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Vinny Went Cycling for Charity

Author: Vinesh Kumar

Vinesh Kumar writes about his experience of cycling across Southern India and some of the powerful lessons he learned about community and social innovation.

I have documented my experience of participating in a charity (Sanjeevini Trust registered with Govt of India) bike ride (for 500 miles) in Southern India during October 2011. The experience of meeting people in villages, towns and cities opened my eyes to my own purpose as a human being and the contribution I have to make to this society. It also strengthened my commitment to the principles of social justice. 

I should say that after exploring many fancy titles for this essay, I approached my first son, who is seven for a suitable title and he suggested ‘Vinny went cycling for charity’. 

I leave you with the one of the Mahavakyas (‘’The Great Sayings’’) from the Upanishads:

Aham Brahmasmi (‘’I am Brahman’’) tat tvam asi (‘’Thou art that’’)

The sages of the Upanishads teach that Brahman is the ultimate essence of material phenomena (including the original identity of the human self) that cannot be seen or heard but whose nature can be known through the development of self-knowledge (atma jnana).

About Sanjeevini Trust

The World Health Organisation (WHO) forecasts that over the next 10 years, ‘Chronic Diseases’ like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, renal failure and chronic respiratory disorders are likely to increase by 18% in India. Obviously, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, sedentary lifestyle and an unhealthy diet are all risk factors for these chronic diseases. By addressing these risk factors, a significant impact can be made on the health of the nation.

Recognizing the need to spread awareness and provide medical help in the early detection of the incidence of these chronic diseases and sustained treatment of patients affected by them, a charitable organisation, in the name of Sanjeevini Medical Trust, was set up with the avowed objective of investing in health. The Trust is registered at Chennai, India.

Day 1 - 24th of October 2011: Bangalore - Krishnagiri - Dharmapuri (140 kms)

I landed in Bangalore around 3:00am on the 24th October 2011. I was meeting my Dad after nearly a year – he had come to receive me at the airport. The last time we met was during August 2010 when I had been to Madras, my hometown to attend my brother’s wedding. Both Bangalore and Madras are now referred to as Bengaluru and Chennai, contrary to my personal preference.

My Dad looked leaner (except for that characteristic paunch!) and a bit weary since my previous visit. He gave me a big hug and as always I kissed him on his cheek. Until I was twenty-one years of age, I had never lived away from my parents. Moving to Delhi to take up my first job in the year 2000 was a big move. Within a year, I moved again from Delhi to London. My mother’s words still echoes in my mind: ‘you are going far far away from us.’ 

Time flew and a decade later with a family of my own and having having switched careers (from IT to health and social care), I had enough happening in my life. But every time I see my parents eagerly waiting to catch a glimpse of me (during my visits to Madras) as I come out of the arrival lounge, something strange happens inside me (which I cannot adequately express here as the medium I am using is limited in its scope to convey it as it is) and whenever I hug them, my mind swiftly recollects the distinct scenes of my time with them that are so precious that they have stayed within me ever since my childhood. I value those short moments of ecstatic affection.

Outside, I was greeted by the humid weather, contrary to my expectation. A white Toyota Innova car pulled up. A diminutive man jumped out of the driver’s seat and opened the boot and started to load my suitcase. Lord Farquaad of Duloc from Shrek galloped through my thought. I told Vinod, the driver in Hindi that I would load the luggage myself and added that it was a pleasure meeting him. He cast a dirty-red smile at me with much effort. I later gathered from my dad that he chewed Maava (a product that contains slaked lime, areca nut, tobacco and supari) for a kick. I lost count of the number of times I advised Vinod during our journey about the carcinogenic nature of his chew-mate and all I got back at the most as a response was wry smiles and the fact that nothing bad had happened to his health in the last eight years and Maava was the only thing that kept him awake during over-night driving around India. People and their theories.

Bangalore, the Silicon valley of India had transformed beyond recognition. On the way, I saw high-rise buildings, big hoardings populated by some familiar and unfamiliar national, multi-national brands, bustling tea-shops, call-taxis carrying call-centre employees who had finished their night shifts... huge columns being erected along the road for Namma Metro, an overground mass transit rail system. One vivid memory I have of Bangalore during my visits from the 1980s was that it was more arboreous than Madras. It still seemed so. 

