The Untouchables

We started walking in the early hours of morning and this dog walked with us for almost an hour. He was like our guard or messenger or perhaps, God manifested in the form of a dog to support our cause. We had been given a lead to visit a family of socially neglected and looked down upon the untouchables in the hamlet—Chhapi.

It’s shocking but true. India is one of the few unfortunate countries in the world that has this taboo community in almost all the regions. And, we knew this very well while hunting for the address of this family. We asked a man on the way and he lost his mind.

Why do you want to visit that area?

I made him understand, politely, that it’s none of his business. He didn’t cooperate much but after an hour of hunting, we found the place. Yogesh Mathuria called this man up and he agreed to come to pick us up. We’re standing on the cross road where we’re at the center of attention. It seemed like every shop, every customer, every dog or cat was looking only at us for that moment.

untouchable.jpg

He was so surprised and shocked upon learning this fact that someone really wants to meet them. Anyway, we reached the venue somehow after an hour of asking and getting lost in the village. Upon reaching the location where he told us to, he came running to meet us. It seem that he was coming to rescue us or something as we’re the focus of all the shops around and for the first time, after many years,  I felt like an alien from X999 Galaxy; some 3.3  x 109 trillion light years away from our planet.

But, we met after sharing few calls of where are you, I am here types, he took us to his little home in a nearby place. The place was filled with beautiful little homes and colorful people. There was a beautiful woman washing utensils, an ultra-healthy stray dog barking at us, lots of fine dust kissing our feet, little children running here and there, mud walls displaying their tribal art, fragrance of some pungent food and finally the gutter water flowing here and there.

village.jpg

A typical picture of a remote and destitute Indian village!

They first served us a sweet dish with dry fruits and later we’re served lentil and rice in the same utensil. It was so tasty that I kept licking my finger. We’re served chilled butter milk and the women of the home was doing the fan for us; like the women used to do to the king in olden times. It was an AWESOME lunch and after that we exchanged telephone numbers and offered our goodbyes. Our hero came to escort us to the outskirts of the village. He also told us the way forward.

wife.jpg

On the way forward, we had only one topic—the hospitality of this untouchable. We the people have coined them a name, keep them neglected and suppressed but there is so much love in their heart. There was no feeling of inequality in their heart. Maybe, it’s us, the over educated and uncivilized lots who create differences because they are simple folks with only love in their heart and glint their eyes. While, most of us in the cities have—almost—forgotten the hospitality toward guests, these forbidden heroes are keeping the head of our culture high.

 

On The Feet Of A Living Legend

Our next stop was scheduled in a school in a sacred town—Siddhpur. This town is an ancient town most famous for performing religious rituals for deceased mother. This doesn’t happen anywhere in India, except here. This town also hold importance to the affluent Bohra Muslim community and also the largest producer of husk in the country.

I was quite uncomfortable with the blisters on me and took a halt every one hour. This made us quite slow. In the morning, when we walked silently, I looked up above the sky so high, and saw many diamonds in the sky. The sky was full of stars that I never noticed in my city – the concrete jungle. The sky was so clear, the climate was beautiful and we were walking silently towards our destination. This was the first time we touched the national highway and took utmost precaution not to come under the tyre of any truck. Yogesh Mathuria is fond of using global positioning system in his mobile phone and I am fond of asking for address personally. I think that by using too much technology, we kill the human touch.

yoganjali.jpg

We had almost completed walking 100 kilometers and almost reach our destination. We were welcomed by our host in Yoganjali School. This school was founded by a great woman who is a Gandhian and had walked with Acharya Vinoba Bhave all around India for more than 10 years. They had hundreds of little children that I met. After breakfast, we met this 80 year young lady—Ramila Gandhi and just kept watching her for few moments.

ramila-gandhi.jpg

hut.jpg

She was like a Goddess, wrapped in cotton Indian drape, sitting on her seat, fluent in English, Hindi and Gujarati, and an aura around her. A lady, in her early 80s, but beautiful than Miss Universe!

I got hijacked and they way she welcomed her with her sweet voice, it killed me man. She started asking about our journey and my mentor told him about our peace pilgrimage.

