WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
Remaining physically fit well past middle age is not an easy goal to achieve. One cannot help noticing how many people have given up the ideal of physical fitness even well before they reach middle age. One begins to discover that what was a relatively easy task in one’s teens and twenties is no longer an easy task in one’s fifties. The first rebel is one’s waistline. It has long refused to remain parallel to the ground. The indispensible belt is a clear indication of the fact that the waistline is beginning to get more and more slanted by the day. True, the belt is a clear marker of how even pot-bellied people can get about without toppling over every time they start walking. The other indicator of middle age is the kind of breathlessness that overtakes one every time there is an attempt to speed up things. No wonder, hurrying for any reason is a clear no-no for every middle-aged Assamese—to the extent that any Assamese in a hurry, who does not hesitate to show it, is regarded as a queer specimen of humanity by the entire lot of ‘cultured’ Assamese people. The Assamese Johnnie who does not hurry even when someone has set fire to his trousers is perhaps the prototype of the ‘real’ Assamese. We are supposed to like everything to be happening in slow motion. Unfortunately, this is not how things happen in the world that we have around us. All the same, I am never allowed to forget that anyone who hurries in Assam is not considered a real Assamese. Leisurely and unhurried movement is the cherished norm among the so-called cultured Assamese. However, the real question of how fit we are is seldom determined by established norms of fitness. Field Marshal Cariappa had his own standards of fitness that also included the ability to go without food for the best part of the day.
During my school days in the 1940s and 1950s, I rarely saw any grown-up person around me who was in any way concerned about any kind of fitness, least of all, physical fitness. The more favoured goals were the pursuit of good food and the desire to be in good loquacious company. There were no gyms of the kind that we have in every corner of Guwahati these days. Even the people who went out for their constitutional morning walks could be counted on one’s fingers. And yet, in retrospect, I am amazed at the number of very fit and healthy people I saw in those days. There was the late Ganesh Chandra Rajkhowa of Sivasagar who often rode his bicycle to Jorhat and returned home the same day when he was in his late fifties. And perhaps because the amenities of comfortable living that we have today were missing in those days, I also met a number of persons in whom the spirit of adventure and the urge to face unfamiliar situations was very strong. Right up to the mid-1940s we had World War II going, and there was a great deal of armed forces movement in Assam. All kinds of soldiers of the Allied forces were passing through Assam all the time on the way to Burma via Manipur. There were American soldiers and African ones in addition to a liberal sprinkling of British troops stationed in Assam or passing through the State. I noticed that a lot of our young men tried to strike up acquaintanceships with them and to emulate some aspects of their lifestyles that seemed related to physical fitness. But I do not recall noticing any systematic or organized attempts at promoting physical fitness.
What I see today in Guwahati is very different. Every morning at six, when I go out to unlock our gate, I see many people returning home after their morning walks. The women invariably outnumber the men. All of them wear the right kind of shoes and clothes for their morning walks. I am yet to see any woman wearing sarees or mekhela-sadors on their early morning outings. Almost all of them swing their arms energetically as they walk. Their steps are usually a good bit longer than what I expect to see at other times of the day. Those taking their morning walks with their husbands have to be a little more energetic to keep up with their spouses. Perhaps many of them find their morning walk with their husbands an ideal time also to discuss matters for which they often cannot find the time at home. Looking at my watch, I can visualize almost all the women returning home to get breakfast ready and tiffin-boxes packed for their school-going children. I am greatly enthused by the noteworthy change in lifestyle and the urge to keep fit that is underscored by this early morning fitness programme.
There are not many physical fitness programs that are as easy to sustain and as enjoyable as a morning walk. Here is a pursuit of physical fitness that calls for no special equipment except a sturdy and comfortable pair of shoes and the right kind of clothing. Early in the morning, the roads are free of traffic and the air is much less polluted than at other times of the day. A long walk does a lot of good not only for the joints of the body, but also for the lungs and the heart. It improves blood circulation and stamina, takes care of hypertension and does wonders for our self-confidence in respect of our physical condition in general. There is also an ancillary benefit. One often gets to meet interesting people on one’s morning walks. I know quite a few people who got to know their eventual best friends in the course of their morning walks.
A lot of people would like to know if the municipal authorities of cities have any responsibilities in making life easier for morning (or evening) walkers. The answer to this must be sought in the responsibilities of municipal bodies not to special groups of walkers or fitness seekers, but rather to all people who walk and use the streets of the city as pedestrians. There can be no doubt whatsoever that municipal bodies must provide safe footpaths or pavements for all pedestrians of all ages. Once municipal bodies can be compelled to accept this very fundamental responsibility to all pedestrians, the rights of morning and evening walkers is well taken care of. As of today, there is no indication that the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) is even aware of this responsibility, going by the state of our pavements. We must have footpaths and pavements that are safe for every pedestrian. Little children and senior citizens alike should all be safe on our streets, and the GMC must ensure that there are no broken or unmade parts of pavements that can give rise to accidents for pedestrians. Unfortunately, the worst footpaths in the world are to be encountered in Guwahati. The pavements of the city have not merely led to broken ankles or knees but have led to death by drowning in a few cases. What is most surprising, however, is that the GMC has not been sued by the injured and the families of the dead for adequate or even nominal amounts of compensation for the injuries and deaths caused. Even our courts have not been as supportive of suffering citizens as they have been of the GMC. What one really expects of courts is that they should be on the side of the aggrieved people rather than on the side of negligent, inefficient or corrupt functionaries of organizations like the GMC. One even expects the Judiciary to take suo moto action in such cases in order to ensure that organizations like the GMC cannot play ducks and drakes with the lives of people by leaving pavements unsafe for use. In fact, one expects errant and negligent officers of the GMC to be identified and punished. What is more, one expects the compensation to be paid by the GMC in such cases to be so hefty as to make the GMC doubly careful that there is no recurrence of such tragic accidents arising from ill-maintained or dangerous thoroughfares for pedestrians.
Everyone who walks regularly to keep fit realizes how good the exercise is and how pleasant it is. They should all ensure that this simple, inexpensive and pleasant way of keeping fit remains available even in a city teeming with cars and buses, and is not lost to them due to the inefficiency or callousness of someone in the GMC who has never walked in the mornings or evenings to keep fit. The city’s walkers should form an association so that collective legal action becomes relatively easier should the need arise for such action. This association can also make a much more powerful collective demand for safer pavements and footpaths.