India from the front seat: A project to record lockdown tales
Two men, a car and an epic journey across a nation in lockdown. Siddhartha Dutta and Ahmer Siddiqui’s Road Ashram project offers a firsthand look at how we suffered and survived through the pandemic
The road is the ultimate teacher, say Siddhartha Dutta and Ahmer Siddiqui. The 40-year-old colleagues-turned-friends from Mumbai and Delhi respectively have worked in the non-profit sector for 20 years. Dutta was primarily involved with fundraising for non-profits. Siddiqui’s work has mostly been in communications. They now run an organisation, Fairtales, that helps other non-profits to raise money and send their messaging out effectively.
That taught them, they say, that when there’s a problem, you should seek to solve it by hitting the road, meeting people. In 2020, that’s what they did. To get a sense of how the pandemic affected people across the country, the two men travelled across 30 states over 77 days, starting from first week of October 2020, literally from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.
“We watched migrant workers walking thousands of miles towards home, people losing their jobs, the economy being hit,” says Dutta. “We were worrying about things like the internet connection. But there were millions who didn’t know what they would eat the next day.”
So he and Siddiqui tapped into their network and began to distribute rations and essential supplies. But they felt the need to do more.
“We decided to get into our car and reach out,” says Siddiqui.They took time off from work and managed to work remotely wherever they could. “Dutta joined me from Mumbai, and we took my car, which we covered with sticker of symbols representing India’s diversity — the Taj Mahal, an elephant, Kathakali dancers — and set out to meet people and talk to them about their distress.”
They called their project Road Ashram, the road being the teacher and the whole country being an ashram or place to learning. The aim was simple: to meet and understand the challenges faced by people across the country, and bring attention to the humanitarian crises resulting from Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns. They hoped to bring these stories to the attention of the media and government authorities.
The car, all decorated, acted as a conversation starter everywhere they went. People from remote rural areas, who might otherwise have been reluctant to talk to strangers, were drawn to them from sheer curiosity.
Dutta and Siddiqui documented their journey with visual artist Neha Chaturvedi from Agra, who travelled with them part of the way.
“We met thousands of people and everyone was so hospitable,” Dutta says. “I remember travelling through dry desert in Gujarat during the unbearable daytime heat. There was not a soul for miles. Suddenly we came upon a hut, home to a family of five. They were really poor but that didn’t stop them from offering us water, chai and roti and sabzi. That was a very humbling experience for us.” They chatted in Gujarati, which Siddiqui speaks, about living in the wilderness, how they managed during the lockdown. They also talked about their children’s education.
The two learnt that apart from the health concerns and economic distress that the pandemic bought, key problems were lack of cell phone network penetration, which hurt students trying to study remotely in India’s remote villages. Regular vaccination drives had been disrupted. “Children with disabilities and people with mental health issues were the worst affected,” Ahmer says.
Listening to people’s miseries and desperate efforts to survive was not easy. “In Gorakhpur UP, migrant workers told us, as they walked for miles, that some local people had dislodged the handles of the roadside water pumps so that they couldn’t drink water” says Ahmer. “They were afraid the migrants might spread the virus. That brought tears to our eyes.”
A man they met in West Bengal compared the lockdown to demonetisation and mentioned how poor people’s meagre savings were wiped out again. He now sells petrol on a remote road near the Bhutan border to make ends meet.
“A lot of people in rural areas were doubtful of Covid being a real disease. There was a lot of misinformation,” Dutta says.
They also saw that India is a vast, beautiful country, full of natural beauty and warm people. Visiting the most inaccessible areas offered lessons on how people survive when even food rations have to be brought in from a neighbouring area even at the best of times.
The roads weren’t as bad as they expected. “Although we got stuck in a few places, we still managed the entire journey without wrecking our two-wheel drive car,” Dutta says.
But the long journey wasn’t devoid of challenges. “We self-funded the whole trip, spent almost 6 lakhs, so money was tight. It was also physically taxing. We sometimes drove for 18 hours straight, got lost in forests and deserts, went hours without food. We also broke the myth of the need to drink only mineral water during a road trip as we drank from everywhere – rivers, wells, roadside taps and never once, fell ill,” Dutta says.
“We made so many friends on our way that if we accepted all the invitations to eat with them or stay at their homes, our journey would have taken two years!” says Dutta.
Now that they have returned to their respective homes in Mumbai and Delhi, Dutta and Siddiqui want to make a documentary about the Road Ashram project. They plan to publish it next month.
“Right now some samples of our trip are on our Facebook page. We want to take our experiences to a larger audience, make them understand that most of the people in our country have to think about whether there will be food available on their plates tomorrow rather than worry about what to watch next on Netflix,” says Dutta.