Benjamin Reid-Howells and Prashant Kumar believe that they were destined to meet. To make this incredible journey from India to Scotland, exploring the meaning of a truly united world.
by Nikhil Sreekandan
“Thanks for that, someone had just come in to fix my laptop. This is our last chance while still in India to get all our gear sorted,” Ben’s quick to explain the call drop before we jump right back into discussing the stories of the Vasudhaiva Ride.
“So, we get to Bihar with a plan to set up the basis for a future skills training centre and to build a home in order to model self-reliant housing. What we weren’t prepared for was managing the local context in the neighbourhood, of caste differences, which is one of the many realities in small town Bihar there. Suddenly, Prashant is meeting and discussing with families who haven’t spoken properly in years, and we’re seeing their children starting to play together.”
Sleeping under the night sky and finding refuge under parked trucks when the weather goes berserk; Benjamin Reid-Howells and Prashant Kumar show up at random villages, seep into the local community and do what they can to help serve them.
The work and journey of Vasudhaiva Ride are inspired by the ancient Sanskrit phrase, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which translates to ‘the whole world is one family.’
So far, the Canadian-Indian duo, along with their faithful dog, Buddy, have travelled over 12,000 km across the Indian subcontinent and have completed four major projects in the process – providing accessible education in Bombay, affordable housing and community building in Pushkar, self-reliant housing in Bihar and rural school infrastructure in Nepal.
They are currently preparing for the final phase of their journey, across Europe to Scotland, where they hope to reach by January 2019. They’ve got two major projects lined up as of now, one in Kazakhstan and one probably in Greece, serving refugee communities and the general relief effort that is happening there.
Benjamin Reid-Howells and Prashant Kumar talk to INKLINE about the Vasudhaiva Ride and what it means to lead a life of service.
INKLINE: Ben, was a life in India something you had always envisioned? Could you tell us about your friendship with Prashant?
Benjamin Reid-Howells: I came to India in 2014 to volunteer at the United World College (UWC) in Pune. UWC is a series of colleges around the world that make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and for a sustainable future. I was a graduate of the UWC years ago, an alumnus, and I wanted to come back and give back to that same mission. So, I came hired as a kayaking and outdoor guide at the college in Pune. I got there and I quickly became more and more involved and I ended spending more than two years there.
In that time, I was exploring Pune, exploring the movers and shakers, the young alternative activist artist scene there and that’s when I met Prashant at the TIFA Working Studios. He was helping to host Khoj International art Workshop with an organisation called The Good Artist of Pune, we met at the event and we became very good friends right then and there.
I: From where did the idea for Vasudhaiva Ride germinate?
B: I shared with Prashant this plan I had of travelling back home to Scotland (where my family is originally from), on the road exploring different ways people were bringing about a positive change. It was my way of finding what I really wanted to do in life, how I wanted to serve the world.
Prashant Kumar: For me, riding has always been a part of my life. And, truly speaking, I was looking for someone who can be as crazy enough to move around with me in the world. So, as soon as Ben said this, without thinking much, I said yes.
But, something I was insistent about was that we can’t do this like a personal journey, we can’t do this just for our own experience. If we are doing this, we have to do it to serve something and on a much larger scale. That’s when I introduced Ben to the idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which he wholeheartedly welcomed and we decided to make it happen.
I: How did Buddy come into the picture?
B: Prashant is an animal activist and lover. He has helped set up shelters in Pune and even built one himself. Prashant was told one day about this dog that no one could control.
Obviously, he went to see the dog – part pit bull part bulldog, he was super-aggressive. Eventually, Buddy was adopted by Prashant and they became adventure partners. So, when I moved in with Prashant I moved in with Buddy, whom I also knew by then pretty well.
Then one day Prashant asked me, ‘Hey Ben, what if Buddy comes with us?’ First I said no, thinking of the added complications of travelling with a big dog.
Buddy used to have an aggressive nature. We considered bringing him with us, exposing him to different people and places, to see how it might change him. So we decided to take him with us, just to Bombay and then to Pushkar, for our first two projects and drop him back in Pune. But, he was so good and he really changed in those first months of the ride, really relaxed and calmed down.
