For years, no, decades, our day begins with conversation over a cup of tea. It is still dark outside as we talk and the window panes give us back only our own reflections. It is not cold, only just verging on chilly – for this is Bengaluru – and the cup lends a welcome warmth to our hands.

What do we talk about? Not ourselves, for that is hazardous, it could open the door to unwelcome thoughts of ageing and loss. Not about any plans for the day, because at our time of life there are few or no plans. We talk instead of neighbours and friends, of the state of the country and the world. These are safer topics. In recent times we have learnt, wisely, to eschew Indian politics.

Instead, I share something I have read, maybe a beautifully phrased letter from a friend or something from a book I’ve enjoyed. Right now, I search for and read reports on the Bharat Jodo Yatra. This interest began when I read a firsthand account of a person who had joined the yatra and came across the sentence: At some time, the walk became a yatra.

I was hooked. This kind of alchemy is what excites me as a writer. Since then, I have begun to assiduously search for more information about the yatra, especially first-hand reports. For it seems to me that you cannot really understand the yatra unless you become part of it, unless you ask questions about it.

What am I looking for? I admit I am a sceptic. Like most Indians, like most people, I am no admirer of politicians. And despite my excitement about that one sentence, I am not sure this is not a gimmick. Larger than most, louder than most. Nevertheless, just one more political gimmick. Politicians cannot get away from votes, elections and power, even if they want to, trapped as they are in the web of power and intrigue.

How a walk became a yatra

However, I try to keep my scepticism at bay as I read of the kind of people who have come to join the yatra, people from all over India. A motley crowd, each person with a different motive for being with the yatra. I read of their daily routine: wake up, walk, breakfast, walk again, lunch, sleep, walk again until they reach their destination for the day. The narration of this humdrum routine makes everything more real. This, at least, is no sham, no gimmick; these activities are visible to the public.

There are even more mundane facts, like the footwear the yatris wear. Mundane, but crucial, because the shoes are meant to last the walking of miles, the trudging of months. Not everyone will walk all the way to Kashmir. Only some will. They have wisely brought two or three pairs of shoes, knowing that they will wear out each pair faster than one can say Bharat Jodo Yatra.

One man, I read, walks barefoot. His feet suffered for a few days, but now the soles are so tough he can walk without pain. I am amazed. What could make a man so believe in this yatra when time after time our politicians have let us down? It is not just him. There are many weary walkers with aching legs to whom painkillers are dispensed at the end of each day.

I think of King Henry II of England who allowed the monks to lash him outside the church where Thomas Becket, who once served as the Archbishop of Canterbury, was killed in December 1170 – at the King’s behest, it was/is said. Was it then an act of contrition? No, it was more; it was an act of public penance to show his subjects his great remorse. Even powerful monarchs, it seems, needed to appease their people.

So is this what the Bharat Jodo Yatra is for? Whatever it was originally conceived to be, I am sure that the original idea has been replaced for most yatris, bit by bit, by their experiences during the walk. So I imagine.

I read about the yatris discussing why they are there and what they hope to get from the yatra. Some way into the yatra the tune changes and there is talk, not of what the yatra will give them, but of a sense of discovery. Discovery of the towns and villages they walk through. Discoveries about those who wait for them by the roadside and the curious who ask questions about where they are from and why they are with the yatra. The word communion is used. The yatris and the visitors commune with each other and, despite ignorance of each others’ languages, they manage to understand one another.

Some yatris speak of making discoveries about their own selves. For, obviously, as they walk, doing nothing but mechanically putting one foot in front of the other, the mind is free. Away from their usual life, from the rush of their days, they can now think. Besides, to see the country from close cannot but change a person’s view, their perspective. My cynicism, stubborn though it is, begins to waver.

The media is not giving the yatra too much attention: the print media has no space and television news channels are always running out of time. Above all, this is an ongoing event, running according to schedule; there are no surprises or sensational moments, nothing newsworthy.

However, there are a few pictures of celebrities who walk with the yatris for a short while. Pictures of children with “leaders.” Children smiling and beaming. Do they know what it is about? Will they, years later, look back at this as a historical moment and think with pride, “I was there”? Or, something that I hope will not happen, will the yatra fizzle out and leave nothing behind?

The idea of India

But scepticism is now losing the battle and I think that an experience like this cannot but leave its mark, it can never be entirely forgotten, even if it has little political impact. The yatra is above politics, it is about the idea of India, says a young former minister of Maharashtra. Does he believe in his own words? Or are they said for effect? Whatever it is, he has hit the nail on the head.

I often think we give too much importance to politics, making it the most important of all the forces that work on our lives. It is frightening to think that politicians can so greatly influence our and our children’s lives.

