My backside was feeling all the potholes on the road, the bumps on the road magnified by the bus suspension, which was almost absent. The vibrations of the state transport bus were transferred directly to the passengers and the suspiciously lose nuts and bolts, which held the bus together made a great cacophony, not allowing anyone to take 40 winks.
Murphy’s law had caught up with me, right from the time when I had decided to return back to Mumbai from a small town in the interiors of Maharashtra. I worked for a Power Company and was responsible for erecting Towers for power lines.
The project in the small town was yet to be completed but I had to leave in a hurry since I had got a trunk call from my neighbour in Mumbai, informing me about the sudden hospitalisation of my aged mother. Yes, those were the days in the 80’s when today’s constant companion, the smartphone was not even conceptualised.
Usually, I traveled by the Company Jeep, which proved to be a good transport option, considering that it was a sturdy vehicle. However this time it was not available to me since I was leaving midway.
The next option was a train, however, it had already made its weekly journey through the town, just a couple of days back.
I was left with no other option but to make my journey by the state transport bus service, which had made a name for itself for reaching the remotest villages, though the buses were not very well maintained.
So here I was, resigned to accepting all that the bus would offer during the long journey. Most of the fellow passengers were local villagers who were not headed to Mumbai, but usually to the next village.
A guy, hardly out of his teens, was sitting beside me. He was wearing a cap, but in the reverse direction, a ponytail dangling under it. Yes, those jokers were there in the 80’s too. He was fiddling with a camera, a Canon, totally lost to the outside world.
“Are you a photographer?”, I asked to pass the time.
Getting no answer, my mind wandered outside the window. It was nearing twilight but the thick tree cover made it darker.
“What?”’ I asked, surprised.
“Wildlife photography”, he certainly seemed to be a man…or rather, a boy, of very few words.
“Oh. That’s exciting”, I continued with the small talk.
“What have you shot till now?”, I queried.
“Shot!”, he shot his response towards me with such force, that I was taken aback.
“Sir, I don’t shoot. I compose”, I stared at him as he continued fiddling with his camera.
I re-phrased my question, “What have you composed till now?”
This time he responded more enthusiastically, “Well Sir, my viewfinder has been able to caress almost all animals like a wild boar, deers, antelopes, snakes, monkeys and the like however I am proud of the photos of the elusive leopard the most.”
“You photographers have it so easy. Just aim and click”, I tried to be extra smart.
“What do you mean; just aim and click. And who will find the animals? Do you even know how many days you have to wait with patience to get the one you are searching for? And all this, in some remote jungle where you are cut off from the civilisation for days together!”, he was quite agitated with my remark.
“Oh, I could never…”, suddenly the bus spluttered to a halt with a violent jerk, as I tried to save my head from hitting the bar on the seat ahead, with my hand. Most of the passengers saved themselves similarly though a few standing ones fell.
Fortunately, no one was injured seriously. As most steadied themselves, a few surged forward.
“Conductor, what happened?”
“Arre, I think some engine problem. But let us check, then we will let you know”, he replied.
As some people got down to relieve themselves, the driver went below the bus to check on its health. I asked my photographer friend, “What’s your name? I am Satyasheel…Satya for short”
Wiping the viewfinder with a soft cloth, he answered “Rupert”
“Are you Goanese”, I put two and two together. Old habits die hard.
“No! From Santacruz, Mumbai”, he uttered exasperated.
Here we were indulging in this small talk and there, the driver was fiddling with the bowels of the bus to make it fit again.
It was more than one hour since the bus had broken down. There was no sign of habitation anywhere nearby.
Deciding to explore the surroundings, I got down from the bus with my backpack. Rupert had already got down, some 15 minutes back with his camera and backpack and was not to be seen.
Wanting to relieve myself, I moved away from the bus towards the surrounding bushes. As I was doing my job, I espied Rupert moving further away, at a distance.
Following him, I saw him aiming his camera above into the thick foliage. Curious I tiptoed towards him. Reaching him, a twig cracked under me.
Suddenly Rupert jumped into the air, just like a cat does when it is startled. He fell to the ground in a heap.
