The Adventure of a Lifetime 

“In the desert even a puddle seems like the ocean” I recall someone expressing this sentiment to me recently and though I had thought of it as just another one of those quotes that appear to be trying too hard to seem like a wise epiphany, I’d be the first to accept that it nonetheless reflects the truth.

It was about 12 or 13 years ago, when we were all little kids and easily excitable, much as little kids are wont to be. We had been camping in the wildside for the summer – the we consisting of a group of the earlier mentioned excitable little kids. A group of six, since I am of the mind to be painfully detailed about these affairs. So there we were, six little kids in the forest, living in a wooden cabin. What could possibly go wrong?

Thinking back, I feel it was the fine cloudy morning, offering a nice break from the sweltering heat of the preceding  days, that inspired the spirit of adventure in us. We had just had our breakfast and were sitting idly when my sister came up with the idea. “Let’s go out and explore. I’m bored of just sitting here all day” she said in a low voice, almost as if talking to herself. The statement had immediate effect on all of us as our eyes grew visibly brighter and we all started yapping like excited dogs. “Oh yes let’s!” said my cousin sister, the eldest of us all. “We could explore the forest. It would be so much fun, just like in the books!” exclaimed her brother. “I’m game for anything if it means we are no longer stuck here” another cousin of mine gave voice to his thoughts. Have no doubts about it, all of us had that sliver of nervousness deep inside of us but none of us was ready to acknowledge it. And so we set off, with little heed to safety and not a bother given to studying the maps of the forest that lay about the cabin.

The cabin had been built in a clearing of the forest, which the tribal people had earlier used as farm land. As such, for a considerable distance either side of the cabin the forest was not too dense, and the journey through this area of the forest was, although pleasant, not exciting enough for us. Soon enough we entered the deeper woods, and we seemed to enter a timeless space as the trees shielded the land below from the sun and the moon alike. Adrenaline pushed through my system, as I am sure it did for the others as well, as we continued on our aimless quest.

By and by the talking slowed down as everyone was taking in their surroundings and trying their best to keep their spirits up. That soon proved to be hard for me because the noises of the various forest insects affected me and I had the creepy feeling of insects crawling over my legs. I tried to shake off the feeling but it only got stronger to the point I couldn’t hold it any longer and started vigorously rubbing and shaking my legs. “Shall we go back?” asked my eldest brother, a hint of uneasiness in his voice. I didn’t know at that point, but the others too weren’t feeling very adventurous suddenly, owing to the creepiness of the forest. Now that we were actually in the forest, the threat of the forest loomed very real, and our ears started magnifying every tiny sound to scary proportions. But, unaware that everyone felt the same, and not wanting to ruin their day on my account, I said firmly “No. Let’s keep going”  And so we continued on, all chatter non existent now.

There were all manners of sounds coming from within the bushes and the branches of the trees but we figured it would be for our own good if we refrained from making any investigations into the matter as that could lead us into unwarranted troubles of all sorts. We just kept going further, with our eldest sister leading the way and the eldest brother making up the rearguard. After the passing of some time during which nothing untoward had happened, all of us calmed down and started rather enjoying the trek as evidenced by the return of the light hearted chatter and laughter  among our midst.

I remember I was walking alongside one of my cousins and we were talking about something or the other, when the two sisters in front of the group stopped suddenly. The eldest sister just had a blank expression on her face with maybe a hint of uneasiness showing but the other one had clasped her hands to her mouth and her face was painted with an expression of deep trauma. With a sense of apprehension I turned round the corner and tried to have a look at what had caused such an effect. There, lying on the forest floor, covered partially in fallen leaves, was a skeleton. A skeleton of a grown human person, all the flesh gone and just the bones casually lying there as if it were a dinosaur skeleton in a museum display. I stood transfixed at the sight, my legs refusing to move and my eyes refusing to look away. My ears registered several sharp intakes of breath from behind me as the rest of the group caught up with us. None of us had the words to express what we felt and as thus there was utter silence for a few moments. I shuffled closer to the cousin next to me and gripped his forearm tightly, not trusting myself to not collapse. Eventually the eldest brother broke the silence “Sh-shall we turn back?” he asked, his voice quivering. “Yes please! Please let’s go back!” I said, my eyes pleading with my sister. I didn’t need to, since she was as affected as any of us by the collection of bones on display at our feet. She quickly turned her back to the terrible yet strangely impressive sight and set forth on the path back.

