As a student in ’80s Calcutta, Amitabh Mundhra, vice-chairman, Simplex Infrastructures, grew up deeply influenced by the socialist philosophy and iconography that surrounded him. Which is why when he first travelled to Moscow in erstwhile Soviet Republic after joining Simplex in 1992, it was fascinating for him to experience that symbolism and way of life in his skin. That is, until the former Soviet Union went to pieces in front of his very eyes. “The sight of young children from middle class families begging on the streets, incapable of physical labour but unwilling to take dole, that was a very moving experience,” says the 46-year-old.
That polarity of experience is not new to Mundhra, thanks to his company’s background in the infrastructure and construction business. “We are always trying to find new geographies and partners to work with, so we either travel to large, developed cities or the back of beyond. So I have travelled extensively in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (both before and after the ethnic conflict) and also visited business mainstays such as London, New York, Copenhagen and Paris,” says Mundhra, who is on his fifth passport copy right now.
In close to three decades of travel, Mundhra has been witness to several changes in how India and Indians are perceived globally. “When Iran was in lockdown during Ayatollah Khamenei’s reign, I received an overwhelming amount of good hospitality at the hands of the locals. Our biggest cultural currency, of course, remains our film industry. In Azerbaijan last month, the locals knew every single detail about our films, songs and actors. Though Mithun Chakraborty and Raj Kapoor were really popular in erstwhile USSR, now that Moscow has become westernised, they don’t want anything to do with India anymore. We have lost our relevance in West Asia as well, though there is renewed acceptance in Sri Lanka post the LTTE years,” Mundhra says.
On family trips, Mundhra focuses on group activities instead, going dog-sledding in Alaska or bungee jumping and diving with great white sharks in South Africa. “I tend to be brave once in a while,” he chuckles. Of course, there have been extreme adventures — of the other kind — Mundhra and his family were left stranded for days in a sleepy Swiss town called Grindelwald after their passports, money and all other belongings were stolen. “I barely had 40 euros, my phone and a credit card on me. But we enjoyed the experience anyway as the place was beautiful, people friendly and hotels and restaurants accommodative.”
Apart from visa and passport shenanigans, has Mundhra faced that other bugbear common to most travellers — language trouble? “Communication hasn’t been a problem so far, actually. I remember the time my father and I were in Japan, when he suffered a mild heart attack and hit his chin as he passed out. I was completely taken aback when I found him in a pool of blood, but for the next two days, I remember the hotel and hospital staff taking exemplary care of us. There were no translators or signboards but that didn’t stop them from making sure we were comfortable,” he says.
So, what is next on the itinerant traveller’s agenda? “Though I don’t plan my travels, I really want to visit the old silk route all the way from Venice to Mongolia, much like my trip to Manasarovar via the Tibetan route in 1994-95. But I haven’t given it that much of thought, really. I’m a hippie at heart and I don’t like going to any place more than once. There is so much to see out there in the world,” he smiles.