I had heard of the word ‘pandemic’ but it was not in my active vocabulary. I had never looked it up and had never used the word. The term lockdown was more familiar but mostly as a localised law-and-order issue. And, I think ‘social distancing’ is a brand-new phrase of these times. Our conversation these days is peppered with ‘minimalism’ and ‘new normal’.
Words apart, how has this novel situation we find ourselves in seeped into our conscience? A year and a half have passed and I look back on the shifts in my way of thinking and living.
When the complete lockdown of three weeks was imposed in March 2020 for the whole of India, I was naïve enough, or ignorant perhaps, to believe that by the end of that period, we would have controlled the virus, and all will be back to normal soon thereafter.
I was taking care of two very aged parents, both in their nineties and a chill ran down my spine as I heard the address of the Prime Minister of our country. I steeled myself to get through those twenty-one days of lockdown, one day at a time. In those initial days, the focus was mainly on running the house with a modicum of normalcy so that my parents are not inconvenienced in any way. And in sanitising everything, from hands to milk pouches to doorknobs. Continuation of the lockdown for two more months was followed by step-by-step unlocking but the spread of the pandemic had not slowed down. It gradually dawned upon us that we are in for a long haul.
There were days of anxiety, bordering on panic sometimes, interspersed with days of calm and peace brought in by a resolve to handle matters as they come. I had to search for the reserves of mental strength deep within me when my mother, who was nearing 95, passed away one afternoon during the initial lockdown. Amid the grief and difficulties in arranging for the funeral and the rites thereafter, I also found myself expressing gratitude to the Universe that she had a natural and peaceful death, at home.
That was perhaps a turning point for me. I started viewing the situation in its entirety. I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason. So, why would something so enormous and encompassing all of humanity occur without a good and sound reason? Mother Earth seemed to be wanting a break from human interference for better sustenance of all forms of life. It was like a mother giving a bitter pill to the child for its good. Amid the grief for the loss of so many lives, it was also heartening to see clean rivers and unpolluted air within a month or two. The universe was holding a mirror to the humans, to ponder on what they have become in their pursuit of greed, aggression, exploitation, and self-centered growth. Interdependence for survival and sustenance is the greatest lesson the virus seemed to be teaching us.
I shifted my attention from the daily news and veered away from messages and discussions that spelt doom. Instead, I started on activities that would give me joy, peace, and perspective. Downloading the Tanpura droid application on my mobile phone, I started practising Carnatic music again. I scheduled a one-hour skype meeting with a cousin, during which we would read 5 verses from the Bhagavad-Gita every day and discuss their meaning and significance. Since the essence of Bhagavad-Gita is in doing one’s duty without attachment to the results and in maintaining equanimity in all circumstances, delving into it could not have come at a more opportune time. It also revived my interest in Sanskrit, a language that I left at High School.
I started going for a walk in the park in the afternoon when it would be deserted. I also spent more time with my 99-year-old father, chatting with him or reading out something for him as he has lost his vision now. The forced distancing gave the much-needed clarity and perspective about people, situations, and most importantly, about myself. Regular meditation however still evaded me.
Somewhere around this time, I also started writing. The energising effect of a Writing Retreat that I had attended in Rishikesh in March that year, just before the lockdown, spurred me on. I joined a writing group and started writing short stories and travel memoirs, some of which I put up on my blog.
Taking a cue from a fellow blog writer, I enrolled in a free online course on the science of well-being. That put me on the path of regular vipassana meditation which had become sporadic over the years. Conscious practice of gratitude and kindness were the other takeaways from this course. I could not root out fear and worry completely but removing a lot of clutter freed me to some extent.
Or so I thought till the deadly second wave of the pandemic hit India. We were caught unaware since the decline in new infections and the vaccine roll-out from the start of the year 2021 had lulled us into a sweet and long-awaited complacency. All that I had learnt and assimilated till then flew out of the window, a window that was shut tight as the delta variant of the virus was believed to transmit through air. Panic attacks, triggered by negative thoughts and news about losing a few friends and acquaintances to the virus, overwhelmed me.
After remaining in this volatile state for a few days, I took full responsibility for the state of my mind and started walking unsteadily but persistently towards a semblance of composure, taking the help of prayers, meditation, mindfulness, journalling, and interacting with support groups. That period taught me not to be too smug about being sorted in my mind.