Somewhere, somehow, either in haste or due to pure bad luck, or more plausibly because of failing to mark our path going in, we went the wrong way out (as one is expected to do in such situations, I gather). We came across a small stream which we had not previously laid our eyes upon, and on following it for a short while we came upon a small lake feeding the stream. This lake we had indeed laid our eyes upon previously, so all was not gloom for us. On reaching the lake, relieved to finally find ourselves somewhere familiar, we decided to rest for a bit and gather our wits. Instead, we ended up losing even more.

The thing is, in a forest, as in civilization, the animals tend to go to the sources of water whenever the need arises for them to quench their thirst. We, the little kids that we were back then, had no knowledge of this and thus were totally shaken out of our skins when we saw a wild lion walk towards the lake on the opposite bank. We all saw the lion at roughly the same time, and I am quite certain that the moment we saw it, the world was six people lighter and the spirit world had gained six new ghosts. Such was the whiteness of our faces and the stillness of our breathing. We must have sat there, completely motionless for a good five minutes, each minute an eternity long, before we regained some semblance of sense. Too afraid to unclench our jaws, we just motioned to each other and slowly started getting farther away from the lake. Crawling at first, then walking on our knees, walking on bent knees later, walking and finally running on our feet, we sure covered the entire evolution of man diagram as we hared ourselves away from the lake. We were tracing our way back along the stream that brought us to the lake in the first place, hoping chance would favour us and we’d find the correct turn this time around. As we were thus running, my eyes happened to look towards the stream for reasons still unknown. And there in that stream keeping up pace with us was like a faithful old dog on an evening jog in the park, was a slithering slimy snake. As soon as I saw the snake I felt my lungs shrink inside my chest as I expelled all the air inside them in one sonorous scream. I turned my head away from the terrifying sight and my legs and the rest of the body soon followed it’s lead as I broke off from the group, running away from the stream into the forest. The crunching of leaves on my heals told me that the others had followed me, though whether they had seen the snake I neither knew nor cared.

We had been running away from the stream, turning whichever way aimlessly and wildly, on instinct, when we began to feel the trees becoming thinner and sparser. A few darting minutes later we broke into a clearing, whence we felt the presence of lady luck in our vicinity for the first time that morning, as there came into our view a wooden cabin in the middle of the clearing.

As we approached the welcome sight we slowed down to a casual walk, huffing and puffing profusely due to the extreme exertions of the day. We had run our hands through our hair, wiped our faces on our sleeves, dusted off each other’s clothes and pasted gentle smiles on our faces by the time we reached the gates of the house. Just before we entered the house our eldest sister stopped all of us and with a stern expression said “Now remember! Not a word of this to anyone. Okay?”. Content on seeing all our faces oscillate vertically, she turned back towards the house and led us inside. “We were looking for you. Where have you been?” floated a voice laced with concern towards us. We turned sideways to see our grandma, her white hair shining against the sun as she was bent down watering the plants in the front yard. We magnanimously decided it would be good for the well being of the plants if we quickly narrated an abridged version of the happenings. “Nowhere. We were just playing around” we uttered in unison and calmly went inside the house.

That evening a few more cousins of ours came a-visiting and it was when we were telling them the story was when we first named our house “the wooden cabin”, our village “the forest”, and our street “the clearing in the forest”. The cow skeleton became a human one, while the village lion (which responds better to the call of dog) became a wild lion. Sure there was the snake – a small water snake swimming in a hand dug canal transporting water from a man made lake to the nearby agricultural fields. But there certainly were things that were actually left unaltered and unadulterated. Our feeling of adventure was the same, as was the fear and discomfort we experienced. And there were the trees that shut out the sun growing wild for a short stretch; not nearly an entire forest.

So why all these injected dangers? Why bulk up our experience? Why the grandstanding? Well for the little children caught up in boredom-land, that little slice of adventure did actually seem that big of a deal! That little break from everyday monotony was the biggest adventure any of us could dream of. Our lives had been so dried up of any excitement at all, whiling away all our days in the serene village household, that even a hint of it suddenly seemed too much for us. It truly is true then, isn’t it? “In the desert even a puddle seems like the ocean”

At My Funeral

It was a strange feeling. I felt so light, yet so powerful. So small yet so all-encompassing. I felt like a miniscule, inconsequential grain of sand on the ocean floor. I felt like an omnipresent, life-affirming breath of air. It was so confusing, yet so liberating. I was flying. I was soaring. I was running, I was swimming. I felt all the despair in the world, I felt all the happiness in the world. It was all so new and alien to me that it took me a while to realize it. But eventually, realize it I did.

