One such vision was waiting to become a reality
for me in Nov. 2005. I celebrated my fifth year of post-cancer
by driving 5130km in 19 days to the Kuttch area of Gujarat
along with Ms.Tista Joseph (my 14-yr-old daughter)
I had been wanting to drive across India by myself (solo),
crossing the highest passes to the remotest corners to hold
Cancer Awareness Camps
Through this roller coaster adventure drive I wanted to
motivate cancer patients and survivors to drive on the High
of life exploring their inner strengths and spirits. I wanted
to instill hope in all to celebrate health and life specially
those who were touched by this illness.
The mission was to conduct Awareness Camps
on Breast, Oral and Cervical Cancers. Personal interaction
and dispelling myths being focal to the project along with
teaching self examination and information/material dissemination
regarding the disease to the far flung areas.
Thus began the journey with the
germ of a thought and a vision – Project
>>> Ways –which,
we decided to take forward in the form of a nationwide drive.
With support from Women’s Cancer Initiative –
Tata Memorial Hospital Mumbai as sponsors; Ford Motors providing
the wheels (a Ford Endeavor Everest); Hindustan Petroleum
fuelling the mission, a six month project began which culminated
in the 3rd Asia Pacific ‘Reach to Recovery’ International
Breast Cancer support Conference on 06/Nov/2006 at the Hilton
On the driver’s seat - Dr. (Mrs.) Ritu Biyani
Joseph is spearheading this solo drive across India,
with the concept of linking adventure sport with an awareness
campaign This dental surgeon and an avid photographer, is
an adventurer by heart, who loves challenges and never misses
an opportunity to cheer other cancer patients. Has scaled
mountains, Para-trooped and sky-dived and In the past 3 years
she has driven a total of 40,000 kms cross country in India
& Bhutan. She was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in September
On the co-drivers seat -Ms. Tista Joseph,
14 yrs old, a student of St Mary’s school Pune. This
young Navigator of the drive, is a budding photographer and
has keen interest in social, environment and wildlife issues.
Adapts smoothly into all walks of life. . Has seen her mother
through the illness and bonds well with families of suffering
patients. Has decided to spend her entire summer vacation
with the mission.
Ms Vandana Natu-breast cancer survivor, a total stranger
to me as well as a novice in adventure field,and a non driver
she volunteered to join on the suggestion of Mrs.Shubha from
cpaa. She is a writer and has been working for an ad agency
for the last 10 years.
– the story so far
No April fool this is! Chose the perfect day to start
On April 1, 2006 we were flagged off
from Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai amidst a lot of
cheering and support from the main catalyst Dr. R.A.
Badwe (Surgical Oncologist TMH), Dr. Dinshaw (Director
TMH), Deveika Bhojwani (VP- Women’s Cancer Initiative,
Tata Memorial Hospital), Suniel & Manna Shetty and
loads of friends and family.
An unscheduled 2 day halt at Pune became inevitable
to give the last moments finishing touches and pack
up respective houses and short circuit all long pending
jobs as I would be out for the next six months.
(04/04/06 – 06/04/06)
Lord Ganapati [Ganesha] blesses the crew –
Nothing better than an auspicious start. My father, Prof.
R.S. Biyani, broke the first coconut and a small prayer was
performed for everyone’s safety as the vehicle steered
out of Pune at 8:00am on 04 April 2006. With blessings from
Lord Ganesha at Ranjangaon- around 9:30am, the ‘High
The first stop was at Ahmednagar at around 11:45am where
a small impromptu camp was held for the families and employees
of Rajdeep Group of companies. This was the foundation of
all the camps to come. We showed only the symptoms and risk
factors on charts here.Ahmednagar-Aurangabad-Akola was the
route taken and a night halt at Akola closed the day.
Ahmednagar-Aurangabad-Akola was the route taken and a night
halt at Akola closed the day.
Karanja Cluster -
On the way to Nagpur (05 April) just after a lovely lunch
of Rotis and daal at a dhaaba, all were quite relaxed and
looking forward to an early evening at Nagpur. Just as the
reverie and aroma of the recent lunch was settling down, I
saw a group of around 500-600 women from the corner of my
eyes, right next to the Highway. They were holding some sort
of demonstration.. By the time my eyes could move around,
there was a quick exchange of affirmation between Tista and
us.. It was like a pre planned automatic affirmative nod from
both while I swerved the car back to the group.
Within minutes, we were immersed in the sea of ‘molakarin
sanghatan’ (Domestic helps organization) at the Highway
in Karanja (Ghatge), Maharashtra. Again an impromptu and one
of the biggest congregations of women among the entire lot.
