Around The Country in 51 Days
By Uma Balasubramaniam | Published: 27th July 2014 06:00 AM |
Much like Phileas Fogg in novelist Jules Verne’s classic novel Around the World in Eighty Days, explorer Ejji K Umamahesh, 65, too set out to see new places. But while Fogg had just his valet Passepartout for company and had decided to circumnavigate the world on a bet, Ejji’s entourage consisted of his wife and three other like-minded friends.
These co-travellers had a common mission—to discover the India beyond the clichés, courtesy a mission named ‘Highway to Swades’. The trip commenced on March 16, 2014 and ended on May 5, 2014. The team travelled 18,181 km in 51 days covering Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, Kerala, before returning to the base, Chennai.
So what made Ejji, theatre enthusiast and sometimes actor, car racer, vintage cars collector, and deputy secretary of the Formula 1 Indian Grand Prix, decide to embark on this adventure?
“We wanted to study India at the grassroots levels, especially in the villages set in the most obscure part of the country,” Ejji says. His co-traveller Bhairavi, chips in, “This road trip was to discover ‘We the people of India’. Our aim was to showcase the countless men and women as also societies, products, services and businesses of India who thrive on their own belief systems and who have or are in a way taking control of their own destiny and have attained ‘purn swaraj’ for themselves.”
The journey was rewarding in other ways too. The team learnt new things about different states of India, for instance, Himachal Pradesh is the cleanest state in India where people sincerely believe that “cleanliness is next to Godliness”. If only other states took a leaf out of Mizoram’s book where every citizen is a member of an association that contributes to the welfare of the state and the only time there are public announcements with loudspeakers is when the cooperation and contribution of every citizen is required for public work. But the same perhaps cannot be said of Nagaland where the road sign read, “Welcome to Nagaland, but we are not Indians”! Ejji says the state’s capital Kohima is the world’s best battle memorial where descendants of those who fought in WWII come to visit the tombs. He quickly points out that India stands to gain if the archeological sites here are well maintained. The arc of their travels nearly touched Nepal and Bangladesh too as they journeyed from Shanthiniketan to Siliguri driving through the famous Siliguri corridor where India, Nepal and Bangladesh are almost cheek by jowl.
Ejji met people from both ends of the spectrum–from tribals to royals. In Arunachal Pradesh, he met various tribes with interesting rituals. One on on the outskirts of a small town called Ziro practices voodoo with dog sacrifice part of their rituals. Even the so-called civilised world is no match for their warm hospitality, says Ejji. He also interviewed descendants from the royal families of the old kingdoms of India, Burma and Sri Lanka, of which Krishna Deva Ray’s great, great grandson Achutha Deva Raya remains his close friend to-date.
So what figured as the common denominator when it came to our countrymen? “Happiness and contentment,” says Ejji, “There is no unemployment in India, it is just that people don’t want to work. A farmer in Punjab only tills a part of his land as he cannot get people to till the rest in spite of doubling the wages.”
Ejji recommends that ‘Highway to Swades’ be made compulsory in schools so that children understand their country at the grassroots level. Of course, his wanderlust was earlier fulfilled thanks to the private car rallies he participated in which took him to Myanmar, Europe, Africa with one such rally confirming the old adage ‘To hell and back.’
Ejji has donated all his organs and harbours a simple wish now—to live and not just exist as there’s only one life to live. The maverick wanderer is already contemplating a trip from Guwahati to Vietnam next.