The Drifter

10 years ago, I left home to travel alone for months, living off a backpack, sleeping in trains, searching through my country, and finding parts of myself. It was the best experience of my life.

When I started, I was too naïve to think about why I was doing this. Or what led me—as a 25-year-old—to quit a promising job in the media before it became a career, to risk everything on a mere whim of impatience. I was privileged enough to know, that, even in the worst-case scenario, I would have a support from my family. I was dangling over a tightrope but had a cushy mattress to break my fall.

So, one fine day, I packed up and left home.

All I had on me was a roomy hiking-bag in which I could stuff in a change of clothes, a couple of books, a diary, a few toiletries, a sleeping bag, and a thermos. And my towel, of course. I had read my fair share of Douglas Adams. Never forget your towel.

What followed next were 86 days on the road, during which I travelled in planes, trains, buses, and automobiles, spending the majority of my nights sleeping in overnight trains to save on boarding, finding cheap guest-houses and ashrams around the country to lay my head, and relying on the kindness of old friends to lodge me from time to time. In three months of travel, I ended up setting foot in 11 different Indian states, dozens of cities around the country, eating the country’s variety of foods, hearing a symphony of different languages, and most importantly, valuing my freedom.

It’s been ten years since this trip and it remains the best thing I’d ever done in my life.

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 It all began when I was back in Varanasi, my hometown, working with the city’s newly-launched local edition of The Times of India. Despite having spent much of my young life studying or living away, Varanasi was always the constant that I came back to. I had taken the city’s school buses, bicycled through its traffic, played cricket on its streets, and chewed on its paan. I was marginally aware that this city was of great historical and political significance, as a spiritual centre and one of the oldest-living cities in the world. But when I was young, I didn’t pay these matters much attention. It was just home.

After living away, however, I became more curious about my hometown to see it filtered through the eyes of an outsider. Since we only had four local correspondents, I took multiple roles at TOI, covering almost every “beat”, from education to tourism to culture and sport. As time passed, I improved my expertise of the old city’s culture and history.

But there was a dark side to the job, too. Every story—no matter how emotionally resonant, with whatever human suffering or joy at its core—was reduced to a ‘word count’, and the word counts were determined by the space provided by advertisers. Most of my subjects were those poorer and less fortunate than me. Sometimes, their stories were challenging, or stimulating, or bright, or dark. I had seen how my colleagues immersed themselves deep in their work and always had something to keep that urgent buzz going, something new to move on to, some other sensational piece of information to uncover. They spoke of people and problems in terms of trends and statistics. They advised me never to take the darkness home.

Soon, even the most harrowing tragedies became just another write-up. I was affected, of course, but there was always another deadline, another lead to chase. The work was non-stop, keeping me wired and permanently tethered to the city. I was becoming impassive about the details. I was becoming restless. I needed an escape.

So, I quit, exactly one year after my first day with TOI. The work had sparked a curiosity in me for the creases of my country that I had previously glossed over. But now, I wanted to leave the city’s bubble and home to go see for myself. Outside of my home state Uttar Pradesh, I had spent the majority of my time in Mussoorie, which later became the part of a new state Uttarakhand. I had travelled to Delhi, parts of Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Calcutta and to Mumbai and Goa. But I felt guilty that there was so much more of the nation, so much variety outside my comfort zone, that I hadn’t yet tasted.

I had always had a restless personality. As a child, I had run away from the grasp of my parents at airports and train stations. I had jumped over the gates and away from my boarding school. When I trekked around Mussoorie, I had a habit of going away alone on my own paths, which my parents jokingly called my “adventures”. If I saw a peak, I wanted to climb it. If I saw a body of water at a distance, I needed to go touch it. I loved being unsettled. I understood, much later of course, that I had the additional privilege of being a man in the country, meaning that there were fewer concerns on my path of solitary travel in India. And, fearlessly, I would hop on and away, always looking for that next “adventure”.

Living back home in Varanasi, while working with TOI, had reminded me that I missed that adventurous spirit. When I quit my job, I decided on my most ambitious adventure yet. I packed my backpack and kept my old Nokia “dumbphone” switched off most of the time. I promised myself I would only plan one iteration forward and nothing much else. I started on November 1 and made only rough sketches for my imminent future: be in Delhi for a Half-Marathon within the next week, and be in Goa for New Year’s Eve with my friends by December 31.

There was no schedule for what I would do in between those dates. Nothing for what I would do after. No plan to return home. Nothing set for the future. It was the best.

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In Allahabad, I visited the Sangam, the confluence of three rivers (two real and one mythical). In Mussoorie, I soaked in nostalgia of places I had grown up in and ate 33 mutton-fried momos in one sitting. In Delhi, I ran a Half-Marathon (my first-ever), and didn’t die. In Pushkar, I drifted into the famous Pink Floyd Hotel and slept a night in the lobby. I saw the holy town for its own union of personalities: the ghats, the desert, and the hills.

