“Aaron, you utter fool!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. And it was needed, very much needed.
In the three hours that I had spent walking in circles with him, I had blamed him every second. And rightly so, too. I mean it was his idea to explore more of the beautiful Indian jungle behind our little motel, when the rest of our crew had decided to stay indoors.
“I’m sorry, Kat. I really am,” his voice sounded genuine. But that didn’t help with the fact that we were lost, in an unknown jungle outside a small town in India! I felt my heart flutter nervously at that thought. It was getting dark too.
“I mean, what are we gonna do next, huh? We just can’t seem to make it back to those smaller trees that we crossed in the start.” I felt a few beads of sweat make their way down my face. It felt like my body was already scared, even though I tried to keep my mind clear.
“Let’s just keep going in this direction. I feel like I saw this part of the forest earlier.” He turned to look at me with a face that was supposed to give me reassurance. I exhaled loudly and realized I had exactly no idea which way to go, so I decided to listen to him.
We began walking silently in the direction he pointed. I crossed a few trees and looked back to see if I recognized any of them.
A big banyan tree, a few trees that looked like they were banyan but weren’t, another one that looked exactly like the one in my backyard back home; I tried to remember every tree I had seen so far. Nope, I couldn’t recognize them. I waited to cross more trees, maybe I wasn’t remembering right. One tree, two trees, three, four, five…………….. fifteen, sixteen!
I stopped at the base of the seventeenth tree, after being unable to remember having crossed any of them. We were clearly not going in the right direction. But what if we were going in the wrong direction?
“Aaron, stop! I really don’t think we are going the right way.” My anger towards him resurfaced. But it was clouded by an overpowering sense of fear. I swear I could hear some type of animal make scary-animal sounds. “We are lost. Just accept it.”
He was a few feet away from me, looking away, deliberately. This was his style of being embarrassed. But I no more cared for his emotions, or to even be angry at him. I just wanted to get the hell out.
“I’m so sorry,” his voice was barely a whisper. I wouldn’t have heard it had I not been looking at him. His face was twisted in worry. And for the first time I thought about how it wasn’t all just his fault. I did agree to accompany him. And I could probably have done a better job keeping track of where we were going.
“Look, I just-” I stopped abruptly at the sound of footsteps crushing leaves. A chill ran through my spine as I expected the worst. Aaron seemed to react the same way too. Though his face had more color probably. My mind rummaged through the few Discovery channel shows I had watched as a child. There had to be some information somewhere in my head on how to survive a tiger attack. Or maybe a lion?!
But nothing came up. As the hair on my arm stood up, I realized there was a chance I was going to die in a minute. I breathed through my mouth and turned towards the sound of the arriving footsteps. Aaron took one small step towards me.
As we both focused intently on the figure breaking through the curtain of branches and leaves, the realization came soon. It wasn’t an animal.
“Uh, hello?” A very deep voice came from the man in question. He stopped a good five feet away from us. He was really tall, taller than both of us. It was surprising because we were used to being the tallest ones around Indians.
“Um, hi.” Aaron was the first to respond. He cleared the very obvious lump in his throat and spoke again, “Who are you?”
“I come from village, sir.” He looked at me and smiled politely. I smiled back. He looked like he wanted to help us.
“Do you know the way out of this forest?” I spoke very slowly and used my hands to gesture ‘you’ and ‘out of this forest’. He seemed to understand.
“Yes, yes. You come.” He spoke the words hurriedly and turned. He started leading us into more trees, but trusting his knowledge neither Aaron nor I asked him anything.
We were all silent for a while. For the first time I noticed that the man had a tattoo on the back of his neck. It seemed to be something written in Hindi or some other Indian language. I made a mental note to ask him what it was sometime.
“So, what were you doing here at this time?” Aaron asked trying to break the silence. I wondered if the man even understood him as he kept on walking ahead.
His response came a minute later. “I find a very special plant, sir.”
“Uh, yes, sir. To put in special drink. For birthdays.” His voice warmed towards the end. I was curious to know more.
“Who’s birthday is it?” I asked.
“My son’s, tomorrow.” I think he smiled as he spoke.
We continued without speaking for a long while. And it made sense too. It was already quite dark and the way wasn’t easy with all the big trees and broken branches and puddles. It seemed wise to save our energy.
After almost an hour, we reached the stream we had crossed during the day. The sound of the water gave a sense of hope. And although we never really doubted him, we were sure now that he wasn’t tricking us.
“Can we stop for a minute, please?” Aaron asked, out of breath. I took a deep breath and looked at the man. He thought about it for a second and then spoke.
