‘Not Fragile’ - How Nihad Panju Became A Marathon Runner Against The Greatest Odds

‘Not Fragile’ - How Nihad Panju Became A Marathon Runner Against The Greatest Odds

Imagine a pendulum of pleasure and pain–life, a ceaseless swinging from one side to the other. While most of us will sway back and forth somewhere in the middle of the arc, there are some people who, as faith so dictates, will have to face the entire crescent of experiences. Nihad Panju is one of those people. At four months old, he was diagnosed with tubercular meningitis and after an emergency life-saving surgery, he faced brain damage that would leave the left side of his body permanently paralyzed. Now, as a 26-year-old marathon runner, anyone who listens to him speak will hear the near-habitual resolution in his words. After all, the pendulum will only swing so high as the point when it was first dropped. Nihad began his journey at the highest point of pain, and for that reason I believe he has embraced the fluctuations of everyday life with a calmness lost to most of us. For that reason, among others, I believe his story is worth knowing.

But first, it’s vital to accept an invitation to spend a day in Nihad Panju’s shoes. These aren’t ordinary shoes either. They’re neon green Nike running shoes that have travelled hundreds of kilometers across Mumbai’s landscape. Their shoelaces painstakingly tied to perfection so that he doesn’t have to knot and re-knot them while putting them on. They need just the right amount of tightness for a firm fit, and just enough looseness to slip his feet into without untying them. When you’re dressing yourself for a marathon using just one hand, these considerations are essential. “I have to adapt to every situation” Nihad says matter-of-factly. “Everything that everyone else would do with two hands, I’m doing with one”.

His articulation of the hurdles that plaster his everyday are beyond humbling. Even half an hour in his company focuses one’s attention on the micro-challenges he makes look so easy. Like trying to open a pen cap that’s on too tight—while most people would instinctively use two hands to pull the pieces apart, Nihad must use his teeth. “I’ve learnt to compensate for everything since a very young age; “to the extent where I can cut my right hand nails with my right hand!” he laughs. In Sachin Pillai’s film Not Fragile (A Homegrown Original film), these very intimate moments of Nihad’s life are captured on screen. Putting on his shirt, applying toothpaste to a brush and wearing his socks are all delicately choreographed movements that, despite my use of the word ‘delicate’, are disciplined and far from fragile. In documenting these moments, Pillai captures the strength and peace that come from a rigorously routined life, which is an integral part to Nihad’s story.

While the pendulum swings back and forth, Panju, however, seems to find a certain stillness in running and it’s this unlikely passion that makes him so unique. As the muscles on his calves contract and propel him along Marine Drive we learn that it certainly didn’t begin that way. When he was ten years old he started a holistic, neurological re-organizational and stimulation program that also included running. It was running at its most brutal basics where Nihad would have to crawl on his hands and knees for a distance of nearly two miles every day. Sore and abraded, “I used to pull off my knee pads and occasionally I’d have a layer of skin come off with it” he describes. Like any kid would, Nihad started cheating at his grueling daily tasks—his father, Imran, jokes. His mom used to get very angry about him cheating, he recounts, nearly chuckling. “That’s part of the normalization right?” Imran says, “He started getting naughty and it was a great change”.

What’s perhaps missing from this beautifully constructed short film though are the people metaphorically running behind Nihad throughout his entire journey. His father, who cracks a smile at the idea of his 11-year-old son breaking the rules because it means that his kid, like most other kids, has a streak of rebellion. His overprotective mother who masks her anxiety every time Nihad steps out for a run, fearing with all her heart that he may fall. Again. These powerful characters are in fact the foils in this narrative, the stimulus of Nihad’s positivity. His parents were just a young couple when their son underwent his surgery and have spent every day since at his heels, praying for him to fly. “It was grappling every day” Imran explains “first with keeping him alive, then with keeping him healthy.” Listening to his mother speak, you can hear the conflict in her voice, suppressing her motherly instinct to keep him close yet understanding his need to be independent. “Really, I fear” she says, “but it’s what he wants to do so we support it.” His father, too, wrestles with how best to raise him. “You become so close to the problem that you don’t see the rest of the world” he says, realizing the importance in stepping back.

Where loved ones stepped back, others seamlessly came in to fill those spaces, and this success story is ultimately a collection of these support systems. Nihad’s trainer, Rustom, is an important player in this narrative. The two have a jovial relationship which has grown from a mutual understanding of one another. Rustom pushed Nihad to his core, and made it a point to treat him no differently than his other clients. When Nihad began running at the CCI, he at first noticed he wasn’t being trained as hard as everyone else. “Hey why aren’t you pushing me?” he asked him, “I want to run the marathon”. To that, Rustom made him run three laps (about 1.2 km) around the CCI—nothing compared to the 21 km marathon Nihad would soon champion. 1.2 km became three, three became eight, eight became 10. “I had to push myself till I got to eight or 10 but after that it was smooth sailing” Nihad says proudly. “After the 10th kilometer, I realized I loved this.”

There are certain thrills in life, certain moments of exhilaration, that are bred from the inability to take such joys for granted. In my opinion, that’s one of the most important elements of Nihad’s spirit. His passion for running stems from a place of honest appreciation for what he has, and a negligence of thought for what he doesn’t—it took him two days to realize he had finished running his first marathon and qualified for the next year’s. Throughout it all, what drove him was simply a sense of achievement and nothing more. These days, along with running, Nihad makes it a point to share his story with whoever may need to hear it. Even now, his parents get calls from friends saying they see Nihad running on peddar road, on marine drive, almost becoming an integral part to Bombay’s cityscape. The fear is constant but the determination is strong. “Find your passion, follow it, and believe in yourself” Nihad signs out with the inherent insight we’ve come to accept as second nature. “This is my goal and I’m going to fight for it no matter what.”