Thursday 5 September 2013

Running and Oblomovism

I think I have become Oblamov. Yes! It must be so... I am Oblomov.

My eyes open at 5:25 am, 5 minutes before the customary 5:30 am alarm which has been waking me up almost every day since the last 9 years.  But things are a bit different now that I have become Oblomov.

Instead of looking forward to the morning run, I sink into my bed as if a magnet is attracting me downwards into an abyss. I feel that a vortex is sucking me into a black hole.  I am paralyzed by a feeling of sadness, helplessness and fear to face the day ahead.

I know that I have not run for almost 3 months. I know that if I am to run the Mumbai Marathon in Jan 2014, I have to get up and I know that if I am to run Comrades in 2014, I have to get up and I know that I must run to keep strong and healthy but the thoughts which ensnare me are unhappy thoughts and they paralyze me.  

My thoughts take me, at random, to any one of the awful days which my family has lived through recently and they suck away all my strength.  I simply want to shut my eyes and go back into what I hope will be a nightmare free sleep. 

I am sad and unhappy.  How can I go out to run?
Yes, I am Oblomov.

My Dad has lived through a nightmare, these past few weeks and months.  He is 85 years old and in July he underwent two major surgical operations within 48 hours of each another.

Before the surgery I had to decide on the hospital and the surgeons.  One obvious choice was the Tata Hospital. The Tata hospital is arguably one of the best speciality hospitals in the world with the best Doctors. It is a Government subsidized hospital and therefore the poorest of the poor go there. Consequently, in my opinion, it is sometimes overwhelmed with the sheer number of patients that come there. Often times, I have felt that it has the feel of an Indian train station at peak hours.    

My Dad refused to get operated there since during his pre-surgery consultations, he had seen thousands of patients lining up the halls of the hospital and it was a sight that had greatly distressed him. The suffering of patients becomes apparent there and sometimes I think the environment becomes a challenge to face.  So I had understood my Dad’s desire to go to another hospital and I had supported his choice.  

So we chose one that is considered one of the best private hospitals in the country to operate at and we chose two of the best known surgeons in the county to perform the operations.   

On the 8th of July the first surgery took place and the 2nd surgery on the 9th.
The 1st surgery did not go well.  There were some complications and the agony which followed for my Dad is beyond description and comprehension.

After the operations, my Dads health started steady deteriorating and he was kept in the ICU. The surgeon who performed the 1st surgery seemed no longer interested in treating my Dad. First, he simply said that he was busy with other patients at his consulting room and later he messaged that he was out of town.  The Hospital itself had no real back up. 

After a few days in the ICU, I started to think of shifting my Dad to the Tata hospital. 

By the 12th of July, I knew that I had no option but to transfer him to Tata since the surgeon was simply washing his hands off my Dad and I felt that I would lose my Dad if we stayed put at the same hospital. The surgeon who had performed the 2nd surgery also supported our decision to move as he was helpless in dealing with the complications caused by the 1st surgery.   

After paying the Hospital bills, as the ICU nurses disconnected the lines to the many monitors that were attached to my Dad, they said.  “Please remove the hospital gown that he is wearing.  That belongs to the hospital”
This hospital is without doubt one of the most expensive hospitals in India. I thought their attitude was callous.  But I was not in a position to argue so I went to meet the medical superintendent and explained to her that my Dad is 85 years old.  He is critically ill, he has a half dozen tubes/cathaters/IV lines etc attached to his body, he is in a semi-conscious state and the ICU staff is insisting that he wear his home clothes or they won’t let us transfer to the other hospital.
She said, “It’s Ok, I will call them and allow you to leave, just bring the gown back later”
“Wow, she wants the gown back!” I thought. I assured her that I would get it back personally the next day (which I did) and left her room.

Unfortunately Mumbai was experiencing unrelenting rains that day and we were getting reports of flooding all over town.  I was hesitant to leave one hospital and then get stuck in an ambulance on the road.  So I waited a bit.  The rain did not relent.  As I sat outside the hospital looking at the sky, the same hospital superintendent passed me. 
She asked, “Oh you are still here? Haven’t you left?”
“I am afraid of this rain”, I answered, “it is a long drive to Tata hospital and I am afraid that the ambulance could get stuck in the flooding which is sure to happen close to Parel where Tata is located”.
“Doc”, I continued, “If I decide that I can’t chance this move today, I hope you will allow my Dad to stay in the ICU”. 
Of course, she said with a triumphant smile, “As long as you pay the new Bill!!”
I sat there wondering whether anything in my behaviour with her, had led her to believe that I was a guy on the look-out for a free nights stay in her ICU.  Wasn’t it self-evident that I would pay the new bill? This place was no longer a hospital, I thought. 