“Okay, sir. But not long.” He sat down on one of the rocks near the water. We followed him. Aaron took out the canteen from his small backpack and offered it to me. I grabbed it and took a few sips, careful to leave enough for the two of them. As I looked at the man, he instantly shook his head. So I gave it back to Aaron.
“So, where exactly is this special plant found?” Aaron asked casually.
The man looked at him with surprise. He had been pulled out of some thought. “Uh, it’s hard to find. It grows very deep inside forest.”
“Oh,” Aaron exclaimed. He wasn’t really paying attention. And I didn’t like it one bit.
“And what is it’s name?” I quickly asked. The man chuckled. It was a very pleasant sound.
“Very big English name, madam. But we call it ‘Kurroo’.”
We stayed there for another minute and then we got up. After crossing the stream, the forest thinned out a bit and there was more light around us. I noticed that the man was actually older than I’d thought, with wrinkles on his forehead and hands. But from the way he walked it was really hard to tell that he was old. I figured he was so good at cutting through the jungle because he’d probably spent his entire life doing it.
After another half an hour, we could see the light from the motel in the distance. I breathed a sigh of relief and so did Aaron. I looked at the man and he was smiling at us. The crinkles around his eyes gave him a very sweet look. I really felt the urge to hug him but I knew it would probably be inappropriate.
The three of us walked towards the last of the trees and then we stopped. “Thank you so much, sir. We’ll forever be grateful to you.” I was the first to speak. I noticed how his expression changed as I called him ‘sir’. It was only while travelling across Southeast Asia that I had noticed people call us ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ a lot. And to be honest, I personally never used the term to call anyone. But in this moment, I wanted him to know how important he was.
“Yes, sir. Thanks a lot!” Aaron joined in, clearly joyful about being out of the forest.
The man seemed to have no words to say. He continued to smile his genuine smile and shook our hands. I thought he would walk out of the forest with us too, but instead he turned back around towards it. That’s when I realized that he hadn’t found that special plant yet.
“I hope you find Kurroo soon,” I called at his retreating figure. He turned around and looked at me. His eyes sparkled in the moonlight and he smiled at me, one last time. Only this time, there was a certain sadness in his smile.
Our crew was waiting anxiously for us outside the motel. Some of them were even about to form a search party for us. We told them of our rather dangerous adventure through the jungle. It was only when our cameraman, John asked about the man’s name that we realized we hadn’t ever asked him that!
Exhausted from the very tiring day, we had a quick dinner and retreated back to our rooms. That night I dreamed of the man finding Kurroo and making that special drink for his boy.
The next day as Aaron and a few others sat down to edit some of the footage we had taken so far for our documentary on India, I made a trip to the local library to get some old records. The trip was successful and I got my hands on several archives about the history of that town and surrounding villages. The young librarian was himself from one of the villages and took great interest in getting me the material I needed. He was very polite too and insisted on seeing me off to the main gate.
As the librarian and I got on the old elevator to go down, I turned around and saw his back for the first time. My breath got stuck inside my nose as I saw the same tattoo on the back of his neck as that man. I kept staring at it, trying to remember what I had seen the last night. It had to be the same!
The door opened and we entered the busy main lobby. I took a few steps and finally decided to ask.
“What does that tattoo mean?”
He looked at me surprised. “Uh, it’s a Hindi word called ‘Moksha’. It kind of means breaking the cycle of death and rebirth, and attaining freedom.” With one hand, he touched the back of his neck and looked down. He smiled as he looked up and continued, “My father always used this concept to teach us to be good human beings. He was ‘always in pursuit of Moksha’, in his own words.”
“I think I met your father yesterday. He had the same tattoo and he kind of saved my life.” I said in a low voice, remembering the man fondly.
“What?” The young boy’s eyes were wide. It was as if I had grown an extra head suddenly. “My father died two years ago, precisely. He was attacked by a lion when he was in the forest picking some rare plants.”
I felt a shock run through my entire body as I slowly registered what he said. But, how? I saw what I saw. Was it really-
The charging train of thoughts in my head was interrupted by the arrival of a peon who needed the boy’s signature on some papers. As he reluctantly looked away and focused on the papers, I gathered myself and decided to leave.
“It was really nice to meet you. Thanks a lot for your help.” He kept looking down, “And, uh, happy birthday.” His head shot up and for the second time he stared at me with wide eyes. As the peon got impatient, he barely mouthed the words ‘thank you’ and looked down, his mind clearly running wild with confusion and maybe a small realization.
Whether my encounter with the man had been one of a supernatural nature or not, I decided to think about later. For the time being I gave that man and his way of life a very special place in my heart. Having no real understanding of this freedom he so wholeheartedly craved, I just hoped that he knew how grateful I was and that it gave him peace.
That night I dreamed of the man again. Except this time, after making that special drink for his son, he attained Moksha.