“What the heck! When did you come? Why are you following me?”, his terror subsiding on seeing a poor, harmless me.
Suppressing my laughter, I apologised, “Hey, I am sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you like this. I was just being curious”
I offered my hand to haul him up. Ignoring my helping hand, he stood up, dusting off his back.
“Now that you are with me you can as well help me in finding the purple frog which is an endangered species and is known to reside in these jungles”
“Oh, that’s easy”, so saying I rummaged through my backpack to take out my torch, as I followed Rupert through the foliage.
As soon as I switched it on, Rupert swung his hand in my direction, and the torch got dislodged from my hand.
“What are you doing?”, I screamed at him.
“Shhhh…are you mad? When you are searching for nocturnals, you should never make noise…and no torch”, he hissed as I retrieved the fallen torch.
I was now feeling hungry. I had followed Rupert deep into the jungle. By this time the bus should have reached somewhere near Pune.
Bus! Where was the bus? Where are we? It had been almost 5-6 hours since we left the bus in search of some puny frog of whatever colour.
“Rupert…Rupert we must return now. We are a long way away and I am hungry now. Come on, let’s go”
Rupert turned abruptly and nudged me to turn too. “At least now let’s switch on the torch”
He just nodded. I was relieved that at least now, I was able to clearly see the surroundings.
“Did we come by this route, Rupert. Are you sure we are going in the right direction?”, I asked him as we trampled the twigs under our feet.
“Oh, don’t worry Sir, the jungle is my second home. We will soon reach the bus. Just keep walking.”
But after a walk of another 1.5 hours we were still surrounded by thick jungle.
“I think we are lost”, Rupert finally admitted the obvious.
“So what are we going to do now? I was a fool to have followed you and your stupid frogs. And…and what do we eat? Your purple frog?”, I asked, with mounting irritation.
But Rupert reacted as if he did not hear me…nay as if I was absent. Instead, he was searching for something in the thick growth below.
“Are you mad? Here we are well and truly lost. We don’t even know whether the bus has been repaired and has left without us. And here you are, still looking for those frogs, are you?”, my voice mounting with my irritation.
Suddenly Rupert uprooted some shrub below. He proceeded to hit the roots against his thigh to dislodge the mud and wiped away the remaining mud with his hand.
“Here, eat this”, offering the root to me.
I just stared at him stupefied. “Are you serious? Don’t you have some civilised food? Am I supposed to eat like a caveman?”
Rupert just laughed it away and uprooted another shrub for himself. Taking a bite out of it, he answered, “This is the root of Burdock. Peel it off with your teeth and eat it…just pinch your nose while you are at it”
I just stared at him stupefied as I took the root to my mouth and bit into it. The pungent smell almost made me puke. “I will die eating this!”, as I threw away the ‘food’.
“Satya, we never know when we will reach anywhere near a village or city. We have to make do with whatever we get to eat. I agree, Burdock root is not the most agreeable food, but it will keep us alive in this wilderness. It’s available in plenty and is a good source for vitamins and proteins…so eat it”, as he retrieved the root and handed it over to me again.
Finally, I gulped it down with the water I was carrying in my backpack. “I think we need to rest now. But where? I cannot see any shelter”.
I looked at Rupert with hope. After all, he was the man more in tune with the jungle. Though I had made a mistake in following him deep into the jungle, at the moment I was happy that he was experienced in handling the idiosyncrasies of the natural surroundings.
My legs were now feeling like logs, I was exhausted, I thought I might collapse when suddenly Rupert disappeared.
“Satya…”. Rupert’s voice; but where was he. I turned back but all I could see were the shadows of trees, now looking ominously threatening. My fear made me swallow hard, when… “Satya…look up.”
High above me, my torchlight caught Rupert’s eyes which glowed, the curly hair framing his face and his moustache making him look like the proverbial rakshasa of the epics. Taken aback, I blurted out, “why are you in the tree? Here I am, all tired and exhausted and you are prancing about! Come down, damn it. Let’s find a shelter fast or I will collapse from exhaustion”
“In the jungle, the jungle itself is the best shelter.”