Then, I asked to share her story. As she was sharing her journey, I was just looking at her like a rock and feeling so frightened within. She shared that she had left her home at the age of 20 and joined national teacher and spiritual successor of Mahatma Gandhi for the Land Gift Movement. I was getting chills listening to her story and felt almost like a quark in front of her. I thought that I was the one who is doing a difficult task, walking for peace and all that stuff but when I got to know that she walked for the cause for 10 years, I remained quiet for the whole day.

Can you believe? A young lady of 20 years or so, leaving her home against the will of her parents and joining a man who was supposed to walk India for 25 years asking for land for rich landlords.

This is F***ing Awesome!

She told us how she walked all around India in the 1950s and collected land from the rich land owners and gifted the poor farmers. After that she came and established this school, all alone. It was a “Man Oriented” world then (and it is still now) and all that she did to establish a school at that time was a real tough job. She never married and has given all her life for education and service, selfless service. She is affirm believer in self reliance and had built a home of mud and all Eco-friendly products.

school.jpg

We were eager to meet the children and address them about our mission. Children are the tools for change, and I blend well with them. Yogesh Mathuria started addressing them and told all about his mission and life. But, I think he means serious business and they got a bit bored. Seeing this, he handed over the conversation to me.

origami.jpg

I started with a bang. I told them about my career in the animation industry and my journey of life since childhood. By the grace of almighty, I have a talent of connecting with children within a minute. I won their hearts and attention. We shared our mission and I even promised them to share the craft of Origami.

After lunch, immediately we came together and I taught a few of them making a fighter airplane with paper. They were so mesmerized like they have never seen such a thing before. And, it’s such a crude truth that they have never. We in big cities see airplanes in our daily life but children sating in small towns or villages rarely even see paper planes. This information gap makes me unhappy.

siddhpur.jpg

temple.jpg

In the evening, we were offered a city tour by a member of the school. He promised us and exciting tour with joyous moments. He was kind to become our guide and we started with the famous Bohra Muslim area of the city. It’s a plush locality with ancient homes. It has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Then, we visited the famous temple that offers performing religious rituals for deceased mother. This place became popular when the super star of Hindi film industry visited this temple for her mother.

We had lots of fun in the evening and we came back just before the prayer time. After the prayer, the second-in-command of the living legend requested to share some video and audio editing skills, so that she can become self sufficient. I happily—and effectively—fulfilled her wish and gifted her a bit of my knowledge that will support her become self reliant for life. After that we had good food, joyful chat with children and went to sleep.

All night I had been thinking that I missed an opportunity to put my feet on the living legend’s feet. I had never done this before because I never felt this way for anyone else. But, this lady was something different. I had missed the opportunity but I got a shock of my life in the morning. The living legend was waiting to wish us goodbye in the morning. This was a nostalgic scene and I immediately put my head on her feet and took her blessings.

We both were first timers that day. I had never done this before, she—the living legend—had never done this before!

Night In A Maternity Ward

We left the community center early in the morning. There was no plan for the day. We just kept walking towards the highway. There was no one around except a team of stray dogs that were half asleep and half estranged. I was a little uncomfortable or let me put it straight, little scared.

But somehow, we passed the danger. The team was very cooperative and we even wished them a good morning. As the sun started coming up, Yogesh Mathuria got a call from a friend to give a reference of someone who could host us for the day. We were super excited and thanked almighty for the support.

As we were walking, I suddenly got a call from the nature. I looked for a bathroom but soon realized that we are walking on inter-state highway. I have a lot of experience in attending these calls in the forest, in the open. But there was a challenge, there was no water. Vijai Yadav—always the lender of last resort—helped me to get a bottle of water and finally, I completed the task with a satisfactory feeling.

We had to reach a small town—Visanagar. I once thought it was visa-nagar as almost all the Gujarati people are trying to get a visa to the USA! But jokes apart, it was a beautiful town very close to Vadnagar; birthplace of our PM—Narendra Modi.

maternity-room.jpg

We reached at a junction and asked for our host—Jyoti Hospital. There were few people talking and they immediately showed us the way. They even inquired about the tag I was wearing, that said—WALKING PILGRIMAGE. They were quite impressed and wished us good luck. In a short while, we found the place and we met the founder doctor of this hospital.

Dr. Mihir Joshi welcomed us to his hospital. He’s man of service and golden heart. He runs this hospital on the concept of gift economy. After a brief chat about our mission, he directed us to our room; in the maternity ward. It was the only room available that day and we made ourselves comfortable in this room. This was the first time I was to spent a night in a maternity.

