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Exploring India through the eyes of a patriot

Meet Major General Somnath Jha, who is cycling 2 minutes for every soldier who has died in independent India

Photo: Nitin Kanotra/Hindustan Times
Photo: Nitin Kanotra/Hindustan Times

The biggest lesson Major General Somnath Jha learnt about Indians when he embarked on an epic journey across the length and breadth of this country to pay homage to fallen soldiers was that he and his fraternity don’t have first dibs on patriotism. Jha, who hit the road 18 days after he retired from the army last September, is cycling 2 minutes for every soldier who has died in independent India.

“We (urban folks, men in uniform) think we have ownership on being patriotic but what I discovered was quite the opposite. Even those who don’t relate to the Indian nation or come from communities that don’t traditionally join the military are as patriotic as anyone else," says Jha the first time we chat over the phone.

He’s seen more of this country than most of us have, perched on a B’twin Rockrider 500 21-speed mountain bike, nothing between him and the heat, rain, stench or fragrance of hundreds of towns and villages, watching a dozen different dawns break in front of him every time he travels eastwards—so we can safely take his word for it.

The night we first chat he’s in Punjab, his 26th state, and he has only Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand to go before he ends this odyssey at the Amar Jawan Jyoti memorial under India Gate in Delhi on 19 April. He’s been on the road for 162 days and covered 9,700km, paying homage to 19,000 of the 21,000 soldiers we’ve lost since 1947.

The second time we speak, he has passed through Jammu where his former Subedar Major, Ratan Lal, ensured he was often hailed by ex-servicemen from his 11 JAK LI (Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry) battalion along the route.

You may have encountered Jha on an interstate highway or a dusty road in a remote village, a fully-kitted out, now extremely fit (he’s lost 12kg on the road), swarthy 59-year-old with a handlebar moustache, standing beside his blue off-roader cycle with a pannier and modified wheels, his pipe or chai glass in hand. If it’s a cold morning, he’s probably found a sunny spot; if it’s hot and humid you’ll find him parked under a tree.

His wife Chitra, an author and holistic life coach, follows him in a car and tracks this life-changing journey on her Facebook page too: Singing Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon at the Town Hall in Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh; racing with national cadet corps boys in Udaipur; eating authentic Punjabi samosas in Phagwara.

“There are two Indian states that are supposed to be the epitome of ‘progress’ in India—Gujarat and Punjab," she writes. “However, our experience has been different. Wherever we have travelled in these two states, we have been hit by the energy of neglect and abandonment. This energy is so strong that it brings down our energy too! Especially since we FEEL so deeply. Even the so-called “Bimaru" states had more uplifting energy. Don’t know what to say...except feel sad."

Jha and I don’t discuss politics in our two conversations and he clarifies more than once that all his responses are based on observations along his route and shouldn’t be read as an empirical analysis of any state. I push him for more labels. Friendliest state: everywhere in the North-East (he won’t pick). Prettiest state: Assam. Dirtiest state: Gujarat.

Chitra’s regular posts to an active community of followers have often helped them find a place to stay the night, including once at a petrol pump in Jharkhand. They’ve stayed at inspection bungalows, army camps and even police stations in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal. The hospitality is always overwhelming.

Everywhere he goes there’s usually a crowd around Jha, though people have been most chatty and inquisitive in the North-East and to a certain extent in the south. “Nobody wants to ask you anything in the north," he says, adding that the only question they ask is, “Tumhara zilla kya hai?"

Jha was inspired by an American army veteran who ran one mile for every fellow soldier who died in Afghanistan. The Indian Army officer was a recreational cyclist who took out his bike a few times a week after dinner for an hour or two, yet he only felt good after he logged more than 200km in the first two days of his journey.

Now his day usually begins at 4am and he cycles till he hits his day’s target—which can range anywhere from 70-150km—sometime in the afternoon, pausing occasionally for water or tea breaks and to wolf down the two sandwiches he carries for breakfast. In a large swathe of India, tea has been on the house.

Though this journey isn’t about visiting memorials, he has met families of forgotten soldiers, ex-servicemen waiting for him along the route, and paid his respects at memorials erected by townspeople. If his host at a military station wished him to lay a wreath, he has considered it his honour to do so, especially since he is clad in cycling gear and not his ceremonial best as is usually required.

I ask him what he thinks about when he cycles. “I think of buddies I’ve lost, sometimes I think of nothing, sometimes I listen to music, anything from The Beatles to hip hop, tomorrow’s ride, sometimes I think about the pleasure of cycling…. Every hour I ride I’m conscious that I’ve paid homage to 30 soldiers," he says.

In a recent blog Jha describes his journey as a kind of pilgrimage. “This spirit of committed camaraderie must be upheld at all costs by us in the military, in spite of the pressures of a changing eco-societal environment around us. This is what sets us apart…," he writes.

Along with racing children to school and observing how Indians do things differently across the country, Jha has also been shocked by the amount of non-biodegradable garbage we generate.

“Every highway I travel on is strewn with litter on both sides—cartons, bottles, plastic bags, packaging, gutka sachets. Not one yard is litter-free, it’s penetrated the remotest village," he says, adding that industry must package more responsibly.

As Jha has discovered these past few months, plastic, not patriotism, is India’s biggest problem.

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