What was supposed to be a 15 minute invasion into their meeting
turned out to be a full fledged 1.5 hours camp. With the help
of Flip boards, charts and facts and figures – the risk
factors, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and socials issues
were explained to all.Around 50 women came up with complaints
of lumps and others problems. There was a lot of anger among
them as they felt that most of the screening camps conducted
by most people were highly ineffective as they were rarely
Around 50 women came up with complaints of lumps and others
problems. There was a lot of anger among them as they felt
that most of the screening camps conducted by most people
were rarely followed up.
Its so surprising how when everyday friends help you out
in foreign lands, the bonds of friendship grow into respect
and become more valuable.
||We reached Nagpur- the ‘city of oranges’
by 5:30pm and parked ourselves at Orange City Hotel, arranged
by our friend Mr.Hemant Peshkar. Another friend Mr. Milind
had arranged for the Sports Federation Team to meet and
encourage us. Its so surprising how when everyday friends
help you out in foreign lands, the bonds of friendship
grow into respect and become more valuable.A press conference
was also arranged for us by our friends with knickknacks
and tea.Vandanas dear friend, Mr. Hemanth Peshkar had
arranged for the stay. Ritus dear friend Mr. Milind had
arranged for the Sports Federation Team to meet and encourage
After all were gone, we settled down in the comforts of the
hotel, with ‘face packs’. For me it was a long
drive in the April heat, and after all the previous weeks
running around and activities and excitement, I crashed into
a deep slumber.
Next morning (06/04/06) was refreshing . An early departure
was a must as I had been instructed by my family members not
to be on the roads after dark Also as a rule, I liked to start
the drive just as dawn clears the night’s veil. Those
couple of morning hours are cool, and the roads too are less
congested with traffic. A rule that became very difficult
to abide by, as our new novice member couldn’t seem
to adjust to this fact.
Nagpur remains an integral part of my growing up because
it was here I did my Dentistry from Govt.Dental College and
Hospital from1976 to 1981.
Just when we were to leave the city, I threw a question
to the slumbering Tista – Why is Nagpur so important
in Indian Geography-- Tista rightly answered that it was the
Zero Mile centre of India. That’s it!! We just needed
a reason. Now the hunt for the zero milestone began and they
finally left Nagpur by 12 noon after taking a proud photograph
with the esteemed marker. So much so for an early departure!!!.
We were soon gaining a reputation of being a very well meaning
but a half mad team.
|Madhya Pradesh - The Wild Side
(06/04/06 – 09/04/06)
On the same day, Kanhan Coal City
and Pench Tiger Reserve (Seoni, M.P.) later we were
at Kanha National Park. We were getting late so had
to skip the ‘Pench Tiger Reserve’. Didn’t
really know what was in there but boards like ‘Kiplings
Court’ made us resolve (specially the die hard
environmentalist Tista) to come back there later in
life and give it its due.
We met Mr. Subhash,Rahul- the Manager and his brother
at the Kanha Pugmarks Resort. They were kind enough
to help us in our mission by taking the worries of stay
and food away. In the evening all plans for the forthcoming
camps were discussed. Two camps were held in the next
two days– the Mocha & Khatiya villages were
covered and people from the village of Kanha Kisli attended
Quite contrary to our belief (that Kanha being a famous
National park with lot of tourist movement, the villagers
must be quite ‘with it’ as far as their
commercial needs and fulfillments were concerned) they
were very simple and committed towards keeping Kanha’s
ecological balance intact. It was sad to see that a
National park of this stature did not have its own resident
doctor. Our camps were met with a bit of a resistance
in the beginning but as it progressed women opened up
and were asking straight questions instead of the regular
round about ways. I had started improvising and adding
local flavor to the interaction and all it needed was
the first burst of laughter then it would sail smoothly.
We were also getting used to group dynamics and modifying
our talks as per the needs.
We spent one day venturing into the park and keeping
in tradition with Tista’s claim that ‘Big
cats have plotted something against her’. She
was sure of not seeing them even if she went to ‘Serengeti‘,
we saw one and all “(including a sloth bear) but
not the big cats.
Also saw ‘Baiga’ dance in the evening and
slept early as we had a long day the next day.
|Chhattisgarh (09/04/06 - 10/04/06)
After 2 days in Kanha we moved into Raipur in Chhatisgarh
A visit to the Bhoramdeo Siva stone temple built in 11the
century AD (in the reign of Naga Vamsi kings) on the way to
Raipur is a must. It is called the ‘Khajuraho of Chhatisgarh’.