I was dead. As dead as a … dead body. I couldn’t feel my skin, though I could sense my surroundings. My eyes wouldn’t open, though I could see everything. I could hear and I could smell, but I knew my nose and ears were not functioning. It was like the real me was finally set free from the confines of my body. My consciousness escaped my brain, engulfed my body and spread out into the world. Liberated.

The manner of my death matters not – it as inconsequential as my now frigid body. But the manner of my funeral is what reflects my life. My funeral would be the last sojourn in my life long quest to know myself. While previously I had learned from looking back at myself and my life, this would be different. This time, I would be learning about myself from what others feel about me and my death. So come join me, won’t you?

As I watch, I see people come from far for my funeral. My children, their spouses and their children, my friends, my colleagues and my family. They all look grim, though I am sure some of that is due to the weariness from their travel. I look at them and I know everyone there respects me. Not necessarily love, but definitely respect.

As I scan across the entire gathering, I see my son in the middle of it all, taking care of the arrangements and greeting the guests, all the while keeping down his grief. He is a good boy. He is like an extension of me – something I am proud of. But our relationship hasn’t always been rosy. We have had our disagreements in the past and what with the egos we both harbor, I don’t think we ever got as close as I would have liked. But I am proud of him. He is a respected and liked person in his town and people go to him for advice and counsel. He is a good man. But why am I telling you this! We should get back to learning about me.

As I continue looking upon the scene, I see my elder daughter, her face stricken with grief. She is the spitting image of my mother as far as character goes. Always hard working, always enterprising, and always strict! Always ready to help others but also not afraid to give people a piece of her mind when they disappoint her. People fear her, people respect her, people admire her. And me, I am one of the people too. But why am I telling you this! The topic is me.

I shift my gaze and there, sitting by her sister, I see my younger daughter. The youngest of them all. The rebel. The feisty one. The fighter. Quick in thought, generous at heart and strong in spirit. She is a lot like myself but also a lot like her mother. Intelligent, independent and indomitable. She shares the same passion for education and learning that I have but I feel we did not bond over it as much as we could have. But why am I telling you this! We should be talking about me.

As I turn my gaze further into the crowd I see my grandchildren. The most well behaved and smart grandchildren I could have ever asked for. Though I have been hard on them at times, I have always known they were destined to achieve great things. They are all on their way to achieving a good standing in the society, and that makes me a proud, proud grandfather. But why am I telling you this!

I turn away from my grandchildren and look towards the middle of all the emotion. And there she is. My wife. Her name literally means goddess earth and she couldn’t do her name any more justice than she already does. Always patient, always considerate, always caring. Always busy. My underappreciated support system over the years. I can’t imagine what I would have done or even if I could have done anything without her help and support. But why am I telling you this! This was supposed to be me learning about me not telling about me. So let’s look at me.

There, beside my wife is my body. The being that used to be me. It’s a strange and inexplicable feeling, looking at yourself. Yes, I’ve looked at myself many times in the past but all I ever saw was a reflection of my own mind at that point of time. But now as I see me, I see my real self. I see my achievements, I see my mistakes. I see my successes, I see my failures. I see everything. Without any of the ego, self judgement or self-partiality to cloud my vision, I can clearly see past my outer façade, into my inner abyss and glare into the parts of me that I have hidden even from myself over the years. Here, I see my true self. Here, I learn about that self.

I see a lot of things that define me. What is it that defines us the most – the work we do? The cars we drive? The food we eat? But all those only define us to the world. What defines me to myself – how I feel about people? How I show my emotions? How I don’t show my emotions? I might have never acted like one, but I really loved and cared about the people around me. The problem is, I don’t express it so well. The more I love a person, the more I try to hide it. The closer I feel to a person, the more distant I can seem when I am with them. The more I care about someone, the more irritable I am around them. Being a teacher for so many years, I had become accustomed to interacting with people the same way as I did with my students – stern, authoritarian and impersonal. When I do try to show my love, it often comes out as overly critical of the other person or even as self-aggrandizement sometimes. I am proud of myself and what I have done in my life. Sometimes that pride morphs into ego and gets in the way of my interactions with those around me, alienating myself from others. I never truly cared about it before, “because that’s the way I am” I told myself. But now, I think I could have done better. Tried harder. It’s not regret, it’s more like an afterthought. Because whatever has happened, I am very happy with my life. I have lived a full, healthy and respectful life.

But why am I telling you this? Because I have never talked to any of those that I love about any of this. I have never opened up to anyone about all these feelings. I have never told them how thankful I am that they were a part of my life. I have never told them how much I really needed them to keep me happy. I feel they might already know all this but I want them to hear it from me. Be my voice and tell them for me, won’t you..?