By the time we reached my Uncle’s house in Banashankari, it was almost dawn. Through the car windows, I caught glimpses of the orange horizon fully pregnant with the Sun. Around 6am, over a cup of filter coffee, my Aunt and I got busy discussing religion, spirituality, and as usual, my Aunt touched upon my persistent non-belief in a personal god or organised religion. ‘So, there must be something…which made you to join this bike ride… something that guides all of us in our respective directions…’ she said. As always, I did not fail to admire her quaint disposition as she spoke and the depth of her spiritual thoughts. ‘Well, Aunty,’ I started. ‘I couldn’t let him cycle on his own, Could I? He has done all these miles from Kashmir to Bangalore,’ and added, ‘here I am, all ready to support him for the remaining leg of the journey’. After this, we had a long discussion about Professor Ramachandran’s book: ‘The phantoms of the brain’, Schopenhauer’s take on Will and Nietzsche’s ‘Will to Power’…My Uncle, who was moderating our discussion throughout, rather skilfully, reminded me about waking Dr Sesh up.

Upstairs, I found Dr Sesh asleep on the floor, nestled into a thin bed sheet. I whispered into his ears twice and when I didn’t get any response, patted on his shoulders. He looked at me and smiled, and fell asleep. I sat by him for few more minutes doing nothing. This unassuming surgeon had already completed little over 2000 miles on his bicycle having started the journey from Jammu on the 26th September 2011. Here he was in Bangalore, resting for a day, before starting the final 500 miles. And I flew down from London, to be that small company for the last 500 miles of his epic trip.

Around 10am, after a wholesome Dosa with stuffed potato as our brunch, we started loading our bicycles on top of the Toyota Innova. Dr Sesh had taken his road bike from the UK. I was relying on a Hercules Hybrid Bike that was already in my Uncle’s home. It looked fine to me at that time. I didn’t foresee the problems I was going to face with my bicycle.

We loaded the boot with all our paraphernalia. Vinod was ready in the driver’s seat. My Dad, who was going to be our guide during the journey was full of verve and neatly occupied the front passenger seat. Dr Sesh and I sat at the back. We had our sun cream, energy bars, helmets, gloves…The plan was to travel to the outskirts of Bangalore by car before putting our feet on the pedals. 

We did not quite expect what was awaiting us at Krishnagiri. We reached Krishnagiri in the afternoon and we were told that we were going to do an awareness raising session with a group of 100 school children, all girls. It was Kasturiba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya, a residential school for girls up to 14 years of age. The school is funded by Central Government under the ‘Right to Education’ act to provide useful and relevant elementary education to all children between 6-14 years of age. 

All the pupils sat next to each other on the floor in a compact classroom. The headmaster told us that most girls have been approached through the scheme to re-enter the education system. We learnt that if the scheme was not available, girls as small as 6 years would be working as child labourers. We gathered that some of the children had undergone abuse from parents and some were used as child labourers (a couple of girls I spoke to later told me that if it was not for the school they would be gathering splinters from the nearby woods). Given this part of India has one of the worst records for female foeticide, I was glad that such initiatives were happening. 

Around 70 students were in the classroom. We used the opportunity to raise awareness about Chronic Conditions. One girl very innocently highlighted the alcohol addiction of her father; and how it wreaked havoc in her family and the difficult evenings she and her mother had to endure. She said that she was lucky to be spending her time in the school and visiting her family only during the weekends. We had a dance program arranged for us. From a small stereo, we heard Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat it’ and then a beautiful dance from this girl aged just 10 years at the most. What was equally surprising was that the girl had completely improvised the dance having not seen any videos of Michael Jackson!

The girls were all ambitious and told us that they would want to be teachers, civil servants, engineers and doctors. The girls asked for our autographs as well. Not sure why, but we obliged!

We left the school and waved goodbye until the school and the pupils disappeared from sight. It was a good awareness session for us more than for the girls we thought as we cycled into the night towards Dharmapuri, a large town where we were going to halt for the night.

Day 2 - 25th October 2011: Dharmapuri - Salem (65 kms)

After a good night’s sleep, we were on our bicycles quite early. And it was raining. The moment we experienced the first spell of rain the previous day, we knew there was no escape from the vagaries of north-east monsoon. We were fully prepared, mentally and physically. That is part-truth.

