Soon after the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan, Akhil Bakshi led an 18,000 km motoring expedition - Hands Across The Borders - to promote peace and development in South Asia. The journey, with activists from the region, was envisaged as a massive contact programmed through the interiors of Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan. Between Heaven and Hell is a hugely enjoyable account of that momentous journey.

Through the prism of observant, trenchant humour, the book refracts issues of development, religion, politics, and culture. The author confronts broad and challenging themes ranging from caste wars to widow burning. Compelling descriptions of people and places, bold and entertaining accounts of events, and cracking yarns on gods and saints, priests and politicians, make for a fascinating exploration of South Asia.

Much distance has been travelled in the book, encompassing a region rarely glimpsed as a whole. The author's enthusiasm for South Asia enlivens every page. Wit, clarity, and elegance of style make the book gripping and hugely enjoyable.

About the Author


The Pioneer

Times of India 
Hindustan Times 
The Indian Express
The New Indian Express,
May 21,2004
The Statesman
Maharashtra Times

Deccan Herald, Monday, May 03, 2004
Deccan Herald, Sunday, May 16, 2004
The Hindu
Sunday Mid Day
The Telegraph

Click here for More Reviews.....



The text is enriched with sixteen pages of colour and over 200
black and white photographs
, 596 pages

Price $19.95 (plus postage and handling)
Rs 495
Trade discounts available for bulk purchases.

Orders may be placed with our distributor:

Variety Book Depot
AVG Bhavan
M-3, Connaught Circus
New Delhi - 110001
India. Tel : (+91-11) 23327175 , 23322567

Or Email your order to:


The Pioneer
A Sage of hope, travel is his calling
Anuradha Dutt

Indians seem rarely to write travel books. Akhil Bakshi is an inveterate wanderer who has visited 57 countries so far, and has the distinction of having authored some very enjoyable accounts of his journeys. This is his third travel book after The Road to Freedom and Silk Road on Wheels. The first dealt with the Azad Hind Expedition in 1996, led by the author from Singapore and Delhi, in the footsteps of the Indian National Army. The journey was undertaken in Mahindra jeeps, like his other expeditions. They drove through Malaysia and Burma, through Manipur up to the Red Fort. This was meant to commemorate the contribution of the INA to India's liberation. Earlier, in 1994, after the dismantling of the Soviet Union, he had led the Central Asian Expedition, again by road. The second book was about this goodwill mission to Central Asia and Tibet.


Apparently not content with his arduous travels, in 1999, Bakshi led another expedition, 'Hands Across The Borders,' through India and the most parts of South Asia. It was intended as a mass contact programme for overcoming barriers to friendship among the people of this region. They again took to the road, tirelessly driving over borders. Film star cum parliamentarian Sunil Dutt joined them along the way. The book under review humorously recapitulates the events and personalities encountered on the journey through South Asia.


This time, his odyssey is through familiar terrain: Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and 16 states of India, spanning the coastal regions, much of the south, the middle and the Indo-Gangetic plain. It is a vastly ambitious venture, that stops short of exploring Pakistan because of the outbreak of hostilities in Kargil. After the conflict is over, the team's request to travel in Pakistan is turned down by that country's High Commission. This marks the end to an immensely successful expedition. The final impression is of a sense of shared identity, binding together the people of this region. As the motorcade drives through the most varied terrain, the team members receive a warm welcome everywhere. They find that the barriers dividing peoples are not really insurmountable.


There are, no doubt, differences in language, customs and diet. But these are less important than the commonalities, resting in simplicity and warmth of spirit. The other common feature is the pervasive poverty and backwardness. Most parts seem to be ruled by a selfish oligarchy, incapable of seriously tackling the problems that have thwarted South Asia's development. These are self-perpetuating regimes which crush talent and enterprise. There is exhaustive data to support these facts, with the author even furnishing a list of the vast properties that former Pakistani President Benazir Bhutto has secreted for her family abroad.