From Pushkar, I went out to Jodhpur for a day, where I visited famous fort. My plan from here was to take an overnight train further west to Jaisalmer. Instead, at midnight at the Jodhpur train station, I got on the train at the wrong platform, going the opposite way. I sat in the overcrowded and smoky General Class all night, unable to fall asleep under the bright glare of a tube-light that never shut off, ignoring the fetid smell of excrement from the overflowing toilet behind me. By the time I realised I was going the wrong way, I was already far away from anywhere familiar. I decided to stay seated until the train brought me back to Delhi by the next morning. But the mistake turned out to be a boon and set me on the path to an opportunity of a lifetime.  

Ever since I was young, I had hoped to travel to Dharamshala and McLeodganj, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile and the monastery where the Dalai Lama himself had resided since eloping to India. Around the time I was in Pushkar, I had read news reports of an international congress of the Tibetan government in McLeodganj coming up the next week. It was a time in my life that I relied purely on instinct, and I decided to myself that this change in direction at Jodhpur was an opportunity to follow another unplanned tangent.

So, on the same day my train rolled back up in Delhi, I hopped on an overnight bus to McLeodganj. I found a cheap room for a few nights. I wasn’t a full-time journalist any more, but I still had my TOI press card, and it came in handy when the officials in Dharamshala handed me a pass to attend the conference.

Two days after getting on the wrong train, I was in the Dalai Lama’s monastery, hearing him speak about his future. As he left the room, nodding and thanking the attendees, he reached over and shook my hand. It was a special feeling, to stumble into a beautiful moment like that out of sheer luck and instinct. I spent several days in the region, hiking, eating momos, and playing basketball with monks and young locals.

From Dharamshala, I came back down to Delhi, and from Delhi, I took a cross-country overnight train to Bhubaneshwar—my first time in Orissa—to visit a friend in college. With Bhubaneshwar as my base, I went next to Puri, where I stayed at an ashram and doused myself in water overnight to survive the onslaught of mosquitoes in the room. I visited the Jagannath Temple, the beach, and the Konark Temple from there. When I returned to Bhubaneshwar, I joined a few friends for a trip to beautiful Visakhapatnam and Araku in Andhra Pradesh.

Then, I decided to be alone again: my next train was to Chhattisgarh. I spent a day at Raipur, and was soon on a bus to the Bastar district in Jagdalpur. I travelled from here to see the Chitrakote Waterfalls and the jungles and tribal areas close to the Naxal activity.

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It was during this period that I really began to cherish the boons of travelling alone. I was able to get up and leave whenever I wanted, to whichever destination. Apart from occasionally seeing friends for some much-needed company, to do my laundry, to stock up on resources, I was happy being on my own. I was happy to follow my moods and half-cooked plans. I made my choice of destination based on limited research in each area I visited. I travelled usually in the cheapest way I could, saving to book the journeys up to the last minute, but being flexible to change my mind and take a whole new road. I only turned on my phone occasionally, so I wouldn’t have to answer to anyone about where I was or where I could be next. Back in Varanasi, my family were worried, of course, but they trusted me and remained patient.

I spent most days as a tourist, and depending on where I was, I visited historical sites, or museums, or popular places to eat, or bookshops, or beaches, or waterfalls, or went on little treks, or watched movies alone in the cinema. The variety of experiences ensured me that no day felt stale or repetitive: everything was fresh, and thus, every day was an adrenaline rush.

At night, I usually wrote in my diary, or read, or watched TV is there was one. Of course, when I was alone, some of these nights were lonely and long. I wondered why I was out here at all, in strange parts of the country without a purpose or friends or family. But instead of feeling down, these meditations helped me feel even surer about myself. I missed the value of others in my life, but I also appreciated the necessity of what Sartre called the ‘being-in-itself’ and ‘being-for-oneself’. I did things without the need of outside gratification.

I returned to Raipur, and from there decided to go south and west towards another city that I had heard much about but never visited: Pune. It was another long train through Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and then, finally, to the far end of Maharashtra. I had a close friend who lived in Pune, and I stayed with him for a few days. It was a jarring return to a more “modern” city, with English-speakers and cafés and a KFC.

I loved the city, its weather, and its liberal, vibrant feel. and I connected with an old relative for the first time who happened to be a kindred spirit. He understood my drift and didn’t question it. He offered me to live with him in Pune if I wished to return, and, for the first time since I left home, I dared to plan for the future. Maybe a few months in Pune wouldn’t be a bad idea after all.

For now, however, I wanted to stay on the road, stay unsettled. From Pune I went to Mumbai for a few days, and then, met old friends to travel together to Goa. All of my friends were more ‘settled’ in their lives than I was. Their trip was a vacation; mine was just another stop in a journey with no finish line. We welcomed the New Year by the beach. 2009 was already looking brighter than ever before.

From Goa, I was back in Mumbai, and from Mumbai, I went south even further, this time to Karnataka and Bangalore. I had an old friend here at the Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ashram, and although I had no interest in that scene, it was a good excuse to see another way of living in another part of the country. That was my mentality back then, to be open to every new adventure and offer. There was a lot of yoga, haldi, and satsangs, and I even got to meet the Sri Sri himself. I tolerated it.

