Monday, June 24, 2013

The Search for The Real India

Akram Feroze has been travelling by cycle through the states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala for the past one-and-a-half years

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Manu R. Mavelil

On March 22, 2012, Akram Feroze, 24, was cycling in a hilly area, near Diglipur, in the Andaman Islands. He rode fast, so that he could get the momentum downhill to go uphill in the next section. However, suddenly, he came across a sharp bend. “I saw it very late,” he says. Akram went straight ahead, and hit a bank of dry leaves. Unfortunately, behind it was a slope, and he went down 20 feet. “I was lucky not to be seriously injured, but the cycle was permanently damaged,” he says.

A quick-thinking Akram called up journalist Zubair Ahmed, the editor of the 'Light of Andaman' newspaper in Port Blair, 290 kms away, for help. Zubair put up a post on Facebook. D J Venkatesh, who runs a travel agency, in the area, saw the message and immediately sent a vehicle to rescue Akram.

He was taken to the nearby Community Health Centre, but was released, after receiving first aid. Realising that his cycle was beyond repair Akram posted a message on his Facebook site, 'The Cycle Natak', that his cycle was damaged. “There are many people who are following my page,” says Akram. Soon contributions came in. Some donated Rs 100, while others went as high as Rs 5,000. In the end he got Rs 25,000 and bought a brand-new GT Transeo cycle.

One-and-a-half years ago, Akram set out on an all-India tour. “I wanted to see first-hand what is there beyond the borders of my town,” says the youth, who grew up in the small town of Jagtial in Karim Nagar district in Andhra Pradesh. Not surprisingly, it took Akram two months to persuade his father, MA Shukoor, a building contractor, and his mother, Shiraz Sultana, a principal in a government school, to give permission.

And thus Akram set out, with only Rs 300 in his pocket. He has no fixed plans. When he reaches a village, he will go to the tea shop. There he will befriend the locals. “They will check out the cycle and ask me a lot of questions,” says Akram. “They want to ensure that I am not a dangerous person.”

Once he is accepted, the villagers invite him to stay. Most of the time, he goes to the houses of the poor. He remembers living with Manickam, 60, a manual scavenger, near Trichy. There was just one plastic chair in the room. “It took me an hour to convince him that he was elder to me and needed to sit on the chair, while I should sit on the floor,” says Akram.

Sadly, Akram confirms that the caste system is still going strong. “I have not seen the upper castes treating the Dalits with dignity anywhere in Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh,” he says. “But in Kerala, the situation is much better.”

Interestingly, when people realise that Akram is on an all-India journey they will give him Rs 30 or Rs 50 and say that in case he is going to the Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Dargah at Ajmer or the Tirupati temple, he should give a donation and pray for them.

People are quite religious,” says Akram. “In every house that I visited, there were religious symbols – pictures or idols of gods and goddesses – no matter how shattered the structure was. People live on hope, even though their lives are very difficult. Praying to God provides mental relief.”

In some villages, Akram would stay for a couple of days and then set out for the next village. He travels light: three T-shirts and a couple of tracksuits. “I have to tell you frankly that I stink most of the time,” he says. “I wash my clothes in streams and ponds, so you can imagine how clean it can be.”

Sometimes, he gets gifts out of the blue. The GoGreen GoCycling organisation saw Akram's Facebook page and couriered a T-shirt for him at Madurai with a message, 'This is a token of appreciation from us'.

As Akram travels around, he is getting a deeper understanding of India . “Poverty still exists,” he says. “The upper classes are improving rapidly, but the process is much slower for the lower castes. There are too many dropouts at the primary school level. It is going to be a huge problem for the country.”

As of now, Akram has no problems and plans to carry on, with no time limit, till his wanderlust is satiated. “I have no idea when I am going to stop,” he says, while on a brief stop-over in Kochi , on his way to the Lakshadweep islands. “I am enjoying myself enormously.” 

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

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