I began travelling in earnest after I joined IIT in 2004. Being on the road was my way of neutralising the ruthless competitive academic environment of the institution. Travel made me street-smart and I learnt so much more about the ways of the world. The thrill of boarding a bus to an unknown destination with just enough money to get by was addictive. I travelled to learn and to consciously dive into unfamiliar situations.
In India, taking a gap year is still not a popular notion. I was intrigued though. So I did what my limited means—time and money—would allow me. I took two months off to trace the coastline of India. I backpacked across Sikkim’s Khangchendzonga National Park, all the way south to Kanyakumari, before travelling up along the west coast, and eventually riding a borrowed bike across Rajasthan back to Delhi. My GPA at IIT might not have been something to be proud of but I treasured experiences gathered in those years and friends who I had met on the road.
However, through all those travel, I developed the (somewhat limited) notion that a real journey is one taken alone. I thought companionship dilutes the objectivity of a traveller; no longer can one observe the fine workings of the world, instead, the world dissolves in the idle tittle-tattle of friends. Even when I had a girlfriend, I continued to go out to be on the road by myself. When I moved to Sweden in 2008, I lived alone for two years and made it my personal quest to understand as much of my new surroundings as I could by travelling alone.
It is only after I got married two years later that I began to understand that travelling is about more than just satiating curiosity. Having company on the road helps build and nurture relationships. Imagine being in the company of another person for days on end in unacquainted destinations. The unfamiliarity often breeds fear, which in turn stimulates proximity. Today, I have relationships that were strengthened by travelling together.
I am so taken by this realisation that I rarely travel alone now. Every road trip presents as an opportunity to mend or create a relationships and I now look forward to travelling with friends and family and for the journey to bring us closer. And road trips with near and dear ones have certainly done so in the last few years.
My wife, Priya, and I were dating for four years, the last two of which we spent living in separate continents. Though we spoke regularly, we began to feel the distance strain the relationship. Having spent all these years together, we’d reached the juncture where we were to decide if we should part ways or commit. I couldn’t make up my mind, and when I flew to India to meet her, I chose to go on a bike trip across Kerala as a ruse to delay the decision. I asked her to come along and though apprehensive, she agreed.
We had travelled together in the past, but given the circumstances, there was awkwardness between us and we avoided the subject of our future, choosing instead to soak in the sights. Our road trip started in Fort Kochi. In Munnar, we hunted for elusive Neelakurinji flower known to bloom once in twelve years, we walked through Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary at night, celebrated the New Year on the beaches of Varkala, spent an afternoon on a houseboat in Allepey, and saw the carnival in Fort Kochi. However, I didn’t end up relishing any of it. The fact that this could be my last trip with Priya took away the joy of viewing the sites. Every morning of that ten-day trip, the only thing I looked forward to was Priya riding pillion holding fast onto me.
By the time we boarded our flight back home, I knew what I had missed in the last two years and what I wasn’t ready to let go of for the rest of my life. I asked Priya to marry me. We have been married for more than six years now and during this time, travelling together has been a constant. Without her, I don’t savour the journey. Our honeymoon was a month-long road-trip across Rajasthan and now we mark every birthday or anniversary with a journey, in addition to the countless others planned spontaneously, just like the Kerala one.
Looking back I realise that one trip changed my life. I had gone to Kerala to escape reality and delay confronting the present but what I took from it was unmistakable surety. I learnt that sometimes the greatest reward of a journey is to stumble upon a treasure trove while in pursuit of something else.
She liked being called “Mummy” and I am married to her granddaughter. Every time I visited India, Mummy and I would sit on the porch of her house and she would talk for hours, first in Hindi and then Punjabi, her mother tongue. I would nod my head which she took as a sign to continue and we would spend hours gossiping.
In December last year, a few days before flying back to Sweden, I suggested to my wife that I stay a day longer with Mummy. I wanted us to travel to the mountains together. I had never travelled with Mummy and she was excited about the trip.
