After a hiatus of three years, the Mumbai Marathon is again being held on Sunday 15 Jan 2023. On account of the Covid virus, the Marathon remained suspended for three years, much to the disappointment of Mumbaiker’s, especially those who participate in this grand sport regularly. While the bulk of participants are from Mumbai and surrounding areas, many long-distance runners from abroad and from distant parts of the country also come, many to compete but many more for the fun and to soak up the atmosphere that can only be described as superb.

Among those who participate and do so regularly for the last 13 years are the war disabled personnel of the Indian Armed Forces, mainly the army. These disabled warriors are a class by themselves, an exclusive class who forget their disabilities for the day and congregate at Mumbai under the aegis of the ‘War Wounded Foundation’, an NGO that assists the war disabled personnel of the three Services in their long-term rehabilitation and helps them in diverse ways. The motto of the Foundation: “Converting Disability to Ability” says it all.

Once again, the war disabled warriors of the War Wounded Foundation have reached Mumbai and will be back in the fray in the Mumbai Marathon on 15 January 2023, which incidentally is also the Army Day. While the main Army Day Parade and other festivities will be held at Bangalore (first time away from Delhi Cantt), our war disabled warriors will be participating in the Mumbai Marathon. For them, it is one more challenge and being soldiers of the Indian Army, they know that this too would be ‘a piece of cake’, as the variety of challenges that they had tackled in their careers and even after leaving the army.

With this resolve, they set forth for the Azad Maidan early in the morning of 15 January 2023, while the sun was still getting ready for the dawn. These doughty warriors, wearing the red and white T Shirts of their Foundation would be spotted from afar in the huge Azad Maidan.

At the appointed start time, they will congregate close to the entrance to the holding area from where they would be funneled to the starting point, a couple of hundred yards away. While waiting for the holding area gates to open, they would interact with other participants, be part of many photo-ops and be yet another group that runs together as the participants are of all age groups.

The focal point of their assembly prior to entering the holding area would be an army band in their ceremonial dresses, kindly provided by the army, whose martial tunes always attract a very large number of persons, both participants and officials, who are always eager to be with soldiers of the Indian Army and especially the war disabled, as everyone has questions for them.

Since I had led the war disabled warriors in earlier marathons, along with the then Vice President of the Foundation, Maj Gen Ian Cardozo, both sporting artificial legs, I can visualise that many photographs would be clicked and many queries answered. Since we had handed over the reins of the Foundation after 20 years, this year’s participation will be under the direction of the much younger team, led by Lt Gen Asit Mistry. I am informed that this year four officers, two JCO’s and 16 Jawans of different regiments will be participating.

These are the men who have lost limbs and organs, fighting the enemies of the nation, in different wars that have been imposed by nations inimical to us. There are others who have become disabled in other war-like operations, like counter insurgency operations in different parts of the country, including in the North Eastern States and Jammu & Kashmir. Despite their disabilities, their spirits remain unaffected. They run in the marathon so that the people of our country see for themselves that it takes more than the loss of a limb or an organ for the officers, JCO’s and soldiers of the Indian Army to lose their ‘do or die’ spirit!

War Disabled Personnel in the Mumbai Marathon

The War Wounded Foundation, which has been fielding a team of war disabled personnel for the last 13 years in the Mumbai Marathon does so mainly for ‘visibility’ and to spread the message that it functions for the sole purpose of assisting the war disabled personnel. It also spreads the message that disability must be taken as a challenge and not as a burden.

The reader may well ask why Mumbai has become the preferred option for the participation of the war disabled warriors. After all, marathons are now on the calendars of many cities and even some political entities have jumped on the bandwagon, in their desperate bid for votes, as various types of elections are always taking place in our country! It is not that Mumbai was the first metro to start regular marathons or Mumbaikars are more health conscious than others. It is also not because the organisers are meticulous in the planning and execution of this major sporting event. The main reason is the interest the people of Mumbai take in this annual event and the way they rise to the occasion and cheer the participants wholeheartedly.

The whole city seems to line up along the route of the marathon to cheer the participants and this vast populace does so in a highly disciplined manner, with good cheer visible everywhere. The Mumbai police suddenly become efficient and manage the traffic meticulously and without any high-handedness or arrogance, which like most state police forces has unfortunately become a way of life and all citizens, except a few ‘Batti Walas” (cars with red lights), have had to deal with them with equanimity!

On the Marathon morning in Mumbai, it appears that everyone has gathered to participate in a great and enjoyable ‘tamasha’, as the entire route is full of cheering crowds; groups vying with each other to sing songs and break into dances to boost the morale of the runners; and many colourful bands lining up along the route, belting out their favourite numbers. Two military bands are also present; a Pipe Band of the Indian Army inside Azad Maidan and the much larger band of the Indian Navy on the Marine Drive. Fortunately, the weather is also great at this time of the year, with the usual high humidity of Mumbai banished for this day at least!

Although the Foundation has also fielded its members in the Delhi Half Marathon, it is Mumbai that offers an exhilarating event. The bonding one finds in the Mumbai Marathon between the participants and the onlookers seems to be missing for some reason from the Delhi event. Maybe it is the attitude of the bureaucrats of the Central and Delhi governments that makes it somewhat officious and impersonal!

Many corporate entities field teams to run in the Corporate Challenge of the Marathon, to raise funds for charity and our sponsor Godrej Boyce Company has also been fielding a team for raising donations for us. Over the years, a strong bond has developed between the War Wounded Foundation and Godrej, which is manifested by the linkage with the Mumbai Marathon.

With the sponsors

Let me end this epistle by penning a few words about how the ‘Dream Run’ in which our war disabled warriors participate progresses from the start point. The rush to take the lead slows down suddenly and nearly comes to a halt, as the runners approach the GrandStand, for lo and behold, the glitterati of Mumbai and those who had muscled themselves in to rub shoulders with them are perched on the high podium, waving and cheering.

There are Bollywood actors with muscles bulging in their tight fitting sports ensembles, who are content to wave their arms instead of running with the ‘hoi polloi’. There are also the female actors (why don’t we call them actresses as we used to earlier!); VIPs like the Chief Minister of Maharashtra; Page 3 madams loaded with diamonds and “Bling” (the current fashion statement I believe); and others.

A stop at the Mumbai Central Railway Station

Once past the GrandStand, the race assumes its traditional pace. Every participant and onlooker is enthusiastic, absorbing the atmosphere. In an earlier Marathon, two wives, a grand daughter and a niece had also joined the war disabled group, which was greatly appreciated.

Ladies join the marathon

The Marathon ends in good time to rest and/or have a quick visit to a place one had to see. It would soon be time to head for home after an exhilarating experience, having made new friends and spent time with older friends. No doubt many experiences and stories would be shared, perhaps more than once.

Lt General Vijay Oberoi is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff; and Former Founder President of the War Wounded Foundation.