Janice Rodrigues |NT BUZZ
With her athletic built and gait, it comes to a surprise that Anuja Mudda was never into sports in her growing up years, what is more unexpected is that she began running only a year back. The 25-year-old had taken up the challenge of running from Pune to Goa as a part of a campaign called ‘Steps to smiles’ that began on Women’s Day March 8. “I decided to run to spread awareness and to talk about child molestation and abuse,” says the sprightly girl.
Hailing from a small village on the outskirts of the town of Latur, Maharashtra, Anuja was a victim of abuse as a child and it was only after talking to her colleagues and friends that she realised that she wasn’t the only one. Moreover, she also realised that the abuse was not only restricted to the rural or small town life, but it is a problem that cuts across every strata of society. “I had certain experiences in my life, when in my childhood I was a victim too. The experience stayed with me through the years; I lived in fear, had nightmares, and the trauma would haunt me,” says Anuja. She kept silent for many years, but then took up the courage and after talking it out, she found that on an average, out of 10 at least 7 persons had gone through some kind of molestation or abuse in their childhood. “It may not have been serious, but they never spoke about probably because it was someone within the family or a neighbour who had done the deed or for some other reasons like shame and stigma. After talking to people I found out that other people go through the same thing, and I wasn’t alone.”
The knowledge of the scale of the problem led her to take up the cause to create awareness and by making people talk about it. “I couldn’t expect someone else to talk for me; I had to do it myself and hence took up this challenge,” says Anuja.
Running from Pune to Goa and covering 450 kilometres is no child’s play, even more if you have just started running a year back. “I started running a year ago and this also happened very randomly. I used to stay in Mumbai then, in Shivaji Park, Dadar. There was a group of runners who asked me to join them for running. Initially I didn’t know anything about running and thought only athletes ran. But they were insistent that I join; that’s how I began doing a few kilometres on a regular basis,” says Anuja. It came to her surprise that when the Mumbai Marathon was announced within 20 days of joining the group, the members registered her name for the 42 kilometres. “And directly, without any much training, I completed the 42 kilometres run. That is when I realised, that when you push your boundaries you can do anything and everything. And that made me aware that probably I can do a lot more.” And from then she began training and running regularly, with no looking back.
And, no looking back it surely was! As she began to take running seriously, Anuja began to gain confidence and overcome her fears and other health issues like PCOD (Polycystic Ovarian Disease). “Running did help me overcome some problems. I became stronger emotionally and physically. And became more sure of myself and of what I was doing,” she says. Moving to Pune to assert her independence, she continued teaching for the management institute chain she was working while in Mumbai. “I was living with my relatives and I felt confident enough to move out on my own,” she asserts.
While in Pune she tried to do something for the society, and chose one of the very few NGOs in the country working towards the cause of fighting child sexual abuse, Arpan. “When contacted they said I could either give them service or funds, and since people are so sceptical about monetary donation, I decided to incorporate fitness into the fundraising,” she says. Devising a concept where people run and stay fit and simultaneously help the NGO, Anuja contacted the fitness app development company Mobiefit who created the app ‘Steps To Smiles’. “Using this app whatever distance you run that much money would go to the NGO; or each kilometre you cover, Mobiefit will donate Rs 50 to Arpan. You could download the app and run anywhere in India, the duration that was kept to collect the money was from March 8 to March 22. Even now people can raise money, we have raised more than 1.5 lakh as of March 17. I would like to encourage people to run and use the app while doing so,” she urges.
To prepare for the run, Anuja had to train vigorously and since she worked in morning and evening shifts, she found it difficult to delegate time to train. “I used to wake up very early in mornings, go for runs, exercise, I did not do much of training, though now I feel that I should have prepared more. I started training for the challenge only 20 days prior to it. I would run 15 kilometres on weekdays and 30 kilometres on weekends. I ran after eating and on empty stomach to gauge how my body would react to food and run, things like that were my only preparations,” says Anuja.
But sometimes no amount of preparations can really match up to the real deal. Anuja on her first day was supposed to start at 4 a.m. however, due to flag off formalities it got delayed and she and her crew only set out on her long ardours journey after 6.30 a.m. “My initial plan was that I would run from 4 a.m. to noon, then again from 4 p.m. to about 7 or 8 p.m. but the first day we got delayed and ended late in the night, this got me delayed the next day as well, to add to the ordeal I was still on my menses and thus the discomfort was immense with swelling and soreness,” she said.
With a two pronged aim of creating awareness about fitness as well as child molestation and abuse, Anuja had chosen a route that had the maximum number of towns and villages on the way. “I had to choose a route, and I found that the Pune to Goa route passed through three states— Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa with a lot of towns and cities – Pune, Satara, Karad, Belgavi and then to Panaji,” says Anuja. She chose the route as it was a perfect way to spread awareness amongst the masses, visiting schools and colleges, meeting groups of people in the market places, interacting with women who were fighting for causes of their own. “I wanted to spread awareness of staying fit, that it will change you as a person and as for child molestation, I want people to talk about it, this will help to overcome the trauma and also to hopefully minimise the problem,” she says. It only helped that Arpan had already been working in these areas and had contacts with institutions, “The NGO does a lot of school visits and teaches the children about good touch, bad touch, which is so important, but rarely taught in the school curriculum, even parents are often reluctant to talk about such issues,” she comments.
En route her challenge, stopping to do stretches, eat and rest at pre-arranged food stays, Anuja had a varied experience with the people along the road. “On my way I did meet people who would stop on the bike and pass comments and all. My crew would be a kilometre away sometimes, so I would have to deal with these people alone. Even on the highway and during the day. Sometimes I ignored, sometimes I would shout. As a woman, I felt the lack of finding restrooms a serious issue,” she said.
While at some towns she was welcomed with arati thalis and felicitations, there were places which generated a lot of stares and quizzical looks. “It was surprising to see that women from small towns aware of what I was doing. I did get mixed reactions. At cities there were enthusiastic women who would come to join me and at others there were no women at all in sight, probably because it was during the week,” she points out.
Ask her what is the one thing she takes back from this expedition, she smartly responds, “If you are fearless and confident, you can tackle any problem. I want to push my boundaries. Women are not treated the way they should be and thus don’t push their boundaries. They think they cannot achieve their dreams. But if I could do it alone, you can do it too.”