We had around 4 hours in total and around 70 kms to cover. I personally felt that it was going to be a tough ask. If I had my way, I would have sought refuge in Hogenakkal (45kms from Dharmapuri) and relished the hill range and the famous waterfalls. ‘..but I am here for a purpose and have to endure everything.’ I told myself. The guy cycling adjacent to me had already cycled around 1500 miles and yet he was as steady as steel. ‘but he had a good road bike, unlike you’, interrupted my ego. 

My Hercules hybrid cycle played up again. I cannot exactly pin point what the problem was but it was becoming increasingly difficult to pedal steep gradients, in spite of using lower gears. On the other hand, Dr. Sesh's whizzed past its mediocre friend. The fact is road bikes are better than Hybrids on roads. Commonsense. Yes, accepted. But I did not feel this bad using my new btwin Hybrid from Decatholon, when I trained for a week in London before taking up this challenge! The next question, of course, Is why I wasn’t using my new bike, then? My mistake, totally. My novice bike-brain didn’t want to go through the hassle of packing, weighing and taking it through check-in. 

And I was paying for it from the start of the journey. 

Sometime after 10 miles or so, I vividly remember, while I was descending a bridge, I was focusing, focusing razor-sharp. I knew what I was doing and why. Nothing else mattered. Chronic Conditions awareness raising through flier distribution, fund raising for cataract operation in Madurai ... That is it. 

We were cycling on the motorway shoulders; trucks, cars and other four wheeled automobiles whizzed past. I enjoyed the vroom and the silence that followed when these vehicles went past us. The weather was cooler given we were cycling along the Western Ghats (and during the monsoonal season) and although it was drizzling, we enjoyed the course except when our hearts nearly stopped when we had to manoeuvre cycles and TVS-50 bikes which were heading towards us on the shoulders from the opposite direction; and on rare occasions cattle.

We managed to capture some good photos of the verdant farmlands, coconut and palm groves, two rainbows at the same time, one on top of the other.

When we reached Salem around eleven, we could not bear the heat. We reached the Salem Central Excise Commissioner’s office. The Additional Commissioner of Central Excise in Salem had managed to arrange a meeting through Rotary Club in a conference hall, nearby. Given it was the eve of Diwali, the festival of lights, we were surprised to see Rotarians organising a felicitation event for us. Dr Sesh spoke about the cycle trip from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and its purpose and took questions from the audience ranging from ill-effects of smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, right levels of exercise, why we should start health awareness with women? You educate a woman, you educate a family ....society. 

After the meeting, we met couple of Dr.Sesh’s friends from Medical College and spent some time with them. He last met them in Madras, some 20 years back.

Salem is known for its varied business activities, mainly textiles. When I was young, I relished Salem Mangoes - that was all Salem meant to me, then! 

Surrounded by hills on all sides, Salem was enticing. I wanted to visit Yercaud hills, a very popular tourist destination less than 30kms from Salem. I resisted the temptation of a detour!

It was the eve of Diwali and there were throngs of crowd in the streets of Salem; signifying the typical last minute rush to the shops. Through the Innova as I was observing people and their sense of urgency, I did mentally revisit my Diwali Celebration days when I used to gingerly walk (during the wee hours) towards my brother’s share of fireworks (kept in a large aluminium plate) and pilfer some mature fireworks from it to add to my share. Diwali did mean quite a lot to me, then. Sweets, new clothes and lighting fireworks from morning till late evening; I liked them. Things I did hate: sharing my share of fireworks with others; having a head-bath at 5 am etc. But tomorrow was going to be different. This Diwali we will be cycling towards Karur, and perhaps we may find some children lighting fireworks and join them. 

We left Salem around 4pm. As the streets of Salem were heavily pregnant with Diwali traffic, we were advised to take an alternative route by Car to reach the motorway. So with our bikes on top of the Innova, we reached the outskirts after a good half hour. Dr Sesh and I were eager to visit the acclaimed Narasu’s coffee factory in Salem but the visit did not materialise and predictably, we were slightly disappointed about it. We found a safe place to swap the comforts of the car to the comforts of the bikes. We headed towards Namakkal, the land of body-building. Cycling along this stretch was rather easy.

We entered Namakkal after some 40 kms of cycling just in time to secure a room in what was said to be one of the best hotels in the town. To us, it wasn’t. The town was still buzzing with Diwali fervour. After dinner, I told my Dad that I couldn’t find any body-building institutes in the town nor did I bump into any guys with muscles bulging out of their chests and their arms while walking along the road. He asked me if I had seen any trucks or lorries? I said, ‘yes, of course, lots.’ Well then, he said, ‘Namakkal is known for truck body-building!’ 