Though Bakshi writes with amusement of people and politics, and of the grip of religion and its debased corollary, superstition, on the collective psyche, the narrative has an undertone of seriousness. His aim is to enjoy himself as he traverses the rich mosaic of cultures, sometimes tripping badly, as in his heroic struggle to master the art of eating that favourite Bengali delicacy, the bone-ridden hilsa fish. But his aim is also to understand the reasons for South Asia's failures. This entails an exhaustive exploration of the social and political dynamics of nation building, and the conditions and leadership, peculiar to each place.


He delves into myth and history to create the backdrop for South Asia's present. Old wives tales also fit snugly into this compendium of the bizarre, the plausible and the mundane. It makes for a roller coaster ride through a world, where often truth defies fiction. Some of it is plainly horrific, as in the continued prosecution of Dalits, caste feuds and gender crimes; the relentless civil war in Sri Lanka; and the economic servitude of a large part of the people in a region that is so rich in man power and resources. This honest record of harsh truths is illumined by a keen understanding of the compulsions that thwart the forces of change.


Finally, Bakshi's concern is with the future, of lifting the region out of the morass of poverty. He is critical of the leaders, who have fallen short of delivering on their promises to the people. But he writes also of miracles and of the faith that sustains the teeming multitude amidst bleakness and want. Gods and saints coexist uneasily with avaricious priests and policy-makers. The majesty of the past is juxtaposed incongruously with the squalour of the present. And the splendour of the South Asian landscape, still largely unravaged by greed, is an inappropriate setting for urban ugliness and kitsch. It is a world of contrasts, of extreme disparities, redeemed by the hopes of ordinary people.


The trek to greatness for South Asia might be long and difficult. But it is not impossible, if regional enmities can be forsaken, and energies channelled into vital areas of welfare. Bakshi makes a plea for overcoming animosities by extending hands across the borders. It is a sage of hope, of one who sees in his travels a serious calling.                    Top

Times of India, Chandigarh, 03.Feburary 2004



The Indian Express, Chandigarh, 03.Feburary 2004


The Hindustan Times,
Chandigarh, 03.Feburary 2004


The Statesman
24th April, 2004


Maharashtra Times
26th April, 2004


Deccan Herald
Monday, May 03, 2004

An expedition between ‘heaven and hell’

Akhil Bakshi, in his latest travelogue talks of issues facing South Asian countries as much as the experiences that helped complete the book.


He’s toured 58 countries, written three voluminous travelogues, made documentary films, some of which have won awards and some of which were telecast on Discovery and National Geographic channels. Akhil Bakshi is now busy making preparations for his expedition to ‘Gondwana Land’; a trip from the tip of South India to South Africa, beginning this September. His latest travelogue, ‘Between Heaven and Hell,’ has been launched recently. He was in Bangalore to promote his book.

It took Akhil five years to complete the travelogue, which is about his motoring expedition - Hands Across the Borders - to promote peace and development in South Asia. The three-month long expedition took off soon after India and Pakistan conducted their nuclear tests. “We organised a Yuva Shakthi expedition that included activists from the South Asian countries. Our objective was to promote peace among countries. It was an 18,000-km mass contact programme through Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepaland 16 states of India. The book covers issues facing South Asian countries,” says Akhil.

‘Between Heaven and Hell’ has been divided into five parts - Sri Lanka, Coromandel Coast, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Indo-Gangetic plain and Western India.

Why has he named the book Between Heaven and Hell? “After having travelled 58 countries I felt South Asia was one of the best places in the world but squalor and poverty have turned it into hell. Also, people are divided among themselves because of suspicion,” he adds.

The book is full of trenchant caustic humour. It begins with a wry joke on late Zia ul Haq, the former president of Pakistan, by a middle aged Pakistani professor. “Humour helps puncture pomposity, alleviate boredom and reconcile the governed to being bos
sed around,” says Akhil in his book. The size of the travelogue looks daunting - 556 pages in small print.

