It was a rather uncomfortable ride on an old hero honda passion motorcycle but your options are limited when you are trying to ride a bike up on a hill in the tropical rain forests of North eastern India. This was the only way to reach there, "the jungle", I always preferred the word jungle over forest, jungle sounds mysterious and filled with possibilities. I was dropped at a meeting point where I met my companions for this journey, a journey into the jungle. As I looked at the trail into the jungle, I was realising the weight of my choice to do this trek. It was all too real and I was reminded that the next few days of my life will be a test of my body, mind and my relationship with nature. I was excited about the prospect of it.
This choice meant leaving my usual lifestyle behind for a few days but I have never been a tech-savvy person so I knew that I wasn't going to miss much of it, infact I was born in a time and a household where technology was considered a distraction. 27 years later and I still believe in the same principles, I often find myself to be rather alone in a time where every happening of one's life is documented in pictures and videos & shared across the online population of millions. I feel there are only a few moments of my life worth documenting for future, every other moment is a lesson that needs my complete focus. If I so much as blink, I'll miss something of importance.
This was also one of those lessons, a lesson that'd make me aware of the weight of my existence on this planet. I entered the jungle through a trail of bushes and small plants which you might find anywhere in the country. These are the plants that you'd see running parallely to the railway tracks if you have experienced journeying on a train in India. When I entered the forest it was already evening and we were losing light, me and my companions will spend the next few days in this jungle, but we are not alone, we have the help of the tribal population living in these forests.
One of them , "Booda", a 21-year old tribesman will accompany us. Afterall human is a social being and you realise it all the more when everything around you (apart from your own species) could kill you. We were constantly reminded by Booda that anything can kill us and it may not be as dramatic as a snake bite or being eaten by wolves, it could also be something as simple as a mosquito bite.
When the sun retired, we were covered with darkness, and by darkness I mean pitch dark as if someone put a blanket of darkness on the entire Jungle.The jungle was covered with trees and the sky with clouds, the moon has no authority in this forest. It has its own rules and every being in it plays according to it. I thought I have experienced darkness (no pun intended) when I was growing up in a small town in Rajasthan and we'd have power cuts in the night. There began my first lesson, the lesson to become aware about myself and my surroundings. Booda told us that since we can't see, we must listen and really listen to everything happening around us. When winds are blowing they rustle the leaves in a certain way, it's like a symphony. You must pay attention and listen to the symphony, not only because it's beautiful but because your life depends on it. Like in an orchestra, a number of different musical instruments work together to create music on the command of their conductor. The trees are the players and the instruments & the conductor is wind. Now pay attention to where the music is breaking a pattern, a note missed here and there. The missing note is the wildlife of the jungle, from monkeys prancing on the branches to wolves carefully walking on twigs, the jungle is alive now and you better be alive with it.
I couldn't sleep the entire night, mostly because I was constantly attacked by mosquitoes and leeches. I found leeches at parts of my body where I can't imagine anything crawling without my notice. Leeches are not the most liked of the creatures, I've often heard people using it in an expression to describe unpleasant relationships, "he was a leech that sucked all my happiness". This line made me smile while I was pulling out leeches from my legs using the flashlight from my phone. Leeches are an important part of the ecosystem for the tribals, leeches come in handy when you are bitten by a snake, they are used to suck the poison out of the body along with the blood. This was another lesson, the lesson of sharing a space. It was so inherent in my mind that anything which invades my space is my enemy and I must eliminate it. Isn't it the basis of most human conflicts?! I was trying to kill mosquitoes and leeches but they had the numbers, my inability to defend my space was making me annoyed. It never occured to me for one second that maybe they are just doing their job and justifying their existence. They don't care about my feelings, they are aware of the part that they play in the ecosystem, it's I who doesn't know my place in all of this, yet.
