Naveed Mulki has used up his life’s savings but is still a rich man thanks to the 145 days he took to cycle from Leh to Kanyakumari. He shares some incredible moments with Esther Elias

Naveed Mulki has a story for every one of the past 145 days he’s lived. From chowmein that was possibly alive, to lodges that resembled torture chambers; from warm sunsets on the Maharashtrian coast to frostbite on the Khardung La; from curious children in school uniforms to helpful aunties by roadside dhabas; from supporters who urged him on in goodwill to locals who mistook him for a French tourist with impeccable Hindi — he’s seen it all through 6,000 odd km on a cycle from Leh to Kanyakumari and back to his hometown, Bangalore.

The idea was conceived over chai in 2011 with Rishabh Malhotra, a colleague who cycled to office as well. In the next 100 days, they quit their advertising jobs, charted a vague route through mountains, valleys, forests and beaches, researched histories of similarly ambitious cyclists, saved up, rode daily and drank a lot more chai.

On August 19, 2012, they found themselves climbing the world’s highest motorable pass (Khardung La), short of breath. After a week of no network, nervous excitement and acclimatisation, they began their journey south.

The people Naveed met along the way are the highlights of his journey. “At pit stops, strangers would invite us home, hug us like we were their lost brothers, feed us, make sure we had absolutely everything we needed and take no money from us in return,” says Naveed.

It’s the small gestures that made the difference. In a Tamil Nadu town, for instance, a passerby directed them to a motel for the night and rode beside them all the way so that his bike’s headlamp could light their cycles’ path.

Life stories

But it’s the life-stories of the people he’s met that fascinate Naveed the most. “I’ve finished an incredible conversation with my country,” he wrote on ‘I am coming home’, a Facebook page which documents their journey through photographs and blog posts. “People love to talk. A few minutes of conversation and you’ve got started on their entire life history,” he says. One such story was from a lady by a Pune highway. She’d battled cancer for eight years and recovered to open a chai and paratha shop. “She said she wanted to make friends again.”

Another powerful tale came from Sanketh Pashte, a Class IX boy who worked three jobs in Pawas village to buy himself a professional bow and arrow kit worth Rs. 75,000. “He’s aiming for the Nationals next year,” says Naveed.

Among the many good Samaritans along Naveed’s journey is a salt farmer in Kutch. Surrounded for miles by cracked earth, she squatted on dry ground but arose to meet him, dragged a bed from inside her hut, offered him water, food and even her home as shelter for the night. “She had absolutely nothing, but she was willing to share even that,” he says.

It was again in Rajasthan that Naveed met the villagers of Sasan, who helped conserve the lions in their forests. “The pride with which they spoke of the lions and the way they coexisted so beautifully was amazing,” he says. He adds, “This trip has changed my perspective on so many things, awoken me to issues I didn’t know of, made me want less and helped me find purpose,”

Living minimally

Besides the existential, Naveed’s journey has taught him to live minimally. “We spent nights in abandoned boats, schools, petrol bunks and often camped under the night sky,” he says.

But it’s the lodges that take the cake. “There was one that looked like a large bathroom, another that had hooks all around like a torture chamber, a third which tourists keep mistaking for a toilet, another without locks and even one where the owner told us not to order his room service.” For food, he ate at countless chai shops and dhabas, and was even fed by a lifeguard one lonely night on Maharashtra’s coast.

For direction, he looked to Google maps occasionally but relied on locals’ guidance for the most part. “An entire village once came out to discuss which route we should take out. And more often than not, we’d be told the road is all downhill from here and it would actually be all uphill.”

After close to five months on India’s roads, Naveed returned to Bangalore weather-beaten but thrilled. Rishabh suffered an arm injury and rested in Pune while Pankaj Singh joined Naveed in Goa. The biggest survivor on Naveed’s trip? His cycle. “We’ve had just three punctures in 145 days and I spent New Year’s eve fixing a broken axle in Kollam.” Naveed has also returned with a little wisdom on how his country functions — “We were in a bus once when a boy began peeing by Rishabh’s feet. Despite Rishabh’s look of protest, the boy’s mother told him to keep going. That’s how India works — by being a little accommodating.”