Prepping For My First Marathon Meant Running Through India’s Rape Culture
Training for a marathon changed my body, and changed my relationship with it, too. Just not in the way I expected.
by Chaya Babu
Per my trainer Savio’s directions, four times a week I arose in the dark and heard the pigeons fighting atop my air conditioner. They pecked and gurgled outside my apartment tucked into a lane next to the temple in the Babulnath neighborhood of Mumbai in India. I had purchased new sneakers from the Nike store on Colaba Causeway — where the salesman told me they were the best pair they had for long distances, “even 5, 6 kilometers!” — and I tucked my key and a single 500 rupee note under the tongue as I stepped out onto the cobbled path of Babulnath Lane. The tailors were yet to open their tin-front stalls, and men slept under gritty tarps next to feral dogs that lived in the alley. For one of the few silent moments of the day in this wild maximum city, I was on the road alone.
It was a trick of the hour, but the air actually felt clean in my lungs because of its fleeting ebb in swelter and smog. I didn’t run to music, and the only sounds were the soft pulse of rubber on asphalt and the moonlit peaks of water hitting the dirty shore. It took me almost 30 minutes to get to Nariman Point to meet my group, a pace that held steady as my distances grew.
“Who’s the baby?” they said at first. I was 28 but I knew what they meant. Age-wise, I was younger than the majority of them, but they also sniffed out a certain greenness — in addition to the running club that congregated before the city woke up, the country and the sport were also new to me, evident from my accent and my awkwardness. But soon I fell into step with a small cohort of thirtysomethings: Parul, Vishal, Sukhpreet, and Nimisha.
All South Mumbaiites, the four of them, and the running group in general (we called ourselves Savio’s Slaves), were part of the same wealthy community that I had been inserted into by default of my job at Vogue India. But they had families and children, meaning they seemed to have graduated from the glitzy scene of cocktails at the Four Seasons on Fridays and the obsession with status that I was growing weary of as the novelty of India wore off. They were architects and doctors and inheritors of their family businesses, residing in the city’s most desirable quarters. But these things rarely came up. We talked about our lives through our breaths as we ran — but also about what to eat, how much, and the risk of not sitting in a tub of ice cubes after our most grueling runs.
Through them, I found a new life. And in this life, the running life, it was just your sneakers and your sweat and a smile to show you survived it all.
I arrived in India from New York shortly after completing a journalism master’s in January 2011. The Vogue position was a temporary residency, and when my time was up on the Fashion Features desk that May, I surprised my friends and family at home by deciding to stay in Mumbai, perhaps out of some twisted hope of conquering circumstances that were waging a small war against me. I spent my days applying for jobs at magazines and newspapers to no avail, and I moved three times in five months because my host families either thought I was a whore or had domestic help who made unwanted sexual advances toward me. At interviews with employers who had been excited about my work, I was swiftly and resolutely rejected once they saw me — a local friend of my dad’s advised me to put less than my best foot forward; no one likes an Indian girl raised abroad whose confidence might shake the order of things. My nights were often spent at parties in marble-floored lofts and old tony bungalows where my New Yorker card was an in; but as soon as I went from working under a famous style editor to filling my blog with feminist ramblings, the hosts of such affairs were less interested in me. I struggled to learn the layers of a society that should have been familiar but weren’t: my parents had left India 40 years prior, but a smattering of childhood trips to villages in Mysore and Chennai didn’t prepare me to blend into the moneyed set of Mumbai or solo living as a grown woman finding her way.
I was about eight months into my stay when my starry-eyed perspective began to shift. The main things I had learned so far were don’t kiss boys on the street because the cops will try to take you away; don’t be out on the street late at night as a woman because the cops will try to take you away; finding writing work is impossible unless you’re a local from a reputable family or a foreigner with an actual foreign name. I needed something to fill the gaping hole where writing might have been. I decided to run a marathon.
I don’t know what defines a runner, but I was definitely never one. In some regards you could say I came close, having been manager of the track team in high school, holding stopwatches and plugging times into spreadsheets. I did that to meet guys from other schools, obviously. During other athletic seasons I sat on the bench through field hockey games in cleats and a pleated skirt, a logical next step after being relegated to the seventh grade basketball team in eighth grade and being picked last in gym class throughout my childhood.
My newfound athletic prowess was inexplicable, even to myself. I was jobless in a country I moved to on a whim, so clearly I was not averse to exploring new terrain. A deeper impetus than just pent-up energy and a sense of adventure drove me to the brick-laid seafront sidewalk of Marine Drive, jogging the 4.5-kilometer stretch down and back to Chowpatty Beach, alone at first in the August evenings and then later, with added lengths, at dawn with Savio’s group. As Mumbai became home, a tightness had also begun to set in — the choke of feeling my movements policed, the creeping sense that my female body was not my own — and I tried to run from it.
