JADAVPUR UNIVERSITY EAST COAST ALUMNI (JUECA)
Mr. Ghanasyam Adhikari
I had a brief encounter with Ghanti-da (Mr. Ghanasyam Adhikari) in last year’s JUECA Summer Picnic, and was immediately enthralled by his spirited personality. Someone mentioned about his amazing marathon accomplishments while making the introductions, and then I learned that he was also equally good in football and cricket, playing for many Calcutta clubs. But apart from all these, the thing that attracted me most was his lively smile and down-to-earth personality.
Later I met him for a lunch interview, thinking that it would be over in an hour. But it went on for almost three hours, and in spite of that, I was longing to hear more. Such were his lively stories.
It is not possible to cover everything that we talked about that day in this piece. But I wanted to capture the most of it, and it is surely long. For those of you running short of time, here’s a few bullets about Ghanti-da, just to get a gist of his personality:
- He obtained two under-graduate degrees from Jadavpur University - something unique. First one in Telecommunications Engineering (1963) and second one in Mechanical Engineering (1965).
- Jadavpur University Football team won All India University Championship only once, and he was in that winning team.
- Mr. Triguna Sen, the revered Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University, personally arranged a job for him, in exchange for something in return.
- He played Cricket and Football for Calcutta clubs - almost equally well at both the sports.
- Unable to continue his favorite sports after coming to USA, he learned to play tennis and went on all the way to USTA Zonal level.
- He started preparing for marathon at the age of 60, only after someone challenged him in a social gathering.
- He ran marathon in all seven continents of the world – the second Bengali, and the sixth Indian across the world to achieve such rare feat.
- He has a bright smile along with twinkling eyes. Oh, did I mention that already?
It’s Jadavpur, not Jodhpur:
The year was 1962 and Ghanti was in his pre-final year studying Telecommunications Engineering. Those were the days of Mr. Triguna Sen, whose relentless pursuits to put the name of Jadavpur University amongst the best ones in the country, coincided with the youthful passion of the university football team. And this team did something magical. With barely three or four First Division players in the team, Ghanti being one among them, Jadavpur University football team won the all India championship, shocking every other teams in the tournament. Even Calcutta University team, with famous names as Chuni Goswami and all, was no match. Everyone was ecstatic. This was unprecedented!
Mr. Sen himself went to receive the jubilant team at Howrah Station with a garland in his hand. “This team has done something that I couldn’t do with all my hard work all these years”, said Mr. Sen. “Until today, the postal department used to redirect our letters to Jodhpur University, assuming the name Jadavpur is a typo. But from today, everyone knows where in the country this Jadavpur University belongs!” he exclaimed jubilantly.
Ghanti loved sports since his childhood. At that time, he was already playing for the Calcutta First Division clubs. But he enjoyed playing for the university team more, as that meant he could be among his dear classmates all the time.
The following year, 1963, Ghanti was in his final year. The Jadavpur University football team went to the same tournament but lost to Calcutta University in the finals, returning as a runner-up. Mr. Sen was grief-stricken. Ghanti was quite upset too, along with everyone else in the team. But his heart was a bit heavier as he was about to leave the country soon, to study Industrial Engineering in a UK university where he enrolled a few weeks back.
With his scheduled departure on a Wednesday, Ghanti’s residence telephone rang on the Sunday before. It was the Mr. Sen on the other end. He wanted to meet Ghanti the next morning to talk about something important. Dumbstruck that the Vice Chancellor has called him, he couldn’t even ask for the reason of this urgent meeting.
Next morning, here came the proposal: Ghanti should consider not going to UK to get his Industrial Engineering degree. Instead he can study an equivalent course in Jadavpur University’s Mechanical Engineering department. He will also get another degree in Mechanical Engineering, after two years. And to compensate for this sacrifice, Mr. Sen will guarantee a job for Ghanti in the reputed engineering firm, Jessop & Co., immediately after. An extra degree and an assured job, only if Ghanti decides to stay back.
“Oh, so I get to play football for another two years, with my same old team, and also get a job in Jessop after two years?” – Ghanti was thrilled and didn't spend time contemplating on that. He accepted the proposal immediately.
Mr. Sen was happy too, to retain Ghanti. He hoped the team could deliver the same magic again in the next national tournament. Ghanti played with his heart, but unfortunately the team couldn’t win. As a matter of fact, 1962 was the only year in history when Jadavpur University became all India champions; never after that.