Day 3 - 26th October 2011: Namakkal - Karur (46 kms)

I forgot to mention earlier that Namakkal is also famous for something else other than truck body building: the Lord Hanuman temple. Although, I personally don’t subscribe to a god or religion, I am deeply spiritual and the thought of seeing an eighteen feet rock statue at close proximity did tempt me to join Dr Sesh and my Dad. Dutifully, Dr Sesh, Dad and I wore new shirts gifted to us by Uncle Ramanan. It is customary in India to wear new clothes on Diwali day, if one could afford.

As for my Dad’s point of view, it is a significant gesture to visit the ‘God of Health’ to garner more mental and physical strength by praying to him for the successful completion of this bike ride, including the cataract initiative in Madurai. 

As we walked through the street, I could see, at a distance, the massive establishment of Lord Hanuman standing majestically, with bulging muscles (so I was partly right about body-building!) in a digambara (sky as the roof) style temple. As we neared, I noticed that the Sanctum Sanctoram was closed with a screen pulled across (God getting ready) and after a few minutes, I knew it was time for the darshan as I saw people lifting their mobiles in a sly manner (there was a sign on the wall stating that photography was strictly prohibited!) to capture the beautifully adorned Lord Hanuman. Lord Hanuman was emblazoned in silver ornaments; mainly the tapered crown and the armour, covering his upper body. Beautiful thin garlands flowed around the neck, the ends of which dangled few inches above his broad feet, orange panchavastram covered the bottom half of his body...(dressing up a God is not easy, and here they do it in style..what a sight!)

I should say that it was an invigorating visit and I was awed when someone mentioned that the temple had a 1500 year history. On our return along the street, we saw a huge rock with circumference probably running to nearly a kilometre and a fort on top of it. We gathered that King Tippu Sultan hid himself in the fort from the British for some time. 

This unassuming south Indian town had so much history and if it was not for the bike ride, I may have never visited the place. I rejoiced this feeling and it fuelled my spirits. We headed back to the hotel and after lunch, following a bit of relaxation, headed further south towards Karur on our bikes. 

We had roughly 45 kms to cover and the plan was to reach Karur before dusk. The terrain was flat but it was becoming increasingly difficult to pedal. I knew the front tyre was deflated and needed to be pumped up. Dr Sesh and I waited by the mile stone ’32 kms to Karur’. We were sure we brought the pump with us. I spoke to my Dad on my mobile (Dad and Vinod were resting in the car a few miles behind us) and asked him to reach us. On the opposite side of the road, we spotted a Trucks and Lorries workshop. Asking Dr Sesh to wait, I crossed to the other side of the motorway. I went around the workshop and couldn’t find any workers; obviously they must have shut due to Diwali. Just at that time, I spotted two men in a lorry which had been parked inside the workshop. I went up to them and asked if they could help to inflate my tyre. One of them, who was in an inebriated state asked me to ‘....’ but the other guy seemed quite helpful and came down to check the tyre and said the pump room was locked and that he couldn’t help but could give me a lift to Namakkal, if required. ‘How nice of him’, I thought and said ‘Thanks, but I am heading to Karur.’ I did not fail to notice the guy chewing something. ‘It must be one of those killer Zarda or Maava’, I cursed silently. Should look at the statistics on oral cancer in India ...

I crossed over to the other side and Dr Sesh and my Dad were waiting with the pump from the car. Yes, the pump didn’t work and I said we can check-out if any other shops would be open. I bluntly refused to travel in the car and maintained that we would find some help on the way. Looking back, I was unable to understand why I behaved that way when I would only have damaged the semi-deflated front tyre more with my inflated Ego?

Just after milestone ’28 kms to Karur‘, I spotted our Innova car parked along the shoulder. My Dad was speaking to a group of youngsters and was distributing the health awareness fliers. Dr Sesh who was sipping water from his bottle asked if we should ask the young guys to open their bike shop. My Dad spoke to them about our trip and the guys who were busy having beer and goat briyani offered to pump up the front tyre. They opened the shop and took out a yellow cycle pump. (Recollecting that episode now, I think that if the cycle pump wasn’t that important to me at that time, I may not have recollected its colour.) Cheekily, my Dad asked them to sell the pump to us; we bought it for 150 Indian rupees (around £2) and without that much needed utility my bike ride would have taken a wrong turn for sure.

