Thirty-six-year-old entrepreneur Tarun Bansal decided to do something different on his birthday on October 3, 2020. He wanted to take advantage of his work-from-home routine and children’s online classes and go off on a three-week road trip to Rajasthan. The idea was to explore Jaisalmer, but at that time he had no clue that what he intended to be a three-week trip would actually extend to six months. He is back home in Delhi now with unforgettable memories that he made while exploring 15 states of India and travelling 26,000km with his wife Sunaina, 35, and daughters Trijaa, 7, and Shubhda, 5.
"It all began during holiday," says Tarun. "We were staying at the Suryagarh Resort in Jaisalmer when a local told me about the Nabhdangar temple that is located on a hilltop." After visiting the temple he was standing on the hilltop, enjoying a spectacular view of the desert and an oasis, when he had his moment of epiphany. "I have travelled to 50 countries in the world, but never got a chance to explore the length and breadth of my own country, India. Standing on that hill that day, I decided that I would go on a road trip and explore remote places in India. I wanted my daughters to have experiences they had never had before."
Tarun returned to Delhi, disbursed salaries of his staff for five months in advance – he has 350 people working for him in offices around the world – and decided to hit the road with his family. This time his first stop was Kutch in Gujarat.
"I had to make some preparations, because this time I knew it would be a long haul. I ensured there was a tool-kit in the car, got new tyres for my Audi Q5, bought some vessels so we could cook our own meals and purchased data packages from several mobile network providers so in case one failed we’d have a back up." He also packed portable chairs and tables and headphones, so the children could attend online classes from anywhere.
Tarun has been able to gift unforgettable moments to his daughters. "They have attended online classes from Gir forest in Gujarat, climbed mango trees in the orchards there. They have picked bananas and corn in villages in Tamil Nadu and have learnt how cows are milked at a village in Kutch. They have witnessed paddy sowing and harvesting...."
They have also seen an 800-year-old banyan tree in Mahabubnagar in Telengana, remnants of the Indus Valley Civilization in Dholavira in Kutch, have crossed rivers in indigenous boats at Badami in Karnataka and travelled in beautifully decorated boats in Chitrakoot in Madhya Pradesh. They have petted elephants in Kerala, have learnt about ancient architecture by visiting stepwells in Rajasthan and have seen spectacular historical places many students have only read about in history or geography books.
"We have been to around 600 places, seen temples, churches, dargahs, traversed through forests, spent time on beaches, in deserts and visited monuments. We stayed in homestays in remote villages to avoid crowds. Living in villages and interacting with rural people was an unforgettable experience for us," he says.
While they were travelling from one village to another, they would get requests to drop someone somewhere and they would happily comply. "Once we were dropping this farmer at a neighbouring village. I was surprised to see that he knew a lot about our country and it turned out he had been a truck driver before he settled down to farming."
The Bansal family ensured they wore masks and used sanitisers when they went out or were meeting people.
While on the road, a typical day for them would start around 6am when they would visit a temple, explore some places and return to their rooms at the hotel or resort or homestay in time for online classes that started at 9.30am and ended at 1pm.
While the girls did their classes, Tarun finished his office work. On days he was not driving, he would work for 12-13 hours and then travel on other days. When they were travelling they would make a stop at a monument, a restaurant, a parking lot or even choose a tree with a shade on the roadside, where the children would attend class.
"The teachers of Shikshantar, the school my daughters attend in Gurgaon, were very supportive of our decision to embark on the trip. They said that despite being on the road for so long, my daughters remained focused in class," says Tarun.
He used Google maps to search for homestays or a hotel. "Sometimes the locals also helped with directions to a homestay. I never had a problem in finding one."
Only once did he struggle to find accommodation and all through it was smooth sailing.
There were a few hiccups but none seriously alarming. Once their younger daughter had food poisoning in Dholavira but the doctors at the local primary health centre were very efficient, he remembers.
An avid yoga practitioner, Tarun ensured he was always in a positive frame of mind. "If you stay positive you attract the positive. I believed that we would head home with the best experiences ever and never let a negative thought come to my mind." He also respected and heeded the advice local people gave him. "For instance, while in Gir Forest, I was told not to stay too late in the forests and to never leave the sunroof of the car open because leopards on trees might attempt to attack the passengers."
All through the trip he found people extremely helpful. "When we were travelling in Tamil Nadu, I was a bit worried because I could not speak the language. But the people there were so helpful and honest that if they didn’t understand me, they would take their vehicle and get someone who could understand my language and give me directions. Never for once did I have a problem."
Travelling with two children is not an easy job either, but the girls kept each other company. At times, when they got bored, they invented games like counting cars, or played their favourite music. They enthusiastically filled up the bottles at every stop, so that they didn’t have to buy packaged water.
"There is no doubt the trip was hectic for them. We were packing in a lot of sightseeing in a few hours each day. There would be days we would climb up 2,000 stairs or walk a lot in the sun. On the Ahobilam trek in Andhra Pradesh, for instance, that spans 7km and covers temples, caves, waterfalls and scenic places, my younger daughter Shubhda began to tire, but we came up with some novel games to keep her entertained and she happily finished the trek."
Tarun spent the longest period of time in Kerala and Tamil Nadu – five weeks. From exploring the backwaters, to marvelling at the natural beauty, to petting elephants, the experiences in Kerala were just out of the world, he says. The same goes for Tamil Nadu, the land of 38,000 temples, some of which date back to 5,000 years.
"We had the most surreal experience at the Sree Vallabha Temple in Tiruvalla in Kerala. Famous Kathakali dance performers and Carnatic musicians perform there through the night, every night. They do not take payment or care for an audience, their performance is the prayer," said Tarun.
In the initial leg of the trip, Tarun said he was getting a bit stressed out because he was trying to cover a lot within a short time, but then, he became relaxed and decided that whatever they could manage should be fine and whatever they couldn’t was fine too.
"My wife Sunaina and I were always on the same page and rarely had any difference of opinion on the trip."
Tarun is pleased that the trip changed them. While we have learnt about the real India, about wonderful people and places, we have learnt about ourselves also – how we can function as a team, be resilient and how far we can push ourselves."
Along the way, he also decided to pay back to communities and families that were affected by the pandemic and had lost jobs. "I started a campaign to collect funds. We could collect close to 450,000 Indian rupees through my network and many families are getting ration from it."
To help artists and musicians, he reached out to some of his contacts to provide support. "We are trying to organise a week-long folk fiesta that would be streamed virtually and globally. I have talked to hotels and they have also agreed to provide equipment, internet, IT support and venue for such recordings.
Tarun Bansal’s road trip might have ended for now, but he is not a man who can stop gathering new experiences. He’s doing that by giving back.