Before I talk about Milind Soman, let me briefly talk about Murakami, the Japanese writer. In 2008 he wrote a book, ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’, a collection of essays on the thoughts he had while running, something he has been doing with ferocious regularity for the past 30 years. With great honesty, charm, and shame, he pens down the frustrations, anxieties, and exhilarations of running, giving up running, and getting back to running long-distance (sometimes up to 62 miles a day).
Each essay in that book takes you into his mind, a cacophony of voices that are relatable and profound, that push you towards running, while also not creating this gilded idea of running as easy and noble and necessary. If you want to run, or are on sabbatical from it, wanting to get back, I suggest you pick this book.
Milind Soman’s ‘Made In India’, an ode to this act of running is not that book. It either romanticizes his marathons or just glosses over them as a feat. However, to be fair, it doesn’t even aim to be that book. Soman (who wrote this with Roopa Rai), a supermodel of the yesteryears, resurfaced into our collective imagination recently after his impressive feats abroad:
The Ironman Challenge (3.86 km swim + 180.25 km bicycle ride + marathon run of 42.20 km run within 16 hours) in 2015.
The 3 Day Ultrathon Challenge (10-kilometre swim and a 148-kilometre bike ride on day 1, 276-kilometre bike ride on day 2, an 84-kilometre run on day 3) in 2017.
(This feat feels all the more interesting given that Soman runs without music. In fact, he hates listening to music, any music, any time.)
This book, that is largely about his life, is also as much about this act of running, and pushing boundaries. Murakami too said “Writing honestly about running and writing honestly about myself are nearly the same thing. So I suppose it’s all right to read this as a kind of memoir centered on the act of running.” What is it about running that makes it such fertile ground for writing?
While the Soman-RSS link in this book (that the PR put out, knowing fully-well the outcome I assume) has caught the attention of people, (that as a child he would attend the local shakas in the evening, something most kids in his area, Shivaji Park, would partake in) it feels like a rather harmless anecdote in a book that wants to say more. (No one is condoning the existence or the reputation of the RSS, but one ought to think about the agency of a child who is forced into a dictatorial regimen by his parents.)
So, here are 5 out-takes from this memoir- some quirky, some reflective, and some quite nutty to be taken seriously.
1. The Made In India song which this book is celebrating the 25th anniversary of, is a mere footnote of sorts. Soman is almost apologetic about the tacky visuals and the exotic frame given to India (snakes, Kathakali, and elephants). A brief look at the comments on the video today, with RSS supporters asking for likes, is also something, I feel he would be apologetic for.
2. He hasn’t used soap in 10 years. He washes his hair once a month. As long as one’s natural scent isn’t offensive, why use products? He argues, “Why would I like to smell like flowers and lemons when I could smell like myself?”
3. Having binged in his twenties, first alcohol, then marjuana and coke (LSD, ecstacy and heroin were the ‘dirty stuff’ he never tried), and puffing through cigarette packets (almost 30 cigarettes a day), he transitioned into the patron god of health he is now considered. He writes about quitting smoking with an ease most smokers are never able to conjure. His solution- procrastinate your next smoke till you don’t smoke altogether- feels rather pat and patronizing.
4. Soman talks about the ad in 1995 of him with his then-lover Madhu Sapre, posing nude, and the furor it caused among people, and politicians, forcing the magazine to withdraw its publication for the month. Censorship seems to run in our veins. Sapre’s parents were handed saris by women telling them to put clothes on their daughter. Soman faced no such repercussions. The double standards, perhaps, still persists.
5. Though offered the part of the antagonist in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, he shot for a schedule before exiting the film because… he wasn’t given enough food. A swimmer must eat, and eat healthy. This walk-out didn’t bother him much- he was bored of Bollywood and preferred television where he didn’t have to wait for hours for the shot to be set and the actors to arrive. (He would be back on sets, playing Bajirao’s mentor in Bajirao Mastani)
Despite falling into the generic publication bias of film personalities writing memoirs that must also read as self-help, if you want a nudge in the direction of a healthier more active lifestyle, this book might help. What is a better time to fall back in love with the idea of running than when we are stuck indoors, the running track, empty, for the foreseeable future.