The river tern that was flying low over the surface dived cleanly into the water. The boat was primitive, small and fashioned entirely out of wood. An old man was rowing the boat with the help of a long pole, which he was using to push against the bed of the river. A small boy, probably his grandson, was sitting patiently besides him. The river was wide, but despite its expanse it did not seem very deep. The sky being clear, water was shimmering under a bright sun. And the vivid green dense jungle, on both sides of the river was gliding past in silent savage splendour.
Time had not left any scars on this primeval wilderness, the waterscape seemed frozen into eternity. The dark black clouds, ascending the horizon and the cool caressing water laden air, were bringing the message of impending rains.
Seated on wooden planks, fitted crudely at regular intervals all along the boat, there were, besides him, five other passengers, clad in yellow robes of the monks. One of them asked the boatman a question, who gestured towards the right bank slightly ahead. Although some words did sound familiar, Hamza could not clearly understand what was being said. From the presence of Indian faces, he knew that he was in some part of India, but was unable to guess where.
The weathered old face of the boatman had now taken on additional lines of worry. Hamza lost count of the number of times he had turned and cast furtive glances at the dark and threatening clouds. Gradually, he felt a subtle change in the speed of the boat. The young boy too had taken up the oars. The boat started veering towards the right bank. Suddenly a fresh water porpoise leapt clear of the water and fell back with a splash. Although it was doing it at regular intervals, this time it had surfaced very near to the boat. The boy excitedly pointed towards the fish, and yelled “Soons”.
The word “Soons”, synchronised with the rain drops that started to fall. The large drops soon turned into a downpour. And by the time, the boatman brought the boat to a clearing in the right bank; the downpour had turned into a blinding storm. The men, completely drenched by now, climbed the bank and ran to take refuge under a small thatched roof by the side of the clearing.
The storm was intense while it lasted. It abated quickly. The afternoon sun appeared faintly in the mist and a rainbow formed. The boatman and the boy went back to the boat and started scooping out the rain water that had collected in the boat. The monks seemed all set to go on a trail that led into the jungle. Hamza found himself in a quandary. He did not know where he was. Who were they? What was he supposed to do? Had he already paid the boatman or was he supposed to do so now? He wanted to ask a lot of questions but ironically communication seemed the biggest hurdle, even in his native place.
The problem resolved itself as the monks started on the trail. The boatman and his son tied up their boat and not only joined the party but actually started leading the monks towards some destination, which only they knew. Hamza was left with no other alternative but to follow the party.
Slowly the jungle engulfed them. Enormous trees, most of them Sal, interspersed with Sheesham, Bargad, Neem, Jamun, Sirsa, and Peepal loomed overhead. A ray of sunshine occasionally broke through the canopy, otherwise the entire jungle was immersed in a green twilight. The humidity was awful, everything dripped moisture. Monkeys were to be seen everywhere. Myriad bird calls filtered down from the branches thick with leaves. Hamza caught fleeting glimpses of several known and unknown birds. Ahead, the boatman was clearing a path with a machete. Hamza did not know about the others, but walking silently on the bed of sodden leaves that felt like sponge, under the huge canopy, he was awe-struck by the majesty and diversity of creation.
The jungle trail became an aural, visual and olfactory treat for Hamza. He had never seen so many birds of different varieties, size and shapes, flitting from one branch to another; so many flowers, in hundreds of different shades and hues; butterflies of breath-taking beauty; droves of animals, known and unknown that came to the trail, stopped for some time, looking quizzically up at the humans and then vanishing into the lush dense growth. Never before in his life, had he encountered such diverse and exotic smells that were emanating from the combined array of flora and fauna, present in this tropical forest. And he had never heard such a symphony of jungle sounds that included multitude of bird calls, animal calls and the chirping of the ever-present crickets, having a rhythm of their own. Hamza had a musical ear. He reacted to musical compositions much more intensely than his colleagues. Sometimes, even the prosaic mundane background sounds of a rural or urban day, blended into pleasing compositions for him. But, this aural experience was something different. It was much more richer than anything he had heard before. He wanted to stop and savour each and every note, every movement and colour that was dancing before his eyes, and every exotic smell he was experiencing. But the monks were moving inexorably towards their destination. And Hamza did not want to be left behind.
The jungle had kept him so engrossed that he lost track of the time. Suddenly, he heard the voice of the boatman calling the monks. He was not visible from here; the trail had curved ahead into the forest. One by one, all of them joined the old man.
The forest had thinned from this point onwards. Through the branches, a large clearing was visible, where hundreds of men were sitting cross-legged on the ground, listening to a discourse being given by a man, not clearly visible from this distance. Hamza saw scores of people coming to the clearing and joining the congregation from all sides of the encircling forest. Many of them were in monks’ apparel but common people too were sitting among them.
The boatman and the party of monks with him joined the congregation. They sat reverently in the last row, which soon got filled up by the new comers.
The rows were neat, and the large gathering extremely attentive and silent. Barring the clear and melodious voice of the preacher, Hamza did not hear a single murmur, whisper or even somebody coughing. Sometimes one of the monks from the front row spoke something, but that seemed to be in reply to a poser by the preacher himself. The discipline was absolute.
Who was this man? How come so many monks and common people were getting attracted to his sermons? Did he belong to some Buddhist order? Buddhism was very popular in the eastern lands but it had practically vanished from India, long long ago. Hamza did not know about any preacher in India, Buddhist or otherwise, with such a mass appeal. Then who was he? He had seen the photographs of Dalai lama. But he was sure that this man was somebody else.
