The trainer with a red T-shirt

His name is Guna Sakeran. Several times, I have tried to join him to express my thankfulness and to let him know how he has changed my life, but he must have changed his email address, and several attempts to join him via facebook or LinkedIn remained unsuccessful.

The last time we spoke was in Singapore, more than 15 years ago.

And now, I have piqued your curiosity and several of you must be wondering: but who is this guy? Guna was not a guru, nor a philosopher, or a teacher, or a spiritual figure of influence or anything like that.

Guna was indeed a good speaker, particularly good at storytelling, and he was also a very spiritual person, although that was not his main job.
Guna was my gym trainer in Singapore, between 2000 and 2002. That was exactly 20 years ago, and the memory of his figure and of his voice are as vivid as if it had been yesterday.
He was neither very tall nor very large, indeed his figure was not particularly impressive, but he had a quality of presence, a bald head and an upright posture that captured attention. When he spoke, with his calm, assured voice, one would listen.

When I arrived in Singapore, I was suffering from back pain, and joining a gym and starting to exercise regularly seemed a good option for an expat who didn’t yet have much else to do, having only just started to build a new social circle.

At first, we agreed on a three-sessions per week program on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, after work. Soon enough, I started arriving late at the gym, apologizing about those urgent mails that kept arriving until the last minute.

Guna was patient and polite, very professional. Thanks to him, I discovered muscles in my body I had never thought existed. Pain was a sign of progress, and I progressed a lot, especially during the first two months. My spine became straighter, the back pains disappeared (replaced by other, self-inflicted pains in the muscles, but these news pains came with a sense of pride and accomplishment), and some of the stress I was having at work could easily be channeled on the treadmill.
All of this because, week after week, Guna kept encouraging me with his firm and friendly voice, colored with a strong and warm tamul accent. « Go on, Misterrr Rrrobert », he would say with his rolling rs, « one morrre minute. keep yourr back strraight ». And my back would straighten up and get firmer, week after week.

But I kept coming late, sometimes even postponing sessions with an apology. So, one day, Guna, as I arrived tired from a particularly long day, suggested that I come to the gym in the morning rather than in the evening.

  • “Misterr Rrrobert”,  he rolled amiably, “why don’t you come to train before work, instead of after? You would have much morre enerrgy, and you could come on time and fully enjoy yourr session.”

The proposal made a lot of sense, but I hesitated.

  • That would mean coming in at 7.00 a.m.? You know, I am not really a morning person.
  • Well, Misterr Rrobert, why don’t you give it a try and see how it goes? I assurre you, you would make a lot of progrress.

Nobody had ever dignified my name with so many rolling rs before, and the idea of “progress” was tempting. So, I said yes.

The next Monday, I got up at 6.00 am, and was rewarded with a beautiful sunrise. The air was still fresh, and when I walked out of the building, I could hear the wonderful chirp of the varied species of  birds living in this green neighborhood, a bit remote from the city center. Guna greeted me with a warm, encouraging smile, and I started lifting heavier weight, as befitted the promise to “prrogrress”.   Since I had a bit of time before going to work, and with an appetite enhanced by the exercise, I made a stop at the “kopitiam”, a street café just close to my office on Killiney road, where I enjoyed their special café and toast with a local-made jam named “kaya” while watching passersby. I noticed a big black bird with a yellow beak and made a mental note to ask my colleagues for its name.

On Wednesday, the training also went fine, except that I ended up with terrible cramps in the legs, which made me walk like a cowboy on his way to a duel in the sun. The office receptionist, a strong woman with a heavy Chinese accent, asked if I had suffered an injury, and looked incredulous when I explained that I had just overdone it a bit at the gym.

On Friday, when I got up, a heavy tropical rain was falling. I tried to call a cab to go downtown, where my gym was situated, but it took a while until I found one available and I arrived fifteen minutes late. Guna, who was waiting for me at the desk, accepted my explanations and we managed to cram the same number of exercises in forty-five minutes instead of one hour.