In the process of calming myself down I started thinking about a poem I read in school, in the poem a man gets marooned on an island and he's bitten by mosquitoes the size of crickets and then he runs away to the shore of the sea, where winds flow. I tried to remember the rest of it and don't know when I dozed off in the process of it. I woke up to strange noises, it was almost like I was getting introduced to a bunch of new people at a party, a party where everybody knew each other but I was the shy stranger who is trying to blend in, ugh! I hate parties. But it was morning nevertheless and I am someone who gets excited by mornings and the prospects they offer, mornings mean new possibilities, new opportunities, new beginnings and new lessons.
I knew that you could brush your teeth with a neem twig, this was "rural living 101" and I am no stranger to all this. I grew up in a conservative brahmin family in Rajasthan, we still don't have toilets attached to the rooms. Toilets are made as a seperate room at a distance from the rooms made for resting. It's a real struggle to use the bathroom in the middle of a cold december night. However, what was strange for me was to see how the tribals are so mindful of the waste they make, I have seen people in villages openly defecating and I thought that jungle works the same way, I couldn't have been more wrong. The tribals dig up a hole and do their business inside it and when they are done, they cover it back with the soil from the dugged up ground. It was soothing to see the mindfulness and care towards the place that you co-habit with everyone else. It got me thinking about the way we make our houses and how everything that we don't want in our house we throw it out, how we want to just keep this area clean and well maintained and to our liking. We don't believe in sharing, we believe in owning. This was an important lesson in theory but in practicality I wouldn't be able to poop for the next two days, I still have a long way to go.
The Jungle is interesting in so many ways, as soon as you get up you start looking for food. Although I had a hunting knife, I was neither a hunter and nor a meat-eater. Options for me were limited to boiled rice and mushrooms and only some selected mushrooms, Booda was the one who did most of the legwork there, he showed me the way to pluck them out and boil them for what I can only describe as eternity. Mushrooms can be poisonous so it's always a good idea to boil them for a considerable amount of time before eating. We made a fire from dry wooden branches and twigs & we put on it our reliable aluminium all-purpose mug. We used the same mug for drinking, cooking and washing.
This was the first time ever in my life where I was eating and my taste buds were sleeping, I couldn't taste anything. I am a huge fan of my native Rajasthani cuisine and the masalas that go into making it so flavourful. This was the first time I was eating for sustenance and not taste. There is no concept of breakfast, lunch or dinner in forest, you go out to hunt and when you come back with something, you eat. If you have nothing, you eat your supplies. Many of the tribal households had pet chickens and they don't raise more chickens than what they need, more chickens could mean that if one of them falls sick, the disease can spread throughout the birds and to the humans. They make food in containable amounts, there's no concept of storing or making extra. Another lesson, not everything we consume needs to be industralized, it needs to be managed. I felt like such a spoilt brat for having eaten all those gulab jamuns a few days back, I'd be honest, I missed them as well but I had bigger worries.
We were supposed to trek uphill for the next few days and it would mean that I needed to buck up and stop complaining about the food and mosquitoes and everything else. It wasn't hard, for one thing that's plenty in the forest is motivation, motivation to move because eveyrthing is moving, motivation to justify your existence. I was motivated to climb, along with my companions and I could sense that this experience was equally reflective for everyone, how could I tell? because we'd go about climbing for hours without speaking a word to each other.
If we needed help we'd just wave or use gestures. It was the way the jungle communicates and we were finally speaking it's language. "You don't disturb anything unless your life depends on it",
this was the piece of advice given to us and this would later become to be one of my lessons. Co-existing is such a cool notion but it's hardly a cool practice. It dawned on me, that in my city-life, just by going about my business how many things do I disturb on a daily basis.
The realisation was shocking and I was so lost in reflection that I didn't pay attention to a wet rock in front of me and slipped and sprained the calve muscles of my right leg. The pain wasn't that much but the fact that I just let my attention wander in a life-threatning environment was making me feel foolish. I don't want to be the guy who is slowing down the entire group. To my surprise, Booda saw my leg and ran in the direction of the forest, I was left with a wierd feeling thinking about what made him run, am I in some kind of a problem that I don't yet realise? The thinking was taking a toll on me alongwith the pain, when he returned with a few small braches in his hand.