Finally Ghanti passed out with a BME degree in the year 1965. A job at Jessop was waiting for him.
“You irresponsible fool!”
Ghanti was scheduled to join Jessop on a Monday.
The previous Thursday, Howrah Union Football Club reached out to him. During those days, Bardoli Cup Football Tournament was being held in Assam, and Howrah Union happened to be participating in that tournament. They wanted Ghanti, who was a renowned ‘stopper’ in that circle. They also mentioned that in order to minimize travel time, the team would be taking a flight to Guwahati, instead of the usual train journey. "An opportunity to play football, and also experience my first ever plane ride?" Ghanti immediately agreed, even though that meant he would miss reporting to Jessop on his joining day. And without even informing anything to his future employer, Ghanti happily went on to Assam to represent Howrah Union. Incidentally, the team kept on winning one after another matches, and Ghanti's return to Calcutta kept getting delayed with each win of their team.
Finally, after around ten days of his original joining date, Ghanti managed to go to Jessop. Seeing him unapologetic and then hearing the whole story, the hiring manager was furious. “You irresponsible fool, don’t you have any accountability? How can I depend on you even if I hire you?” He kept yelling at Ghanti.
Ghanti listened to him quietly for some time, but then, he couldn't take it anymore. Without even thinking about the possible implications, Ghanti shouted back at the manager, “I don’t care. And I don’t want this damn job!” and walked out of the place impetuously.
Thus he quit his first job, even before starting.
That’s how Ghanti was. Passionate and impulsive. At least during those years, as he says.
Looking back, Ghanti thinks that it was so immature of him to act in such a way. Indeed it was all his fault. He acted unprofessionally, and sheer irresponsibly. He should have informed them before leaving and asked for a deferral. Or at least apologized about his delay when his would-be-manager was shouting at him. Instead, he lost his control and eventually lost a great opportunity to start his career with a big name like Jessop.
Anyway, soon Ghanti landed a government job in Calcutta. And Ghanti continued his active involvement in sports even after that. But over time, he was getting less involved with football, and was playing cricket for most of the time. He used to be a good batsman for the Sporting Union Club, and had a few centuries under his name. Ghanti also fondly remembers the time when he opened the batting with famous Pankaj Roy.
“You just sign the forms, I will take care of the rest”
As one would expect, people loved his radiant personality and Ghanti had a good network among various Calcutta clubs and sports associations. Once in a Calcutta Merchant’s Club evening party, Ghanti was introduced to some businessman, Mr. Singh. Talking to Ghanti for a few minutes, Mr. Singh was immediately charmed. And after coming to know that Ghanti is doing an ordinary government job even though he is a graduate engineer from Jadavpur University, Mr. Singh felt that Ghanti surely deserves much more and that he should help Ghanti. Not even half-an-hour in their first meeting, Mr. Singh suggested that Ghanti should try immigrating to US, and that he would personally help Ghanti to get the paperwork processing done. The next few weeks, Mr. Singh did everything to help Ghanti navigate through the Consular applications. “You just sign the forms, I will take care of the rest”, Mr. Singh used to say.
“It was like God standing there with my US visa. It certainly came to me in most unexpected ways imagined”, recollects Ghanti. The year was 1970, Ghanti came to US.
Initial days, Tennis
Initially the days were quite tough for him. But Ghanti managed to get a job as a Technician in Metra Electronics, at their New York factory. He used to make 8-track tapes and automobile audio components during the day, and search for opportunities to play soccer or do something exciting during the evening.
“You can see kids playing soccer in almost all the cities nowadays. But in my time, opportunities were so less in this country. I couldn’t find a place to play soccer. All one could do was play tennis, a game which I had never played before.”
But with nothing else to do, he started practicing tennis. It was all by himself. “I just bought a racquet and started hitting the ball against the wall one day. Later I started watching the game in TV to understand more, and kept reading books in parallel. That’s how I taught myself tennis.”
Ghanti caught up on his tennis skills fairly quickly. Later he was a state champion once, and also competed at the USTA zonal level.
“So, you are a natural sportsman” I observed.
“Actually if you are good at one game, you can pick up any other. Of course you won’t go to the top, but you can still enjoy it”, he smiles.
“The name of my company kept changing. I didn’t”
After Metra Electronics, Ghanti joined an engineering consulting firm called Catalytic Engineering, and continued with the same company all along.
“I hate changing jobs.”
The company went through multiple mergers and acquisitions, its name was changed quite a few times. Ghanti survived each transaction and quickly got adapted to the new culture and changing management.
