We took the turn that the hunters prescribed. A narrow opening just before the first bridge. The hunters had put it across very mildly.
It was not a turn. It was an incline that was almost 90 degrees. Like 89 or 88 maybe. Ok not less than 87 for sure.
Even Jackie Chan would have used a stunt double for this. It seemed like a joke. We threw another glance at the other way out. The monotonous rail track which we were familiar with. The very idea of walking back 13 kilometers like a herd of sheep seemed worse than death.
Jeeva decided to give this escape route a fair chance. And ventured first, followed by Aslam. The rest of us waited for a few minutes. And as expected the two of them came tumbling down.
“Ok guys. We gotta choose. Either we go on and on, on that same wretched rail track. Or we somehow cross this nonsense, and get the fuck outta here as quickly as possible. What do you all want to do?” Jeeva took charge, reminding himself and the others that he was the leader of the pack.
Thoughts crossed our minds. Maybe the incline was only in the initial stage. Maybe after that initial bit, it might suddenly clear into a plateau of greenery. Maybe the highway is just around the corner. Maybe we could end this nightmare in a few hours. We knew we were fooling ourselves into believing all that, but we couldn’t help being tempted that it might just turn out to be true. It was difficult to get rid of our foolishness so fast. So we motivated ourselves by remembering poems from our English class like ‘The road not taken’ and shit like that, took a deep breath, and embarked on this height of stupidity.
“OK. lets go for this.” we echoed, trying to gather enough conviction to match the volume of the chorus.
We jumped and clung on to the first rock in that opening, pulled ourselves up and crawled on our bellies, scratching our faces and rubbing our noses to the moss and mud. We heaved and puffed and pulled our bodies with all might. We exerted so much that we could taste everything that we had eaten in our lives with our nostrils.
A few metres above and it was too late to give up. We were all hanging, clinging on to some tree, shrub, creeper and anything else that our hands could reach out to grab.
I had no idea how Bonda was managing, but he somehow seemed to be doing it.
After sometime, the incline did reduce, but it was still steep to be fully relieved.
We progressed with an amazing speed of 100 metres an hour.
Guru stopped and leaned against a tree. He opened his bag, took a good look, and made a decision that he should have made earlier in life. He realised the key to survival was to get rid of physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology and other bullshit that weighed him down from leading an assured life. He understood the difference between wisdom and knowledge.
One after another, these worthless pieces of information went rolling down the cliff, making him lighter and wiser, and giving his life a second chance.
Further down, somebody else took a leaf out his books. And soon we heard the kerosene stove rolling down, without even an explosion to give us a momentary thrill.
The wisdom was infectious. The utensils followed.
Everyone started reducing their load, merrily polluting the environment that had been unkind to us.
Clothes, undergarments, tiny sleeping mats, leftover food…we renounced anything and everything to feel lighter.
We gulped the last few drops from the final bottle and flung it far away to degrade a thousand years hence.
After this small display of magnificence, we continued our journey with rejuvenated sprits.
But by then, we had lost track of each other. Separated by our varied degrees of agility.
Each person followed objects that were renounced by the previous guy, hoping that whoever is leading this trail, has attained nirvana somewhere up above.
We were all alone. Breathless, panting and crying in pain, under some tree. Fallen on some rock. Bruised and bleeding all over. Even the joy of seeing your fellow mates groan in misery had been taken away.
Now and then the skies would echo some familiar voice screaming in pain, and we kept ourselves engaged in a little game by guessing who it might be.
It was gloomy and it began to pour. Thankfully, we had set out early in the morning, and it was only noon. So, we still had the entire day to figure out the way to freedom.
After about 4 hours of solitary meandering, we miraculously congregated at one point. Each entry, swaying and staggering and finally collapsing on a rock, facing some random direction, exposing their backs to the rain like stray donkeys.
Noone spoke to each other. We hadn’t communicated to each other for more than six hours, but allowed the silence to exchange the mutual misery without seeking any solace in return.
We were drenched. We were sick. We were hungry. We had nothing left. No food. No water. No cigarettes. No bags. No nothing. Just ourselves in some wrecked clothing. The only thing that still remained was Bobby’s equipment, which he chose to retain, over common sense.
All our parent’s and teacher’s advices started to find meaning here. We secretly decided to become ‘good boys’ when we returned.
The reason why everyone stopped here was because it had a reason. It was at this junction that life decided to offer us an unwanted choice. The path diverged into three narrower paths, each promising to be more unpromising than the other.
“Fucked trekkers you all are. I am a chuth to come with you all.” Bonda uttered his first sentence with utmost clarity.
Aslam lifted himself up, took a small run up and kicked him hard.
Bonda rolled down and screamed in pain.
“Maathar chodh…..” Aslam gave him another kick.
Nobody knew why Aslam reacted like that. But Bonda’s pain came much later in our long list, after our aching body parts, for anyone to be bothered.
Bobby put down his tripod at the junction, pulled out a gigantic binocular and peeked into them.
He rotated his head and peeked into it again.
And then rotated it further pointing it to the route of the first path and peeked into it once more.
Since nobody seemed inquisitive about his queer behaviour, Mr Sherlock Holmes decided to divulge the findings of his little experiment, himself.
“I have just seen all the three paths. I think we must go down this path.” Bobby declared, pointing to route 2.
“I can see coconut trees at the end of this direction.”
Bobby: “You ignorant asses. Coconut trees only grow in civilisation.”
Aslam: “Balls to your theory man. The first route seems most clear. It seems most used.”
