By Sunil Sharma
The Common Tiger butterfly (D genutia) lured him into the deep of the scrub jungle. The orange wings with black veins; double row of white spots of a Danaus genus can be as alluring for a camera-n-backpack-laden young birdie from Mumbai, as a call of the sea for a sailor!
He began clicking the cluster of the butterflies perched on dry twigs as the afternoon advanced rapidly. Like a protective dark drape over a blue canvas, a cloud had partially covered the sky; the shadows had further deepened in the heart of the wilderness.
Hours ceased afterwards!
A time-sensitive honcho from urban Mumbai, Sandeep had deliberately not worn his wristwatch. He wanted a total disconnect with time and civilisation on that ordinary Saturday that was to prove extraordinary.
Life-changing events start with ordinary beginnings and contexts.
His bearded Guru Ananda Swami once told him.
Mighty oak in a tiny seed!
As he quietly clicked the colourful spectacle of the butterflies clinging to twigs in that green patch, Sandeep — Sandy for friends due to dull hair that looked like sand — recalled, in another part of his over-active brain, the last conversation with the Guru, in his expensive ashram.
I have reached the breaking point! I am burnt-out!
The Guru, surrounded by a bevy of the female white devotees, had smiled benignly.
I want to quit the rat race! Sandy had almost screamed in the morning session.
The Guru had turned his hypnotic eyes and fastened them on Sandy’s bulging face.
Calm down! He commanded in a sonorous voice.
Go and find your inner self—in the jungle.
“In the jungle?” Sandy was incredulous.
“Yes,” the Guru said. In the jungle!
“But how?” Sandy persisted.
“Follow them,” came the order.
“Whom?” Sandy was lost before starting this Paulo Coelho-type quest across the unfamiliar terrain for selfhood and meaning.
“The butterflies!” The Guru said smiling, while the white babes smiled.
Butterflies? In the Jungle?
Sandy thought an execution warrant was being read out to him in that small audience of the troubled super-rich of the world, in that cool and aesthetically designed mud-room of the ashram.
Yes. Somebody is waiting there for you. Predicted the Guru and then moved on to another disturbed soul in a Savile Row suit.
Although the young and handsome Guru was, few months later, arrested as a suspect in the murder of a sanyasin from Colorado, USA, his words had continued to ring as the guru-mantra.
Then one rainy Sunday, he enrolled for a five-Sunday- afternoon crash course from a freelance naturalist and butterfly-aficionado for a huge sum of money. Subsequently, equipped with a camera and backpack, he started on a solo journey to discover the Other.
That Sunday, indeed, proved to be a life-altering experience for a man who had plotted revenge and mergers on the board-rooms of many corporate houses in his rapid but short career as an e-entrepreneur and head honcho of another successful start-up for a hungry Indian market.
Somewhere, as destiny would have it — his Other was waiting.
It was a wrong concept!
Rohit Mistry, the naturalist, told him in his studio in south of Mumbai.
“How?” asked Sandy over coffee and sandwich.
“We think of the jungle as a kind of space that is dangerous due to the predators and lack of human laws.” Mistry had taken on the colour and sanguinity of an oriental sage, while meditating on his common topic with his favourite student.
“The truth is,” Mistry continued softly, looking at the Arabian Sea in the background, “the jungle is an independent eco-system, much better than human society and civilization.”
Their denizens do not kill, pillage, destroy, for profit.
Mistry had chuckled. “They do not drop bombs; do not create wars for selling arms or for oil. No innocent gets killed for being the Other.”
“A frightening jungle is our conception, our collective invention. We call it wilderness. It is NOT. We call it dreadful place where we can, urbanites, get lost. No, we can NOT.”
Sandy was speechless by this reversal. This was pure revelation to the MBA from Harvard.
“We have created this strange myth, this urban legend — the Jungle as a killing field full of reptiles and other predators. Fact is — we are the mercenaries marauding that sacred place created by nature!”
Mistry’s tone was low, reverential, eyes far off. A priest speaking to a disciple!
“Jungle is much better than the society!” Mistry had passed his verdict. And left Sandy bewitched.
He wanted to explore that exotic place on his own— just to validate the sanctity of this credo of a post-modern pagan.
An opportunity came his way sooner than expected.
Sandy, after a huge fight with his wife over a trifle, decided to leave home stealthily. Next morning, he slipped out early and took a rickety public bus to this remote jungle and got down at the last stop and then trekked miles inside — on a relentless search for the kind of the Mistry-Jungle.
