‘Life was a routine. That’s what my parents had told me when I had got married at the age of twenty-two. I had to live my life around my husband and his family. I didn’t want to blame my parents, they did what society dictated at the time. I had to follow his and his family’s orders as if they were from a god. I believed in God, but I never thought God would offer such a life to women. It wasn’t full of misery, but there was no compassion either. Throughout my high-school education, I had seen female heroes in history. I always thought I was like them, that I had the courage in me that was required to rebel against society.’ I sat down in the front yard of my house that day, thinking all those thoughts.
When I was thirteen years old, I went to my uncle’s house in Chobita, a small town in Madhya Pradesh. As a forest officer, Uncle had just been transferred to this town for the first time. My cousins had joined the school there. The hardest part of their lives was adjusting to a new school and making new friends there. Chobita was surrounded by the Melghat Tiger Reserve. Even though the summer would be hot, the best time to be in this town was before the beginning of the monsoon season. The lush greenery of the forest was mesmerizing and would enchant everyone toward it. We would spend most of our time hiking in the woods. As my cousins had adapted to the town and the forest around, they had located a few secret spots in the jungle to watch the wildlife.
There were occasional stories about wild animals entering the town and hunting for their prey. Uncle’s house was full of adopted animals; a dog, a cat, a hen. The dog, Bhuru, would accompany us on our hiking adventures. Being boys, my cousins always underestimated my adventurous side. But I knew if there ever came a time, they would be the first to run away from a wild animal. We were not all about competition, but how society had ingrained in us, girls, that we couldn’t be adventurous. I was always ready to disprove that norm. So, I would venture into the forest on my own.
On one of those days, Uncle was out of town for work. Mom, Aunty, both my cousins and I were in the house preparing a big meal for the night. After the yummy feast, we were chatting about a TV show. We were so exhausted that we went to sleep without even switching off the TV. I was sleeping in the living room that night, Mom and Aunty were in Aunt’s bedroom.
Late in the night, I heard a door-opening sound. I scratched my eyes to see who it was, it was hard to wake up from the sleep. I saw my cousin Sameer walking out of the house. I was in such a deep sleep that, for a moment, I didn’t care. I thought he was going to the bathroom. I went back to sleep half-realizing the door was still open. The fan was making cranky noise on that summer night. The breeze that entered through the door, soothed me but made me open my eyes after some time. I didn’t realize how long Sameer had been out, but I stepped out of the house to check if he was OK in the backyard. The 30-Watt tungsten bulb from the bathroom was throwing light into that darkness. I waited. I waited for half an hour, but there was no response or movement from the bathroom.
“Sameer, are you there? I’m outside. Say something or knock on the door so I know you’re inside.” There was silence. “Sameer, are you there?”
Once again, there was no response. I knocked on the bathroom door. Finally, I pushed the door. The bathroom was empty. Sameer wasn’t there. I rushed to the room he’d been sleeping in, but he wasn’t there. My eyes were now wide open. I didn’t know what had happened. I returned to the backyard but didn’t see him anywhere. I ran to Aunt’s bedroom to wake her up.
“Aunt, wake up, please. Sameer is not in his room.”
Aunt, somehow managing to brush her eyes off, tried to mumble something, which I didn’t understand at first.
“Aunt, wake up.”
“Sameer is not in the house. He woke up for the bathroom earlier, but he is not in there or in the house. The bathroom light is still burning.”
Aunt stood up and went looking around the house for Sameer.
I followed Aunt.
“Do you think he went sleepwalking somewhere?” I said.
“I don’t think he would sleepwalk. I have never seen him doing that before.”
Aunt picked up a long wooden pole from the backyard and a torch that could shine its high-intensity light far away.
“Stay at home. I’ll venture into the forest to look for him. If he arrives before me, keep an eye on him,” Aunt said.
“Aunt, I want to come with you?”
“No, I’ll handle this.”
Aunt left me there and went on her own to look for Sameer in that dark forest. I was lost, but also scared. I didn’t know what I would do if a wild animal came when Aunt was not there. I gathered all my courage to stay calm. I saw Aunt following a paved path into the darkness before she disappeared. I got a wooden pole too for safety.
I sat there waiting for Aunt. Mom was still sleeping. After half past four, I was tired of sitting there. I was exhausted, and still feeling sleepy. I lay down on the couch and didn’t realize when I closed my eyes. The sound of feet in the backyard woke me up. Aunt had returned, but there was no Sameer.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I went like half a mile, but I didn’t see him. I don’t know where he went suddenly. I will go to Sarpanch’s house to see if he can help,” Aunt said.