“A traveller would love the book. I am not sure about others. My wife has not been able to go beyond Chapter Two. The book has a collection of our experiences and has real life people and anecdotes. There are stories, some of which address larger issues,” he says.

While talking about the expedition, Akhil recalls certain interesting and intriguing incidents. “We were going through the Thrumsangla Pass in Bhutan when all of a sudden the weather went bad and the visibility became very poor. Just when we were wondering how to get out of the situation a black dog appeared from nowhere, guided us through the clouds and later disappeared. There’s a famous legend in the area according to which dogs are supposed to show the dead the way to heaven.

“In another incident we were crossing Shirdi in Maharashtra. A friend, who was a Shirdi Baba devotee, asked me to make a wish. I was a bit concerned about the tour because we had not got clearance from the Pakistan government. I asked Baba to help. Two days later my wife called me and told me that we had been granted permission by Pakistan,” recounts the author.

Akhil was in the Prime Minister’s Office during the tenure of P V Narasimha Rao. He was also the Director General of Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan. He now runs a film production company. He has authored two other travelogues - ‘Road to Freedom’, on the Azad Hind expedition and ‘Silk Road on Wheels’. ‘Between Heaven and Hell’ is published by Odyssey Books and is priced Rs 495.


Deccan Herald, Sunday, May 16, 2004

Tales of a novel peace mission

The narrations range from development and religion to politics and culture, filtered through the prism of sarcasm and wit.

Between Heaven and Hell: Travels Through South Asia
Akhil Bakshi
New Delhi: Odyssey Books, 2004
pp 556, Rs 495

This travelogue documents the South Asian motoring expedition of a group of activists (with the author as their leader), “Hands Across the Borders,” that was formed after India and Pakistan conducted their nuclear tests in 1998.

The group’s laudable objective was one of promoting the message of peace and development through South Asia, via a series of mass-contact programmes, panning the interiors of Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan.
If there is one word that can be used to describe the book, it is “irreverence.” Akhil Bakshi dwells at length on wide-ranging matters like development, religion, politics and culture but always through the prism of sarcasm and wit, and yet displaying a thorough understanding of South Asia in his narrations.

There is no doubt that Bakshi has his finger on the pulse, from an observation like, “Given the present technology, resources and organisational skills, no South Asian child need die. What is lacking is the political will to persuade governments to hesitate, before pouring unlimited money into the coffers of the generals and the admirals for delivering death and destruction in the name of deterrence, peace and security.”

The author uses a peculiar brand of humour (often risque) to have a dig at the South Asian religions; gods, goddesses, priests and religious customs all come in for attack. Perhaps aimed at holding the interest of the non-Asian reader, this is where Bakshi is sometimes guilty of belabouring the point and crossing the “Lakshman rekha.” Barring this and the one unfavourable (and somewhat unfair) reference to V P Singh and his style of governance, the narrative flows in lyrical fashion, especially when the author describes the scenic beauty of the places visited, and writes with candour about South Asian peace-building measures.

Interesting black and white, and colour photographs add grist to this travelogue. It is undoubtedly a good book to read and possess, for the wealth of information that it packs in. Some careful and imaginative editing could have made for a crisper narration.

Bakshi makes several allusions to “Dutt Sahib,” the Hindi film legend and parliamentarian, Sunil Dutt, who does more than providing the glamour factor to this expedition, whose mission the author touchingly sums up in the last chapter, when he quotes from the verse of Ali Sardar Jaffri:

“Come, bearing the gardens of Lahore on your shoulders
We will bring the light of a Banaras dawn
And the fragrance of the Himalayan air
And then we will ask, who is the enemy?”

After being educated abroad, Bakshi worked as Director-General of the Nehru Yuva Kendra Sanghathan. He worked with two Prime Ministers, Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao, and during this time, extensively travelled through rural India, both working and living in villages. Bakshi has authored several books.