Another change in perspective that I observe in myself is my attitude towards travel. I was a compulsive traveller and revelled in all forms of travel – going for hikes in the Himalayas, road trips, visits to wildlife forests and historical cities in the country, and the occasional trips to other countries as well. I used to be restless if I did not travel for a while. I would still travel once the world opens up. Earlier, it was a frenzied “must-do” activity. Now I don’t have a bucket list. And staying at home is not that bad too. I intend to savour the experience of travel at a much slower pace.
My pragmatism and optimism tell me that I am not unique and if I have changed in perceptible ways, so would have millions and millions of other human beings and collectively, we may succeed in making this world a better place to live. That would be the greatest and the most precious gift that we would be giving to our children.
But then, on second thought, I am inclined to agree with Clint Eastwood who said that we should shift our focus from leaving a better planet for our children to leaving better children for our planet.
Presently, she had no other desire in life except to open Chapter 26 of the book to read it again, a little slowly this time. And also, to find out what happens next. She had left the world of Jane Eyre on Friday at a critical juncture. She was filled with a strange restlessness and a sense of foreboding all through the weekend.
There could not have been a starker contrast between her own world and the fictional one she had been coursing through in the school library for an hour every day since Monday. Her own life in India in a middle-class family and a municipality school in the year 1974 versus England of the early 19th century with its Halls and housekeepers, the Lords and the Ladies, the countryside with its heath and moors and horseback riders!
With the Sanskrit language teacher falling ill suddenly, the few students who had opted for this language course were at a loose end. While the others played or chatted, she went to the library just to while away her time. Not being an avid reader, she just flipped through several books. It was just by chance that she picked up Jane Eyre. She found the empty Library soothing and she settled down and opened Chapter One. She did not know then that she would be engulfed by the compelling story.
Since then, she would enter the Library every day without wasting a minute of the free period and head straight to the shelf where she knew the book would be, and retreat to a corner. With bated breath, she would open the book at the page she had read last and plunge headlong into the ordeals and travails of Jane. She experienced her despair and loneliness, but also admired her spirit and her fortitude in the face of so much adversity. And when Jane Eyre fell in love, it stirred up strange and unfamiliar emotions in the fourteen-year-old girl.
She devoured the book with passion and internalized all the happenings, the settings, and the interplay of the characters so that she was lost to her present world in that dimly lit Library.
Last Friday, she had read the chapter in which the wedding was interrupted and then called off. She had been overcome with a sense of bewilderment, disbelief, and denial at the revelations in this chapter. She wanted things to become alright somehow and could not bear the thought that Jane’s happiness was so short-lived.
All through the weekend, she could think of nothing else. Forgetting that it is a fictional story, she kept thinking of what would happen now. Absentmindedly, she attended to the chores at home. While cutting raw mangoes into small pieces, she thought of the chestnut tree in the gardens of Thornfield Hall and wondered what a chestnut looks like.
There was no way she could get hold of this book from somewhere else. She could not even think of asking her father to buy the book for her as all they could afford, that too with difficulty were the textbooks for her and her siblings. Having a book collection was unheard of in her circle of families and friends. She simply had to wait to return to the school library.
On Monday, she headed for the book with trepidation, but could not find it at its assigned place. She rummaged through the shelf but her book was gone. Amused by her urgent queries, the Librarian took her time to check some entries in a register. She now looked up and told her that the book had been sent, along with several other books, for repair and rebinding. Yes, it may take two or three weeks, and no, they do not have another copy of the book, she was told.
The girl was aghast. She sat there desolate, and tears welled up in her eyes. Her life had now been inexplicably intertwined with that of Jane Eyre and to be cut off from that world so abruptly was heart-wrenching.
The Librarian, who had spent all her life amongst books, could fathom the deep impact a good book can have, especially on a tender mind. She knew that at this time, no other book could comfort her. She withdrew quietly and allowed the girl to sit there, a little lost, in the library.
This short story is dedicated to Suma Varughese, who has helped me to connect with my muse.
I am old and frayed now. Nevertheless, I am classy, one of substance and not like the new ones on the block. And yet, here I am, abandoned and lonely.
When I was young and in good company, I had many admirers and conversations in elegant circles revolved around me. Life was good.