It was almost 3:30pm and there was hardly anything nearby
except a small shop that kept peanuts and colas which saved
the hungry souls.
Raipur was included in the itinerary only because Mr. Prakash
whom we had met in Tata Hospital Mumbai and had insisted that
we stop there as we ‘pass by’ through the city.
It was to be a stop over but it turned out to be much more
than that as when we reached Raipur and met them, they all
landed up where we were to stay and we did an ad hoc camp.
A press meet in the morning was followed by lunch. Someone
informed us that there was a lady who had cancer which had
now recurred. We went to meet her. It was our first interaction
like this outside Pune. She was so happy to see us and insisted
that once she was out of treatment, she would definitely join
We entered the Badrama Ghats – a long range of low mountains.
They were our first ghats after the Sahayadris. Sahayadris
were like home. After the regular clicking of milestones,
we moved onto enjoying the greens.
But at around 12:15 pm on 11/04/06 in the Kanjipani Ghat,
appx. 38 kms from Keonjhar, a truck hit us from behind.and
Crrassh. Without even looking behind I knew that the rear
windscreen had shattered. It was quite a shock to us as we
had just begun our journey but I were determined to not let
anything stop us at all. Not only did it hit us but its driver
overtook and harassed us for about the next 15 kms by overtaking,
dangerously side cutting and not letting us go past.
Then began the long chase, ending up at Keonjhar District
Police headquarters only to be told that we had to come back
all the way to Kanjipani to file an FIR. Luckily Mr. Vijay
Kumar Pradhan the Station-in-charge at the Kanjipani police
station helped a speedy filing of FIR.
After all this we sat back to take stock and found that the
backdoor was badly damaged and the windscreen fully smashed.
Only the curtains were holding strong.. It was impossible
to continue like that as the car was packed! Then began the
marathon telephones to the Ford company. It was not like being
in a city with instant connectivity. There was no network
in the Ghats section and the nearest landline was about 35
All the concerned persons at the Ford Motors India from Mr.
Siva. To Mr. Rashid to Ms. Ravinder were extremely helpful
as they quickly tied up with people from Jamshedpur (appx.
220 kms away from the accident site) to get the repairs done
in the night.
I finally took a detour from our itinerary to land up in
Jamshedpur at midnight minus the rear windscreen.
Here, I had to break the promise of not driving in the night
specially in the isolated and forested region that it was-but
there was no choice.
|Jharkhand (12/04/06 –
I was so relieved to see the service engineer of Ford waiting
for us at midnight and so oblivious to what was coming –
The ODI cricket match between India and England was to be
held in Jamshedpur the next day.
With no food, no sleep we began the hunt for a roof for the
night. Three women, in the middle of the night, in an unknown
city, were looking for a hotel. Not a single room was available!
Never cursed Cricket as much as we did that day. Exasperated,
the Ford Engineer – a young bachelor who was helping
us find a place said ‘Mam if finally you can’t
find a place, just come to my house and crash from the night.
But I am a bachelor so you will have to excuse the messes.
We thanked him for the offer but found a hotel which had been
inaugurated that very day!!! Didn’t even bother to check
the rent rates…just took the room and dropped dead on
the beds! I had been driving non-stop since 6 a.m. For the
record, the dinner comprising of tomato sandwiches took 1.5
hours to come!
|West Bengal (13/04/06 –
17/04/06) Assam (18/04/06 – 22/04/06)
From Jamshedpur we traveled to Bholpur, Siliguri, Guwahati,
Kaziranga, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and so on. Holding camps, making
new friends and admiring nature.
On 20/04/06 a camp at Hathikhuli Tea Estate in the Tea garden
near Kaziranga was conducted at a short notice. A lot of small
camps took place when we just walked up to people and told
them that we wanted to just talk to them. By now I had developed
a better co-ordination with Tista and Vandana. I could handle
diverse queries by the locals with ease.
The trip through Kaziranga National Park made it clear that
Tista’s vision of becoming a wildlife Vet wasn’t
just all talk, it had much more to what met the eye. She would
spend her spare time just chatting up with mahaouts learning
about Elephants. Knowing that the best Elephant trainer &
Mahaout in India was a woman named Parvati from the nearby
village was a proud moment.
We got to attend the Ganesh Pooja too where 30 elephants
mingled with people like it was a mela and they had come to
Due to the geographical features Assam & West Bengal
were two states we would be frequenting while completing the
North-Eastern circuit as one has to keep entering and exiting
these states often.
|Arunachal Pradesh (22/04/06
Arunachal Pradesh was a first for all of us. I steered the
Ford Endeavor into Arunachal on 22/04/06 via Dibrugarh in
Assam. It was an exciting prospect for me as this was virgin
territory for me. Our fourth member Ishani Roy from Mumbai,
who was to be with us for the next twenty days joined us here.