Melanie P Kumar

The Hindu
Thursday, Apr 29, 2004

Between frivolity and gravity

Akhil Bakshi, who has just released a book on his travel through South Asia, has yet another trip and some vague political plans up his sleeve

AKHIL BAKSHI meets a Pakistani professor on the flight to Sri Lanka, at the start of the Hands Across Borders expedition through South Asian countries — "a mass contact programme to sensitive the leaders and people that youth of South Asia does not want any strife and tension in the region." The two hit it off, speaking in earthy Punjabi and sharing jokes on their political leaders. That proves an "auspicious start" to a three-month friendship pilgrimage, despite the irony of Pakistan itself not giving Akhil and his team permission to enter the country.

"We wanted to convince South Asian people, united in both problems and potential, that we should either swim or sink together," says Akhil, who has now documented the experiences of the 18,000-kilometre motoring journey in Between Heaven and Hell. Akhil says with pride that the team faced no hostility anywhere. They had the approval of local governments. The book, in fact, carries messages from the prime ministers of all the nations they visited. More importantly, everyone knew that it was "for the poor people", a journey that sought to strengthen the "shared heritage".

If one wants more proof of the goodwill of people, he cites the example of school children in a village near Ratnapura in Sri Lanka singing "Jana Gana Mana" every day. Ask him why they would do that, considering that a similar activity within our own border would be dubbed "anti-national", and Akhil comes up with a "Big Brother India" explanation: people in the entire region regard India with great respect. Bangladeshis have high regard for our "contribution to their liberation movement" and Tibetans don't sleep with their fee
t towards India because it's the land of the Buddha.

The team, one learns, was also careful not to offend the powers that be, wherever they went. They didn't, for instance, step into the Eelam territory. The idea was, after all, not to ruffle feathers unnecessarily.

Dominated by a tone of irreverent humour, the 550-odd pages of Between Heaven and Hell weaves history, myths, developmental issues, religion, politics, culture, and social idiosyncrasies of the countries Akhil and his team visit. The chapter on Sri Lanka, for instance, talks about the strife between LTTE and the Lankan army (not much on IPKF, though), the parliamentary structure, the enormous military expenses of the warring parties, the Buddhist monuments, the power of the clergy, the double-edged Dutugamunu-Elara story about the Sinhalese-Tamil relationship, the country's fascination for cricket, and so on.

The book, in stretches, crackles with keen, balanced observations and easy prose. Akhil's conversation with a watchman at Ayodhya and his observations of the military machismo at Wagah border, for instance, offer sharp, no-nonsense perspectives on weighty issues.

The jokes thrown into the narrative also add to the readability — such as the hilarious rendering of the Ramayana by a young couple on the Sri Lankan beach, the French girl's explanation on the "lingam" suffixed to many South Indian names, and the yarns on gods and saints.

But Akhil seems to go overboard with his irreverence and humour on a number of occasions. They not only sound laboured, but are also highly inappropriate. Consider this sentence that is part of a passage on the notorious Sati at Deorala. "...And since the act of suicide is being performed with the full backing the support of doting family and community, there is no need to leave a dull and boring suicide note." Disapproving as he may be of the incident itself, this "light heartedness" is surely in bad taste in the context. The book abounds in such examples.

Akhil also tends to shock you with his foreigner-like perspective and sweeping generalisations on important aspects of history. This sentence would sound completely blasphemous to anyone who loves the ghee-rich Tirupati ladoos: "The nauseous smell of lard emanated from the kitchen, where huge quantities of sweet ladoos were being prepared for the pilgrims." The long and disputed history of strife between Buddhism and Hinduism and Adi Shankara's role in it gets resolved in two simple sentences: "...In a remarkable feat, Buddha was merged into Hinduism as the ninth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. By the by, the divided spiritual loyalties of the populace flowed back to mainstream Hinduism." And V.P. Singh, along with Mandal Commission, gets sentenced thus: "V.P. Singh succeeded Rajiv as India's Prime Minister, and the social divisions that he unleashed took the country back many hundred years."

