By : RACHNA TYAGI
On February 14th, 2019, as News of the Pulwama attack flashed on the television screen at Ajmer airport, Umesh Gopinath Jadhav, 38, who along with his band members, was waiting to catch a flight back to Bangalore, after performing at a music show, got queasy. As the body count of the martyred soldiers started rising, Jadhav, became more uneasy and found himself asking, “What am I, as a civilian, doing about this?”
After arriving in Bangalore, he decided that he would not write R.I.P (Rest In Peace) on social media. Instead, he would drive down and visit every single family who had lost either a father, son, brother, husband or grandson, in the Pulwama attack, and offer his condolences to them, in person. “As an ordinary citizen of India, this is the least I could do for them,” he says. That was not all. He also decided that during his visit, he would collect soil from the homes of the martyred soldiers where they had grown up as well as from Pulwama where they had lost their lives, and use it to build a map of India.
Jadhav, who originally hails from Aurangabad, Maharashtra, has a Masters degree in Pharmacology. Having juggled a day time job as a professor and as a percussionist for a band, performing at shows in the evenings, he eventually gave up teaching and started a music school in Bangalore, only to shut it down in 2019 to embark on this journey. “A lot of people told me that I must plan this journey meticulously and not everyone was positive about it, but I simply had to meet the families of the martyrs. I shut down my music school, sold off some of the music instruments, said bye to my wife, Sujata, and my boys Arohan and Anurag and set off,” says Jadhav.
For this journey, Jadhav, chose his personal car, a 3-cylinder, 1.5-litre, (CRDi), 5-speed MT, 2004, Hyundai Accent. The car had been purchased by his brother and later handed down to him. “I wasn’t using any fancy 4WD vehicle for this journey, just my own car. However, the look of Army vehicles had always fascinated me, and little did I know that my own sedan would end up looking like somewhat like one after the completion of my journey,” says Jadhav.
With the car’s odo having clocked almost 175,000 kms, Jadhav, set off from Bangalore where he was waived off by DIG Sanand Kamal of CRPF (KK Sector), with just a poster glued to the hood of his car that read “Mandya to Pulwama.” His first stop was in Mandya, Karnataka, to meet martyr, H Guru's family. “After reaching their home, I couldn’t utter a single word for almost 30 minutes as it was a tearful scene,” recalls Jadhav. That is when he says he realized that on this drive, he would never schedule a meeting or promise any family a set time of arrival or departure because these weren’t business meetings that would run in a clockwork fashion. There was no telling how long or short each meeting with the family members would eventually turn out to be and also where it would take him next. And, that is why the drive which Jadhav thought would be over in three months stretched to almost three years! “Several times I would visit a family and they would tell me that the martyr actually grew up in another house, not too far away from there, maybe 15-20 kms away, and so, I would accompany them to that house and collect the soil from there. Sometimes, my car couldn’t go there because of bad roads and so, I would have to use other means of transportation such as my TVS Scooty or my Atlas cycle to get there. This happened on several times,” recalls Jadhav.
However, that wasn’t the only reason why his journey took longer than expected. What began as a journey for Pulwama martyrs transformed into a journey of visiting other martyrs’ families as well who had made the supreme sacrifice for the country which included families of martyrs from WW, I, WW II, Freedom fighters, Indo-China War, India-Pakistan War, Kargil War, Operation Rakshak, Operation Parakram, Uri, Siachen martyrs and even of those soldiers who had died as part of UN’s forces. Jadhav also visited a family in the Andamans, where Jadhav had his car shipped. Jadhav went on to learn how martyr, Ramesh Yadav, had taken 36 bullets on his body before succumbing to his injuries. As Jadhav started spending more time on the road, he started discovering many families en route, whose homes he visited and collected soil from. “Of course, not everybody was willing to be photographed and not everybody was giving me only soil, many also gave me belongings of the martyrs and it didn’t take me long to realize that the 380-litres of boot space of my car wouldn’t suffice to accommodate everything during this drive.
Jadhav had seen agricultural trolleys hitched to trucks and he decided to get one for himself. However, on learning that it costed around INR 65,000-80,000 and that it took around a month to build one, he was dismayed. So, he decided to head to a scrapyard in Jalna, Maharashtra, and look for alternatives. There, he spotted a used Maruti 800 car, “with very good shocks,” which he bought for INR 7000. “Of course, the scrapyard seller had removed the engine before selling it to me at that price, but I didn’t even have the money for it. A friend transferred the amount,” says Jadhav. Next, he took off the front row bucket seats and sold them off. He retained the rear bench seat, and got “two young small-time fabricators” to work on the tow bar. Four days later, after a successful trial run, the fabricators welded the tow bar to the Maruti 800 car’s frame which Jadhav then hitched to his sedan. It worked beautifully. Jadhav then paid the fabricators, covered it with a canvas, and resumed his journey.