I had been in touch with Mr. Prashant Lokhande, DC of Lohit
& Anjaw districts AP through Mr. P. Ligu, Director Tourism,
Arunachal Pradesh for all the networking about our stay and
holding the camps. He and his Wife Dr. Chaitali extended all
the support we would ever need in the whole state. When I
was with this committed couple, I felt that it was possible
to impact people’s lives positively through the power
invested in the Indian Administrative Service.
We stayed at Namsai for the first night followed by hectic
next two days with 5 consecutive camps in Namsai, Mahadevpur,
Lathao, Chongkham & Wakro. Being close to the Assam border
Namsai & Mahadevpur had a lot of Boro & Deori tribes.
The rest had more of the local Mishmi tribes.
The Deori tribes came all dressed up to the camp as they
had to rush for the festival dances after the camp. Their
hurry to leave was quite evident but as the interaction kept
growing, they forgot all about it. Deeply engrossed they realised
only at the end and they made their bus wait till the camp
ended. To make up for the delay, they started dancing in the
hall itself, not sparing all of us either. We all danced and
were a big happy family.
All were welcome to come to the camp so we had a lot of people
who were suspected of some other disease came from far flung
areas. In the course of these camps we saw cases of extreme
deterioration of personal health including some with symptoms
beyond imagination. A quick list was made and given to the
DC who had promised us to follow up with anyone we felt needed
assistance. I realized that the number of undetected cases
make up for a lot of the missing statistics.
We got very little time to see the place but managed to see
the Namsai Priyattisasana Buddhist Vihara and Buddhist Monastries
at Chongkham (Thamoon Sutongpe Stupa). Unlike their Tawang
counterparts these had a lot of Burmese and Thai influence.
We did manage a quick run to the Parashuram Kund on our way
to Tezu. That is one place one should go and sit for sometime
and be with oneself. The river Lohit is an amazing companion
On 26/04/06 we had two camps. First at Loiliyang and then
next at the district headquartes at Tezu. Tezu happens to
be the district where the first sunrays of the millennium
in the world fell in ‘Dong’. A tiny village by
the name of ‘Kahao’ which is the easternmost village
of India, is a place worth a visit too.
Most importantly, our hosts Mrs. & Mr. Lokhande were
based in Tezu. They were very concerned for us as the roads
ahead were treacherous and seeing a lady drive, they wanted
to provide me with a driver. I promptly refused as this was
my solo drive and I these were my adventurous moments, come
what may. Lots of discussions later it was finally decided
to take his driver whom we fondly called ‘Thapa ji’
- not to drive but just to be there. Initially restless and
shy sitting in the backseat, which I guess all drivers become
when made to sit behind, I observed him through the rear view
mirror, gradually relaxing and enjoying being driven by me.
As I found out later, he was loved by one and all and his
‘shut eye laughter’ was quite famous with Tista
Next morning on 27/04/06 I set out to touch the north easternmost
tip and ‘the land of the rising sun’ which was
still a day away.
On the way to Quibang ‘Udayak Pass’ at 1544 mts
was the first pass I crossed in this expedition. As the Ford
Endeavour zipped past in the hills, it was the most thrilling
experience as having a good vehicle in a difficult terrain
is anyone’s dream come true.
The first night halt was to be at Walong curtsey Bihar military
regt.Walong happens to have a lot of historical value in the
history of Indian Defense forces as the Chinese had managed
to come till there and were fearlessly opposed by the Indian
soldiers in the battle of Walong Oct/Nov 1962. The War Memorial
situated by the river Lohit says –
Asleep in the Mishmi Hills
The sentinel hills
That round us stand
Bear witness that
We loved our land
Admist shattered rock
And Flaming Pine
We fought and died
On Namti Plain
O Lohit gently by us glide
Pale stars above softly shine
As we sleep here
In sun and rain
Penned by Mr. Bernard S. Douglas
– DC Lohit district in 1965
On 28/04/06 the expedition vehicle wheeled onto the last
motorable road in the north easternmost part of India –
Kibithu. Across the fence were the Chinese peaks.
A camp was held there with the help of army.