At that moment, I woke up Mom. I told her what had happened. Aunt’s face looked tense and Mom tried consoling her. Mom took Aunt to Sarpanch’s house.
“Stay here, we’ll be back. Take care of Raj and inform us if Sameer returns,” Mom told me. I nodded.
‘What if a wolf dragged him away? But if a wild animal had come this way, Sameer would have screamed or shouted. I did not hear any scream even if I had been in a deep sleep.’
I didn’t know what to do. Aunt and Mom had gone to meet Sarpanch. I collected myself, went into the backyard, and picked up a wooden stick. I took my backpack, water bottle, high wattage torch, a small knife, and a spare piece of cloth. I had attended Girl Scout camps, so I was prepared. The morning darkness was still deep. As I was leaving the house, an announcer on the radio said, “There will be thunderstorms this morning.” Raj was still in bed, so I locked the back door.
I started walking through the backyard toward the jungle. Each step reminded me I was moving away from Aunt’s house. I had switched on the torch and was dodging the wild grass with the wooden stick. After fifteen minutes of walking, I reached a place where there was no paved way. I could see the dense forest with wild grass and giant teak-wood trees everywhere. I tore apart the cloth I had brought and tied that to one of the teak-wood trees.
“Sameer, Sameer!” I shouted at the top of my lungs.
That wasn’t a great idea. It wasn’t like he was waiting for me to rescue him. In that dense forest, the light would only shine during early to late afternoon. I started using a white chalk to mark some of the trees to indicate my path.
I hoped I wouldn’t get lost. It was still dark, but I didn’t want to confuse myself. I was creating my own path while passing through the jungle.
“Human spirit knows how to find adventure.” I had read that somewhere. As I kept trudging through wild bushes, a light shone through the tall trees, but it disappeared immediately. After walking about a mile or two, I still hadn’t seen any sign of my cousin. It was as if he had magically disappeared. The only thing that soothed me was that I was close to the river Mandava. I could hear the stream of the water flowing through rocks; making noise in that peaceful forest. I marched another half a mile to reach the river. As soon as I saw water, the divine flow calmed me.
‘If my cousin had been eaten or taken away by a wild animal, I would have seen at least some blood marks. I know it is too dark to figure out yet, but I doubt there are any blood marks. My cousin is surely alive.
He hadn’t been sleepwalking or maybe he had been. What if he had seen something, got scared, and run away. But why would he run toward the forest instead of the house? Running in the dark did not seem likely to me. Maybe I am underestimating Sameer’s situation.’
I got down close to the stream, took some water in my palms, and washed my face. I was still pondering over where Sameer might have disappeared to. The cloudy sky was opening up with some light shining through the trees. And my eyes were wide open. ‘There he is.’
I ran as fast as I could and jumped in the water. I saw Sameer lying on the banks. He was stuck because of fallen tree branches.
“Sameer! Sameer! Wake up, Sameer.”
I moved his body, his face. But there was no movement. He was unconscious. I didn’t see any injury on his body, so I was not sure how he fell unconscious. I tried to check his pulse and then his heartbeat. It was beating. He was alive. I heaved a sigh of relief.
I remembered the CPR technique we were taught in the Girl Scouts program. I pumped his chest a few times. I stopped for a moment and did again. When I gave a final push, he woke up throwing up all the water from his mouth. It took a few moments for him to realize where he was.
“Didi, what happened? Where am I?”
I gave him the water bottle I had brought. He drank the water.
“What happened, Sameer? How did you get to here in such darkness?”
“Didi, I was going to the bathroom, but then I saw this wolf staring at me. I got scared. Initially, I didn’t move and when I thought to run toward the house, there was another wolf. I was panicked and ran into the forest. I came all the way to the river when I fell down against a rock.”
After listening to his story, I told him that we had to go back home; everybody was worried. I walked with him toward the house. At the house, Mom, Aunt, Sarpanch, and a few other people had gathered. Everyone rejoiced to see Sameer. Aunt came running and hugged him.
“Where did you find him?” Aunt asked.
I recalled the whole story. Aunt kissed me and told me how proud she felt about me taking the risk. Sarpanch awarded me the bravery award. But I looked at my cousin and felt satisfied that he was alive. There was nothing more important.
When I came back to my senses from that childhood story, reality struck me. Childhood was so different from the adulthood that I had imagined. I walked out of the front yard and continued walking without looking back.