It was when my working life seemed to be virtually over that I finally came to terms with my own body. I had been diffident about it from my young days, seeing myself as ungainly, but convincing myself that that was of no account since it was primarily intellect that counted, and that I felt I had in abundance. At Oxford indeed one made a fetish of such matters, affecting to look down on the hearties, the footballers and rowers and rugby players.
In fact I was rather fond of them, the captain of rowing who would spend ages in my room worrying about the fact that we were not going to do well on the river that year, the football hero who was candidate for Treasurer on my ticket when I ran for President of the Junior Common Room. It was largely because of him I think that I won with a thumping majority, against the captain of rugby who had been the favoured candidate. And I remember being impressed at how elegant even rugby could be when well played, when the Senior Tutor took me to Twickenham for the Varsity Match. He ensured beforehand that I got myself a heavy coat at the Army Surplus Shop, since the light jacket that I had made do with in my first year was clearly insufficient for two hours in the stands as the game swept from side to side.
But none of this persuaded me to take up any sport, except for a brief stab at fives when I failed completely to hit the ball except I think just once. I did enjoy the joke matches where I led a JCR team, against the Dean’s team at football and the Senior Tutor’s at cricket, but it was only at bridge that I represented the College (playing with the Dean, so we had to ensure that we were knocked out before things became serious and it was discovered that he was in fact a don). But it never occurred to me that exercise was something either desirable or necessary.
All that changed in 2013 when, at the annual check up I engaged in, ever since sugar and cholesterol and pressure went up, the stress ECG was stopped early, and I was told that my heart was not quite what it had been the previous year. The doctors who comment on the tests at Sri Jayewardenepura have all been marvellous, sympathetic but firm. This time I was told that, while the decision was mine, it would be sensible to start taking exercise regularly, since otherwise I would find my heart not coping very well when under any strain.
I did in fact enjoy walking while at Oxford, and those I travel with usually cannot keep pace with me when it is a question of looking at monuments. But walking in Colombo did not appeal to me, except briefly in the early eighties when Bauddhaloka Mawata (or New Buller’s Road as I still then thought of it, the stretch going from the complex roundabouts past old colonial mansions to the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation buildings, the old lunatic asylum) was still a quiet shady avenue. 30 years later however it was nothing of the sort, and even the roads round the house were dusty and busy even at an early hour.
I could not think then of doing what my father had done, dutifully for nearly half a century, walking first in the university grounds, then along Duplication Road, then in our garden and finally up and down the house. He had stopped this last just a year or two previously and, though he had never really urged me to follow his example, I think he was delighted when I began finally to walk every day. But it was on a treadmill, which I set up in my sister’s old room, from which I could see the large temple flower tree at the bottom of the side garden. I also put up inspiring photographs on the wall I faced, and tried initially to have music playing, but that became too complicated since sometimes the machine activated the trip switch and it was tedious to restart the CD machine too.
After walking regularly for some time, I began actually to enjoy it. I had begun doing just 20 minutes a day, but then I was told that one really needed to work up a sweat. That required at least half an hour, and I found it challenging to increase the speed of the machine, so that when I finished I would have to stand for at least ten minutes on the balcony till the sweat stopped pouring. That was even more fun, for different trees were in bloom on occasion, and even without flowers one cannot have enough of temple flower and mango trees, and above all the cassia that my uncle had planted in the front garden over half a century previously. It flowers in May, and the blooms last about three months. Even though it began to bend over last year and my sister had, understandably enough, to cut part of it down, the remaining part burst out in magnificent bloom this year too.
After walking, it made no sense to resume a shirt, so I would wander about the house without one, which it had never occurred to me to do previously. My brother, on one of his visits, said my grandmother would have been shocked, and I suspect he was right. But my father did not seem to mind, and it no longer seemed to matter that I could not have been a pretty sight.
Exercise however had to stop after six months, for I burnt my leg over the New Year, and it was far too painful for walking for more than a few minutes. This happened in Indonesia, where I had been exploring the Molucca Islands with an old friend who also relished Conrad, and indeed thought of himself as a Lord Jim figure. He was then living in Cambodia, with a lady much younger than himself, though they were different ones on the two occasions on which I visited him, not quite the Jewel who acts as a touchstone when we have to judge Jim’s sense of honour.
The trip was quite chaotic, for we both lost our luggage on the way to Ternate, in the Northern Moluccas. Mine turned up, but his never did, which meant he could not charge his computer or his phone. Indonesian ferries turned out to be erratic, and we did not get to the Banda Islands which had seemed the most attractive of those in that remote part of Indonesia.
But, having explored Ternate’s twin clove island Tidore, we had a marvelous sea voyage on Christmas Day to Namlea on Buru island, though the tiny cabin left much to be desired, and John claimed he could not sleep after he found a cockroach on his bed. But sunset and sunrise on the deck, amidst a host of voyagers fascinated by us, was lovely, and we had Christmas Cake to supplement the rather simple meals the ferry provided.
In Namlea the hotel we found, having landed at midnight, was high on a hill, and my room gave on to the roof, which provided superb views with my early morning coffee. We then sped round its lovely coast on motor bike taxis, the only form of transport it seemed in those parts, the young riders most obliging though they could not understand us wanting to wander around with no real sense of direction. But we rewarded them also with a very alcoholic lunch, overlooking the picturesque harbour, with the more energetic of the riders drinking even more than we did. Before exploring though we had secured a very comfortable cabin for the overnight voyage to Ambon, the largest city in the Moluccas. But there our plans were stymied, for it turned out there were no ferries to the Bandas for the foreseeable future.
We went on then to Saparua and found a wonderful hotel with views over a beautiful bay and one of the evocative Dutch forts with which the place is dotted.
But having got back to Ambon the next morning, we found that there was really no way to go to the Bandas, with the flight there which we had decided to take as a last resort having been cancelled. John then decided he would head back, while I decided to take a plane to the Kea Islands, the easternmost part of the archipelago. Those remote islands are the last before Irian Jaya, the western part of what used to be known as New Guinea. I got there near sunset but was lucky enough to find a cabin by the beach, sharing the place with two delightful couples. There were starfish aplenty on the beach, and I would rise early – the Europeans were much later – and walk for hours with my coffee, collapsing into a hammock when I felt, not tired, but the need to be even more lazy.
During the days I explored the island, the lady who looked after the place obligingly summoning a host of young men who were quite happy to meander on their not very powerful bikes along good roads and bad. Once we got caught in a thunderstorm, and were drenched before we found shelter, but blazing sun dried us soon enough. The beaches were splendid, and there was also a beautiful grotto with fascinating stalagmites.
On one of these journeys, getting up clumsily on the wrong side, I burnt my leg badly, and after a day or two it began to swell alarmingly. But I had a supply of prophylactic antibiotics, and held the infection at bay until I was back at home. Fortunately the connecting flights all worked, and the luggage stayed with me this time.
Back at home I could not walk for a few weeks. But I resumed the walking when I was better with even greater enthusiasm, and there has been no backtracking since. When the machine broke down, I took to walking on the balcony, round and round, which seems silly, but the trees continue enchanting however familiar the sight is. The cassia is still in flower and, though that part of the garden was hived off last year, after my niece sold it – she was gracious enough to hold back while my father was alive – from high up the view is still beautiful.
On some days Rocky comes dashing up to say good morning, and then sits in bemusement, his head swinging from side to side as I walk. There is the occasional flurry of action when a bird perches on the roof and he barks fiercely till it moves on. But even after he gets bored and goes in, there is still a sense of plenitude in the tranquillity that pervades my morning ritual.
Ceylon Today 19 July 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=3422