Next back at Kibithu, on 29/04/06 we trekked for 3-4 kms
to reach ‘Kahao’ & ‘Dong’–
the last village on the eastern tip of India. It was an easy
trek with Tista, aseasoned trekker zipping past all of us,
followed by Ishani inspite of her knee problem, followed by
me. I had to slow my speed as Vandana was already in huffs
and puffs and lagging far behind the good part was we were
escorted by the soldiers. Kahao has nine families and a total
of appx. Thirty people living there.
It was a proud moment to hold an awareness camp there. The
families were extremely responsive and even invited all for
a traditional lunch.
As if straight out of the Bollywood movie ‘Swades’,
the tiny village had its own mini – hydel (a hydro-electric
power generator) and could take care of all its electricity
needs. Manned by the locals, it made them extremely self reliant.
On 01/05/06, a camp was organized at Walong by the Civil
Authorities. Just before the camp I was called by some locals
to meet a bed ridden patient - a mishmi (tribe) girl in her
house. Her condition was a living example of apathy and how
if not taken care of initial, small things like pustules can
take a terrifying magnitude. Inspite of the Army and the Public
health Agencies providing her the required medicines, a simple
effort of cleaning the wounds were not taken care off leading
to partly choking of her ears, nose, eyes and mouth too inspite
of seeing many a caese ,I was prepared to see this type. Quickly
removing her 1 year old baby away from her, and giving through
instructions on admitting her immediately and getting her
wounds cleaned, and putting her on I'v fluids, we later moved
on to hawai.
Hawai is a beautiful town situated on a plateau on top of
a hill. Surrounded by mountains and the Lohit rive flowing
down, its seems like a place straight of a story book.
Hayuliang was the next stop on 02/05/06 for the next camp
followed by Tezu on 03/05/06 after which the mission headed
for Roing in Lower Dibang Valley where a camp was held on
04/05/06. This was the first time I had ever driven a vehicle
over dry river beds and through shallow rivers which are known
to be flooded during the monsoons..
Lower Dibang Valley is famous for the scenic Myodia Pass
and Hunli from where you can see Brahmaputra. It wasn’t
difficult to find out why people wanted to come back there
again and again. l slept lightly that night as the next day
was a big day.
Crossing the mighty Brahmaputra
Getting up early on 05/05/06 I was surprised
to find the whole team ready before me.Later.i was told,all
efforts were towards keeping my nerves calm and maintaining
an encouraging atmosphere as I was to maneuver this huge vehicle
over two planks of wood onto a local ferry , with the voluminous
Brahmaputra flowing below. For the kind information of the
readers .I am a non swimmer….and only I know what was
the surge of adrenaline within my body, in those moments.
Rolling smoothly over 8” planks, I managed it with
finesse fit only for seasoned experts. Once everyone was safely
aboard. Including the vehicle, the locals and the onlookers
who had collected to see ‘a woman drive’ cheered
The team (Dr. Ritu, Vandana, Tista & Ishani)
with vehicle aboard on Brahmaputra
and a big smile flashed on my
face. The cameras got rolling to capture this precarious moments..
Once the ferry set in motion, Elvis and Rang de basanti took
over and we danced wild to the songs while also recording
the savage journey from excitement to craziness on the video.
On reaching the other end, a very relieved me got talking
to the boatmen and in no time we were doing a camp for them.
We had crossed Assam once again to get back into Arunachal.
Admist fun frolic and unplanned camps we reached Pasighat.
Pasighat saw the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh Mr.
Gegong Apang pay a flying visit to the team at the Siang Guest
House. He wished the team all the very best over a cup of
tea and expressed his gratitude.
Pasighat, Rayang, Sille had three camps. Rayang was the smallest
camp ever as it was over dinner that the host family expressed
the wish that we take them through our presentation.
We were presented with a white blanket each by Mrs. Yamik
Dulom - their Liason Officer from DMO office. She and her
daughters had knit them. It was much later when we found out
that a hand knit white blanket was the highest regard anyone
could pay in the Adi tribe. The Addl.District Commissioner
[ADC] of Pasighat, Mrs. Sadhna Deori helped us in our further
contacts for Along. She honoured us by presenting the Local
hand-woven’ gale’ [long skirt like wraparounds].which
we enjoyed wearing at many other camps in Arunachal Pradesh.
camp was a short one as most of the participants were
from the medical background and it wasn’t difficult
explaining things to them.
Along proved to be the key to a Treasure Island as it
was the gateway to a place each and every member of
the team will want to come back to.
Mechuka – 180 kms from Along is an unexplored
heaven waiting to be discovered by the die hard travelers.
Not for the faint hearted, the drive to Mechuka is a
tough one. Surrounded by snow capped mountains and the
distinct housing architecture makes it a painted landscape.