He retired in 2012 when the company was named URS Corporation.
“Can you run a marathon?”
The year was 2001. It was a usual weekend gathering at Mr. Ranjit Das' place. Mr. Das was a fellow JU alum (See footnote for more details about Mr. Das). As usual in any gatherings, Ghanti was surrounded by folks who loved to hear his stories from old days, with people asking about P. K. Banerjee and Pankaj Roy, debating between Chuni Goswami and Tulsidas Balaram.
Over there in the party, there was a person who had ran the New York marathon before, and somehow didn’t like all the attention that Ghanti was getting. He wanted to draw attention towards himself and bragged, “Football is a lowly game and cricket is just like danguli. Can you run a marathon? If not, it is of no use. A man who cannot run a marathon, is not a baaper beta” he clamored.
This was most unexpected, and Ghanti was flabbergasted. As he knew very little about marathon, he couldn’t say much in response. But he respected that fact that running marathon is no easy task. As a matter of fact, in spite being a star footballer, Ghanti always hated running. “Running was never my thing”. In his old days his football coach used to scold him at practice because Ghanti never wanted to run. “What’s the point in running, let’s just go out and play the game. I will only run when needed” was his line of argument.
Anyway, that evening, Ghanti left the party with a bad taste in his mouth.
Mental vs. physical
Taking things quietly was never his way. So, what did he do? I was looking at him eagerly to hear what happened next.
Ghanti talked to a few folks who knew about marathon, and realized that it is surely not something that one should take lightly. Running 42 kilometers at a stretch requires immense physical strength and rock-solid determination.
Ghanti’s friend, Mr. Ranjit Das, who had participated in a marathon earlier suggested, “Ghanti, you can give him a fitting reply only if you compete in the New York marathon, and finish it faster than his timings.”
“Are you mad?” exclaimed Ghanti. “I can never run for two miles, and you’re asking me to run a marathon, twenty-six miles? I can’t do it.”
“Then forget it. This is not for you. You have no mental strength” – teased Mr. Das. “Marathon is 70% mental and only 30% physical”.
“No, it is not for me”, replied Ghanti. He couldn’t find enough confidence to accept this as something feasible, at that point.
“Anyway, if you ever change your mind and like to go for it, I am here to guide you”, assured Mr. Das.
Ghanti was still fuming inside. It was an embarrassment and he wouldn’t accept a defeat so easily. Then he couldn’t sleep the next few days. His mind just couldn’t accept the fact that he was accepting defeat even without giving it a try. Not accepting a challenge thrown is just same as the public humiliation, he thought.
After tossing and turning over it for a few more days, he called Mr. Das. There was a certain determination in his voice. He has decided. And Ranjit has to help him get trained. Ghanti was 60 years old when he first started his marathon training under his friend's guidance - something that he is grateful for, even till this date.
His first race
“Initially I couldn’t even run beyond 100 yards”, remembers Ghanti. But he still kept running, and started training his body to get adjusted to this new regime. He ran a set distance for a few days, and then gradually increased the distance in small leaps. “I used to go to my son’s old school and take laps at their playground.” Every week he used to add one extra lap, thus expanding his limits, periodically.
It took almost one full year’s rigorous, disciplined training to get ready for his first marathon.
Finally in November 2002, Ghanti was there at the New York Marathon. And he finished it quite well, with impressive timings.
Now I am a “baaper beta”, if that’s what one feels, he thought, smilingly.
You get hooked to it for the rest of your life
“Marathon is a unique experience. When you are running, you think that you are going to die and you would want that damn thing to end there itself. But as soon as you come to the finish line, you get a strange kind of feeling. A fulfilling sense of achievement takes you over. It's win of one's mind over the body. And thereafter, you get hooked to running for the rest of your life”, says Ghanti.
"When would be my next marathon?" was his thought immediately after finishing his first race.
Next year he was there at the Philadelphia marathon. And this is where he got his career best timings, 5 hours 7 minutes.
And it went on.
Ghanti’s life was changed. Even his vacations now were planned around marathon events. “Let’s plan our vacations to such places where we have never been, and at times when there is a marathon race taking place”, Ghanti told his wife. The dates of all major marathon races are pre-published, hence it was easy for them to plan their trips accordingly.
Over the next many years, Ghanti ran more than ten full marathons, and seventeen half-marathons, across many different places within USA. Apart from New York and Philadelphia, his main ones were Baltimore, Minneapolis, Denver, Little Rock, and Atlantic City.
