Google maps showed that the 300 odd kms to London from Swansea could be covered in under 4 hours. Give or take an hour, I had programmed the termination of the journey in Tavistock Square, London between noon and 1 pm. When I was a student in 1995-96 in London School of Economics I stayed at Passfield Hall in Endsleigh Place. Everyday I walked from the Hall of Residence to the LSE to attend classes, study in the Lionel Robbins Library and keep the body fit in the Sqaush Courts. The daily walk took me past the Tavistock Square and many times I have been inside to pay obeisance to the statue of Mahatma Gandhi. The statue was erected under the aegis of the India League and was unveiled in 1968 by the then PM of Britain. I never imagined that I would one day drive a car to the Square from India when I made those many trips past the Square. During the planning phase of the journey I decided on the start point of it as the MG statue in Kochi and the end point as the MG statue in Tavistock Square, London. The journey was nearing its end and Tavistock Square beckoned. I was not sure if I would be able to get anywhere near the Square in the car. In this I was helped by Anu, my wife’s cousin, Anil Kingsley and Boby George, who offered us hospitality in London. Anu filed the London congestion charge online and helped me avoid any possible harassment en route to London. Last evening, in Thankachan’s house over dinner, I was told that I would be stopped on the motor way for sure because of the registration. They took me through the drill of what should be done in case of such an eventuality. The cardinal part of it was that I was not to disembark from the car until I was asked to by the police officer. Since they had been sure that I would be force stopped I went through the drill in my mind many times before I started out on M4.
We had decided to set course for London at 8 am. By the time I was ready after the check out a family that had driven overnight to meet Lal had arrived at the accommodation. As the experiences were being shared and the photo and autograph sessions were on it started raining. That forced us to start 15 minutes before schedule. Once again the Navigator helped us ease out of the city and on to the Motorway. A group of Keralites in Newport, some of whom had met us in Swansea, got together to meet us in a park in Newport. Within an hour of leaving Swansea, from exits number 28, we were piloted to the park where we interacted with the group and shared a cup of coffee with them. It was wonderful to know firsthand the interest that the journey had generated, particularly among the young. One of the main reasons why I had undertaken the journey is to enthuse the young to travel, for I believe that travel broadens the mind and increases levels of tolerance to alien environments, cultures and traditions.
I experienced, on the drive from Swansea to London, two incidents that I had never experienced in the entire journey leading up to this day. In the first, when I was driving in the driving lane at the prescribed speed of 70 mph I was overtaken by another car, the driver of who indecently gesticulated for me to move out to the extreme lane meant for slow traffic. I could not fathom the reason for such action. Later I reasoned that the man must be out of his mind for he started annoying other road users by jagging in and out of lanes for no apparent reason. In the second incident I was on the slow lane when a biker moved in front of me and started using his fingers and deliberately slowing down in front of me to provoke me in any manner he could. Such instances never happened anywhere else and possibly is a pointer to sick minds in the erstwhile ‘Heart of the Empire’
We stopped at a refreshment point about 50 miles short of London and had a light meal. I banked on the Navigator to get me to Tavistock Square. Anu, Anil and Boby confirmed that they were at the end point. A few friends of Lal would also be there. A few youngsters, who had got in touch with me on Facebook, also messaged that they were waiting for the Champion Car at the Square. Excitement, a sense of achievement and other mixed emotions started entwining in my mind. If I were alone I would have cried aloud, more out of expression of thanks for many hundreds who helped us with their prayers, hospitality and encouragement as also the Guardian Angels I experienced during the journey. I held back my tears with extreme difficulty because, as Lal says, men are not expected to cry and express their feelings. Instead, I do not know what happened to me, I pulled Lal close to me and hugged him, while still driving the car! Soon I was near some of the landmarks I was familiar with during the stay in London 18 years before this. Then the Navigator went wrong because of extensive diversions due to road works. What should have taken 10 minutes took us over 40 minutes. But in the end, we reached the Tavistock Square a few seconds before Big Ben announced the hour after noon. It was a most beautiful experience parking beside the Square, being received by friends old and new and family. Prajeesh had brought bouquets to be placed before the statue, which formally ended the journey that spanned, as planned, 2 Continents, 27 countries in 75 days logging 24,796 kms. I was most happy about the meticulous planning having paid off. There had been motivated reports in the Press back home of how the journey was easily undertaken once a travel agent was appointed in New Delhi. I pity the people who make such specious statements for they know not what it takes to do what only a serious traveller can undertake. When I was General Manager of DP World in Cochin between 2005 and 2010 I was insistent that all the employees of the Company should appreciate the Vallarpadam terminal in its construction phase. More than 80% of the work in developing the terminal cannot be seen once the construction is over for it will lie under the surface of the terminal, out of sight of the user and the customer. This journey also is similar to that – the hard work in planning every detail of it and the discipline with which it is executed will be forgotten and out of sight of the small, petty men who feel that it could have been done anyway.
Lunch was hosted by Rasa restaurant. Athul and the rest of the Raasa team laid out the red carpet for us. I had a fantastic chicken biriyani and rice payasam. It was close to 4 pm when we parked the car near a friend’s house and walked to the Westminster boat quay for a Thames cruise. On the way we took some time to appreciate the MI6 building, the Abbey, the Big Ben and the Parliament building. I had been on the Thames Cruise in 1996 and hence, wanted to relive that golden experience. But this time I found the commentary woefully short of the previous one. I looked forward to getting updated on the newer developments of the last two decades. It did not happen. Besides, the changed landscape on either side of the banks is an eyesore and the clash of styles is too much to appreciate positively. The London Eye is foremost in that – it may fetch the authorities enough revenue but the landscape has been spoiled beyond redemption. We got back from the trip to Greenwich in light drizzle.
The journey is over but the experiences right from the first days of it linger. Many faces have faded slightly in the memory, but their help, support and hospitality remain uppermost in the mind. Most importantly, help of the Almighty and prayers of well wishers and family have been the most important ingredients in the successful completion of the journey. Many dreams have sprouted in the meanwhile. I pray to Him to operationalise them in time.