Over the years, I was slowly relegated to the background. At first, to the back of the shelf and then to the trunk in the attic. But nobody can deny that I was and still am the best in deductive crime fiction. The characters that unfold as you turn my pages are still alive in the minds of people. I am told that they are still making films and serials with my main characters.
All this crowding and jostling in the trunk exasperate me. Even a trash can would be better than this! Soon, I was picked up with several others of my clan and shoved into, you guessed it right, the trash can. Talk to me about a self-fulfilling prophecy!
Abandoned and hurt, I had no faith in humankind. After a long and painful journey, I lay in the dump and resigned myself to being shred or burnt or just left to decay.
I woke up from my stupor when a gloved hand picked me up and crammed me into a coat pocket. “Now what?” I thought. I dimly remember that I passed through several hands over the next few days, none that is worth mentioning.
So, I was pleasantly surprised when the young woman looked at me with interest and I felt the care in her touch. She cleaned my red leather cover carefully, removing the smudges and stains of years of neglect and the rough and tumble of the last few days. My title glittered again and I shone like a new coin.
What does a book want? To be handled carefully, to be read with interest and to be valued. She did all this and much more.
I had been with her for quite some time when, one day, she picked me up, put me in her handbag and left for work. I was enjoying the snug ride when she took me out, put a paste-on note on my cover and placed me gently by her side on the metro train seat. I was quite happy to have a separate seat and looked around brimming with pride, to check if anyone had noticed. But I am sad to say that all of them were totally engrossed with a gadget held in their hands.
As my owner got up to alight, I looked up at her expectantly. To my dismay, she moved to the door, glanced back at me and got off. What? Abandoned again?
I sat there clueless and despondent. While several passed, an elderly man stopped in front of me, read the note and picked me up. Smiling, he flipped through the pages and put me in his bag. My stay with him was brief but wonderful as he too read and valued me. A few days later, I was left by him deliberately on one of the benches of a metro station.
So, here I am, lying abandoned on the metro for the umpteenth time and waiting for yet another eager reader to pick me up. I have learnt now that I am a part of a social project “book on the metro”. Books are left at prominent places on the metro trains and stations, to be picked by interested readers, who would leave the books again for others. Thus, the chain of readers continues.
If I said we were out of breath, that would be a half-truth. This place just took our breath away! We were at the ridge top after trudging uphill for the last three hours through dense pine forests, and through some tense moments too, but more of that later. We were gasping for breath, as it is, but now we were gaping too at the magnificent surroundings at the ridge top. We stepped onto the meadow carpeted with tiny flowers that were competing for space with fresh shoots of grass.
While what lay beneath our feet, though beautiful and soothing to the eye, is not uncommon on Himalayan trails, we were completely unprepared for the 341-degree view (just kidding – it was almost 360, but for the mountainside from which we had climbed) of snow-clad Himalayan ranges all around us. The more seasoned hikers amongst us with a “been there, seen it all” attitude was also awestruck by the sheer beauty.
This place was Dalotu in the state of Himachal Pradesh in India. If you google it, you will get only a sketchy picture! We had also not heard about this place nor was it a part of the hiking route that we had decided upon. That summer, we had planned for Kugti Pass, the highest pass in the Pir Panjal Range of the Himalayas. The plan was to go up to Kugti Pass from Bharmour (65 km from Chamba) in Himachal Pradesh, along the shepherds’ trail. But unlike the shepherds, who cross over the pass with their flock and descend into Lahaul valley, we planned to return the same way from the top of the pass. The descent on the other side is not only steep and dangerous, we would have to walk for several days to reach human habitation.
The “we” here was a motley group of hiking enthusiasts and I had reluctantly agreed to the plan. I was the oldest member of the group, with the leader (who was a trained mountaineer) a good fifteen years younger and the others were younger still. Add to this a fitness level which was just so-so and paranoia of walking on snow. I do not mind the snow at all. I love it on mountain tops and in the surroundings. I just do not want it under my feet. I have crossed Passes and glaciers with jittery nerves and each time, I have vowed to myself that I will not go through this again. I should not have been a part of this hiking trip as Kugti Pass, at a height of 16500 feet and prone to avalanches, is daunting by any reckoning. But I could not give up walking on the Himalayan trails at lower altitudes through villages, valleys, forests and meadows and so I tagged along.
