JY Day 3 — Bengaluru
“Gooood Mooooooorning Yatris! Wake Up! Wake Up! Wake Up!” shrieked a shrill-voiced woman. “We will be reaching Bengaluru in one hour, please wake up!” As I laid there with my eyes closed, the sound of a shehnai faded in and filled the train. Before I realized that the music was coming from the speakers, A.R. Rahman’s voice rang out with “Yeh jo des hain tera … Swades hain tera.” I’ve always felt loneliness in America. It’s not a prominent feeling but neither is it fleeting. Often, I’ve wondered, “ab hain kya kami?” I live in the first world and am surrounded, more or less, by luxury. “Saare sukh hain barse,” but the constant yearning to go back home doesn’t die. How can I forget the late-night discussions with my cousins? How can I forget the satisfaction of eating roadside pani puri? How can I forget the comfort of living amongst aunts, uncles and grandparents that constantly pamper me? Mitti ki hai jo khusboo, mein kaise bhulaayega? I laid there in the berth with tears in my eyes, thinking that this yatra would show me more parts of India that would strengthen these tugs at my heart.
It was supposed to be an “easy” day in Bengaluru. We were headed to Mt. Carmel College to hear from two role models and attend a start-up mela. Expecting lax security on campus, many yatris, including me, made plans to venture out into the city. I walked off the train with high hopes; all I was dreading was the bus ride from Whitefield station to Mt. Carmel in peak traffic, with a bus full of unknown yatris who would ask me the same questions over and over. Enter T, the only person sitting in the seemingly empty bus that Sush, Purna and I walked into. 10 minutes into the bus ride, a card was passed to us. “How did you get your name, and have you ever wanted to change it?” We took turns answering and were rewarded with another card with a different question on it. T had a whole stack of them. Inspired by a few TED talks, he thought the questions could help yatris have genuine conversation with one another. Within minutes, the cards spread to all corners of the bus and everyone was engaged in a discussion. Skipping the small talk helped us turn a 2-hour trip into a mere 20-minute bus ride.
Hemalatha Annamalai was our first role model. She is the founder and CEO of Ampere, a company that produces affordable electronic transportation solutions for individuals and organizations. The products include small scooters, employee mobility vehicles (like segues), passenger mobility vehicles, small cargo vehicles, and other customized transport solutions for the differently-abled. Within a few minutes of her speech, it was clear to us why she has been so successful. Annamalai has a definitive swagger; she’s ruthless, confident, and inspirational. Annamalai said no to every obstacle that came her way — including the initial difficulty of accruing capital to set up Ampere. The EV sector still makes up a small fraction of India’s entire automotive market, and there were very few people that were willing to support Annamalai in her venture. In 2015, Annamalai directly approached Ratan Tata with a simple pitch. She simply asked him to think about how China went from selling 40,000 electric vehicles in 2000 to 32 million electric vehicles in 2015. Since her pitch, many acclaimed businessmen like Ratan Tata and Kris Gopalakrishnan have invested millions of dollars in the company.
Despite her success, Annamalai was not afraid to admit to the many crutches her company still faces. Ampere vehicles are powered by lithium batteries that have a run time of 6 to 8 hours. In order to provide its customers greater bang for their buck, Ampere must build charging stations or invest in producing more efficient and affordable batteries. But in efforts to expand the company across India, affordability seems to be taking a backseat. Before walking off stage, Annamalai implored us to think about our everyday choice in going electric. Given India’s population density and reliance on natural gas-guzzling machines, even a small amount of proliferation of EV vehicles could help the environment. She reminded us that Ampere, as well as other EV companies, are perfect examples of proactive, sustainable businesses. However, the average consumer still forgoes the opportunity to buy an electric vehicle. Annamalai did not chide or laugh at Piyush Goyal’s ambitious goal to go completely electric by 2030. Rather, she told us that we should not deny the opportunity to make a change.
