The Enemy Within (short story)

I slammed the top of the clock before it could let out that blood-curdling noise. I didn’t want, my sister, sleeping on her bed next to mine, to be roused. “Blast that Shrillpony,” she said, adding to her repertoire of new words that sounded phonetically correct—shrill and cacophony. “Why do clock makers create these terrible sounds? It’s like they have a mandate to jolt the sleep out of you.”

She couldn’t understand what I was about to do. She had been strictly instructed, by mom, of course, to nudge me out of sleep, get me to sit up, step down, out of bed, sit at the study table and open my books. Only then, could she go back to sleep. The alarm was set every night, as a reminder, a wake-up call, the pun notwithstanding, to start studying for exams a few weeks away.

I had lain awake all night. It hadn’t ended too well last night, and without anyone to share a broken heart, I tossed it around my head until sleep completely sidestepped and moved away. I stared at the ceiling, peeling layers from the incident—the conversations, the fight and that last look, which finally led to the break-up. Unable to stand the agony any longer I sat up on the bed and made a decision.

From a meticulously stored cupboard, an obsessive habit, I navigated blindfolded. It wasn’t difficult for me to open the door, extract the required gear, and close it without making a sound. I could be quiet as a thief in my room. No sooner was I attired, a pair of shorts, black singlet, socks and shoes, I crept out and stealthily made my way to the front door. Once the elevator bounced to a stop on the ground floor, the metal gates screeched, but fortunately not loud enough to rouse the watchman, sleeping on a chair, head and shoulders propped against a column. At 4:00 am, the roads in Bombay wear a deserted look, the only time the city honestly slept. Essential services and the local train would begin operations about half an hour later.

That heavy feeling, of desperation mixed with disconsolateness, began to vaporise as I breathed in the fresh morning westerly sea-breeze as I stepped on to the road, stretched and loosened myself and started walking briskly. It was only after the first hundred or so steps; it began to worry me that panic would set in if anyone at home woke up and found me missing. They would get into a car and the scan the neighbourhood first and then wait until it was 6 am until they called a friend out two. I shook it off and broke into a jog. After two minutes, I cleared the inside lanes of the swanky Cuffe Parade and reached the crossroad junction near Hotel President on the main street leading towards the secretariat. I would go past the State Secretariat, the Air India building on the left and reach Marine Drive in fifteen minutes if I continued running in the same direction. The road ahead and the ability and knowledge of fulfilment filled me with a sense of exhilaration and made me press on. I felt a tension building in my lungs and found my breath coming in short gasps. I was forced to open my mouth and suck in the air. I decided to stop and sit for a while, but then it struck me that all this while I was running to get away from everything, running away from life, running too fast. Long distance running, like life, is all about finding a rhythm if you want to go the long distance.

One, two, three, I counted. At ninety-nine, one hundred I re-started the count from one. I tapped the tip of my index finger twice to remember the second loop of counts. The world began to melt away, the lights from an occasional passing car faded in the distance, silhouettes of high rise buildings, appeared then disappeared. Nothing registered as I began to concentrate and experience each breath, inhaling deeply and letting go slowly, as my legs found the rhythm of my stride. I vaguely remembered the Air-India building looming into sight and disappear after I turned right at the junction and continued running, alongside a low wall, separating the backwaters of the Arabian Sea from the magnificent Marine Drive. A homeless man registered on my peripheral vision, entirely. His dishevelled appearance, flat and inert body, a torn sheet pulled over to cover his dignity and those scarred bare feet sticking out. His troubles were more significant than mine.

The promenade at Chowpatty lit only by street lamps looked desolate. I made an instant decision to turn right instead of climbing the slopes of Walkeshwar to my left. At the temple entry of Babulnath, barely stopping, to refresh myself, I lost some of the rhythm. The clutter in my head, that kept me awake, disappeared. I learnt a precious lesson at that moment — it all boils down to you. It’s all a mind game, but the mind is yours to control.

Running is the best form of Yoga. No awkwardly contorted bodies nor inventive stretches. Just the simple loosening of muscles and focus on each breath. Is that all it took? Could I just run away my problems? Did I have them in the first place?
As I turned left the road began to climb. At the top of the Kemp’s corner flyover, my breath was ragged, and once again I decided to stop and turn back. The morning vendors had begun making appearances, their bicycles laden with milk and newspapers, and I knew that I would soon come across other walkers and joggers. As if on cue, running towards me, on the other side of the road, were four runners, all older than me, headed towards Marine Drive. They ran in tandem as if training for an event. They were suitably attired and carried individual bottles of water. I pressed on towards Haji Ali mosque, the next landmark, my final stop. However, at Haji Ali I was joined by runners, coming from the breach candy precinct, heading towards the Mahalaxmi Race Course. With a renewed burst of energy, I joined the pack and ran along with them. They were seasoned runners, and I found myself stretching to keep up. At the gates of the race course, finally, I decided to stop and search for a bus stop to ride back home.

The breaking dawn sent shimmering rays over the tranquil ocean, bestowing a golden path from the shore to the horizon. I had no clue as to the number of kilometres I had run or for how long, but ever since that fateful day running has become *my* single most potent weapon against the enemy within.

Sitting up-front, on the top deck of bus route number123, with no other passengers around, the advent of a new day had a profound significance.

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