Monday, May 29, 2017

Fadil Iqbal’s journeys: One country, nine days

The best way to sum up Fadil Iqbal would be to describe him as a go-getter. That’s simplistic, even naive, but for the time being (I hope) it’ll do. The point about him is that he’s travelled, or rather cycled, through Sri Lanka. In nine days. No mean feat, obviously, which is why I am as interested in that journey as I am in his story. The latter, I will get to later. The former, I will get to now. Before I do so, however, I need to elaborate on what kind of a person he is. So here’s a sketch.

He’s a scout, a basketball player, an actor, and an undergraduate. He began these activities when he became a Scout in Grade Six at his school, S. Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia. Having forayed into camping, he later became an Under 19 basketball player. He didn’t forego on his studies, moreover: he chose Maths and Physics for his A Levels, a decision he attributes to his parents (his mother had studied Chemistry and his father Botany). At Colombo University he pursued marathons, rowing, and the Gavel Club (when it was first formed two years ago). That first activity, he tells me, got him thinking about cycling. I ask him to explain.

“I ran my first marathon in 2015. That was over 21 kilometres. My second marathon the following year was longer, at 42 kilometres and from the BMICH to the Negombo beach. It was of course excruciating, but I learnt a lot. Yes, I know one long run isn’t going to change your outlook on life and the world, but when I passed all those kiosks, those ordinary people going about their daily work, their children, and even those street dogs and cats, I realised how much we were missing on the road.”

I put to him that marathons usually inculcate such an attitude in those who take part in them, and he attributes it to the fact that compared with most other countries, such activities are considered as out-of-the-ordinary in Sri Lanka: “In the West, they are the norm. Here, on the other hand, athletes are looked up to as superheroes.” As for his second activity, rowing, he had been taken up by an observation made by his fitness coach Vajira Dharmawardhana: that a good cyclist was a good oarsman.

“Vajira aiya got me thinking,” Fadil says, “I remembered a friend of mine from school who used to cycle all the way from his hometown in Kalutara to Mount Lavinia and how he could recall nearly every shortcut in my own neighbourhood. I remembered a friend of mine from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura called Saroj Somarathne, who would later bike to work from his residence at Wijerama to Diyagama. I remembered that I owned a rusty mountain bike. Because it was rather worn out, I switched to a road bike and began cycling to work every day.”

This was last year. Things moved quickly thereafter. Because Fadil had been used to waking up at about seven to get to his office (RCS2 Technologies Wellawatte, the only local manufacturer of 3D printers), he was intrigued by the prospect of waking up one hour earlier. “That gave me a lot of time to read, think, and reflect when I arrived at work at about seven,” he tells me, “Which was when I realised that the two-wheeler actually catered to the cyclist’s sense of time and priorities, more so than any other vehicle.” But there was a caveat: “I was always worried about the tyres.”

It was his friend Saroj who proposed that they bike around the country. “I didn’t hesitate when he mooted it, but we needed to discuss how we’d do it and how long it would take. We met up at his campus, talked, and decided to go for it over Avurudu, since our offices would be closed and since we couldn’t take too many days on leave. Moreover, we were used to biking about 20, maybe 30 kilometres. This journey would take us about 100, sometimes 200 a day. So we practised. We biked all the way from Nugegoda to Bandaragama to Panadura to Kalutara and back. Mind you, these were reasonably well paved roads, so we were still unprepared.”

Saroj however had been confident, so confident that at about 4.30 in the morning on Thursday, April 6, they began their ride in earnest. Their route (spanning more than 1,300 kilometres) would take them all the way to Anuradhapura, to Jaffna, to Mullaitivu, to Trincomalee, to Batticoloa, to Arugambay, through the Buttala Road and Lunugamwehera to Kirinde, and from Kirinde to Mirissa to Galle and finally back to Colombo. They would be riding until April 14 (Friday) and stopping every night at run-of-the-mill rest houses or friends’ places.

Naturally, given all these impressive logistics, my first question is: “Did you get to stick to your plan?” With a chortle that smacks of sarcasm and amusement, Fadil replies with a decided “No!” I ask him why. “We were actually mad to think we could do it. The first day was fine, all the way to Anuradhapura and Dambulla. Everything after that got messed up with the heat. Earlier we’d stopped every hour. Now we were stopping every half-hour. The sun blinded us, simply put.”

Sri Lanka is of course no stranger to extremities in climate, so soon enough he would experience the other side: the rain. It had happened, he tells me, after he’d dropped Saroj at Tissamaharama. From then on, Fadil had been his own man, which turned into a nightmare when he ran into a day-long deluge on his way to Galle. “I should have considered that a blessing, given the heat. But it wasn’t.” So in Matara, he stayed over for Avurudu with another friend of his, Parami Kodippili. Fadil ended up eating through the festive season and (after the rain stopped) made his way back to Colombo a day behind schedule, on Saturday April 15 at about 10 in the night.

Important as these details are, I am more interested in the anecdotes they hold. So I ask Fadil as to what, out of every stop, kiosk, person, and house he ran into, he remembers the most, and he answers “The people.” I ask him to explain.

He is quick with his reply. “I believe that anyone running for the presidency here should cycle around the island. I say this because it will bring him or her into contact with the common man, woman, and child. I met some of the simplest folks I’ve come across anywhere. I saw the so-called rural simpleton and reflected on my acquaintances back home. I could only think of how hollow our lives were. So yes, I was humbled, and yes, that part of the journey was the most memorable for me.”

He then singles out that attitude of complacency and synthetic happiness we’ve been conditioned to affirm here for censure. “We think we lead the best lives, when we do not. For the blue-chip company executive, to give just one example, the best day of the week would be Friday. He has nothing beyond that. I suppose we’re more fortunate because we’re not part of this rat-race, but looking back I can’t help but think how terrible it is that we force the game miniha to adjust to that executive’s way of life.” Being qualitatively differently from the usual simplistic attacks on the city, that hits me. I therefore ask Fadil as to what he learnt the most from his trek.

“More than anything else, I understood that even ambition has its limits. When I was biking in the South, through the rain and the sharp katukurunda branches on the road, I remembered Jayanthi Kutu-Utumpaala and Johann Peiris, especially the latter as he never reached the top of Mount Everest with Jayanthi: he barely made it because he ran out of oxygen just metres away. It would have been pure heartache to go back, but that’s all he could do at that point. I understood then and there that although we try to hit it big with what we do, there are times when we must step back.”

All these offer much to reflect on. Recently Fadil started a blog (, through which he will use his encounters to interact with other likeminded cyclists from here. Personally speaking, and given all this, I believe much of what he singles out for praise and censure should be taken to heart, especially in light of what he’s gone through. Why and how, I will get to in a later article, but for now here’s what I will say: I am glad Fadil Iqbal cycled around the country and I am glad that he has learnt. For the purpose of this brief sketch, that is enough.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, May 28 2017