My prayers tinged with fear must have been heard as the plan had to be modified once we reached Bharmour, after being on the road from Delhi for two days. We were told that there was excessive snow at the pass and even the alyas, which is a generic term for the camping place before the ascent to the pass, was inaccessible. Kugti pass, at 16500 feet and prone to avalanches is daunting and is generally opened by the nomadic shepherds (Gaddis), who are the first to cross over to Lahaul with their flock. But before that, they pray to Goddess Marala Mata for safe passage and sacrifice sheep at her altar. We had seen flocks and flocks of sheep before reaching Bharmour, which should have made it clear to us that the Kugti Pass is not going to be opened anytime soon.
Our modified plan was, therefore, to continue on the trail up to Kugti village and further on to Kelang temple or Duggi depending on snow conditions and take a call thereafter.
The trekking route falls in Kugti Wildlife sanctuary. Hence, necessary permission for the trek was secured from the forest authorities at Chamba, which we had crossed while coming to Bharmour. At Bharmour, we finalized the arrangements for the trek, collecting tents and other equipment, meeting the guide, porters and cook who would accompany us and purchasing and packing necessary provisions as practically nothing is available beyond this point. We left Bharmour the next day by a hired jeep for Dharol, 19 km away. Places like Dharol are quaint and hard to find. It had exactly two house-cum-shops, one on each side of the road. The trek to Kugti Pass via Kugti village began from here.
Kugti is the last village on this trail and is at an altitude of around 8500 feet. The trail from Dharol to Kugti ascends gradually, winding along the river Budhil, a tributary of Raavi. The Budhil valley is green, consisting of dense mixed forests and the snow-capped mountains of Pir Panjal range are visible right from the start of the trek. The gradient is moderate and after 4 kms, the path winds down to Kugti secondary school, located on the banks of Budhil. The school was having a lunch break and the children were playing or moving around happily. They looked like loose molecules in matter, moving haphazardly and seemingly without purpose. The school, catering to the children of Kugti up to class 10, is about one and a half kilometers ahead of the village, though the primary wing is located in the village itself.
The last stretch of 2 kilometres from the school to the village was uphill all the way and it was a relief to reach the Forest Rest House where we were to stay that day. Most of the Forest Rest Houses in Himachal Pradesh have idyllic settings and the Kugti FRH is no exception. A walk through the village in the evening reaffirmed the general belief that cricket is indeed the national passion! The village has three or four paved open spaces surrounded by houses on all sides and cricket was in full swing at each of these courtyards, with spectators cheering from the windows and ledges of the quaint houses.
This was the lower Kugti and there is an upper Kugti as well, with about 40 houses. The village is electrified and dish antennas sprout out of every house top. While there is no telephone connection, Kugti remains connected to the outer world through television! Dinner on the verandah of the Rest House, under a starlit sky, was a great way to complete the first day of the trek.
We left for Kelang temple the next day and as we walked through Kugti village, we came across streams of boys and girls on their way to school. It was Monday morning but the kids were cheerful and smiling and there were no signs of Monday blues, which is perhaps an urban concept perfected by weary urbanites.
. As we were walking through the narrow unpaved lanes of the village, we were halted by four oncoming tiny tots, girls in tight pigtails, rose pink cheeks and school satchels on their backs. They had sworn to remain as best friends perhaps, as all four of them walked with their arms wound over the other’s shoulder and moved as a group. They were shy and giggled with their heads down and stole glances amongst themselves when we tried to talk to them.
At the end of the village is the khud or the stream which is the water source for the village, and a separate ledge has been made for the womenfolk to wash clothes in running water. Kelang is about 5 kms from Kugti and is at an altitude of around 10000 feet, the height where the tree line generally ends in the Himalayas. The trail out of Kugti runs through terraced fields for a kilometer or two. Barley, potato and rajma are the main crops and there are apple trees on the higher slopes. Thereafter, the Budhil valley opens up, unfolding its beauty and the trail continues gently along the river.
After crossing a large stream which gushes down to join Budhil, the stiff climb to the Kelang temple begins. Kartikeya, the son of Lord Shiva, is the deity of this temple. About 200 metres further up is the temple of Marala Mata, whom the shepherds worship before venturing out onto the Kugti Pass. We stayed in a large bare room within the temple complex.
