of 182 laps that day for a total distance of 4 km. I touch the edge of the pool and hit stop on my watch. The time reads 2 hours 5 mins 1 sec. The exhaustion is the kind I haven’t felt in months. My upper body already feels sore, and my legs quiver as I sit by the edge of the pool. I’m smiling. Dagar does 100 laps that day. It is a befitting end to an extraordinary friendship, however shortlived. Once out, we guzzle down a glass each of nimbu-paani and say our final goodbyes.

As I take the metro back home, the next thought of course is to swim 5 km.

food love in ethiopia



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My fondest memories of Ethiopia have centred around food. It’s a country that loves its food. Everything is slow cooked, and the idea of quick service restaurants hasn’t found much traction. Ceremony is important, whether it’s in how the coffee is made, or in how the food is served. Eating together out of one big plate with your hands, sans cutlery or bowls, has significance. The act of eating morphs into one of sharing, even if you split the bill. Given the strict taboos about food and sharing in India (househelps/drivers served in different utensils), the absence of such distinction gave me great pleasure. I ate with farmers and friends, chauffeurs and children, strangers and seniors.

The food is healthy. Teff, the crop most grown in Ethiopia, is used to make injera, the dosa-like bread most eaten in the country. It is naturally gluten-free, and rich in iron – especially black teff injera. Meats,vegetables, and shiro – a thick chickpea dal – are all prepared with little oil. I had access to a swimming pool for 10 days while travelling, and every time I ate injera I felt like superman in the pool. Maybe the iron-rich diet coupled with high altitude suitable for physical training has something to do with why Ethiopia has produced such world-class endurance athletes as Haile Gebreselassie, Abebe Bikila, the Dibaba sisters, etc.

Lastly, and this is important, people enjoy their food. Most locals I ate with had an appetite to match mine – that’s saying something! Eating was a time not just to nutritionally fill-up, but also to talk, laugh, and listen. Everyone is a food critic, some passionately so. I felt at home in a country where food and eating were more than just that.

Special mentions:

  • Bozena shiro in Adama
  • Chikina tibs in Shashemene
  • Kaai-injera (black injera) and Ambo (natural sparkling mineral water) everywhere
  • Fresh fried fish by and from the lakes of Hawassa
  • Avocados & chili with bread and authentic sedama coffee for a breakfast of champions at Wondo Genet
  • Moussaka, Greek salad and spanakopita at Santorini, Addis Ababa
  • Better Italian food (owing to the war, maybe?) than anywhere in India

“It’s exhausting work exploring the depths of our darkest emotions. When they are freshest, thoughts smash around our skulls like possessed plant equipment; we feel like there’s a broken record playing up there. Our thoughts playing some sick game of psychosomatic hide and seek with our clenched and twisted guts. Coming out of an ultra, it’s safe to say we’re fatigued. The exhaustion lingering from the event washes away our self defenses, and this conscious scraping back of the soul further erodes our reserves, allowing unbidden thoughts and feelings to threaten the already threadbare fabric of our sanity.

But what becomes of us if we shy away from the introspection? Does denial simply buy us time while these emotions ferment in our subconscious? Or am I being melodramatic?

Maybe spending time, a day or two, ignoring these things is just what they need. Dismissal, pure and simple. But then again, perhaps the real benefit of endurance sport isn’t physical but spiritual. That enduring the ceremony and imbibing the potion of hormones our body releases puts us in a state so receptive to self-exploration that it’ll be damn near sacrilegious to ignore it. There’s certainly been no shortage of writers, poets, artists, and musicians who’ve found the Black Dog to be their greatest muse.”


Falling in love is meant to be unexpected and transformative. “I just fell in love” is, especially the way men wield it, an unparalleled excuse for all sorts of shitty behavior. But love as random event is not really compatible with love as duration. The couple domesticates the happenstance of love into the everyday; love in the form of the couple turns its face against accident, and lives by this refusal. As Germaine Greer famously notes in The Female Eunuch, “Security is when everything is settled, when nothing can happen to you; security is the denial of life.” But for many people, especially women, especially impoverished women, denying life is the only way to have one. Overall, the couple seems to endure mainly negatively: break-ups are painful, being alone means you’ve failed, good sex is hard to come by, the world is a scary place, etc. Those couples whose love survives on the gentle basis of shared affection and interests might be inspiring examples of emotional health, but on the other hand their advantages over people with, say, a close circle of friends, are mainly legislative.

The Love of Others by Hannah Black in The New Inquiry

beer character sketches

In the winter of 2011, I took a trip to the North East Indian states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya with three friends from college. In the crazed frenzy of the inevitable pea-brained machismo that occurs when four men travel together, I did not document that trip in any way. And though it remains one of my most eventful travels, all that’s left are wisps of recollection, surfacing every now and then, like lint from the pockets of a long forgotten coat.

C stripping to his underwear on the mountainous highway; flirting with altitude sickness courtesy my obdurate rejection of sweaters; Suraj’s mother’s rice wine, consumed in one lusty swoop; the long silent walk with Samarth on the night of Diwali as Tawang went to sleep and fireworks sounded like tired gunshots; the to-this-day-mouthwatering memory of food at Mon Valley Restaurant.