Their company had a plant in Little Rock, and Ghanti participated there three times. Interestingly, Little Rock Marathon medals are one of the largest ones in the world. And every time he finished, Ghanti noticed the medal sizes are getting bigger and bigger. His last one after his third participation there was the largest he got; it measures a whopping 12 inch by 8 inch in size!
The Seven Continents
Then in 2010 Ghanti came to know about the Seven Continents Club. It is an honorary membership that is awarded to anyone who finished marathon (or half-marathon) in all seven continents of the world: North America, South America, Asia, Africa, Europe, Oceania and Antarctica.
Ghanti knew what to do next. North America is already checked off, and now all he has to do is run in the remaining six continents. He wants to earn the coveted honorary membership from that club.
The Great Wall
His immediate target was Asia. And not just anywhere in Asia, Ghanti selected one of the toughest races in one of the seven wonders – the Great Wall of China. Running marathon over the Great Wall was by far the most challenging marathon that he ran. The route involved climbing up the Wall twice (2581 steps in each ascend), breaking uneven gradients, jumping over the broken areas of the wall with barely an inch to rest the foot, and finally crossing the muddy paddy fields.
And he still did it. Successfully finished a half-marathon there.
Ghanti was the first Bengali to run over the Great Wall of China. His feat was covered in newspapers and TV channels back in Kolkata. Calcutta Press Club also arranged for a facilitation and press conference for him.
2011 was a big year for Ghanti. This time he covered three continents, in three consecutive months.
In June, it was Africa. A marathon through the jungles of Kenya. “It was one fascinating experience. The marathon was deep inside the jungle, where there were no running tracks at all – all you have to do is follow the tire marks of the organizers jeeps and ATVs that went before.” Weren’t you afraid of running like that, in the wilds? Wasn’t it dangerous?“The organizers dropped meat and fed the lions heavily the previous night, so that they would sleep through the rest of the day without looking at us. And during the event, when we were running, there were two low-flying helicopters all the time above us, to keep other animals at bay.” “Still at one point mid-way, a guard shouted at me asking to run as faster as possible, because he could see that there was a rhinoceros approaching the path where I was about to cross. And I ran for my life!”
Immediately after Kenya, in July it was now in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Running across the Copacabana beach was his next race. “It was a fun experience”, smiles Ghanti mischievously, “running a marathon while watching all the bikini-clad beauties on the beach ... particularly since your wife is not around to watch you, was the best part in that race.”
After South America, in August he was in Europe. Having visited London and Paris already, Ghanti was not that interested in participating marathons in those cities. Instead, Iceland sounded much more exotic to him, particularly after all the limelight that country got during Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption.
Next year, in 2012, he finished the Auckland Marathon at New Zealand, thus finishing a total of six continents.
The grand finale in Antarctica
Now only the last one remaining, which was Antarctica, undoubtedly the most challenging of all. And things are very restricted in Antarctica - participation is limited to only hundred people each year. Runners have to wait in the queue for years before they get an opportunity. Thankfully Ghanti had signed up for this back in 2010, and got his call for the March 2014 race.
On 9th March 2014, Ghanti finished his final marathon at Antarctica. It was raising the bar to ultimate levels. With ice all around, wind hurling at 60 miles/hour, ice rain pouring constantly, and an overall wind-chill factor of -25 degree Fahrenheit, it becomes physically impossible to actually ‘run’ on the surface, he said.
The course was laid out in two short loops of 4.36 miles each. That means, for marathoners, they have to run each loop three times to make it 26.2 miles. “The beauty of the loop layout was that we saw other fellow runners passing on the other side of the road and we greeted each other with a smile and a wave” says Ghanti.
The time limit set was 6 ½ hours to complete the race. Even though Ghanti’s full marathon time was around 5 ½ hours, he didn’t feel confident that he could finish a Full within that time limit. Even an additional hour was not sufficient, given the weather and such horrendous terrain. So he decided to go for a Half- Marathon instead. It is better to take time and be safe rather getting a "DNF" (did not finish), he thought.
“The first mile was an absolute mess. Footing was totally unpredictable at best. Within quarter mile from the start, came the first hill covered with snow and ice. Several feet from the top I was completely out of breath. I was breathing so heavily that I thought I was going to have a heart attack. So I paused for a few seconds at that inclined plane to regain my breath. I crouched over with my hand resting on my knees. But lo and behold - in those few seconds, I slid down at least six feet before I could arrest myself. Now with no momentum going and the body at rest, I had to struggle, basically crawling with my hands and knees to get me out of that treacherous icy patch to the top.