After having a hot lunch of khichdi, which the cooks had rustled up in no time, we walked towards Duggi, which was originally planned to be our second camp. After just a short walk from the Marla Mata temple and with a turn of the path, the majestic Pir Panjal range comes into full view. It was a lovely walk through forest and alpine meadows but we could not take our eyes off from the range in front of us!
We gave up our plan to go up to Duggi too (yay!) as the onward route was completely snow-bound and the accumulation of snow on the mountainsides was such that a couple of avalanches seemed to wait to happen.
It was on our way back to Kelang that we saw two brown bears – a mother and a cub – on the opposite mountain. They were engrossed in digging out and eating something (a type of insect, the locals told us) and were also moving up gradually. For over an hour, we watched their movements and were thrilled to see them cross a glacier effortlessly. Kugti wildlife sanctuary is rich in high-altitude Himalayan wildlife like the brown bear, Himalayan black bear, goral, leopard, and Himalayan tahr.
We spent an enjoyable evening in the courtyard of the temple, looking across the valley at the alluring green ridge far away, which would be our next camp. But to reach there, we would be going all the way down to the level of the river and then climb to a greater height.
We were sitting there peacefully as darkness descended when all hell broke loose with screams coming from our room. One member of our group had gone to the room to fetch something and had spotted a scorpion. The place did not have electricity and the room was dimly lit by a lone candle. Now we had prepared our sleeping arrangements when there was still light and had laid our sleeping bags in a row, all waiting for us to slip into after we finish our dinner. What ensued was complete mayhem. In the little light we had, despite the reinforcements from a couple of torches, the sleeping bags were frantically frisked, turned inside out and closely inspected. There was no sign of the scorpion and close interrogation of the person who had raised the alarm followed. The scorpion, if there was one, must have scampered away in that commotion. Eventually, after dinner, we went to sleep. But a quiet unease hung over us and most of us were relieved when the day broke.
After breakfast, we walked back towards Kugti for about 2 kms and then took the narrow trail on the left, which led us downhill to the stream, crossed two picturesque small wooden bridges and were at the foot of the mountain on the other side. The initial climb was through tilled fields and we struggled uphill through this terrain in the hot sun with practically no shade. But as we climbed higher, the fields gave way to thick pine forests.
The trail was narrow and we were ambling along single file, laughing and joking, until some swift black movement in the path ahead was spotted. Suspecting that it could be a black bear, we advanced cautiously. Sure enough, there was a cave and fresh droppings nearby and thankfully, the animal seemed to have moved off on hearing human voices. It was with some trepidation that we covered the remaining forest area and came on to a clearing. As we moved uphill towards Dalotu, the ridge that we had seen from afar, we were treated to spectacular views of the Pir Panjal range.
Dalotu is at an altitude of about 11000 feet and is a flat wide ridge, connecting the mountain that we had climbed up to the higher snow ranges. Even before fresh grass had come up and covered the meadow. tiny flowers had already reared their heads with butterflies flitting over them. It was a happy place. Dalotu is surrounded by valleys on all sides and gives a 360 degrees panoramic view, with half of it being dominated by the Pir Panjal range, including the Kugti Pass and the Chobu Pass. One look at the latter made it clear that this pass would also be inaccessible. It was early May and the shepherds had not yet reached this height.
We pitched tents and camped at Dalotu for two blissful days. The place is so beautiful, that any description would fall short of the magnificence that meets the eye. Playing cricket with makeshift stumps and bat, with the mighty Himalayas as the backdrop, was pure unadulterated fun!
In the morning, as the top of the snow peaks glowed with the first rays of the sun, we had some tranquil moments, doing yoga or meditating. A huge rock served as our dining table and we relished everything that was put before us by our able cook. Giving due thought to the menu at the planning stage had ensured that we had fabulous food all through.
While walking further up towards the snow line on the second day, there was an adrenaline rush as we spotted a Himalayan black bear on the snow above us and right ahead in the direction we were heading. Himalayan black bears are dangerous to approach as they are known to attack and this one was watching us advance but stood its ground. After several photographs and video clips were shot, the bear decided to move away and disappeared into the forest. After waiting for some time, we slowly moved up and reached the snow line, with the thought of the bear making another appearance hovering constantly at the back of our minds.
