From Kashmir To Kanyakumari: Two Women's Journey Across India

Two women, one long journey from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
Preeta and Imam decided to take on an extraordinary journey of 70 hours to travel from Kashmir to Kanyakumari on a train
Preeta and Imam decided to take on an extraordinary journey of 70 hours to travel from Kashmir to Kanyakumari on a trainPhoto: Shutterstock

"We met each other while walking around the Aravallis," says Preeta, a life coach and sound healer. She is talking about a group called "Let's Walk Gurgaon" that she was a part of in 2008. She would go for walks twice a week, Wednesday and Saturday mornings, and that's where she met her now friend and founder of "Let's Walk Gurgaon" Sehba Imam. The idea of taking a train journey together without a fixed destination in mind was conceived at one of their weekly meetups.

"We are both very restless souls, and I just thought how beautiful it would be to take on an aimless train journey," says writer and educator Imam. Their nostalgic memories of childhood, coupled with their love for travel, played the catalyst for their exciting plan.

These two women, as ordinary as you and I, decided to take on an extraordinary journey of 70 hours to travel from Kashmir to Kanyakumari on a train in the spring of 2019. Covering the north and south ends of the country, they planned to go the minimal route.

"We wanted to leave all of our wants and needs at home and enjoy whatever the journey would throw at us," says Imam. Journeying across the length of the nation is no mean feat. Most of the time, as Pradhan tells me, we are so fixated on reaching our destination that we think of the journey itself as something of a hassle, a merely tolerated means to the fitting end. For many of us, the journey is a transitory inconvenience.

"Not for us," quips Imam as Pradhan adds that for them, this entire idea stemmed from the romantic notion of travelling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, so much so that both of them travelled from Delhi to Katra in Jammu to catch the Himsagar Express, which would take them to the southernmost tip of India. "There was no plan, just the solid idea of fun."

(Clockwise from top left) A meal in Kanyakumari; Preeta in Jammu; the duo in Kanyakumari; Sehba enjoys street food
(Clockwise from top left) A meal in Kanyakumari; Preeta in Jammu; the duo in Kanyakumari; Sehba enjoys street food

The Bigger Picture

In 2016, Preeta left her corporate job and went on a voyage to Europe, travelling across 20 cities in a matter of 60 days. A period of transition for both Preeta and Imam is what led them to come up with the plan. "The primary idea was for us to develop this into a writers' residency programme ultimately. This journey was our research for the project," says Imam–a women-only programme that would include especially those who have been going through emotional turmoil and were willing to come out of their comfort zone. "The idea was to have women see that being in an area of discomfort is an area of growth," explains Preeta.

She goes on to explain that since most of us are so comfortable in our antiseptic environment, anything that doesn't belong to that environment is an inconvenience. The women would be tasked with writing about their experiences using the discomfort and the multiple elements of surprise that the journey would throw at them as prompts. "But the pandemic, quite literally, derailed our plans," laughs Imam.

With their imaginative idea of an all-women writers' residency and their staunchly minimalistic approach to travel, these two ladies, then in their 40s and 50s, made the train their home and the journey an exploratory initiative. "We just felt so free. We made friends with the staff and our co-passengers and just embraced the experience in its entirety with minimal qualms," recalls Imam. In the interest of packing light and taking the modest route, Imam went even a step further and shaved her head before the trip. "That was a surprise for me as well," says Preeta.

"Some big changes in my life happened around then. I had come out of a relationship and was taking care of my elderly mother by myself, and I just wanted to see how it would feel to shave my head. And then I dunked my head under the tap to wash it on one of the train platforms just like a man would. It was liberating," she explains happily.

On their journey, the two had to spend over two days inside a train
On their journey, the two had to spend over two days inside a trainShutterstock

Standing Your Ground

People in India are very curious, especially when they see women travelling alone. On their journey, these two had to spend over two days inside a train, which meant taking every situation in their stride.

"For sure. The lecherous male gaze is nearly absent as you move southward," says Preeta. But what do you do if someone approaches you, especially if you are a solo female traveller taking a night train? "If you feel someone is infringing on your space, be direct and ask them to step back. Don't lose your cool, but also don't entertain," says Imam. In Preeta's experience, a little sense of humour goes a long way too.

"I always make it a point to engage with people when I'm on a train. Public transport is relatively safer, and yes, while there may be the occasional stares, there are also many genuinely nice people you can meet."

Travel for Growth

In its essence, travelling brings you closer to yourself. Amidst the chaos of everyday life and the trials and tribulations of being an adult, travel is the one thing that rejuvenates the soul. With loads of emerging trends in travel, the fad of solo trips, especially among women, has been seeing a continuous uptick.

"Travelling refreshes the soul and makes you braver. And if you are travelling like we did, then there is a lot of scope for growth," says Imam.

For Preeta and Imam, travelling came as a rescue in their time of need. During drastic changes in their lives and while grappling with feelings of burnout and saturation, travelling for them was a balm to soothe their wearied souls. But the core of their journey lay in the fact that getting out of your comfort zone is sometimes the best thing to happen to you. For 70 hours and over two days, they wheeled on, meeting different people, adapting to new situations, and trying a variety of food since they didn't get any of their own.

"We didn't want to travel comfortably. We didn't want to take cabs and spend too much money. We wanted to experience our surroundings with only the absolutely necessary things," says Preeta. "Everything else is mere trappings," adds Imam.

Having used only public transport, they aimed to minimise their carbon footprint as much as possible. Reminiscing about their journey, they grew wistful, and another discussion began. This time, covering the west to east of India.

Imam told me that life is a journey, and all of the events are just part of it. Such was the love of the journey for both these women that, ironically enough, they stayed for just a single night in Kanyakumari after reaching their destination. "For us, it was always about the experience of travel. The destination is secondary," says Imam. "Maybe for our next trip, we'll stay longer."

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