After four days in the Ashram and unpleasant sattvic food, I was happy to find more KFC back in urban Bangalore. It was funny: I found fulfilment not in the cultish spirituality of the Ashram, but in my ability to swing from one branch to another, in my complete freedom to be whatever I wanted to be from day to day, city to city, train journey to train journey.

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If there was any constant to my journey, it was the Indian Railways. I always adored train travel: the ability to be on the move while being so close to the country at all times, the chance to see different parts of India outside the window without really having to stop everywhere, the conversations with strangers of almost every strata of life moving for work, for leisure, for family.

And in my case, moving for the sake of movement itself.

Depending on the part of the country you’re in, and when you travel, it can be notoriously difficult to find seats on any given train at the last minute. I relied heavily on the IRCTC website and cyber cafes. Choosing the ‘tatkal’ option was always a risk. If I couldn’t get a guaranteed reservation, I would often board the train anyways, and share seats with kind strangers, or move from berth to berth in the middle of the night just to find a place to lay my head. Some of the train journeys were inexorably lengthy: India is massive, and delays are common. 15 hours. 22 hours. 30 hours. 36 hours. 44 hours. On average, I slept one of every three nights on a train. It was the cheapest option. My diet was samosas and chai, and it was wonderful.

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After Bangalore, I was finally feeling fulfilled, feeling like I had done justice to my wandering heart. The trip resuscitated some of the optimism and energy I had lost after my year with the newspaper. I had a clearer idea of how to plan for the future: I would surprise my parents and return home to Varanasi for a few weeks. Then, I would return to Pune to work and live there for a few months. And later in the year, my initial nostalgia would take me back to Mussoorie to find a more permanent job.

A return home, to the arms of a stable family, was a return to a comfortable household, where I had access to clean water and delicious aloo-parathas and broadband internet and warm blankets and air-conditioners when required. Since my teenage years, my parents had been able to provide for me the financial advantage to be able to make choices for myself: the choice to stay and build something; the choice to leave in search of the unknowable. I was well-aware that the majority of people in the country didn’t have this luxury. They had to play the hand they were dealt.

I had been a vagrant by choice, not necessity. I knew that, instead of being driven out by tragedy or desperation, I was a wanderer on my own terms. I knew that ‘finding oneself’ is a privilege.

I have ‘settled down’ since, getting more comfortable with planting my roots with work, friends, and family. I even took the ultimate step towards voluntary servitude: marriage. But my travels alone have continued. I’ve tried to take a solitary trip every year, going to Bodh Gaya, to Kasol, back to Mcleodganj, back to Pune. I’ve visited Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Madhya Pradesh. I even returned to my hometown to see Varanasi through the eyes of a tourist, living by the ghats and gullies I love so much in anonymity. I enjoyed work trips that sent me out to new cities, so I could take the downtime to explore the places for myself. Of course, Mussoorie has always been a second home, where I’m equally comfortable drifting alone or spending time with close family and friends.

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The travels reemphasised to be my idea of India’s strength in its diversity and plurality. It has now been ten years since my trip, and our country’s national politics has since taken a sharp dive towards toxic nationalism. The country has always been fractured of course, precariously balancing multiple cultures under the same flag ever since its inception. But in recent years, there have been attempts by the political majority to hegemonise India’s diversity, to conform everyone into the same ideas of religion, language, and culture.

We have to resist this hegemony, and instead, celebrate our differences. India is not one country, but a dozen, fitted to sing the same national anthem, salute the same tiranga, and accept the same constitution. The fit is often awkward, sure, but the very fact that we attempt to keep the structure going despite our differences is what makes me most proud about being an Indian. We are very different organs connected by the same nervous system, like the Indian Railways running on uneasy tracks across the breadth of the country. That is my idea of patriotism.

There is still so much I haven’t seen, notably three of our four corners: Jammu and Kashmir up north, Gujarat in the far west, and all of the states in the Northeast. I haven’t been to Hyderabad or anywhere in Telangana, especially since it became its own state in 2014. I haven’t stopped by in Jharkhand. I still hope to see the off-shore islands of Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep. There are union territories left to explore, beautiful structures to visit, more mountains to climb.

Recently, a friend shared a video online of the actor Pankaj Tripathi, who advised young Indians, after they finish Class 12th, to travel the entire country on the cheapest available trains and live in dharmshalas and gurudwaras. “The journey will make you into something special,” he said in Hindi. The video reminded me of my own trip, and was the instigating spark that made me write this essay.

Tripathi is correct: it is, indeed, very affordable to see India on some public transportation and cheap accommodations. Unfortunately, not every young person has the freedom of time to take out of their lives to such endeavours, especially in a system where everything from education to job placement to health benefits and real estate is a constant struggle, a competition against millions of others of the most-populated country of the young in the world.

It takes a special kind of risk to defy everything—your family, your opportunities, your safety nets, and sometimes, even your own common sense—to travel in this way. But for those who can afford (in money, time, or security) to do so, the rewards are invaluable. The trip will indeed make you into something special, make you see multiple sides of this beautiful, chaotic prism of our country, and eventually, give you the empathy to become a better citizen for the future.