Walking across the Atlantic

Chintan Girish Modi shares snippets of a Mumbai life

Walking across the Atlantic
There are times when you are quite taken up by a place you haven’t even visited. You have not the faintest idea of how the place runs, and the hands that hold it together. But, in the soft glow of your imagination, there is something utterly inviting about it.

This is how I feel about Schumacher College in the UK, which offers courses that seem to be a fine blend of arts, ecology, holistic health, and social justice. I am not sure if I will ever have the opportunity to go there, so when Satish Kumar, the founder of the college, was in Mumbai to deliver a talk last week, I promptly signed up to go.

I must confess that I was a bit wary of how it might turn out because of the way the invitation was worded. I didn’t want to be at yet another forum where people who self-identity as ‘spiritual’ scoff at the rest of humanity, described as ‘selfish’, ‘materialistic’, and ‘not evolved’. I have done my share of that, and I am super embarrassed about it. When I catch myself doing it again, I imagine Kabir, Bulleh Shah and the Buddha having a hearty laugh at my expense, and saying, “You idiot! Look at yourself first.”
Satish Kumar became a Jain monk at the age of nine

In case you haven’t heard of Kumar before, don’t flog yourself over it. He became a Jain monk at the age of 9, and he left the mendicant order at the age of 18. Gandhi has been a big influence in his life but he refuses to be what he calls “a hero worshipper.” His hero, instead, is his mother.

During the audience interaction after Kumar’s talk at The Integral Space in Lower Parel, I realised that many had come there, intrigued by the peace pilgrimage that took Satish and his friend E P Menon in 1962, as the invitation mentioned, “from India to the United States, starting at the grave of Mahatma Gandhi and ending at the grave of John F. Kennedy.”

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell

A young man in the audience asked, “Sir, how did you walk across the Atlantic? I am very curious.”

Kumar, who is now 80 years old, replied, “Betrand Russell bought us two tickets on a big boat called Queen Mary. It was a long journey, and there was a lot of space on that boat, so we could walk back and forth all day. That’s how it happened.”

“What made them set out on this pilgrimage?” asked another person from the audience. I am sure he must have answered this a million times already but he didn’t brush off the question.

“I had heard about Betrand Russell, at the age of 90, protesting against the use of nuclear weapons,” said Kumar. “He was asked to pay a fine for this protest. He refused, as a result of which he had to spend a whole week in prison. I told my friend Menon that, if this man could do what he did for peace at 90, what were we young men in Bangalore sitting and doing — just drinking coffee?”

They went to four major capital cities - Paris, London, Moscow, and Washington DC. However, the first country they visited was Pakistan. Now the challenge they had set themselves was that they would carry no money, and live on the generosity of people they would meet on the way.

“When we were at the Wagah border, my friend Kranti came with packets of nice smelling paranthas and puris and aloo ki sabzi,” said Kumar. “She insisted that we carry the food with us but we said no. What would our Pakistani friends think if we carried our own food with us? Didn’t we trust them to feed us, look after us?”

Kranti, apparently, started crying. She feared that the two men, who had pledged to be vegetarian, would remain hungry. She told Kumar that she might never see him again. He consoled her, and walked on.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

“When we crossed the border, and entered Pakistan, an amazing miracle happened,” said Kumar. “Well, they happen when there is no money. Too much planning blocks miracles.”

A gentleman they didn’t know at all was waiting with his car to pick them up, and take them to Lahore. He had read about their pilgrimage in a local newspaper. Kumar and Menon told him that they would love to come over. However, they would walk the distance. He just needed to give them his address.

The man was afraid that they might not come, so he said, “Please come with me in the car. I won’t tell anyone.” They were tickled by the suggestion, and eventually gave him their rucksacks. He could take those to his house as assurance that they would land up.

Although the man drove off, he alerted a shopkeeper friend of his on the way about two Indian pilgrims who would come by. This friend made arrangements for lunch. By the time, Kumar and Menon reached, they had a hearty surprise of a meal waiting for them.

What resonated most for me in Kumar’s talk was the affection with which he spoke of trees, and the soil. “The earth is my teacher,” he said. “Universities make us stupid. The most highly educated people of the world create wars; not an illiterate person like my mother, or the poor farmers who grow food.”

What came next was perfect as the talk coincided with the birthday of Dr. Ambedkar, who was perhaps the greatest critic of the injustices rooted in the caste system. “Why do we look down upon our manual workers?” said Kumar. “Just because we sit in front of a computer, and fiddle with a keyboard, we think we are more important, and should be paid more.”

There is a lot to recount from that evening but this is perhaps just enough to contemplate on. Okay, one last thing, only because it feels a little odd holding back good stuff, and not sharing it widely.

“We think we own nature, we own people, we own our ideas,” said Kumar. “We must feel humbled to have the opportunity to take care of a plant or an animal. No wonder people in Bombay don’t get enlightened. They don’t sit under trees. They sit under these bright lights.”

And he pointed to all the light sources in the hall we had gathered in. A great way to get us to stay on the ground. Ideas can turn you on. But embodying them can take a hell of a lot of work.

Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer. That he shares his last name with a Prime Minister is purely a matter of coincidence. He tweets at @chintan_connect