Our initial conversations had been entertaining, but a bit impersonal: Guna was cautious to talk only about “safe” topics such as football, food or travel, and to stay away for religion, politics or anything controversial. As we got to know each other better, his great talent for storytelling unveiled, and he started explaining to me the local mores and even superstitions, which I greatly enjoyed. He would tell me, for instance, about a big mango tree in his neighborhood, bending under the weight of delicious-looking fruits nobody dared to pick.

  • Why is that, I asked? Do they belong to an angry neighbor?
  • Not at all, Misterr Rrobert. It is because this tree is the refugee for all the souls of the people who have been killed by the Japanese during the war.
  • Oh I see, yes of course that’s why nobody wants to picks them.

Through him, I started to see the deep history lying under the veil of modernity, in this city apparently dedicated to the frenzy of consumption and food. I had read the city’s history and knew about the mass murders committed by the Japanese, but hearing it through Guna’s stories made them much more personal and real. I had also visited the Peranakan museum, downtown, and read all the fascinating explanations about these families of combined Malay and Chinese origins which had created an original culture just before the second World War.

I did my best to arrive on time to our morning sessions, and realized that starting the day with a beautiful sunrise and the voice of the neighborhood birds was quite pleasant. But I couldn’t help arriving a bit late, every now and then. By then, I had learned that the black bird with a yellow beak was a Java Mynah, and there was also the Asian Koel, identified by tis constant “ku-uh” at dawn, the yellow-vented bulbul with a rolling, bubbly chirp, the black-naped oriole, and so many others.

Singapore is a small country if measured only by the surface of its territory, but, although densely built it is rich with a very diverse fauna and flora, a fantastic mix of flavorful cuisines, and, if you pay attention, a deep layer of family traditions and cultures. In fact, if you show a bit of respectful curiosity, people are all too happy to share with you their interests and their stories.

One morning, I braced myself and asked Guna which, of all the thousands of India deities, was his favorite god? The answer came instantly:

  • The one I revere the most is Lord Ganesh
  • Oh really? Why him in particular?
  • Because he is the protector of the family

And then Guna started telling me the story of this god who had stood in front of his mother’s house to protect it from invaders. When returning from a trip, his father didn’t recognize him, and decapitated him with his sword. Later, the father realized his mistake and went to the forest to look for his son’s head, but since he could not find it, he took and elephant’s head and placed it on his son’s neck instead.

I thanked him for the story, and even much more for sharing something so deeply personal. Clearly, he related to this god’s impersonation of family values, the sense of sacrifice and the fortitude it may require. His life was so aligned, full of dignity, and I felt deeply admiring for that. I told him the Catholics had “patron saints”, and among them, Saint Joseph came closest to his revered Lord Ganesh as the hard-working, reliable, unglamourous protector of the family. In a society that seemed to care so much for celebrity and material goods, it was reassuring to see there were people who placed deeper values at the center of their life. He could see that I was not only respectful, but eager to learn more about his core values and beliefs.

After that, we had many interesting discussions about any kind of topic. He even talked about politics, just lowering his voice a bit so other people training on the machines around us couldn’t hear. We grew up appreciating each other, and eventually became friends. I was not only grateful for the wonderfully entertaining stories, but also for the “prrogrress” in my body, which was indeed getting stronger, more flexible, and resistant. None of the strategies I had tried back in Europe to motivate myself to train regularly had worked. After a few months, I would either give up, or stop progressing. But now, thanks to his story-telling talent (and the relentless encouragements he kept providing with his friendly but authoritative and determined voice), I had accomplished what I thought impossible.

Yet I still arrived late, from time to time.

One day, though, I asked him where he lived. He told me he lived in Jurong, the westernmost part of the island-state. He had to change buses twice, which obliged him to wake up at 4.30 a.m. in order to be tat the gym short before 7.00 a.m.

