“Ankit doesn’t know his next destination, or the length of his stay at any place,” writes Sonali Bhatia.
It began with a Facebook post. Ekta Singh, asking how anyone can travel 15 states without any money … the reply being ‘the empathy of my countrymen’.
Intrigued, I signed up with Ekta’s Gatherings at Two Friends Cauldron, JP Nagar. All I knew was that a 29 year old named Ankit Arora who is on a solo cycle journey across India was going to address us. I expected to hear of adventures and escapades, of close encounters and narrow misses.
What I didn’t expect was that, by the end of the talk, I’d have several of my beliefs turned upside down, some cherished notions pulled inside out, and that this stranger’s journey to places I may never even have heard of would leave me introspecting deeply.
Tall, lean, be-whiskered Ankit hasn’t been ‘home’ in 930 days, now. When asked about his parents, he says they do question him sometimes about his return to his birthplace, Ajmer, in Rajasthan. His reply is that he’ll return when he returns. “Do they question you about anything else – like when you’re getting married?” we ask.
The response is a huge grin. “Other people have one family to ask them this question. I have six hundred,” Ankit replies. In one sentence, Ankit has transformed our notions of ‘home’ and ‘family’. He has left home, to find hundreds of homes. He has distanced himself from his family, to embrace myriad families. “I’ve stayed with farmers and worked with them,” he says. “I’ve lived with doctors, engineers, policemen, army-men, surrendered Naxalites, teachers, students, bikers, cyclists ... I become part of the family, then I go away. I face attachment and detachment all the time. I want to experience this. I want to experience every emotion and be a complete human being.”
But what is the purpose of this? What is Ankit’s goal? When, and where, does he hope to finally arrive?
Ankit does not know. “I’m not a traveler,” he explains. “Being a traveler means booking tickets, staying in a hotel, knowing how long your stay is going to be. I’m an explorer. I go wherever I’m invited to go, and stay there as long as there are stories there to interest me. I live as part of the community, meeting inspiring people, learning new skills. I’ve covered 15 States and eight Union Territories so far.”
Ankit writes about his journey, and people read his writing (check “India on my cycle” on Facebook). They get in touch with him if they want to invite him. The lady he is currently staying with in Bangalore is an artist, Sridevi, who hadn’t met him before inviting him over for a month.
“I’m not doing anything new,” he asserts. “People used to travel like this in our ancient civilizations. Our gurukul education system involved roaming around and seek knowledge from experts and work with them. There was a process of king-making. Before a man became a king, he had to wander across the land and get to know his fellows. Whatever we read in our history books has been written by travelers. My journey is happening very naturally.”
By planning nothing, by letting life steer him, he is on a path to true discovery. He knows how people really live, he feels his own emotions deeply, he has time to connect with others, with nature and with himself.
But what about trust? How can you open your home to a stranger, how can you accept hospitality from someone you’ve never met?
“It’s only on the media that people are portrayed as being suspicious,’ is the young man’s reply. “In real life, people want to meet each other.”
He asks if we have heard of Shopian, a supposedly troubled region in Kashmir. While cycling from Srinagar to another city, he had an inadvertent stopover in Shopian. There, he met two young men, who were astonished at the sight of a stranger in their territory. They were adamant – he had to visit their home. He had a cup of tea at their residence, and got ready to take his leave, when they handed him a two-kilo bag of apples as a gift. “That was 2017, at a time when I carried a lot of luggage,” Ankit says. “I regretfully told them I could not accept their gift. They re-arrranged the things on my bicycle to make space for the apples.” Ankit left their home with the additional 2 kg of luggage strapped firmly on.
But, in the village, he found the people to be worried. Someone was entering homes and chopping the hair of the women there. (We remember reading of this in the newspapers at the time.) This was the only time in close to a thousand days that Ankit faced any suspicion. Was he the sinister mystery-man, chopping hair?
When he denied it and explained his journey, the villagers were convinced of his innocence – and advised him to throw away the little pair of scissors he kept for personal use. “Others may doubt you if you have it on you,” they said.
By that time, it was beginning to get dark, and Ankit realised he needed a place to stay for the night. Tentatively, he stood in the town circle, till a Sikh shopkeeper noticed him and walked over. They talked, and decided that Ankit could sleep in his sleeping-bag in the courtyard of the Gurudwara, as there was no dormitory there. When he reached the Gurudwara, Ankit found that the news of his need had spread. Members of each of the seven Sikh families in the village were waiting for him with tea and fruits. But that was not all they had to offer. For the first time in its history, the Gurudwara was going to welcome someone to sleep inside. The only request they made was that he honour the Guru Granth Sahib by keeping his head turned in the appropriate direction.
