Track changes: How Sumit Gupta went from a failed exam to a new world record
The 32-year-old bank clerk from Delhi travelled relentlessly for 12 weeks to break the Guinness record for longest domestic journey by public transport. He began his quest after a failed civil service test, when he found himself asking, what am I doing with my life?
Sumit Gupta slept in a chair for two months, to prepare for his Guinness world record attempt. He planned to travel across India by bus and train.
Also as part of his prep, he spent hours each day on public buses, hopping on after work and only hopping off when his four-hour quota was done. He ate nothing but dal fry and roti; they’d be the safest meals on the road, and he couldn’t afford to be ill.
On September 11, 2021, he finally set out on his quest. He was looking to set a new record for longest journey by scheduled public transport in a single country. The existing one was set in 2018 by Odisha couple Jyotsna Mishra and Durga Charan Mishra: 29,119 km in 44 days.
Gupta wanted to put as much distance between himself and the existing record as possible. By the time he was done, on December 5, the Delhi-based bank clerk had travelled 61,445 km, over nearly three months.
Even with all his prep, it was exhausting. In all, Gupta took 63 trains and 41 state roadways buses, starting with a Delhi-Bikaner-Jaisalmer train journey and ending with one from Thiruvananthapuram back to Delhi. He planned all his train routes through the four major rail nodes of Delhi, Mumbai, Howrah and Chennai; for states such as Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, he used the bus network.
At each stop, he had to secure signatures from witnesses, make notes on his arrival and departure, get officials at bus stops and railway stations to sign Guinness logbooks that said he was there.
“Some passengers were dismissive when I told them of my mission. But I was surprised by the support and kindness I usually found. People didn’t just sign, they also became friends. I now have a family to visit when I visit Jaipur next, and many other friends to call,” Gupta says.
Between his diet, tight schedule and the stresses of being on the move all day, there was a point at which he almost cracked. It was, wouldn’t you know it, in Mumbai. He called his mother, Swarn Gupta, 66, and told her he couldn’t take another train. He felt weak and dizzy; he wanted to give up and come home.
Take a break, have a cup of tea and don’t think about the mission for an hour, she advised. He did as she said, and “at the end of an hour, I was up and ready to go again”.
Why this record and this mission? In a sense, he’d been preparing for 20 years, says Gupta, 32. “As a child, I was fascinated by the idea of travel. From the time it was decided that we were going to take a trip somewhere, I found it hard to sleep.”
The excitement would build, he says, because of his mother’s stories. As the daughter of an Indian Railways employee, she had travelled widely with her parents. Gupta and his two sisters grew up listening to these stories of those long train journeys, with their changing landscape, transient friendships and unfamiliar foods.
Both his parents (his father Dayanand Gupta, 70, is a retired shopkeeper; his mother, a homemaker) enjoy travel, so by age 17, the family had journeyed across northern India, making at least one trip a year. “We hardly ever travelled in luxury. We learnt to sleep while sitting in trains,” Gupta says.
Travel became Gupta’s personal escape hatch while he was studying for his BBA degree and then his civil services exam. By age 21, he was already feeling stifled as a bank clerk. “One day I was really frustrated that people my age were having fun and I was going to work. Something came over me and instead of getting off at my usual bus stop, I headed to a bus terminus and then straight to Jaipur. I stayed there for a day and came back to the office the next day,” he says.
That marked the beginning of his solo trips. A particularly significant one came in 2015, when Gupta travelled from Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram by train, then to Kochi, Mamallapuram and Chennai, among other shorter stops. “It was on this trip that I realised that long train journeys don’t tire me much. After a full day of journeying, everyone else would be getting irritated and restless. To me it felt like just a few hours had gone by,” he says.
Then, another turning point. In 2016, Gupta failed the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) test. He’d been working towards this certification for eight years. “I began to ask myself, what am I doing with my life?” he says. “I decided it was time to take the leap and travel as much as possible.”
He had leave accumulated from his years as a bank clerk. He decided to cash it in and take his parents to as many countries as possible. “I can travel solo all my life but they are growing old and will not be able to travel like this for much longer,” he says.
In 2018, the three travelled to Singapore and Malaysia; then Switzerland, Australia and Egypt. By 2019, they had travelled to 15 countries. “These were pre-Covid times and if you looked really hard you could find flights to Australia from Amritsar that were hardly more expensive than flights from Delhi to Bengaluru. I booked everything myself and avoided package tours,” he says.
Gupta started discussing with his parents the possibility of going on a record-making trip, and his mother encouraged him to do it. Then the pandemic hit, and he was forced to spend even more time planning each intricate detail. Even so, some of his halts gave him pause.
“I couldn’t go far from the stations and depots, so the lodges I used were not the ones I would normally pick. The worst was a place in Nagpur. The room was somehow full of flies and mosquitoes. The best one was in Jaipur, for just ₹700 a day. Here I broke my dal fry rule and indulged in shahi paneer,” he says, laughing.
Aside from the flies, the stress and the buckets of dal fry, what Gupta will remember, he says, is the beauty. Rolling hills, rivers, oceans, forests, he got a window-seat tour of a diverse and beautiful nation. He learnt to say the equivalent of hello in 10 languages. “It always helps to learn how to greet people in the local language,” he says.
Now he has his record, something he worked towards for years. He steadily refused promotions so that he could keep more of his time to himself and his twin missions of travelling with his parents and setting his world record. For life, he will be proud of both, he says.
That first mission continues. Gupta and his parents are headed to the UK in November, where they look forward to visiting Stonehenge, Buckingham Palace and the Kohinoor. After that, it will be Brazil, Mexico and Peru. “Taking them to all these countries will be as good as another record for me,” he says.