I have spent many nights in hospital but never in a maternity home!

After a shower and little food I took a treatment for my blisters and we decided to sleep for a while and then go out to explore the city and interact with people. I was feeling very HOT and decided to shave my hair. We all had to do some cleaning work, and we set out to hunt for a barber shop.

himmat-shah.jpg

While we were busy exploring the place, we interacted with many people and discussed about our mission. We got mixed responses, some thought it was a good idea, and some thought it as bullshit. There we me this man—Himmat Shah who came as our savior and guide. He took up the task of guiding us to the barber shop.

He spoke in English and offered us guidance under the banner of GUEST IS GOD attitude that is stuffed in Indians.

I was so embarrassed and requested him not to call me that, and just guide us the right way. I told him that I am of his grandson’s age and I’ll feel most comfortable if he calls me by my name. But he was quite determined to accompany me till the shop. He took me to a nice barber shop that was his favorite. Then, he not only told the barber to give me a nice shave, but a head massage as well. On the top, he sat there till I was done and paid for my shave and head massage.

We’re—sometimes—so materialistic that we don’t have the sight to look beyond money. Such stories have become folklore. But this is fact in small town and villages of India. People are so loving and compassionate. Guest is really God for them and they’re courageous enough to treat them like that. I was extremely touched by this act. Not that I couldn’t pay or don’t stop him but I didn’t want to take away the pleasure of receiving. After the act, we hugged each other tightly and he disappeared in thin air. Some people find God in stones, I find God in humans.

old-age-home.jpg

garden.jpg

I felt like doing something different, and I shaved my head. I think it was the right thing to do ad it was too hot in the middle of October. With the bald head, we decided to visit our Prime Minister’s birth place. We came to know about an old age home that his brother managed. We had a nice time out there. Although, his brother was not around, the manager took us around and we met few elderly people. We told them about our mission and took their blessings. It was kind of surprising that all of them had a quite positive approach towards our mission and encouraged us to do more for the society.

We came back in the evening and after a nice dinner—in the hospital—went to bed; at least I thought so. There was continuous disturbance form the ward. Little babies crying all around.  It was an interesting experience. In the middle of night, there was an urgent delivery and the maternity ward was upside-down. It was a chaos outside but order in our mind. For the first time I realized the challenges and difficulties of the maternity ward staff.

medicines.jpg

In the morning, we left with a first-aid box gifted to us by the doctor. It was such a sweet gesture of love. The entire hospital offered us wishes for the journey and we hit the road; with my blisters of course!

The First Morsel

I had felt the pain of blisters long time ago and I knew how killer they’re. The temperature was rising and I couldn’t walk much but we had to take our first break. Sheetal Sanghvi had suggested an ashram for our halt.

sitaram-ashram.jpg

Sitaram Ashram—near Gandhinagar—was a beautiful little ashram and a perfect for our break. I was dying to remove the shoe and see the condition of blisters. The sage of the ashram offered us water to drink and directed us to the washroom. My blisters had taken monstrous form and were quite painful. I got blisters on almost all the fingers. I was not afraid but worried. The sage gave me his blessings and offered healing by a hand gesture. Just then, I realized that he wasn’t speaking at all. His peers told us that he is in the silence mode since many years. Maybe, it was his way of meditation, communication or his atonement.

me-with-saint.jpg

I distracted my mind and took a nice bath with cold water; in an almost open bathroom. The bathroom was raw room made of bricks and had put my towel to act as a curtain. I also had frog to accompany me inside, and he witnessed the act throughout; uncensored. Soon, were called for food—Ram Roti, as they call it. It’s actually nothing but charity food. The ashram serves food and shelter for beggars, saints, homeless and pilgrims like us. This was our first food of the journey and believe me, this simple food was one of the best food I had eaten in my life. We told our entire story to the sage. He was listening eagerly and was quite impressed by our mission.

cook.jpg

ram-roti-e1518242534308.jpg

After eating, I almost forgot about my blisters and spent entire afternoon watching this cow eating and doing her activities. It was a beautiful time with oneself. I tried to sleep but there were hell lot of mosquitoes that didn’t allow any of us to sleep; actually, I think it was only me!

