Jogger's Park in Mumbai inspires runners

It is a quiet Saturday morning in the Bandra district of Mumbai, India -- 5:15, to be exact -- one of the few cool and serene hours of the day in a city known for its blistering heat and raucous traffic congestion.

On this morning, I escape to one of the few open running spaces in the city, the Jogger's Park, just a five-minute walk from my Bandra apartment. Though I've never been a morning runner, I have no choice but to become one here in Mumbai, as the cool morning air provides the day's only relief.

While I am usually a modestly dressed athlete, on my first visit to the park I take extra precautions with my workout outfit to be sure not to offend the locals. I wear a pair of black, fitted, calf-length leggings underneath my black running shorts. I decide to wear two sports bras, and throw on my bright green short-sleeve shirt. I lace up my sneakers, clip on my pink iPod shuffle, strap on my lime green Timex sports watch, tuck my keys into my pocket and head out the door.

The path to the park has its fair share of obstacles, even this early in the day. The stray dogs stir awake as I briskly walk by, and the few rickshaw drivers fight for my attention, hoping that I'll be their day's first customer.

The park, built in 1990, is open for two daily shifts; the first is from 5:30 to 9 a.m., and the other from 3:30 to 9 p.m. Visitors pay the 2-rupee (about 5 cents) entrance fee and make their way through the only opening into the walled complex, one side of which hugs the Arabian Sea.

Beyond the wall lies a green pasture of shrubs circling the track, demarking the three different walking and running spaces. The outer ring is tiled, a middle one is laid with mud and the one farthest in is of cement. The center opening is grassy and populated with yoga enthusiasts. Most of the runners prefer the mud-paved track, while walkers take to the tile or cement. The walkers far outnumber those of us who run.

Already, this early in the morning, the park logs its first of more than 1,500 daily visitors. Women and men mix comfortably in this setting, young and old alike. Some of the older women are dressed in a traditional multicolored salwar kameez, a long, flowing, knee-length shirt with matching pants and scarf, but at this site they wear sneakers with their outfit -- a change from their sandals. Others wear similarly colored saris, perfectly pleated and tucked. A few wear an abaya, fully covering their bodies and revealing only their face, and in some cases, just their eyes. Yet another group, mostly younger women, wear sporty clothes: T-shirts, track pants, high socks and shorts.

I speak with some of the women runners and walkers in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the recreational culture here in Mumbai.

I immediately notice Priyanka Pathani, an aspiring actress, who at 25 has been a runner for most of her life. Having grown up as a military child, Priyanka would wake at 4:30 to join her father for his daily morning jogs. "He would kick us out of bed," she said with a laugh.

But her life as a physically active young adult wasn't common for women in her mother's generation. "Now, the gym culture has come in," she said. This shift toward fitness has taken place at a rapid pace beginning 10 years ago, and it's both directly related to -- and directly reflected in -- the Bollywood movies of the decade.

"The whole Bollywood culture has brought on this wave of 'I want to have a hot body, and I can if I go for walks or runs or go to the gym,'" Pathani said. "In India, Bollywood is so prominent everywhere, so what you see in the movies affects people's perceptions of how they want to see themselves."

On this morning I also meet Rashmi, a 58-year-old Mumbai native who has lived in California for the past 30 years. "I was inactive until my late 40s, and my sons encouraged me as a marathon runner and I run 5K's occasionally, too," she told me. The Jogger's Park didn't exist when she was growing up, but now, when she visits her family here in Mumbai, she visits the park on a regular basis.

Once many of these women become more active, it is a lifestyle that they maintain, for both health and social benefits.

I meet Duru Wadhwani, 61, who is a staple at the park, having taken walks almost daily since it opened.

"I made new friends [here]. We are seeing the same people every day and then get together socially," she said. And do they still come together during the three-month monsoon season of pouring rains? "I bring an umbrella," she said. "The rain doesn't bother us."

The clock strikes 9 a.m. as the guards blow their whistles marking the end of the morning session. Once the park has been cleared, a group of 60 girls from a local high school take over the track and prepare for their gym class, which today involves sprint races. It is hopeful to think that these young girls will now be able to pursue their own athletic dreams, and with the potential to become accomplished athletes for India. All because of a small city park for joggers.

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