Round An’ Round Men

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Our Secondary School Certificate exams were done. The teachers in charge of correcting the papers had gone on strike. And our last ‘school summer vacation’ extended indefinitely. The summer of 1990 was long enough for us to learn about exercise endorphins and how to deal with fat jokes.

On a scrap of rocky beach that was used as a tip, they finished building a “Joggers Park”. This was a crazy idea for the people of Bandra, who walked everywhere and had the thigh muscles to prove it. “Who’ll walk round an’ round in circles, men?” I heard one neighbour say to another in the classic Bandra patois as they stood over the fisherwoman. “Not for walking, no, reh? For jogging. It’s called Joggers Park, no?” said the other one superciliously and then yelled at the fisherwoman for being sloppy with the cleaning of the prawns.

Our lazy little suburb with its centuries old Catholic school campuses and their sprawling sports fields was a hub for young sports stars and their passionate, shouty, big-personality coaches like Coach Oliver Andrade. He was a legend and the epitome of the “Bandra man” with his monster BMW motorcycle and bow-legged hockey-player stance. Joggers Park was created at his behest, and the plaque outside that reads, “From Sir, with love” is tribute to “Sir” Andrade (and the old suburb’s collective love for the Sidney Poitier film).

We returned over the years to work off college snacking, first job beers, comfort eating over pre-wedding-jitters, first baby chubby…we keep returning.

Our mothers grew louder as days passed with no word from the authorities about our exam results. And so we put on our sports shoes and denim shorts and headed to Joggers Park. “Going jogging?” said another neighbour, smirking, sticking his elbows outward first in the universal gesture for “fatty” and then making the “running man” without the legs. “Oh no, uncle,” my best friend said very politely, “we are only going to lie down there.”

It was beautiful! The park had sloping lawns and three disparate concentric tracks of paving, tile and red mud. Over the years, the number of benches in the park would double and a sand pit, swings and slides would be added. In the centre of the park, what started as a pond area with ducks and catfish grew over time into a menagerie that included caged cockatoos, chickens, canaries and at least two rabbits.

Along the park’s perimeter ran low walls to which the tide came up. These were eventually secured with a railing to prevent the hordes of local tourists with noisy children and their sticky hands from falling over. Those children (and their ill-advised parents) would feed the birds and fish. We locals stopped going there in the evenings because we found crowds unpleasant. But, if you visit early in the morning, you can see one of the catfish has spawned into a three foot, slow swimming monster and you can imagine it is 1990 and Bandra people are trying out this “exercising” malarkey, some for the first time and in public. Oh the self-consciousness!

Away from our loud mothers, we walked for hours with one eye on the big Joggers Park clock as the summer evenings stretched out over the ocean, glittery and thin. Yes, it was strange to walk in circles, but what our neighbours could not have foreseen is that the handsomest boy that summer (we code-named him Apollo) ran there. Three times as fast as us, he eclipsed the evening sun over the horizon in a muscly blur as we sighed with all the discretion of fifteen year olds.

The strike was eventually called off, our SSC results came in and we applied to colleges. On the last day of our last school summer holiday, my friend and I decided to stay at the park a little later. We lay on a slope, hot-cheeked and sweating. Our denim shorts had become mysteriously loose that vacation. Energised and centred, we made promises to keep up the exercise routine. And we did. We returned over the years to work off college snacking, first job beers, comfort eating over pre-wedding-jitters, first baby chubby…we keep returning.

That night in 1990, in the ether, an abrupt darkness sparkled with a pinwheel of galaxies newly flung. “I could fall upwards into the sky,” I suddenly thought, as I felt myself precariously on the curve of the belly of the earth where it met the concave galaxy. I clutched at the grass, just in case.

Tomorrow, we would start college. Everything was going to change.

Joggers Park, Carter Road, Bandra (w), Mumbai 400 050.