This episode of seeing the bear, coupled with bear tales recounted during the campfire, led to some drama at the middle of the night as one of the members mistook the wind rustling against the tent to a bear sniffing around!
The two days that we spent at this uninhabited and totally unexplored part of Himalayas were sheer magic. We left Dalotu the next day and after an easy downhill walk of 2 hours through a different trail in the forest, reached Kugti village and from there, on to Dharol and then Bharmour.
In this circular trail of Kugti-Kelang-Dalotu-Kugti, we encountered forests, rivers, glaciers, glacial streams, waterfalls, meadows, valleys, snow ranges, wildlife, temples, quaint villages and lovely people. WHAT A DREAM PACKAGE! It was a complete and total experience of the Himalayas. And something which the best travel operators may find it difficult to offer!
It might be an unfortunate reality, but animals have to adapt to us more than we do to them. We’ve got the tools, we build the roads, we drive the bulldozers. As we continue our relentless encroachment on animal habitats, we force our feral neighbors into unsafe living conditions, often bordering busy highways and other…
1. Happiness is where you are now, or nowhere at all. It’s not a new relationship, it’s not a new job. It’s not a completed goal, and it’s not a new car. Until you give up on the idea that happiness is somewhere else, it will never be where you are. 2. Quitting is for […]
Mahatma Gandhi might have said it best, and is this not a big lesson we are learning in these times? “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi The fact that we may only ever have today has certainly come into poignant focus. We […]
It was difficult to keep the two sisters away from fighting with each other. I was fed up of yelling at them, all day long, to lay off. I have tried everything – scolding, admonishing, threatening, cajoling, pleading and even crying. Reactions from the girls ranged from looking ashamed, crestfallen, outraged to uncontrollable giggling.
And what does the father of the house do? Aloof and indulgent, he goes about his business as if all this racket is quite normal. Why does he think he has been given such a long neck if he does not want to stick it out at all?
We, the giraffe family have been quite respectable in this neighborhood. We hold our head high, except while grazing, of course. I was quite shocked and disconcerted too when I learnt recently that others have been talking about us behind our back.
When I had gone, along with my daughters Tolly and Bolly, for the birthday party of the baby rhino, a hush had fallen as soon as we entered their home ground. The chatter among the visiting neighbors stopped abruptly and, while some smirked, Patience antelope and the host Armor Rhino had at least the decency to look somewhat ashamed. Tolly and Bolly were chirpy as usual and mingled with the other kids but I was very uncomfortable.
While returning home, Miss Prickly porcupine accompanied me halfway through. After much prodding, she said, “you know aunty, everybody makes fun of the noisy fights of Tolly and Bolly. I overheard Furry fox tell his wife that they lack discipline and have not been brought up well”.
I glared down at Prickly, who decided suddenly that it was safer to take a shortcut to her home and, with a hurried goodbye, vanished into the bushes. Upset and fuming, I waited for the two girls who were lagging. “Just you wait, you little imps”, I muttered. “You are going to get a whack behind your ears and a sharp kick on your butts that you will remember for a long time to come”.
I waited impatiently but there was no sign of the girls. I was wondering if I should go back and look for them or go up further towards home and attend to the waiting chores. Just then, Hawk-eye eagle soared past overhead and on spotting me, turned back and descended to a level where a conversation was possible. He had seen Tolly and Bolly engaged in a fierce wrestling cum kickboxing match near the dry pond, which is on a trail that branches off from the main path.
With various emotions raging through my mind, I sprinted back along the path with unimaginable speed and agility. Normally, you can hear them from a mile off but I could hear no sound today, which heightened my anxiety. As I neared the pond, I could hear sounds of a struggle and muffled moans. My heartbeat stopped for a second at the sight of my precious girls.
Their necks were intertwined, the two faces looking in opposite directions. The rear legs of Bolly were in the air and Tolly was struggling to remain upright. I circled them in agitation and was at my wit’s end. The two could not move their faces and only their eyes followed my agitated movements.
Oh! They looked guilty and shame-faced alright, but what am I to do now to release their necks from this horrendous twisting? And I hoped that there would be no permanent damage to their smooth and slender necks. “Should I call someone for help or should I take them along to somebody who can help”, I wondered.