“The kind of help and support that I received whilst on the road is just unimaginable,” recalls Jadhav who stresses on the fact that his drive wasn’t a corporate sponsored one, but one that became possible thanks to the benevolence of the people he met on the way. “Because this was a completely unplanned trip without a regimented route or routine, I was able to do it the way I wanted to, giving time to each of the martyr’s family, sometimes even staying with them, when they asked me to, at their home for a few days, before driving again,” says Jadhav not forgetting to thank the people who supported him during this drive. “You’re never going to believe the way in which unknown strangers, including mechanics and garage owners have supported me during the drive,” he says. “The way my sedan looks today is purely because each person added a little something, a unique touch, if you can call it that, to my car that makes it stand out on the road, and in the process, it also made my journey smoother. Whether it was a bracket on the side for carrying my TVS scooter and my Atlas cycle, both of which were acquired en route to Pulwama, or whether it was the Gun stand and the Army helmet lending a distinct look to my car emphasizing the mission that I had set out on or the ammunition boxes that carry my car’s spares, every addition on the sedan has an interesting story of its own, explains Jadhav.
It's not just that the car was acquiring a different look throughout the journey but even help for Jadhav kept coming from unexpected quarters during his drive. “People were super supportive,” says Jadhav. Every martyr’s hometown that I visited, I would go to the local police station or the Army HQ and inform them that I had visited the family there and take a seal from them before moving forward. Soon, the jacket that I was wearing started getting filled with badges from all the places that I had traveled to. From the Army guys who gave me milk, sugar, tea and biscuits, on lonely highways, helping me on stretches where nothing was available for miles ahead to a Police Inspector in Rajasthan who sent a constable with me to the next petrol pump instructing him to top up my car with diesel and paid for it from his own pocket. “In Nasik, a motorcyclist from a riding club saw my balding tires and immediately got me two brand new tires and when he told his friend over the phone about meeting me, his friend paid for the other two tires of my sedan,” says a very grateful Jadhav. “People have helped me in the most unbelievable ways. From getting my punctures fixed to placing a rock under the tire to prevent the car from sliding backwards, when the handbrakes failed on a mountainous road, to buying thermal wear, sleeping bags, flashlights for me, I cannot even begin to count the numerous ways in which people came forward after seeing my car to help me during this drive, he says. “Even the stickering guys who helped me put up different quotes on my car such as Matrabhoomi Ke Rakshak, Once a Soldier Always a Soldier, Independence is not Free, It Costs Us Soldiers, did not accept any money from me,” says Jadhav.
He recalls one incident near Bharatpur, Rajasthan. “After a whole day’s driving in the hot sweltering sun, I was famished. I was down to my last INR 120 and the place where I stopped to have a meal, the only one in the vicinity, happened to be a Thali place. The cheapest Thali there was INR 200. So, I thought that I’ll tell the owner that all I want is two Rotis and some chutney, and if he didn’t agree I would have the Thali and later transfer the money because I was really starved and there was no other option. When the owner saw me with my car and the gun stand and the Army helmet, he said to me, “Aap Veeron ki bhoomi mein aaye ho, Shahidon ke liye kar rahe ho, aap se paise lenge toh yeh paap ho ga. (You have come to the land of the brave, you’re doing this for the martyrs, if I take money from you, it’ll be a sin.) And, after saying this, not only did he sit me down to indulge in the grandest feast in his restaurant which was served in a silver Thalibut he also took a selfie with me. After all this, as I offered to transfer money, he declined and as I was leaving, he asked one of his boys to place a carton of chilled water bottles in the backseat of my sedan. 80% of the people who helped me on this drive were complete strangers,” says Jadhav.
On this drive, there were days when Jadhav, roughed it out as he shaved and showered at INR 2 restrooms and slept in the backseat of his car, along the highways, and there were other days where the red carpet was rolled out for him as a guest at some of the CRPF officers’ quarters in places such as Neemuch, Madhya Pradesh, as well as at other locations which Jadhav refuses to disclose, for obvious reasons. “In Sikkim, NDRF invited me to their battalion and treated me to a royal breakfast fit for a king, they asked me to give a speech there, and before seeing me off also gave me 20 litres of diesel for my drive,” says Jadhav. In a remote village, Khonsa, in Arunachal Pradesh, where there is a different sunrise and a different sunset every day, the locals gave me so much love and respect. The Collector even gave me a shawl and a jacket of their tribe. On 26th January, I was invited as the Chief Guest of CRPF 36 Battalion. There, they gave me a spare truck battery, and told me that if my car’s battery died, I could just start my car with jumper cables with this big truck battery and believe me, I helped so many stranded people along the way with that spare truck battery.
