A month ago, Jasmeet Gandhi set out to cycle 1,000 kilometres to raise money for children afflicted with eye cancer.
At the end of the journey from Mumbai to Bengaluru, during which he raised Rs 23 lakhs, he received a gift that changed his life.
Life is a long lesson in humility,' wrote J M Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan.
At no other time in my life has this statement been more relevant.
Cycling 10 days through blistering heat, strong headwinds and heavy downpour, staring for hours at the unending white strip of paint on the shoulder lane of the highway, can bludgeon you into humbleness very quickly (Image, left: Jasmeet starts out on his journey in support of the Iksha Foundation in Bengaluru).
When I was asked to share my experience of cycling 1,000 kilometres from Mumbai in Maharashtra to Bengaluru in Karnataka (which I had undertaken to raise awareness and funds for children affected by eye cancer), it set me thinking.
What are experiences? To my mind they are nothing but a process by which we discover or rediscover the real meaning of words we use every day without realising their real import.
Here are some of the words which now lend a new meaning to my life:
Throughout my fund raising campaign I met people I had not known earlier, offering my support crew and me their homes to stay in overnight.
There were 15-20 people in each town from one of our sponsors who would line up every day at 5.30 am with their cycles to accompany me for the first few kilometres of my ride. Many others would make it to the flag off in the pre-dawn, to cheer me on my way.
One person who is into his fifties actually cycled from Bengaluru to Tumkur (approximately 70 km) to accompany me to Bengaluru on the last leg of my ride so that I would not be alone during the home stretch.
These people kept me honest and motivated.
The support of my crew -- Shuklaji (my driver) and Dr Suresh (my physiotherapist), who did this trip pro bono -- was nothing less than spectacular.
Imagine sitting in a car for 10 days, watching my rear (literally). Imagine driving at 20 kilometres per hour, shielding me from traffic zooming past at 100 kmph.
It takes a lot of courage and patience.
Staying the course
The monotony of pushing the pedals in a military cadence is like a call to the vulture of loneliness that hovers above all solo riders (Image, right: Jasmeet got an inspiring flag-off every morning).
It waits for the numbness of emotions to set in, biding its time to swoop in just when the spirit begins to lag and the lull of despair embraces the mind.
I knew I could not give in, that I just needed to look down at the white strip that hugs the shoulder lane, to focus on the speedometer to maintain my average speed, churning out one kilometre at a time.
It is not easy to maintain this level of focus, especially if it is your first time.
But it happened, thanks to the Gods of music -- Eric Clapton, Sting, U2, Santana, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, A R Rahman, R D Burman and, yes, Yo Yo Honey Singh. Their music lent meaning to the road and kept inspiring me with their lyrics and rhythm.
I was reminded of Plato's words, 'Love is the joy of the good, the wonder of the wise, the amazement of the Gods.'
Now that I have had this experience, I couldn't agree more. On this journey, I encountered this sense of wonder again and again in the small things that we take for granted… Like the rays of the morning sun on my face. Like the various shades of green that the fields morph into at different time of the day. And, of course, the majestic sunsets over various horizons depending on what landscape I was passing.
These are just some of the things that we fail to appreciate or notice when we whiz past in our cars.
The quirkiness of human nature also amazed me. People who I had not met for years donated upto Rs 50,000 on the basis of one email. At the same time, close acquaintances -- who I was sure would contribute -- kept postponing their decision.
Padma Ladge, a strong-willed cancer survivor whom I had never met earlier, became a star campaigner. She activated a huge network of donors, who opened their hearts and wallets for the cause.
I discovered the difference between joy and happiness. Simply put, joy is happiness in 3D.
I was fortunate to experience it several times.
On the second day of my journey, it was raining when we set out from Pune to Satara in Maharashtra. I decided to enjoy the weather and wore just a vest and cycling shorts.
On one particular downhill slope, I checked my speedometer; the bike was touching 45 kmph.
The rush of racing downhill on a slick road, with the rain hitting my face like pellets, was my first experience of pure joy on this trip.
I guess the heady mix of risk and abandonment heightens our sense of awareness like nothing else does. I was truly living in the moment.
The second instance was when we were at Belgaum in Karnataka.
We were invited to the Maheshwari School For The Blind where we met the 130 students who reside and study there. They sang a Ganesh Vandana and Vande Mataram.
We distributed Braille watches to the students of Classes IX and X. Watching them touch and feel time with their hands and tell each other the hour over and over again was a heart-warming moment.
The smile on their faces and their sense of achievement in an act that is so trivial for us was such a pure and spiritual moment that time appeared to stand still.
Most of us have seen the ad that advocates, 'Dar ke aagey jeet hai (beyond fear lies triumph).'
I was afraid, and I was in pain, as I skid and fell somewhere between Pune and Satara in Maharashtra when I did not spot a pothole camouflaged by rain water.
I scraped and bruised my knee and elbow… and I still had over 800 km to go.
The medic's job was to disinfect my wounds and ensure the rain water did not get into them. But managing the pain was my job. Pain injects doubt and fear, giving you reasons to come up with excuses.
Between Pune and Satara I had enough uphill climbs to encourage me to succumb to the self-pity the pain was goading me into.
The last three days of my journey were particularly excruciating, with my quadriceps begging for mercy but not getting any.
Heavily strapped on both legs, I was fast reaching the end of the reserve fuel of my resolve and running on vapour.
Perhaps there is no better way to discover 'mind over matter' than when you really stretch your physical limits. If I were to rewrite the ad tagline it would read, 'Dar ke aagey tum ho (beyond fear is your true self)'.
Most importantly, I discovered Grace.
There were moments when you could only attribute things to the Grace of the Almighty.
Looking back, I feel I was chosen for this mission.
I took up cycling as a means to keep fit after I damaged my knee from running and playing tennis. It was like I was being prepared for this journey.
My fall during the journey could have been much worse, but it was not. I was hurt enough to test my resolve and my ability to work through pain. That pain was Grace.
A couple of trucks whizzed past dangerously close at top speed within inches of me.
The air between me and those trucks was Grace.
But, as usual, the best was reserved for last, when I reached the Iksha Foundation in Bengaluru.
Meeting the kids at undergoing treatment for eye cancer, hearing their tales, watching them smile in the face of imposing odds and the expression of hope and gratitude on the faces of their parents, touched me like nothing else had, and Grace flowed, unabated from my eyes.
I had been truly humbled, and I was eternally grateful for it.
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Photographs: Courtesy Jasmeet Gandhi