Pathanamthitta: During these unsettling times of COVID-19 crisis, a family of four along with their pet dog undertook a journey from Noida in the National Capital Region (NCR) to Kerala in a car.
Dr Sakhi John, a professor at the Jamia Hamdard University in Delhi, and family travelled for three days, covering thousands of kilometres across various states before finally reaching his native place at Thiruvalla in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district.
His family comprises wife Suni, and children Joel and Noel. The fifth passenger in this long journey was Polo, their pet dog.
Why the travel
Dr Sakhi John became apprehensive as he noticed the alarming COVID-19 spread. John had donated one of his kidneys a couple of years ago. The doctor too cautioned him - if he fell ill, he would need to take lots of antibiotics. John had a home back at Thiruvalla. Why stay in Noida and be at risk?
Thus, the family decided to travel back home. There were no trains, and they drove their way home in their car.
When they finally reached Thiruvalla after three days of travel, they had covered a distance of around 2,900km and passed through the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. They had to spend nearly Rs 3,000 at the 72 toll gates, and shelled out another Rs 11,000 on fuel. The only solace was that they did not face any traffic jams as the roads were deserted.
The family had packed food for three days. They also carried food packets if they were to find migrant workers heading homes. John is also involved in the activities of non-profit organisations.
John is a member of the Distress Management Collective, led by Justice Kurian Joseph and former Minister of State Alphons Kannanthanam, and Deepalaya, headed by senior journalist A J Philip.
They distributed 2 lakh ration kits and other aid to the migrant workers at a cost of Rs 2.1 crore. As he was involved in these activities, John did not initially think about returning to his home state. Only when he found the situation alarming, he decided to return.
To avoid the traffic on the Grand Trunk Road, the family started their journey early in the morning. Their first target was to reach Nagpur on day one. From Nodia they travelled via Mathura and reached Agra after covering a distance of 155km. They exhausted all the food kits in the Noida-Agra route itself. Still, several people were walking from Delhi to Uttar Pradesh.
The Taj Mahal had been shut for more than three months. It was not known when the great monument would be open again.
The family viewed the Taj Mahal from the other side of the road. The air was clear and no smog engulfed the monument. Pollution levels have dropped due to fewer vehicles and with industries being shut, sewage water was not dumped into River Yamuna.
The wayside shops and hawkers, including the famed dabbas, of the National Highway 44 were also missing in action.
The car then passed through the once notorious Chambal forests, that recalled the name of fiery Phoolan Devi. Even though the dreaded dacoits, who spread terror during the 70s, have all surrendered, it was still unnerving to go through those areas.
Notoriety notwithstanding, it was a picturesque land. The Chambal River, a tributary of the Yamuna, flows through the forest region and hence is not very polluted. But is full of crocodiles. From then on, it was the rivers Betwa and Ken, tributaries of Narmada. Joel was familiar with this area as he had worked with social activist Medha Patkar, the main crusader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
Next, they passed through Bundelkhand region that cover the border regions of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Jhansi, Lalitpur, Jalaun, Hamirpur and Jalaun are the districts in UP, and Chhatarpur, Panna, Sagar, and Damoh in Madhya Pradesh.
A moment to remember our freedom fighters as the car passed through Jhansi, the land of Rani Lakshmibai, one of the leading figures in the India's early Independence struggle.
Passing through the hill range area of Sagar was a welcome respite from the heat. Even during peak afternoon, the weather remained cool. After passing by the Sagar Talab, the car slowly made its way up the hill.
Leaving Bundelkhand, the family continued their south-bound journey. The mercury had dropped by several notches. Dark clouds flitted across the sky, a harbinger of the south-west monsoon.
As the family carried enough food and water, they did not have to stop anywhere. They also had carried glasses to drink tea.
They had also taken enough money to avoid getting into ATMs.
Car tyres were also filled with nitrogen to prevent these from getting heated up during the continuous journey.
John’s family only faced problems at the toll gate. But here too, they used gloves and sanitisers. They also wore masks during the entire duration of the journey.
Villagers free from COVID-19 scare
But the family realised that the villagers were free from the COVID-19 scare. None were seen wearing masks nor were there any checks by the authorities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's proclamation that 85 crore villagers in India were not affected by the COVID-19 rang true.
The family had to cover an extra 70km as they avoided roads through red zone areas.