When I got to 16 kilometers or so on my own, running for more than two hours straight, I thought I needed a push, a way to keep going. People, perhaps. I googled running clubs and trainers, searching the internet for something I honestly thought might not exist. On the website for Priyadarshini Park & Sports Complex, I found a number in a sidebar for Savio D’Souza. I called and he told me to show up at the park at 6 that evening.
Savio was my dad’s age but much more fit, with salt-and-pepper hair and both an uncle quality and a skinny boyishness. At Priyadarshini Park, he made me alternate running and walking in 100-meter intervals, 40 times around the track in the torrid post-monsoon Mumbai heat. I hadn’t known what to expect upon showing up, but it turned out to be just me there while he coached a couple of kids games on the patchy grass. I guessed the torturous exercise he assigned was an initiation of sorts, so I did it as dusk fell over the frothy waves cutting onto the fenced-out sea rocks. When I was done, he said “good” with a smile and told me to meet him and the others that Sunday at Nariman Point. At 6 a.m. Fuck.
Running early in the morning is not the most far-fetched notion so his instructions shouldn’t have surprised me, but before sunrise was also the only humanly bearable time of day for such an activity. It was September and I had come back to India a little over a month prior after a visit home to New York and returned to a nagging, inescapable wetness that permeated all of existence — my pillows had become moldy, clean laundry never dried, and taxi seats left the butt of my jeans damp and a little rancid. I thought the rains ceasing meant a period of cool, but it was not so. Fall, if that’s what you could call it, was wretchedly hot. So I succumbed to 5:30 wake-ups to gather at the southern tip of the city where horseshit crusted the pavement and hawkers sold neon-lit plastic pinwheels or shot-sized cups of chai.
All of this, in fact my entire two-year Mumbai story, happened before the gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey became our international emblem of violence against women and, more specifically, rape culture in India. Of course feminist and humanitarian groups there had been committed to these issues long before, but when I arrived they were not so much the hot topic, at least not for conversation over brunch at Breach Candy Country Club. There was this idea that it was the strange men on the streets who were dangerous, leering low-class migrant workers far away from their wives. If we stayed within the confines of the lives prescribed for us, the silent barriers between where we should and should not go, then there was nothing to worry about. China House nightclub? OK. Just chillin’ on your own block for longer than necessary? Of course you’re going to get ogled and maybe groped and you should have known better.
In my first weeks, a new friend refused to let me leave bars and parties until a male acquaintance was ready to drive me home because, she said, I was not to take taxis at night — for my own protection. On the night I was held in custody at the Juhu police station until morning for simply being a woman on the street as I looked for a rickshaw outside a friend’s apartment at 2 a.m., the officers said that my imprisonment was for my own protection as well but still made me pay a bribe to get out. I took a gamble with the cars rule and adjusted to cabbies readjusting their rearview mirrors to get a better angle at my crotch, and in cutoffs and chappals I walked where I pleased in the pulpy humidity to the tune of men turning and tsking or even trying to touch. Yes, there was some validity to the streets argument — but where in the world are streets safe for women?
I had long been a city girl so Mumbai’s outsides didn’t scare me. It was the insidious inside game that started to mess with my head: guys who I thought were my friends inevitably sending texts with shameless innuendo; my roommate’s boyfriend, staring and smirking in my living room with his constant looking good Babu, you’re sexy Babu; and then the hands, the endless hands, on my arms, on my lower back, a squeeze of the shoulders, a graze up the calf coupled with the reminder that men like smooth legs and smooth vaginas too. These moments filled up the safe spaces.
Still, even this was tolerable; I had been a woman for my whole life and such minor assaults typically rolled off my back. It was that the pace was dizzying. But it was the response from many of the women I knew that felt like the noose. “You must be doing something to invite this.” I assumed they would relate, but in the only space I had to seek some sort of solace or commiseration, I was sent away. I wondered where I could go that didn’t include bowing out and flying home.
I took to the streets.
We spoke in kilometers because this was not America, and on Mondays it was 9 or 13, depending on how you felt and whether climbing the small mansion-speckled mountains of Malabar Hill sounded appealing. I did this twice and dry-heaved the entire way up the verdant slopes both times with Parul pushing me through her own huffing: “Just look at the ground and GO!” Wednesdays were 15 kilometers to the Haji Ali Juice Centre and back, or speed workouts at Priyadarshini Park. Fridays were up to you and Sundays were longer runs, 25, 30, and 32 kilometers as we glimpsed the end of the year and the January race approached. On those days, when we went all the way to Lower Parel, paused, and turned right back around, Savio zoomed around the city on his scooter to meet us with bananas and lime water tucked beneath his seat.
I discovered — and this was fucking crazy — I was good at running.
What I lacked in speed, I made up for in form. I had long strides despite my 5-foot frame. Savio, who ran with us on other days and told us “run taller” or “drop your shoulders” or “eat more protein” or “slow down,” said I was a natural. I took to it well, the lengths and the rhythm, tapping unknown reserves of endurance that sprung from the soles of my feet. And having inherited my father’s lithe build, I hit the ground with a grace and lightness that nearly erased my memories of uncoordinated fumbles on the kickball court.