I shifted my Dad to Tata Hospital by evening that day and for the next 5 days he was kept in an isolation area in the ICU, as he fought for his life. 

I have never told my Dad how much I love him. He has never told me either and now he was unable to speak because of his surgery. 
Every time I could get an opportunity, I went into the ICU to see him. As I would walk into the isolation room, I would simply start to cry.  The man, who I had grown up thinking of as my Superman, was now looking fatigued and frail. He seemed half his size in weight and height.  There were dried tear drop marks around his eyes, his chin was shaking uncontrollably. He was at the end of his strength.  There were all sorts of tubes running into and out of him and he looked frail beyond imagination.  During moments of clarity, he had asked the nurse for a pen and paper to convey his pain and suffering. He would then fall asleep.  There were pages and pages of his scribbled notes, filled with issues which he was trying to convey but there were a few words which kept being repeated over and over again: “Call Amit..Call Amit..Call Amit..Call Amit..Call Amit”

As I stood next to him, massaging his legs and chocking with tears, I called out not knowing whether he could hear me, “Papa I am here, I know what is happening, I am sorting it out. I am here Papa, I am sorting things out”.  On hearing my voice, he would move his head without opening his eyes and move his hands in a way to convey his extreme uneasiness. 

My tears drenched the mask that I was wearing to cover my nose and mouth.  The nurse, who stood on duty, also wearing a mask, would simply put her hand on mine and say, “Don’t cry, Don’t cry”.  The same thing took place dozens and dozens of times as I kept visiting him in the ICU but through all those occasions, I never managed to see the nurses face as it was always covered, but I will never forget her kindness.

We camped for those 5 days outside the ICU. We kept up a vigil, day and night. 

My Dad lived through a nightmare but slowly recovered under the care of the Tata Doctors.  We shifted him to the private ward after a week and then finally after another week the doctors told us that they had done all that could be done for him and now he just needed to rest and recover at home.  Almost all the vital parameters were now normal and it was time to take him home.  So almost a month later we finally came back home.

The first two weeks at home were also tough and although we had hired trained nursing staff to help look after him, Dad wanted us, his family members, to do most of the things for him which we happily did.

With the help of the Tata doctors I had learned many things that I would have never learnt otherwise, right from the art of wearing sterile gloves, to using a catheter to suction, to changing certain tubes. We ended up doing this at any time of the day or night.

So for almost 2 months, for our family, normal life had changed.
Neepa and I had over the last 9 years got used to a regimental life where food, sleep, work and running were planned to the last minute.  Now we had discovered a new fluidity in our schedule. 

We had both stopped running.  Neepa reorganized her life to ensure that everything that was needed for my Dad and for the family was done on time and to perfection.  She held together the fort of our lives.   

Running for both of us had become a distant memory, something that we had done in another life.

Now every time, I felt like running, I wondered how could I go out and have a fun time when my Dad was unwell and couldn’t move out of his room.  Every time, I put food in my mouth I thought of my Dad who couldn’t eat through his mouth. 

I became paralyzed with grief.  Sometimes I wondered whether I was grieving for myself or for my Dad? But whenever I closed my eyes and put myself in my Dads shoes, I felt staggering sorrow.

About 15 days ago, my Mom started telling Neepa and me to resume our normal life.  She said that as Dad’s health was now stable, we must resume doing the things which we used to do.  Dad had started moving about a bit and was looking much better.  Mom told us, “Please Run, watch movies, go out with kids and do all the other things you used to do”.

But, yet I was paralyzed with grief.  The alarm rang each morning and yet I was not able to get up and go for a run as I thought about my dad in his room next to mine.   
I had become Oblomov.

In 1859, Russian writer Ivan Goncharov published a book called “Oblomov”.  The central character of the novel is Oblomov, a 30 something man belonging to the upper middleclass of Russia’s landed gentry.

He is a man who utterly lacks courage to take any action and is eventually ruined by his total lack of will-power.

He is a pathetic tragic little man who simply stays in bed all day long and never accomplishes anything.  He is a procrastinator of heroic proportions.  He is simply overwhelmed by the problems which he faces in life and simply tries to escape reality.

“Oblomov is inertia incarnated. He is pessimistic, indolent, inattentive, incurious, sloppy, pudgy, given to day dreaming and procrastination – indeed, given to any excuse to remain horizontal”.  If fact it takes almost half of the book before he even gets out of bed.

