Before he became Che Guevara, “the revolutionary” and a symbol of freedom, 22-year-old Ernesto embarked on an introspective nine-month, 8,000-kilometre bike trip across South America. That journey with his friend Alberto Granado, which was chronicled in the famed The Motorcycle Diaries fundamentally changed the way the young medical student viewed himself and the contemporary economic conditions in the continent. In a lot of ways, the trip was responsible for setting him on a course that would make the young Argentinean one of the most influential revolutionaries the world has ever known.
Sixty years later, on April 13, 2011, when Kashi-resident Shailesh Pandey logged on to Twitter, his timeline was flooded with a barrage of tweets. All the messages were from urban youth describing their nationalistic fervour on the anniversary of the Jallianwala Baug Massacre.
Like ‘El Che’, the ex-Navy officer decided to make an “introspective motorcycle journey” across India that would help tell the forgotten stories of freedom fighters and the plight of their families.
“I realised that very little is known about India and its real heroes except for what is written in history textbooks,” he says. “My trip was a way of paying homage to these men and women and the sacrifices they made for the country.”
After a few weeks of planning, Pandey set off on his trusted Enfield, armed with a laptop and a camera to help him blog and tweet about his encounters. He began at Kashi and traversed through Kolkata, Bhubaneswar, Visakhapatnam, Chennai, Trichy, Rameshwaram, Nagarcoil, Bangalore, Kolhapur, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Udaipur, Delhi, Punjab, Hoshiarpur, Haridwar and Lucknow – a total of 11,700 kms.
No maps, just Twitter
Without an itinerary or map, Pandey solely relied on the micro-blogging service to navigate his way.
“There was constant support from people who were following my tweets,” he says. “They suggested places for boarding, contacts of bike mechanics, and were my companions throughout my journey,” he adds.
For the 45 days that he travelled, he caught up with his online well-wishers whenever he happened to be in their area. Every time he visited a new place, Pandey would Google and talk to locals to locate the descendants of freedom fighters in the area.
On http://www.alakh2011.blogspot.com he has posted a first-person account that sketches his visits to memorials, tombstones and the homes of freedom fighters. The posts highlight the names of these martyrs with a link to their biographies on Wikipedia.
His blog also describe how memorials of freedom fighters and martyrs have fallen into disrepair. One post describes his visit to Eram in Orissa, also known as the “Second Jalianwalla Baug of India” by historians. He recounts his anger on seeing the martyr’s monument—the Rakta Teerth—in a deplorable state with a few locals even relieving themselves near the site.
The online chronicles
Pandey also met the caretakers of the various memorials he visited. Notable amongst his chronicles was a post he made about Appanji, a caretaker who hadn’t been paid his salary for 18 months, but continued to clean and care for the samadhi of freedom-fighter Alluri Rama Raju in Narsipatnam, Andhra Pradesh, “to preserve its sanctity”.
In Punjab, he visited the Khatar Kalan, which was once the home of Bhagat Singh. One thing led to another, and Pandey discovered a new blogger in the form of the martyr’s nephew, professor Jagmohan Singh. This resident of Ludhiana maintains www.shahidbhagatsingh.org that archives the original photographs and documents of the freedom fighter and his compatriots, including his personal notes from the time he was in jail to a list of the books he read while he was incarcerated.
Much like Che Guevara, Pandey interacted with ordinary people such as a local farmer and a chaiwallah. “How many of us ever bother to thank the guy who sweeps our roads, the waiter who serves us, the farmer who sweats for us, those people in uniforms who bleed for us?” he questions on his blog.
The 35-year-old is still in the process of updating www.alakh2011.blogspot.com and will soon setup a website called Alakh where he intends to upload information about social reformers, freedom fighters and ordinary selfless citizens. And yes, he has now begun tweeting about lesser-known freedom fighters on the occasion of their birthdays and anniversaries.
“Once ignored, all heroes are soon relegated to the back of our brains,” he says. “I have now promised myself that I will do whatever I can to see that these martyrs get their due respect.”