In fact, he wanted to escape from a screaming wife and kids and colleagues, all tucked inside his brain.
The Jungle! The pathway to Truth.
It is an expedition for inner transformation!
That was the text message to Mistry sent by Sandy; composed, while perched on a boulder.
Do not go with hyper expectations! came the warning from Mistry. In fact, do not go with any expectation. Let the jungle take over.
Follow the butterfly trail— to Truth — Mistry.
That was the last. Then, Sandy had lost the signal to all civilisation.
Butterflies took him to another land; another reality of this overcrowded planet.
And to Truth as well.
In the timeless zone, with a cloudy sky, butterflies hanging together as a happy large family, he lost his way—and found the real one.
Here is the how of it:
By late afternoon, Sandy got startled by an apparition—a semi-naked ghost. A ghost that walked and talked. No, not the masked phantom of Lee Falk but a real one.
In his short and unhappy life of 32 years, Sandy never understood folks that survived on low wages and few clothes in a mega-city that constantly thrived on hunger for more. Born into a moderately successful merchant’s family in small-town in India, Sandy had followed the same career trajectory of middle class everywhere: a passion for higher education and hard work. Academic labour gifted him with failing eyesight and a bifocal. But, undeterred, he worked consistently and proved his brightness in chosen fields. Like rest of the working India, he, too, revered money. The very sight and sound of money turned him on. He aspired for obscene salaries and managed to get them. He bought apartments in Delhi and Mumbai. A fleet of cars and army of drivers waited. Naturally, the other India of slums and low-income households was beyond him and often invited derision.
“Their Karma!” Somebody once remarked over drinks.
“Phew!” Sandy spat out. “Their sloth and wanton ways.”
So, anybody with meager salary and a tiny room as a house in a bustling shanty town somewhere up on a degraded hill in Mumbai or Delhi would qualify them as the sub-species for Sandy.
And a semi-clad thin-as-reed-man would not qualify for even that.
Savages! He had observed, while watching a National Geographic documentary on the Aborigines of Australia. The underlying contempt was withering.
A representative of the same hated species was staring at him.
“You are lost!” The man said simply. “You cannot find your way back.”
Now that was too much!
Being led by a savage.
Sandy looked at the creature and did not like what he saw—sunken cheeks, bushy eye brows, matted hair, flat chest and belly, and, rippling arms. He wore old shorts and sandals—the only gesture towards modernity. And carried a catapult in hands. A striking contrast to his counterpart from the city — every inch customized or branded. Perhaps, thought Sandy, the savage does not know what a Ray-Ban Aviator is!
Sandy shrugged off and went on clicking against the light that began fading quickly due to the increased cloud cover. After five minutes, he looked up and saw the ghost. The man was still there — stock still.
“Yes,” he demanded, very much a CEO. His staff resented this particular tone. It was reserved for lower species of the corporate world.
“You are lost!”
“You are lost.”
Sandy went through a series of emotions—anger, irritation, helplessness and finally, resignation.
“What to do with this forest sub-species?” he thought.
“Come on,” said the savage. “After evening, it becomes an unsafe place for the city folks.”
Then, as if to reinforce that grim warning, thunder rolled, and clouds raced across the sky.
Sandy, never-led, understood his precarious position: “The savage is right! I am not a jungle-man or the Mowgli-boy!”
Thus, planned by the gods, began an epic journey in a darkening forest for a butterfly-seeking, western-educated corporate tzar, in a most unfamiliar territory full of brooding trees and a gurgling river nearby, while cool shadows hugged him and a chill was experienced by the city slicker, despite the expensive jungle gear worn by him.
The jungle has its own mysteries! Mistry had revealed. It is a great leveler for humans.
As Sandy quietly followed the Other, he felt strangely calm. It was a state that had evaded him for last two decades of his waking existence. Now, being led, he felt free — of his responsibilities and roles and other allied urban burdens.
“I am feeling free!” Sandy exulted.
Then, he experienced a growing rapport with the savage.
As they entered deeper, the jungle revealed its mysteries that, alone, might have frightened him but, in the company of the savage, he felt no panic.
“I am in safe hands!” Sandy thought gleefully. For the first time, I am not guiding but being guided.
