Exams are tense affairs. “Your life,” parents constantly remind their kids, “depends on how you perform in them. Fail and you will lose your life. Ignominy will follow. You will lose your friends and you might not even be eligible to man cattle in a village.”
That sort of sentiment is amped up further in South India, where education trumps everything. Understandably, those were the dreams of D Raja and Meena Kumari, Mohan Kumar’s parents. Born in one of Chennai’s poorer areas, Mangalapuram in Ambattur, they were sure of one thing. To move up, we need our two sons and daughter to finish school, go to a good college and get a job.
But there was a rude awakening for the best laid plans. Just as Mohan sat down to write his Class I annual exam, he caught fever. He wasn’t well but still wrote the exams. He failed. That was a shock for Raja and Meena. How could their son have flunked Class I?
Thirteen years later, Mohan called them to give a message from Bengaluru. He wasn’t clear because he was crying throughout the brief conversation. Raja initially thought his son had been injured on the track. “My first feeling was Mohan was down and had suffered a bad fall while running,” he remembers. Overcome with anxiety, he pushed his cell phone closer to his ear. “I am going to the Olympics.”
That was a bigger shock for Raja and Meena.
At 19, Mohan is one of the youngest Indians on the trip but he talks with a sense of humour that one doesn’t usually associate with someone so young. “Studies and me did not mix,” he reminisces. “My parents were so desperate for me to pass, I used to go to tuition at 5 am when I was in Class VI. But I just couldn’t get it done. I just couldn’t grasp the idea of studying).”
But there was another development in Class VI. He saw a few of the older kids running in his place of education, Sir Ramaswami Mudaliar Higher Secondary School. He liked it at once. He wasn’t a natural but kept at it. “I used to lose even when I ran against girls,” he says with a laugh. That’s when the school PT master, who had obviously seen something in him, decided to devote most of his attention towards him.
But there was a two-pronged problem — Raja and studies. “I was initially very skeptical when Mohan told me he wanted to become a sportsman,” Raja reveals. “That’s because I myself wanted to become an athlete but just did not have the means to become one and I was afraid Mohan would run into the same problems.” An amateur footballer back in his youth, Raja had to try and arrange `100 to get his boots ready for local Sunday games. So he tried to dissuade his son from taking a liking to running. With authentic spikes costing in the tens of thousands, Raja, who was earlier in the sand business, knew it wouldn’t be easy. But seeing his son run convinced him.
His battle with education was a different matter. SRM School, where he studied from Class VI, weren’t willing to pass him to Class X. Given a lot of schools put the ‘we have 100 per cent result in 10th standard,’ as one of the main selling points on their prospectus, the management weren’t willing to clear his name. But the PT master, who was by now convinced that Mohan was a cut above the rest on the track, intervened. “He helped me a lot. Even when I failed in Class IX, he spoke to the school management and urged them to reconsider. He told them ‘please don’t tamper with the life of a budding athlete’.” Commonsense prevailed and he was put in Class X, where he passed. He did not let the school down in Class XI and XII , even though many had “nailed me down as the guy who would not give 100 per cent to studies”.
His work on the track had improved considerably in the interim. In U-14, he used to run 400m in about 53 seconds. As he was about to enter college, he was on the verge of running sub-49s.
Finding a college wasn’t a problem. And it was DG Vaishnav who got him in the end. He was going to do BA Economics, the principal told him. But his one job was out where he truly belonged. On the track. “The management didn’t bother with my grades. They wanted me to medal in the annual AL Mudaliar athletics meet, the Olympics for Madras University affiliated colleges in Chennai.”
He didn’t let them down. In December 2014 Mohan did a rare double in the 200 as well as the 400 in the meet. He was selected as the best male athlete for those feats. That was the competition that thrust him into the national spotlight. Tamil Nadu wasted no time in including him for the National Games that would follow in Thiruvananthapuram a month later.
A year later, in December 2015, the college again reminded Mohan of his promise — gold in the AL Mudaliar meet. There was extra motivation this time. Nobody had won back-to-back gold medals for the college. It was no problem for Mohan, who was by now a genuine outsider to represent India if they qualified for Rio. Gold followed in the 200 and 400. The college marked him on duty while he continued his training. His macro and micro economics professors didn’t mind his absence as the whole institution started to invoke God in the hope of him making Rio. And when the men’s team qualified on July 10, their prayers were answered.
Given the admission process doesn’t finish till August, DG Vaishnav had the ultimate selling point, written in bold letters on their website.
“Hearty congratulations,” the college wrote. “R Mohan Kumar, III year BA Economics (Day) on being selected as a Member of the Indian Team (Athletics) 4x400m relay to participate in the Rio Olympics.”
There is a poster of Rajinikanth looking dapper with the Malaysian skyline in the background at the entrance of a small lane on the busy Madras-Thiruvallur High Road. It’s obviously a promo for Kabali and its length is perhaps bigger than the width of the street. One will have to go through that to reach Mangalapuram, a place that you associate with anti-social elements. For a few days last year, Mohan was the poster. The larger-than-life cut-out at the beginning of the street.
On February 13, 2015, the TN men secured the men’s 4x400 gold at the National Games. The race was followed fervently by the people of Mangalapuram. After it, they all arrived at a decision. “We need to have a billboard for our Mohan at the beginning of the street.”
The whole area supported the idea. “Mohan came to Ambattur estate at approximately 10 am,” R Poovanan, Mohan’s brother, says. “We took him on an open-car sort of parade through the area. By the time we reached home it was past 3 pm.” The place was transformed. “Mangalapuram had this perception that it can produce only petty criminals,” Mohan says. “If you went in search of a job and told the company that you were from Mangalapuram, people wouldn’t give you one. So I was happy that I was able to give a good name to the area.”
Mohan places his parents in very high regard and it’s easy to see why. When he was still cracking it at various district and state meets, his father helped him out. “Whenever I used to come home and ask for better spikes my father wouldn’t flinch. He would just take the money he would have got from pledging jewellery, go out and get me spikes. So my dream in life is to take care of them. Repay the faith that they have shown in me.”
As you enter their house you see a phrase from the Bible in Tamil. It reads: “Now be pleased to bless the house of your servant, that it may continue forever in your sight; for you, Sovereign Lord, have spoken, and with your blessing the house of your servant will be blessed forever.”
At Rio, Mohan will be the one carrying the blessings.