Akhil, who did most of his schooling in Germany and M.B.A. in the U.S., returned to India and worked with two Congress Prime Ministers, Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao. He talks with pride of his work with Rajiv in Amethi in making it a "model constituency". Akhil later went on to become the Director of Nehru Yuva Kendra Sanghatan. He is the founder of two NGOs working with youngsters. He talks passionately about the deplorable state of politics in India today. "Do you know that 125 out of 425 MLAs in Uttar Pradesh have a criminal record? With the young and educated losing interest in politics, anti-social elements are having a heyday."

Would this passion translate to him contesting the next election, one wonders. He surprises you with a: "I would rather form a brand new party... with the best 500-odd people in the country." He already has a few agendas up his sleeve. He holds forth: "Reservation is not good for the country or the communities themselves..."

But all these ideas are on hold right now, as he is busy planning his next trip through Gondwana Land — a 45,000-kilometre ride through 18 countries in five months. One can surely expect yet another book in a couple of years. Only hope it won't be more voluminous than the present one, which could have been reduced by at least a 100 pages with some intelligent editing.



Travels through South Asia
By: A Sunday Mid Day Correspondent
May 30, 2004


Akhil Bakshi led an 18,000 km motoring expedition across South Asia: Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan. Sunday Mid Day extracts from his book on his encounters
A street vendor in Colombo
Sri Lanka

Colombo, the history-drenched capital of Sri Lanka, seemed to be under siege. Sandbags, barricades and pillboxes were erected at regular intervals. Gun-toting policemen in blue uniforms and batik helmets had taken over the street outside the airport. They were there, I assumed, to check, frisk, intimidate and terrorise innocent people. But their actions did not seem to confirm my assumptions. They occupied themselves scratching their feet with the barrels of their automatic weapons; gossiping with their arms thrown over each other's shoulders; sipping tea noisily; eyeing passing women; and helping spick-and-span children weighed down by heavy school bags, cross roads. The security blanket seemed cold.

Passing Ungiriya and Kiriella on A8, we got to Horana in the Kalutara district. Wijitha Kanangara, our clueless navigator, driving in the lead vehicle stopped at Sripalee Vidyalay, a high school… The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, the first South Asian to win the Nobel Prize — in 1915 for literature — had visited the school in the early 1900s... We were pleasantly surprised to hear that our anthem was sung every morning by the students of this Sri Lankan school. The principal got together the school choir, and soon the exquisitely soft strains of "Jana gana mana" came floating from the instruments.

A Nihang at the Golden Temple in Amritsar
Coromandel Coast

Our fifth jeep, christened Padma, met us in Chennai. Driving in Padma and a hired mini-bus, we toured some of the popular religious sites near Chennai. The bus driver, Rajiv, was an old man, dressed in a starched white safari suit. A powerful walrus moustache stretched across his distinguished face. "You go to all these temples to pray?" asked Rajiv, mockingly. "I have been 5,000 times to Tirupati, where all the world comes for darshan. But only went once inside the temple. These places are not holy. Only dens for making money. If you take money out of your pocket, the priest lets you have a glimpse of the idol. Otherwise, he rudely pushes you away. Such behaviour never happens in a church or a mosque or gurudwara. Hindu priests are fraud. Only after money. Stupid, rich people come here and throw away tens of thousands of rupees in a temple. But they have no money to give to the poor. They will not give me even 10 rupees for lunch. And, anyway, more of the idols in the temple are fake. The real ones have been smuggled out of the country by the corrupt priests and customs officials."

India was playing a cricket match against some country. I requested Rajiv to tune into the radio commentary. He did so. Twirling his enormous whiskers, he said reflectively: "Many years I work as a driver. Many big and famous people I have seen. They are all junk. People like junk. All movie stars and cricketers I drive. They are zero. You know that great hero, the former Indian cricket captain… (name withheld)? I once see him from my bus waiting at hotel. A beautiful Marwari girl comes at 9.30 at night in a red Maruti car. He go away with her and come back at four in the morning. That day he batting for India — out on first ball! Then all balls bowling wide.
The little goddess in Madhya Pradesh
Stamina finish at night. India lost. Many times I watch Indian cricket team practicing. When movie actresses come, they leave their bat and ball and run after them. Anyway, no point in watching match or listening commentary. These days, all matches fixed."