Soon, it was late afternoon and I had a glass of cold butter milk and we stepped out of the ashram after taking the sage’s blessings for the pilgrimage. We kept walking and walking, passing farms, highways, villages, water holes and people. The evening was searching for us and soon we could feel the tiredness and decided to take a stop. But this time, there was no suggestion like we got last time from Sheetal Sanghvi.

I had an idea!

I have been an ardent traveler, rather a low-impact traveler, all my life and I promptly suggested to the group that we enter the nearest village and meet the village head to support us. We all agreed and met the village head of village–Gozaria. He was a kind person and made arrangement of food and shelter in the community hall.

This was my first night stay earned by begging; although for a cause. Back in the room, dear Vijai Yadav turned into a lover and a doctor. He held my foot and started treating my blisters in his own sweet way. He burst the blisters, cleaned them, applied medicine and tied bandage to it. I had never seen such an act of compassion that this first day of my walking pilgrimage showed me. The gift of day one—food and love—took my breath away.

The Beginning March

friends.jpg

The night was wonderful and I got up early morning. It was quite cold outside. I was feeling like a ripe fruit; ready to roll. After a ritualistic prayer, we gathered at a place to begin. We prayed, and took blessings of our dear mentors and friends. The time had come and I wore my first ever shoe in a decade, and put my feet outside the gate.

 The whole universe was in silence mode. We decided to walk in silence till sunrise—Me, Yogesh Mathuria, Sheetal Sanghvi and Vijai Yadav.

Walking in silence!

It was a completely new thing for me.  I never thought of being silent. I thought we’ll have fun talking about hundreds of things. But all my dreams were shattered. I was fresh but little uncomfortable walking with the shoe. The first hour was terrible. I couldn’t stand the silence but anyway I was talking to myself continuously.

I was moving almost at the speed of light and suddenly I saw a ray of light somewhere form the corner of the sphere, corner? Does a sphere even have a corner? Such is my height of stupidity but the point is that sun was about to rise. The sky was a painting created with an analogous color scheme—pink, purple, orange, red, etc.

As soon as we could see light all around, we took a break and finally threw out some words to each other. I burst a word-bomb on my partner. The morning looked so beautiful as if I have seen it for the first time in my life. Actually, I witnessed it after a long time. I could hear the voice of a peacock nearby. I could also hear some random birds chirping in the background, far behind the trees.

Sheetalbhai had promised his participation only till sunrise and he left us with warm wishes for the journey. What was left was the ‘The Trinity’ and I was glad that I opened the Pandora’s Box. We kept walking through the capital city of Gandhinagar towards north of Gujarat.

The sun was in his or her full glory. Shining bright and I realized we had been walking for almost 5 hours now. The city was full of hustle-bustle and the traffic was in its full swing. Suddenly, I started getting uncomfortable.  My speed was getting slow. I noticed pain under few fingers of my feet. I didn’t pay attention and like a true soldier, I was determined to quit only if I am dead. Although, I have been practicing trekking all my life but I never experienced continuous walking like this. I knew there was something wrong.

My fear was right—BLISTERS!

Butterflies In Stomach

With encouragement of my wife, I had agreed to participate in the walking pilgrimage but had not been getting ready mentally. I had joined a teaching institute but didn’t tell them that I have to leave for the walk in near future. I left it on the universe to guide me. I started reading various articles about such experiments. I read stories and travelogues of different people. There is one very special I want to share—Abraham’s Path. This is a long-distance walking trail across the Middle East which connects the sites visited by the patriarch Abraham as recorded in ancient religious texts and traditions.

I had been always known to be a mad-man and rebel all my life and I shared my decision with a few (leftover) friends. I don’t remember anyone, except one or two, seconding or encouraging me in this experiment. As a child, I had heard the inspiring song by a great Indian poet— Rabindranath Tagore.

If they answer not to your call walk alone
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,
O thou unlucky one,
open your mind and speak out alone.
If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness,
O thou unlucky one,
trample the thorns under thy tread,
and along the blood-lined track travel alone.
If they shut doors and do not hold up the light when the night is troubled with storm,
O thou unlucky one,
with the thunder flame of pain ignite your own heart,
and let it burn alone.