Ankit laughs as he recounts an elderly couple who hosted him in Hyderabad. “They had declined to host a cyclist thirty years ago because they were afraid that their children would be spoilt, meeting him. To make amends for that, thirty years later, they hosted me!”
By trusting, Ankit was trusted – in a time and at a place where trust was supposedly non-existent.
Then came the obvious question – language. Ankit has spent 18 of the last 31 months in South India, without knowing the language. Again, he grins as he responds to ‘how?’
“I’ll tell you a story,” he says. “In Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu. I had been cycling for hours and was tired, hungry and thirsty.” There being no large restaurants in the small fishing village, Ankit stopped at the only snack-shop he could see. A lone shopkeeper, selling plates of snacks and lemon water. Ankit pointed at what he wanted to buy – one glass of lemon water and a plate of snacks. “I don’t know what he saw in my face, but he came up to me and began to say something in Tamil. When I didn’t understand his words, I gestured that he should show me what he wanted to.”
The man disappeared for a moment and appeared again holding a packet containing some cooked rice and black grams. He was offering Ankit his own lunch. Not only did he refuse to share in it, giving the whole thing to Ankit, he presented Ankit with free snacks as well. “He must have spent about Rs. 60 or 70 on me, which may have been his day’s earnings. People everywhere are very generous.”
Also in Tamil Nadu, Ankit stayed two days in a village with a family who knew four English words: “breakfast, lunch, dinner, super’. The communication was complete. Ankit was summoned promptly to each meal, and showed his appreciation at its conclusion with a hearty thumbs-up accompanied by a loud ‘super!’
You don’t need to know the language to connect, you just need to empathise.
How much baggage do you need to carry? Ankit started out with 40 kilos of it. Today, he has the clothes he is wearing, one pair of spare clothes in his backpack, his camera, and a smart-phone (his only concession to technology). He realised, along the way, that a person does not need baggage. He sent some possessions back home, he gave some away.
Baggage also comes up in his summation of the urban-rural divide. “Urban people are too wrapped up in their desires,” he says. “They have forgotten nature, forgotten our ancient customs and traditions.” In urban spaces, if you leave your baggage somewhere, you have to worry about it. You wonder whether someone will take it. In rural areas, nobody touches another person’s belongings. The tribals are the most indigenous people. They follow their tradition. Among them, you can be at peace.
You don’t need baggage, and if you have it, don’t let it occupy your mindspace!
Who is Ankit? He is part of six hundred families, of myriad occupations. Before he undertook this journey, starting in August 2017, he was, in his own words, ‘a normal guy’ who worked in a BPO, as a journalist and as a content-writer.
Now, people notice him as ‘a boy who is doing some long journey’, befriend him within minutes of approaching him (usually while he is taking a break from cycling with a cup of chai) and offer him whatever he needs at that point – food, a place to stay, an introduction to Viswanathan Anand … ‘People respect my journey,’ he states, matter-of-factly.
Has he given up an identity, or gained one?
“Could a woman do a similar journey?” a young lady asks – anticipating a ‘no’ in response.
Surprisingly, Ankit’s answer is not only a ‘yes’, but he tells us he has actually met young women who are, like him, cycling across India. The catch? They’re mostly foreigners. Indian women seem hesitant to undertake such an adventure.
“Danger is not gender-specific, nor is it location-specific,” Ankit clarifies. Anyone can be in danger, or be safe, anywhere – depending on the individuals you encounter. “If anything, women have an advantage, more people are ready to host them. The only time I’ve been refused accommodation is when people have been apprehensive about letting a man stay in a house where there are daughters.”
Preparation? “Nothing can prepare you for a journey like this,” Ankit states. “Yes, I went to the gym. I did cyclothons and other international events before embarking on this. I had been doing endurance rides since 2015. I did journeys from point-A to point-B to point-C and back home, covering 200 to 300 km on the cycle. I covered places close to my home, (Rajasthan) – Delhi, UP, Punjab, Uttarakhand. I would do 600 km in 40 hours. All that training only helped for one or two months. For this type of journey, the main thing is a cycle that helps you keep a good posture – and your strength, every day, for years. I started getting aches and pains. Sometimes, my whole body hurts. I have spondylitis and issues with my stomach.”
