In the summer of 1963, a 24-year-old man was leafing through his father's collection of Indian travel brochures, a stash he had discovered only the previous year in their Nashik home, when he chanced across a book with black and white photographs of the Italian city of Pompeii.
"My father was a strict disciplinarian and never ever had any conversation with me throughout his life except when he saw me going through those brochures," recalled Arun Narayan Sabnis, now 77 years old. Sabnis' father told him that he had always wanted to travel, but could never afford it as he was supporting his family of five children as well as his siblings. "That touched a chord in my heart."
His father's sudden passing brought him back home from Mumbai that year, forcing him to abandon his PhD dreams in order to support his mother. That summer day, Sabnis decided he would find a way to travel the world, as a tribute to his father. "Let him see the world through my eyes if he could not when he was alive," he said. "That was the germ."
"Let him see the world through my eyes if he could not when he was alive," he said. "That was the germ."
However, at first it seemed it was not to be. A postgraduate in psychology from Mumbai University, Sabnis had found admission that year in an American college. But without funds to travel and pay the tuition fees, he had to let it go. In the meantime, he met his future wife Manjiri, and started working in India. Seven years later, he secured admission in another American university, this time with a full scholarship from the state government, but his visa was rejected on health grounds.
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The third time proved lucky. So, in 1973, a decade after he had promised to see the world, Sabnis boarded an Air India plane to England as a Ford Foundation scholar. He was to pursue a course in urban studies at the University College of London. His wife stayed behind in India and took care of their two children—their daughter Supriya Pilgaonkar, now a well-known name in the Marathi and Hindi entertainment world and son Sumit Sabnis, who flies business tycoon Mukesh Ambani's private jet.
"I had succeeded in breaking the curse and was the first one from my family to travel abroad," he said. "That was the beginning."
The following year, he travelled across Europe. It was "educational", Sabnis recalled.
"I was exposed to an entirely different culture and the effect was shocking," he said. He had not had much exposure to western culture before his trip abroad, and the 34-year-old found it "thrilling". He learnt much from his friends abroad, which helped broaden his outlook, change his attitude, and "fired an insatiable desire to see and experience more and more."
"Looking back, I am amazed to see the enriching changes in myself," the septuagenarian said. "Besides the tremendous variety and contrasts in the cultures of the people across the world, I find amazing and striking similarities in their thinking and actions even when they were thousands of miles apart and without any inter-communication. This really brings us together as a human race!"
He also noticed what he described as "increasingly widening and disturbing gaps in the people in the name of religion, colour, language." He travelled across Europe, Australia, USA, Canada, Greenland, and Africa.
One of his most memorable trips was to Antarctica, the only continent he hadn't been to by then. In 2011, the 72-year-old booked a ticket on one of the most dangerous oceanic cruises in the world. Along with 84 other passengers in a small ship, he set across the Drake passage between South America and the South Shetlands islands of Antarctica.
"The eerie feeling that you are visiting a part of the world, which is very much as it was millions of years ago and which only very few Indians have set foot on so far," said Sabnis, "was giving me immense kick and thrill." As he crossed the Lemaire channel, an 11 kilometre-long strait off Antarctica, he experienced a kind of "eternal silence" which was unique. There, between white mountains and icebergs, he saw penguin colonies and seals lazing on icebergs.
In direct contrast to this idyllic thrill was the 60-hour return journey. As the wind blew at 100 kilometres per hour, the rough sea waves tossed their cruise ship 7 to 9 metres in the air, causing it to roll almost 45 degrees sideways, said Sabnis. Most of the passengers were sea sick, and Sabnis was sure he was going to die.
"I had nightmares throughout the night that everyone is searching for my dead body in the ocean!" he said. "This 60-hour ordeal was the most dreadful part of the journey."
But that didn't stop him from travelling, again and again. And last year, at age 75, he realised he had travelled to almost an equal number of countries, even though he didn't start travelling with that particular aim.
"That was when I first looked at it and it sort of dawned on me that it could be a mission statement of my passionate 'Wanderlust'," said Sabnis.
He picked Iceland for this special 75th country tour. "It was the name that attracted me," he explained, joking that it was misnomer and Greenland and Iceland should swap names.
Even though his wife doesn't usually accompany him for these trips—she hates the cold weather, he said, and was unwilling to travel to many countries even in summer—she travelled with him to England that year to celebrate 50 years of their marriage. Soon after, as she returned to India, he headed north to bathe in the Icelandic pools. His granddaughter, Shriya Pilgaonkar (who made her debut in Bollywood earlier this year with Fan), was his travel companion this time.
Sabnis was amazed to learn about the country's geothermal activity. "I wanted to go there because I wanted to see a country that was still largely in a pre-industrialisation stage," he said, "where the nature and it's presence is so awesome, and because of this unpredictable nature, people revere it, and adjust according to the circumstances without harming nature."
That Sabnis loves travelling is an understatement. But unlike many other travellers who pick solo quests and rough it out in youth hostels, he likes to take it easy.
"I am not a young man who can hitchhike backpacking. I do my travels in the most safe, tension-free way," he said, explaining how he books escorted tours. "All you need is good health, a lot of interest in the world around, sufficient stamina to pack and unpack bags almost every day and to keep moving and enjoying, and being adjustable in nature."
He advocates travelling often, taking small breaks, stretching long weekends to the maximum, and figuring out the best places to travel according to the season.
"I used to take out my calendar and mark all the short breaks and long holidays at the beginning of the year," he said. "Then, according to the seasons and locations, I would decide to visit places in such a way that the holiday would start on the last working day itself to maximise the sightseeing and minimise the travel time."
Even though he is a vegetarian—which can be difficult in international trips where dietary options may be scarce—Sabnis doesn't mind surviving on buttered bread when there is no choice. "If you complain, you will not be able to soak in the experiences," he said. "Malleability with all kinds of people and experiences is required."
Even though Sabnis is under doctor's orders to rest until October, but he is already planning his next holiday. He wants to go to Siberia and Mongolia.
"I remember my father, a lower middle class person, and can imagine the pinch he must have felt to not fulfil his dreams," he said. "He must be seeing through my eyes, probably."