Not to forget the fluttering Buddhist prayer flags (Mompa
population are in majority) and the ever so beautiful
Gompa [monastery]. It could easily pass off as a European
countryside if it wasn’t for the Buddhist influence
and oriental features.
Sad that it was a touch and go situation as we had only
one and a half day to Reach-See-Return from Mechuka.
Feeling guilty that we could not do a camp there, I
requested the ADC and the ‘Border Roads Organisation’
to help arrange something for us even though it meant
reaching Along at midnight taking the treacherous road.
He obliged. Camps at Mechuka and Segong were hurried
but very productive .Here again I had to break my promise
of not driving at night, but we were rewarded with the
rare sighting of the Red Panda in the wild.
Capital city Itanagar
had organized a big camp through the State Women’s
Commission. It also gave and opportunity for the team
to spend and evening with the Governor His Excellency
S. K. Singh. Another evening well spent was when the
Lamas at Thuptan Gatsuling Gompa invited the team for
dinner and cooked while sharing the daily life routine
The team reached Tenga on 17/05/06.where my paratrooper
colleague with whom I was intouch prior to the start
of the journey, Maj. Jolly took care of our logistics.
The bond of the maroon beret is very strong and well
I was a paratrooper during my army service.
With Governor Arunachal – HE Shri
S. K. Singh
It was a poignant moment as Ishani Roy who had become
a part of the team had to go back to Mumbai as her College
was starting. Ishani and Tista had become close friends
and to see them brave it, was heart wrenching. On 18/05/06
Ishani was safely sent back to Mumbai while the original
trio continued to Tawang crossing the SELA PASS.
At China Border on 20/05/06 –
Bumla, Arunachal Pradesh
Another significant destination
was – Bumla on 20/05/06. With Tawang as
a base and supported by the Army from Tenga, the
gang headed for Bumla. A snowbound area at 15,500
feet, Bumla was the highest pass the expedition
had been to in Arunachal Pradesh. Another vital
fact is that it is on the LOC[Line of control]
. One can cross over into China for a few feet
and when one looks back, a bold ‘Welcome
to India’ makes one’s heart swell
up with pride.
‘Mama, the snow looks the same on both
sides of the LOC, so do the mountains, the lakes
and the entire landscape. The fog travels from
one country to another so do
the birds fly- without
any passport. Then why do we human beings make
these demarcations and even fight for the land?
Isn’t it so silly? Tista asked me….I
directed her to the young Captain who was guiding
us to the location and soon I could hear both
of them having a sort of debate over the issue.
Childhood-so blissful and naïve.
One of the eye catching feature is the presence
of Maratha Ground and a ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji
Marg’ at 12,400 feet in the middle of nowhere
on the way to Bumla. The Maharashtrian connection
made everyone smile and move on.
After a camp for the defense personnel and their
families back at Tenga. It was time to leave Arunachal
Pradesh. It was a very emotional time for all
of us. As the last of the hills were coming to
an end and the Assam Plains were in view we just
wanted to turn the vehicle around and go back
to Arunachal. It seemed like a home after spending
more than a month there. As is always a case with
me, I left a piece of my heart in the folds of
the eastern Himalayas. Some day I might come back
to explore this paradise again.
After a days break in Tezpur the journey continued
Meghalaya was another story. We did 4 camps in Shillong at
the Assam regimental Center then at Gorkha Training Centre
.The initial hesitation and the rank hierarchy vanished in
minutes when I started playing games actually meant for the
bastis and villagers and soon realized that all you need to
get across to people is a heart that wants to communicate,
never mind the language, caste or creed. The monsoons were
at its peak and it became difficult not only to hold the camps
but even getting out of the guestroom, specially at Cherrapunji-which
incidentally is known to be the wettest place on the earth.
Meghalaya is a goldmine of tourist attractions including
Caving expeditions (a short visit to the Mawsmai caves illustrated
the huge possibilities in this area), Living root bridges,
the monoliths and not to forget the innumerable awesome waterfalls.
Noh kailikai falls surrounded by deep gorges in Sohora (Cherapunjee)
happens to be fourth tallest in the world and we were there
in the full bloom of monsoon. While we stood watching it,
the fog which was seemingly sedimented at the base of the
valley suddenly started rising, like an erupting volcano.
In a matter of seconds the whole valley of deep gorges was
covered in fog and visibility was very poor. It was time to
leave and by the time I put the car in gear it was all clear
again. Playing hide and seek with nature has its own fun but
this was something all of us will never forget.
