Radio 4's No Destination: Peace campaigner Satish Kumar takes a trip back in time

Kumar recounted his epic walk to the four nuclear capitals of the world during the height of the Cold War

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"Come with me and we can relive this journey together," said a voice on the World Service on Saturday morning. Why the hell not, I decided, in a rare burst of spontaneity.

I had been all set to spend the morning with Rev Richard Coles on Radio 4's Saturday Live. But the peace campaigner Satish Kumar's voice on No Destination was so full of mischief and joie de vivre, like that of an excitable wizard, that it seemed wrong to let him relive it alone.

During the height of the Cold War in 1962, Kumar had been sitting in a cafe in Bangalore reading a newspaper when he came across an article about Bertrand Russell. The celebrated philosopher, who was 90 at the time, had been jailed for a week for protesting against nuclear weapons.

At once, Kumar, a man with a political conscience and a clear thirst for adventure, turned to his companion, E P Menon, and said: "What are we doing here, young man, sitting here drinking coffee?"

After a night of intense conversation they decided that they would embark on an epic walk to the four nuclear capitals of the world: Moscow, Paris, London and Washington DC. They would take no money and no food, and instead put their faith in the kindness of others. During their journey they would spread the word about nuclear disarmament and entreat warring nations to put aside their differences.

And so I accompanied Kumar, bleary-eyed and still in my pyjamas, in a journey through his memories, moving from mountain villages in Afghanistan to the palace of the Shah of Iran, a tea factory in Armenia, the Kremlin in Moscow, the Elysée Palace (and a spell in jail) in Paris, the living room of Clement Atlee in London and – 8,000 miles, 30 months and countless pairs of shoes later – Washington.

Framing Kumar's vignettes was a gentle soundscape – there was the rustle of a tent, the bark of a dog, the purr of a car on the Khyber Pass – all subtly pitched to bring colour to this astonishing odyssey.

Now in his Seventies, Kumar was a delightful guide, a cross between Phileas Fogg and Luath, the golden retriever in The Incredible Journey, complete with feverishly waggy tail. His recollections fizzed with warmth and wonder. His wide-eyed idealism was matched by a steely courage that would leave a more swashbuckling adventurer standing with his trousers around his ankles.

If there were horrors to his story – exhaustion, blistered feet, crippling hunger – Kumar wasn't in the mood to share them. Instead, it was with a knowing chuckle that he recalled meeting assorted beatniks and peaceniks all heading East in search of wisdom as he determinedly forged West, and the Armenian women who gave him bags of "peace tea" to give to the leaders of each nuclear nation. With each bag, he was asked to deliver a message: "When you think you need to press the button, stop for a minute and have a fresh cup of tea."

Do people like Kumar exist today, I found myself wondering? Or has our desire to protest been whittled down to growing facial hair in November and taking make-up free selfies? Kumar's job here wasn't to compare and contrast, of course, or to brag about his achievements. But in recalling his journey, he offered an eye-opening account of a departed era when humanity was the heart of protest and protest was at the heart of our political life. They don't make them like they used to.

Twitter.com/FionaSturges

Comments