Monday, March 25, 2013

The Wonder that is India

Thomas Chacko, who completed a 26,500 km journey all over the country, in a Nano car, recounts his experiences in the book, 'Atop The World'

By Shevlin Sebastian

In Nagaland, author and motor car enthusiast Thomas Chacko visited the Kohima War Cemetery. It contains the graves of 1200 Indian soldiers who had fought against Japan and died during World War 11. This was during the decisive 'Battle of Kohima', which was later known as the ' Battle of the Tennis Court'.

Apparently, the concluding part had been fought on the tennis court of the District Commissioner's bungalow. “It was there that the Japanese advance through Burma was stopped,” says Chacko. “Some of the soldiers were as young as 16-year-old Ghulam Muhammed. I was drawn to the poignant words on a monument: 'When you go home, tell them of us, and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.'”

This incident was recounted in the book, 'Atop The World', written by Thomas, after the conclusion of his 26,500 km journey in a Nano car to all the state capitals, as well as the Union Territories, and the far corners of India. The journey, which began on May 3, concluded on July 20, 2012.

In January, last year, Chacko, a former Company Secretary and interim chief executive of Harrisons Malayalam Pvt. Ltd., had written a letter to Ratan Tata, the then Chairman of Tata Sons, outlining his plans. Within a month, he got the go-ahead to do an all-expenses paid trip by Tatas.

Asked why he chose the Nano, Chacko says, “Why not? In spite of it being the lightest car, and having the smallest engine in current production in the world, the Nano can take on every kind of road that India has to offer, especially with its clearance of 180 mm.”

On the journey, the 63-year-old adventurer was accompanied, at different times, by his wife, Geetha, daughter Miriam, son Rahul, brother Abraham [executive director of Federal Bank], sister Rebecca, and brother-in-law Bejoy.

And in his fluent style, Chacko recounts the various stages of the journey: the couple of minor accidents, types of meals he had, press meets, the different types of roads he traversed on, the traffic jams, the rude as well as the co-operative drivers, hot, cool, and cold weather, lunches and dinners with friends, and strangers, and the eminent.

General JJ Singh, the former Chief of the Army Staff of India, and the governor of Arunachal Pradesh provided a sumptuous feast. Chacko wrote about tennis matches and Formula One races he saw on TV, late at night, revisited the St. Paul 's Cathedral, in Kolkata, where he got married, as well as his traversing the highest motorable pass in the world: the Khardung La, at 18,380 feet. Asked about his biggest achievement, Chacko says, “Taking a tiny car to Khardung-la.”

The one place which impressed him the most was the Kailsasa temple at Ellora. “Nothing I had read had prepared me for just how marvellous a creation the Kailasa Temple is,” says Chacko. 

Within the structure are halls, balconies, a free standing pavilion, a pair of elephants and ornate columns. “All this had been created from one single rock,” he says. “One can imagine the effort it took to chip and cut with hammer and chisel and to clear away a quarter of a billion tonnes of rock.”

Another place which surprised Chacko was Mahatma Gandhi's house at Porbandar, Gujarat. “It is a 22-room mansion with a large marble floored inner courtyard,” says Chacko. “I then realised that Gandhiji's father had been the equivalent of a prime minister to the ruler of Porbander and therefore a well-to-do man.” Thankfully, the place was well-maintained, and open to the public free of charge.

Every night, Chacko would key in his impressions of the day on his laptop and send it to his Bangalore-based son, Rahul, who would upload it on the blog: www. The book, which took four months to write, is an enlarged version of the blog.

What was most amusing to read were the various road signs all over India, giving all sorts of tips to travellers (see box). This has been placed at the end of every chapter. But Chacko was not entirely amused. “The signs on many Indian highways are more for promoting the achievements of the NHAI (National Highway Authority of India) or the PWD (Public Works Department) than for helping travellers,” he says.

Asked to identify the unique nature of India , he says, “Only one other country can compare with India , in terms of terrain, and that is the USA ,” says Chacko, who has been to many countries. “We have beaches, mountains, hills, forests, deserts, swamps and canyons. You don't have to go out of India to see and experience a certain kind of terrain. No country has as many languages or communities. India is unique.”

Road signs for travellers

If you want to stay married, divorce speed.

Drive slow, see scenery; drive fast, see cemetery 

Reach home in peace, not in pieces

There is one way to drink and drive – hazardously

Without helmet, it can be hell met

Alert today, alive tomorrow

This is a highway, not a runway

Driving with care makes accidents rare

Overtakers, beware of undertakers

Mountains are a pleasure only if you drive with leisure

Some of the places Chacko visited:

Mumbai/Indore/Bhopal/Khajuraho/Allahabad/Varanasi/Patna/Ranchi/Kolkata/Malda/Darjeeling/Gangtok/Kalimpong/Phuentsholing/Thimpu/Bongaigaon/Shillong/Cherapunjee/Guwahati/Tezpur/Itanagar/Sessa/Tawang/Dimapur/Kohima/Imphal/Silchar/Aizawl/Agartala/Guwahati/Siliguri/Konark/Bhubaneshwar/Rajahmundry/Hyderabad/Bangalore/Chennai/Pondicherry/Rameshwaram/Thiruvananthapurm/Kottayam/Thekkady/Munnar/Kochi/Kannur/Gokarna/Panaji/Ahmedabad/Diu/Somnath/Dwarka/Mount Abu/Udaipur/Jodhpur/Bikaner/Amritsar/Jammu/Srinagar/Zoji La/Kargil/Leh/South Pullu/Khardung La/Sarchu/Keylong/Manali/Shimla/Chandigarh/Dehra Dun/Haridwar/Lucknow/Kanpur/Agra/New Delhi/Jaipur/Chittorgarh/Indore/Nagpur/Raipur/Amravati/Ellora/Aurangabad/Pune. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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