Ankit’s conclusion – mental preparation and fitness come first, physical endurance follows. “If you love this journey, if it’s your dream, you can do it without much practice.”
Ankit doesn’t know his next destination, or the length of his stay at any place. He doesn’t plan in advance what he’ll do once he gets there. In this way, he has learnt farming, woodworking, weaving (he has woven the shirt he is wearing himself), painting and myriad other skills. With a mischievous look in his eye, he informs us that, having spent forty days in Hyderabad, he didn’t visit the Golconda Fort!
Also Ankit wants to do as much of the journey as physically possible on a bicycle. So, if his cycle breaks down, he does not accept lifts from passing cars or trucks. “I know some basic repair, and I have taken help to repair the cycle from shopkeepers and others. People in Bangalore, Nagpur, Chennai and other cities have helped me with parts for the cycle.” Through his own efforts and others’ kindness, his journey goes on after each minor breakdown!
“And when you’re safe in your own house,” Ankit says, “you know exactly what is where. Even if you have to go to the washroom at night, you need not switch on the light. Now imagine you are in a tent in the mountains and need to visit the washroom. The first thing you do on stepping out is to check for snakes and insects. All senses become aware.”
It appears that uncertainty is the way to make sure of your own progress and prowess!
Before he started on this journey, Ankit’s forays, on a motorbike, were for speed. He had to cover a certain distance within a certain time, or before someone else did.
Something about this left him dissatisfied. He felt he was missing out on knowing people, on being one with nature. Now, on his cycle, he says he can hear his own breathing, feel his own heartbeat. He can recognize, by the fragrance, which trees line the side of the road. He is pedaling, one with the environment – feeling the heat or the cold, experiencing the ride with every pore of his being.
The slowing down in speed led to a faster awareness of self, and a deeper understanding of human beings and of nature.
What advice would Ankit give educators? “Children should spend less time in a classroom and more time outdoors, less time with a text-book and more time with a tree. In the villages, every child knows about snakes and butterflies. But I have met students in urban areas who have got top marks in their exams but don’t know anything about their own locality. For example, not many people know that there is a village in Maharashtra, near Panchgani, known as the Book Village. The area is already famous for strawberries. There are twenty-five families identified, who have a room full of books which anyone can come and read. The map of the village shows these as highlights. But people who go to Maharashtra do not know about this.
The tag-line is ‘Enjoy literature while eating strawberries’. Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu is famous for its temple, but people are not aware that there are veena makers there. Veenas are also made in Andhra Pradesh, in Nuzvidu near Vijayawada, which is otherwise famous for mangoes. The veenas are vital in our music industry, they are exported, too. I have stayed with them for two days and observed how a veena is made. In Nagpur, I met archeologists who explained to me the making of a temple – stone by stone, the engineering, the vastu-kala, the architecture. Children should know about all this. Often, my hosts learn something new about their locality because of my stories! Foreigners are eager to explore India and make documentaries, but we don’t explore our own country!”
“Let me tell you about the tribal areas of Chattisgarh. It is disconnected from the city. When I was there, my phone was not working. It was bliss. It is so peaceful there, you can hear the rustling of the leaves. In a city like this, even if you’re sitting quietly in your own room, you’ll get noises coming from five km away! The forest is the most peaceful area. Animals are only provoked if we harm them.”
This, possibly, is what people are most curious about. How can he travel around with such limited funds? Why doesn’t he monetize his blogs? Why doesn’t he become brand-ambassador for a bicycle company?
“You don’t need money to live, you need food,” Ankit says, simply. “People give me food. So why do I need money? And when I meet someone, I want to get to know the person, I want to listen and learn. How can I do that if I’m always looking into my laptop or smart-phone? I wouldn’t have these stories to tell, if I were promoting a bicycle-brand the whole time. It wouldn’t be different from a regular life with a regular job, then, would it?”
Ankit urges us to understand how close rural people are to nature, how they do what’s needed and don’t have extra desires. “If an economist were to visit rural people, he would get confused – why aren’t they working? Why don’t they want more things?” He has met monks who wear just a shawl in freezing temperatures, and bathe using snowy water in a bucket.
By choosing to diminish the importance of money, Ankit has enriched his own life, the lives of the people he has stayed with, and the lives of we who listened to him that day at Two Friends Cauldron.
Thank you, Ankit, your journey has taken us places!
Sonali Bhatia is a Bengaluru based writer and storyteller.
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