I went on a Faith Safari 23 years ago from Delhi to Chandigarh. And History Repeats itself Tonight. What Goes around comes around too !
Chandigarh is a small well planned city. Recognising familiar faces is not extraordinary. When you meet someone the chances of tracing common friends and acquaintances in a matter of minutes, is more likely than not. Born here, I grew up in a culture of easy camaraderie.
When I joined college, my parents had bought a scooter for me. It was an exhilarating feeling having my own conveyance. Offering lifts somehow enhanced this feeling of well-being. But at that time, Chandigarh and the surrounding areas had been haunted by terrorism for nearly a decade and it had made residents wary of strangers. My friends frowned on the fact that I readily gave lifts to strangers. Soon my parents wisened to my altruistic activities and under threat of having my scooter withdrawn, I restricted myself to offering lifts only to the elderly.
All went well until one day when I reached home to find my parents awaiting my arrival with somber countenance to discuss something “important”. A friend of my father had reported my misconduct. My scooter was withdrawn as promised. But I still believed I was in the right.
A couple of months later, returning to Chandigarh after visiting a friend in Delhi, I had the entire Sunday stretching ahead of me. It was the end of February and the warm sun mingled with the cool wind. I reached the bypass point of Delhi to learn that there was a bus strike and only private operators would be plying, so I could look forward to a couple of hours of waiting. With just a shoulder bag slung across, I decided to try my luck at hitching lifts across the stretch of 250 kilometres.
I started from Delhi at 1030 hours and the first lift from a small tempo took me till Panipat. I had covered the first 90 kilometres with a mere couple of jerks in the rear of this mini truck. When I got off at Panipat the guy asked me “Aapne jana kahan hai?” (Where do you really have to go?)
“Chandigarh,” I replied.
The man was slightly taken aback and asked why I was not taking a bus. I replied that I would not then have had the chance to meet him.
I hiked the stretch from Panipat to Karnal, 35 kilometres away, with intermittent rides on the motorbikes of farmers and milkmen. With a walkman attached to my ears and the road stretching ahead, I willingly exercised my muscles.
Just before Karnal, a gentleman on a scooter, ferried me across Karnal. This time I mentioned that I was out of money as a result of having my pocket picked in Delhi. As I got off the scooter he stuffed some money into my hands suggesting I take a bus to Chandigarh. I politely thanked him, showed him my wallet and told him that I was doing this to check out how many Indians are willing to help a stranger. He took my address and later wrote to me appreciating what I had done. This letter certainly helped the embargo on my scooter being lifted!
On the horizon I spotted a traditional bullock cart with an old man driving. I asked him in the local dialect if I could hop on and with the sheer hospitality of rural India, he readily expressed delight at giving a lift to a city dweller. Welcoming me aboard, we chatted, until fatigued, I fell asleep on the straw he was carrying.
As we approached his village, he invited me home for a delicious glass of lassi, or sweetened buttermilk. I woke to the smell of jaggery, deep in a village, where he introduced me to his three sons, their wives and children. I was treated to paranthas and dahi and of course, lassi. The family was happy to welcome a stranger in their midst, and I was touched by the simplicity of the lives they were leading.
Their home was two kilometres from the highway and the eldest son insisted on dropping me back to the highway. In the gathering dusk, I was back on National Highway No.1, the famed Grand Trunk Road, to continue my journey. Striding two kilometers, a truck whizzed past me, and I raised a reluctant thumb sign which had worked well enough for me. The Sardarji asked me to hop right in.
Involved in yet another conversation I discussed the lifestyle of truckers and my benefactors� experiences driving the length and breadth of the country, while he readily empathised with my “Faith Safari” as I had christened it en route. He dropped me off at Ambala, where he was going to get his vehicle serviced, and I soon found myself at the bus terminus, right on the highway itself. I was tempted to board a bus but I was now reluctant to do this journey any other way but on the wings of faith.
Just ahead of the bus stand, an Ambassador stopped and a Colonel driving to Shimla offered to drop me off at the outskirts of Chandigarh. En route we stopped at the Verka Milk bar where I was treated to sweetened flavored milk and a kaju pinni. Chandigarh was home turf. I managed with 4 quick changes within the city itself to get dropped off right outside my house, the last lift being from the same friend whose father had informed my parents about my incorrigible habit of offering lifts to strangers.
My parents were truly shocked when I told them my experiences of the day. Yet I had reaffirmed to myself that it is in the nature of Indians to welcome strangers with faith. And somewhere along the way, my impounded scooter was returned to me with strict admonitions.