Immediately after Annamalai, we heard from our second role model, Osama Manzar. Manzar is the founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), an organization that aims to eradicate digital illiteracy, especially among those living in the rural and remote settlements of the country. The foundation has helped many underserved people in India go digital, be it through implementing an accounting system or creating a web-based platform to sell goods and services. One of DEF’s biggest successes is Chanderiyaan, an e-commerce portal that sells Chanderi products from a cluster of weavers in Madhya Pradesh. Over the years, commercial enterprises have capitalized off of the Internet and have introduced authentic handicrafts into the mainstream market. Though demand for these goods has increased, wages for the craftsmen have not. The middle men in the supply chain often drive down wages in effort to maintain high profit margins. Thus, there has been an increasing number of talented artisans who have given up their craft in favor of menial jobs with more steady pay. Chanderiyaan tackles this issue by connecting the artisans directly to the end consumer without the use of middle men. This allows the artisans to demand more for their products, create customized products, and react faster to emerging market trends.
Manzar had a wonderful presence; he took to the stage with a wide smile and told us all about his life in a comical, “everything will work out in the end” kind of way. Despite living at the brink of poverty, being unemployed, and fighting for his interfaith marriage, Manzar managed to experience the highs of life even at his lowest points. The lesson he learned from his experiences — to have a zeal for life and to consider love as the biggest blessing. My takeaway from Manzar’s speech was to be unabashedly passionate about everything I love and support. Though his cheerfulness left none of us in a stupor, we were still were eager to step out of the auditorium and attempt to sneak out of Mt. Carmel to explore the city. Hoping the mela commotion would distract us from leaving campus, the gang and I walked towards the exit, only to be greeted by the entire ERC. There they were, casually guarding the gates, making sure no one got out and nothing got in. We turned back and headed for the mela, disappointed that we weren’t going to get any “outside food.”
The mela hosted many companies that sold everything from protein bars to handlooms. One company, Ecofemme, caught my eye as I wandered through the stalls; it sells washable cloth pads and provides menstrual education for villagers in rural India. While I was learning more about the organization and the product, a yatri approached me and asked me what I was holding. Before I could answer, he took it out of my hands and examined it. He turned it over and even used the two buttons on it to fasten it around his eyes. “Is it a blindfold of some sort?” he asked. “No, it’s a sanitary pad,” I said laughing. He immediately dropped it on the ground and walked away. I didn’t realize a clean cloth could move someone to so much disgust. Soon after, a group of women came up to me. They were all yatris from Rae Bareli, a Tier 3 district in India. “Didi, yeh kya hain?” they asked. “Yeh sanitary napkin hain. Periods time mein use karsakthein.” This sparked their curiosity even more and they fired off a bunch of questions in Hindi. I didn’t understand them completely and struggled to respond in my broken Hindi. Yash, a friend of mine, had apparently spotted that I needed help and came to my side. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll help fill in the blanks and translate.” Unfortunately, the women said that they wouldn’t be comfortable asking questions in front of him as he was a man. I had just witnessed both sides of the period stigma that pervades India.
I saw Purna walking towards me; there was a large bulge that was neatly covered by her long kurta. She pushed me, Nikhil, Manick, and Mayank to an abandoned corner and took out the bulge. It was a bag of Meghna’s Biryani. The four of us were as excited as we were dumbfounded. The smell was so overwhelming that we didn’t even bother to ask how she managed to sneak in the food. We all sat down and got ready to take a bite when Saurabh, an ERC came to us. I saw his angry face from a mile away; we were breaking the strictly enforced “no outside food” policy of the Yatra. The five of us sat frozen in fear, afraid that we were going to get deboarded. “Yatris…NO OUTSIDE FOOD ALLOWED!” Saurabh Yelled. He came up to us, examined the biryani and broke out in laughter. “Just joking. Not going to rat you guys out, but this looks good. Let me take some.” He walked away with two full plates of the biryani. I didn’t know whether to be happy that we didn’t face any consequences or sad that he took most of our food. We let him go without protest and gobbled up whatever remained. Later that night, when we were back on the train, the catering staff passed out the same oily puris and subzi for dinner as they did for all our previous meals. At least we had a small break from this monotonous food.