The undulations of vivid memory have since been starched clean by the banality of the everyday. I wish it weren’t so; I wish I had some record. But retrospective wishes are just regret spelt another way. And who has time for that?

I’m in Ethiopia now, for work. It has been three weeks now, with another two to go. And though I’ve made every effort to remember all that I can, I’m beginning to sense the foreboding forgetfulness creep in. The memory of 2011, or lack thereof, has spurred something. Besides, Dagar has all but put a gun to my head in her efforts to make me write ‘something… anything’. And since she has guns at home…

This is it.

I know of few better segues into travel writing than talking about local culinary culture, especially alcohol. It helps that the very essence of intoxication is to loosen the tongue, among other things. Ironically, my guide to Ethiopian inebriation was the teetotaler Guddissa (Gud) – a mild-mannered, god-fearing gem of a guy who had done some market research for a beverage manufacturer. (lazy writing)

Anyway, given that this is a work trip, my foray into the world of Ethiopian ethanol was through the docile gateways of beer. And, given that this is a public blog, that is all I’ll be talking about – beer.

Writing about beer, one soon runs into the adjectives wall. There are only so many transferred epithets that lend themselves elegantly to a drink as pedestrian as the beer. Hence the decision to personify beers. Here, then, are the character sketches of the various Ethiopian beers I’ve guzzled:

Bedele Special
Bedele is a mature man, late 30s – mid-40s. A weather-beaten face, like tanned leather, he seldom laughs, but often has a wry smile he doesn’t care to explain. He will not humour you for the sake of being nice. Not that he’s a bitter man; he’s simply too tired for the games we play. Lest you should picture a Clint Eastwood-esque hero, no, Bedele doesn’t support the NRA. Bedele is stoically difficult in any confederacy of conservative dunces. Otherwise a nice, liberal man whose company bears fruition given enough patience and attention.


St. George
Well loved, the Saint is a simple man, simplistic even. Cordial, polite, courteous to a fault, there isn’t much I can say against him. Therein lies the problem. There is no complexity to him. No shades of gray. A man who has nothing to hide has either not lived or is dangerous. The Saint is dangerous for his lack of having lived. He doesn’t know the mores surrounding social dos. Doesn’t know when to say when. No wonder he’s a hit among the youth.

Meta is the dilettante. Feigning character and depth, Meta is a mix of political ideas and pop culture snippets hastily crammed, ready to pour forth at the slightest trigger. His eagerness to impress is his undoing. Meta comes across as obnoxious to me. The kinds who will hijack a conversation, throwing everything at it, stripping it of nuance and taste.

Dashen is dating the Saint. She’s petty and frivolous, a perfect match for his monocled worldview. In her late teens, slim of build and of brains. It takes a special desperation to enjoy her company. Nothing that puts me off, really. It’s just that she violates the line between childlike and childish too many times. A few minutes into conversation with her, and there is nothing as bland and insipid as the things she has to say.

I really like this guy. The kind you’d like to invite home to watch the World Cup. Charming, funny, and unpretentious – most important trait this. Harar does not hold strong political views, and does not fake positions on matters that he is ignorant of. He is unapologetic about his ignorance, but has an earnest eagerness to learn new things. Easy-going is the best cliché that fits him. He’s unlikely your 4AM friend – that’s Bedele – but Harar is the man to call for adventures big and small.

She’s seeing Harar, and they’re a couple to go on a double date with (if you are into that sort of a thing). Amber has an astringent sense of humour. She’s easy to talk to, has no airs, and, unlike Dashen, isn’t desperate to please. She can hold her own in conversations about the state of the world, though I wouldn’t go so far as vouching for the quality of her reading list. She’ll grow into a fine woman. Though a good sport, she likes the occasional weekend alone at home.

We haven’t met. She is the kind of person who sits next to you on a long bus ride, and you, being yourself, don’t initiate conversation. But she does. And she is pleasant to talk to, has just enough interesting anecdotes to keep you engaged through the bus ride. The bus stops for dinner, and you eat at the same table (notice how she’s vegetarian). She asks if you smoke; you don’t. Back on the bus you chat for a while more. You both get off at the same stop. You thank her for her company, she says it was nice to meet you, you part ways, you do not exchange numbers.

Hakim Stout
On my very last day in Ethiopia, on a rainy day in Addis Ababa, at an unknown restaurant called Santorini, just by the Greek Embassy, I met the Doctor. A handsome man, he commanded the attention of everyone in the room immediately. He spoke with casual authority and grace, in voice of lustrous timbre. We spoke for close to an hour about Indian and Ethiopian cultures, the EPRDF, and the Ras Tafari movement. As we said our goodbyes (I had a flight to Delhi in a few hours), we mutually expressed regret at not having met earlier. Such a shame…

And thus I finished my Ethiopian sojourn. Back in New Delhi now. Back to Budweiser, Carlsberg Elephant and, on bad days, Kingfisher or Wave.

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“Do not fall in love with people like me.
I will take you to museums, and parks, and monuments, and kiss you in every beautiful place, so that you can never go back to them without tasting me like blood in your mouth.
I will destroy you in the most beautiful way possible. And when I leave you will finally understand why storms are named after people.”

― Caitlyn Siehl