KOCHI: It was pitch dark. Thrissur-based artist Rijo AR was walking along a highway in Rajasthan in early March with a rucksack on his back. He had put a small battery-powered light at the back of his bag so he would not get run over by a vehicle. But the road was deserted. Suddenly, he heard the ‘thud thud’ sound of a motorbike. Instinctively, he put his hand out. The bike stopped. Rijo saw there were two men on it. But they looked drunk.
Immediately, Rijo said in broken Hindi, “No problem, please go ahead.” But they didn’t. They came forward, pointed at the light and said, “Do you have a bomb? Are you a terrorist?” Rijo shook his head and said, “I am an Indian.” He showed his Aadhar card. But the men did not look at it. Suddenly, one of them punched Rijo on the face. “I fell on my back and could not breathe for a few moments,” he says. “They grabbed my bag and shouted ‘We have to check it’.” The road had a divider. Rijo managed to grab his bag back and ran to the other side. He walked rapidly. The duo followed on their bike.
Thankfully, luck smiled in Rijo’s favour. At some distance away, workers wearing L&T (Larsen and Toubro) uniforms were flashing lights. The road was being repaired. Rijo ran and stood beside them. He tried to communicate but in his fearful state, no words in Hindi came out. It didn’t help that they did not know English.
The men on the bike waited some distance away. “They were planning to attack me the moment I moved away,” says Rijo. “But I stayed put.”
Suddenly a van came up to collect the men. There was an officer who knew English. Rijo told him about what had happened. He shouted, “Get in.” Gratefully, Rijo clambered into the vehicle and made a timely escape from the area.
Rijo was on a random journey. After meeting with some friends in Bharuch, Gujarat, he decided he would hitchhike his way back home. But when he reached the highway, he saw two signboards. If he went right, the road would take him to Mumbai, Goa and Gokarna. If Rijo went left it would lead to Rajasthan. “Without any planning, I went left,” he says. Rijo walked for a long time. His mind was blank. But after five kilometres, somebody bought him a bottle of mineral water. Soon, he thumbed a ride.
And his journey had begun. When he neared Mount Abu Road in the Sirohi district of Rajasthan, a man by the name of Raghav picked him up. He was the principal of a local school. Raghav took Rijo to the Achaleshwar Mahadev temple, which is dedicated to Lord Shiva. There is a stone sculpture of Nandi the bull. While there, Rijo took part in rituals and poured milk on the lingam. At night, Raghav took Rijo to an ashram. The Malayali was shocked to see it was full of tribal girls in the 15-year age category. “They live in the forest but stay in the ashram for four months to study and enjoy free food and lodging,” says Rijo.
Food was served in his room. He stepped out to wash his hands. But when he returned, he got a shock. “All the girls were sitting around my pair of sneakers,” he says. “They had not seen anything like that. They were staring at it. They were feeling it with their fingers. I don’t know whether to feel sad or excited. Then they looked at my drawing book, which had many illustrations. They had an admiring look on their faces. I thought, ‘I am an ordinary person but they think I am extraordinary’,” says Rijo.
Later, Rijo travelled to Ajmer, Pushkar, and Jaipur. It was in the Pink City he put up a sign on the back of his rucksack: ‘All India Trip without money’. Later, he went to Gurugram, Delhi, Chandigarh, Kulu, Manali, the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Chennai, Mahabalipuram, Bengaluru, Mangaluru, Kasargod, Kannur and Kochi, a total of 46 days. Everywhere he went he depended on the kindness of strangers for food, shelter and travel. In most places, he would put up a tent and sleep inside it.
At Kochi, a couple of days ago, Rijo looks thin and weather-beaten. He is experiencing pain around his neck, arms, legs and has blisters on his feet.
Asked about the lessons he gained from the trip, Rijo says, “The education level is very low. People do not understand a word of English, especially in rural areas. They only know Hindi, so I had a lot of problems. Many times, the people were rude and constantly inspected my bag, without my permission. I cannot imagine somebody in Kerala inspecting a visitor’s bag.”
But what came as a stunning revelation to Rijo was the image of Kerala. “When I would say I am a Malayali, they would immediately say, ‘Kerala- fully educated guys’. They told me we are very hygienic. We have a big reputation in the nursing and hospitality sectors. They said we are brainy and artistically inclined,” he says.
Rijo is now on his way to Kanyakumari where he will bring his trip to an end. The 24-year-old, who has a diploma in hotel management, is yet to decide on the future course of his life. But at this moment, he is trying to assimilate the numerous experiences he went through.