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Indians In Jamaican Territory

February 7, 2014
Photograph by Alex Livesey/Getty.

Photograph by Alex Livesey/Getty.

Samanth Subramanian–an author we hope will pay us a visit in Kerala one day soon, considering how much of his authorship overlaps with our own interests, especially this book–has posted on the New Yorker‘s website a blog post about a remarkable young man, and two fellow countrymen from India, very much worth the read. The Jamaican bobsled team gets all the attention, and it is well deserved, but they are, rather surprisingly, in good company. We excerpt from the second half of the post because the first half is a too-familiar “dirty laundry” story which we would rather not repeat, but what follows is inspirational:

…The thirty-two-year-old Keshavan will be participating in his fifth Winter Games. He set a speed record for Asia in 2012 and won the Asian Luge Cup in 2011 and 2012, but he has not been so dominant on the world stage; his best Olympic performance remains a twenty-fifth-place finish at Turin, in 2006.

Keshavan grew up in the northern hill town of Manali, where he started skiing at the age of six, tramping up the slopes after every run because there were no ski lifts. When he was fourteen, he failed to make the national ski team, which he attributes to nepotism. “I was disillusioned, but then, a couple of months later, this invitation arrived to participate in a luge camp in a nearby town,” he said. “It seemed like divine intervention.”

Günther Lemmerer, a luge coach from Austria, had been travelling around the world to find new talent for the International Luge Federation, the sport’s governing body, when he arrived in India, in a town where it never snows, not even in the winter. Presented with a clutch of skiers of varying talent, Lemmerer first screened “Cool Runnings”; then he attached wheels to a sled and had the campers zip down a hilly road. Two years later, in 1998, Keshavan was India’s flag bearer and sole representative at the Nagano Winter Olympics. “I was thinking to myself, Who’s going to be watching this back home, anyway?” he recalled. “Then I stepped into the stadium, and a roar went up, and I thought, Oh my god, this is huge!” Just after the opening ceremony, the Jamaican bobsled team walked up to Keshavan and told him that they had to stick together. Keshavan thanked them, then set about borrowing a warm jacket and a luge from the South Korean team.

There are still no luge tracks in India, so, during the summer in Manali, Keshavan makes do with strength and endurance training and an occasional roll down a highway on a wheeled sled. (In a promotional stunt video, he whips past a herd of sheep trooping uphill, glides under a truck that blocks the street, and weaves through dense traffic.) During the winter, he rotates through a circuit of luge tournaments overseas, rehearsing and competing, trying to shave seconds off his run times.

Such a life style does not come cheap. Keshavan discovered this early on, when his family spent five thousand dollars to prepare and send him to his first Olympics. He could afford to buy and customize his own luge only in 2006; the cost of a fully tricked-out sled approached eight thousand dollars, he said, and he had preferred to pour his resources into travel and training. Now a fundraising veteran, Keshavan has coaxed some money, including a salary for a coach, out of the Indian government; for the rest, he looks to sponsors and N.G.O.s. Last year, he started an online campaign, with Bollywood celebrities to plug his cause, aimed at raising a million rupees—roughly sixteen thousand dollars. His compatriots at Sochi, both of them first-time Olympians, were not nearly as organized, and they received government funds for new skis just two weeks before the start of the Games.

The negotiation of all these hurdles to even reach the Olympics must be so wearying, I said to Keshavan, that the race itself must feel like an anti-climax, its appeal and excitement diminished. But the spirit of sport is remarkably durable, and Keshavan talked about how, as he hurled himself forward at the start of a run, he got fired up by the energy of the crowd. “The rest of the time, it’s a very introspective sport,” he said. “You have to merge with the sled. The high speed awakens your sense of awareness. Time slows down.” He remembered a moment from the Nagano Olympics. In the middle of his run, he had tilted his head back for maximum aerodynamic effect, and in that moment he saw a giant Indian flag flapping above the track. “It felt exhilarating. It felt like the flag was urging me along,” Keshavan said. “Which is why, even if I’m holding the Olympic flag at Sochi, I know in my heart that I’m representing India. I just know it.”

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