Oblomov has three major problems in life which he needs to address.  The first is the letter he has received from the Overseer of his country estate to tell him about bad harvests, arrears of debt, diminished incomes and so forth.  The second is that his current landlord wants him to vacate his apartment and the third problem is that he has huge amounts of outstanding bills.

The first pages of the book explain his morning routine : “On awakening, he resolved to rise, to perform his ablutions, and his tea consumed, to consider matters, to jot down a few notes and in general, to tackle the affair properly. Yet for another half-hour he lay prone under the torture of this resolve; until eventually he decided that such tackling could best be done after tea, and that, as usual, he would drink that tea in bed – the more so since a recumbent position could not prove a hindrance to thought. 

Therefore he did as he had decided; and when the tea had been consumed he raised himself upon his elbow and arrived within an ace of getting out of bed. In fact, glancing at his slippers, he even began to extend a foot in their direction, but presently withdrew it”.....

Oblomov refuses to get out of bed and face and solve any his issues. He is simply paralyzed by them.

As the Oblomov story develops, a friend introduces Oblomov to a young woman, Olga, and the two fall in love. However, his apathy and fear of moving forward are too great, and she calls off their engagement when it is clear that he will keep delaying their wedding to avoid having to take basic steps like putting his affairs in order.

She leaves him when she realizes that he will regress more and more into his slough and will also ruin her life.  She feels that he will simply keep postponing his life, he will never attend parties or go dancing, all that he will do is wait for each day to end and all the while she will be fading away.  

So Olga leaves Oblomov and moves on in her life.

I lie awake thinking that I have become like Oblomov.  Yes, I go to office and attend to my work but there was a part of me which was failing to act. I was failing my kids, my wife, my Mom and my Dad. I was failing life by becoming paralyzed with grief.

For the first time I realized that running had added to my happiness because I was basically a happy person.  Now that I felt sad and depressed, I didn’t have it in me to go out and run.  Did running bring me happiness or did happiness bring me running?

Can I start a run when I am unhappy? Like Oblomov, I simply lay in bed and pondered these questions.
I felt that I was failing my own body and my body was the greatest piece of real estate that I own.  By failing to go out for a run and refusing a happy hour for myself, I was failing life. 

At the end of the Novel, Oblomov dies. A friend suggests that Oblomov’s death was the result of “Oblomovism” a word which has since entered Russian lexicon to refer to the fatalistic slothfulness that he exhibited.

My dear friends, Sid Reddy, Vishnu Naidoo, Dr. Farhad Kapadia and Bruce Hargreaves called to say that I should resume running and then ultimately Neepa said that it was time!  I understood their arguments intellectually but emotionally I felt that I needed to be happy before I could step out to enjoy myself.

A doctor, on meeting Oblomov had remarked that if he continued lying in bed, he was sure to die soon.
The doctor advised, “You must try to entertain yourself with horseback riding, exercise in fresh air, and pleasant conversation, especially with ladies, so that your heart beats lightly and only from pleasant emotions.” “Take a villa”, the doctor advised, “with windows facing south, and lots of flowers, and have music and women around you.” “Avoid meats and animal foods in general.  You may eat clear bouillon and greens, and you may walk for eight hours a day.”

The alarm rings at 5:30am and my eyes open.  A painful feeling, which I now know all too well, arises in my heart....I can’t run.  But then I think of the Doctors advice to Oblomov....have pleasant conversation with ladies...walk for eight hours a day so that you may live! This, I realize can only happen if I train for Comrades and I can run Comrades only if I run Mumbai.

I gather the courage to switch on the lights.  Neepa is already ready with her running shoes on. “It is time”, she says.

“Is it time to run?” I wonder.  Does everything in my life have to be perfect before I can run?  Must I wait until the hard time passes, and for life to smile again? What if it gets worse and disturbs me more? Must I simply accept grief as a new element of life? But I recognize that I am not really alone in my grief.  Grief is a common ailment for all mankind and so must I not steal small moments of happiness in an otherwise imperfect life?   

I know of a few friends who despite incredible personal tragedies find the courage to get up every day and run.  They tell me that running gets them to a place where they can find solace and courage and sanity.

I say a prayer to the God within me. I am Not going to become Oblomov and I don’t intend to be paralyzed with fear and dread and grief..... It is time to step out.  I have to step out and face the day.  I have to step out and face life and live it well...

And so I say to myself..

“Once more unto the breach, dear friend, once more..
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood... 
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips straining upon the start.
The game’s afoot....The game’s afoot”

I am NOT Oblomov, I AM A RUNNER!