“Ah, so said Mougli! Now cut off your wisecracks and find some place to rest”
In answer, he just shrugged his shoulders and leaned back against the branch on which he was sitting.
“Now, Mr. Jungle Man, don’t tell me that this is your idea of a shelter. Come down!”
When he showed no signs of budging, I gave up. “How am I to get up there? And what if I fall off?”, as I tried to haul myself up.
Helping me in my laboured climb and giving me his hand in support, “Mr. Satya…here you have to live like the more gentle animals if you want to survive. Think of innovative ways to survive. In the night, this is the best shelter. The carnivores cannot reach up here easily.”
As he was enlightening me with his jungle talk, my knees wobbled as I found myself staring into the eyes of a snake.
“Don’t move!”, hissed Rupert…not the snake. In a jiffy he had removed his backpack and was swaying the bag in front of the snake with one hand, while his other hand approached the snake stealthily. In no time his hand grabbed the snake by the neck and swung it away.
This hair raising close encounter was enough for me to lose my composure. As I hauled myself up on the branch, I was shaking with fear and tears streamed down my face.
“I want to go home”, I cried. “By this time I would have reached home. My mother…she …she is hospitalised. She needs me. I don’t want to die here in this jungle. I am her only support”. I had well and truly broken down.
Rupert just sat there on the branch facing me. Without saying anything I felt his support. Within a few hours I had come to depend on this total stranger.
I could not fathom how I was going to sleep on a branch. For quite a while I just sat there and dozed off.
A huge python approached me and opened his mouth wide to devour me which made me wake up with a start, almost making me lose my balance. Finally, I found my comfort sleeping position, with the hands and legs dangling on both sides of the branch and my torso resting on it.
It had now been four days since we lost our way in this jungle. My trousers were worn off naturally, giving it the rugged looks which the teenagers nowadays swear by.
We were still walking with no signs of a road nor a habitat in sight. Our water had long dried up and thirst was killing us. For the first two days we survived on the Burdock root, but after the water dried up, Rupert avoided Burdock.
“Burdock is a diuretic. Now that we don’t have any more water, we will get dehydrated faster if we keep eating it”, so said the knowledgeable one.
“Then what do we eat now…or drink”. Almost in answer, I saw Rupert going behind a tree while unbuckling simultaneously. I heard the sound of water filling up in a bottle and feared the worst. Was Rupert doing what I thought he was doing?
Within no time he came back and offered the bottle to me. “Are you serious? Do you really think I would drink that?”
“Ok” and he proceeded to take a swig from the bottle making me puke.
I pushed him aside and went past him. I ducked under a huge leaf and the sight beyond grabbed my attention. For trickling near my feet, was flowing water. Without giving any further thought I just prostrated myself and drank directly from the stream!
After having my fill I sat near the stream to savour the coolness of the place.
“Ha ha…what did you think? Yes, if we had not discovered water, we would have had to take that drastic step to hydrate ourselves. But we are in luck.”
“What luck are you talking about Rupert? Yes, we have found water but we need to find some food fast. Or we are not going to survive”, I was now getting desperate. Last night I had a bad bout of acidity and was worried that my stomach would digest itself. Of course I was being paranoid.
“Satya, we will follow this stream. I am sure it is meeting some bigger body of water somewhere. Then our chance of reaching some habitation will increase”. While he was talking to me, his hands were busy, sitting in the grass growing by the stream.
Suddenly he grabbed something. I could only see the wiggling insect legs and the long antennae probing the surrounding air. The poor insect was then dipped into the stream, the head decapitated, the legs still wiggling as it got deposited into Rupert’s mouth, “Proteins…” and proceeded to eat it with crunchy sound effects.
“You are a caveman, Rupert. If I stay with you any longer I would turn into one”
“So what’s wrong with that Satya? You will return to your roots”, Rupert laughed.
After a walk of about an hour along the stream, we reached a clearing. A welcoming crystal clear pond lay before us.
Without second thoughts, I stripped down to my underwear and rushed in. I let the cool water alleviate my tired body. It was bliss.
