Seated on a bench in a session with Puntambekar in December 2015, Rahul struggled to put pen to paper. The deputy director of Muktangan had asked the group of ten ‘Aftercare’ volunteers to list their future goals. Rahul did not know what his aspirations were. He did not have any. A life beyond rehab was unfathomable to him. His family wouldn’t take him back, and the world wouldn’t take him back. At Muktangan, he felt safe. No one judged him here. No one reminded him that he was a parasite to society. But even as he was at peace with his present, Rahul hadn’t thought of his future. It was still too wild, that dare to dream.
‘All of you have stayed at Muktangan for months, even years,’ said Puntambekar. ‘You’ve successfully kicked your addictions. But I’m worried you’re getting comfortable here. True rehabilitation means reintegrating with society. You have to affirm your ground in the outside world, make sure they see this changed side of you, and applaud it. Now, tell me your goals.’
While some addicts said they wanted to get married and start a family, others spoke of getting jobs. Still others, including Rahul, stayed quiet.
‘You have to be more to get more,’ Puntambekar continued, ‘I need you to leave Muktangan within the next year. Pick a skill, make a plan and execute it. If you’d like to learn driving, we’ll pay for your training. If you’d like to learn cooking, we’ll train you, and issue certificates. Just tell me what you’d like to do, and we’ll figure a way.’
Rahul kept mum.
‘In addition to skill building, I need you to get fitter. You’re eating right, yes. But you need to get some exercise. Do yoga, join the gym at Muktangan, go for runs in the morning. In fact, there’s a ten-kilometre marathon coming up next month. Would any of you be interested?’
Rahul raised his hand.
‘Good. Do you have any experience running?’
The former shooter stared at the floor. After a few seconds, he shrugged the hesitance and said, ‘I have experience running from cops, from the men I shot at, and from the crowds that chased after me. The longest I’ve run is four kilometres – after I shot a furniture store owner in the heart.’
‘That’ll work.’ said the counsellor. ‘I’ll have a gate pass issued for you. You must run outside the facility to train for the marathon.’
‘Okay,’ Rahul was hesitant. Addicts and volunteers required the pass to leave Muktangan, and Rahul hadn’t had the courage to get one issued. He did not trust himself. He knew he would never return.
On 30 December 2015, Rahul stepped out of Muktangan at 6 a.m., his first faceoff with the outside world in almost two years. It was quite congenial, he noticed – nothing like the dystopia he had painted in his mind. The winter sun was amiable, the air fresh with morning dew, and naked trees swayed in the cold winds, dancing to the joy of green leaves to come. Standing at his imaginary starting line outside the rehab’s gate, Rahul mulled over the futility of his decision, but decided to run because he had given his word. Then, as he took his first step, running uncaged him from his first fear: the fear of new beginnings.
Rahul stopped after running for a kilometre. Sweat-purged and panting, he could hardly breathe, and walked to a nearby garden. As he settled on a bench, he saw a group of people standing in a circle, laughing hysterically. He wondered if he was the reason, but soon realized it was a laughter therapy assembly.
Men and women jogged about the garden’s peripheral running track, while some stretched and performed yoga on the grass in the centre. A few others sat with their eyes shut, meditating. Rahul was happy to be in the park. Here, he was no more the gangster he was in Mumbai. He was no more the addict he was in Muktangan. In that garden, he had a new, unblemished, even respectable identity – of a fitness enthusiast. The realization slowly started crushing his second fear: the fear of rewriting his story, of dreaming.
Elated, he left the garden and started running again. After two kilometres, he walked back to Muktangan. As the day progressed, his muscles ached. The pain worsened over the next three days, but he did not stop with his morning runs. He wasn’t acquainted with the science of the sport, but he’d liked the essence of it. There was something deeply liberating about running without being chased. To comfort his sore muscles, he approached Puntambekar for
‘No, no. You’re doing it wrong,’ the counsellor, an avid marathoner, told him. ‘First, you need to develop a proper pre-run routine. For at least ten minutes, you must do a few dynamic stretches like butt kicks, leg swings and high knees. Blood must reach your muscles before you hit the road.’
After demonstrating a few stretches, she added: ‘Start your run with jogging for a few metres. Then, slowly, pick up pace. Your speed will increase gradually, not immediately. And for marathons, you must build your endurance so you can run faster and farther.’
‘In a word, stamina. You should be able to cover long distances without your body giving up.’
‘That won’t be a problem.’ Rahul smiled. ‘As a child, I’d walked fifty kilometres from Dombivli to Mumbai twice. No water, no food, only endurance.’
The following morning, Rahul performed the stretches before his run. He covered five kilometres that day, and over the next two weeks, he was running eight kilometres daily. He was happy with his progress. The increased endorphin levels had elevated his mood, made him feel rewarded.
Rahul started liking the sport. There was another perk: the gatepass had allowed him access to the city of Pune, which he hadn’t explored beyond the bar outside its railway station. He would run in the old city, where Muktangan was located, and then explore the city centre flanked by new, luxurious hotels and ageing, dilapidated buildings. The modern infrastructure boasted of the city’s development as sculptures of his favorite hero, Shivaji Maharaj smiled at the progress. It was like him, the city of Pune: crazed to get to the future, still clutching tightly to its past.
About three weeks after he first started running, Rahul collapsed on a sidewalk one morning, eighteen kilometres away from Muktangan. When strangers nudged him back to consciousness, he didn’t know where he was, or that he had come that far. Somewhere, in the middle of the run, Rahul had begun thinking about his life. His mother’s tearful voice had started ringing in his ears: ‘People are on their deathbeds because of you. We’ve lost all respect because of you. We don’t want to live anymore because of you.’
The words rushed like adrenaline through Rahul’s veins. To punish himself, he started running as fast as he could. He ran until he dropped, until the words faded with the closing of his. When strangers woke him up, he had a smile on his face. He knew that the run had first transcended his body, then his mind, and then laid bare his soul.
At the Pune marathon, around the end of January 2016, Rahul covered the ten-kilometre distance in fifty-five minutes. As the crowd cheered him on, the erstwhile gangster exuberantly crossed the finish line. He had begun to heal.
Excerpted with permission from Gangster on the Run: The True Story of a Reformed Criminal by Puja Changoiwala, published by HarperCollins India.