Changes, both welcome and unwelcome, are rocking the country. Now, there is a policy being mooted of making the Bhagavad Gita a moral text for children. An ill-advised move, for the Gita is not a book of moral lessons. It is a complex, complicated book, with an esoteric erudite philosophy not easy to understand. And replete with statements that go against our present beliefs and laws of equality; women and lower castes are openly regarded as inferiors.

Yet, despite such flaws, the Gita has opened my eyes to a particular truth. This, though I have not given the Gita the close reading of a scholar or a devotee. For me, the treasure comes at the end when Krishna tells Arjuna: I have given you the knowledge. Now do as you desire – yathecchasi tatha kuru.

I can think of no greater teaching than this, which considers humans capable of taking decisions about their life. But certainly a dangerous scenario for leaders who have got used to treating people like sheep. For whom an individual is only a vote bank, a number on an Aadhaar card, a PAN card, or a name on a voters’ identity card.

How will they deal with people who know they have the freedom of choice? With people who think for themselves? There is also an irony in leaders advocating the teaching of the Gita to children, for, throughout the book speaks against anger and desire. Is this not something that our leaders, not our children, must learn?

Every day, morning to night, our homes explode with anger as we watch television “debates”, during which inflamed spokespersons of different political parties “flay” and “slam” one another. Author Virginia Woolf asks of male professors who write about women: Why are they angry?

I ask myself the same question: Why are these men and women, who spew hatred on television, angry? They look well-fed, they are well-clothed, they have power, much more than we ordinary citizens have. Why, then, are they angry? And what about us? Do we not realise how much this hatred has vitiated the atmosphere in the country?

But I diverge from what I am really writing about, which is the yatra. As a matter of fact, pilgrimages, yatras, are an integral part of Indian life. Going on a pilgrimage was the only reason for which people travelled. They put up with the hardships of the pilgrimage without complaint, because even the hardships were an offering to god; they guaranteed more “punya”, or virtue.

Travelling was dangerous then, survival not always certain. Which is why those who returned from a yatra were celebrated as others gathered around to listen to their stories and perhaps felt closer to god themselves.

But this yatra has neither a god nor a shrine at the end of it. There is nothing to fill the yatris with devout pride, unless it is the incomparable experience of having seen the country and its people at close quarters and not through the windows of a car or a train. Of having heard, if their ears and minds are open, the heart beats of a country. Will the leaders hear these beats? Or will they continue to be deaf to people’s voices?

Bringing people together

I think of the Dandi March and of people resolutely marching behind their leader. Of people faithfully following the instructions of their leader not to resist attacks, not to retaliate. And so they bore the savage blows without crying out aloud, they did not try to save themselves, did not raise a hand. It seems an incredible story today. But they had a leader the like of whom is born but once in an age. Stories like these – and there are many – seem distant, incredible, yet they belong to our own past, those people are still a part of us.

Why am I reviving old stories? Will they help capture something we have lost? But what connection do we, materialistic and constantly craving for something more than what is ours, have with those sacrificing men and women? It is easier to believe that this yatra is no more than a desperate measure to regenerate a party. And yet, what is wrong with that? Democracy needs a strong opposition if it is to work as it should. Or, we can be more generous and look at it as a search for the country of inclusiveness that we left behind in favour of a country of exclusions.

In fact, I wonder if the very title Bharat Jodo Yatra is wrong. India is one, it cannot be split. It is the people who have been polarised. The title could be Discovering India, because this is what I find in the reports I read of the yatra. Of people making unexpected discoveries. But no, the title may seem provocative. And I have no desire to be provocative. A basic need if we want to bring people together.

I believe that it does not befit a writer to be cynical. Cynicism is for policemen, politicians and journalists; in fact, for all those who see the worst in human nature. A writer has to find hope, even during the worst of times, even in the worst situations; if not, what is literature for?

Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, in his greatest and most terrible novel Crime and Punishment, a book full of suffering and anguish, allows his hero Raskolnikov, a murderer, a chance at redemption, giving his readers a touch of hope. “Go to the crossroads, bow down to the people, kiss the earth for you have sinned against it too,” Sonia tells Raskolnikov. He does it and despite being laughed at and jeered at as a madman, suddenly he sees the truth and there is hope for him.

Perhaps, I now think, in all my search for stories of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, what I am really doing is trying to find a glimmer of that hope. And therefore I will believe that even if the yatra ends in nothing, the entire exercise of walking through the country, of talking to and not at people, is an end in itself. And that, to each yatri, the yatra is what they make of it.

Credit: Congress @INCIndia/Twitter.
Supporters cheer as the yatra passes. Credit: Bharat Jodo @bharatjodo/Twitter.
MK Gandhi leading the Dandi March in 1930. Credit: Yann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: Bharat Jodo @bharatjodo/Twitter.