Nowhere is God pampered more than in Tirumala, the heavenly abode of Lord Vishnu, a four-hour drive north of Chennai, in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Vishnu's incarnation, sometimes called Venkatesh and sometimes Balaji, is the presiding deity here. God is woken up in the morning to the sound of music, bathed with milk, decorated with ornaments suited to the day of the year, rocked in golden swings, and taken for walks and boat rides in a procession, with the accompaniment of music, lights and scented flowers. On special occasions, he is carried atop gold and silver-plated vehicles — Garuda, elephant, lion, chariot, sun and he moon. As a bonus, God gets to wed his consort every day.

The Venkateshwara temple at Tirumala can more than afford to lavish all these luxuries and extravagances on God. It is the richest place of worship in the whole wide world. The Vatican comes a poor second. On an average, 50,000 worshippers flock to Tirumala each day, 365 days a year. God is made to work 14 hours a day. On special occasions, like festivals and sacred days, he must work 20 hours a day to accommodate one lakh worshippers. I am not aware if he gets paid overtime for the extra hours put in.

The village barber in Puri
If Moody's were to give Tirumala a credit ratings, it would be right at the top of the rung. An undisputed industry leader, it has the biggest customer base. It collects a whooping Rs 350 crore, or $70 million, and about 350 kg of gold annually as donations from the flood of pilgrims. It owns the most lucrative assets, none of them a dud. It has investments of Rs 400 crore — approximately $76 Million. This does not include the untold treasures stored away in its closets — countless pounds of extremely antique gold and silver jewellery; tones of rubies, emeralds and diamonds; clothes woven with golden threads; and thousands and thousands of acres of arable village lands, gifted by medieval kings. To help invest funds, the temple has several banking friends. It has built up large holdings in educational institutions and hospitals. Some of the money is utilised to purchase tones of spices, vegetables and oil that is required to feed, free of cost, 15,000 people a day. Some of it goes into paying the salaries of the security guards and other personnel, the temple being the largest single employer in all of south India. The rest goes into the  sacred bellies of the army of priests. Tirumala has no memory of being touched by a dark recession. The sun always shines on it and the business is on a constant upswing. At this stable of gods, it is always boom time.

Mr Chaudhary, our host at Tirupati, was a zealous fan of Lord Venkatesh, alias Balajis, alias Vishnu, the presiding deity of the Tirumala temple… As we entered the temple, Chaudhary became a man possessed. Heads turned and temple walls reverberated with his passionate cries of "Govinda, Govinda", calling out to the saviour in an exuberant display of his great affection and love for the god. Flawlessly chanting long, breezy Sanskrit mantras at the top of his voice, he kissed every pillar, lunged at the feet of every idol, and stood with folded hands before the life-size statues of the Vijaynagar emperors paying homage to Balaji. He appeared to be speaking to the idols, feeling the distinct power and presence of the divine spirits. Every once in a while. Chaudhary would stop to give a series of tight slaps to his cheeks. This was to "neutralise the arrogant ego," he said.

A firewood seller in Bangladesh.
Pics: Akhil Bakshi
We walked barefoot through vast courtyards and pillared halls. Great works of art adorned the walls and columns and filled the public spaces. The whiff of incense was everywhere. The nauseous smell of lard emanated from the kitchen, where huge quantities of sweet ladoos were being prepared for the pilgrims. The spherical roof of the main shrine, in the middle of the inner compound of the temple, is covered with sheets of gold. The flow of pilgrims was stopped to allow the expedition members to have a special audience with God. At Bangaro Vakili, the golden door, we waited to heart the recitation of the morning hymn. Suprabatham. Then we move forward hurriedly and expectantly till we came face to face with the god. There he stood, crowned and ornamented, from head to toe, blazing with priceless garlands of diamonds and rubies, and covered with aromatic flowers and sandalwood. The only part of the stone statue that was visible was the sides of the face below the crown. The eyes were covered with paste so that his gaze may not set the earth ablaze. I was so dazzled by the ornate statue and the ambience of the sanctuary that I could not observe its finer details.