Some things came less naturally and my runner posse clued me in: Vaseline around the sports bra, under the arms, and on the inner thighs to keep the red of chafing in check. And the toenails — I lost two after they blued and then blackened and finally loosened. Vishal said to consider a lack of toenails a badge of honor. And when I stopped getting my period and tried to see every doctor on Peddar Road, Parul reminded me that I was a small person running a bazillion kilometers a week and that all would be fine again after. Together we sat on blocks of ice back at Nariman Point and took turns making Savio stretch us as daylight crept out over decrepit high-rises and landed on the east side of our faces.
Shockingly, I let Savio knead the knots out of my muscles without flinching at his touch. I lay on my back on the wide stone bench of the promenade and put the tension hiding in my body in his hands. In turning my focus to the small traumas I accumulated with each week of training, had I let go, somewhere along the way, of the clawing fear that had threatened to swallow me?
Running put me out onto the dusty dung-stained open road and said just look at the ground and GO! So I went, and when I lifted my head up on race day and found myself in the middle of the glistening blue-black water of the Arabian Sea, treading a massive suspension bridge on foot, I thought, just for a second, that a little piece of the city was mine.
In spite of its hardships, I was obsessed with Mumbai, that beautiful beast of urban madness. We had a complicated relationship — this much is probably apparent — but “love” does not adequately capture the unbridled ferocity with which I clung to the place. There was, in every filthy corner and every breath, a lush wholeness to life. And I wanted it.
Maybe this was the reason it was all the more tragic to not belong.
There’s a growing dialogue on women’s vulnerability in and lack of safe access to public spaces, both in South Asia and elsewhere. That we, as women, are one of the unspoken “unbelongers” — as feminist studies scholar and one of the three authors of Why Loiter?Shilpa Phadke put it — in global metropolises where all kinds of people walk, work, and live on the streets is an idea I had neglected to give much thought to until India pushed my ass around so unapologetically. It beckoned me but then asked, How dare you?
“Who is the city for, by whom is it created by [sic] and what shall we do there?” asks Veronica Wiman, curator of a California-based art exhibit titled Fear and Gender in Public Space.
Instinctively I knew the answers to these questions, and to run was to resist them. To run was to revolt. To run was to reclaim Mumbai and my body and to rage against the silent restrictions imposed by an invisible yet palpable force upon my movements.
To run was to choose.
As the marathon neared, a painful patella problem forced me to take it slow for five weeks. In the days leading up to the race, the physical therapist told me that to go through with it was a gamble. “You could damage your knee more, but it’s hard to say,” she said. “It’s really up to you.”
I chose to run.
We met at Azad Maidan, a large green space in the center of South Mumbai where I had frequently joked about wanting to lie out in a bikini. It was actually chilly, and I wrapped my legs around themselves like licorice ropes while we waited to begin. I took me a while to warm up, but by kilometer 11, stepping onto the gleaming Bandra-Worli Sea Link, I had a beat. Stopping there to spray my knee with some liquid numbing magic and then continuing on in the steady pulse of my stride, I felt joy rising in me like the orange-gray sun on the hazy horizon.
No one aside from skinny children on the street came to cheer me on since I was still mostly alone 13,000 kilometers away from what was, in many regards, still home. But the marathon was for me, not for those watching. When I got to the 300 METERS TO FINISH mark, Savio was there waiting to join me for just a few paces. “Now increase, increase, juuuuuust increase,” he said softly at my side, propelling me forward over the mat that was synced to the chip on my special long-distance Nikes. I kept my 10:30-ish mile for 42.2 kilometers and finished in 4:33:56. Not so bad, I’d say.
The group still ran together sometimes even if we weren’t training for a race. One morning in March, on what should have been an easy 9 kilometers down Marine Drive and back, I groaned at the weight of what felt like lead in my shoes. “I can’t do this,” I complained. “I haven’t kept up.”
“You can, don’t worry,” said Sumit, a guy running next to me. “Your body has the memory.”
He was right. I had forgotten that it always took me a few kilometers to get going, and by the time we reached the first overpass halfway down, I was back into my old flow among the salty air and seagulls cawing.
I haven’t run much since then, at least not in that way. I moved back to the U.S. later that year, and every January my running buddies goad me to return for the marathon and do it again. It’s true that Mumbai brought out the runner in me; the prospect of joining the 40,000 New Yorkers who run the marathon every November, as opposed to the 5,000 in Mumbai, is not one that compels me. But just as my body holds the little pieces of fear and frustration that I took in during the times the city hurt me, I also know that, as Sumit said, it remembers the running. When the time comes to go back and do it again, and I imagine it will, those memories are there, ready to put me on the crumbling road and tell me to look at the ground and just go. •