‘Khublei Shibun’ is all we can say with gratitude.
A visit to the Sohora ‘bara bazaar’ (on Tuesdays)
is a must too.
Meghalaya was followed by a state none other
than Nagaland. So rich in tribal legacy yet so unexplored.
The team did three camps there – one in Rangapahar
near Dimapur with the army HQ there, and second at Kohima
with Assam Rifles (both co-sponsors to our project) and another
in a village near Kohima called Tsosinyu. Rangapahar camp
was a cakewalk as the populace knew Hindi but in Tsosinyu
(arranged by Assam Rifles) we had a young Army jawan as our
interpreter who knew the local Nagamese language very well.
Tsosinyu – Nagaland camp
It was interesting to see him dressed in camouflage with a
‘bullet proof jacket’ and explaining ‘self
breast examination’ to the local ladies. His ease with
the subject matter and the openness of the villagers to ask
frank questions through him was like an effortless meeting
of different worlds.
After the camps a visit to the Naga Heritage Complex was quite
an eye- opener as we got to see life -size habitat replications
of all major 14 tribes of Nagaland in the most scenic surroundings.
A visit to the World War II - Kohima War Memorial (maintained
by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) seemed like a pre
requisite to anyone calling themselves patriotic. We never
imagined we would be spending three hours there, just reading
epitaphs. Each epitaph spoke of the supreme sacrifice in the
language of the heart. Naik Ghulam Muhammad’s name made
us all skip a beat as he was all of 16 years of age when he
bravely gave his life for us on 14/10/44.
‘When you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow
we gave our today’. - A soldiers epitaph
The above sentiments echoed not just in the World War II War
Memorial but everywhere from the highest mountain passes to
the lowest battleground
Patient with Metasstasis – RIMS Imphal,
|Manipur like Nagaland was a last minute
entry into the itinerary, all thanks to Maj. Gen. E.J.
Kochhekan SM.VSM .The camps there were attended by one
and all from the uniformed to the civilians including
the local population of Kookis, Meiteis, Tamilians, Muslims
and others. It showed us a different side of the state.
A camp with just school children at Imphal, another at
Moirang with the locals and another with the Catholic
Medical Center-with Catholic Nuns was unique. The nuns
and father made for an extremely inquisitive crowd. Peals
of laughter and some shy glances apart, they seemed very
|knowing more. The school children
gave us a window to the future generation of Manipur.
Ill effects of Tobacco etc were explained to them with
On 13/06/06 the camps were scheduled back to back in three
different villages. Heavy rains delayed the first one
at Senapati and it snowballed into a delay of more than
two hours till the third camp at Motbung. People were
agitated but waiting. The moment we got out of the car
we knew we had to tackle it well. While Vandana and Tista
were setting up the audio-visual aids, I just walked up
to them and asked them to sing a song!! Yes…to sing
a song out of the blue!!! They were startled but obliged
and soon the angry crowd was singing hymns (Motbung has
mainly Kooki Christians). It soothed everyone and we rolled
into a very actively participating camp.
I visited the Cancer patients at RIMS-[Regional Institute
of Medical Science] in Imphal. Meeting an actual cancer
survivor was very heart-warming for them. I could see
hope reflected in their eyes.
Occasionally with Army protection but mostly on our own,
we combed the roads to get a feel of the place. We were
made to feel most welcome. Contrary to the reports one
hears back home about Manipur and other northeastern states,
we three ladies felt much safer there than in any of the
Apart from the camps, the floating islands I (the only
one of their kinds), the INA museum (Indian National Army
of Subhas Chandra Bose) and the war memorials became an
integral part of the itinerary. A state so rich in heritage,
culture and sports needs much more appreciation and backing
to make it flourish even more.
| The highlight of the Manipur visit was
crossing the International Boundary over from Moreh into
Tamu a border town of Mayanmar. It was another landmark
as this was the second international boundary we touched
in our journey. As I stood at the bridge between the two
countries I visualized myself of driving beyond the borders..Someday
No. 2 Bohikua, Golaghat Dist., Assam
|On our way from Manipur to Siliguri we had
a camp at Bokaghat-No. 2 Bohikua in Assam was another
example of actually reaching out to the interiors. We
had met Father Thomas on our way to Pasighat from Roing
in Arunachal Pradesh. He invited us to do a camp in Bokaghat
in Golaghat district, Assam. On 17/06/06 we went there
and had a camp with the Missing Tribe [pun unintended!].
From collecting everyone to interacting with them (thanks
to our interpreter Pushpa who translated everything we
said into Assamese and Missing) to finally being a part
of the song and dance ritual was quite an apt end to an
otherwise empty Community hall when we
|had reached Bohikua.