With sturdy, inflated tyres, there was no looking back. I videoed a criss-crossing stream and followed it until it disappeared from my sight; lighted fireworks (as planned) with young children in the village along the route (and in the process remembered my own family); relished the sight of vast sugarcane fields; crossed a bridge with the mighty river Cauvery (which is the lifeline for farmers across the Tanjore district) flowing underneath.
Arriving in Karur well before dusk, we spent a good night in the ‘Valluvar Lodge’... upped the protein intake by gorging on chilly panneer; uploaded some pictures on to facebook; slept well except when I thought about what would have happened if we didn’t spot the bike shop ...

Day 4 - 27th October 2011: Karur - Dindigul - Madurai (120 kms)

After the customary checks of our bikes (including inflating my front tyres), we set out to Dindugal which was around 65 kms from Karur. We had around 120 kms to cover to reach Madurai. Bright sun made it a pleasant start but I expected it to give way for some rain. Dad and Vinod had set out before us in the Car. We knew we would find them, as always, along the shoulders after a few kilometres of cycling.

Dr Sesh and I discussed many things as we biked along acres of arid land on both sides. We talked about how good the Indian motorways were with their unique central reservation with grass belts and perennial plants beautifying the stretch and how barren the M25 faired in comparison. We also saw umpteen educational institutions along the stretch; ranging from dental colleges, engineering colleges, arts and science colleges and opined that some, if not most of these colleges, would have been run by the benamees of political heavyweights.
As we were spiritedly cycling, totally from nowhere we spotted dense clouds speeding at our direction. What followed was not a gentle but a brutal downpour for a good 20 minutes. We were equally relentless and cycled along with conviction.

We stopped for lunch at Dindigul, another industrial town known for making Locks and Steel safes (and many decades earlier its Cigar, ‘Churut’ was the favourite of a well-known war-time British prime minister named Winston Churchill!)

We reached Madurai around 7.30pm; we hopped on to the car in the outskirts of Madurai as it was raining heavily. We headed to the Central Excise office guest house. Uncle Ramanan and Uncle Ramki were already there having reached Madurai in the afternoon by train from Bangalore. They were eager to support us from the Madurai-Kanyakumari stretch of bike ride.

Madurai, is one of the oldest and continuously inhabited cities in the world. The city is mentioned by Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to India in his accounts as Methora around 3rd century BC. I had visited Madurai twice since childhood; both times accompanying my family to one of the greatest architectural marvels of the world and a prominent pilgrimage centre for Hindus - the Meenakshi Amman temple. 

After relishing some nice Idlis with Sambar, I went to bed. My stomach rumbled and I felt very weak. Outside, the fiery downpour hadn’t stopped. The following day, the weather turned out to be pleasant but my rumbling stomach gave way to crude repercussions. It must have been that ‘ginger tea’ I had the day before in that tea-shop... Welcome, Delhi-Belly. Lomotil - anti-diarrhoeal tablets, supreme-saviour par excellence!

Day 5 - 28th October 2011: Aravind - an eye-opener

Around 10am, we visited the temple. There were around 14 gateway towers surrounding the temple, their height ranging from 45-50 metres. The southern tower or the ‘Therku Gopuram’ was the tallest standing nearly at 52 metres. I don’t remember which entrance we used, but the whole experience was fantastic. I did not fail to notice the tall gates; the long corridors lined with shops on either side; bats whizzing past between the gates; the thousand pillared hall; exotic sculptures of gods and goddesses. Little wonder, this temple attracts around 15,000 visitors a day. 

While near the Sanctum Sanctorum, I did see the petite statue of goddess, Meenakshi adorned in what looked like a silk saree; her famous diamond nose-stead glittered. Most people were praying with their eyes closed, with palms held together. As for me, I wondered why people were so immersed in worship - hundreds of them standing in front of me, slowly being guided by the priests, once they had had a glimpse of goddess Meenakshi, to give way for the other devotees to catch a glimpse.

Around 12pm, we found ourselves in one of the office rooms of Aravind Eye Care Hospital discussing the details of the Cataract camp the following day in Peraiyur, a village 40 kms from Madurai. Until the visit, all I knew about Aravind was that it was an eye-hospital group, which performs eye surgeries and organises outreach camps for cataract screening etc. and that part of the monies we raised would fund cataract screening and surgery for at least 100 villagers around Peraiyur Taluk.

