5 November 2022

Notes of a Bharat Jodo Yatri: My yatra and I

Sandeep Rao

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with young supporters during the party’s ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’, in Ballari district. (PTI)

A thousand kilometres in, I begin to understand this journey anew. It is a cunning compact that I have been lured into. I have been handed a magic wand that allows me to ignore for five months, without guilt, the obligations that demand my time, why I am even allowed to sound pious as I do so. That long pending article, that overdue meeting, the promised visit, that mountain of administrative minutiae, “… it will have to wait… I am on the Yatra… yes, THAT one…yes, difficult, but so important… thanks but it is the least one can do…”.

In return, I am obliged only to put one foot in front of the other. An act so instinctive that it is literally mindless in its simplicity. The one condition is that steps must be repeated to the point where it will monopolise my existence. 15,000 steps, eat, sleep, 15,000 steps, eat, sleep, repeat.

I call the compact cunning because, contrary to what I have led myself to believe, the walk is not a test of my legs by a road long and hard. It is, instead, a test of my soul by Time, gentle yet relentless. My feet soon develop calluses that shield them from the rigours of the road. But there is nothing to shield me from the power of the vast store of time with which I been left alone.

I soon discover the ways of Time. It does not overpower me, it simply outlasts me. Anything that I am keeping alive with effort, no matter how tiny, shrivels under the unwavering gaze of Time.

Theories, plans and grand designs die the swiftest deaths. My theories about the optimal hydration and nutritional strategy needed to walk 25 km a day. The plan to get everyone to walk in a disciplined phalanx. The grand design of ending each day with Gandhi’s bhajans and spinning the charkha.

Performances meet a similar fate. The loyal karyakarta, cheerful in sacrifice, a heroic slogan and song on his lips. The pious satyagrahi, spewing wise saws to “educate the masses”. The grimly determined soldier, feet scarred but flag held aloft. These and many other characters that I play meet ignominious ends as time wears on.

My ego’s capacity for gratification is resilient but eventually it too tires of the gifts, thanks and the celebration of my “sacrifice”. The thrill of the attention of important people and the selfies I get with them. The swell of self-importance that comes with every appearance in the media. Time robs these intoxicants of their power to amuse. My response becomes jaded. I am going through the motions.

Social rituals hide deep in my subconscious. So deep that they go unnoticed, even as I perform them. But eventually, time wears down the layers and forces them into the glare of awareness. The peaked attention and deference to those whom I hold as more powerful than me. The gratification of companionship, camaraderie and cliques with the select few I regard as being my own. The smug satisfaction of judging and imagining my moral superiority to those whom I dislike. Time wears down the logic that allows me to place people in convenient categories. With it ends my logic and my appetite for social performances. I yearn for stillness.

Only communions seem to endure Time’s tests. The bright smile, the shiny eyes, the scream of gay abandon and the excited wave of tiny hands from the children. The old women, amazed at being acknowledged, gathering themselves, pulling their sarees around their heads with a solemn face and folded hands, responding with far more respect than I deserve. The embarrassment of the lady standing behind the line of men when she realises after 5 seconds of my fervent waving that I will not relent until she waves back and the subversive wave she throws back my way. These and communions like them alone seem impervious to the workings of Time.

Eventually, so subtly that I cannot pinpoint when, Time leaves me. I find myself alone with my walk. I am in a place where the expanses are vast and all things simply are. Despite the noisy crowds, there is silence. Despite my moving legs, there is stillness. Despite the milling people, there is solitude. It is in this solitude that a Yatra begins to emerge from my walk. There is much I am yet to learn about this Yatra but there are some things I sense.

The walk is travel. It is conducted with intent. It is driven by a rationale, undertaken with a plan. It has a form, a beginning, a direction, a route and a destination. The Yatra is flow. It emerges from submission. It unfolds as it chooses. Its existence consists of a single step and yet it exists in every step. The walk is recorded. It is measured in kilometres, days, headlines, people and Twitter trends. The Yatra is experienced. It is measured in the Truth of a Yatri and the timeless echoes she leaves in her wake. The walk accumulates; shoes, caps, bags, gamchas. Scars, slogans, friends. Memories and pictures, lots and lots of pictures. The Yatra sheds. Needs, attachments, fears and possessions. Performances, anxieties and certainties.

The walk projects a message. It is crowds, mobilisation and rallies. It is a broadcast of ideas in songs and slogans, videos and speeches. The Yatra reminds people of themselves. It is connections, sealed with a smile, a wave, a meeting of the eyes, established one person at a time but each connection undertaken on behalf of all humanity. The connections are a gentle awakening and an invitation to rediscover that which binds us. The connection may well be between two people but the love upon which they are based echoes far and wide.

The walk celebrates me. The Yatra dissolves me. The walk begins and one day it ends. The Yatra is eternal. We discover it and if we are fortunate, we become one with it. A walk rejuvenates parties, mobilises voters, energises workers and wins elections. The Yatra, as Mohandas Karamchand once said, “in its own gentle way, shakes the Universe.”

May a billion Yatras bloom.

Jai Hind. Jai Jagat.