After floating on the water, relaxing every pore, I realised that I was alone in the pond. As I looked around, I saw Rupert sitting on the grass.
“Hey don’t you want to come? It’s very relaxing”
Rupert kept staring at me. “I can’t swim”, finally he blurted out.
“Don’t worry. This pool is not deep. Come on in”, I insisted.
Rupert stayed away at a safe distance. Finally, he divulged, “I have Aquaphobia. I have never stayed in a hotel with a bathtub. At home or outside, I don’t even fill up a bucket while having a bath. I prefer a shower or just washing my body under a running tap.”
“Ha ha…that explains everything. That explains why you have been so comfortable during the last few days without a bath. Come on, spare me the odours. At least wash yourself in the water”
With that I continued swimming and went towards the opposite side of the pond. As I relaxed on the surface, in the foliage beyond I could make out an opening in the raised ground.
Curious, I got out of the water on the other side and approached the opening. It seemed to be a cave and it seemed to go further deep. I was intrigued but I was apprehensive. I decided to call out my support system, the water sissy, Rupert.
“Rupert! Come here fast. You need to see this…and get my clothes”
Maybe he felt the urgency in my call or whatever, but Rupert came running, circumambulating the pond in no time.
“What do you think? What is this cave for? Do you think it is a natural formation?”, I had many questions for Rupert.
Rupert did not reply. He entered inside. Shining the torchlight on the walls of the cave, I followed…as always.
“Are you sure we should enter? I mean, we can get lost easily. And no one will find our bodies if we happen to die…”, I began my negative monologue.
As usual, Rupert ignored. He was busy exploring the cave. We were not too far from the entrance so I was not too worried.
Rupert noticed something. He walked towards the wall of the cave and started checking it out. Suddenly I too noticed…it was a niche in the wall with a rusted hook. As my torchlight made an arc towards the roof, we noticed black soot above.
Was this caveman made? We went further in, our torchlight making arcs on opposite walls of the cave and sure enough, a little distance away from the first niche, another one, though on the opposite side!
This was certainly man made! And it did not look a recent one. Certainly appeared ancient. But how old?
Till now I had only heard tales from my village elders of the Marathas and before that, the Yadavas, building a network of forts to protect their territories from their enemies and building a network of underground passages going over large distances, to escape in case the battles went against them. Had we stumbled on one such passage? It certainly seemed to be so.
But was it safe to enter after so many years? I watched Rupert as he continued exploring. Though he was younger he had the experience of the jungle life, thanks to his wildlife photography. Over a period of a few days, I had come to depend on his expertise in these surroundings. I decided to follow him…
As we went further deep, the cave forked into two passages. Now what?
“Satya, you wait here. I will explore this alone”, and without waiting for an answer he was inside one passage. I could hear my heart pounding as I waited for a signal. But there was none!
After waiting for an eternity, though it had been only about 5 minutes, Rupert emerged.
“Wait, don’t follow yet…”, again without waiting for my reply he entered the other passage.
Rupert emerged with a wide smile on his face.
“This is the passage. Let’s go”
“And what gives you that confidence. For all your experience, you might be wrong and take us to certain death”, I was tired of my own misgivings.
“Well, Satya…this passage has the niches while the other doesn’t!”
It seemed to be a waterproof logic. We were on the way…
Guna was cutting firewood for his own use in the woods near his dwelling. It was a routine activity, he would cut the branches and be on his way back in a few minutes.
He went about his work with a devotional song on his lips when he suddenly espied movement a few feet away. There had been leopard attacks recently and he feared the worst.
But as he froze, with the heart in his mouth, he saw two very emaciated individuals emerge from the long-abandoned passage, known locally as ‘Devils lair’. As they weakly proceeded from below his tree, he saw one of them collapse to the ground and the other trying to revive him, “Satya…Satya. Wake up”, in Hindi.
Rupert was bending over Satya, who was lying on the ground, when he heard movement in the tree above, something heavy hit him behind his head, and as he passed out, he saw a shadow hovering above him…
When we both regained consciousness, we were tied to a tree and to each other. The simple village folk were standing surrounding us, suspicion writ large on their faces…