Plus, when we travel, we sleep on the side of the road, so to have a pitbull bulldog with you, you can sleep aramse (at ease). Seeing how the ride was helping Buddy, we decided to take him for the rest of India. We’ve done 12,000 km with Buddy in the last 16 months, and now his ride is finished. He’ll stay home with Prashant’s family in Bihar.
We are going to Tibet in a few weeks. From Tibet to China, then Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and westward from there.
I: How is life on the road like? Where do you crash at night?
B: We just follow our eyes and our heart. As it comes to sunset, we ride slowly looking for a place and maybe we’ll see a mosque, and we’ll go talk to the people there and stay there. Or maybe we’ll see a Hindu temple or Buddhist one or we’ll just see a beautiful tree or river – any place that looks peaceful and quiet.
We’ve never paid for accommodation on the road yet. We always sleep under the stars and when the weather’s bad we’ve slept underneath a parked truck. It’s very jugaad (low-cost solution), which is sort of the mother of everything we do.
I: How receptive are the communities of you folks?
P: I can put it in very simple words. Atithi Devo Bhava, which means in Sanskrit, ‘Guest is God’. We have faced that literally everywhere. Every village, every city. Of courses, people have been curious about us – who are these two people on two huge motorcycles with a dog? Occasionally, I get the guide talk as well – Ben being a foreigner, they immediately think that I’m his guide. And, sometimes I play along, it’s good fun.
Otherwise, people are very courteous and welcoming. So many times, I remember, in dhabas (roadside food stall) where we have eaten food and paid when the dhaba owner gets to know our story, they refuse to take the money and give it back.
It’s the same with villagers who feed us dinner and breakfast and go out of their way to give us something we need, a charger or a pair of shoes. So, till now the journey has been very supported by the people.
I: How do you start your projects? Could you take us through the complete process?
B: Initially, we’ll have a list of the skills that we can bring to any project. Then we look at what issues are we aware of in the region we are in. Maybe, it’s more about education, maybe it’s more about gender issues, maybe it’s more about resources, housing etc.
In India, we’ve worked independently, within our own network of people and projects, but as we head further from India, we’re identifying the people and communities who we can partner with.
The ones who help us understand the local context. Sometimes we get there thinking we are doing an art project because that’s what we thought was needed, but what’s actually needed is education.
So, we make a plan, but then we get there and let the reality on the ground influence us and shape the service that we do. It’s on the ground, sort of organic community-based needs assessment that happens.
I: Looking back, what’s that one moment of happiness that shines brighter than everything else?
P: After any project, when we see that the project has made a small community around itself, it is hugely satisfying.
For example, when we were in Bihar, after completing the project, to see two very different communities that lived on either side of the site get connected and to see their kids happy and mingling.
Such moments truly flood us with happiness. The kids still call me saying, ‘Prashant bhaiya (brother) how are you, where have you reached?’
I: What advice do you have for the youth of today?
B: For me personally, I think the meta-advice is to live a life of service. So many people are chasing happiness in ways that they will not be happy, be it materialism or status or wealth and we know that that doesn’t bring happiness. This is not a surprise, in fact, it’s very destructive to relationships, to your own sense of well-being, destructive to the environment and politically.
Lead a life of service, it’s damn fulfilling. Besides, there is so much to be done in this world. If anyone is connected enough, privileged enough, to be reading this then that means that they are a part of a global elite who have a laptop and internet and the time to read it.
Therefore, those who read it have not just a beautiful and joyful responsibility to be of service to the world, but also to enjoy it and to grow from the experience of it.
Nikhil Sreekandan is a journalist with a desire to explore life through the stories he chases. An engineer who found recluse in the world of words, he is a journalism post-graduate from Cardiff University. He works as a content editor at Nature inFocus, India’s leading platform for nature and wildlife. When not lost in cinema, contemporary literature or his earphones — there is a genuine attempt at ‘giving chase’, and it is beautiful.