Tolly was trying to say something but all that came out of her mouth was a garbled and choking sound. Perhaps she was trying to advise me about the course of action. Sheer impudence! Bolly seemed to have understood what Tolly was trying to say (they have matching minds, you see) and expanded on it with further non-giraffe sounds, adding to the cacophony. I shut them up with a blood-curdling yell and a forceful stomp of my right foot. The whack behind the ears and a kick on their butts will have to wait for a more favorable time.
“I cannot possibly take them to the forest healing center”, I thought. We would be a spectacle and would be giving fodder to all those wagging tongues and shaking heads for years to come. After dithering for a while, I made up my mind to go to Madcap Bear, who lived in a cave outside the forest.
Madcap lived alone, shunned by all because of the lunatic streak in him. But he couldn’t care less as he was happy, laughing and muttering to himself all the time. If you were to go to the adjacent forest and were to take a short detour from the main path, you will come across Madcap frolicking in the meadows around his cave on a knoll.
He harmed no one but due to his eagerness to befriend, he would accost anyone who strayed near his abode, with a shout of joy and would rear up on his hind legs, all ready to give a bear hug. The vision coupled with folklore about his deeds or misdeeds rather was sufficient to scare even the lion-hearted amongst us. As for the lion, the so-called King of the Forest, faint-hearted that he is, he does not come anywhere near Madcap’s territory after that single encounter a few years back.
All these thoughts were running on my mind as we moved in that direction. I wanted to hurry but the duo rolled along slowly in a zig-zag manner. After the initial hiccups, they somehow managed to coordinate their leg movements and were expecting a compliment from me. “They do not realize the seriousness of the problem”, I thought with exasperation.
I knew that Madcap Bear thinks of unusual remedies for unusual problems. When I was a kid and was suddenly stricken with a strange problem of persistent involuntary kicking my right hindleg, my mother had taken me to Madcap. He made me do something quite ludicrous which I do not recall now, but I was cured.
When he saw us, Madcap said “Aha” with a smile, which soon turned into a grin and then into laughter. Soon, he was rolling on the ground, holding his belly and laughing uncontrollably. These two were also now shamelessly giggling and joining in his mirth. After he had had his fill of fun and catching the look of consternation on my face, Madcap became somewhat serious and started inspecting the duo to ascertain the pattern and extent of twisting of the necks.
Madcap then braced himself against a huge rock and holding the two of them, one on each arm, by the scruff of their necks, he lifted them and swirled them around. There were shrieks of horror from all three of us. I watched the scene, with my heart in my mouth as my kids went flying around in various orbits, from circular to elliptical to hyperbolic. The shrieks from the two girls continued but now these were sounding like the ones coming from kids having fun on a roller-coaster.
After a few minutes of these acrobatics, Madcap set them down on the ground. It had not worked. To add to the woes, Madcap’s arms were also intertwined now! I was speechless with anger and frustration as he looked at me sheepishly. He twirled himself around till his arms were free. He then sat down in a serious thinker pose, eyes closed, head bent down and his right arm with the elbow resting on the knee holding his head. “Oh, the works!” I was impatient and furious.
He got up again with new vigor and commenced the swirling of my kids in the air. But now he was also on his feet and rotating. Also, the movements were faster and the shifts from one kind of orbit to another were abrupt. He also shook them vigorously as one would shake the water out of wet clothes before drying them. I started thinking that coming to him was perhaps a mistake. He looked like a discus thrower and for all I knew, he might just let go of his hold, which will send Tolly and Bolly flying in the air, in ballistic arcs, to certain death.
Breaking into a sweat, I tried to intervene. And then, all of a sudden, the kids were separated, one on each of his arms. The movements slowed down and Madcap put both of them gently on the ground. He was still holding them by the scruff of their necks. The girls were dazed and unsteady on their feet after that last session.
Madcap barked some instructions to the group of monkeys that lived near his cave and who had gathered there to watch the free entertainment. With alacrity, they climbed up a specific tree to pluck the leaves and put them in a heap at Madcap’s feet. Madcap chewed on these leaves thoroughly and then spit the mass, saliva and all, on the necks of my daughters, patting them to form a cast of sorts.
With instructions of do’s and don’ts and asking us to return after a week for the removal of the cast, Madcap dismissed us and my words of gratitude with a wave of his arms, I mean forelegs. I mentally made a note to bring him lots of berries and honey on the next visit.