Mr R Meenakshi Sundaram (affectionately called ‘RMS’), Senior Manager, Aravind Outreach was explaining how it was all going to work the following day. Aravind conducts 5-6 outreach camps everyday with nearly 1500 patients examined and around 300 patients transported to base hospital for surgery. RMS, a bespectacled man with a thick moustache and a calm disposition is an unassuming and a dedicated individual. He told us that the site for the Cataract Screening was the cinema hall called ‘Murugan theatre’ in Peraiyur and that the screening was expected to start around 10am. Once the details of the camp had been discussed, RMS told us that he will introduce us to Dr Natchiar (Vice-Chairman Emeritus, Aravind Eye Care System).

We went into a modest visiting room and were welcomed by Dr.Natchiar. She reminded me of my secondary school Headmistress: medium-built, stern disciplinarian with piercing eyes. RMS apprised Dr Natchiar about our bike ride and the cataract-camp the following day. ‘I am glad that young people like yourselves take up such charitable causes.’ she said in a soothing tone and added, ‘continue doing it and come back to India and do more, if possible?’ She said how her late brother Dr V had huge ambitions for Aravind Eye Care from day one. ‘Service was his mantra,’ she said. Dr Natchiar also recollected how difficult it was for her to relocate from United States to support her brother in his vision. ‘Don’t take me wrong but when we relocated to India, we missed all the comforts initially...it was a bit difficult to adjust but we did eventually and now, some thirty odd years later I have a great satisfaction (and a burning desire to do more) that any material comforts could ever provide ...’ 

One thing became clear to me that day: Dr Natchiar was no ordinary woman, three decades of selfless service to humanity is no easy task for mere mortals. It takes a super-woman to engage in such feats and still talk casually about it as if it was something ordinary. I learnt that day what selflessness and humility in action actually meant.

After the scintillating meeting with Dr Natchiar and after completing some formalities for the following day with RMS, we headed back to the central excise guesthouse. In the evening, we visited Aurolab, the manufacturing division of Aravind Eye Hospital. It supplies high quality ophthalmic consumables at affordable prices to developing countries. Aurolab products are exported to 120 countries around the world and accounts for a total of 7.8% of global share of intraocular lenses.

Intelligence and capability are not enough. There must also be the joy of doing something beautiful. Being of service to God and humanity means going well beyond the sophistication of the best technology, to the humble demonstration of courtesy and compassion to each patient. (Dr.G.Venkataswamy (Founder, Aravind Eye Care))

There is a sentence in the Introduction to the book ‘Infinite Vision - How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion’ that would strike a chord with most people who read it. It goes like this: Aravind is an unconventional model that came into being not despite but because of the deep-seated compassion at its core. This is a model that demonstrates the power of integrating innovation with empathy, business principles with service, and outer transformation with inner change.

Aravind performs roughly 50 percent of the entire NHS’s ophthalmic surgical volume, while spending less than 1 percent of the £1.6 billion expended annually by the United Kingdom for eye care delivery. (In 2008-2009, the NHS performed 567,629 eye surgeries. Aravind performed 269,577 surgeries in the same period)

Aravind founder, Dr V’s had a profound yet simple vision: 

To see all as one. To give sight for all.

Day 6 - 29th October 2011: Madurai - Peraiyur (40 kms)

Dr Sesh and I were on our bikes at around 7.00am. The ‘cataract screening camp’ at Peraiyur meant that we had to be there at the cinema hall latest by 10 am. 

The day was quite good and we cycled along quite easily as we had good rest the previous day. But we could feel heavy police presence along the route. There was a reason behind this. 

The previous day while still at the guesthouse, we gathered from the television that Mr Advani, one of the top politicians from the opposition party in India, ‘BJP’ had reached Madurai en-route his ‘Jan Chetna Yatra (trip)’ for good governance from North to South India. What was shocking and surprising was that a pipe bomb was found under a bridge in the outskirts of Madurai in Alampatti village, the route he was supposed to take on the 29th of October. 

You guessed it. 

Two unassuming cyclists passed through the village Alampatti the following day and were surrounded by policemen asking various questions about the purpose of their cycling, all the while making mental judgements about them, perhaps thinking that both of them were planning something destructive (what clad in cycle suits et al? not heard of anyone indulging in malevolent activities making it so easy for the Police to spot them?!). The bikers merely smiled at what happened to them and hopped on their bikes for the next assignment!

