Log kya kahenge? (What will people say)
This is the mindset that Jothi Viknesh, a 32-year-old from Tamil Nadu, sought to defeat when he undertook a trip across India in December 2021.
Aboard his 7.3KW powered Mahindra Treo, an electric auto-rickshaw aptly named ‘Hope’, Jothi wanted to do what’s seldom attempted — set a Guinness Book of World Records for the longest journey ever taken in an electric auto rickshaw.
While this was the first time he used an autorickshaw to accomplish his mission, it wasn’t the first time he cruised through the country. In fact, this was his third such trip.
“The first was by bike in 2016,” Jothi tells The Better India, adding that he rode for 8,000 km in two months. He wasn’t alone. A baby monkey that he had rescued sat on his shoulder. “As I went from Kanpur to Bengaluru, the monkey refused to budge.”
On his second trip in 2019, Jothi covered 40,000 km in eight months. And thus, with two exhilarating trips behind him, the third had to be unique. “I took loans and bought an electric auto-rickshaw,” he says.
In the background of his choices, what’s evident is a spark of adventure. Jothi says it all stems from a love for exploring places and meeting new people. But the root of these desires lies in the reality check that the COVID pandemic has brought with it.
“The pandemic dealt all of us a blow and many were left with the realisation that life is too short. We run behind money and societal tasks only to realise one day that life has passed us by,” he says. “I have met so many on the road who are real-life heroes. They want to travel but are held back by a mental block.”
Jothi did not want to rue this fate later on and decided that if he wants to make a dream come true, he needs to start here and now.
Tracing India’s borders
A Zumba instructor, fitness coach, YouTuber, and learner — this is how Jothi describes himself.
And what is he studying and learning? I ask.
Life, he replies.
Through the auto-rickshaw journey, which commenced on 5 December 2021 from Bengaluru and is still on, Jothi has not only learnt about different cultures and lives but has collected a bunch of stories that he keeps in his heart and takes with him from one place to the next. “I love stopping along the way, hearing people tell me their stories, and in turn I share mine,” he says.
But aside from the dreamy ride that he seems to be on, there is a more important mission in the foreground — to set that elusive world record.
The current Guinness World Record is 19,000 km. Jothi has completed 15,800 km and aims to complete 30,000 km by the end of this year. Having started from Bengaluru, he wishes to circle back to the city towards the end of the trip.
In his words, it has been a “journey worth remembering”. Traversing 19 states and breathing in the beauty of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, and the North East, among others, has given him memories to cherish for a lifetime.
Let me in on these memories, I say. And he does.
In Nagaland, Jothi had his worst fears come true.
“I was confronted by militants in Mokokchung,” he recounts. “They’d seen me asking around for homestays and hostels, and had gotten the wrong impression. A guy walked up to me and asked if he could speak with me, beckoning me to follow him.”
What came next was unimaginable.
“As I followed the guy into a room, the doors were shut behind me and they started questioning me about where I was from and my purpose of coming here. I answered calmly, even showing them my permits. But they were getting more curious and demanding.”
Jothi finally got suspicious and asked why they needed to see all these documents. However, as he would learn in a few seconds, this was a mistake. Without a second to spare, a pistol was pointed at his head.
“They thought I was a spy,” he says. As a last resort, he showed them his travel videos in an attempt to convince them he wasn’t there to create trouble.
Much questioning and hours later, he was allowed to go.
While this incident was nightmarish, Jothi says most days feel like bliss.
At the Sela Pass in Arunachal Pradesh, he came across heavy snowfall and rain. “At a height of 14,700 ft, I was doing everything I could to navigate my vehicle,” he says. As if the harsh weather wasn’t enough, he fell sick the next day and felt defeated in his purpose.
But destiny had other plans for him.
“I had driven for around 20 km making my way back when I got a call from the nearby police station saying that I needed to go there at once. Worried, I reached.”
To his surprise, the DC and Army brigadier were waiting near the War Memorial at Tawang. The mood was celebratory. “It was the first time that an electric auto had reached there. Someone had taken a video and it had gone viral among the locals,” says Jothi.
Commending his efforts, the DC booked a VIP room in Circuit House and invited him to stay for as long as he wanted until he felt better. Jothi was baffled at the kindness of the universe.
After remaining at the quarters for a couple of days, the Army helped him with the permits required to reach Bum la Pass near the China border, where he completed another milestone.
“At an altitude of 15,300 ft, Hope was the first-ever auto to reach there,” he says proudly.
‘Hope will see you through’
If there is one thing that this soon-to-be world record holder firmly believes in, it is humanity.
“I have been fortunate to have met lovely people along the way,” he says. “They have welcomed me into their humble homes and I have stayed with them in their villages.”
One such instance was in Mizoram, where a family of vegetable vendors took him for a few days. “They were so happy to explain their life and culture to me.”
Another time, Jothi stayed with Assamese construction workers on the roadside in their camp. “I couldn’t find a place to stay or charge the vehicle, and they were more than happy to have me.”
While the universe favours Jothi in mysterious ways, he also has to navigate some challenging bits through his journey.
One such challenge is finding charging points along the way. Jothi says he is grateful to Mahindra for the free charging and service they offer him at their showrooms. Since this is taken care of, he can focus on maintaining a stable speed that will allow him to achieve his goal, as well as get him maximum range. “The speed I rely on is 40 km/hr, which helps me have a balance,” he says.
The weather is not always Jothi’s best accomplice. “I’ve driven through snowstorms in Arunachal Pradesh, extreme heat in Uttar Pradesh, and have experienced floods and earthquakes in Assam. But while it has been difficult, I trust and hope that I will see this journey to the finish.”
Driving through the country in an autorickshaw does seem like a dreamy experience to many. But the posture and weeks of sitting have taken a toll on Jothi’s lower back. “I got a slipped disc a few months back and needed physiotherapy,” he recalls. But amidst all these odds, something to marvel at is his undying spirit to see this mission through.
The journey costs him an average of Rs 20,000-25,000 per month, most of which he spends on food and accommodation. Having completed a major portion of the trip, he is filled with zeal for the remainder. Should you wish to catch snippets of his experience, he shares these on his YouTube channel ‘India on 3 wheels’.
Through his journey, there is a simple fact he wishes to convey to people. “Do not worry about the intricacies of the trip. You can make it happen as long as you are adaptable and spontaneous.”
For him, the driving force is the encouragement of strangers every single day. “Even though it is a solo effort,” he says, “people I have never met before cheer me on.”
As Jothi gets his EV started for a new day on the road, the wishes and dreams of so many Indians lie on his trip.
A hope that ‘Hope’ will indeed see him through.
Edited by Divya Sethu