Akhil Bakshi travelled across South Asia as part of a motoring expedition to promote peace and development.
These anecdotes have been excerpted from his book of experiences: Between Heaven and
Hell — Travels Through South Asia, published
by Odyssey Books.
Pic: Vijayanand Gupta
India abroad

“People across south Asia have a lot of respect for India. For instance in Tibet, we met monks who said that while sleeping at night they made sure their feet didn’t point to India, the land of Buddha.

In Bangladesh, people are still grateful for our help in gaining them freedom. But history books have diluted our contribution. People worry about the India’s cultural invasion through TV, they fear that their culture will be destroyed through our song and dance. It is the same in Nepal and Bhutan...

Across south Asia, they feel that integration between the countries has been hampered because of the relations between India and Pakistan. That’s watched closely.”


The Indian Express,


The Telegraph

Odyssey with a peace missive

Colours of amity: Bakshi en
route to Trashiganj in Bhutan

Thrumshing La, the highest motorable pass in Bhutan. A convoy of five Mahindra Armadas was threading its way up the mountains at a height of about 12,375 feet when a white-out took place. The road was treacherous and visibility low. So the convoy, carrying team leader Akhil Bakshi and MP Sunil Dutt among others, ground to a halt in the snow.

“Suddenly this shaggy black dog appeared from nowhere and started walking in front of us,” recounts Bakshi, in Calcutta on a short trip. The dog guided the team to safety through the army of clouds, waiting when the vehicles slowed down. “The Bhutanese believe that the dog guides the soul in afterlife,” muses the man who went on to complete the motoring expedition, covering 18,000 km.

If spiritual forces guided the course, it was the twin nuclear tests undertaken by the then-hostile neighbours in 1999 that had flagged off the journey, under the banner of the Delhi-based forum Yuva Shakti. Fourteen members were carrying the message of peace and development across Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and 16 states of India. “All of south Asia is one huge family. We have a joint destiny. Yet the ghost of Partition prods us to fight each other.” The members would be out by 8 am and “stagger in” at 1 or 2 pm. “We must have addressed around 1,000 meetings in the three months.”

Bakshi has mapped the memories and the miles clocked in the expedition as well as his peace missive in a book Between Heaven and Hell, released recently. “It tells the story of our journey in a tongue-in-cheek manner, questioning attitudes imposed from the top and satirising divisive policies like the arms race while millions suffer in poverty and ignorance.”

The former officer on special duty to ex-Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao fondly recounts the warm reception from people. “On a highway in Bhutan, kids travelled from as far as four km away to greet us with hand-painted flags,” he says.

Though Pakistan was the most obvious destination to take the peace message to, circumstances kept the country out of the itinerary. “The Kargil war had intensified. So both Dutt saab and the embassy suggested that we give it a miss.”

Bakshi, who describes himself as a tramp, is no stranger to long-distance missions. In 1994, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he had trekked up the famed Silk Road, to “revive cultural ties with the people of Central Asia”.

But it was the Azad Hind Expedition in 1995-96 that threw up more enduring moments. “With veterans of the Indian National Army, we traced Netaji’s route from Singapore. In Malaysia, where he had recruited his men, they met former colleagues and wept like children.”

Bakshi is already charting the course for his next mission — to Africa. “Some 265 million years ago, before the shift of the continents took place, India was part of the African mainland.” The journey will have a scientific motive this time, with a team of seismologists and geologists accompanying Bakshi