Jadhav’s drive wasn’t exactly smooth sailing at all times but he managed to keep his wits about him. He recalls how in Mumbai, during a downpour, a group of young men came out of nowhere and helped push his car out of a flooded area in the nick of time just as flood water was about to enter his car. “Sir, don’t stop the engine, just keep accelerating and do not stop even when you’ve crossed this patch,” yelled one of them through his window. “I didn’t stop my car until I reached Navsari, Gujarat,” says Jadhav laughing. “Even when I was having lunch there, I kept the engine running,” he says. In Bhopal, Jadhav, had problems with his battery and the garage guy let him stay in their garage until the issue was fixed. Jadhav’s car also gave him problems in Nubra Valley, Ladakh, where he realized that there was a problem with the head gasket. As nothing was available there, Jadhav, had to drive very slowly only in the first and second gear and that delayed his drive as he took two days to get from Nubra valley to Srinagar. “It was a little eerie with some of the roads having been washed away, and sounds of the stream and wild animals at night. Also, some of it was militancy area, however, I had India’s flag on my sedan at all times and I said to myself whatever will be, will be,” says Jadhav dismissing his backache from all the driving as nothing compared to the pain that the martyrs’ families were facing.
Besides the soil from the homes of martyrs, Jadhav, had by now, collected several formation signs from different headquarters and sectors, badges from riding communities that he’d meet en route, almost 45 flags, four ammo boxes, one trunk which he placed on the front of his car, a signals telephone given as a memento by a senior officer, a device which displays the direction of the wind given to him by DRDO at the Siachen Base Camp and several such things, most of which occupy pride of place on his sedan. “The sedan was beginning to have its own distinct identity. Several foreigners would stop and take pictures and videos of me and my car and talk to me about my drive,” says Jadhav. “I would meet guys in Punjab who would tell me that they saw me on the News in Gujarat and from petrol pump guys who’d give me a tank full of fuel to media guys who would leave important meetings and press conferences to come and take selfies with me, I have been truly blessed to receive so much love and support from Indians who helped make this drive a reality,” says Jadhav. “At the end of the day, I wasn’t a seasoned driver driving a modified car, with a route plan. I was just an ordinary citizen of India, who had embarked on an unplanned journey on the spur of the moment, driving to martyrs’ homes to meet with their families,” says Jadhav. “The best part however,” says Jadhav “is that nobody as much as scratched my car throughout the drive.” He recalls an interesting episode. In Dholpur, Rajasthan, his car’s gearbox was damaged and he had to go to a scrapyard and get a new one. “I left my car on the road for eight days and a bus driver I later met, told me, that he drove his bus on the same route every day and informed me that my car was safe, nobody had even touched my car,” says Jadhav.
“From four-year olds to 80+ year olds, I met all kinds of people on this drive. I now understand people better. From speaking in over 60 schools and colleges as well as top business management colleges and from meeting the top officers in all forces many who also wanted to drive my car, to being invited to attend the first anniversary of Pulwama martyrs to being the first civilian to give Sandesh to soldiers on behalf of the Armed Forces, on All India Radio, Delhi, I saw a great deal. I also learnt everything I could about my car which has now clocked 300,000+ kms on its odo,” says Jadhav. “During my visits to Army camps, Army officers would take one look at my arms and immediately tell that I had “seen different types of terrain,” says Jadhav.
His last stop was in Thrissur, Kerala, where he met with Warrant Officer A Pradeep's family who was martyred in the Conoor helicopter crash along with General CDS Bipin Rawat. After meeting them, Jadhav, returned home to Bangalore on February 14th, 2022.
Jadhav says that he has finished one major part – collecting the soil for the India map, now, he says, “the memorial has to be made from this soil.” He has left the decision to the PMO, the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Home Affairs and the Army Headquarters. “It is up to them to assign a land bank. It’ll take time but it will be done,” he says. There are other keepsakes that he has not discarded such as the first tire that burst while driving from Aurangabad to Mumbai and the gearbox that had to be changed in Rajasthan, Jadhav has been hauling everything in the back of the Maruti 800 everywhere. Someday in the future, maybe, I can exhibit it all,” he muses.