Well, did Tolly and Bolly become alright again? Yes, they did and their necks show no signs of the wear and tear. They have grown up to be young giraffes with graceful, slender necks. Their fights have also reduced over the years and now when they are angry and upset, they do not speak with each other for a few hours or even days. They have joined the new dance classes held by Vanity Peacock, and I am told that they stand out with their excellent footwork and graceful neck movements.
Madcap is getting older and more forgetful. But his mirth knows no bounds and we all join in whenever we visit him.
1. This story, in its simplest form was made up by me for my two-year-old niece, twenty years back. I have modified it into a short story that can be enjoyed by adults too.
I remember that day when my younger sister, who was four, got lost in the fair. This happened more than fifty years back but the memories of that day are etched on my mind. More so because I had some growing up to do that day.
I had not gone to the fair with the rest of them and stayed back home for a specific reason. I wanted the swing to myself when all of them would be away. Father had made this makeshift swing on our front veranda just two days back and the novelty had not worn off yet.
This was the annual fair that was held in a huge ground on the banks of the river Gomati in Lucknow. It was not fanciful and was a mish-mash of everything – stalls selling all types of wares, food items and of course, there was the giant wheel. The locals, as well as people from nearby villages, thronged to the fair. This was the India of the 1960s.
My father had taken all my siblings, two sisters and a brother, to the fair. I had insisted that I wanted to remain at home, declaring that fairs are too crowded and boring in general.
My parents were a little surprised and so was my elder sister. I was always the most eager one whenever an outing was suggested. My father was, by and large, patient with the four of us and very involved in our upbringing. He took us on outings every weekend to the zoo or circus or the Residency gardens. Sometimes, it was only to the grocery stores. He never regarded taking along four small children to crowded places as burdensome.
My mother, who must have wanted some “me time”, was relieved that I did not bother her as I was engrossed in swinging on the front veranda. After a while, it was not much fun as there were no other contenders. Waiting, and sometimes fighting, for your turn on the swing was certainly more enticing.
I had almost started regretting my decision to forego the fair when I heard the iron gate being rattled. I was surprised to find my younger sister standing there with two other girls who looked a little older.
My sister looked as if she had cried a lot and on seeing my mother, she started bawling. The children who had accompanied her said that they lived in the slums behind our colony. They had found my sister in the fair, standing alone and crying. Surmising that she must have been lost, they asked her who she was with, what her name was and where she lived.
Luckily, my sister was able to tell them the name of the colony where we lived. So, the girls who knew this place volunteered to take her back home instead of trying to locate my father in that crowd. Once they reached the small park within our colony, my sister ran ahead to show them our house.
My mother was relieved that she was safe but kept worrying about my father who must be still at the fair searching for her. I was quite excited about all these happenings and asked my sister about the fair and how she got lost. I do not know how a four-year-old recounted what had happened to a seven-year-old but what she told me was corroborated by my father’s version. It appeared that she wanted a toy kitchen set but my father said it was not a good one and moved ahead. She lingered back to have another look at the object of desire and when she looked up, they were gone and nowhere to be seen in that crowd.
It was getting dark and there was still no sign of my father. While my mother was getting worried, I was waiting with excitement to see what my father’s reaction would be when he comes home and finds that my sister has already reached home safely. I wanted to be the first to tell him.
They returned very late. I clearly remember my father’s face as he tried to break the news to my mother that their child was lost. He had come back home to leave the other two children before going back to search for her again. The agony and despair on his face shook me to the roots of my being.
I stood there, subdued and speechless, while my mother told him about how my sister had returned home safely a long time back. I had imagined that my father’s face would light up with happiness and joy on hearing about my sister. Instead, I saw his face crumble with overwhelming emotions. For the first time, I instinctively understood the trauma he must have undergone for the last few hours, the responsibilities of parenthood and what a child means to the parent. I am putting all this in lucid words now but at that time, it was an insight, sharp and incisive, stripped of all verbalization.
Even now when memories of that evening and night surface, I break into a cold sweat thinking about him searching for hours for the lost child in the crowd, holding on to the other two with him and eventually picking up courage to return home to tell my mother that he has to go back and search for her still.
The resilient person that he was, I found him at his natural self by the time we sat down for dinner that night. Also, our outings continued, with all four of us in tow.