I had returned to Cochin after the tough round trip between Kanyakumari and Leh on 15 July 2012. Many milestones were established during the drive – existing record for one way solo drive of 146.5 hours was broken on both legs of the round trip, the final 1800 kilometers between Nagpur and Kanyakumari was done in a stretch of 27 hours without a halt and it was also the first round trip. Newspapers covered the record setting drive in detail, especially after the Press Meet organized by Muthoot Finance under the leadership of Mr. Padmakumar, Executive Director.
I suspected at the time that the press coverage, particularly the one in The Hindu captioned “Kochite plans drive to London by Car”, was what prompted Baiju to get in touch with me. He called me up one day asking for an appointment to meet with me. I vividly remember the date of the first meeting – 21 July 2012. He wanted me to speak at the function organized by Mathrubhoomi, during its literary fest, to release his book - Deshadanam”, which captured his experiences of travel to exotic lands. I was more than a bit apprehensive about the ‘assignment’ as the book was in Malayalam. However, the extremely amiable nature of Baiju and the manner in which he put across his request could not generate a negative response, even from me! Baiju N Nair is an extraordinary personality. His conduct and demeanor belie his astonishing achievements. He has to his credit more than 4500 test drives of all sorts of motor cars in India and abroad, has travelled to over 60 countries, published 3 books, is the owner-editor-publisher of the authoritative bilingual automobile monthly “Smart Drive” and anchors the popular weekly auto segment on Asianet television, also titled Smart Drive.
Vibes picked up in the first meeting generally tend to tailor ones reactions. It is his sincere nature and disarming approach that I first noticed in him. I did spend a lot of time trying out various excuses to avoid the function. Then would come a call from Baiju and I would steel myself to attend the function. This went on till the date of the book release on 16 Aug 2012. I spent the evening prior to the meeting at my brother’s house where my sister-in-law graciously read out the entire book, chapter by chapter, explaining words and phrases that flew miles beyond my comprehension. However, the session introduced Baiju to me most effectively. I met a person completely overcome by the passion to travel, a person so observant that it enhanced his joy of travel and a person unafraid of the challenges of travel. I used events described in the book to talk at the book release.
I do not remember when it was, during the meetings leading to the book release, that Baiju asked if he could be part of the London expedition. I had been, till then, resolute in the plan to go it alone. But I acquiesced when Baiju asked. He told me how he had planned a drive to Siberia with Santhosh George Kulangara, the Sanchari. That fell through for many reasons and now, he wanted to be part of the drive “From God’s Own Country to United Kingdom”. It was he who later captioned it as “From God’s Own Country to Queen’s Own Country”; the journalist in him showed.
Baiju and I started exchanging regular notes on the intended drive. By August 2012 the plans to travel in the summer of 2013 was dropped considering the time it would take to organise such a humongous adventure. Thus, I had more months to plan. I started planning for the drive with a companion. After many solo drives, I had to mentally accept a co-passenger and a fellow traveller. And as if that was not enough, one day Baiju rang up to say that Lal Jose, the film director, was quite keen to make the trip with us. I was not at all inclined to increase the size of the team, for three reasons. One, it would mean increase in luggage and reduced per capita space availability. Two, I believed that two’s company and three’s a crowd – unless you get the right guy with the right vibes there could be ‘cabin fevers’. Three, while driving through China additional space would be taken up by the tour guide. In view of these I tried to put off meeting Lal. But, he was not to be shaken off. Finally his persistence paid; the goading from Baiju, in attendance too. I was to leave for the US on a holiday in the last week of September 2013. I fixed up to meet with Lal alongside Baiju on 23 September 2013 in Gokulam Inn, Cochin. It is said that first impression makes the best impression. With Lal it was that. He made an immediate impact. His down to earth attitude and simple style, despite his celebrity status, had a beguiling effect on me. I explained to him the features of the proposed journey and emphasized the fact that it was no joy ride – the terrain would be treacherous in many places and the environment hostile. That did not dampen his spirit; rather it aroused it. Lal, sure that he would be part of the journey, requested that the journey be postponed by a month to accommodate his film that would go on the floors in March 2014. To buy time and to, perhaps, change his mind I said we could meet after I got back from the US holiday mid-October.
During the month long sojourn in the US hardly any thought of the meeting in Gokulam Park entered my mind. I was not too uncertain that Lal would decide on skipping the trip due to the ‘treacherous paths’ that I had outlined to him. I could not have been more wrong. A Sunday after I got back from the US, on my way to Ootupura for the customary Sunday morning fare of Puttu and kadala, I got a call from Promod Thevanoor, Director of SCMS. He started by saying that he owns a Pajero which is in decent enough condition for a trip to London. He also mentioned that he had spoken to me about accompanying me on the trip to London many months back. I seemed to have, at the time, confirmed that I would be undertaking a solo drive. Now that I was going with two others I should have factored him in, he said. I told him that he could join the trip on the condition that his passport could be in circulation for over two months for getting various visas. He accepted that that would not be possible for a frequent traveler such as he. Almost immediately thereafter I had another call from George of Lifeway Solar. He talked quite vividly about the impending trip and details that few were privy to. The second call made me curious enough to ask George where he had collected all the information from. He was incredulous that I had not seen the Malayala Manorama which reported that Lal Jose would be undertaking a ‘world tour’ of 25 countries in a second hand Pajero. I was extremely upset with the report for two reasons – I had not confirmed Lal as a co-traveller (and here he was proclaiming to the world that he is planning a Europe car tour) and it contained factual errors (he had not even got the number of countries or days right). I felt like the central character in Udayananu Tharam and I let Baiju get the brunt of it. This was my thunder and I will have no one steal it from me, I said. All the hard work of planning and execution and the ownership getting transferred in one news report! Moreover, I came to know from a friend that Lal’s family, especially his older daughter, was shaken by his mention in the report that the trip is so dangerous that he would be writing his Will before setting out for the drive! I was so upset that I almost called off the team drive.
Baiju suggested an ice-breaker meeting at my residence on 17 November. Lal said that the interview was taken as an aside when he was shooting for “Ezhu Sundara Rathrikal”. He was responding to a question on his future plans and that was reported as a box item due to its star value. He also thought that it could go a long way in attracting well meaning sponsors. I understood then the sincerity of his purpose and shared the route and exact plans in that meeting with the ‘team’ to avoid confusion in future. Yes, in that meeting the team came together. However, the briefing did not deter Lal from continuing with his 25 countries spiel and making available to the press impossible routes! Later, I decided to change the route plan to suit his acceptable number of 25 countries so that he would be closer to the fact! Even now I am convinced that he will get lost if he were to be left behind in some country, by some quirk. He will not know where to join the rest of the team!