Someone like us

“Don’t run on the road, shorty! Your mom is going to be very angry at me if you get hurt” I shouted. “OK, brother!” came back the reply.

It was the first time that we were going from our house to our grandma’s place, by ourselves – just us, without any elders. Me being the eldest among us all, it was my responsibility to keep a watch on them. Everyone was excited, shorty more so than anyone else. He was always shy and reserved in front of elders but in the company of us children he was a live wire. That made my job that much harder. We were a group of six children with shorty being 8-9 years younger than me and the rest of the pack came between us in terms of age. Our journey was supposed to be simple and easy – just get on a bus in the bus station of our town and get down on the main road of our grandma’s village.

We started at our house and made our way to the bus station, with shorty jumping and running about on the road. Once we reached the station, we had to wait for some time since a bus had just left and the next bus would start only after 15 minutes. In the meantime, shorty and the younger lot started to get impatient and unruly. The bus arrived after 5 minutes. We decided to climb aboard the bus and wait inside. So, we got inside the bus and took our seats in the middle of the bus.

Sitting in the bus, we were just chatting when one man, heavily drunk, entered the bus. He stumbled his way into a seat at the back of the bus. As he walked past our seats, we could smell the stench of liquor emanating from him, and it was so foul, it made me nauseous. I looked around to make see if any of the others had a worse effect. All of them had looks of disgust on their faces, but they seemed alright. Soon, the bus started and we were chatting excitedly and the cool evening breeze flew through the window. After a while, the conductor came to our seats and took all of our money. Of course, he returned the change and also gave us our tickets. As he continued on his duty, we went back to our nattering.

Suddenly, shorty turned his head towards the back of the bus and was looking nervous and tense. I was perplexed and looked where he was looking. I saw that the conductor and the drunken man were having a heated argument about something. Apparently the man boarded the same bus in the same state every single day and he always paid less than the actual charge. The conductor was fed up of letting him go every time, so he was determined to get his full ticket charge that day. As and as their discussion heated up, shorty was getting more and more nervous and even started shaking. None of us others knew why he was so afraid or what to do, so we just watched nervously and hoped for the scuffle to end soon. However, it only got bigger and bigger to a point where the driver actually stopped the bus and came to the back to investigate the matter. Soon enough, even he was involved in the fight and there we were, in the middle of the road, with nowhere to go. The drunken man was very stubborn and refused to pay up as well as to get down from the bus. The driver and the conductor, with the help of two other frustrated passengers tried to remove him from the bus forcibly, but he held on to a rod of the bus very tightly, making it really hard to move him.

As all this was happening behind us, right next to us, shorty was having a breakdown. Tears were running down his cheeks and he was silently crying rivers. Seeing him in such a state, my heart skipped a beat. He was my responsibility and I had to console. I tried to find out what exactly was bothering him, but whenever we asked him, he just wiped his eyes, shook his head and replied, “Nothing.” And then started crying again. Meanwhile, the driver and the conductor decided to take the bus back into the town and handover the drunkard to the police. The driver soon started the bus and turned it around, towards the police station. All the way to the police station, shorty continued on crying and glancing nervously at the inebriated guy at the back. I thought that maybe he was afraid that the drunken man would harm us in some way. So, we tried to console him saying that he could do no harm and that the police would take care of the situation, but he just could not be controlled.

Soon the bus stopped near the police station, and the police dragged the man out of the bus, gave him a good beating on the street and took him into the police station. The driver and conductor gave the report to the police and the bus was soon on its way. Once the bus started, shorty went to sleep, being very exhausted. When he woke up after sometime, I could sense that he was feeling a tad ashamed for crying like that in front of us. We comforted him and asked him exactly why he had been so afraid. He replied “I am afraid of people shouting and fighting each other. If one of them goes out of control and starts going crazy, then he will hurt those around him. And since we are in a bus and had nowhere to go, I was afraid that the drunk man would go out of control and would do something that would cause harm to someone in the bus. That thought made me really afraid and nervous and I just could not calm myself down.” His fear seemed childish at that point, but after reflecting back on the incident over the years, I must say that what he felt was what was hidden in the deepest corner of all of our minds. We all had consciously repressed it in order to feel brave, but he had filled his mind with that fear. Maybe if he was older and stronger, he would have done something to stop the man before he could hurt others, while we on the other hand, would still have been sitting down and feeling oh so brave! Or maybe he too, would have grown up to become someone like us.