17th July, Morbi to Bhuj (180 km) “Doing one’s best is the only best thing one can do.”
We once again pick up the enthralling tale of Sunita Singh Chocken’s cycling adventure from the night of 16th July. She had started the day from Junagadh and had arrived at Morbi late in the evening. She met with a bunch of Rotarians at the office of the Rotary Club of Morbi. The Rotarians spent an hour in meticulously drawing out the route from Morbi to Sunita’s next destination Bhuj, the iconic town of the Kutch Peninsula. Their detailed instructions would eventually be of great assistance to Sunita. After the meeting was adjourned, Sunita received a pair of lovely earrings from Rt. Doshi.
“Atithi Bhagaban Bhabo” – says the ancient texts of India. Sunita would, on that night, experience the warmth and sweetness of Indian hospitality. Rtn. Rakesh Meheta and Puja Meheta, a couple dedicated to the noble cause of Rotary, threw their doors open to Sunita for the night. They gifted Sunita with a small idol of Lord Ganesh, and a pendant bearing the auspice of the Omkar. Sunita was exhausted and sore after the day’s labour. Her cycle was covered in slush, and her clothes were soaked, dirty and unwearable. While Sunita collapsed into deep slumber, the couple washed her cycle, pulled out every article of her soiled clothing from the bag, and scrubbed, cleansed and dried them. Such is the wonder and splendor of this country’s customs. Mr. and Mrs. Meheta are the shining beacons of India’s timeless tradition of hospitality, where the host embraces the stranger like his or her closest kin.
The next morning (17th July) Sunita woke up early feeling fresh and rested. The Mehetas packed Sunita some food, and upon expressing her gratitude, the cyclist was on her way at 6 a.m. A light drizzle kept her company, as she pedaled through the marshes of Gujarat. During the British rule, local production of salt was banned in India. Some 90 years back Gujarat and India had risen up in solemn protest against this unfair restriction (Civil Disobedience Movement, 1930). The movement to acquire the right for domestic manufacture of salt greatly weakened the unscrupulous British Raj.
Sunita soon witnessed the upshot of this revolution, as she went past Malwai and entered the salt-fields of Gujarat. Meanwhile, the sun had broken through the heavy clouds, and the temperature, along with the humidity, had suddenly shot up. The scene on either side of the road was indeed riveting. Great heaps of black and white salt rose amidst the marshes.
The rays of the sun reflected off the shining mounds of common salt — the lifeline of this country. The water slowly evaporates around these salt fields, leaving back a black residue of Sodium Chloride. The salt is then collected, processed and sent across to different corners of the country.
The salt stuck to Sunita’s skin, and she could very well taste the saline air. The brilliant sunshine peeped through the dark clouds and cast an eerie glow on the black-and-white salt fields. Our cyclist has seen many wonders of nature during her eventful career, but the sight of these endless fields of salt left an indelible impression on her mind. “Desh Ka Namak” – she gasped in amazement.
Sunita also observed the curious attires of the passing men and women. “These are typical Gujarati costumes,” she surmised. The women were wearing long black lehengas and colourful cholis studded with glasses and stones. They walked through the torrid terrain joyously in graceful steps.
Many motorists passed along as well, and suddenly a sense of unusual despair gripped Sunita’s fatigued body. “I am the slowest mover in this world, “she mused, as the vehicles zoomed by her. Then, she saw a turtle crawling along the soft ground in lazy, unhurried steps. Sunita’s mood immediately lifted.
“Oh! Here is something, which moves slower than me. We are all doing our best, are we not?” Thus, Sunita recovered her spirits from the unlikeliest of sources, namely a slow-moving, complacent desert turtle. Sunita and the tortoise also taught us a powerful lesson – “Doing one’s best is the only best thing one can do.”
The sun soon abandoned Sunita, and the heavens opened up. She called up the Rotarians, and men from the Rotary Club of Gandhidham, promised to meet her at Bhachau (100 km from her starting point) for lunch. The monsoon downpour was now in its very prime, and Sunita searched desperately for some shield against the onslaught. A small pakora stall was nearby, and the owner drew her a chair. Then, the man wondered through the lashing rain to another shop, and returned with a cup of steaming tea. Sunita wondered thankfully how a tiny shanty had provided her with both refuge and refreshment. When Sunita tried to pay for the tea, the man refused the proffered money, stating simply “This is on me.”
The Rotarians from Gandhidham met Sunita at Bhachau. As per Rotary protocol, they exchanged flags, and after a hearty repast, Sunita charged on towards Bhuj. Another 80 km for her to traverse through this inclement climate and unfriendly terrain.
Suddenly, the wilderness became forlorn and desolate. There were no marks of signboards any more, nor any trace of human habitation. An unkind swathe of barrenness, dotted with copses and grey bushes, stretched on either side. The wind howled fearfully, while the rain came down in a steady drizzle. The solo cyclist applied her last ounce of strength and will on the pedals, refusing to stop or retrace her path. After a while, she noticed a man, ill-clad and unkempt, standing on the roadside. He raised his arms in a dreadful call for help. A closer examination of the man’s condition convinced Sunita that the supplicant had not eaten in a week. Where the man appeared from in this God forsaken land, Sunita did not enquire. She emptied her own provisions into the feeble hands of the mendicant. Biscuits, parathas, vegetables and a bottle of soft drinks – the famished man devoured the food without a word.
We would never know for sure whether a supreme being actually governs the universe, forgives our sins or rewards our charities. However, human misery is rife and rampant. We, for our most past part, turn a deaf ear to the appeals of our fellow beings. Sunita had received great love from strangers yesterday, and today she discharged a part of that debt by feeding another stranger on her way.
Sunita soon started to wonder whether she had lost her way. The countryside continued to look uninhabited, when at a distance she saw signs of civilization. A tiny hamlet greeted Sunita’s anxious eyes, and she asked for directions. The villagers informed her that Bhuj was still 66 km away from that point. After a while Sunita saw a milestone, which assured her that she was on the right track.
The energetic Rotarians from the RC club of Wall City Bhuj (led by AG Rtn. Amit Chaudhury) met Sunita at the outskirts of the town. Rtn. Arun Gupta had coordinated the efforts with diligence and precision. The road leading up to Bhuj was muddy and slippery. The car and the cycle needed to synchronize their pace adroitly in face of the rush-hour traffic. As Sunita was entering Bhuj, she discovered her erstwhile Rotarian friends from Bhachau, driving in her direction in a red BMW. However, in this excitement she lost her guides (the Rotarians from Bhuj) and it took some time to sort out the confusion.
Sunita put up at the Prince Hotel at Bhuj for the night. She had dinner with the Rotarians. News had spread that a courageous cyclist known as Sunita Singh Chocken was in town, and cyclists from local clubs came in scores to meet our hero. Members of the Bhuj Cycling Club gave her a model of a cycle. Sunita shared her experience with the audience, which listened to her tales in a captured silence.
It was a hard and long day for Sunita, but she gained a treasure trove of warmth and friendship, something she would cherish for the rest of her life.