It was a struggle that finally ended in a firm decision. The new Champion, XUV500, was to undergo her first free service at 5000 km. Being 300 km short of the said distance parameter I toyed with the options of either doing the service early in Chennai or 500 km later than suggested in Visakhapatnam. A word with Thulasiram Nair in Visakhapatnam, with who I was to stay, ended a few days of indecision. The service would be done in Visakhapatnam on 14 May and I would start a day earlier than scheduled from Chennai to stay on course for the itinerary drawn up.
I also spoke to Biju Paul, the avid biker stationed in Kolkata – a contact that Thulasiram had provided during the return leg of the Trans Himalayan expedition. Biju and his wife have biked extensively, particularly in West Bengal. His knowledge of the roads in that state is encyclopedic. Biju suggested that I should stay either at Burdhwan or Farakka, instead of Kolaghat, since the 50 km from Farakka to Malda could consume as many as five hours due to ongoing road works! The time consumed could be much less if the stretch is attempted before 10 am. Thulasiram suggested that I could halt at Bhubaneswar on 14 May and travel to Farakka on 15th. That could work well provided that accommodation could be found in Farakka as hotels were not an option in that town. Thulasiram Nair was confident that Mr Choudhary, retired GM of South Eastern Coalfields, would be able to assist in this. And with that the last minute change in plans was penciled in.
As is my wont I turned to Mary George, my cousin, and her partner Philip Cherian, for the branding of the car. I had to only tell them of the expedition and they came up with a brilliant design with color options in about 48 hours. Their color suggestion was different shades of blue as it would bring to mind a cold Siberia. On one side of the car would be the important cities of the four countries and the other side would show the Trans-Siberian route. They came up with the highlights of the drive – 22000 km, 4 countries, 40 days and 1 Man – to be prominently displayed on the rear and side window glasses. The brand ‘Record Drive’ and the tag lines “Goodwill Knows No Boundaries” and “Pushing The Limits” would be retained. I fell in love with the suggested design and color combination at first sight. However, I turned to my children and a few friends to give me their unblinkered views too. They did not have a different view. Philip said that he could get the stickering done in a day and I planned a visit to Cochin so that the work could be completed on 6 May. When the job was completed it turned out to be more magnificent than what was imagined. Three cheers to Mary, Philip and the UPM Advertising Team.
Maya, my daughter who is settled with her husband and daughter in Botswana, was on a short visit to Cochin. I had to come away from Cochin on 10 May to complete certain pending office works in Chennai and load up the car for the 40 day trip. It was a difficult time because of Eva, my granddaughter. In the past year she has grown up into a well behaved and happy child. Full credit to her parents. I tried to spend as much time with her during my fortnightly visits from Chennai. Certain decisions in life are painful, but they have to be gone through.
The day before the scheduled departure from Cochin on 10 May I visited relations and friends to appraise them of the expedition and take their blessings. Then came a scare as only it can happen only in Kerala. I got information that a dawn to dusk hartal was being called on 10 May to call attention to the brutal rape and murder of Jisha. Despicable as the act was I started thinking up options in case the hartal call would go through. Later, however, the information turned out to be false. I was told that political parties were averse to losing a day of campaigning prior to the Assembly election in Kerala on 16 May!
Once I got to Chennai I had a lot of things to be done in less than 24 hours. The bags had to be finally packed and stuff rearranged. The office had arranged a formal flag off at 5 pm on 12 May. The last minute office work was completed before that. They also arranged a birthday cake to be cut two days before the actual event. It was not the excellent chocolate cake but the friendly gesture that almost chocked me. The office is always like a family to me and their support and outpouring of goodwill moved me immensely. I was waved off, almost on the dot, at 5 pm. The next halt was at the residence of Pius Joseph and his lovely family. I have written about this legend and great human and his humane family many times in the past. He and his wife, Mariamma, have been like parents to me. It was only appropriate that they would bless me before I took off the next day. All the children and their families with friends like Suchitra Mohanlal, Joe and Anita gathered to give me a very emotional send off after cutting another birthday cake and a lovely dinner.
Before going to bed I made last minute checks to ensure that the documents to be carried and all else, as per the check list, had been attended to. Once was convinced that they were I was all set to leave the next day.