The rest of them found it appropriate to spend some time in depression than debate. As expected, Jeeva decided to take Bobby’s path, as it at least made sense in the long term. We chose to keep our opinions insignificant, and blindly went with Bobby’s recco.
A kilometer down, the path ended at an elephant trap.
Aslam snatched Bobby’s tripod and flung it into a bush, inviting him to participate in a wrestle match behind it. They both disappeared and for sometime nobody cared to intervene.
Soon, Jeeva realised the importance of his role, and reluctantly went behind and brought them back alive.
We retraced our path back, and this time, we went with Aslam’s choice.
The path ended at a violent stream.
Aslam and Bobby continued their unfinished match behind a new bush. This time Jeeva intervened earlier as he had discovered that Bobby needed faster help.
We retraced our path back, and finally chose the least chosen path.
We walked and walked. And walked. And walked.
And came back to the same spot where we started from.
It was 3 pm. We had reached a stage where we were willingly preparing ourselves to end our lives. Balls to our conviction. Balls to the brave and mighty. Balls to Wordsworth, Frost and their kind who decieved us into this. Balls to Mother Nature and her tricks for wooing us into this mess.
We formed a huddle and cried together.
“Ok guys. I have given up on my life. I don’t care if I live or die anymore. I cannot think of anything else but crossing that stream.”
“Ya, atleast let’s die trying.”
“Think about it. Its 4 pm. Soon it will be dark. We have no torches. No food. No nothing. It’s do or die.”
Neil came staggering back with a huge branch fallen nearby.
“Lets hold on to this and walk. If we make it, we make it. Or we die.”
Jeeva removed his jeans and wore it on his neck. A gesture which was once a symbol of guts and glory, had now become a uniform for suckers.
We all followed. In tandem we removed our jeans, and adorned it on our necks, and proceeded towards the stream, moronically marching in our undies.
The roar of the stream didn’t frighten us anymore. We stepped into it with an attitude of suicide bombers.
Jeeva stood first. Followed by Guru. Then Bonda. Then Bobby. Then Neil. Then Aslam and me. This was decided according to our swimming capabilities.
Jeeva, Guru and me knew how to swim. Aslam and Neil thought they knew how to swim. Bonda and Bobby were sure that they didn’t.
The stream was about 200 metres wide and gushing wild with rage.
Jeeva had a stick that he checked the depth with. The rocks were slippery. We took measured steps and waded into the danger.
I think we walked further with the power of our eyelashes, hair and stubble as they were the only parts in our body that were not yet aching.
We took that huge branch and chucked it in the middle of the stream till it got interlocked between the rocks.
We muttered a hurried prayer and clung on to that branch hoping that it would not give way and waded through the ice cold stream lashing on to our bodies.
The branch gave way every now and then making us lose our balance, and choke out water from our nostrils.
Once we covered the length of the branch, we’d lift it and push it further ahead, and continue on this death mission.
In about an hour, we managed to get over to the other side. Surprisingly, the head count remained the same.
We hugged and celebrated like as if we’d swam the Suez canal.
A few yards down we spotted a little hut. A 60 watt bulb flickered, dimly lighting up the courtyard that had been flattened and plastered with cow dung, with an elaborate rangoli inviting us. A few plantain trees, and a guava tree laden with fruits stood at the entrance, waiting to be devastated.
Our eyes were filled with tears of emotion, accompanied by a vague sense of deja vu on seeing these evidences that belonged to a civilisation, that we were once familiar with.
In less than a minute we were on top of the tree. We spared no fruit, not even the ones that were on the way of becoming one.
A young lady opened the door. And she was shocked to see her flimsy tree infested with seven malnourished monkeys in underwear, raiding her fruits of labour.
She retreated with a piercing scream that summoned the rest of the inmates which included her mother-in-law and two kids.
They surrounded the tree looking at us like we were aliens. We were unmoved. We continued eating. We couldn’t have cared even if they had guns.
After some heated exchange within themselves, they finally settled at being amused.
The lady took pity and asked “Coffee kuditheera?’
By then, Neil had had his fill to answer that. And with an untimely display of politeness he replied…”Illa aunty…it’s ok. No problem.”
The ladies shrugged their shoulders, went back inside and slammed the door.
Soon, we dived down and six of us threw Neil on the ground and were all set to slay him alive.
Just then the lady opened the door again and was shocked to see this sudden repositioning of the primates.
Jeeva sheepishly looked up and begged “Seven cups coffee. We haven’t had anything since last night. Sorry……….aunty.’
The lady returned with seven steel tumblers of steaming coffee.
We plonked ourselves on the courtyard and sent out a strong signal by sucking the last drops as loudly as we could, forcing the lady to bestow more kindness.
She returned with a plate of bananas.
As we were busy gobbling up the bananas, we heard a honk.
It didn’t strike us at first. Then suddenly Bobby jumped up and shouted in a banana voice…
“Did you hear that?’
“You asses. That was a truck man, a bloody truck. Which means we are next to the highway.”
It then slowly dawned upon us.
Jeeva collapsed on the floor.
Aslam did a war dance.
Neil combed back his hair.
Bobby finally dismantled his camera.
Guru secretly pocketed a plantain or two.
Bonda gurgled his saliva
And I was drenching in jubilance.
We couldn’t believe that this journey actually had an end.
Soon, the seven of us stood again in a single file, holding our thumbs out to hitch a ride back to earth.
Ofcourse, in our underwears.
(It’s a different matter that we hitched a ride to the nearest bus stand, and waited for 13 hours at the bus stop to get a bus back home. Ya, but i don’t want to spend anymore time reminiscing this trip. I just want to get back to celebrating that I’m alive.)