The sight gave me relief, I knew that it's my pill for the pain, I thought that I might have to eat it or make a paste and apply it on the injury, I was imagining the taste of the leaves when I felt a hit from the branch, Booda was hitting my injury with the branch and I was just plain out of words that one uses in such a situation, I wanted to step away but I was told not to. After more than a few hits I stood up and it was absolutely unfathomable what happened to me, I was in the middle of a miracle scenario where I was healed within minutes. Not only was I walking on my feet, I was jumping as if trying to test the authenticity of my treatment. Excited I started climbing again and I knew that it's another lesson, nature gives the problem and nature solves it as well. It was this time that I was hyper aware of everything around me, the trees, the rocks and the bamboo stick in my hand. I liked having a bamboo stick in my hand, something about it made me feel wiser and protected. It was for me to scare away any animals and to help me trek. This bamboo stick was with me in the most life-changing experience of my life and I got insanely attached to it. I named it "mushka", I don't know any good tree names and I knew that it's not a "Rahul" or "Natalie", It's neither male nor female, it's mushka, my friend who'll stay with me for as long as possible.
The second night the sleep came easy, I was feeling a little more welcomed in this place. It was funny how my relationship was growing with nature, It felt like one of those times where you go to a friend's place for a sleepover for the first time, there is a strangeness in the place and you are acutely aware that it's not your own bed or your own space but you make do, but you stay there for long and you start to get a little more familliar with the house and everything in it. The sleep was also peaceful because of my humble companion Booda, who pointed out a tree where there were no mosquitoes. Immediately I knew what to do, I just took a few leaves and rubbed it all on myself. I got a smile as a sign of a nod from my faithful compadre, he approved of my actions.
The instructions were clear, if you get up in the middle of the night to pee, take someone with you to keep watch, because there might be bears. I read the story of a bear once, where a bear is hunting in the forest and he comes across two humans, one of them tries to run away and other one plays dead. The bear smells the one who's playing dead and immediately starts to chase the one who ran and climbed a tree, the bear eats him, bears can climb trees much faster than humans. I was in no mood to test out this theory so I just slept, under the stars. As I was looking at the stars I was thinking about the amount of dark matter present in the space, there's absolutely no light in most of the universe. There's no life in most of the known universe and yet here I am enjoying the most of the universe on my comfortable planet. When you put things in terms of planet, there's no distinction of any other kind. It's just you and the people of your kind on a planet that had almost no chance of sustaining life and yet it did. Scientists call it as the " Goldilocks zone", it means if we were just a little closer to the sun, it'd be too hot for life to generate and if we were just a little farther, it'd have been too cold to survive.Through meteors collisions, dark ages, age of the dinosuars and Ice age and finally the age of oceans we are still here, wondering, questioning and trying to find answers in the unknown.
The next few days me and mushka had a lot of fun, I was accepted by the jungle and I knew how to find my way around things. I was still asked to be careful of bear traps and other booby traps laid out in the jungle but my collective awareness was working in full throttle. I felt like mowgli and tarzan and all the characters from all the stories I have read. I felt that my entire body is conduit of some kind, I felt like a vessel that contains nature for a few years and after I am done this vessel dissipates into a million smaller pieces of nature. I guess this was my biggest lesson, to know that I am life, I am capable of generating life and destroying life. My decisions of being have an impact on every other life that co-habits this planet with me. I write this memoire while mushka rests by my bed-side as if judging me in my own space like I was judging it in it's space. We both met halfway and that's essentially survival. We have to meet halfway with nature to understand it. This is a beautiful planet in an otherwise lonely galaxy, let's spend some time with this friend of ours. Lets just live together.
To question the status quo would mean changing the rhythm of your life, your personal decisions. Two years ago, I was hit by an environmental consciousness and have wondered what it means to be acutely aware about the footprint of your existence. This has inspired a performative exploration along with artists Aditya and Asha, where we question life choices of individuals that affects our collective relationship with the earth.
Looking forward to green days in the rehearsal studio.
- Aruna Ganesh Ram
Photos by Vishnu Vellimattom