Road to Discovery

I wanted to feel the thrill of the wild zinging through my teeth, so I pulled up fragments of survival into a backpack, enough to keep Sequoia hospitable for a week. And set off backpacking with a group of four, towards the Alpine zone.  The deeper we receded into the woods the harder it got staying on the trail. The storms the week before had done a nasty job of hiding the trails.

 I must have failed to keep pace with the rest of the pack, for I found myself farther and farther away until the distant heads vanished into the thickness of foliage. Before long instead of following a team of four, I found myself breaking trail through un-trampled greens. The map no longer fit the terrain, the trails were completely disguised with the havoc the storm had caused and there were fallen trees everywhere. As the sun dimmed its intensity, my hurried footsteps got more and more confused. One wrong turn led to another, and before I knew it, I was lost.

Night in the woods descends like a mighty eagle with its wings outstretched. Darkness is sudden and complete. There is no comforting light peering through embroidered curtains, or a mechanical buzz from the kitchen fridge, a sprinkler sputtering off at night, friendly chatter of the TV in the background, or the familiar clatter of silver ware and plates at dinner time. Instead there is the loud rhythmic thump of your heart beating against your ear drums. There are other disturbing noises intensified by the silence of the night. Like the rustling of leaves nearby, a sudden cry that resembles a baby shrieking except it is not, a howl, a hoot and an unnerving pair of yellow eyes watching from the distance…

A small shaking flashlight in hand and a poor job of a tent later I find myself strangely secure. It occurs to me that a human’s most fetal need is the need for security no matter how frail the promise of security may be. Thankfully, the fatigue from the day wraps its sleep laden hands around my neck and drowns me into deep slumber. For two days I hike senselessly around the green corridors of tall trees losing my way constantly. Until several miles, an abandoned baby stroller, broken shards of beer bottles, disbanded backpacks, and several cairns later I am convinced that I am well on the road to discovery.

The search team must have been thick on its trail, for it isn’t long before I hear myself scream, hands flailing like turbines in the wind. As two distant flashes of light glimmer like twin candles in the thick of the night swiftly growing in size. Woods

The wealthiest Man

02A breezy autumn afternoon, and a long drive back home. We were returning from a long trip with our extended family; aunts, uncles, cousins and all. In those days there were miles and miles of farmland even on the outskirts of Delhi which is now a pockmarked cement jungle. We were all exhausted from our long journey, so we decided to stop and stretch a while at one of the sugarcane farms on our way back home.Man selling sugarcane juice

The village had a lazy aura to it. It felt as though the environment was drunk on the sweetness of the cane fields. The yellow-green rows of cane plantation reminded you of long siestas under the balmy sun that promise never to end. A bullock-cart passed by carrying a farmer and his family Tok, Tok, Tok. A vendor on a wooden cart squeezed a tall glass of green sugar cane juice adding a dash of fresh ginger, salt, lemon and ice upon request.

An old thin farmer in a white dhoti and a shawl wrapped around him, squatted on the side walk with a bunch of other villagers. His was not the face of a youthful, carefree man who has yet to experience the toils of life. Instead, his face was the color of dark caramel etched with wrinkles. He had the intelligence of experience and a carefree resignation that comes from knowing, “it will all turn out okay in the end.” After a hard day’s work at the farm, I doubt he ever had to spend his nights tossing and turning trying to sleep. A good night’s sleep is often the understated reward of occupations that require handwork and sweat.Man sleeping in the farm

I was probably nine or ten at the time and most of my cousins were even younger than me. We were all very tired and needed a break. My parents asked the farmer if we could stop for a while at his field. He welcomed us enthusiastically, and showed us the way to a cool spot under a tree and offered us water. Then he took the shawl off his back and spread it on the ground for us to sit. And without a warning ran off into his field to pick us some of his ripest produce. Meanwhile, the kids started to create a hullaballoo playing tag and doing what kids do best; creating a racket! Nobody sat down, children were running everywhere and soon enough the poor farmer’s shawl was stamped with tiny boot marks. Thankfully, my aunt chided the kids, picked up the farmer’s shawl and folded it into a neat bundle. By the time the farmer came back, we were hungrily devouring the lunch we had brought with us. We offered the old man to join us, but he refused. It was probably one of the best meals I ever enjoyed. The inviting breeze on our faces and the incessant gossip of the country birds; what five star hotel could beat this ambience? For dessert we enjoyed a sampling of freshly picked sugarcane the farmer had brought us. I know our parents thanked the farmer heartily for his hospitality and insisted he accept money as a small gift, but he refused outright.

Children are so impressionable. It’s been decades since that day and yet it is still fresh in my memory. As far as I am concerned this farmer who took off his shawl and placed it on the ground for us to sit, was the richest man I have ever had the fortune of meeting. Wealth is not measured by a bank balance or the number of houses and cars one owns, it is simply a state of being. To be truly wealthy means to be so sufficient that you are happy to share your riches without the worry of losing them. And who could be wealthier than this old farmer who would share the shawl off his back with absolute strangers? As you will agree, even though the world is full of rich people there are few who are truly wealthy. Such people live on a different plane from the rest of us. Each experience etching an indelible wrinkle of serenity in their hearts, deepening their belief that, “it will all work out ok in the end”. So that when it’s time to go to bed, it’s simply ‘lights out’.

Blind Trust

It was a humid, sultry night. Smell of spices and burning charcoal filled the streets. The hawkers gathered their wares closing in on their busy days as the sun set on the old, pious town in Karauli, Rajasthan, twenty years ago.

A little girl holding her mama’s hand, gets off the train and boards a bus full of strangers. The long day sits heavy on her eyelids but she is trying to stay awake as she knows she must. The smell of incense wafts the air like a prayer. A thin old man is singing a country folklore. His milky eyes glazed over, rolled up as if in prayer and his voice is like the soft murmur of water flowing downhill on a shallow pebbled, river bed. In his hands he carries a wooden box of incense. A small black cloth pouch hangs off his right hand to collect money. He stops briefly at every seat, giving the passengers a chance to buy his incense. Lightly touching the seats as he passes for sense of direction and balance. 
Mama does not need incense but she buys some anyways and dutifully drops something in his pouch, making a tiny jingle. The old man nods and moves on.

When he is done he goes to the front of the bus and stands next to the driver to finish his song. Some of the passengers have joined him in his chant, others clap in tune. The bus draws to a halt at the next stop and the old man intuitively gets down and leaves.

The little girl tugs her mama’s hand and asks if the blind man will find his way. Her mother nods, “Yes,he will. I have seen him selling incense, since I was as old as you. He always find his way”. The girl smiles back wanly, wide awake now. The bus drives to a rest house and the two of them get out.

“But what if someone cheats him mama?” she continues clearly concerned. “What if someone steals his incense and does not pay him? He can’t see, won’t it be easy to cheat him?” Mama shakes her head and says, “No, they won’t my darling. Trust is blind…”

It’s been twenty years since that day, I never had a chance to visit that town again. Yet, I remember the day as if it happened yesterday. Memory is like a strange box, that can preserve random incidents forever, while the most lucid, current experiences escape it like air. I don’t know what happened to that old incense seller. I trust he lived a long and peaceful life.

A lot changes in twenty years. Today, trust and faith are commodities hard to come by. Yet I do believe that sometimes it is better to trust and be cheated than lead a life with the doors and windows of your heart closed. When I find myself helpless and in doubt, I remind myself of my mama’s words; trust is blind and faith fills our hearts like incense.