The jungle pathways were twisted and dusty; some places were strewn with carpet of leaves and twigs. As the two walked on those ancient trails, one after another, in silence, the citified member of the odd pair heard clearly and distinctly, what he had heard on the plasma TV so far–chatter of monkeys; breath of wind whispering among tree-tops; the bird song mingling with the dulcet notes of a river running nearby, in deep gloom, and the voice of the old jungle in that solitude!
“It is a magical world out here!” Sandy thought.
Birds of various hues were coming to roost. Then the savage shot a fowl with his catapult. After offering a silent prayer, kept it in an old bag strapped to his thin waist — a waist that shot a pang of envy in Sandy right from the beginning of the relationship.
“Why prayers?” He asked.
The man smiled. “Our way. We offer prayers to the departed soul. We never kill for the sake of killing. Just to meet our basic needs.”
Sandy was shaken to the core.
A fresh draft of wind shook the trees and made the leaves fly off, and, kissed their faces with cold hands. Its purity was oxygenating. Sandy felt a strange surge — kind of electrifying energy.
It was, in fact, another world.
“You live here?” Sandy asked and then realized his foolishness.
The savage smiled. “Yes. My home.”
“How many generations?” Sandy asked, as if interviewing him for an entry-level job.
“You do not remember?”
The savage smiled. “Can you give me the name of your great-great grandpa?”
Sandy, of course, could not. He could not even recall the name of his dad and grand dad during stressful situations!
“We are the children of the forest!” The savage declared. “We are the inheritors of the spirit of the jungle.”
“Spirit?” Sandy, the skeptic, asked.
“Yes. The spirit.”
“Can you show me that?” Sandy was the playful civilized man again, teasing the tribal.
And they both entered the mysterious!
In the heart of the wilderness, stood a cluster of seven huts made of straws and mud. They were bare except for a few baskets, pitchers and a bare minimum of utensils. The savage was greeted with smiles by the rest of the “village” as he called it. The big fowl was handed over to the elders. Two more men had brought fowls and birds for the collective feast.
“We share all things,” said the savage. “It is like a big family.”
Sandy nodded. Co-operation for him was, so far, a biz buzz only. Here, real-time, it was happening as a daily practice. The women started skinning the birds and some began open-air fires for cooking the meat. The naked kids gamboled in the clearing, while the male elders of the village sat in a circle and chatted.
“Open-air party!” thought Sandy.
“Come!” said the savage as gloom gathered around the huts overlooked by a wooded hill and surrounded by trees of varied sizes.
“Where?” asked the city slicker undergoing a culture shock of different kind.
“To our sacred grove,” said the savage, in the role of a teacher.
“Okay,” agreed the disciple.
The sacred grove!
It was nothing spectacular or Hollywoodian in scale or visual effect. A tiny shrine—crude and humble with a stone tablet smeared with daubs of orange and red—under a tall banyan tree. All around were trees and shrubs. A few meters away sang the river, now sparkling under a full moon.
That was all.
The savage bowed down to the ancient tablet –“our goddess”– in an act of deep reverence and chanted some incantation in a dialect beyond Sandy. As the shadows thickened, and the moon climbed further in a sky now bereft of clouds, a hush fell over that patch, Sandy started feeling sudden but subtle changes inside. Cut off from civilization, in the midst of nowhere, he lost bearings of place and time. The brooding jungle and the solitude never experienced earlier caused a hypotonic spell on his citified imagination. He started retreating to a different dimension. The savage finished his mumbo-jumbo and then waved a hand before sandy’s brown eyes fitted with blue lenses.
And everything altered.
Looking at the surroundings, Sandy felt a change happening within at a breakneck speed. Suddenly, he was hurtling down a tunnel of time — only to emerge a most fantastic scene before his reverential eyes:
In the moon-lit night, he saw, along with an ancient tribe of worshippers, spirits of the trees –dryads, a part of his subconscious rooted in anglicised education recalled, dancing merrily on the grass, while a nymph-like goddess came out of the sparkling river and joined them in this divine play. Trees bent down to kiss her feet and spirits squealed at the sight of the goddess willing to be their companion on earth. Every blade and bough emitted a strange fragrance that overwhelmed Sandy’s senses completely and left him intoxicated.
He was a mute witness to the tribals — mostly elders led by a stern priest — offering flowers and leaves to the goddess and singing hymns in her praise. They then went into frenzy and began swaying wildly, as if possessed. They were whirling around in that scented area, eyes crazed, hair swirling, hands raised in supplication. Sandy clearly saw them communing with the goddess. Everywhere he felt the presence of the sacred. That piece of the jungle had become a vast stage, an arena, for the gods and goddess to make their appearance and intermingle with the adepts and the chosen. The intensity of the spectacle was so intense that he, Sandy of the New Millennium, rational and goal-driven, felt his veins would burst.