Hamza decided to take a closer look at the enigmatic preacher. Together with the young boy, who had not joined the congregation, and walking on the periphery of the clearing without disturbing the congregation, he reached behind a tree, from where the man was clearly visible.
Sitting still on a raised mound in the lotus position, he seemed to have absolute control over his perfect body. The hair neatly tied up in a bun on the head, showed his clear broad forehead, the sharp long nose, the glowing complexion and the large eyes that were closed in meditation. All these factors had combined to give him an extremely handsome and stately appearance. But, the thing which struck him most about this preacher, was the peace and serenity on his face. Such calm, such peace, he had never seen in a human face before.
Suddenly, the man opened his eyes. And even from this distance, Hamza felt the power behind those black, unfathomable eyes. As the man looked around, he looked straight at Hamza and Hamza felt, as if he had been scanned by a very powerful source of X-rays.
The preacher started saying something to the gathering. His voice was hypnotic. Although not understanding the content, Hamza still got mesmerised by the melody and the inherent rhythm of the speech.
He did not realise how long the boy had been trying to attract his attention. The sun had by now dipped behind the forest. The man, his speech ended, had closed his eyes again and was silently meditating. The entire assembly was silent and peaceful. Hamza walked around. He saw lying at the periphery of the clearing, some trees that had been felled recently. A colony of insects, in the hollow rotting stems left of some trees, were attracting numerous birds. The dusk was falling quickly, although the light was still adequate.
The boy looked at Hamza and pointed towards the forest. He probably wanted to show him something. Hamza entered the forest behind him. Once in the jungle, he found it was much darker. Moving nimbly, the boy, like an experienced guide, took him deeper and deeper into the forest, straight towards a grove, and pointed at some of the trees.
All apprehension vanished at the fascinating sight, which greeted Hamza’s eyes. It was well worth all the trouble he had taken. Several trees in the grove were the home of millions of fireflies that were shining like clusters of stars, within easy reach. It looked as though the entire cosmos had descended into this grove, with the wave of a fairy’s magical wand.
But he was surprised to note that where some trees had millions of fireflies, others were totally dark. Hamza tried to identify the trees to find a design but there was no fixed pattern. He stood marvelling at the scene for a long time. Suddenly he felt some insect drop on his shoulder from the branches immediately above. It was a big spider with long hairy legs. Hamza brushed it away with revulsion. But the spider reminded him that he was deep in the forest, the dusk had fallen and although it was a full moon night, the occasional silvery shafts of light through the thick foliage were insufficient. He decided to go back to the gathering. But where was the boy? He shouted in his native tongue: Larke (boy)! O! Larke! He waited for a reply. But only the forest answered back with a cacophony of bird calls, chirping of insects and the croaking of frogs.
It was then that Hamza realised his stupidity. He had neither told the boy to stay nor had even asked his name. While he had been lost in his reverie, the boy must have gone back to his grandfather thinking that Hamza would be able to find his own way back.
There was no sign of a breeze. The air was heavy with dankness and decay. The grove lay away from the trail. Wanting to get away from the place quickly, Hamza started moving towards where he thought the trail lay, leading to the clearing. But as he stumbled ahead, the jungle became thicker and thicker. He did not even have a torch. Alone in the darkness, all the latent horror of the jungle swelled to a crescendo within him. He first heard the buzzing, then saw large wasps with four inch wing spans, brush past his face. Beetles with long curving tusks settled on his shoulders. He could hear the menacing slither of armies of unseen snakes and other reptiles moving all round him in the thick vegetation.
With mounting horror, his only thought was to get away from that cursed place. He lost track of how long he was walking. He should have reached the clearing long ago. Had he missed the trail in the darkness?
Oh my God! Was he moving in a circle up till now, like a dying and desperate animal? He realised that he had again reached the trees with the fireflies. Was it another grove? The ray of hope kindled a few seconds before, died down immediately. Hamza had identified the trees at leisure. He was sure it was the same grove.
The sight which had gladdened his heart a few hours before was now thoroughly depressing. Wanting to rest his aching muscles, Hamza sat on a mound. The piercing black eyes of the preacher, started haunting him. The man seemed to know everything. There was peace and security in his presence. He should have sat in the congregation instead of coming to this place.
It was the hiss of a snake that broke his reverie. The snake was hovering hardly two feet away. The “V” on its hood, identified it. It was the Cobra, the king of Indian snakes, highly venomous, known to reach its pray, guided by the victim’s body heat. Hamza dared not move an inch. Any little movement would have galvanised the snake. He remembered that its victims, once bitten, had been known to die within a few seconds. He dared not even breathe. The time started ticking slowly. Suddenly, with horror, Hamza realised that he was sitting on an ant hill. Inch long ants were now crawling over his body, attracted by the heat. Some were crawling under his shirt, some had managed to crawl up his legs. Hamza knew that these ants too were poisonous. Their stings were known to kill infants or to put a full grown man in agony for hours. His fate was now sealed. A bite from even a single ant, was going to produce sharp shooting pain and involuntary contortions of his body, which would then become a signal for the waiting snake.
With utter revulsion, he willed himself to let the small creatures crawl all over his body. But, he knew the situation was hopeless. It was only a matter of time... With eyes closed, and a thudding heart, Hamza prayed to his one and only God, to save him from this nightmare...
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