I was shocked. Until then, for me, waking up as early as 4.30 a.m. had been something one would do two or three times a year to catch a plane or for some exceptional circumstance. But he was waking up so early, waiting in the dark for his buses and traveling more than an hour just to be able to greet me on time at the gym, day after day, week after week. For a moment, I had a vision of Guna waiting at the bus stop, his muscular body strapped in an impeccable red t-shirt. A working-class hero with a shaven head, large ears and an elephant’s trunk, coming out of the tropical forest to train lazy foreigners in an air-conditioned building.  The closest thing Western advertising imagery had to offer was the UPS delivery man in a brown uniform, a poorer version of the god of Reliability.

I felt so ashamed for the occasions when I had arrived late at the gym that I pumped iron like never before, if only to make him proud.

In the following weeks, whenever I was tempted to take my time or to go soft on the training, I visualized Guna, standing besides one of the machines at the gym, smiling in his own benevolent and serious way. We started having conversations about the sense of discipline. He told me how he gave some of his precious time on weekends as a voluntary football trainer for the tamil kids in his neighborhood, and how the parents failed to teach them the importance of education. When talking about these topics, he became bitter, blaming his community for lacking social ambition for their children. He was angry to see that the tamil had, in his words, “gone down the social ladder” while the Malays and Chinese had elevated their economic and social status in Singapore. But he wouldn’t think of blaming “the government” or any abstract entity for that. While deeply anchored in the tamil values, he was also completely sold to the protestant dream based on hard work, self-training and the sense of personal responsibility for one’s destiny. Somehow, the two value systems blended in him, driving him to succeed without ever ceasing to care for the others. He started reading books about personal finance, such as “Rich dad, poor dad”, and shared with me his entrepreneurial dreams. One of these ideas was to start his own brewery, and he spent the following weeks reading technical and business books. Then he gave up,  or moved on to something else.

A few weeks before I left Singapore for the Philippines, Guna invited me and a few of his foreign clients to his wedding. The ceremony, held in a brightly decorated temple encrusted between two high rises, was magnificent, joyful and deeply spiritual at the same time. A small brochure in three languages had been published so that we could follow the ceremony and understand everything that was happening. We greatly appreciated the delicate attention. At the end of the ceremony, after the brides had touched their parent’s feet to ask for their blessing, all the guests lined up to put a little bit of red-colored cream on their front, and we all felt equally blessed and grateful for being so graciously included. The dinner that followed was exquisite, and the moment when the whole party exploded in dancing was unforgettable. For a moment, I felt I had really been accepted to be part of something so large I couldn’t see its boundaries, something one could have called “Asia”, a continent, a set of customs and costumes, a combination of tastes, perfumes and sounds that took you and elevated you, that transformed you for a while into a different kind of person, or at least that offered you the freedom to become a better version of yourself. Of course, this was a dream,  and the next Monday I woke up in front of my usual Excel spreadsheet, designing communication strategies for American companies and writing press releases stuffed with meaningless quotes by vice-presidents delighted to buy their competitors or launch the 3.1 version of their software.

Soon after that, I moved to the Philippines and started yet another adaptation process. Whenever I visited Singapore in the following years, I made a point to call Guna and invite him for lunch in China square. Then I moved back to Europe, and lost track of him.

When social networks became widely available, I looked for him with various combinations of keywords, but his name never appeared. I had to accept the idea that we will never resume our conversations about football, religion, food or discipline. But whenever I feel like letting go of some difficult task, when the weight of life feels too heavy, the muscular man with a red t-shirt, large ears and an elephant’s trunk appears to me, and I can hear his firm voice whisper in my ears, the “rs” rolling like balls on a wet soccer field: “go on, mister Rrobert, one more time. You can make it”. And I get things done.

2 réponses à “The trainer with a red T-shirt

  1. A beautiful tribute ! It says à lot about you both.

  2. It’s amazing who we can learn from, what can be learned, and how we evolve through learnings, when we find the willingness to remain the eternal student. Great post.

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