Saturday, November 5, 2011
i watched the premiere of marathon boy on hbo last night and must say i was viscerally repulsed by the entire saga. i'm into just about anything connected with running - people, places, races. i'll dig into anything on this subject; and do it with glee. but to witness a real life hobbsian choice - a life as a beggar in an indian slum, or the grueling regime of a long distance runner foisted upon a 3 year old boy was truly upsetting business. in reality, budhia had no choice at all.
because of the family's extreme poverty, budhia was sold by his mother to a traveling salesman for 800 rupee (roughly $16). it was quickly revealed to be an abusive situation. enter biranchi das, a judo instructor and orphanage director, who paid back the salesman and took budhia into his care (with the approval of budhia's mother). but budhia was no angel himself, fully equipped with a raw, foul mouth out of which spouted expletives! it was, in fact, a result of his foul mouthn that his talent for running became apparent.
as a punishment for cursing, biranchi had budhia run circles around the courtyard. he expected budhia to stop at some point, from just plain exhaustion. when he returned to the orphanage hours later, budhia was still at it, still running loops of the courtyard - no worse for the wear. that apocryphal beginning set the stage for his "training" and a series of half marathon, leading to full marathons and, ultimately, his collapse at a 40 mile ultramarathon.
the documentary then intertwines two parallel story lines - budhia's actual running and races coupled with the growing notoriety his feats engender and the efforts of the the local child services agency to stop what it perceives as his exploitation (for better or worse) at the hands of biranchi. the filmmaker takes strictly hands off approach to moralizing - one way or the other. there is no effort to show this story through western eyes. biranchi has many supporters in his battle against the bureaucrats of child services!
this come to a head when he is formally charged with child abuse. by this time budhia is now 5 years old and has run many, many race miles. there followed one dramatic scene where the authorities, after having already prohibited him from entering any more races, physically restrained budhia from a 300 mile walk! the story quickly spins out on a tangent when, shockingly, biranchi is murdered - which had no connection to budhia and running! by that point budhia had been returned to his mother - and eventually became a ward of the state (which would, in turn, enroll him in a prestigious academy).
the dilemma, if it can be described as such because leaving the slums, abject poverty, and a life spent begging for existence - is no choice when weighed against any alternative. biranchi, regardless of the training he put budhia through and the races he was made to run - saved him from the horrors he faced in his very real life (including redeeming him from someone who had already purchased him!). was budhia exploited - maybe so. but that alternative was preferable.
it's a very unsettling and disturbing story. running ultimately was the hook that pulled budhia out of the darkest abyss - but it's not really a story about running.