I know that like food, travel is the big lifestyle thing of our times. If you’re not sharing your experience of ingesting some exquisite dish in some charming, tucked-away restaurant, then you’re gushing about a place you visited on your last vacation. In that sense, much of travelling has been stripped of its sense of adventure and wonder. It has become tourism. Migration, however, still retains some of the early fears — and thrills — of the Journey.
Amitav Ghosh’s majestic Sea of Poppies provides us a panoramic picture of the immense courage it took for Indians of a different era to leave their homes in search of a new life. The very first paragraph drives home the special force required to migrate, to move away from a familiar place to an unfamiliar one forever: “The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast? Her village was so far inland that the sea seemed as distant as the netherworld: it was the chasm where the holy Ganga disappeared into the Kala-Pani, ‘the Black Water’.”
Like Deeti, Ghosh’s 19th century character who goes on the one-way voyage to the ‘unknown’ islands of Mauritius on board the Ibis, Vinod Kotiya is also serious about crossing the Kala-Pani. But for the 31-year-old project planning and monitoring manager of NTPC, India’s largest electricity producer, the Black Water isn’t the Indian Ocean or connecting flights but the 225 million-odd kilometres of space separating Earth and Mars.
Kotiya, a resident of Delhi, is one of the 20,747 Indians out of the total 202,586 applicants who have made a bid to make a one-way, never-to-return trip to Mars courtesy a mission being planned by a Dutch not-for-profit organisation, Mars One, that aims to establish a permanent human settlement on the planet in 2023.
I asked Kotiya, who lives in Delhi’s Jangpura, why on earth he would want to leave his wife and daughter, not to mention the world, behind forever.
“I may regret it later. But I’ve always wanted to go to space,” the engineering graduate in information technology who had cleared a Pilot Aptitude Batter Test for the Indian Air Force and had unsuccessfully applied in 2011 for Nasa’s resident programme told me. “My wife was initially shocked. But she now knows that to make it I need to make it past four rounds. She doesn’t think I’ll cross the first round. So she’s not worrying now.”
But is he really serious about a no-return trip that involves being cooped up with three strangers for seven-eight months and then settling down in a harsh terrain where the quickest Skype-type videolink with ‘home’ will take at least eight minutes to travel making ‘real time’ conversation impossible? “I’m serious. It’s a difficult choice. But I want to be part of something as incredible as this.”
Indians are the second-largest contingent after Americans in this Martian story. Applicants range from serious contenders such as Pramila Thakur, now a systems developer in Canada and a Masters in organic chemistry from Aligarh Muslim University, to the 19-year-old K Pavan Kumar “from the land of Biryani, Hyderabad” who writes that his stand-out qualities are “stubbornness, optimism, laziness and craziness”, not great attributes for a selection panel looking for emotional and psychological stability, personal drive and motivation and a grounded, deep sense of purpose.
Mars One has a distinct air of a reality show about it. The selected lot will indeed be participants in a global TV show like Big Brother (a Dutch invention) and their lives on Mars will apparently be aired 24x7 on a channel. Most of the applicants have clearly applied for a lark. But for a few like Kotiya, who was born in Bhopal, grew up in Chhattisgarh, completed his engineering degree in Bhopal and then worked for six years “in the Himalayas near Gangotri”, and has lived for the last three years in Delhi, Mars is a serious destination for ‘settling down’.
Part of me finds this desire to leave the world behind crazy. But part of me also senses Kotiya’s profound and genuine pioneer spirit. “If I’m selected, it will be hard to be away from my family. But I’m hoping that in 10-15 years, such missions will encourage technology that will allow my daughter and wife to join me.” Like so many Indians for generations who settled all over this world? “Exactly,” he replies, hinting at what could soon provide a new meaning to that over-used word ‘post-colonial’.