The day—1st October, 2104—had almost come and I completed the job in hand and started preparing. There was no physical preparation—and this was to become the worst nightmare in coming days—but somehow I managed to exercise and walk for few kilometers everyday early morning. Sachin Tyagi from my housing society encouraged me to walk everyday and he made sure I did it daily. I think he is a co-passenger of me in this journey of life.

railway-station.jpg

The day had arrived. I was at Mumbai railway station. My train was a little late and I was all alone at that side of railway station. It looked like the whole universe wanted me to stand alone. On the way, I met many people with whom I shared my idea of walking pilgrimage. Some got furious, some got excited, and some just cared a damn.

I reached Ahmadabad the next day and first went to a friend’s place—Pratik Padariya. There were two more people who were supposed to join us from there. We went to Gandhi Ashram and together with the Moved By Love community, we prayed for everyone and our mission.

Thereafter we had three days to prepare and enjoy in the city. I got company of two noble souls—Renu Watwani and her son Shourya Watwani who I fondly call him Buddha.

Together, we decided to do some cleaning work in the city. We went around many places in the city and started our cleaning campaign. Not only we inspired people to clean but we also took oaths with them. It was such a beautiful experience. Our host family was also very lovable and it was like a family. Every day we got up and prepared food with aunt and then would come back in then night to have delicious food and lots of love.

safai-ashram.jpg

I had to go to our final destination form where we’re supposed to start our walking pilgrimage. We had to walk to this place and for the first time, I walked around 15 kilometers at a stretch. This was the first hand experience of a walking pilgrimage. We passed through highways and slums, meeting and talking to people. I was damn inspired by the way Jayesh Patel did this all along. He would stop at the doors of families, chat with homeless people, and even talk to cows and dogs on the way. It was such a nostalgic scene!

I was getting more anxious minute by minute. I was happy meeting so many other people out there but also skeptical about my decision to walk for such a long period. The tension was rising as time was passing. Not thinking about the idea was the only cure. I don’t like to expect and assume and this helped me all along. Finally, it was night time and the journey was to start in the early next morning. Life was a garden, lots of colorful flowers, green colors, cool breeze, peace and lots of butterflies.

And, I think all of them were inside me, all night!

Pandora’s Box

gandhi.jpg

I was first introduced to the concept of walking in school. I read about the Salt March by our Father of Nation—Mahatma Gandhi; somewhere in 1930s. I was quite indifferent to this march but always very inquisitive about the idea.

While growing up, I often saw people walking in large numbers to pay visit to the shrine of a popular messenger of God—Sai Baba. This one is one of them most visited pilgrimage in India.

Much later in life, I heard about a great saint and leader—Acharya Vinoba Bhave who walked all around India for several years (like more than 20 years) to collect land for poor and neglected communities.

I really thought that these men had lost their minds but I always had a pinch in my heart about the whole concept of walking for a cause. Who knew that I had to wait for more than 30 years for someone to come and shake my whole life up. Someone, actually two of them, who made me realize that I may re-work my entire 33 years of life!

In December of 2013, I attended a retreat organized by a community named Moved By Love. It was actually a pursuit to find myself; an inner journey. There I met three men who changed the way I look at my life—Siddharth Sthalekar, Nipun Mehta and Jayesh Patel. Their humbleness surprised me and ripped my heart away. They made me understand the reasons why great men walked the pilgrimage path and why they took the road less taken. I was convinced and when I came back, I resigned from my job. I decided to sacrifice my lower goals for higher ones. The retreat did really move me by love.

yogeshbhai.jpg

My inner journey had started and soon I met the man who inspired me to the next level. Who knew that this man would be the one I’ll walk with one day. With the grace of divine design, I met them man—Yogesh Mathuria. He had been quite inspired by his mentor, who walked—without money—from New Delhi to America; somewhere in 1960s.

In 2014, we discussed about this dream peace project where he would walk to India’s neighboring countries with the message of peace and love. This was not the only challenge, but there was another – walking without money! I got damn interested this time and agreed to walk with him for first 20 days—Ahmadabad to Udaipur in India.

I was very excited since the day I agreed. I knew there was a beast—as well a clown—waiting for me in this road less taken. I prepared my mind, body and emptied my wallet for a mad adventure that might change my life forever. I read somewhere that if you want things you don’t have, you have to do things you have never done before. That day I knew some miracle was about to happen and with great determination, I agreed to walk this path of fire, I decided to take the road less taken and opened the forbidden package.