Along the route to Peraiyur, we spoke to many villagers and distributed the leaflets in Tamil about Chronic conditions. We reached Peraiyur on time. The once gigantic cinema hall, now in a dilapidated state, still stood gigantic but these days there were no shows. As we descended our bikes outside the hall, we saw a bus ready to transport those who needed surgeries to Madurai. (We later learnt from RMS that arranging transport improved the conversion of referral rates to surgery by a significant percentage as people did not intend to spend their daily wage to travel to Madurai (although the surgery and after care were free).)

RMS was already there and he warmly welcomed us and we were offered some tea. I spotted a guy wearing a t-shirt with a slogan ‘New London’ or something along those lines. The thought of my family back home crossed my mind. We had a guided tour of the site by RMS who explained the ‘patient pathway’, which included registration, visual acuity testing, examination by Doctors to check for presence of cataract, retinopathy, glaucoma; dipstick examination, BP check, intraocualr pressure measurement etc. 

The publicity campaign in the last few days seemed to have worked well. We witnessed good turn out for the screening.

There were chairs and benches along the sides and inside of the hall. We spoke to a Brazilian crew who were filming the screening process for a documentary they were doing about social enterprises. One guy from the crew said that he studied at the London School of Economics and now works in the field of research, the specific aspect of which I seem to have forgotten now. People were lining up around various tables marked in numbers from 1 to 10, I believe. Blame my memory if it is not the case.

There were 3 trainee Ophthalmologists and 5 to 6 nurses (again unsure now of the exact numbers) from Aravind’s Nursing College. The volunteers were all local teachers, all women. I realised when I spoke to one of the volunteers later that she was there to support because she could. This young, shy teacher was there just to help and that was it. It put my grand thoughts of cycling 500 miles and the ego I carried at times about it to shame. I learnt that I need to learn to become more humble and do things because I love it not because I am doing anything special. Lots of thoughts circled my mind and what I saw that day in that dilapidated cinema hall still is the ‘best picture’ I ever remember seeing.

In a nutshell, the patient journey was something like the following:

  • Those found to have refractive errors are given free spectacles on site. 
  • A variety of frames and glasses of varying power are available on site. 
  • The glasses are cut, polished and fitted to the frames on site before being dispensed free of cost to the patient.
  • Those found to have significant cataract are counselled by trained counsellors for surgery and if they agree, they are gathered in a separate section of the camp.
  • They are transported by hospital bus for admission on the same day - Saturday. 
  • Pre- OP assessment for those needed on Sunday. 
  • Free food and accommodation provided. Surgery on Monday. 
  • Discharge from hospital on Tuesday and transported back to their villages.

After that immensely moving 3 hours and with enough food for our thoughts to last another 100 kms at least we headed further south towards Rajapalayam. Along the route, we could have taken a detour to Sirivilliputtur to visit a historical temple but decided otherwise. We reached Rajapalayam around 4pm. It is a thriving business town on the foothills of the Western Ghats of India. 

Along the route, I did notice many cotton mills. I understood later that Rajapalayam is called ‘cotton city’ after a surge in cotton industry in the 1990’s. Rajapalayam is also known for its distinct breed of Sighthounds called ‘Rajapalayam’. I learnt that pure breeds are almost extinct but in the last couple of decades they were being used by the Indian Army as guard dogs in Kashmir valley. As we entered the town, I was looking for every dog I could spot to see if it resembled a Sighthound - some did.

Our accommodation was a lavish, well-maintained guest house offered to us by RAMCO cements, one of the largest cement manufactures in Asia. Dr Sesh was not feeling very well. I thought may be it was his turn for Lomotil - anti diarrhoeal tablets, supreme-saviour par excellence and it certainly was.

Day 7 - 30th October 2011: Rajapalayam - Thrirunelveli (90 kms)

Dr Sesh was still unwell; he looked weary and was still nestled into his bed sheet. He had high temperature with severe headache and had been keeping busy with his many visits to the toilet. We decided that he was to cover the stretch until Thirunelveli by hopping on to the Toyota after much hesitation. I knew it would been devastating for him to make that decision but it was a wise decision. There was one other relief though; I was given the unmissable opportunity of riding his road bike!