Coming down the icy hill was more problematic than going up. It seemed like a barely controlled free fall- like a car motoring downhill with its parking gear on. We were all slipping and sliding on the ice. Many runners fell and when I saw one woman runner, just in front of me fell forward with her face submerged in an icy puddle, I was scared to death. The thought that the chances of recovering from broken collar bone, broken hip or twisted ankle or knees at this ripe age of 73 years would be very slim enabled me to make the instant decision to walk.
Even walking was not easy. It demanded my eyes constantly to scan the ground two steps ahead for my next foothold as there was constant presence of foot deep snow on the right, slushy ice straight ahead or a frozen icy stretch on the left. The demand for continuous vigilance gradually took a physical and mental toll. And to add to the problem was the shoe-sucking stretches of gooey and sticky, icy mud. Numerous times, my feet came off with the shoe stuck in the mud and each time I had to stop to free my shoes.”
Thus continued Ghanti’s Seven Continent quest.
“After a mile or so into my last loop, I hit the “Wall” as the marathoners say! My calves started to cramp due to cold and carrying extra weight from my rain soaked running outfits. I felt lightheaded and my legs felt like cladding with lead. My whole body was severely aching. My fingers had basically no feelings at all. A thought crossed my mind to stop right there and bowing out but then I had never dropped out of a race before, and I was not going to do it here.”
When the going gets tough, Ghanti gets going.
“The thought of suffering from frostbite, loosing fingers or toes made me quite nervous and made me run even at a faster pace than the first time around ignoring the consequences of a slip and a hard fall. After some more sticky mud-trudging, negotiating icy, treacherous steep hills and literally swimming through more icy cold streams, I could see the banner at the make shift start/finish line. I crossed the finish line with as much flourish as I could muster, spreading my arms out in triumph and showing my seven fingers only to indicate the completion of my seven continents run. I looked up the sky to thank almighty God to keep me in unbroken one piece and I smiled at the camera. The electrifying thrill of victory overwhelmed me when the Finisher’s Medal was put on my neck.”
Thus Ghanti became only the second Bengali, the sixth Indian and the oldest person (at the age of 73) in the world, to run marathon in all seven continents.
Inspiring others – "Couch to Half"
All these years Ghanti has inspired numerous friends, colleagues and everyone around, advising them to stay active and get into the habit of running. Apart from numerous articles on him back in India, the story of his incredible journey was published in an internal newsletter at his workplace, and quite many folks reached out to him for guidance and inspiration. “In 2010 the first time I ran in Little Rock, it was just two participants from our company. In 2011, four people ran the race. And in 2012, it went all the way up to twelve people from his company!”
An obese colleague, who could barely bend down with a weight of 260 lbs., got inspired by Ghanti and started going for a run. After a couple years, this person participated and finished a half-marathon. His body-weight was now less than 180 lbs. And later, he made his son, who was suffering from obesity too, to prepare and go run a half marathon. “It transformed their lives so much".
Such was his positive influence.
And he advises to everyone, “You don’t have to run a marathon. Just run for one mile every day. Don’t strain your body, take it at your own pace. But be on it, consistently.” That is how he inspired his wife, and many others to sign-up for 5K and other tournaments, while he was busy running his marathon races.
“Running is the basic thing that anybody can do. Hence why don’t you just do it to stay fit?” advises Ghanti to others. “And unlike many other sports, running a marathon doesn’t need any special talents. But all you need is immense mental strength and discipline to practice daily." "And one day, even you can do it”, looking at my little tummy.
“If health is wealth, as they say, then indeed I am a millionaire” – were his parting words with a radiant smile.
Ghanti-da, about Mr. Ranjit Das
"He is THE guy who inspired and guided me to run my first marathon to answer to the challenge. He is also JU Alumni and was my classmate in 1965. I accepted him as my 'Guru'.
He is an avid runner since his boyhood and an active 'Elite' runner in NY marathon. He has run NY marathon more than 15 times and thus got Elite status." Professionally, Mr. Das owns an engineering consultancy firm Delphinus Engineering.
If you’d like to know more about Ghanti-da’s journey, I have quite many articles, links and pictures that I’d love to share. – Amitavha Mukherjee (firstname.lastname@example.org)