“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 not cared.
We had been running away from the stream, turning this way and that, aimlessly and wildly on instinct, when we felt the trees becoming sparser. A few long steps later we broke into a clearing, and 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. “Where did you go?” asked our grandma, her white hair ahining against the sun as she was bent down watering the plants in the front yard. We 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 as the forest, and our street as the clearing in the forest. The cow skeleton became a human one, while the village lion, which responds better to the name of dog, became a wild lion. Sure there was the snake but what it was swimming in was 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 trees that shut out the sun but only for a short stretch, not 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”