I was Bradley Wiggins for the next two hours. I thought the flat terrain to Thirunelveli was the ideal opportunity to test the road bike. The bike was comfortable beyond description; of course, I would say that. I adjusted the seats and after a few kilometres of trying to get the hang of it, cycled like I have never done before. In fact, I did a kilometre in one and a half minutes covering nearly 80 odd kilometres in just over 2 hours. It was probably my personal best in the Tour de Thirunelveli, and I was fully drenched as well; thanks to the monsoon.

It was only later when I went to bed (in yet another Central Excise Department’s Guest house) at Thirunelveli that I was able to appreciate the ride and the mental pictures that zipped past. The red earth and pouring rain, the serpentine twists of the road leading nowhere, the vast expanse of land with red soil and the sight of Western Ghats, on my side, teasing the clouds on top…all of this was so good that I compiled a Free verse.

And just when the patient stream longs for that first kiss

pregnant with passion for that long-due reunion with its beloved imprisoned only by that high selfish sky, the lofty Tamil hills wait ...

...to steal the same lover with their imposing stance.

And when the amorous dance of peacocks put the parrots to shame, the monkeys cling on to the active aerial roots of Aaalamaram.

And when the Aavarai and Venkai trees show their approval,

beckoning the incipient seasonal winds on their branches, 

our lover's feet is firm on the land, his hands holding a bamboo shoot over-flowing with honey.

And there is this voluptuous rustic beauty with creeping hips and dark tender breasts,

teasing her lover with a mellifluous voice restricting, every advance of him, 

hopping him up 

with her graceful leaps and leers; 

she, drenched in pouring rain, and 

he, standing on the red earth holding that rare white kurunji in the other hand.

This provocatively sensuous calefaction consummated their desires, 

finally in that Space, between 

the Red Earth and the Pouring Rain. 

Whether it is morning or night one fails to notice, sitting silently on the wet rocks by the hills...

Day 8 - 31st October 2011: Thirunelveli - Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin) (85 kms)

As far as I have known, no one leaves Thirunelveli without buying its famous halwa (a slightly gelatinous sweet confection made from Semolina) and we were not going to be the exceptions. We bought quite a lot and Dr Sesh recovered well to savour quite a lot. 

I was back on my not-so-good-but-still-functional- bike. Of course, dreams don’t last long and mine lasted for just over 2 hours, the previous day. We were on the main highway cycling along the shoulders towards Kanyakuamri. Again, the north-east monsoon was sincere in its travel as well. Completely drenched, we cycled as fast as we could. One could sense that one was nearing the sea. There was this salty breeze wafting through my cheeks and mouth in between the rainfall. 

We saw giant Windmills at a distance; thousands of them, generating wind-power. It seems they are one of the largest wind farms in Asia generating around 4000 MW. 

We reached Kanyakumari, the most southernly town in India. It is at the confluence of three water bodies, namely, the Arabian sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. One could see three different colours of these three seas from the shore. Felicitations were arranged for the evening in the nearby Gandhi Mandapam to mark the successful completion of the bike-ride from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Dr Sesh looked very relieved but exhausted. I was really thrilled equally as I didn’t have to rely on my lovely Hercules bike anymore. However, on a serious note, I felt that it was an accomplishment of a sort. I didn’t want to think too much about it but I couldn’t equally be too casual about it like the volunteer I met in the screening camp in Peraiyur village. Dr Sesh and I took our bicycles to the ocean and took three dips to mark the successful completion of the trip. Don’t ask me why it was three dips, I did it because Dr Sesh asked me to! And all of the people who accompanied us including my Dad and Uncle felt relieved with the successful completion. Vinod, the driver, continued to chew his maava, ever more happily and was looking forward to his trip back to Delhi in his Toyota. Our awareness raising did not work with him.

That evening, media people from local TV channels interviewed us. Many photographs were snapped. Dr Sesh’s friend who is a famous doctor in the region came around to congratulate us. As Kanyakumari is a tourist attraction, there was no dearth of people. A group of tourists surrounded us and praised our efforts. It was a moving experience that I could only compare with the first-sight of my first-born. The feeling of oneness, the bond, the love of humankind etc.were spelt out for me that evening.

One thing the journey made me realise was the belief that impossible is nothing. Dr V’s quote kept lingering in mind long after I left India. It was that which made me want to document my journey and share it with everyone: 

Intelligence and capability are not enough. There must also be the joy of doing something beautiful.


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Vinny Went Cycling for Charity © Vinesh Kumar 2012.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.