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Nightly midnight jog by Indian teen inspires millions on Twitter

19-year-old Pradeep Mehra on his 5-mile run home after his shift ends at McDonald's. A chance encounter with a filmmaker led to a video that's gone viral.
Vinod Kapri via Twitter/Screengrab by NPR
19-year-old Pradeep Mehra on his 5-mile run home after his shift ends at McDonald's. A chance encounter with a filmmaker led to a video that's gone viral.

At 11:45 p.m. on March 19, Vinod Kapri, a former TV journalist and award-winning filmmaker, was returning home from a dinner. As he was cruising along Golf Course Road in the northern Indian city of Noida, near New Delhi, he spotted a kid racing along in the dead of the night.

Kapri says he was alarmed at first — worried that the boy was in trouble. And so he slowed down and cranked open a window.

"Do you need help?" he asked.

"I thought he was a 14-year-old because he looked much younger than he was and he had a backpack on," Kapri tells NPR. "It was late and he was running so fast. I was concerned and wondered if he might be in trouble. Where could he be running off to in such a tearing hurry in the dead of the night?"

The boy turned out to be 19-year-old Pradeep Mehra, who had just finished his shift at McDonald's and was returning home.

Once it was evident that nothing was wrong, Kapri offered to drop the teen home, but Mehra politely turned him down and, without missing a beat, kept on running.

Surprised by his refusal, Kapri says he whipped out his cellphone and started filming their conversation because he could tell that there was a story behind the midnight run.

"I sensed that there was a teachable moment here, and I wanted to share this with my 18-year-old son," he says.

Mehra explained that he was running to keep fit so he could fulfill his dream of joining the army. A career in the army has proven to be reliable for many young men in India. Until the pandemic hit, the army recruited an average of 55-60,000 graduates, mostly male, out of an average of 800,000 applicants every year. There are rigorous qualifying exams — both written and physical.

Kapri says the conversation left him deeply in awe of young Pradeep Mehra.

"As a filmmaker, I know that every scene in a good cinema should have twists and turns," says Kapri. "My conversation was brief, but it had immense twists and turns. Even as I shot the video, I was discovering him. I came to help but instead left inspired."

After asking permission to post the video, Kapri uploaded the recording, a little over 2 minutes and titled "A young boy running at midnight," to his Twitter account. It has 11.4 million views so far.

Kapri's ending caption — "Run Pradeep run, to your brighter destiny" — touched many viewers, and the viral video roused strong reactions on Twitter. Some commenters admired Mehra's resolve and determination, and found it inspiring.

Others questioned the deep social inequity and systemic problems in India that has kept people like Mehra poor, working hard to reach their goals but with no guarantee of success.

Even as the discussion went on, retired army officers and generals reached out to Mehra with offers to help him train. Mehra has since been besieged by the press and interviewed widely by Indian media and TV channels.

Kapri, who got Mehra's cell phone number that night, says that they've kept in touch since their chance meeting. After the video went viral, well-meaning people from twitter flooded Mehra with gifts –a jogging outfit, socks, a backpack. They mailed these to Kapri who ensured that Mehra received it.

People have reached out to Mehra in person too — dropping in at the Mc Donald's where he works with gifts — mostly shoes and money. So far, he's received ten pairs of running shoes. On March 28, a local politician, Amit Jani gave him a check for $ 1,300 to cover the costs of his mother's hospitalization and treatment.

And now he's just been given a three-year scholarship to Minerva Academy, which specializes in training people for army navy and air force interviews and written exams.

In an interview with NPR over a video call, Pradeep Mehra talked about his regular midnight run and the impact that his new-found fame has had on his life.

Where are you originally from—your hometown?

I am originally from (the northern Indian state of) Uttarakhand. I moved to Noida soon after graduating from high school to help my brother care for my ailing parents and to be able to find better paying work in the city.

Why do you always run at midnight?

I started my nightly runs because I just didn't have time to train during the day. I help my brother in cooking and caring for my parents. My mother was hospitalized recently and my father isn't as strong as he used to be, and so we worry about them.

I also work at Noida's Macdonald's and my shift is from 1 p.m.-11 p.m. I needed to keep up with my training and stay fit, so every night, when I get off work, I decided I would run the 5 miles home. It takes me roughly 30 minutes.

How is your mother feeling now?

My mother is recovering and is feeling better, but it's been a slow process. For the last two years, she's been suffering from TB, and she recently contracted a blood infection and had to be hospitalized. Emotionally, this has affected my father, too — and we worry about his mental health.

Are you ever disturbed during this routine? Do you get catcalled or have close encounters with cars?

I've haven't had too much of a problem with cars, but people are a different story! I found that my mid-night running habit does pique peoples' curiosity. Many have stopped to ask me why I run at this time of night, while others have mocked and poked fun at me. There's a lot of sarcasm too — I am warned that running like this will only get me chased by stray dogs. No matter what anyone says, I just smile at them; it only strengthens my resolve to keep going. I've always believed that hard work has its own rewards, and that one day, I will reach my goal and succeed.

Is that goal your dream of serving in the army? What inspires you most about it?

My dream since childhood is to join the Indian army. Several of my friends have already been selected and I too want to serve my country. I also want to be able to care for my parents and to make them proud of me.

I've always believed that army men are real-life heroes. They have courage, a quality I admire. They protect our freedoms, our rights and our borders and are much better than the heroes we see on the silver screen.

Did you expect that the video of your running routine would get so much attention? How has it been to deal with the aftermath of going viral?

I never dreamed it would get so much attention. I am still so very overwhelmed but grateful.

How have your family and friends reacted?

My family isn't on social media, so at first, I didn't think it would make much of an impact on them. My mother worried about my running so late at night and would always try to dissuade me from it. But in the last few days, many of our friends and family have called to tell her how wonderful the video was. Now, she doesn't insist I stop anymore, so that's a relief!

Both my parents said that they're proud of me and that made me very happy. My friends said they were proud, too, but they thought that the attention from the video could probably trigger something bigger. For the last two years, the Indian government suspended recruitment to the army [as a result of the COVID pandemic]. They thought that the video could act as a trigger to resume recruitment. If so, hundreds of young people could stand to benefit from it across India.

What are your dreams for the future?

I only want to focus on my goal of being able to make it into the army. I also want to be able to take care of my parents better.

What would your advice be to other young people who may be facing stumbling blocks to achieving their dreams?

I believe that everyone faces problems at some level. My only advice would be not to dwell on the problems but to face them and to work hard. When it comes to achieving your goals, you need to be focused and determined. There should be no excuses. In other words, don't ever stop running.

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, Southern India. She reports on global health, science, and development, and her work has been published in the New York Times, The British Medical Journal, BBC, The Guardian and other outlets. You can find her on twitter @kamal_t

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