My Work

Pankaj Mall has traversed over 5000 kms on a bicycle and helped build 17 toilets across rural India during his journey

A decade ago, when Pankaj Mall got a job in chennai, he landed in the coastal metropolis dreaming of nice beaches and beer. But three months later he packed and left for Delhi. “I was a typical northener with a narrow perspective. But after travelling through 27 States in India, he is now amazed by the State’s rich culture and tradition. “I am even learning the language now,” he says.

Mall shares how travelling changes you and your thought process.

“For over two months last winter, I lived on the road, slept on footpaths with beggars and security guards, ate out of prashad and Annadan at temples and wore just two sets of T-shirts and shorts,” says Mall, who rode his bicycle from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Leaving a lucrative job in Qatar, Mall set up a marketing business in Delhi only to go bankrupt within a short span. “I have failed multiple times but I never got dejected. The first time I got break-even in my latest business venture, I set out travelling. My business partners, family members and friends suggested that I consult a psychiatrist. But I knew, what I wanted.” He bought a bicycle. That was October 2016.

“I had never cycled even for two kilometres at a stretch before that, but I was thinking of covering 4000 kms. People scared me saying that I should practice for at least six months before embarking on the journey. However, my passion was so intense that I didn’t want to waste time and started off in six days.”

After reaching Jammu by train, I took a bus to Kargil where I couldn’t see a single bike or cycle but only army convoys and trucks, he recalls. “I spent about five hours figuring out the technical aspects of the cycle, my sole companion for the next couple of weeks. On first three days, I covered close to 400 kms. Crossing village Dras was difficult as it was extreme winter. For nearly a week, I stayed with no network or phone and no one knew whether I was alive.”

Only if you go out and talk to people, you will know how the world is, says Mall, who claims to have met no bad men in his journey.

“Fortunately, I had no bitter experiences. Of course, people questioned my intent but never judged me. In Kashmir, I even interacted with few separatists. I spoke at the Kargil Degree College and got inspired by the reception I received there.”

During his travel, Mall stopped at 350 villages, 80 small towns and cities and addressed students at 60 schools and colleges. He recalls last Diwali at a restaurant in Agra run entirely by acid victims. “There were mothers and daughters and sisters among the victims. One among them told me that the men can burn their skin and disfigure their faces but can never burn their spirit. That struck me and made me realise the importance of determination and the will to do something.”

While staying in the interiors in Chambal Valley, Mall decided to help the villagers build a toilet. “I used to wake up before sunrise as I was staying in temples and Gurudwaras and I would invariably see people rushing into the fields. Among my things I always carried a broom that was invariably required while using public toilets. I wanted to do something about it and that’s how I built the first toilet. When I spoke to the villagers, a young mother was the first to contribute Rs.10 and soon everyone gave whatever little they could. I put in a major share along with their contribution and this is the way I helped construct 17 toilets in places I stayed over in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Telangana.”

Motivated by the experiences, Mall has started an initiative called ‘Astitva’, which is a network of people from various walks of life working together for the existence and identity of people in need.

“Astitva is a entirely volunteer-based initiative, where along with like-minded travellers and individuals I strive to bring about changes in the lives of people who are less cared for,” says Mall. At the end of his trip, I gave away whatever was left with him including the clothes. “It gave me immense satisfaction,” he says. “Travelling has made me think of the world as one family,” he adds.

Source: The Hindu