We set out for Kasauli. Throughout the journey, she sat quietly in the backseat occasionally breaking into an old song when we goaded her. She was vocal only when we got to a restaurant in the hills and scorned the seemingly unorganized staff who delayed bringing her pakoras.
Kasauli was same as I remembered from a visit a decade earlier; not even an inch had shifted—the shops bore the same names and stocked the same stuff, the church looked as desolate as it always was, the people chose to dress and live in foregone times as if even the mildest breeze of change had forgotten to visit this place.
For Mummy, the town bore a contrasting shade. I felt like her own life shared some of the same fundamentals as this piece of land: she had been married for 72 years, had lived in the same place for a long time, was used to seeing the same set of people on most days, and had the habit of remaining silent for long stretches. However, unlike the town, she had a separate vibrant life that evolved with each passing minute. She was always keen on making new friends, and trying out latest food trends. Age did not stop her from gathering novel experiences.
Three months after the trip, as spring was stepping into Sweden, I received a text message on a warm sunny day in March
“Mummy passed away.”
I walked out of the room to collect myself. I re-read the message. Three words that though innocent enough independently, had now linked up to stock ominous bearings, if only erasing the message could bring her back again.
Soon after, I was on the road again with Mummy—this time in spirit—on her last journey to Hardiwar. Her ashes were enclosed in a bag, wrapped in a cloth that she used to wear. It felt strange to hold the bag; the ashen remains rubbed against each other and crumbled inside the palms. I could almost feel her presence then, as if she were alive.
Somewhere on the banks of the Ganga, the bag was unstrung. As the ashes were scattered in the river, I thought that this was the last time she would breathe the air. It was time for her to flow past us in a new freer form. In the gentleness of the dusk, with playful vigor she dissolved in the flowing water, one handful at a time, leaving a slight wake on the top of the river wherever she went just like the way she had stamped the river of life when she was alive.
I realised now that my short-lived association with Mummy had taught me an important life lesson. Like her, I want to live every moment, and till I leave this world, I want to remain as playful as she had been. I want to take to life as her ashes had taken to the river.
“Do you know where Ven is?” my father asked me.
He was visiting me in Sweden, and so far his interest had been limited to the local library where he spent hours poring over books. I was intrigued when he asked about this small island in the middle of Øresund Strait between Denmark and Sweden.
I asked him how he knew about Ven and he explained, “At Ven, Tycho Brahe carried out his most famous measurements. His observatory is located there.”
My father has an undying love for fundamental sciences and astronomy owing to his career as a nuclear scientist and thus the interest in the Danish astronomer. This was the first time he had shown interest in a place and I was driven to take him there. Little did I know that this trip would introduce me to a different side of Papa.
The following Sunday, we stepped out to take the train to Landskrona city from where a ferry would take us to Ven. We waited for the ferry in silence—not uncomfortable reticence but a patient stillness we had polished over the years—and once the ferry arrived, we settled on the upper deck. Unlike other travellers, who usually go Ven to sunbathe, kitesurf, ride tandem bikes and for the food and wine, we were driven by our own intentions
We disembarked at Bäckviken, one of the neighborhoods in Ven with ample time in hand and decided to walk along a trail parallel to the coast and lined by rows of sea-facing summer houses. The sun was bright and I had taken the opportunity to take some pictures while Papa had stood at a distance watching me. Soon, I sensed his impatience at my dilly-dallying and hurried up the trail that took us to Tycho Brahe Museum.
The museum, a 15-minute walk away, is an ochre single story house surrounded by a beautiful garden and ruins from the sixteenth century.
I saw my father acquire a spring in his step once we reached the museum. He hopped from one information plaque to another, reading them end to end. “You know, this island is one of the most important places in the history of science,” he said more to himself than to me.
Papa has little appetite for getting photographed, but as I stood there watching him curiously examine the remains from the Middle Ages, he turned around and asked me to take a picture of him in front of the museum. It was the first time he had ever made such a request.