Then the vision changed.
He saw, in that heightened state, a river dying a slow death due to poison and trees being cut down by the brute machines. The entire pantheon slowly disappeared, and the goddess died gasping for breath. Afterwards, rains, mudslides and famine followed.
Then, darkness returned.
Badly shaken, Sandy, much chastised and sober, guided by the savage, returned to the tiny village. There they all drank the rice wine and ate the meat roasted on the open fire. The savages then sang a song and danced in a group — for their city guest. The camaraderie was great. He enjoyed their openness, trusting nature and hospitality.
In that closeness, despite a sharp contrast in backgrounds, Sandy found a family.
Decades ago, it meant growing up in a joint family for Sandeep, in a small north Indian town, off Delhi-Amritsar highway. Three floors of a big house, at least 100 years old. Grandpa, grandma, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings, guests. A crowded place with joint kitchen. His ma and other aunts took turns to cook meals for a large family. They were always busy. A big shop in the main market kept the family together, despite differences and fights. But it stayed on, like other families.
In the 1990s liberal India, Sandeep Gupta found a new direction and mantra. He earned degrees and combined education with ancestral knowledge to begin ventures in the virtual world for a hungry middle class that had, like Sandeep, changed as well. Feeling restricted in that old township and starved of space in the joint family — they owned only two rooms in the property and four siblings adjusted with mother and father for years — the brilliant Sandeep left the town — and the tearful family — forever, never to look back.
As he rose up the ladder, the contact with family shrunk down to few e-mails, SMSes and occasional calls to ailing parents. His siblings were not that successful, and Sandeep thought they were resentful of his hard-earned success and money and status.
“Jealousy!” His wife would say. For the siblings and parents and the rest of the joint family—it was betrayal, pure and simple!
“I have every right to be happy! To lead my own life! To take my own decisions!” Sandeep would argue, fortified with this new Me-only philosophy, a new cardinal principle of faith for entrepreneurs like him, in a globalised India. Naturally, the two — Sandeep and his family –drifted apart.
“I am on my own,” he declared. “Family means feuds!”
So, he junked them.
While watching the savages dance in harmony, each timing their steps with the other in perfect sync, bodies bending forward and then resuming an erect position, Sandeep, deep down, remembered his aged father and a very frail and ill mother. They had suffered huge losses due to the competition posed by the e-retail and were surviving somehow in that old place and because of the joint kitchen. But Sandeep had hardly bothered about them.
I will call up Ma first thing in the morning! He resolved.
After a long dance, the savage came back to the spot where Sandy was sitting.
“How do you feel?” The forest dweller asked, eyes shining.
Sandy looked into those eyes and found himself reflected as the Other.
“You are my brother!” Sandy blurted.
The savage smiled and held his guest’s hands in warm clasp. “We all are connected.”
“What is your name?” Sandy asked, hands linked.
“What does that mean?”
“The Eternal One!”
“Oh!” Sandy said.
“One of its meanings,” Ananta replied.
“You went to school?” Sandy blurted out but regretted instantly.
“The jungle is my only school. Besides, there are no schools for the poor!”
Sandy felt the sadness of the tone.
“You are comfortable?”
“Yes.” Sandy said, “Very relaxed.”
“Does the jungle look dangerous?”
“Not at all now. The one I left behind…well, compared with that, this looks very comfortable.”
Sandy was telling the truth.
“You can sleep here under the stars?” Ananta asked softly.
“Will there be any snakes?”
Who was the savage? His mind was debating. Then the wind stirred in the valley and rose.
He felt lulled by the cool wind fanning his face — the man from the mega city and slipped into soundless sleep, after years, without taking any drugs or alcohol…
When he woke up, next morning, there was no camp, no village, no hamlet to be seen around. He was sleeping on the sand, a few feet from the river that was gurgling lazily, as a baby sun peeped out from a bank of clouds.
Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet–freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu: http://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html
For more details of publications, please visit the link below:
One reply on “The Savage”
Beautiful piece of fiction that upholds values of virgin nature n innocence of tribal people who live in its lap vis-a-vis the restricted n restraining urban world n its claustrophobic inhabitants .
Excellent grasp on the language.