I have discovered that I like to walk.
My dad used to famously walk. While my mother walked twice between our front door and the end of the driveway every evening while stopping to examine a plant or a bloom in the garden on her way to declaring victory, my dad was out there at the crack of dawn for his “morning walk”. It was his religion. He took our little Lhasa terrier, Rani (“queen” and treated like one) out on a leash. Rani quickly transferred herself to my dad’s right arm. My dad and Rani were a daily fixture on Road No. 2, Banjara Hills, back when it was a dirt road to nowhere. Our home was the very first house on the street. People had just started building in Jubilee Hills, at that time the largest new development in Hyderabad. They paved the road, one lane in each direction, and a handful of homes popped up between us and the end of the road at Jubilee Hills. The Chenali compound was built a year before my parents built their home, though there was no direct access to their four houses from Road No. 2. A bit further up the road was Nawab Ali Yawar Jung’s lovely Spanish style villa. Nawab Jung was a retired governor and diplomat and most interestingly he and his French wife were divorced (I was 13 so that was pretty damn interesting). Captain Bedi built a new house on Road No. 2. My friend Praveen’s wife’s parents (Praveen and Renuka wouldn’t meet for many years), Mr. & Mrs Shastry were our immediate neighbors with a lovely garden and some younger children.
But the majority of the property along the entire 2.5 km stretch of Road No. 2 between the Masjid and the Jubilee Hills checkpoint was the last personal property of Mukkaram Jah, the grandson of the richest man in the world in his time, the H.E.H Nizam of Hyderabad. The word on the street was that Muk was living in Australia with his European wife and he never came home. Because of that or perhaps because Rani was incredibly cute, my dad and she were the most famous morning walkers on Road No. 2. A few people stopped and chatted with Dr. Chatterjee and said hello to Rani. But a majority did not know my dad. They stopped to pay their respects to Rani, carefully tucked under my dad’s arm. It was in this weird way that my parents came to know Dr. Nageshwara Rao, a new neighbor and a preeminent eye surgeon who founded the L. V. Prasad Eye Institute up the street a few years later and operated on my mother’s cataracts, and Brigadier Rao, after whose passing his wife and my mother ran a charitable medical clinic in Srinagar Colony. Credit it all to my dad’s love for walking. He’d tell stories of when he was a young professor who had been sent to Katmandu, then under the preview of Patna University, to conduct exams. He was a royal visitor and the King of Nepal provided my dad with a hiking escort who took him on all kinds of adventures around Katmandu. Or when he was in Scotland working for ICI as a freshly minted PhD, and he’d walk up and down the coast along the Firth of Clyde near Saltcoats. When we were about Evan’s age, my dad dragged Alu and me on the first day of our summer vacations to walk to his work – a distance of about 12 km, just for fun. He’d send his driver on ahead in the car with a thermos filled with fresh squeezed tomato juice to wait for us at the far end.
About a year and a half ago I discovered accidentally that I am diabetic. Duh. My mother and later my dad were both diabetic. My mother’s mom died when my mother was young, due to complications from diabetes. My mother was a doctor and a pretty logical person in most ways (besides being somewhat religious). She managed her diabetes with an iron discipline, eating carefully and taking her insulin shots. In the end she lived to be 77, but she would be the first to say that 75 would have been sufficient. She lost her hearing after a stroke, and after that we mostly communicated by telling each other bad jokes (I had to write mine out on a small whiteboard for her to read so the jokes were bad and short). She told me when I was 14 that unless they cure diabetes by then, I had better be ready to stop eating sugar when I turned 50. I got seven more years than that and that’s OK.
As a part of managing my metabolism, and because I now have a dog or a dog has me, I took up walking in earnest when my doctor gave me my diabetes diagnosis. Ouiser and I are on the trails at least five days a week. We walk 2-5 miles, preferably on non-flat terrain. Seventy-five weeks, 10-20 miles a week, probably around 1000 miles. The weather is Austin in good enough to hit the road every day. In the heat of the worst summer days, I’m back home before it is 80 degrees F. On most other days Ouiser and I walk under glorious skies. I have about five trails I love and at least 2-3 variations on each one. That means I rarely do the same walk in the same direction more often than once in two weeks. Sometimes I wander aimlessly. More often I do something specific while walking. I sort out something that has been bugging me. Or I plan out a strategy or prepare a work presentation while walking. Though well-intentioned, my inner monologue is constantly interrupted by conversations with Ouiser. There are permissions to be given to jump into creeks for a swim. Or directions to pick at forks in the trail depending on our mood. Or admonishments for wandering too far or lollygagging too far behind. Or apologies for hot days. There is a constant chatter between us.
I may have given you an impression that Ouiser’s desire to go on these walks is equal or greater than my own. Alas that is not true. After devouring her breakfast, she prefers to curl up somewhere comfortable like in Vivian’s bed, for her morning nap. Then I say “Ouiser, let’s go for a walk”. She’ll at first studiously pretend not to hear. She’ll feign deep sleep. Or look intently at her tail. Eventually when this approach becomes untenable she walks up to Jo and begs sympathy and lays down behind her with a deep sigh. About half the time I let her be and go walk by myself. The rest of the time I insist. Once she’s there Ouiser loves every moment of it, galloping through the shallow creek beds, jumping into the deeper waters, and laying still in the swimming holes to cool off. She plays catch spontaneously in the thick grasses at places she has designated in her mind as play areas. She goes off exploring, following deer and feral pig scents on side trails. But Jo wonders if I’m making all this up. “If she likes her walks so much, why does she ask me to save her from your walks every morning?”
Walking in my soul food. It is therapy. It is being intimately aware of my surroundings. I know when the rain lilies bloom. And when they droop. And which salvia blooms under what cedar tree. And how high the water is at this crossing. And strangely, like in My Octopus Teacher, I know the horsefly that buzzes around me after I cross Turkey creek. And I dwell on it when he disappears. On Fridays Gunaraj and Rajeeta often join me. On a rare weekend I drag one of the kids along. But whether with them or Ouiser or alone it is all good. Often a run up a short hill. Or a jog down a long one. As I clear the spider webbing sticking to my face, the fog lifts from my mind. The world and everything in it is in a sharper focus when I move through it one step at a time.
Completely unecessarily I’ll quote my father and mother’s favorite poet whose enormous portrait hung over my dad’s desk in our library. Rabindranath Thakur wrote “Ekla cholo re” (“Walk Alone”).
যদি তোর ডাক শুনে কেউ না আসে তবে একলা চলো রে।
একলা চলো একলা চলো একলা চলো একলা চলো রে॥