It comes naturally, comparing Anu Vaidyanathan’s memoir to Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk about When I Talk about Running. For both of them, being an amateur triathlete has been a means of self-discovery rather than a pursuit of glory or fame. While Murakami’s book is contemplation on endurance sports and how it fuels a writer’s life and his creative process, Vaidyanathan’s story is about a tenacious woman and her will to find a way to her goals deftly manoeuvring curveballs hurled at her by life and naysayers.
When you do an Internet search of Indian triathletes competing in and completing the mind-boggling Half-Ironman, Ironman or Ultraman, you will find innumerable articles. Once you begin reading them, you will notice these talk only about men triathletes. This is quite an irony (pun not intended) because the first Indian to become an Ironman is a woman.
In August 2009, Anu Vaidyanathan became the first Asian to complete Ultraman Canada. Three weeks later, she completed Ironman Canada breaking a new record in the history of triathlons. This fact makes Vaidyanathan’ s Anywhere But Home a notable book to read. In India as much as we like to glorify the wins of our athletes, to the same degree we lack the enthusiasm to provide them support while they are on their way to reach their goals. This becomes doubly difficult for amateurs athletes who are, for the most parts of their training and competitions, on their own. For women, who are so vastly underrepresented, being an amateur athlete is aiming for something impossible; especially when you decide to start late in life. Vaidyanathan recounts in her book how a national-level swimming coach told her she was too old to learn swimming at the age of twenty-three. He advised her to forget about sports, go home, marry a nice guy and settle down.
In India as much as we like to glorify the wins of our athletes, to the same degree we lack the enthusiasm to provide them support while they are on their way to reach their goals. This becomes doubly difficult for amateurs athletes who are, for the most parts of their training and competitions, on their own. For women, who are so vastly underrepresented, being an amateur athlete is aiming for something impossible; especially when you decide to start late in life. Vaidyanathan, who is based in Bangalore, recounts in her book how a national-level swimming coach told her she was too old to learn swimming at the age of twenty-three. He advised her to forget about sports, go home, marry a nice guy and settle down.
For many people, it is quite puzzling why someone would want to be in a race that needs participants to run 84.4 km, swim for 10 km and cycle for 420 km? And why go all the way to Canada, Brazil, China and all those far-fledged places spending your hard-earned money to put your body through such hardships? Why run around the roads of Bangalore and Chennai where stalkers, rash drivers and people jeering at you become a part of your everyday training routine? With a PhD degree and your own start-up, you practically have your life all settled in. Why shake up the comfortable status quo? Because, as Anu Vaidyanathan puts it, she wanted to read, write, and play.
On 27 July 2016, Vaidyanathan gave a TEDx Talk at IIM Indore titled Through the Looking Glass, which is coincidentally also what she chose to name the last part of her book that talks about her life after completing Ultraman Canada. She says “… [I] could not be in my own comfort zone to pursue all the things I did…” Thus she goes on a journey of self-doubt to self-motivation across continents staying away from home and family. Hence the title of her memoir, Anywhere But Home.
Twenty-weeks pregnant, Vaidyanathan and her husband go on a walking trail along the river Rhine in Germany, a stretch of 70 kilometres spread across four days. She wonders, “We definitely see a lot of women who work in the fields, several months pregnant, sometimes giving birth there. Where are their voices when we talk about human endurance?” The questions she ask herself become the intent behind telling her story, “to embody or bring the fact that exploring your own physicality as a woman is a very interesting thing and it hasn’t been quite articulated to my satisfaction yet.”
Anywhere But Home starts off with Vaidyanathan being apprehensive of the potential rebuke she might face from friends and relatives for running after unconventional dreams. She doubts her own limitations and has to question her own intentions and insecurities. She has to make do with abysmal training grounds, swimming pools, nerve-wracking traffic and equally exasperating men on the streets. With self-deprecatory humour and an innate obstinacy to fight against personal losses and insecurities, Vaidyanathan narrates the unique and often frustrating challenges that a woman athlete training in India faces.
She moves to New Zealand to pursue her PhD and also to get away from the restrictions on her training imposed by the unfriendly Indian roads. In New Zealand, she goes on a three-day bike from Christchurch to Nelson covering a distance of 435 kilometres and an elevation of 8500 feet. On the second day, as she gets trundles her bike towards a place called Engineers Camp, she has an epiphany: she wants to write a book called Monkeys on Bikes “and make money off the royalties. I mean, it’s got to be worth something to wear spandex with a nose-ring.” She gets closer to her goals as she finds moral support from her family, random kind strangers and fellow athletes she meets on her various training camps and triathlons. She finds motivation from the books she reads (Jack London, Charles Dickens, Emerson, Viktor Frankl, Jon Krakauer) and the stories of legendary runners.
…see the value in dreaming, pursuing goals that are meaningful without flashbulbs, trophies, flowers or wine and […] understand the nature of persistence. That being haunted by purpose, which does not control you, is not such a bad thing. And that (s)he who lasts the longest often gets to spots that are off the map, and they help us understand the changing nature of our relationship with our identity.
Anywhere But Home is not a manual about how to win at endurance sports, rather it is a manual about how to win at life on your own by being “alone but not lonely” despite a horde of street dogs running a relay race behind you in the early hours of dawn across the roads of Bangalore.
Running to him was real; the way he did it the realest thing he knew. It was all joy and woe, hard as diamond; it made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free.
– Once a Runner, John L. Parker Jr
[Much thanks to the publicity team for sending a copy of this book. The views here are completely personal]