They reached Nagpur by 9pm. They had booked a room at the YMCA but found that the building was shut due to COVID-19. They then had to spent the night at the room of a nearby dhaba.
They continued their journey through the rural hinterland of the country. The journey also introduced them to new varieties of mangoes and guavas. Vegetables and fruits plucked fresh from the farms gleamed under the sunlight. Farmers were spreading out their yield by the roadside for sale. No middlemen, just the fair price.
Cotton is cultivated and cloth materials are spun from handlooms. Farmers look after their fields, some breed four or five cows. The villagers were involved in self-sustainable ventures, giving hopes that Gandhiji’s vision of Gram Swaraj might become a reality in the post COVID-19 era.
The family also went past a signboard that said Gandhiji's Wardha Ashram was just 15km away.
They also got to see several wild animals up close. Deers and monkeys among other wild beings were found crossing the roads.
They passed through the highway of Nagpur that was lined with pretty Gulmohar and orange trees. After covering a distance of 520km and the Rivers of Godavari and Krishna, the car was closing in on Hyderabad.
Several cars with Maharashtra registrations were heading in the northern direction. Even cots were found tied to the top of these vehicles. It appeared as if they were leaving behind all their belongings, looking eerily similar to a refugee influx.
The family also interacted with some fellow travellers of the road, including a certain Rajendra Kumar who was heading to Ernakulam for treatment. After evening snacks and tea, they bid farewell to Hyderabad.
A board that signalled 1,500km for Kanyakumari filled their hearts with joy, at the thought of home. Yet the National Highway 44 stretched before them. They still had to cover a distance of 500km to reach Bengaluru. The car sped across the Deccan terrain and past the Thungabadra River.
First checking at Telangana
After commencing their journey from Delhi, the family faced their first inspection when they reached Telangana. However, well-mannered cops and smiling healthcare personnel ensured that they had no trouble. They informed they were heading to Kerala, and the officials checked the travel pass without touching the mobile phone.
The cops also cautioned the family against stopping anywhere during the journey and lowering the window glass. They crossed the Bengaluru City by Saturday night. Before that, they faced strict checking. Since there was no other option, the car had to cross through the Bengaluru city. They also had dinner in between.
Their journey on National Highway 44 came to an abrupt end after Krishnagiri. At 3745km, NH44 is the longest National Highway of the country, stretching from Srinagar to Kanyakumari. The NH 44 would continue via the Dindigul-Madurai-Tirunelveli route to Kanyakumari.
As their destination was Kerala, they took diversion on to the Salem-Palakkad-Kochi NH 544. All through the night, the car sped along the Mettur forest region, that was once home to the dreaded Veerappan. The family reached Walayar along Palakkad border in the morning.
Salute, Kerala Police
The cops smiled on seeing the Delhi registration number of the car. A wave of relief swept over the family as the cops made enquiries in the all-too familiar Malayalam. This was the best reception they had got at any checkpost. All the tests and procedures were completed rapidly. After ensuring that they did not have any symptoms, the cops asked them to head straight home without stopping anywhere. The cops waved them goodbye.
The family had heard several intimidating tales. But all their fears were unfounded as the Kerala Police were at their cordial best.
Details of the family were passed on to other authorities, including Pathanamthitta Collectorate. When the family reached Thrissur, the police called again and asked them not to stop anywhere.
By Saturday afternoon, the family reached their house near Marthoma College at Kuttapuzha in Thiruvalla. The house was left vacant, so that the family could be in quarantine.
Dr John's mother-in-law Mariyamma, who stayed at their house, had shifted to a relative's place.
Healthcare personnel and the police turned up at the house on that day itself, and gave them the list of helpline numbers and assured them of all assistance.
AYUSH workers from the municipality too reached the house by Saturday evening and gave some ayurvedic medicines to boost immunity.
Polo, the black Labrador, had turned up at the family's flat in Noida a year ago. John’s son Joel had adopted the puppy that was abandoned by its owner. John's mother-in-law Mariyamma, who was staying with them during those days, cared for the little dog. But she left for Kerala after sometime.
Polo also wagged his tail when he saw Mariyamma at the terrace of the nearby house. Seeing the endearing bond between them, John decided to leave Polo in Thiruvalla to give company to the elderly woman.
An obedient dog, Polo had followed all the guidelines and was happy to finally step on to the earth in Kerala.
Polo was vaccinated against Coronavirus last year. But the COVID-19 vaccine for humans is yet to be developed.