A camp was held at Sukhna army campus on our way to Sikkim.
|Sikkim (20/06/06 – 26/06/06)
Sikkim was a dream…for all of us in its own
For Tista it was like going back to her roots as her name
is the name of the biggest river in Sikkim ‘The Teesta’.
For Vandana, it was visiting one of the loveliest parts of
But for me it was a walk down the memory lane and revisiting
the most memorable and fond reminiscences. I was posted here
as the first lady doctor in this area way back in 1982-83.
As a young 21 year old then, so far away from my home town,
I was quite flattered by the Governor’s visit and the
local Lamas coming to me for dental problems. In fact I even
named my daughter Tista after the well-known river. Coming
back to it all after 23 years had made me misty eyed.
|The first camp on 21/06/06 was in Gangtok
in the defense auditorium. The next day on 22/06/06 we
moved onto North Sikkim where the sleepy town of Lachen
was the next venue. We reached Lachen to find only 4-5
people there. The Sarpanch (Mukhiya is called ‘Pipin’
here) said …why don’t you start, people will
come!! By the roadside, with two chairs and 5 people we
started explaining things. In the next 15 minutes almost
70 people had gathered and a full fledged camp was underway.
After that was Chungthang on 24/06/06
where with the help of the Sarpanch Mr. Lhendup Lepcha
we had a camp. The local populace was mixed, coming
from Tibetan, Lepcha or Bhutia backgrounds. While addressing
us, they kept calling Tista ‘the daughter of Sikkim’.
It was a proud day for her. It is important to know
how open minded the North Eastern belt is. During the
Self Breast Examination session, most of them would
do it religiously. In case of any problem, they would
not hesitate to just go ahead and bare it all.
That was soon followed by a camp for the Border Roads
Organization. On 23/06/06 we got out to see the real beauty
of North Sikkim. Not wanting to see the usual tourist
attraction we set out towards the origin of the River
Tista. Crossing small towns of Thangu, Giagong we reached
the Gurudongmar lake (the origin of ‘Tista khangtse’
is 10 kms ahead of the lake). Situated in the Chholamo
Cold desert and at a height of 17100 feet above sea level,
the Gurudongmar Lake is a breathtaking view. Surrounded
by Glaciers and barren mountain tops, it has a story to
tell. According to the locals there are two sides to it.
One is that Guru Padma Sambhava had come here and
Gurudongmar lake, North Sikkim –
|with his walking stick it broke the
frozen lake open. Another one says Guru Nanak came here and
did the same hence the name Gurudongmar. Either way, it’s
something all should see. A sudden jump in the height from 9000
ft to 18000 ft took Vandana and Tista by surprise and they were
sick in no time, barely managing to take a few shots here and
there and see the places by taking oxygen supplies.
After that I drove to a height of over 18,400+ feet
above sea level. It was a treacherous drive and it will
be always remembered by the team not just for the difficult
terrain but the way I managed to keep myself physically
and mentally fit for the drive as the vehicle was also
showing high altitude effects by stopping on and off
gasping for oxygen!!! As we started descending down
I had headaches and finally graced the oxygen mask while
It was getting late and we finally couldn’t go
to see the Deothang Glacier which
is supposedly the one that melts down into Tista River.
Our North Eastern leg of the All India expedition finally
came to an end in Siliguri on 25/06/06. We took a break on
26/06/06 to catch up with our documentation while our host
Mrs. & Mr. N. C. Kar pampered us as we pounded away on
Tista who had missed out on 3 weeks of school by giving that
time (apart from whole of her summer vacation) to the mission
was all set to finally fly from Bagdogra all alone on 28/06/06
to Pune to resume school. I know she is torn between her school
for her studies and the Mission Project High
which she shared as a dream with me.
The next day i.e. 29/06/06 I steered my SUV towards the Highways
of East Coast and West Coast of Southern India via Murshidabad.with
the feeling of emptiness in my heart without my daughter’s
presence, who was always my buddy and navigator on all my
earlier road journeys, right from the time she was a 2months
Karanja Ghadge – Maharashtra
Bankura Shilpi Kendra – West Bengal
Moreh – Manipur
Imphal – Manipur
Mahadevpur – Arunachal Pradesh
Quibang – Arunachal Pradesh
Hawai, Arunachal Pradesh
Our smallest camp – Yamik Dulom residence,
Rayang, Arunachal Pradesh
Hawai camp in progress, Arunachal Pradesh
Shillong - Meghalaya