Shashank Mani’s ‘India - A Journey Through a Healing Civilization’ is embedded between two adventurous expeditions, with one tantalisingly yet to come
It sounds like a thinking youngster’s grand dream — hop on to a train, travel the country, meet its real people in the smaller towns, take a peek at history and gaze into the future — with hope, and perhaps a plan.
That’s what about 200 young people in the country got to do in 1997, in the 50th year of India’s independence.
The Azad Bharat Rail Yatra was led by Shashank Mani, an IIT-Delhi graduate who is an IT consultant now based in London.
The 22-day journey took them to places like Amritsar, Jalianwallah Bagh, Tilonia, Jamshedpur, Bodh Gaya, Aurangabad, Ralegaon Siddhi and brought them in touch with people like Anna Hazare and Bunker Roy.
A decade after they took the journey, “which was more an intellectual and emotional one of discovery,” he’s penned a book “India - A Journey Through a Healing Civilization”.
Several questions pop up instantly. What made him wait ten years to write a book on such a magnificent journey?
The journey itself was about bringing young people together on a common platform and get them talking about the country, says Shashank. “I hadn’t planned on writing a book. It actually started as a bedtime story for my two daughters recounting the yatra. I had initially set out to make a documentary, which never got made. And the 20 hours of footage now lie under my bed.” Shashank believes that the book is richer and more nuanced because it was written much after the journey. As he elaborates in the book’s epilogue: “This narrative has been long due but it needed the onset of the 60th anniversary of India’s independence to get it going.”
And on the narrative itself he admits: “I realised that I had often ignored the analytical for the passionate…the description of the journey merged with a description of my personal experiences, insights gained from starting my business, from walks in my village, and my personal experiences growing up in India…”
The title of the book, especially the ‘healing’ bit, again raises eyebrows. Shashank says he grew up reading V.S Naipaul’s criticism and a cynicism for the country as seen in his “India: A Wounded Civilization”. “But when we travelled, we discovered a civilization that had the power to heal,” says Shashank. In India, we see knowledge as wealth, and he believes that the country can offer new development insights to a world recovering from an industrial hangover.
A new journey
Shashank hopes to make the yatra an annual affair starting 2008, with corporate funding. Now dubbed Jagriti Yatra, the journey this time will take around 450 young people predominantly through South India. (They never came down south beyond Hyderabad last time because they ran out of funds, he says!)
“The focus this time will be on unsung social and economic heroes. The entrepreneurship I talk of is in terms of innovation at the ground level. It’s happening in smaller second-tier towns but unfortunately we don’t talk about them.” Around 120 of the students who went on the first journey are still in touch on a web-based forum.
Shashank elaborates that the journey definitely didn’t make Anna Hazares out of everyone, but the youngsters got the idea that they could make a difference.
For details on who can qualify and where the journey will take you, you can check out www.jagritiyatra.com.