I walked him to a perfect spot outside the museum. He sat erect on a bench waiting to be clicked and as I looked through the viewfinder and zoomed in I saw a wide childlike smile spread over his face.
Trying to figure out what goes on in the mind of a teenage girl is notoriously difficult. I experienced this when my 13-year-old niece, Vanshika, visited Sweden last summer. It was her first trip abroad. The Swedish spring however, did not seem to appeal to her and despite our efforts she continued to seek refuge in her smartphone.
My wife and I spent many sleepless nights trying to figuring out how to create great memories for her and to salvage her vacation. Finally, we decided to take her on an impromptu road trip. Road trips had eased many a relationships for me in the past, so why not try it with a teenager.
Two days later we were in Switzerland, on the road to Montreux from Geneva. Beside us, Lake Geneva, specked with yachts, glittered in the bright sun and Chateau de Chillon shimmered in the distance. We stopped at Chateau de Chillon and spent the day walking the labyrinthine passageways of the gothic castle, and eating ice-cream on the promenade before crashing in bunk beds at a hostel we’d booked on the fly. Being on the road and in the sun had managed to cheer up Vanshika and she spoke incessantly till late that night, excited about seeing the famed Swiss mountains over next days. Things already seemed to be looking up. Over the next four days, we drove to Lucerne, Wengen, Zermatt and Chamonix. As we traced the jagged outlines of Mount Pilatus, Matterhorn and Mont Blanc, Vanshika searched for churches and cathedrals in all our pit stops. Every time we visited one of her sites of choice, she would go in and sit silently in a corner. As I observed her from a distance, I realised that what I had perceived as reclusiveness was silence germinating from a deeper place. Vanshika was being exposed to new experiences every day and perhaps her moments of solitude were her way of revisiting her everyday life back home.
On the last night, we booked a stay on top of a hill in the village of Hermance. It was a wooden cottage with a glass wall and a view of the valley. We lit a bonfire and sat outside late into night. In the warmth of the burning wood, realisation dawned that this trip was educating me as much about my niece as about the places I was visiting. Over the last few days, Vanshika and I had gotten along well, sharing stories and experiences, and I was beginning to understand what it was to be a teenager again.
Satya and I were sequestered in our own worlds, trying to be respectfully friendly with one another. We were of the same age, yet awkward in one another’s presence. He was visiting his sister—my wife—and until now I had never had a proper opportunity to get to know him better. Then, my wife had to travel for work, leaving us to our devices. One of the days, I took him for a swim in the Baltic Sea. The sun had turned a shade milder and the cold water of the Baltic Sea had tired itself on us, when we, secured by quaffs of vodka, discovered a shared love for road trips.
A long weekend was around the corner, and I decided that we should take a road trip. Being in each other’s company for long hours and the accompanying fatigue and stress of a road trip often helps in breaking the ice. We soon found ourselves in a car deliberating which road to take. We had three days and no concrete plans.
The road heading south from Sweden to France is unyielding and the gems are difficult to find. Satya drove while I navigated the uninspiring highways. The lack of any spectacular views compelled us to talk to each other. This time, we were not bound by the formality of any relationship and travelled like strangers on a journey, only seeking company. We drove for 16 hours trading stories, ambitions, and concerns. We offered counsel on matters of career and love, on how to quit smoking and other things.
By the time we spotted the Eiffel Tower, our awkwardness had melted away. We did not have much in common outside of our love for road-trips. In fact, we had diverging tastes, habits and perspectives. However, travelling together had forced us to talk, listen and understand one another.
That road trip taught me that sometimes travelling with people you don’t know well helps develop camaraderie. More often than not, it is the fear of the unknown that makes strangers of people who should be friends. Spending time together or chasing a challenge like one a journey offers, is an opportunity to appreciate the dissimilar perspectives leading first to acknowledgement and respect, and eventually to friendship.